Childhood Swan Song

At fourteen, in a compulsory annual meeting with my guidance counselor, I felt a frustration that worked its way into my mind and habits.

He fell into a practiced speech, listing the requirements for graduation, noting my successful completion of my classes and giving me my schedule. I nodded to him, I stared out into the circular courtyard beyond his office, and up at the sky. I watched his pupils dilate as he spoke from the light coming in from the window.

I knew I was supposed to feel that enclave-feeling of protection. For once, I was supposed to have an ear in which to pour the accumulating thoughts and insecurities. But I hesitated. I was not certain how this put-together man in his forties would understand that I was dating another fourteen year old girl in my class. What could he tell me about her expectations of me? Would he redden or feel attraction, or hate? I would wonder similar things as I sat through three more of these meetings.

Once, after a student in my class died in a car accident, I sent him a frustrated email and his response was “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know a child has died?” He followed his response with a more polite apology, describing the stress of meetings with the child’s parents and friends.

I knew Mike was dead. He was in my second-grade art class, and his mother made him wear turtlenecks then. That was before he got into motocross and switched out of Honors classes. I cried remembering him how he used to pick his nose.

I always felt raw. I wanted breaks from classes and meetings where my somnambulation was all that was required.

When I got my counselor’s first email, my face flushed. But my body felt relief; I knew something genuine, and I knew I was wrong.

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Join me in hell

Houses here are gated and low to the ground. The gate draws together your portion of sand so it’s finite. A dot, a pearl of property held in the palm of the mountains that loom beyond the dirt city.

I’m outside my friend’s gate with a quiche staring at two layers of wrought iron. Through the grate I see sandstone walls and my tired friend leaving the house in T-shirt to meet me for coffee despite the fact that I’m early. She lets me in and I follow her to the kitchen, where we chat and she pours two mugs of coffee. We set the quiche in the oven and she shows me the mechanics of her house – the doors that stick when you close them, the locations of light switches. She explains that her cats will run out in the yard even though they aren’t supposed to.

I’m cat-sitting. It’s a position of privilege. For a whole week I will extend my domain to the couch in my friend’s living room, to the lounge chairs on her back porch.

When the quiche is ready we move to a table in the front yard and talk. We look at each other despite the sun and we share the most recent events, from dull changes in routine to insecurities. She is peaceful, I am not. She wonders why she overcommits herself, I tell her I’m scared of my next steps and I don’t know if I’ll be a good lawyer.

Before I leave I tell her what I’ll get her for a Christmas present and she gives me a book she told me about reading a month ago “in like three hours – it’s so good.”

In my car I start my car and as I drive home I think about how I have just let someone in. I have just let someone expect a Christmas present. Somehow she smiled about it.

When the feeling began, I was young. I sensed that I would die. I saw the rot in the world and I felt myself in it. Reconsidering my attachments, I grew internal. My thoughts became longer chains. And under the chains, the assumption remained: I am contagious, I am designed to die. As potential relationships emerged before me I dismissed them with the thought of their brevity, not even moments in my minute of life.

Illness – I think it was illness that prevented me from seeing the joy that could erupt in a joke told to the right person. While depressed, I didn’t see reactions. My emotion was consuming fog: effective isolation.

The novelty of death wears off. Growing older, it becomes commonplace, even in the drugged and developed world. I see a dead bird on the highway. I see dust grind fences down.

Dad’s thoughts

He lets them pool around rocks. But like moss or grass, the thoughts grow roots and don’t flow. When I call, he circles back in on himself, in reverberating circles.

“…she complains I don’t call or take care of her. But I’m there every weekend, I put in the air conditioners…”

“…these lawyers are just the worst. Now they’re asking about her green card. It’s like, she has a green card, that’s not even the lawsuit…”

“Yeah, I’m heading down now. Sure, I’m stopping at grandma’s. Boy, she loves you…to put in the air conditioners…”

Tidal, seasonal – the familiar march to heart and back again. He is sorry he is unrecognized. He is sorry he is subject. He is sorry he is superior.

It is through love that sometimes I am sorry I called. Like I stepped on charybdis when I aimed for carpet or for the warm hard wood my father favors, and that covers the floors at home.

Especially when thinks of my mother, when he tells my childhood as a tragedy. For a summer – I lost a summer- to pinning up his ideas, translating partial child-memories into arrows or lines in the missives he told, which I began believing.

When I gave up and quit writing for law I broke the images and ideals he gave me. He did not know I left New York after attempting suicide.

I crave understanding. I imagine giving him the news, how he might brush the hair from my temples to say, “oh…my writer, my thin blanket daughter…” How a pause might come…

Tree Falls

IMG_2051Trees are blocking our driveway at home. It’s been so warm; they are probable casualties of lightning and rain, the same furious storms that lash the lake with lightning in summer.

I’m in a desert miles away, but my father texted me six pictures of our blocked driveway, with the unhelpful caption, ‘driveway blocked by trees.’ I don’t need the images to understand the problem and I don’t know why, when I am so far away, it is important for me to know about trees falling at home.

When my father sends me texts like this, my frustration softens when I realize that this will be his old age. Mundane images and snippets of life might be thrust at me.

I imagine my father’s mechanical approach to the trees. He will measure them or use rope to hitch them to the car. He will drag those trees back to the little forest in our yard. He will call me, impressed with their weight, and eager to share the facts of how trees are moved, in case I have to move them someday.

It was the same when I was younger. He would explain how to build a trailer and show me the progress he’d made. I would stand outside and listen to the wind and watch his eyes, his excitement at knowing what to do. I would feel the damp in the air, the ground sinking into the shape of my footprints. Sometimes I’d watch the light fade and grow and fade, or the sky darken.

I am not surprised by the land. So, a tree falls.

Searching

My surface is flat and smooth as a table today. Inside, I’m thumbing through the archives.

As if I work some clerical job, I do this repeatedly.  And the records are spilled on the floor of my mind…

Last Sunday I saw a boy I knew at a café but, flattened by an earlier rejection (academic),  I did not waive and when he left I felt I lost another, more dynamic potential. If I spread my body out onto another flat surface, open to the life and response of another…

I am an ocean floor –  all things live and flatten me. I feel and see them fall in from the surface.

I think too of holding babies because of how they rest against you, as if you are some more-organic lean-to, a tree and a sheet.

I want to find purpose in giving heat, as if it is always warmth. I haven’t seen smiles so radiant that they cross this line, except on the faces of students of religion. Faith confronting mystery can smile, while I am so impassive.

Training hard for compassion maybe I can find warmth; warmth that deepens to purpose…

Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

Work all night

In third grade at midnight my Mother and I wrote a book report and assembled a puppet. I sewed the eyes on and pinned on a yellow silk shirt. I got a C for sloppy construction.

For the tenth grade science fair, I built a tower that would withstand a certain amount of weight. It sagged and swayed but held up under pressure, beyond all expectation. I was just relieved that the glue had dried.

At some point, the shoddy construction stopped. But so did the late nights of grinding through.

The expectation was that editors at my college newspaper would stay all night in the office, editing prior to deadline. But in two and a half years, I never once stayed. I was in bed by eleven.

Social anxiety was part of it. To show them all that I struggled might have embarrassed me. I allowed myself to be fallible only at the distance set by a computer monitor.

Now, in law school, I ask myself if I should stay up all night. I realize that somehow I lost the habit of driving work through to completion in one sitting, and I ask where it went. Lost to anxiety, lost to a desire for quality control, it lingers as an option.

I could expend myself. I could challenge the limits of waking hours, push through exhaustion to achieve an empty to-do list. Maybe I will build the stamina to face the danger of shoddy construction.