Beautiful gorgeous amazing piece from Asha Baisden.
Beautiful gorgeous amazing piece from Asha Baisden.
“You’ve got Indi at home, you know.”
I match her gaze for gaze. She’s killer stoned, deep in the throes of paranoia, and she knows it. She’s asking me with her eyes to counter it, to alleviate her fears with a few carefree reassurances. But deeper than that: she’s asking me to comprehend whether or not we are really in danger.
She doesn’t know the fear of paranoia is the reason I waited until I was 27 to get high.
She doesn’t know I have a lifelong fear of being murdered by a serial killer while camping in the wilderness.
She doesn’t know I lied when I said I didn’t feel the hit, and took another. And then another. That I’ve been channeling all three hits fully into the high-intensity conversation we’ve been having for the past three hours. My body knew primevally to place it there.
I break my gaze, kick the car into reverse, stick my beer in the gear console cupholder and start backing down the gravel slope of our mountainside dispersed campsite.
FIVE HOURS EARLIER
Ten miles south. In the Red Apple Grocery in Concrete, WA. We are giddy camping girls on a road trip, almost to our destination, stopping for food, ice, and firewood. We wander the aisles, picking out Velveeta mac’n’cheese and Snack Pack pudding cups and Keebler double stuffed cookie elves and Cool Ranch Doritos. By the time we reach the checkout stand we’ve got $100 worth of junk food in our shopping cart and have completely forgotten about the ice and firewood. The woman ringing us up is older, tough, with ratty mousebrown hair and the look of the wild in her eyes. Wild touching the cusp of redneck and whitetrash. Truth: Sarajane and I are craving wild, redneck and whitetrash.
“Where you girls headed?”
“Oh we’re just camping. We dunno where yet! Just drivin’.”
“Oh you’re just roadtripping, just stoppin’ in, I get it.”
“No no, we’re going to Mount Baker, we’re about to head in just north there at the entrance, we’re gonna camp on Baker Lake.”
“Oh I gotchya.” She nods and eyes us. “Do you know what site yet?”
“Oh no, we’re going around to the backside of the lake though. Not any of the main car camping sites.”
“Oh yeah, yeah, the best camping’s on the backside of the lake.”
“You got any specific spots?”
She proceeds to give us directions from the entrance into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Park to the backroads that will lead us along the back of Baker Lake to the dispersed camping sites there that are free, waterside, and relatively independent compared to organized group campsites. Sarajane takes down the directions in her iPhone to relate to me later as I am the driver on this trip. I’ve never camped without a man and she has rarely camped without her husband. We already feel the weight of taking on all the responsibilities of camping: planning, packing, navigating, driving, tentsetting, firemaking, cooking, cleaning, cooler organizing. But she and I have already decided that as I am solo from my two-year-old son and she is a badass with tons of wilderness experience we will not settle for anything less than a dispersed campsite tonight and a backcountry trip tomorrow night. We drink in the words of the checkout stand woman and make our way to the car, where we realize we forgot ice for the cooler and wood for our future fire.
After a few more forays into the store to get the things we forgot and pee and change into warmer clothes we are on the road. The gap between light and dark is almost closed now and Sarajane urges me to drive faster. On we go through the backwoods within the Park, past myriad car camping sites, which we nonchalantly scoff at, and around to the backside of the lake. We turn right and then left and then left, following the directions we gleaned at the Red Apple. As we drive twilight settles in and plays tricks on our vision, making everything seem simultaneously short and endless. Maybe that’s why as we speed along the asphalt toward the next right turn I don’t notice the ground completely fall away on the passenger side.
“Whoa whoa whoa.” says Sarajane.
“What?” I’m dense.
I look indeed, and it seems we’ve come upon a humongous dam entirely taking up the right side of the world. Stretching out perpendicular to our car is a bridge about a hundred feet long spanning the water controlled by the dam, risen high in front of us and dropped down far beneath our vision behind the divide. Stunned, we look questioningly at each other.
“Do you think it’s ok?”
She gets out of the car and runs to the foot of the bridge. Then runs back. “Yep,” she assures as she gets back in the car. “It’s ok.”
I turn right onto the bridge and we venture across. I do not look to my right, because I know if I do I will be paralyzed by the two-hundred foot drop on the other side of the chainlink fence preventing us from pulling a Thelma-and-Louise. To the left the water is nearer, higher, less mindfucking, but still it is an alien experience to drive across this dam with Mount Baker rising close on the left and the ground dropping into complete deletion on the right.
We edge across, hoping for readily available dispersed lakeside sites on the other side.
Once we get across the gravel road winds up the mountain and we follow it, curving upward into the wooded dark. No campsites. No lake. Nothing. After awhile we pass a group of cars parked neatly beside a trailhead. Backcountry hikers, long gone deep within the wilderness. Only their cars remain. We talk about turning back but we don’t. Just a little further, we tell each other. Just a little further.
Without sign or warning a gravel offshoot abruptly appears on the left and she cues me to take it. We pull in about fifteen feet and park. A circular tree-pocketed dispersed site waits in front of us, complete with a rock-rimmed firepit and a peekaboo view of the water in the distance below us at the base of the mountain. Perfect. As the final sundown light fades into black we unpack the car, set up the tent, and start a fire. We’ve only got one bundle of wood so we set to work with Sarajane’s hatchet, hacking at some long lithe dry branches we’ve found at the edge of the campsite, hitting the wood over and over again until it breaks. Primal. Once the fire looks robust enough we set about getting ready to smoke, getting high having been the whole purpose of planning this girls’ trip in the first place. I jumped the gun a little bit last week when I went camping with my ex-boyfriend and got high for the first time ever via his tutelage, but no matter. All the better. Sarajane suggests I call him to get explicit instructions on just how best to pack a pipe.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Oh nothin’, Little Man’s sleepin’ and I’m just watchin’ Mitch Hedberg.” He laughs like water, low and quiet and knowing. “Little Man’s so cute. I got him upstairs for bed and he just goes ‘Daddy, I pooped.’ So I said, ‘okay Little Man, just lay down and I’ll change your diaper.’ And then he just laid right down on the floor and let me change him, calm the whole time. It’s like all you gotta do is listen to your kid and then talk to them and just be gentle, and then he knows! It’s crazy.”
I laugh. “Yeah man. That’s what parenting is all about.” It’s his first solo overnight with our son and I still can’t quite believe we made it to this point. Best friends raising a kid together, united. I hear the television in the background. “Mitch! I love him. So good.”
“Yeah — haha! ‘I used to do drugs. I still do drugs. But I used to, too.’ Haha! We have to show Mitch Hedberg to Indi, when he’s old enough.”
“Oh, yes! Shit, he’s old enough now. Two is old enough if we just like, talk about it at length with him. Let’s show him now.”
“Okay. When you get back.”
“Okay. I have a question. How do you pack the weed in the pipe? Do you break it up or do you leave it in the little balls and just stick it in?”
“Just, break it up a little bit, just a little bit, and pack it down in the pipe but only a little bit, not too packed. And not too much. Don’t put too much in there.”
“Okay, cool. And then suck and then light, right? And then take my finger off and inhale when I feel the smoke in my throat?”
“Yeah, but just be careful, don’t like, light it and accidentally set your hair on fire.”
We both crack up.
“Haha! It’s so perfect! You called me now, and I’m watching Mitch Hedberg. I’m watching Mitch Hedberg and you called me to ask me about smoking. Yes.”
He tells me to smoke responsibly and we hang up the phone. After that I lose cell service completely, but it doesn’t matter because cellular and internet connections to civilization have no place in the wild. We take our places by the fire and pack the weed. You first, she tells me. She is in charge, after all. She is the one with the experience here. Me first. By myself. By myself without my ex-boyfriend flicking and holding the lighter to the bowl. Two-handed; I have to use both hands and all of my wits. First hit, second hit. Pass it to my friend. First hit, second hit. I’m done, she says. Passes it back over. I hesitate for a second and then put the pipe to my lips. I’m not feeling anything, all we’ve got in the way of booze is a six-pack, and I’m here to relax. Third hit.
Sarajane looks at me with eyes wide, shoulders hunched like an animal in shock.
“Did you hear that?”
“Uh, no. I mean, yes, but, there are all kinds of noises all around us right now. I just figured it was like a squirrel or something running around in the brush…?”
She stares me down with fear.
“Sarajane,” I ask slowly, deliberately. “What is it you are afraid of?”
“I dunno,” she answers quickly, brushing me off. “I dunno.”
I pause and then press her. Something’s wrong and I can tell.
“Sarajane.” I find and hold her eyes through the firelight. “Are you afraid of an animal?”
She hesitates. “Yeah,” she answers. “Yeah. Just, I mean, I’m not from here. I don’t know mountains. In Kentucky you don’t have to worry about big wildlife at all. There are no bears and cougars.”
I sigh and relax. Surely the likelihood of a bear or cougar approaching us tonight is slim to none. Animals don’t scare me, because I never think about them.
Sarajane jumps and hunches her shoulders further into her ears, glancing in every direction and then back at me. Deer eyes. She is drowning in the second sound while I am still not sure what exactly she is even afraid of.
“Sarajane,” I repeat and more sternly this time. “Are. You. Afraid. Of. An. Animal?”
“Uh. Yeah. Like. The only thing that makes me wonder is. That was like the sound of a twig snapping underfoot? And I’m just not sure what kind of animal would be strong enough to actually snap a twig underfoot. A squirrel or even a raccoon couldn’t do that.”
I narrow my eyes at her. Something still doesn’t fit.
She pipes up before I can. “How would you feel about just going and sitting in the car? Do you think that’s lame? With the headlights on for awhile. Then we can just get in the tent when we’re ready to go to sleep.”
I nod and take a swig off my second beer. “Yeah dude. That’s not lame at all.”
Once in the car she feels slightly better, though she continues to roll the window up and down and periodically stop dead silent in the middle of conversation to listen for animals moving in the brush that aren’t really there. She googles bears in the North Cascades on her iPhone, which still has service, and asks me to read the lengthy text, most of which I choose not to share. I do tell her that it says there have been only 11 nonfatal bear attacks on humans in this area in the past twenty years. I’m still a little confused at the complete role reversal we are experiencing. She’s supposed to be the chill badass. I’m supposed to be the goody-two-shoes, fearful and chatty. Older sister. Younger sister. I am now playing the role she has played for me since we became friends. She’s supposed to be the older sister I never had because I am the older sister to three of my own siblings in real life. But now we’ve reversed back again. Total trip. We talk. We get deep. We talk faster. We talk about family and writing and art and music and our generation and the wild and the mainstream and the underground and the tired societal frameworks passed down to us that just aren’t working anymore. We dig down into the conversation and the first hour turns into the second hour and soon it’s well past midnight.
Lights appear in the rear right periphery.
On the gravel road parallel to our dispersed campsite.
The only dispersed campsite in at least a two-mile radius, as far as we know.
Headlights on a loud truck. So loud it blasts through all the brush noise and blasts through our conversation and hits us in the brainstem, a hard chiming toll. Warning bell.
The truck drives past the gravel offshoot on which we’re parked and then stops. Maybe ten feet ahead of where we are, but on the one lane gravel road that winds up the mountain.
We wait for it to keep going up the mountain.
The headlights turn off.
The truck reverses slowly back down the road and then stops.
We wait for car doors.
We wait for voices.
We wait for lights to come back on.
Nothing. Silence. Dark.
“Sarajane. I can drive. If we need to get out of here I can drive.”
“You’ve got Indi at home, you know.”
ONE HOUR LATER
Sitting in the car in the parking lot of the car camping site we passed on the way in, before the dam, before the backcountry trailhead, before the single dispersed campsite where we left our fire and our tent and all our things to escape the ambiguous danger that halted and waited for us on the gravel mountain road. I’d kept my AWD Subaru in high gear as we raced down the mountain, fast enough that had a car been approaching up the mountain at the same time we made our getaway there would certainly have been a head-on collision. But I knew it was less likely that a car would be coming up than that the truck would follow us down and try to ram us into the ditches lining the road, rendering us helpless and trapped. We knew even as we made our escape that we were lucky they hadn’t had time to back their truck up against the outlet of our dispersed camping site and hem us completely in before we pulled out. We didn’t even check to see if the dam gate had been closed before we made haste back across it. Forward, always forward. With what lurked behind us the choice lay evident: an all-out advance into the lesser possibility of danger in hopes of escaping the greater one.
Sarajane fumbles with her pack of cigarettes. “You want one?” I nod yes and she hands it to me, then motions to open her door and get out before lighting up. “No no no,” I shake my head. “Fuck no.” It’s a brand new 2014 Forester but I don’t care. “We’ll smoke in here.”
We take slow drags off our American Spirits with the windows rolled slightly down and the heat turned up. I’ve always loved being in a car at night with the heat on and the windows down, the rising warmth countering the cool breeze brushing in and playing with my hair. The cigarettes are damn good. I wonder lazily why I haven’t taken up smoking before now. We continue to talk, too skittish to sleep, lightheaded at our narrow escape back into a populated area. Where other people could hear us scream. We talk and talk and talk until we are so tired our words turn to gibberish and our heads fall back against the seats and we succumb to a fitful few-hour sleep.
At five we can’t sleep anymore. Sarajane groans with exhaustion. I share with her the philosophy of hardcore sleep deprivation, which my mother insisted Mikey and I learn when Indi was born. “Mom.” I’d say on the phone when my infant was two days old and had not slept more than thirty minutes at a time without nursing. “I’m. So. Tired.” “Don’t speak of it!” she’d answer briskly. “Make the coffee and don’t speak of it again. Drink your coffee and move on.” I explain this to Sarajane and assure her that it works. She assures me she’s never heard such nonsense before, but agrees to try it. “The pot to boil the water for coffee is back up at the site,” she sighs. “Coffee and eggs. If we can just get that pot and get to a place where we can make a fire we can have coffee and eggs.” Spurred by such dreams, we start making plans to return for our tent, cooking supplies, firewood, and my bag which contains all of my clothes and books. Eventually we decide it’s safe to go back up. Back across the dam. By six fifteen we’re breaking down our mostly unused campsite in the dead middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain. Even in broad daylight we can see how off the grid this really is. The only cars within at least a two mile radius are the ones parked at the backcountry trailhead, and those folks are still long gone wherever they are. I clutch my pocketknife, keys, and iPhone in my hand as I pack things from the site to the car, but neither of us has any service at all now so the phones don’t really matter. We agree that in the case of any strange noise we’ll jump in the car and drive away, no questions asked. We take turns shuttling every tent piece and all our equipment as fast as we can into the back of the car. I watch my friend bending down over the tentpoles in a concerted effort to unhook them from the tent casing. I see her bent-over backside the way a trafficker or a predator or just a confused drunk kid or high dude or piss-bored backwoods boy would, just the shape of a body under clothes. Temptation. I understand that it only takes a little. That humans are capable of anything. I clutch my knife. I am on guard. I will protect my friend if it comes to that.
Funny how things quicken & condense in the perceived threat of danger. I think about what would happen in different scenarios. In this one, where we furtively shove all our stuff into the car in efforts to get away as soon as possible, I am simply repeating over and over in my head:
knifekeysphone. knifekeysphone. knifekeysphone.
But perhaps if we did hear a noise, or a vehicle driving up or down the mountain road, it would be:
And then again, if we saw a movement, or if someone or someones burst through the brush toward us, it would only be:
We close the hatch on the last of the stuff and desert the campsite without a backward glance. We won’t camp backwoods tonight. We won’t even camp at the car site we parked at through the wee hours of the night, though it was comforting in its own way. Too close. We must get away from this entire section of the lake, of the mountain. Fourth and final time back across the dam. We drive on until we find a well-populated car camping site with a picnic area right on the grassy banks of the lake. After our ordeal it feels exactly like heaven. Time starts to unwind and we ease our muscles, settling into the fire- and breakfast-making duties, jotting down what happened last night, stretching in the sun, gazing out over the panoramic perspective of the lake. The circular blue of the water is surrounded on every side by evergreen rising, shading itself in jutted layers out into the circular blue of the sky. Mount Baker and her friends rise in intervals behind the trees and against the sky’s lofty expanse. We understand on an environmental level how we have emerged from death into life. Self-rescue into idyllic territory. I fish my third beer from last night’s parking lot vigil out of the car, still three-quarters full of lukewarm IPA. Best & only booze I’ve ever had at 6:45 in the morning. I make the fire. My first fire. I’ve been saying how I am fire, how now that I know fire is the element that governs my sign I will embrace the fire. I will run into her. I will soften her and make her bleed, make her leap up in new shapes. The way I do with language when I write. I huddle over the scraps of kindling & paper with the disposable Bic lighter I still struggle to operate fluently and draw the fire from the earth. I want to know what this feels like.
We talk about the responsibilities of camping. About role reversals. About doing this without Boys. About how, next time, we will bring Boys, and they will make coffee and eggs while we both write uninhibited. But how I will still make the fire. How Boys will help us reclaim the singular dispersed camping site on the side of the mountain. Or maybe we’ll just never go back there.
By nine a.m. we’ve eaten, written, changed our clothes, and unwound enough to really get down & gritty in conversation. We never stop talking. We have intentional periods of silence in which the topics of discussion continue to unravel internally and then we come back together with what we’ve got and scrabble out new clarity. Uncover more deep shit. Once we start talking about the things no one talks about we unlock a deep well of shit that runs so deep the body cries with the excavation of it. Our mouths fulfill a primal desire in saying the shit no one says but everybody knows. Once we start we can’t stop. Everything spills from the well drawn.
Around ten a narrow-eyed woman with a hunchback and a crop of short white hair approaches from a truck. Camp host. Introduces herself as Barb. The details of last night tumble out and we explain that we just wanted a place to go and make a fire and eat. That we’re just girls trying to camp. That we followed directions from a woman in Concrete to get to a dispersed site on the side of the mountain. That a truck approached our site in the middle of the night, with no one else around, backed up parallel to us not ten feet away, then turned off their lights and waited. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Barb thinks it was something, tells us nothing like that ever happens around here, and asks us why we didn’t call the authorities immediately.
We look at each other and silently ask why the fuck didn’t we call for help on the goddamn phone?
No good answer. Later we’ll talk about illegitimacy and the deep-rooted fear of being a girl who cries wolf. Just now we make up an excuse and tell Barb we had zero cell service. It was close to zero anyway. She asks for more details on location.
“We drove across the dam to get there, you know and –”
“Wait, what? The Upper Baker Dam?” Barb narrows her eyes even further. She is surprised to be sure. She doesn’t look like a woman who is often surprised. Surprise looks weird on her.
“Up on the north side there? That dam’s supposed to be closed. There’s a gate at the bridge that’s locked.”
“No, it was open, we drove across to get to the backside of the lake.”
Barb’s face drains of blood until it matches the white of her hair. She thinks a few things that she doesn’t say. Then peters off with “Well, I guess they musta opened it then…well I might have a spot. I might have one spot for tonight. It’s spot number 2. You gotta wait though. Checkout’s at 2pm. We’ll see. You girls gonna stay here?”
“Yes Barb. We’ll be here. We’ll wait.”
Nothing sounds better. Nothing sounds more like heaven than to continue our coffee & books & conversation by the banks of blue & green watertreessky and abundant sunlight. We wait for the morning to unwind into noontime and for the sun to warm us through and through, so fresh from death. When we get hot enough we approach the water’s edge. I tell her I’m addicted to going all the way in now, after the last time. She says it’s good. That she knows another woman who’s addicted to lakeswimming and just goes and does it for fun, for a reset, after work sometimes. She dives in and I wade halfway and then jump. We swim. I’m a poor swimmer but I push the limits of my abilities just to stay out floating in the watertreessky as long as I possibly can. Every second submerged is a draught of endless peace. I tell her about the last time I went all the way into water. About figuring out what it is I will do with my life and how. How running into the ocean not more than two weeks ago at Rialto Beach and baptizing myself all the way under took me there. To the bodyhead space where I could start talking about it. The awakening to a self and the subsequent awakening to a responsibility. To the future and those in it. To my son and his generation. To those in my present, too, who will do this with me. My generation. Figuring out how to kick our own asses into high gear and get shit moving. Breaking down all the walls. Break and reform societal norms. Frameworks. Paradigms. All things we’ve outgrown. Things we’re waiting for someone else to repair before we go all in. No holds barred. No hesitation. I hear it always and I hear it running fleet & beating deep inside my headbodyheart. Drums. Every day every second every split it quickens. Break down all the walls. Break down all the walls. Break down all the walls. Time for the second Jericho. This time from the inside out. Reclaiming action. There is no going back.
Hours pass inside the peace of the lake and beside it in the sun. Barb checks in with us a couple times. Eventually our campsite is ready and we can go home. Just up the little camproad from the lake. It is intensely satisfying to set up camp in the wilderness yet bookended by folks on either side in their campsites too. We decide we love car camping and when we go backwoods again it will be with Boys. We decide to go for a hike in search of some semi-mythical hotsprings somewhere up the mountain. We get directions from Barb on how to drive to the trailhead and get back in Suby, as I’ve christened her. We head to the 1130 road, a gravel road that winds around the lake and then supposedly goes up the mountain to the hot springs trailhead, and after a moment we happen upon a row of lakeside dispersed campsites. The place the woman in the Red Apple market was trying to direct us to. The best campsites on the backside of the lake. Nowhere near the Upper Baker Dam. Nowhere near wherever the hell we were last night.
We continue driving and searching for the trailhead, until the gravel road pulls away from the lake and meanders up the mountain, becoming one lane. It isn’t railed on the right side where the mountainside drops away and if someone comes down around the corners too fast toward us we’re fucked. We know this but we keep going up. Nothing more enticing than mythical hotsprings. We are running out of gas and after a few wild goose chases down side paths and forks we realize we have to give up. As the road gets steeper and narrower a turnaround juncture fails to present itself and I have to do a nine-point turn being careful not to edge off the drop off or into the ditch on the other side. We decide the hotsprings with happen next time with Boys and that will be better anyway. But we are so high up it takes a long fucking time to get back down the mountain, and we start compressing into conversation again. Talking about death. Talking about nonlinear, nonchronological ways of living. Living in conversation with the ancient future. Talking about speaking the things that go unspoken, that have gone unspoken too long, our whole lives long until this point. She asks me why I unrelentingly speak now, everything, all of it, out loud.
“I mean, I almost died twice. Twice! Once on the day I was born and once in January when I got in that car accident, just a month after I turned 27. I was almost in the 27 Club for real! Who knows what the fuck’s gonna happen? It took me twenty-seven years to fuckin’ get born. Now I can’t stop.”
She lights a cigarette and nods. She’s getting it. She’s catching it. She takes a drag and assesses the mountainside green-filtered light through the dust-pocked windshield, both of us percolating on the ideas scrabbling mid-cigarette smoke in the languid summer air between us.
“I feel like I need to see a bear,” Sarajane remarks lazily. “Like, I feel like that would be good for me. Show me things about myself. Help me clarify what I am doing here.” She takes another drag. “I mean, from inside a car of course.”
I never, ever want or need to see a bear, I think to myself. But that’s cool. I can’t comprehend her desire but I can let it.
“You know what the funniest part is?” I say as I laugh aloud to myself and drum the steering wheel with my fingertips. Things I can’t help. “My sister. We were having this conversation about writing about dead people the other day. Total mindfuck. It really fucked me up. But what she said was ‘I feel like you are just trying to live your memoir or something.’ Like that, like trying to live out the things you wanna write. Haha!”
“Wait,” says Sarajane, taking a good long drag. “What?”
We both crack up.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing? What we’re all doing?”
“Exactly. That is exactly what I am doing.”
Since we didn’t get to hike I’m craving a run. I invite Sarajane to come with me but she needs a nap after last night’s sleeplessness so we split ways once back at camp. I head back down the road on foot but don’t venture onto the 1130 road or any of the other offshoots. I just need to pound out a few miles and then I’ll be good. Get it out on the road and work out some of the rhythm building up inside my body onto the asphalt and dry dirt and grass and packed earth. Running is drumming. I go a mile and half and then turn around, stopping to look over a couple bridges at the rocks and riverbed below, then picking back up my pace into the cadence of my run. About a half mile after I turn back around I happen across a green Tupperware bowl in the grass, the kind my brother and sisters and cousins and I used to eat out of when we were little, the kind my mom would win at Tupperware parties, the kind we would fight over at our grandparents’ house. It’s dirty as hell and surely had something sticky inside of it at some point but I pick it up anyway. The men and women in my family have been picking shit up off the side of the road for generations, using it, living off it, making stuff out of it. I tell myself that bowls are memories and that I will take it home and clean it and initiate Indi into the Tupperware bowl club. With the bowl secure in my hand I continue running, eyeing my feet till I get the beat right, till I get my stride, and then I look up.
Bear: about fifty feet ahead of me a bear is crossing the road.
I don’t breathe.
I think goddammit Sarajane. I didn’t wanna see a fucking bear. I didn’t NEED to see a fucking bear. I don’t need to see this.
It takes a long time for a bear to cross a road.
I think, bear, bear, bear, bear, bear, bear, bear, bear, bearbearbearbearbearbearbear
Shit. Fucking shit.
The bear crosses the road into the brush & trees and then I don’t see it anymore. What I don’t know is whether or not the bear has moved on, or if he is still in the brush, still around should I pass by and disturb him. Give him reason to chase. I know there is no other way back to camp. I have to push forward. I have to cross where the bear walked to get home. There is no other way.
I wait for other ideas.
I wait for what seems like an eternity for the next vehicle to approach and decide I will run alongside it, hoping that the noise will cover anything I might do to disturb or attract the bear if he is still there. It kind of works, except that I am not as fast as the truck I’m running with so that soon I am running alone. I don’t stop to look and see if the bear is still in the brush. I just keep running. I run ragged. My breath gets lost in my lungs and changes shape with every intake and exhale. I can’t get the rhythm of breathing with this run, the run of fear. I can’t get the beat right. But I can’t stop either. I run as fast as I can which is not very fast and every muscle cries and I am so tired and I am so scared but more than that I am just totally fucking incredulous. How the fuck did that just happen? and why? what? I cannot form complete thoughts. My body carries my mind and I push my body there and there and there. Back to camp. Back to camp. Back home. Backtocampbacktocampbacktocamp. I am a rag. A rag running, not even touching ground or sky, prelanguage, motion making meaning as I rag on.
When I finally reach camp I’m struggling to stand or breathe but I still call out Sarajane! Sarajane! in between swearing aloud to myself. Jesus. Holy fucking Christ. What the fuck. What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck. Holy fucking damn.
No response from Sarajane. I toss my things onto the campsite picnic table and stagger toward the lake. I see people & things but I am magnetized by one thing: water. I must get in the water. I realize I don’t have a suit with me. No matter. I get down to the lake’s edge and stop at the rocks that rim the vast blue expanse darkening into the pinkish charcoal of sundown. There is a family picnicking not ten feet away but I don’t care. I undo my shoes and pull off my pants and top so I’m down to my sports bra and cotton underwear. I wade into the lake up to my neck and look out, out, out, everything. The watertreesky world containing all things. I take four breaths, eye the horizon, and jump for it. Out under down up. Waterchild.
I return to camp barefoot, soaking wet and still in my underwear. I toss my clothes to the picnic table and set about to gather kindling. It is the only thing I can do: make a fire. I have had the air as I ran and the earth as the bear crossed in front of me and the water as I swam. Now I need the fire. I crouch over her as Sarajane rises and sees me, rivulets falling to the packed dirt from the blue and white stripes of my underwear, almost-naked wild child wet and free, in an animal shape with the flames rising between us.
“I saw a bear.”
She is shocked. And jealous. And tethered to society in a way I’ve temporarily lost all hold of. She says we should tell someone because they will need to record it, that we should make a report. I shake my head. It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense. The only thing that makes sense is the fire. But Barb happens to pass by at that moment in her truck and Sarajane calls out to her. “Um, Barb? Courtney saw a bear. When she was running.”
Barb is supremely unruffled. “A bear, huh? Where? Just up the road a mile or so there?” I nod. She nods too. “Oh yeah, he hangs out there. He won’t hurt nobody.”
Barb is not a woman who is often surprised.
Later Sarajane and I split ways again, her staying down at the lake where we’ve gone to watch the rest of the sunset after dinner and me going back to camp to remake the fire in the darkness. I am as addicted to making fire as I am to going underwater now. I sit for awhile, firegirl, home. Silent and alone and calm. Containing all things.
When Sarajane comes back I ask her what she thought about while she sat lakeside, silent and alone and calm and containing all things as well.
“Honestly? I thought about current pathology and how there is no place in it, anywhere, for this. Any of this. That we’ve been discussing. That we’ve been creating. In fact I started writing a paper about it.”
I nod. “Yes. We have to make a new pathology. Write it.”
We sit by the fire and talk some more. We will never stop. There is no going back now. I keep telling her this and telling her this and telling her this and we will do it. It looks like this:
push >> break through >> speak the unspoken >> transmission >> repeat.
Dear Ira Glass,
Today is Friday, February 1st. Two weeks ago, on Friday, January 18th, I walked away from a four-vehicle accident miraculously (mostly) unscathed. This is my story.
On Friday morning, at ten till 10:00, I kissed my 18 month old son goodbye and turned to say a few words to his nanny (also one of my closest friends, and my brother’s girlfriend of three years) as I headed out the door. A scruffle, plunk, and slowly crescendoing cry behind me pulled me back from the door to my son, who had somehow managed to cut his lip on a cushioned storage ottoman. Twenty minutes of tears, hugs, mystified ottoman inspections, and kisses from me and a turtle-shaped ice pack later, I left for work at ten after 10:00, now late. Goodbye Little Man. I love you. You’re going to have a great day with Rikki, and then Daddy will come visit you after you wake up from your nap at 2:30. Then Mommy comes home from work, and we’re all going together to Papa Tim and Grammy Eva’s house for Uncle Bryan’s birthday. It’s a family day. I love you, see you soon.
At ten after 10:00, traffic was sparse and I drove with at least four car lengths to spare in every direction. For what felt like the first time ever, every stoplight on eastbound N 85th St between Greenwood Avenue and I-5 was green. Green, green, green, even Highway 99. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d crossed 99 without a lengthy red-light wait, observing first the cater-corner Jack-in-the-Box, then the lone guy with a backpack waiting at the crosswalk in front of me, then back to Jack-in-the-Box, back to lone guy shifting his weight, Jack-in-the-Box, guy, Jack-in-the-Box, guy, then finally after some time: green. Not today. Today I sailed across Aurora, the Jack-in-the-Box nothing but a blur and the guy, simply not there. He must have been on-time that day. I noted at least 4 green lights stacked in front of me like horizontal poker chips, and slowed a little. Just a little; no brakes needed on this unexpected straightaway. As I crossed the next couple of intersections I noted how smart I’d been to get in the left lane of the two-lane eastbound 85th right away: no inconvenient stops behind the 48 metro bus needed, notorious for plodding through stops so erratically that riders could wait up to thirty minutes for a bus slated to come every fifteen, and then see three in a row approaching with the same “48: RAINIER BEACH” illuminated across the top. I remember that mental note. It was a rare fully-formed, free-standing thought as two or three cars queued up behind the lumbering green, black, and neon-gold lettered giant: it’s good I’m already in the left lane. I can keep-
Burgundy. One of the queued-up cars, a burgundy sedan, is suddenly not where it had been, where it was supposed to be, where it was supposed to stay while I sailed on through the next green light, past Bishop Blanchett High School, up the hill, skirting I-5 to take the gently curving Banner Way around into Roosevelt and over Ravenna to work in the upper University District. Burgundy changing quickly to silver smears as it jumps from the right lane to the left to pass the bus, just as I am in the same spot he wants to be at the exact wrong moment. Three thousand pounds of metal slide into my lane, a brick-colored tidal wave, into my train of thought, into me. As his left front collides into my right front, crumbling the sky, trees, and houses around me, I shout (or thought-shout) NO, NO, NO! My thought train punctured firstly and clearly by pure blossoming anger, anger that he left me no time to over correct for him, no time to brake, no time to identify and skirt the most immediate object of my fear. Whatever shape fear took that morning, whatever hundred and thousand possibilities lay in wait to bring to life the feeling of fear that hangs and seeps everywhere, this shape gave no warning before slamming full force across me.
Because of the strange string of green lights my hands are oddly already positioned firmly at ten-and-two, and my body aligned straight and firmly rooted in the seat of my 2001 green Subaru Forester, a crossover car/SUV. As a fantastically pyrotechnic crush of breaking sounds explodes around me I brace with all four limbs and try to hold my lane, holdholdholdholdhold, though it is completely useless: I am already sailing into the two lanes of oncoming traffic, held fast by my seatbelt while my car flies with complete abandon in a sideways arc across the first lane, landing squarely on the driver’s side in the second lane, the passenger side now the top of the car, my torso already across the gear shift console and head practically in the passenger seat as my vestibular senses automatically corrected for the flip. Through the now-vertical windshield: a Penske-sized white truck heading straight toward me. I know I am trapped and can’t get out in time. I think I am going to die, that the truck will shovel my car and me backwards on westbound 85th into oblivion. Pleasedon’thitmepleasedon’thitmepleasedon’thitme.
I say it three times like I’m twelve again in sunny September seventh grade gym class, in the outfield during mandatory baseball unit, a ball hit successfully by a jock now bearing down on me from the dusty pale blue heavens, unable to catch it and unable to move. Staring at it. White. Coming. Coming. Coming. I say it three times like Dorothy.
I can see the truck’s emergency flashers come on. He sees me. He knows.
Suddenly four men are on the other side of my car-cum-cage, knocking and tapping and pulling and doing other blessedly energetic things, things to get me out, things that will lead to other things, lovely actions painting cause and effect, laying out a chain of events before me, a future. I have a future outside of this car if I can just get out. “I have to get out of here, I have to get out of here!” I tell these beautiful angels. They hear me. They bring more than rescue: they bring me language. My words are no longer lost in a hollow hunk of crumpled steel: the men will volley back with me, all four of them, surrounding me with questions and answers, making quick work of the car itself to get to me. One points to the auto lock on the driver’s side door below my feet, then to the passenger side door above my head. “Unlock this door.” I can’t get it to unjam. One opens the back hatch of the car and gestures from what seems like the other end of a mile-long tunnel, and is really just a few feet away – but I can’t get through. They see the carseat dangling in front of me; it was positioned on the right side of the backseat right behind where I was originally hit. “Where’s your baby? Where’s your baby?” They are all alarmed. “He’s at home, he’s at home” I sob. We must say everything twice, relishing and reinforcing my newfound love of banal dialogic exchanges. Finally they wrench open the passenger side doors, reach in for my arms all at the same time as though choreographed, two on each side, and hoist me out as I scramble for footholds on the steering wheel, the headrest, and finally the door frame, landing on the sidewalk in the freezing fog. I can breathe, I’m free. A woman meets me there too and they surround me, making sure I am okay. They all know exactly what to do and say. “Are you okay? Here, come over here.” The woman walks me about fifteen feet from my car to a low wall dividing the sidewalk from the raised grounds of the apartment buildings and houses lining 85th. We sit down on the wall. I am in shock, words tumbling, crying but without real tears. I can’t focus long enough for real tears. My mind is spread everywhere in particles. I look at the car, no longer my car, not comprehending the crumple of green it has become, irrevocably overturned, lolling a little to the left as though it may flip again and become totally upside down. I see the straps of my purse on the ground, peeking out from under the top rim of the driver’s side. I know it has everything inside it: wallet, phone, lunch, water. “I need my bag, I need my bag” I insist. One of the men who rescued me is able to salvage the purse before the police arrive. I rest it on the ground between my legs. I don’t need to do anything just yet. I need to wait. I can calm down, though my voice suggests otherwise. By now the woman has gathered my coat around my shoulders as I can’t stop shaking, and managed to tug off my leather driving gloves. My left hand, my dominant hand, is bleeding from somewhere and dripping red into my bag. They ask me what’s wrong and I say it’s broken, I can tell it is, but it doesn’t matter it’s just fingers. I doesn’t matter because it will heal and I’m alive. I tell them I know it’d broken because it’s starting to burn now, so many minutes later, my fight-or-flight having kicked in at the moment of injury to create complete numbness to pain while I focused on survival.
Do you want to call someone?
I shake my head no. Not yet.
Do you have someone you can call?
The same question, just a little different.
I try to harness my skidding particle thoughts long enough to focus on this, to sift through the names. It doesn’t make sense to call my son’s father; he doesn’t live with us anymore. We’re not together anymore. He’s not my boyfriend anymore. Ex. Boy. Friend. Ex. Strange word, strange letter. Even though I know he’d come in a heartbeat I won’t call him just yet. Our son is safe at home. I won’t be a needy ex-girlfriend today. Still, even though it’s awkward, I still have so many people I can call. Two awesome parents, a brother not ten miles away, friends, coworkers, there is a long list of support, longer than I can sift through. I’m lucky.
I shake my head yes, I do, just not yet. Not yet. Everyone stay where they are for a second, just for a minute, everyone else I love and know in their regular lives today, stay unchanged for just a minute more, before I crash everything open with this.
Police arrive, firetruck, ambulances. I stay seated on the narrow gray wall with the woman, who was on the bus, who called 911 immediately and rushed to my aid. She tells me I hit someone while careening across traffic and that they’ll be getting medical assistance too. I can’t understand: how could I have hit someone? Were they behind me and couldn’t brake in time? It never occurs to me that they were in the near lane of oncoming traffic, the lane that didn’t have time to stop, because initially I’m convinced there was no one coming except the big white truck in the far lane. I find out later that the original hit pushed the burgundy sedan into the bus and sent me into oncoming traffic, where I hit some kind of state vehicle (likely a van or truck) head-on but at a slight angle favoring my left front, so that my car flipped and the state vehicle was sent careening onto the sidewalk. But right now I have no idea, and can’t understand. I perseverate on the person who caused the accident: where did the burgundy sedan go? And how could this be a hit-and-run? How could he flip me into the opposite side of the road and just drive away? I wonder aloud and the woman sitting with me says, evenly, wisely, maternally, “Well, sometimes people just need to go, even though it’s not the right thing to do, it’s just what they have to do in the moment.” We keep on sitting, waiting patiently in the breathy gray; I could sit here forever if it just wasn’t so cold. I could wait a long long time, watching all the cars stream by in fast orderly lines of color, watching everyone go to their next destination, waiting until someone who knew me chanced to pass by and would stop to pick me up, take me on their way with them. I could wait a long time, for things to settle down, get just a little slower.
The guy materializes though: to our right, standing on the sidewalk, in a faded sweatsuit, staring helplessly into space. When he identifies himself he says to me: “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, I just pulled out.” To which I respond: “It’s okay, I’m just… glad you didn’t drive away.” It is not okay, but I’m too lost to say what I really think and feel, to ask him what he was thinking, to scold him, challenge him, anything. My mind is blank. “Do you have insurance?”
“Yeah,” he answers. “I mean, I don’t, but it’s my buddy’s car, and he definitely has insurance.”
Our fruitless conversation is cut off by the arrival of the paramedics and the police officer making his rounds at the scene finally reaching me. The paramedics wrap me in a neck brace and prepare a stretcher while others bustle around me, the police officer organizing information about the crash I can already tell is inaccurate, and I try to shout at them the facts but the shock-induced shrill tone of my voice precludes my words from being even heard by anyone important, let alone heeded. I’ve waited until now to call anyone, knowing I can freely be a panicked freak among strangers, but wanting to collect myself a little more before talking to anyone I know, friends and family alike. I need time. But now I’m about to be strapped to a horizontal board and almost out of time. You need to call someone to meet you at the ER, the EMTs repeat. I call my dad. He doesn’t answer. I give the police officer his phone number and instruct him in my crazy-person voice to tell my dad to make sure my son is still safe at home with the nanny, but not under any circumstances for them to leave the house to come get me. Stay in the house. Stay where it’s safe. My dad will come get me. With that I’m tipped backward and loaded like produce into the back of the ambulance, my head dipped lower than my feet to ensure maximum discomfort as we rollick along the streets of Seattle toward First Hill, toward the place where I was born, where my mother was born.
ER Room 1. Still horizontal at the wrong angle. Head below feet.
Answering questions. Do you have a living will? floats toward me, a taunting gray-lined balloon of guilt. No.
Almost noon: Indi’s nap time.
Deep breaths: still the tears.
Dial nanny/friend/sister, Rikki.
Hold myself together long enough to say goodnight to Indi, and tell him that I’ll see him soon.
Water. Too cold. Tea. Talking with a big male nurse with an earring and shaved head who seems pretty indestructible, and kind. He reminds me of my parents’ lifetime friend Lee Haldorsen which is a great comfort to me.
Hand examination. X-ray ordered.
Ex-boyfriend (my son’s father) arrives.
Sitting. Holding hands.
I find the bathroom. The impact jolted my body enough to kick start my period a day early. I have nothing and will have to make do.
Parents arrive. More voices trickle into the midday quiet, making it feel like early morning gradually getting started again. Starting again.
Official diagnosis of a sprained and broken ring finger on my left hand. Splint. Discharged. Before we leave, Indestructible Nurse comforts me by telling me how many accidents he’s been in and how many cars he’s rolled, multiple rolls in a row, like its just another weekend pastime, and tomorrow I’ll feel sore all over my body and ache for awhile but that’s normal, it’s all part of it. Part of this. Somehow Indestructible Nurse’s escapades and his easy attention to me, like he’s jauntily waving me into the tough-people-who-flip-cars club, steadies me.
Scary truck ride back to Greenwood with Ex-Boyfriend, who has no turn signals but means well. We stop at a coffee shop to delay taking me home, so we don’t wake Indi up from his nap early.
Coffee. Wonderful gritty, earthy, hot, lovely black-brown elixir. Peaceful. My self-prescribed antidote for my rattling soul.
Words. I tumble out words about the accident, reliving sections, articulating confusion and gratefulness and random details, like how much I love coffee.
Home. Glorious home.
Indi knows something is wrong already and is even more confused when his father and I arrive together. “Mama drive? Mama drive?” he insists, just after we walk in and I hold him and kiss him. I plunk down on the floor in the middle of the living room, legs outstretched, rolling a ball to Indi, hugging Indi, looking at a book with Indi. “No, no Mama drive.” Everything is confusing, everything is awkward. Everything is worth it.
The hours and days following the accident are a blur of combined post-trauma shock, adrenaline, and exhaustion. I immediately dropped three pounds and didn’t regain my appetite for about a week; this I can only attribute to an extended fight-or-flight response, my body shedding whatever it didn’t need in order to get ready for the next impact. I impatiently discarded the hospital splint and started using my crouched broken finger over the long MLK Day weekend, frustrated by trying to care for an 18 month old with a dilapidated soggy bandage trailing from an increasingly useless left hand. Ignoring the break aggravated it and illuminated a likely sprain or jam in the middle and pinky fingers as well, so that by the time I returned to work on Tuesday it took only a few askance glances from coworkers to send me to Walgreen’s for a new splint, tape, and mittens to accommodate strapping the middle and ring fingers together. Wearing the splint and tape has brought its own kind of relief, but a myriad of necessary daily living skills like changing diapers, washing hair, and typing have become complicated, impossible, and/or anxiety-ridden.
It turns out a car accident is a serious mind-fuck, at least for me. While it was a disappointment not to be able to get a rental car due to insurance complications, I can’t even imagine getting behind the wheel again anytime soon. It took me over a week to even be able to ride as a passenger past the spot where the accident occurred, and ten days before I quit begging family members to go out of their way to pick me up from work and got up the guts to climb on the bus that can take me home- the 48. So far the lower moments of my recovery include a complete mental breakdown on my kitchen floor the night after the accident, involving all the tears I hadn’t let go the previous day as well as some full-on crazy-lady emotional blow-out phone calls to a couple of close friends. I’ve been consumed by thoughts of what would have happened to Indi if I had died. How confused he would be. How he would keep asking about me, keep watching for Mama at the window, how the phrases he uses now to understand and cope like “No more he-bew (Subaru), all gone” could so easily be “no more Mama, all gone.” I wonder if my friends and family would tell him how much I love him every day and how I love him. How I rock him to sleep every night and still nurse him at night, how he asks “nurse? Nurse?” in his sleep. Would they tell him how I give him a bath every night after his dinner, how I wrap him in his daddy’s huge old blue robe and brush his teeth, how I lay him on my bed still swaddled in the robe and lay next to him and read books to him, how we can see our reflections side by side in the skylight against the stars, how we read Abiyoyo and Cars Galore and Mo Willems, and Time for Bed by Mem Fox, and Goodnight Moon and Old Bear and Love Bug, and Max the Music Maker with real black and white photographs about a real boy named Max who lives and breathes music, just like Indi.
Indi: How we play and tickle and laugh on the bed, how you act out Abiyoyo by crying, “Abiyoyo coming! Abiyoyo coming!” And wait for me to say “Run for your lives! He’ll eat you alive!” And ask you to sing the song, and you do.
How I pull you in bed with me when you wake up in the middle of the night, and we cosleep for the rest of the night, every night. How you sleep cozily next to me on the bed after nursing if I am still up working on something, like right now, as I write.
How I pictured you fully, immediately, the first time your dad said your full name: Indiana Cole, just a little over two years ago, a few days before we found out you were a boy, when we lay in bed together at Papa Tim and Grammy Eva’s house in your daddy’s old room, with you in my belly, intently discussing names, and he said your name and I said, “That’s it! That’s him. Indiana Cole. I can see him running around when he’s two, with long curls and a bandanna around his neck and big rosy cheeks. I can see him.” How from that moment we knew your name, for certain, with no doubts. How I know now that in another set of circumstances, or alternate chain of events, or universe, or whatever, your dad and I were meant to be together, and have a big family, and live on a farm on an island and be happy. But for whatever reason things didn’t happen that way, and you still decided to be brave and come and be our son, to come and be with your people, like Bapa said when you were waiting as long as you could to be born. And we are so, so happy you came, and so, so happy in this life with you.
How you look exactly like that vision in my head that night, running free, even more as you edge closer to two, curls streaming behind you, how you have always been decidedly your own personality, with glorious coexisting contradictions just like all of us, but you are unapologetic. Unapologetically rowdy, sweet, gentle, stubborn, loving, social, independent, emotional, reserved, lover of sun and rain, communicative, creative, mathematical, spatial, lover of books and TV, affectionate, wild, hardy, reflective, persistent, self-reliant, relational.
How I taught you about Christmas and Santa and presents and stayed up late many nights planning your first real “participatory” Christmas, your first Christmas comprehending giving and receiving (okay, not giving yet, maybe next year). How amazing it was to watch you experience everything on Christmas morning. How you still talk about Santa and presents and “Mi-mas.” How I’ve wanted to take you to church and teach you those stories too, the stories I grew up with, the stories Bapa and Hilly told me about Jesus and Noah and Esther, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that with you yet. How to emulate for you what faith in God meant for me as a child.
How first you lived on eggs when your daddy made them for me every morning while I was pregnant, and every morning your first year when you lived by copious nursing, breast milk spilling and spraying everywhere all the time, and now you have scrambled eggs almost every day for at least one meal of the day. How it is an honor to make you eggs.
How you are already learning your letters: “M – Mmmmmmmichael! N – Nnnnnnnnigel! U – A-gola (umbrella)! Letter A! APPLES!” How you look out the window and ask me about cars, and then ask about boats, wondering where those are too. How you say “Fish… Water…?” wondering why there aren’t any fish in your bath tub. How I promised to take you to the Ballard Locks this spring to show you where boats and fish live. How I adore the rare days when I get to take you to preschool and watch you play and laugh and cry and learn and eat and tumble and build friendships in your classroom, how on those days I’m the proudest mommy in the observation booth.
How, as it turns out, the woman who called 911 the day of the accident and sat with me on the side of the road, offering wisdom and comfort and calmness, works at your school, how I knew her when I was a graduate student there. How community wraps us.
How we sing together so often, silly songs, songs with no words, and trade guitars, and dance, how at night you hum yourself to sleep, you hum along with James Taylor, and you say “Mama rock you?” And “More rock you?” at the end of every song because you don’t want me to put you down. How you say “Pull hand?” when I lay you in your bed and sit by you, because you don’t yet know how to say hold instead of pull.
How I hold your hand until you fall asleep.
How you love food so much, just like me, apples and eggs and smoothies and carrots and potatoes and snack mix and Cheddar Bunnies and Elmo crackers and chicken and turkey and noodles and Snowman cookies and chocolate and grilled cheese sandwiches and avocado and blueberries, oh, how you love blueberries.
How you love your baby friends, and talk about them all the time, “Charlotte” “Reese!” “Col-bee” “Hay-en? Hay-en? Hay-en!” And so on. How you love your family, and talk about them all the time, “Bapa-Hilly!” “Ung-Nigel” “Wikki!” “Aa-ee?” “Nenna?” “Papa. Tee-im.” “Ah-va! Ava!” “Max.” “Ung-Bryan.” “Nanda.” “Eye-leen!” “Boos.” “Bapa. Fred!” “Ay-vey.” “Aa-ley.” “Baby! Tessa!” “Sydney.” And so on. And how you love your dad, and talk about him all the time: “Daddy? Daddy here?” “Where Daddy?” “Daddy work.” “Daddy. Message.” “Yay, Daddy coming!” “Michael please.” And how you laugh and laugh and laugh when you play with him, and pretend to be rock stars together, like two all-American boys, unapologetically carefree, the Native and the Japanese heritage flashing unexpectedly and unmistakably in moments across both your faces, never ceasing to catch me off guard, to leave me for an instant in quiet wonder and awe at the power of lineage.
How I am collecting all the Leslie Patricelli books for you, and how I’ve been telling you the baby in them is you since you were eight months old. How we read together everywhere, anywhere, the couch, the floor, the ottomans, the kitchen, the dining table. How you say “Story. Ti-eem.” “Book. Book. Read it?”
How I kiss and hug you every day, many times all day, no matter what, how I’m so thankful for my job because it means I can take care of you, how I miss you every day all day, and I know deep in that it’s a good missing, a right kind of missing. How I watch your peaceful face when you sleep and sometimes look at pictures and videos of you when you’re sleeping, how you sleep with your mouth a little open and duck-shaped like Auntie Sienna, how you love to figure out how things work like Uncle Nigel, how you see and understand without words the feelings of others like Aunt Addie, how strong and athletic you already are, managing to climb out of your crib at twelve months old, like Uncle Bryan. How I always look you in the eyes when I say goodbye to you, because I want you to remember my face and how much I loved you all the time. How there can never be a final draft, because our minds are changing all the time, because maybe someday you’ll be embarrassed by these words, by the fact that you breastfed until you were nearing two, by the awkward flat note that is inevitably struck by this illuminating of the things we don’t normally talk about, because they are too uncomfortable, too painful, too precious. How there can never be a final draft, but I’m choosing to say these things out loud, and publicly, in the myriad faces of fear, of discomfort, of awkwardness. I’m breaking open the thickly clad, heavy stone of the awkward feeling on my shoulders, breaking it open like ancient fruit, to gather up the water-words inside, the drips and smears, the liquid imprints and shadows on the inner shell, and put them all here, out there, with all of your people, for this moment.
How there can never be a final draft, as we are living it, but at least here is some small record of my mother love for you, my son.
I hope they would tell you. I hope they would all tell you, and that also you would have these things written on your heart anyway, without words, about my love, about all the love surrounding you, as, after all, it doesn’t come just from me. You are surrounded and wrapped, even held by love, and my love is part of you. I’m part of you.
The only other “accident” I’ve been in was also from the right side: It was autumn, and I was twenty, leaving work in Redmond and headed to my parents’ house in Woodinville on a curved road that became Avondale – not a highway but not a side road either. I was in the left lane in the normal flow of traffic, and saw the Prius turning right into the lane beside me overshoot that lane and pull straight into my lane in time to brake so that the impact on my ’91 Civic was minimal and though the Prius headlight crumpled like cellophane, no one was hurt and everyone drove away less than thirty minutes later. Given my most recent experience I wouldn’t even call it an actual car accident- more of a bumper cars-style bonk. Still shaken up the next day, however, I carried the experience with me as I did my errands and prepared for my Saturday undergraduate seminar. I blurted out what happened to my entire creative writing class as soon as I stood up to hand out copies of my assignment, a photo collage/ poetry piece. “Driving is crazy,” I stopped with my hands out to the sides, flustered, appealing to any sensical mankind, my classmates momentarily my captive audience. “We’re just, bumbling around in these ridiculous metal boxes all day long, not paying attention, not realizing we could crumble at any moment. I don’t like it.”
My teacher nodded, the picture of complete empathy, the class following suit. I knew I could count on them to understand. “You’re right. It is crazy,” she answered. I felt validated. I felt justified. I felt equipped in the myriad faces of fear: in the following six months I would graduate with my bachelor’s degree, turn twenty-one, and work a receptionist job until I had enough money to fly to Europe to backpack for a month with two girlfriends and my cousin. I would have moments of complete anonymity, moments of wild abandon, moments of traveling via my own two feet across foreign cities and countries. Moments of community wrapping me, and my friends, even there, even in France, Italy, Germany.
In that class, on the first day of class my teacher assigned us a very personal writing exercise, assuring us that it would be read only by her. On the second day of class, she announced it was time to read the same assignment aloud to the class, round-robin style, so everyone got a turn. “Surprise,” she said. “You can be mad, but in writing, in life, own your shit. Don’t be a pussy.”
I was first.
Four and a half years later, I sat eight months pregnant with some of those same classmates in the Elliott Bay Bookstore, listening enthralled as that woman, our teacher, read from her first memoir, The Chronology of Water. She was already an accomplished and published writer in the field of experimental fiction, but here was my first experience with this kind of wildflower non-fiction, this unapologetic truth, transformed by language. I stood in line with my copy for a signature, for some small coin of wisdom in the tumult of almost-motherhood. To Courtney and the being in her belly, she scrawled:
Be as water.
It was her book I took to the hospital with me when my son was born, zipped into my black duffel bag beside the clean-laundry-smelling baby-boy-blue onesies and the never-to-be-bright-white-again nursing tank tops and the printed white muslin swaddling blankets and the hand-knit orange hat a coworker’s wife made. Be as water, I chanted to myself over and over, be as water. Be as water, as I carried my son and me through the first day of labor and into the next, into the moment of his birth. Be as water.
Six years later, on Wednesday, January 9th, my same writer/teacher/friend posted a link on Facebook to an article by Ann Patchett on writing intentionally as women who write for a career, a living maybe. Making time intentionally in the midst of every day life to write. About how what we do in the first thirty-two days of the year directly impacts how we live our lives during the rest of the year. A lively FB discussion ensued, many women joining in, some of them professional writers, many of them mothers, all of them strangers to me but not strangers at all. I chimed in with this comment:
“Ladies, the article and all your stories make me ache. Full-time mommying an 18 month old and juggling 2 jobs sounds like it should be a piece of cake to write every day AND go to Costco compared to all you [each] are balancing, but instead I don’t write at all, ever, though so much in me is waiting to be written (I don’t make it to Costco nearly as often as I should either). But it helps to know others are engaging in the balancing act, including Miss Patchett, and maybe I won’t write for the first 32 days of the year, but I might try, one day, maybe someday soon.”
To which she emphatically replied: “but Courtney- I’m saying just the opposite! Most who’ve commented here are moms! There is no cake. or if there is, it’s a temporary cake that some women get to taste and others maybe not so much–though I bet we could all agree–writing IS the cake. Or at least that’s what I feel/believe. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life where I was ‘free’ and not juggling everything under the sun.”
To which I responded by mulling for a few days, occasionally fluttering close to unlocking how inconvenience and fear play together to hold me wordless and not-writing, but mostly just forgetting again. Nine days to be precise, until the day of the accident, when I still hadn’t written a word.
There have been higher moments and swells in my recovery as well, and they are of course the small things, the very tiniest things. The EMT girl riding along in the ambulance with me being named Mitch, and me asking her how she liked her job, and her answering that it was pretty cool but she really liked calls like this because it meant getting to see lots of hot firefighters at the scene. The hospital still having my parents’ home phone number from 1985 and my aunt listed as my emergency contact from when I was born there. The plastic bracelet printed with my name and birthdate they fastened around my right wrist reminding me of the one I wore when Indi was born. Drawing my black leather boots back on, helping me wobble a little less and feel just a little tougher, as we prepared to leave ER Room 1.
The tiny things: That comically scary truck ride home with my ex-boyfriend, my buddy, that guy I met and fell suddenly, deeply, irretrievably in love with only two and a half years ago, who I still clutch with both arms tight whenever we hug goodbye, like a misunderstanding child, like I can’t comprehend what it means to separate from someone dear. Us bumbling along the streets of Capitol Hill, down past the Viaduct, onward through Interbay, taking the somewhat tangled and widely circuitous route home because I refuse to let him take me on the freeway. Me shivering in the passenger seat from the still-freezing fog wafting freely about the rattly cab. Him gesturing toward the backseat of the truck, not four inches behind us, layered waist high with Mexican blankets and sweaty secondhand clothing pockmarked with holes in all the right places, discarded with such elegant disregard I might as well have been staring right into an Abercrombie and Fitch ad come to life. “You want a blanket? Some clothes?” He indicates a white styrofoam box. “Some teriyaki chicken?”
Small important things: My dad bringing breakfast over the day after the accident. Smoked salmon, and a perfectly circular round of fancy goat cheese the size of a silver dollar and twice as thick, and a light, spongy handmade sourdough for toasting. My dad delivering a stack of fashion magazines and a plastic grocery bag filled with tampons and maxi pads from my mom. No one delivers tampons more dignifiedly than my dad. My dad, filling my house floor to ceiling with quiet gentle strength and wherewithal like a blue and green crystal mountain river. My dad, the messenger.
Sweet small things: my girlfriends visiting with their babies on Monday morning, when I’d been cooped up without adult company for over 36 hours, bringing black coffee and conversation. One of them laying Indi down to change his diaper without a second thought, just matter-of-fact, so I could just stay on the couch. Text messages from friends with kind words to buoy me through those first fragile post-accident days. An email from Indi’s teacher headed simply: “you”. My mom coming over to go through my closet when I’d reached my boredom threshold. The resulting awesome simplicity of my closet. A new toy for Indi, wooden fruit that velcros together so he can cut the pieces with a wooden knife, sharing pears and a strawberry and orange halves and a lemon we pretend to eat with over exaggerated lip-puckering at the tartness that manages to catch us by surprise every time we “bite” into the air between our faces and the painted yellow pieces we hold. Ooh! Sour lemon! Another new toy for Indi the very next day, because life is short, a tractor he carries everywhere with him, gently cradled in his chubby toddler hands.
Tiny acts of ritual and devotion: ordering coffee. Scrambling eggs for Indi and letting them cool on the flowered blue-gingham plastic plate before placing bite-sized chunks on his high chair tray along with his red plastic Cars movie fork. Vacuuming every evening before dinner, me with my Dyson and Indi with his Fisher Price. Surfing Pinterest, blessedly mindless activity that alleviates my extreme exhaustion and lets me drool simultaneously over all the outfits I want to wear and all the recipes I want to make when my hand gets better. Walking to the store. Waiting at the bus stop in the University District for the 48 to take me home, peering out at the trusty mist all around from underneath the hood of my black rain jacket, the jacket I got for my backpacking trip to Europe, the jacket that says TITANIUM on the inner collar, behind my neck, making me feel a little stronger, a little more resilient.
Tiny: the writing of this, the pouring out of this, on day thirty, thirty-one, and thirty-two of 2013. The writing of this, in jolty hiccups and starts, mostly via hunting and pecking on a touch-screen since I still don’t have fully functional use of my left hand. Writing, as my son sleeps, as my son climbs on my knees, as my son lounges next to me and strums his ukelele. Making music and words together. Making art together. Better than cake.
Breaking free of waiting to be free.
So, Ira: this American fear. This lumbering, black, roiling, rotting, stinking, huge American Fear. I can’t get out from under it and I don’t have the answer. All I know is that the fear debilitates me, creeps its tentacles around the parts of me that might reach out, precludes me from making connections raw enough to hurt/ raw enough to generate. More than anything it is inconvenient: inconvenient to carry the fear around, inconvenient to try acting around/through/on top of/in spite of it, inconvenient to detangle, to sort through, to understand.
Inconvenient to face.
I don’t want to face this fear because I don’t want to acknowledge everything bad coming that could be in my path. I don’t want to acknowledge that if it isn’t in my path, it will be and is as we speak in the path of others. I don’t want to acknowledge that the hard times just keep on coming, and if they only graze my ear this time they’re headed straight for the heart of the person behind me. I don’t want to acknowledge everything I stand to lose. I don’t want to acknowledge that all we have is only a tenuous breath.
I don’t want to acknowledge that I have absolutely no control.
It’s as a mother I can’t acknowledge this, because I don’t want to lose my son. Before he was born, it was as a sister I couldn’t acknowledge this, because I didn’t want to lose my brother or sisters. I’ve been a sister since I was two. Since before I can remember. Not being able to acknowledge this stretches back before my memory does. I’m having trouble bearing it, the possibility of loss.
It’s inconvenient to write, because I don’t want to write it down and make it true. I want to keep going on inside the illusion that I have even a little hold, even the tiniest bit of leverage, to keep them, my brother, my sisters, my son. I want to believe I can hold the lane. I’ve been avoiding writing for months because of this fear. I’ve been saying I don’t have the time to write, the space, the wherewithal, and it’s true, I don’t. I might not ever. I might be juggling always, reaching always, afraid always.
One thing, now abundantly, evidently, sublimely clear:
When I asked my dad What else do you have to do today? last week as we walked back from coffee in the U-District, he answered firmly, excitedly, emphatically: Paint. I have to go paint. Listening to him explain his current project, an abstract tetraptych depicting four events in the life of Jesus, I understood. My dad has been many things in his career: musician, guitar teacher, producer, pastor, writer, creative arts director. But nothing, nothing has given him the ability to speak with such firm, excited, and emphatic simplicity as painting.
Like my teacher, about writing.
Simply: feel/believe/act. Paint. Write.
I remember when my dad started painting in earnest. It was six years ago, the same autumn I took that undergraduate writing course, the same autumn I had that first bumper car bonk-accident, the same autumn my teacher told us not to be a pussy in life and writing, and looked at me to take the first turn.
Six years ago, when I finished reading, breathless and pink, and looked up, and there was only silence. And then she said:
That. Is. Publishable.
One thing clear: writing. While I know teaching or some derivative thereof will always be my day job, and mothering will always be my first-love, first-priority, twenty-four-seven job, my dream job is writing. Six years later, I’m boundlessly grateful for what these years have held, setbacks, accidents, and heartbreaks included. I’m trying to listen earnestly and speak truth unapologetically. I am owning my shit, here, now, publishing it, even though there can never be a final draft, just a moment, just a tenuous breath.
Dear Ira Glass,
On the day he was born the sun burned like a young god, like only a June sun can, bathed in its own gold, like water underlit. And I never saw it. I never breathed the outside air on that day, never thought of it, never needed it, because all the light was in a little face that swam into first light, into first breath at 10:14 am.
On the day he was supposed to be born, the first day of summer, that same June sun waited behind the early morning bluedark, while I woke, and drifted, and woke, and crawled to the bathroom to sit with myself and the heartbeat in my belly, to eliminate the previous night, and think only in small circles, breathing a lifted pattern through each circular, surface skidding thought. While I closed my eyes and said inside, “be… as… water” with 3 breaths, a tiny mind song. And the song brought me an image, so everytime I closed my eyes I saw a small blue planet wreathed in white rings. And I learned to breathe with the planet, breathing on purpose for my body and my son. And after a few hours, after a whole life lived within itself in my white and beige bathroom, the sun still crept into my tiny one room apartment and wrapped itself around my contracting body, my two bodies in one for one more day. And I welcomed everything. I greeted the pain with the widest smile, the biggest peace I could create, the roundest breaths I could surround us with. With the pain still inside, building. Growing jagged before I could feel how sharply it twisted. But I let the sun in too and that’s harder, harder to grip the edges of the opening with the insides of your knuckles so pinkly transparent and weak and pull, pull, pull it wider than the pain so it lets the sun in too. Like a big laugh inside a big loss. The expectancy of unbearable pain makes you want to clamp down, makes you want to be shaped like the pain, with edges, but the sun must come in.
I was 10 days past my due date but I still hadn’t packed. I will never forget laying the little clothes inside the big black bag, next to mine, unbelieving that someone will actually wear these, everything folded carefully and smelling like tangerines and just-vaccuumed carpet. There were things to clean and small pieces of furniture to rearrange and old flowers to throw out. Dishes. Showers. Coconut water. Brown and gold sandals. Fresh air. Calling the nurse. Car seat, still not strapped in. Passenger seat. Street fair. Warm, warm, warm. Car contractions. The sweet solo labor of the wee hours over.
At the hospital, they said, he will be born tonight. They said, he is a little one. Maybe six or seven pounds. They said, one centimeter every hour.
When it became clear he would not be born before the day turned, they tried to slow everything down. They came in less often. They gave me more time in the water. The water and the pain and the machines to check on us, check everything, obliterated me. Sent me inside the small blue planet. Sent me inside a loud song, my mother sang with me, his father sang with me, our doula, even the nurse I think in one moment sang with me. Hm, hm, hmmm. Two short and one long. A series of moments. I’m having a dream. No pattern left, just contractions three and four minutes long with barely any space between.
Somewhere the night reached its full force and I could remember twenty hours before when labor began, small contractions in a small bathroom in a small apartment in a small city.
They broke the water.
Can’t be laying down. Vomit, choking, letting go. Coconut water.
Hour number twenty-one… twenty-two… twenty-three…
Twenty-four. Staring at the clock. Where. Why. Whatisrackingmybody my hot heart, my lost feet, my thoughts incomplete, frantically searching, something to push, something cold, anything hard, where is solid, whereistheheartbeat, ragged, ragged, ragged. Red. The twenty-fifth hour. This is how old I am. This is how long I can go.
Get me the drugs. They make me say my safe word: Studebaker.
The epidural man is small, meticulously groomed, with wiry arms and legs, and brown hair and eyes I think. I don’t know because I never actually see him. I can’t look at him the whole time, I can only look two inches in front of me or I will get lost. I will be ripped in half. Holding still is the worst thing in the world. The epidural man doesn’t care. He is a voice in the void, like the Wizard of Oz, the only clean thing in the room, him and his needle. Big needle, going in and in and in, like on a hundred T.V. shows about being born.
Sleep. One hour.
Push. For four hours I push and nothing happens. I push until I can’t be more frustrated, and the frustration pushes out the fear, this is the moment, don’t miss it. They try everything. Every position the nurse knows. Every way they can arrange my body, every way they can channel my strength, nothing works. They bring in a specialist to turn him around, he’s face up, and it works, but then he turns back. Baby knowing his own mind, choosing unbirth as long as he can. Mother choosing to keep pushing. I can feel him kicking inside me and I know what he’s doing. I know he’s waiting. I know he doesn’t want to come out because he is afraid, afraid of the big June sun that’s reaching in to get him. I don’t care. I keep pushing. In the last minutes before they say C-section out loud I feel him shift. I know it will happen. I know he will be born. In the mirror we all see a big, blinking black eye. I’m not the only one who sees it, sees him. Black. Eye. Blinking. Slow. For so long, pulsing. Growing. Graphic. The hint of a creature. Promise of a boy. I see it
I hold it in my eyes
eternity, checking the clock, racing against it
the opening, stretched beyond the shape of pain, letting me stare at the mirror
and then I see the true head, so big and covered in black hair, so satisfying, I’m pushing with my whole body and I see his face all wide and watery in the mirror and that’s all I need, I throw my head back and they pull him out and he’s already crying and he’s on my chest
baby boy, born 10:14 am
8 lb, 10 oz
beautiful, dark, wise
Dear Ira Glass,
This is a story about how television changes our lives.
I’ve only seen the show Grey’s Anatomy once, and in that episode a doctor was pierced through the stomach with a twelve inch icicle that fell from a gutter on a hospital supposedly set in Seattle. I live in Seattle, and our icicles don’t reach anywhere near a foot in length; they are more like iciclets. I don’t like people misrepresenting my city, so naturally I gave up on the show right away. I haven’t seen it since, but a few months ago Grey’s came back into my life with a clarity only a t.v. show that’s gone to water cooler status can bring (though, let’s be honest- who drinks from a water cooler anymore?).
So, rewind to late May 2010. I’m on my way to go bowling in Tukwila with some girls from work. We’re reminiscing about television sitcoms from the 90s and singing spotty lyrics from their theme songs, the anthems of my early teen years: Growing Pains, Step by Step, Full House…I’m feeling nostalgic for a time ten years in the past when I unashamedly patterned my analyses of life, death, and love on the twenty-one minute plots I watched as reruns on the Disney Channel (anyone?). In so many words I mention the weirdly intimate intensity of t.v. to the girls. One friend, S, gasps: “Oh my god. Does anyone watch Grey’s Anatomy?” We shake our heads and when I tell her I have no intention of picking up the show at any time she goes on to tell me about the season finale that had just aired. <SPOILER ALERT>.
S: “Oh my god. I’m still processing. It was so intense. I couldn’t sleep after.”
Me: “Did people die?”
S: “Yes, people died. Two people died in the opening credits.”
Me: “Did main characters die? Did Patrick Dempsey die?”
S: “Lots of main characters died, like right in the beginning, you just see them get shot in the head, Patrick Dempsey didn’t die but he almost did. This guy came into the hospital and just started shooting people and they didn’t even get a chance. I don’t even know, it was so crazy…”
The way she spoke caught my attention: with such immediacy, such empathy. So human. So real. So…television. But I believe in it. There’s a scene in the show Boy Meets World, perhaps the most pivotal television show of my past, where Cory is lamenting his girlfriend’s impending move out of state to his best friend Shawn. Shawn isn’t worried at all, and gives Cory several examples of main characters on popular television shows who were all set to move and at the last minute always end up staying. Cory asks Shawn if perhaps it doesn’t actually make sense to compare what’s happening in their lives to what happened on those shows. Shawn stares at him earnestly, with full sincerity, clearly awed that he even has to say the answer out loud: “Not if television is the true mirror of our lives.”
It’s been about ten years since I saw that episode, and still it’s stuck with me all this time. I can’t get the quote out of my head, and it comes to me like a Bible verse, like a favorite song, like a line from a love letter in difficult times, when I need comfort, when I need a familiar pattern. Because if television is the true mirror, we are never totally alone: other people are watching too. Other people are interpreting, making meaning, laughing, keying in.
A few days later I walked Greenlake with my friend R, who is also my brother Nige’s girlfriend, discussing deep things as kindred spirits tend to do. Fear of death came up. “Oh my god,” she asked, “do you watch Grey’s Anatomy?”
Me: “No, but I heard about it. I heard it was life changing.”
R: “It totally is, was, did. Nige watched it with me and it made us talk about things. Big things, like death, like the future. It makes you realize how you can lose everything in an instant, and you have no idea what’s going to happen ever.”
So we discussed it all the way through, and it wove its way into our analysis of our mutual irrational fear of death, our conversation that stretched around the lake, into the building of our friendship in its relatively early days. And later we discussed it again, at dinner, with Nige, and I half-laughingly said, “Oh Nige, did Grey’s Anatomy change your life?” The king of sarcasm and mockery stared at me earnestly, sincerely, with complete empathy: “Yes Corn, it changed my life. It launched a conversation about the future.”
And I think in the end that’s the true mirror, that’s the pattern that seduces us: when the twenty-one minutes are up, there’s a clear break between the screen and the life. Our lives. The television show can launch us into the big, laughing, dying black space where we make sky, where we make glittering pinpoint stars blurred out of memories our own, or shared, or just heard about. Where we bring the colors alternately marred and threaded, watered and concentrated, bright and scaled in grey. Where we make it together, this life, this anatomy.
Dear Ira Glass,
I started my spring cleaning early this year, in February. I’ve done it every year since moving out of my parents’ house, that ruthless kind of purging that has its liberation rooted in commitment to a new, streamlined life. A life that doesn’t cut as many corners as the old one. It’s the kind of cleaning they make montages of in the movies, when the hero or heroine has to pick up and start over in a new place, and the background song starts out melancholy and nostalgic but ends up with some lyrics like “but I gotta hold my head high/ I gotta let this go/ I’m heading out to the horizon/ the sun isn’t showing up yet/ I might get there first/ in the meantime I’ll hold my head high…” Say what you want about the drudgery of cleaning, but it’s a way of leaping out, a way of creating your own inspiring montage in a flurry of clothes flying out the dresser drawers, papers to be recycled or shredded stacking up higher than your desk, and bags upon bags of miscellaneous garbage that’s been hiding in the psyche as well as the closet gathering across the floor.
Sometimes, though, you find something you didn’t bargain for. Something that either will make you stay in the old life, or must go with you into the new. When my spring cleaning was almost complete this year, my most relentless and satisfying cleaning spree to date in which I got rid of roughly fifty percent of the contents of my room, I lay awake in bed relishing. I mentally combed through my closet, newly worthy of one of those infomercials for organizing systems…my desk, complete with typed and alphabetized file folder labels…my bathroom, rid of several pounds of expired makeup and hair products…my back porch, rid of…
Oh, crap. There’s still a humongous Sterilite container out there with God knows what in it. I seriously have no idea.
At that point it was about three o’clock in the morning, so I had to leave the Sterilite project for another day, in the interest of the neighbors who would probably wonder why the red-haired tenant of the basement room next door was in her pajamas on the porch, madly sorting ‘keep’, ‘give-away’, ‘garbage’, and ‘maybe’ piles in the middle of the night. I went to sleep, vaguely wondering what odd assortment of forgotten belongings I would find. Whatever the contents, they were clearly unnecessary to my new minimalistic lifestyle.
When I opened it the next day, only one word escaped me: “Oh.” One sigh. Among a bunch of old sweatshirts twice my size, a couple of matching kitchen-themed picture frames still wrapped in cellophane, and an outdated TJ Maxx pastel painting lay a black-and-white eight by ten. Of me. Of a little boy and me, smiling at the camera, the first camera I ever had, the digital Kodak I held out in front of us like a tourist of our own lives. Around Christmas, the second year I nannied for this little boy. As you know from my letter The Taken Heart, B died when he was five years old, of complications related to a brain tumor that caused significant developmental delays during his short life, five years ago. This picture was taken just a few months before that. It is of just our faces, him looking down and smiling and me kissing his cheek. I printed it, framed it, and hung it wherever I lived for two years after his death. After two years I needed a break. I was getting ready to start graduate school, to start my practicum placement teaching preschool at one of the elite early childhood centers in the country. The job I got without talking about B at all in the interview, not even once, even though he and his brothers are the reason I do this work, the reason I love it every day. But in my new life, I wasn’t yet ready to publicize that reason. So while I kept B in my heart, I kept the details of my past experience to myself, put the picture in a Sterilite storage container, and threw myself into two years of training as a classroom teacher.
Which brings me to the “Oh” moment just two months ago. With my first year out of grad school nearly under my belt, my first year of teaching nearly over, I am starting to talk about why I’m here. I recently had a long conversation with a friend who, struggling to explain feeling constantly caught in the undertow, said “I keep trying, but in the end, I just don’t know why I’m here.”
I stared at him, almost unable to comprehend. “On Earth?”
“But…it’s great to be here.”
We went on to debate this point, never reaching a resolution, but I’ve been captured by the concept ever since. And I’ve been thinking about why I’m here and what makes it so great. And when I rediscovered the picture and the one sigh escaped, it let open the space for the next breath to captivate a small revolution. And I hung the picture again, next to the alphabetized desk. And I’ve been remembering many things.
One day in my first year of nannying was mostly the same as all the others: diapers, meals, laundry, tube feedings, more diapers, Sesame Street, toys, more diapers. But something different: the smallest moment, the revolution in one breath, mere seconds that changed the way I will live and teach always, in ways I even now don’t understand. It is this moment: B and I are sitting on the floor by the ottoman in front of the television, and I think Sesame Street is on. It’s a segment he doesn’t want to watch, so he turns around to face me. I’m sitting W-style with my knees about six inches apart. He crawls over and hides his head between them, then lifts it back up, looks at me, and smiles. “Boo,” I say. Because what else? He does it again. “Boo.” Again. “Boo.” He’s smiling so wide. “B,” I whisper in awe. “You’re playing.” It’s the first time I see him play like this, the first time I watch someone learn this game, the first time I’m a part of it.
Most people in early intervention have a story about a particular child who catalyzed their passion for this work. Most of those children are alive, preteens and teens now, some even adults. That isn’t my story, and that has been awkward to navigate. Usually I don’t go there; I just don’t tell the whole story. Even five years later, I still don’t feel like it’s really mine to tell, and so telling it is a different kind of risk. A free fall kind of risk. I am not good at that kind of risk. For most of my life, as independent and self-reliant as I’d like to pretend I am, in the end I’ve almost always relied on others to push me out of the nest, down the zipline, off the mountain, whatever. Now I’m pushing myself out into the free fall. I’m telling this story, this story that is definitely not all mine, and it is difficult, the words are so lacking, but the stories where words lack are the most important ones to tell. This is a story about a boy who is still there every time I look up, no matter how long I wait with my head between my knees, before the jump, before the next life that doesn’t cut as many corners, that says with actions more than words this is why I’m here on Earth, and I’ll always be figuring it out, and it’s great to be here. He is still there. Smiling so wide. Reminding me why I play and teach play. Why I must always do both. Reminding me that this moment, the smallest moment, is the most important thing to render in this relational, awkward, wonderful unresolved life.
Dear Ira Glass,
Three years ago I traveled around Western Europe with two girlfriends and my cousin Jesse. We, like so many other backpackers, kept a travel blog. In honor of the three-year-anniversary of our trip, I am reposting one of my entries from that trip here. I wrote this before going to graduate school, before becoming a teacher, before moving out of the suburbs, before my mom went back to teaching yoga, before my best friend had a baby- before so many of the experiences that make me up. But I remember clearly the night described below doing silent midnight yoga, taking hold of the uncertainty of my life and twisting it upside down. Before I flew to Europe I was wary, carefully guarded. I had a lot of attachments, still-frame memories, excess emotion compressed somewhere inside me, asking me to move as little as possible. It couldn’t stay, couldn’t live neatly layered in me anymore if I moved. When I traveled to Europe I moved reluctantly, warily, but seriously. Small, subtle, while everyone else slept. In confined spaces. And it hurt, and it predicted hurt. And I owned up to it, and I found the movement that pushes us and also cradles us, that presses on as attachments fall away, that whispers half-formed words in the air around us as we change.
Here is Dirty Downward Dog, originally dated April 25th, 2007:
I think I will start with a quick description of my amazing vegan finds in Barcelona.
We went to a large outdoor market on La Rambla that has everything under the sun (literally under tents), and in the back we found a stand called ”Organic is Orgasmic.” Excellent! I had organic vegetarian paella with delicious Spanish toppings. I can’t believe I found this in Spain! Later, I had falafel salad that sounds strange but was very good and fresh- falafel is very popular in Spain.
After the last time I blogged, we went back to our merciful hostel on Vigatans and I set up to do yoga in between the lower bunks that belonged to Kinsey and me. This was a 1 by 4 space of filthy cement upon which I laid my little yogitoes hand towel (no mat, no block). By this time it was about one o’clock in the morning, and I had not done yoga in ages (a week), so I scrolled through Philip Urso’s casts until I found one called ”One Hour Easy Power”. And oh dear, was it slow- not to mention the fact that I had barely enough room to pose and almost no space to flow. Whatever. I did sun salutations to the underside of the top bunks and let my feet stretch out under makeshift curtains, so they poked out into the hostel room’s mini walkway. I did wheel and sank down on brown-gummed concrete, but couldn’t invert (no room, too hard) so I came up with my own version of shoulder stand. By the time I got to final relaxation I was ready to meet that filth and be in it, under our beds, for awhile. There was a sleeping tipsy English kid in his underwear in the bed on the other side of the partition to my left and windows with iron bars but no glass to my upper right. I closed my eyes. No talking, just the echoing of Philip’s Britney-mic breathing and my own head. The manic mind, but I found peace in my makeshift midnight yoga. So the ending words were like a balm to exhaustion and dirtiness: ”Who you are is who you are now. So it holds that there is no effort required, no struggle to become who you are. And it holds that the problem of time is dissolved as well: we think that we have to make time, go on a voyage to discover our true selves. But really, it’s right here.” On the dirty floor with my black feet and hands and the germs of hundreds of other backpackers. No matter what I can always find it, no matter how tiny my section of cement is. Then I took a shower.
The next day we visited La Rambla again, and made our way to meet a friend of one of Kinsey’s friends at a small town where the castellers (climbing people) were performing. This was truly a family event; everyone from the very young to the elderly were both participating and observing. Turns out it was Earth Day- so Kinsey’s friend tipped us off to the hippie street fair that was taking place at the Arc de Triomf. We made our way there from the metro (which we know and love quite well now) and after taking pictures of the Arc made our way through the park lined on either side with booths. Voila! I found the hippies and the vegans of Barcelona. When I emailed my dad with this news he told me he was very happy I found ”my people.” Heck yes I did. When my brother Nigel and I visited Berkely, CA a few weeks ago we both instantly felt we could live there, and we both know we’ll go back. I commented, ”Nige, I think we both love it here so much because we are hippies on the inside. It’s how we were raised.” He looked askance. ”Corn, look at me. Look at my hair and my clothes. I drive a Volkswagen bus! I am a hippie.” ”Oh yeah,” I answered. ”That’s right. You are a hippie on the outside and I am one on the inside.” This place in Barcelona also called out to my inner hippie. She ached to flow out and write an abstract poem, cook some un-recipe vegan mishmash and make some beads out of recycled material. The minute I stepped into the area I felt at home. I basked in the glow and wandered around making semi-conversation with different artists. Happy Earth Day, let’s celebrate vegetables, vegan food, yoga, incense, handmade things, and the return of macrame. This was my little home in Barcelona. I could talk about the stunning Sagrada Familia or Parc Guell (they were incredible!) but the other girls will let you know, and this was my personal haven, discovery, kindred connection, what have you. Glorious.