Pow

I sit on the sturdy kitchen chair, waiting for my breakfast while Mamma stands at the stove. My big sister Kristin walks in quietly and doesn’t look at me at all. I must have heard her get into trouble the day before, but calm has lingered overnight, and I’ve forgotten this morning to be scared. I don’t even tense as she strides into the room. As I daydream, Kristin walks up behind me, inches from our mother’s back, perfectly between the two of us. She pauses. At fourteen, she is twice my height and more than twice my age. Her fist flies up, high and fast, then smashes down on top of my head. Somehow, her hit doesn’t make a sound except in my skull, which echoes with a metallic clang.

Mamma keeps cooking. It was a silent POW, like in the batman show with the volume knob turned all the way to the left. White lights sparkle in front of my filling eyes. I am back to my senses and back to watching out for the unpredictable.  If I make a sound or if I cry, it will only be worse for me later. Shame settles into my empty belly. I look at the white table, at the circle of clock on the wall. The red second hand moves fast enough that I can sit very still and watch it go all the way around, across the small black lines that mean minutes, past each of the big numbers that tell hours. Kristin sits down and takes a sip of orange juice.

I earned my head bash by being a tattle. Like the chimp spy Mata Hairi, sidekick to Lancelot Link on Saturday morning TV, I was recruited to watch my sister. Kristin had wanted to go for a walk, but mom knew she wanted to smoke, to escape rules and control, so she ushered me along. I was excited to walk all the way around the block with this tall, powerful sister. I loved the after-dinner walks I’d sometimes take with my dad. He would smoke a cigar and point out interesting things about the bark on trees or the short summer lives of insects. So, a walk around the block was an adventure.

As soon as Kristin and I turned the second corner, though, just out of sight of our house, she retrieved her cigarette and matches from their hiding place in her sock. She lit up and looked hard at me. You can’t tell, she announced. I took her statement at face value–not just that I shouldn’t tell, but that in fact, I couldn’t. I was unable to tell on her. Her blond hair hung in straight lines next to her face, her expression a blend of defiance and determination.  I walked under the umbrella of her authority and in the plume of her cigarette smoke all the way around the block.

Later that day, mom sat me down and looked at me hard.  Did your sister Kristin smoke with you today?  Telling me as she stared into my eyes, Don’t lie.  I can tell by your eyes if you are lying.  Of course, I lied the first time she asked, and probably the second time, too.  I was aware of the treachery of telling on my sister.  But Mamma could read my eyes and my mind. I can see you are lying. Did she smoke?

I looked at my mother’s face and realized I was caught.  I crumbled and started to cry hard. I did see Kristin smoke! I’m sorry I lied. I wasn’t supposed to tell.

And then a quiet day. I had forgotten all about it before Kristin walked into the kitchen the next morning.  Pow.

mom and us for blog (2)
Kristin’s hands on my shoulders on a holiday morning.

 

 

Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.

Death by Butterfly

In Staunton State Park, a haven of hiking and biking trails near Conifer, Colorado, Elk Creek becomes Elk Falls in one precipitous cliff dive. Smooth dirt trail winds through majestic evergreens, then transitions to connected squares of hewn rock swirled through with reds and grays, as if from an artist’s brush. Expertly etched into the hillside, the trail is wide as a sidewalk and rides like a dream. On a recent Sunday, I gripped my handlebars and pushed hard into my pedals, then relaxed to coast a gentle downhill with stunning views.

Suddenly, my mountain panorama was bisected by the dazzled flight of a butterfly. It floated upward and to my left, shimmering with the bright yellow of fleeting summer. My inner five-year-old sang out, Butterfly! Look! Ooh! Beautiful!  My front tire was instantly way too close to the edge, but a surge of adrenalin powered my handlebars up and my left foot down, preventing a gritty shoulder grind into the trail. A no-fall wake-up call.

Oh, the perils of daydreaming—that creative drift so essential to a writing life, and so perilous to life on the trail. The more I write, the more awake I am; conversely, the less I write, the less connected I seem to be to the world and what I am doing in it. If I’m not working making things, all the biking in the world won’t bring me focus or peace of mind. This has been my lesson of mid-summer.

In my notebook and on my bike saddle, I ask, Am I here yet? Trying to gauge whether I’ve dumped my distractions and self-criticisms sufficiently to have a date with creativity. On the bike, I instruct myself aloud: Right here, Right now!

On downhill rocks or in writing slumps an uncluttered mind offers the body a chance to do what the busy mind can’t conceive.

A few days after my near-death by lepidoptera, I get another, gentler, wake up call. Near our cabin is a short, steep forest road that I use as a timed fitness test, challenging myself—obsessively this year–to shave five or ten seconds off the quad-burning climb.  Today, the husband asks me, Are we busting your personal record today? And I tell him, Nope. Today, I’m going to see how slowly I can ride it.

img_1118
Another day, another trail

I switch gears and steer a wide arc to avoid smushing a caterpillar that lumbers blindly across the dirt road. Last year, with drought everywhere and wildfires not far off, I don’t remember seeing a single caterpillar. But now, a small white butterfly ambles from right to left in front of my tire and slips through the spokes of my slowly turning wheel. I keep this insect-friendly pace and look left and right as I make the steep climb. I see for the first time how a flower-filled meadow is shaped like an arrow, pointing down toward the light-layered hills of South Park. My slowed breath scents wild rose mixed with pine, as if a mountain-sized flower has just opened all around me. Life after death by butterfly.

Becoming a Westerner

A few years ago, when I first realized I had become a Westerner, I was driving east on the dirt section of Park County Road 5, with Colorado’s Weston Pass in my rear view and Pikes Peak a distant wedge of white in the blue sky. Spring grass outlined an oval pond, and an empty paddock leaned into a small hill. Lucinda Williams crooned through the car speaker: “Come out West and see, the best that it could be.” I joined my voice with her drawl, vowels lengthening like snakes uncurling in the sun: “I know you won’t stay permanently, but come out West and see.” I didn’t know anything about permanence when I was eighteen, but I came to Denver from Florida on a one-way airline ticket.

Born in the nation’s capital, I spent my first fourteen years in a near-suburb of DC. I listened to my mother speak her native Icelandic, a language I never learned, while navigating the mystifying terrain of race in 1970’s America. I was sometimes the white girl on the outside of the circle in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was also the child of an immigrant who saw Americans as others. She might say, conspiratorially, American girls are so skinny or Americans don’t care about fashion or Americans don’t even know where Iceland is. She probably didn’t say, You belong here or You will find your place one day. But my confusion about my identity is my own, a byproduct less of my background, perhaps, than of my anxious tendency to hold myself apart from people and from communities I love, then grieve my sense of wounded exclusion.

I’ve never been one thing all the way, not the white girl I look like, not the American I sound like, and not the sane woman I impersonate. Where are you from? people ask when I meet them. My answer depends on who’s asking.  I grew up in  DC but my mother was from Iceland, I tell someone with a foreign accent. I grew up in DC but went to high school in Florida, I tell black folks, in part to explain how my voice automatically slows in their presence, dropping from a northern white cadence to the softer, warmer tone I associate with America’s south. In grammar school, I was immersed in African American English. My mother’s immigration from Iceland–and our family’s move to the DC suburbs–coincided with a wave of the Great Migration north from Jim Crow south. As a child I spoke, as my Uncle George pointed out, with a “black accent.” It is a way of speaking that feels both more natural and less foreign than my mother’s native language.

Claiming a definite geographic home, though, has never felt natural. But thirty years after moving to Denver, on a strip of road as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I suddenly stopped feeling like a visitor to the American west. My life in Denver expanded from loneliness in my late teens to college and love, then to a joint mortgage and co-parenting. Twenty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with our third son, we watched in awe with my parents as the logs of our Fairplay cabin were lifted into place over a concrete foundation that had washed out the summer before. Home is in the memories I have here, and home is the peacefulness of the mountains that has slowly smoothed out the rough edges of my chronic unbelonging.

As Lucinda and I sang, It’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go, I turned right at Fairplay’s only stoplight, then parked under the rodeo logo of Prather’s Market. The building’s brown cinder block walls soaked up meager spring warmth as I squinted into the sunlight beaming down from Mount Democrat. It took a long time for me to learn the names of some of these  peaks: Sheep Mountain, Mount Sherman, alpine crests in the shape of praying hands.

When my shopping  was done, I set plastic grocery bags into the back of my red Subaru wagon, its doors scratched by mountain bikes and ski poles. My hair hung loose around my face, and the wind lifted my cotton scarf while I loaded the last of my provisions.

As I plunked a jug of drinking water behind my passenger’s seat, a blue convertible BMW purred up alongside me, the top thrown open to the warming day. A white guy in a baseball cap, wearing an expensive-looking casual shirt. Speaking with the authority of the Pope saying mass, he told me, I saw a sign about a barbecue as I drove into town. The man’s confident bearing belied his confusion about what to do, where to go next. Was he asking me for directions?

I don’t know anything about that barbecue, I told him. You might ask in Prather’s. I bet they know where it is. I nodded with my chin toward the door behind him. He glanced briefly at the entrance, then turned back to me, hesitant. Nah, I’ll just drive around some more. As he zoomed off in his shiny toy, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I was amused by the almost endearing arrogance of the Beemer guy, but my glee had a different source. As I got back in my car, I said aloud, I do believe I was mistaken for a local. Smiling in the sun-warmed driver’s seat, I turned on Marvin Gaye and headed back home, not north to Denver, but south, home to our cabin.

img_2227
Dad’s last visit to the cabin, circa 2008, next to the husband and the windows they framed out together.

Wilma and Lupe

Sometimes it takes the loss of those who live close-by to really appreciate what great neighbors we have. Demographics have changed in my old Denver neighborhood since I moved here in 1989. Take Wilma and Lupe, for instance, who moved in next door about five years ago. They were colorful friends who loved to wake up early and roam in their garden, especially after a summer rain. They would pull at a weed or two, then yank up juicy earth worms. And devour them. 

Wilma and Lupe were chickens, good layers and sweet cluckers whom I came to love. I was chicken-sitting on the night an owl swooped into Wilma and Lupe’s narrow enclosure, and—not without a fight—took them up, one at a time, to another neighbor’s porch roof for a midnight snack. There was a lot to explain to the kids that morning, as that neighbor taped a net to a broom handle to pull down the feathered empties.
On the opposite side-yard, other neighbors also have a coop, with hens whose names I never learned– not after I’d let myself get so attached to Wilma and Lupe. I enjoyed their eggs that were so kindly passed to us, and the sounds the chickens made while laying. Imagine a dog yelp tethered to a crow caw, with a bit of a sigh at the finish. But those hens, too, met a violent end. Recently, a racoon broke into their coop and absconded with two of its three residents. That masked bandit enjoyed its meal on the transparent roof of our bike shed, where dark feathers and faint blood stains will remain for a while.
So, remember to count your blessings, neighbors! And you might also want to count your chickens. Stay safe out there, feathered and other friends.

Doing Errands

Daddy’s strong hands lifted me gently in the air and landed me on a bar stool. Bright morning light gleamed off the polished floor boards of his favorite pub near our home in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Bubbles rose through the pink-tinged soda of my Shirley Temple, served to me in a tall, thick-bottomed glass. The smiling bartender pierced three red cherries and a thin slice of orange onto a wooden pick. He balanced them over the rim of my glass, then plunked down a small bowl of peanuts between my fancy drink and my father’s tall beer.

On those pre-school pub mornings–also called “doing errands”–my father taught me about water tension. He asked the bartender for two small glasses of water, then slowly over-filled one with the other.  See, he told me, the container can hold more liquid than the space inside it. It pulls on itself to keep from spilling over!  I watched, transfixed, as water rose above the rim, holding onto itself in a rounded puff. But one more drop broke the surface tension, sending the liquid down the side of glass and onto the shiny wooden bar.

Another day, Daddy showed me how to create air pressure inside a plastic straw by holding my finger at the top and pushing the straw down into my drink. When I let go, the pink concoction lifted high into the straw, above the horizon of the glass. I watched bubbles sit inside the clear tube, then lifted my finger and let them fall. I soon became adept at lifting Shirley temple sips to my mouth in straw lines while my father savored his glass of beer.

On our morning outings, he piloted the off-white station wagon with its back seat littered with paper grocery bags and magazines. I sat at next to him, alert to our next adventure. He tuned his radio to a country station and laughed as he sang along, Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers, bony fingers!  Once, we stopped to save a box turtle trying to cross Suitland Parkway, that fast-moving pavement between stands of deep Maryland woods. We often pulled over to pick up trash that had been left along Oxen Run, stashing aluminum cans in the way back to take home and mash flat with a brick. After we stuffed the compacted circles into a bag for recycling, we swept reddish clay dust off of the driveway.

I watched my father tap small white chunks of old mortar off scavenged bricks, and I helped him pile the best ones in the back yard. In a wheelbarrow, we combined water with gray cement mix, then used a hoe and a trowel to chop it into a smooth goo that smelled like summer happiness.  As Daddy slopped wet concrete into a smooth layer on top of one brick, I waited with the next one in my hand. Restlessness sent me running along the connected back yards of our neighborhood, but when I returned, the base of a barbecue grill had taken shape under his hands.

When the kitchen sink sprang a leak, I shone a flashlight beam on the suspect pipe and handed Daddy a rag, then a wrench. He pulled his head out from under the sink and sat back on the checkered tile floor to consider his next step, sending me to fetch him a can of Stroh’s from the basement fridge. If a bathroom door hinge or a broken dresser handle had lost a screw, we drove to the hardware store in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, a few doors down from the store-front library. We scrutinized various replacements, pulling out small plastic drawers until we found a screw with just the right size and shape and pointiness to hold together what had come apart. The man behind the counter put our treasures into a small envelope that he traded for a rumpled bill from Daddy’s wallet. As we stepped out of the door hand in hand, the chime of a bell silvered the air above our heads.

img_2376
Dad in a later era, doing work at the Indiana Dunes

May Stillness

It’s a three-season week in Denver—technically spring but with a recent day close to 80 degrees and snow in the forecast for tomorrow. Above my back-yard fence, recently unfurled aspen leaves touch each other in surprise, too soft to make a sound as the breeze floats their fresh green in slow cirlces. The fountain tinkles water into the bird bath, and a bee buzzes past—a cliché of this season I can’t resist. The goddess Nyx, regal in her shimmering black coat, steps dainty paws onto the mulch behind the blooming crab-apple. She eats a blade of grass then retreats to the shade of the house.

The sun over my left shoulder tosses shadows from my damp curls onto my notebook paper. If I look inside the dark loops scattered across the page, rather than at them, I see moon shapes and slices of pie. I tilt my head, and bright oblong footballs give way to a constellation of marbles, light circles planets plopped onto a newly discovered cosmos. Half a block away, a chainsaw jets raw noise into the stillness, and suddenly the magical universe of miniature shapes becomes just shadows on paper.

Dogs bark next door. My hand moves over the page, determined to find dreamy stillness again.

nyx

The hundred-year-old maple across 24th Avenue has only the faintest green on its twig tips. With age comes caution. The mass of its old trunk holds as much wood as five of these quaking aspens, with their heart shaped leaves. The sun heats my arms into beaches and sandbars. On goes the chainsaw, then off again. Vroom.  Quiet. VRROOM. Into one lull drops the click of a fence latch as another neighbor steps into her yard. A mourning dove coos, supplicant and charming.

The more I write, the more I appreciate the variety of stillness and interruption in all of my favorite places. Peaceful mountain meadows erupt into thunder claps, or into the  rattle of disturbed grasshoppers. The loud stare of a moose stops quiet thought faster than any city siren. She might as well be yelling as your eyes meet on the muddy road: I will bash you. Just give me an excuse.

City quiet, though, is especially rare, an almost inner hush as traffic sounds and background rumbles miraculously cease. The multitude of neighborhood children all sigh into contemplation at once, daydreaming in unison. An hour west, the mobbed spring ski hill also silences unexpectedly. As the crowd swishes down a popular run and the chairlift creaks overhead, I take one short turn toward that pair of pines, and a celestial mute button silences everything but pure light, inside and out. In high volume motion closer to home, as I cycle next to a tumbling creek, perfect silence descends, startling as the cry of a blue jay in this sunny back yard.

A squirrel clacks and squawks at me from the top of the magnolia. Its tail twitching over its head, it spends its outrage then offers a friendlier noise from low in its rodent throat, its contrite little heart telling a story all its own. The chatter of the world meets my determination to making something in stillness–despite or in harmony with this creative symphony of interruption.

Will I learn to listen to the noise and the quiet? I crave motion and distraction as much quiet contemplation. I fall in love with the messy world all over again in the spring, my attention leap-frogging to the next season. It’s easy to be infatuated with summer when it’s not here yet, roasting both city and forest. It’s easy to be happy now, as a white butterfly slips through the holly-spikes of the mahonia bush laden with blooms. I marvel at the tender clematis vine threading itself into the air above the fecund earth. Yesterday’s heat has singed the late tulip petals and sent the hyacinth into retreat, but I’m in love, falling into spring with all of the irrational anti-gravity of romantic bliss.

A baby cries across the fence, his first warm season begun. In my house, the husband clatters a baking sheet into a drawer, jarring yet more sound to me through the open window. Voices take up conversation in the front yard. I crank open the green umbrella for shade, but keep the right half of my body in the white-hot light.