So what are you working on today? My writing friend asks over zoom the other morning. Oh, I’m working on my shame list. You know, things I’ve been hating on myself about, just a couple of small things that I can get done. The list had two items: re-post the Dunes memoir essay that had gone out via email but not “stuck” to the blog site, and write for ten minutes about the weather. Notebook weather reports are a “way in” when I’ve not been writing, my word boat becalmed. The currents of a reopening world pulled me into travel and bike rides; the weeds in my garden begged to be pulled before the heat of the days set in.
That recent morning, though, I managed to repost the essay and write these sentences in my notebook (lightly revised—I’m compulsive that way):
The weather is so hot! The sun beats down from an ozone sky, orange sunrise bakes the back yard by 7:30. Hot light seeps in through the edges of the kitchen blinds and bounces off the shine of the counter top. Weather is what happens outside but it feels personal. It feels like an assault, this heat, like a pummel. Like someone is holding a magnifying glass between the city and the sun. And soon the dot of magnified heat will move to a dry stick west of here and the conflagration of parched forests will begin.
End of writing day. Two things are marked off the shame list, but self-loathing remains.
The next day, after not writing at all, I text my friend, I’ve been feeling mildly brain dead on couches. Maybe it’s a mood thing or ozone pollution or not having a job? Or just something to wait out? Blech. And then, Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s Maybelline! I hug a blue couch pillow and say to the husband, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. He laughs, familiar with my dark side. We both know that his patient laugh is medicine.
I start to text that same sentence to my same friend, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. Suddenly, I’m afraid of how depressed, even suicidal it sounds. I’m not depressed, I add to my text, or suicidal, but I appreciate that you would ask meif you thought I might be. I delete the text—it feels like too much. I wrap my arms around the pillow and roll over on my left. I think about failure. If I hug this pillow long enough, I ask the husband, will I start to feel like a person again? His response, so admirably calm: Probably.
I don’t want to be a mood ball. I look at my ups and downs and wish I were different, wish I were steadier, more reliable and responsible. When I can see my moods dispassionately, I appreciate their relative mildness. I wrote here a while back about how I never “qualified” for a bipolar diagnosis, which is true. But over the years, I qualified for plenty: General Anxiety Disorder (my therapist at the time found this diagnosis less stigmatizing than PTSD), and my two post-partum depressions were officially Major Depressions. All this before the genetically-driven family pattern of bipolarity became clear.
When I’m down, every small thing feels effortful. Not doing my laundry makes me sad, makes me ashamed. But I can’t put my whole neurology on the shame list. Because, really, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a human with a messy and beautiful brain. Almost everyone has felt this way at some point. If you feel this way today, I salute your ability to feel, to be exactly as you are, right now.
Still, I hear my mother’s critical voice telling me I am spoiled and lazy, lazy and spoiled. And I may be spoiled and lazy, but I’m not bad or wrong or morally flawed for losing time to moods. I say this today. Two days ago, I felt unworthy of personhood.
Whatever shame said to me that afternoon, I was able to kiss the couch goodbye for an hour and ride my bike under trees clothed in baby-leaf green. I was able to feel sweat gather at the ends of my hair, and to stop for breath while looking at clear sky. I came home feeling better, tired in a different way. This morning that sky is indeed smudged with smoky haze from distant wildfires. And this morning, I’m writing again. Shame be damned.
Bird song echoes off a sandy hill behind the Indiana Dunes cottage and filters through the wood-framed window screen, waking me early on a June morning. High notes bounce off the moss-specked cinder block foundation, then rise along the chipped wood siding and skip over patched roof tiles to the brightening sky.
Woo woo woo wooooooo, ta ta ta ta ta! The bird trills again from the clothes line that runs like a curved track outside our bedroom window. The song sparrow announces that I am at my favorite place, the Dunes, a two-day drive from our brick house in Maryland, and a world away from the disappointments of first grade. At the Dunes, my mother’s cold winter sadness is forgotten. Her fights with Daddy never happened. At the Dunes, Mamma doesn’t stay up late crying or sleep through breakfast.
The cottage on the south shore of Lake Michigan sighs with the breath of my sleeping sisters, one in the bunk above me, and one in a single bed just across the room. I listen for waves, and hearing only birdsong know that this morning, the lake will be calm, clear as a mirror. Quietly, I push off the quilt that someone has pulled over me in the night. I tug off my nightgown and step into my swimsuit and a pair of shorts, then wrap a dry beach towel around my shoulders to keep off the morning chill. I tip-toe across the braided rag rug and onto the cool linoleum of the empty kitchen.
Through the second-story window, the lake spreads out before me, a fresh water ocean shining up at the sky, never ending. Down below, a thin line of gravel curls along the shore, shifting up and down in the shape of yesterday’s small waves. I see Mamma walking slowly by the water’s edge. She is compact and graceful, dark hair curling around her face as she steps slowly along the shore, looking down. One of her hands cups the crinoid fossils she is finding among the sandy pebbles. We call them “cronies,” and they look like Cheerios that have sat in the hot sun for weeks. They can be almost too small to see, or–rarely–as big as my thumb. They are rocks holding the shape of the stacked spines of water lilies that lived here so long ago that there were no people on earth yet, Daddy says; so long ago that the glaciers that melted to make this lake hadn’t frozen into place yet.
I stand in my bare feet and hear Daddy’s baritone coming up the stairs from Nanny’s kitchen. Nanny is his and all my aunts’ mother. She has her own small apartment downstairs and gets up very early in the morning. I go down the back stairs slowly, not wanting to wake my sisters or be seen by Daddy and Nanny, who sit at her small kitchen table, holding mugs in front of small plates of coffee cake. I don’t want to sneak, but I duck past Nanny’s window. I want to go to Mamma on the beach, to be with her inside her solitude.
I go to my mother, drawn to her peacefulness, to this chance to be alone with her. I run to her, soft sand flying under my feet. She looks up with a smile. We collide gently, and she wraps one strong arm around my shoulders. I press my head into her side, closing my eyes. Look, she says, I found three nice cronies, with holes all the way through! I walk slowly back with her along the water, wet sand cold under my feet. I feel helpful and quiet, looking down for cronies. Aren’t you hungry? She asks, as we approach the cottage. Suddenly I am. We walk up the stairs holding hands. We rinse our feet in the short plastic bucket, and wave good morning to Daddy and Nanny.
In our upstairs kitchen, Mamma scrambles eggs while I set the table. My big sisters wander in, sleepy, and sit down to look at the lake. A moment later, Daddy comes upstairs, refills his coffee and gives Mamma a kiss. After breakfast, we go back down to the shore, like returning pilgrims. I sit with my legs straight out in the water, my hands lifting wet sand that I dribble into small towers on my thighs. I dunk into the cold water, then lie on dry sand until the sun soothes my goosebumps and seeps down into my bones. All that day, I stay close to my mother.
Mamma is warm at the Dunes. Warm like the beach at mid-morning, like the shiny paint of her fingernails. Warm like the sandy hill rising to the woods; gentle like the tiny wavelets at the edge of the water before they moisten her feet. She is crystalline; blue-green as the lake, graced by summer. And I soak her in. She is such a woman as she is nowhere else, when she sits and looks out from the shore, studying the line of water and sky, the sailboat or the seagull, concentrating, almost forming the scene, as if it were her homeland harbor. It’s at the Indiana Dunes where Mamma feels most alive to me. It could be the morning air slowly moving tiny grains of sand over our footprints, or the smoothness of her face as the sunlight glances back to her from the white beach. Maybe it’s the speckled rocks or the flat green skipping stones that I place on the arm of her beach chair, for safekeeping.
My mother pulls the long cord of connected metal beads that hang to the right of the dining room drapes, long beige fabric panels patterned with forest vines. They overhang the sliding glass doors that open to the painted concrete steps of our back patio. Outside, maple leaves edged in gold hint at fall, and giant marigolds tip heavily toward the lawn. Only a few miles from our house in Maryland, Gerald Ford has announced his pardon of Richard Nixon.
Mamma lifts her hands one above the other and closes off the view of the back yard. Late Saturday morning, and I have come upstairs from watching tv alone. Only Mamma and I are home, giving the morning that forever feeling, stark, like when I was small and home with her all day. Daddy must be on a weekend shift at the Weather Bureau, and, at eight, I am either too young or too hesitant to be included in whatever my big sisters are doing this morning. I am bored. I’ve watched Lynda Carter grasp the magical Egyptian bracelet on her wrist and declare, Almighty Isis! And she spins around and around, unblurring into “Wonder Woman,” resplendent in a gold bathing suit, ready to do good. Mamma is wearing cleaning clothes, a cotton top and an old pair of old pants with mud stains on the knees from the summer’s vegetable garden. Her clothes telegraph that that she is not going out, no shopping or errands today, just a determination to get something done in this house.
She pulls a dining room chair in front of the closed drapes and stands up on it, then reaches her short arms up to where the curtains hang in a smooth-running track. What are you doing? I ask. These are dirty, so I am taking them down and washing them. Her Icelandic accent, even directed into the soft fabric, sounds sharp. How do curtains get dirty? I ask, but I know this is my father’s question. He might hold a cold can of Stroh’s as Mamma fills a bucket with soapy water, and opine The floor looks fine to me. Why wash it? Cleaning is something my mother prefers to do alone, if she can.
But she answers my question. They get dirty from dust, and from people pulling on them with dirty hands instead of opening them the right way, by pulling the cord. Mamma removes each metal hook from the top of the curtains and hands them to me to put on the dining room table. Keep them together, don’t drop them. Then she hugs the fabric panels close to her slim middle and walks with them downstairs to the laundry room.
The patio doors look naked and bereft, the rod like an accusing eyebrow over a blank stare. When I was little, I made a private world between the drapes and the panes of sliding glass. Invisible from inside the house, I could see out into the world but still be sheltered and warmed. But this Saturday I am twice as old as I was when the dining room’s leafy green plants were a jungle surrounding my other-world hiding place.
Later, still bored, I go to the basement laundry room. My sullen mood shifts to a desire to be helpful, so I heave the heavy, wet drapes out of the washing machine and stuff them into the black mouth of the electric dryer. I push the start button and walk away with my shoulders back, feeling grown up and responsible. An hour later, I am in my straightened room when I hear Mamma approach. Her feet land on the floor with the weight of a bureaucrat’s stamp. She is angry.
Arriving at my door, she asks, Did you touch the curtains? I nod. Come here, and look what you have done! I follow her into the dining room. The curtains are hanging in front of the glass doors again, but they look all wrong, shorter than they should be and puckered in places where they are supposed to be smooth. These never go in the dryer! They are ruined! The drapes hang six inches above where they usually meet the floor. I stand in front of her as she glares at me. A light film of perspiration shines her face. The drapes had been so pretty, the long brown fabric that I used to hide behind, pretending to climb the upward-reaching vines. Blood rushes to my feet. My face flushes, then tingles to marble.
All day, my pallor and stiffness linger. And Mamma is sorry. She walks me back to the dining room and shows me that the drapes have stretched down again, almost to the floor. They have lengthened and smoothed themselves out. They are okay—see? Her voice is soft and her eyes look at me like a warm day. She is sad for me, but she can’t undo my shock or the way I pulled her anger inside my body. Her rage of the morning is tucked under my jaw line and layered behind my eyebrows. Frozen inside me and scraping against the calcium of my bones is knowledge of my capacity to ruin. I will need to be careful. Forever.
I am an anxious person who loves adventure sports. This paradox makes for some thrilling days, days that can ricochet between panic and transcendence.
It’s been over a year since I skied Headwall, off the High Lift at Crested Butte. This year has been defined by the things I fear most, by suffering and by death on a global scale. Every conversation these days starts with It’s been a year since… A year since the first deaths in Colorado, a year since every decision became framed by the pandemic. But that February morning at Crested Butte, looking at heaps of soft, fresh snow, Covid 19 was not in my head at all.
I was with my friend Carl, an expert skier with an unflappable temperament and generous spirit. At the entry to High Lift, signs adorned with double black diamonds warn “expert terrain only”; photos of the steep and rocky terrain that is the only way down from this very high place are meant to discourage beginners. An advanced intermediate skier, I can get down anything if I go slowly and don’t give in to fear. Still, I try not to look too closely at the warnings.
The High Lift at Crested Butte is, in fact, a tow line, an inverted metal “t” hanging from a long cable strung above the hill. Each side of the “t” snugs under the hips of a standing skier or snowboarder, who is then tugged upward, feet gliding over snow toward the azure sky.
I am not chasing adrenalin. I just want to see the beautiful, remote places. At the top of High Line, a panorama greets me: the peaks of the continental divide are mile upon mile of white cathedral spires outlined in heavenly blue. I am awash in the feeling I used get to singing in church. A stillness, a time-stopping majesty, tells me I am so small, yet I am part of something enormous. Looking around, I feel like I could drop upward into the bright foreverness of sky. Instead, I just have to figure out a way just to get down.
I follow Carl as he glides left around an escarpment to the top of a steep hillside covered in thick trees. At first, I only see their tops, a pokey carpet of snow dusted evergreens. But then I glance down into the forested abyss. Immediately, vertigo starts my legs shaking. I don’t need to descend through that steep forest, simply traverse above it on clear tracks. But my legs will not budge. No matter what I tell them, they refuse to make the sharp right turn onto the trail. Anxiety says to sit down, and I obey. Then, to turn my skis in the right direction, I swing them up over my my head. One ski lands where I need it to, but the other makes it only half way before planting its tail into deep snow. I breathe and try to calm myself, try to not care that “real” skiers may see me floundering here on Headwall.
You can’t force fright away, can’t make the wise body do something that seems to threaten it with extinction. It takes years to trick the mind into accepting risk. It takes hundreds of repetitions without mishap to convince the fatty brain that what it sees in a place like Headwall will not lead to disaster. I twist and I tug, and finally I yank my ski tail up out the snow. One more breath, and I am standing on both skis. I navigate slowly toward the rectangle of reassuring brown that is Carl’s jacket, and we are ready to go.
A narrow chute opens on the left, holding two or three VW beetle-sized moguls. The steepest pitch I’ve ever stood on, I can reach my arm without leaning and touch the sloped wall of snow next to me. Carl waits below, looking across the beautiful snowy expanse. As I scootch inelegantly downward, he calls to me, Good job! I make one real turn, then stop for a breath, and make one more. Carl skis, and I slog, until we are off the steep pitch and on a single black diamond that is beautifully spacious, joyfully ski-able.
Later that day and the next, I start connecting turns on big moguls. “Easier than Headwall” becomes a mantra. Everything is easier after Headwall.
A year later, our minds and the world have been irrevocably changed by the horrors of Covid 19. This year, Carl and I ride the lift in masks, unloading at the top of Kachina Peak, above Taos, New Mexico. A light wind riffles prayer flags, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains glow in the morning light. Trees don’t grow here, over 12,000 feet above sea level, but fear does. If I didn’t have three layers of pants on to protect from wind chill, my knee caps would be clacking like castanets. I stand at the top of a wall and look down once again at my implacable friend, gazing contentedly around while he waits for me. But looking down sends a ripple of anxiety shooting through my belly and up to my heart, which is beating less like a waltz and more like 80’s disco. Breathe, I tell myself, out loud. Look where you want to go, which, unfortunately for my fright, is down. Just make one turn. I look uphill to make sure a real skier isn’t swoosh-dancing between the moguls and straight into my frightened self. But a moment later, I make a turn. I breathe all the way to the bottom. Still a little rattled, I smile and say to Carl, Wow, fun!
But I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want ever again to be on Kachina Peak with my knees knocking.
What if I’m less scared doing it again? I ask the patient hubby as we catch up in our hotel room that afternoon. I don’t want to only do the hard part and miss out on the fun part!
So the next day, Carl and I ride up to Kachina Peak again. When we ski it this time and the next, my breath is taken by beauty instead of by fright. The rest of the day rolls out with a sense of wonder and reprieve. I will remember this lesson in fear as one of the biggest of the pandemic year, the year that never seemed to end but now seems to offer hope.
My father taught me to float on my back when I was eight. Over and over that summer of ‘74, while my older sisters read books or sunbathed with my mother, Daddy held me up as I stiffened and sank, then startled and coughed. Holding one big palm in the small of my back and the other between my shoulder blades, he told me, your lungs are balloons that hold you up, let them hold you up. I took air into my body and let go its weight; I forgot to worry what might happen tonight if my parents drank too much and argued. Instead, I filled the balloons of my lungs. I felt the bones of my skull become feather-light as water rose to the outside corners of my eyes. Then I floated between water and sky, held up by my breath, and by trust.
I swam with Daddy in crystalline swimming pools and in the cobalt swell of Lake Michigan; we floated on calm days in the Chesapeake Bay and rode waves to the sandy shore of Ocean City. My mother, raised in Iceland where learning to swim was mandatory, worked her careful breaststroke with us if the water was calm and clean. She pushed her hands forward with each stroke, as if in prayer. Mamma swam without splashing, tendrils of hair curled at the nape of her neck, but Daddy and I always went under, even in murky water. We would risk river mud or ocean brine that dried on our limbs into filament shirts. Bobbing like rafts at the surface, we became still and gazed at the sky. He told me, Floating in salt water is easier because the minerals help hold you up. “Salt” became a verb–to swim in the salty ocean or briny bay is to be salted.
Salt adds buoyancy. And salt corrodes. My father’s love and his brilliance–his extraordinary wit and joyful wordplay—exist as a top layer of sun-warmed water that—if left undisturbed–lingers over cooler currents. A shaft of light moves over fine sediment as I swim my way through layered memories of my father, blurring the family struggles my father could not soberly acknowledge. I can’t see through the layers of my father’s character—they must be scented on the tongue as the rippled sandbar falls out of view and the cold darkness opens below.
Daddy was the weather man. Every day, I trudged to first grade at Green Valley Elementary and he drove to his office on Branch Avenue to decide what the sky would do the next day. While I contemplated the ragged edges of a Maryland map taped on the classroom wall, he sat at his desk and used wax pencils to draw contour lines of storm fronts onto forecast maps at the National Weather Bureau. With us, his young daughters, he would name clouds: Cumulous, Cirrus, Stratus. He taught me to look up, to see the sky and the wild paw paw fruit growing along Suitland Parkway. If you ever asked him if it was going to rain or snow, he would say, Yes, definitely. The only question is when.
Dad was named for his father, but had no brothers. He had seven sisters and six daughters. His adored step-sons carried the name of their Icelandic father. My parents were trying for a boy when they had me; instead of being James D. Ellis III, I was named Jenny in my father’s honor. But Daddy always called me Yenny, as my name is pronounced in Iceland.
Very small, I rested my cheek on the white cotton tee shirt over Daddy’s heart, while my sister, only one year older, lay her head on his shoulder. Morning light slanted through the windows as we rested on the big bed in Mamma and Daddy’s room. This mist of pre-school memory is parted by the crystal clarity of my father’s voice echoing through his chest and into my ear, and by the thrum drum-drum of his heartbeat as air whooshed through his lungs. He told us about his sisters and about their little dog, Nelly. The details of those stories fade, but the message doesn’t: Daddy had been young, had been small and sometimes frightened. He often started stories of his childhood by telling us, Back when I was a little girl…. I imagined how he had shape-shifted away from the boy who was so small, so skinny, that when he tried to float, he sank like a stone.
One summer, we drove to visit Daddy’s aunts in Danforth, Illinois. They lived in a small house that seemed to grow like native moss on the side of a green hill above the Iroquois river. Walking into the water with Daddy, slick mud sucked me ankle-deep as we made our way into the slow current. Unlike the ever-changing waves and undertows of Lake Michigan, the river movement was predictable, always going in the same direction, deep brown and fast in the middle. I gripped Daddy’s arm to rest only once as we swam all the way across. Then we stood on the far bank, looking toward the cottage where our elderly relatives looked tiny sitting in their hard-backed chairs.
At home in Maryland, we drove through the suburbs to our friends the Downs’s house, to swim. My father’s body was round and buoyant in the algae-tinted water. Even if the pump had been broken for weeks, the chlorine depleted and the pool walls slimed with green, he would dive in. He enjoyed cold water, surfacing with wide eyes and a shake of the head to declare the water Invigorating! or Quite refreshing! When we swam on visits to Florida, where my American grandparents lived when I was small, Daddy and I salted from Dunedin’s causeway beach, moving through warm water and slick sea-grass as pelicans floated nearby. Sitting together in the shallows, Daddy pulled up handfuls of soft gray sand to examine. The spiral shells of snails fascinated him. Yenny, look at this one! He held a small conch shell in his outstretched palm, and we watched as the slow creature emerged from its spiral-staircase house, then sent out an exploratory foot to suckle traction from the palm of my hand.
My father loved flat toothpicks, often keeping one pressed between his teeth as he read after dinner. When I kissed him goodbye to go on a date, or to say goodnight, he would pull the softly worked toothpick all the way into his mouth, then pucker up. After a kiss, the toothpick would reappear on the corner of his lip.
When he was in his late eighties, a few years after my mother died, I once called my father and woke him from a nap. Oh, Yenny, he said, I was just dreaming about Iceland. Maybe I can even go back to sleep after we talk a little bit so I can see it again. Above his bed was an oil painting of Iceland’s Mount Baula, painted with sea-worthy skies, all blues and blacks and greens.
With so much wonderful sympathy around, I wish I were more depressed! said my father, the year after my mother died. He wished very much to be married again. We sat together in his assisted living facility and talked about ways he might find a new wife. I said, Online dating seems complicated. What about putting a sign on your door? Without missing a beat, he responded: Yes! It just needs to say ‘Come in! First man you see! At his funeral two years later, I learned that he’d asked every woman in his small congregation, including the minister, to marry him.
At 89, Dad’s memory was eroding fast, but he was looking forward to his big birthday. One of my sisters asked him where he would like to celebrate his 90th. On Earth, I hope! He also said he wanted to be surrounded by beautiful women and to get drunk. The night of his party, held on a pier overhanging the Gulf of Mexico, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren darted around his shoulders and landed happy kisses onto his cheeks. He drank white wine from a plastic cup and sang out whatever songs the river of his mind brought forth.
That night, the husband of decades helped me put my tipsy father to bed. We guided his walker up the hallway of his assisted living facility just as that last glass of wine swished into his bloodstream. As he wobble-sat on the edge of his bed, we took off Dad’s shoes and pants, then each of us held one of his hands as he swiveled his body around and sank into his pillows. As he began to doze, his face beamed the same beatific smile I’d seen almost forty years earlier, as we swam together at the Indiana Dunes lake shore. On that warm day when giant swells had settled into soft rollers, he sat facing the beach on a shallow sandbar as frothy waves pulsed over his shoulders from behind. Bubbles coursed around his ears and played over his skin, like an ermine trailing her white tail over his chest. Yenny, it feels so good! Try it! he called to me, eyes closed over that smile. Despite my fear of turning my back on moving water, I waded through the current to him and took his outstretched hand, sinking to my knees on the sandbar. Churning bubbles landed on my back in a steady, comforting stream. I sank my hips to my heels and let go, closing my eyes to better feel the blend of water and air on my skin. The joy of that fresh-water froth, how air can be held by water so securely, until the liquid sphere breathes itself free, returning to the lake or making its way as vapor to the sky.
Dad called the room where medications were dispensed at his assisted living facility the “pillory”. He would say, After breakfast, Dear, we should stop by the pillory.
One of my last games with Dad, as his memory thinned and tore like silly putty tugged too far, was to remember the three close relatives of the llama. Alpaca was easy—that one stayed in his mind the longest. Both of us had to think for a minute before Vicuna came to mind. But, two years before his last salting, Guanaco was out of his brain for good. What quiet storms inundate the hemispheres of eroding memory, where once-anchored words float free?
We last salted Dad nine years ago, when he was 89. My sister and I drove him from his assisted living apartment to Florida’s Honeymoon Island State Park, a placid shoreline where the sand ramps gently down to the Gulf of Mexico. Dad’s legs were swollen with edema and his toes were numb with diabetes. A swim in salt water was on the far margins of his ability, but his face bloomed with delight when we suggested the outing. I can’t remember the last time I salted! Oh, girls, that would be wonderful! We held on to each other as he lumbered across a boardwalk toward the water. He listed to the left, a ship without ballast, rolling along on tender feet no longer accustomed to sunlight or the pressure of wood planks. White sand glowed down to the water, its shine extending to an infinite horizon. Sea gulls hung in the humid air as tiny waves brushed our ankles. We held Dad until he was hip deep, then let him go. He reclined into the water with a deep sigh, his arms floating around him like wings.
Iceland, spelled in Icelandic, is Island, the plain English word “island.” But when Icelanders pronounce their country’s name, Island, it sounds different, Eesland, instead of island. “Island” spells “Island” means Iceland, my mother’s first home. As a child learning to love words, I ponder this oddity and the unpredictable nature of that far-away and mysterious place. Iceland is the land of fire and ice. It can explode like my mother does sometimes, in white-hot rage. And it has cold dark winters as bleak as my mother’s face on a November morning when she can’t get out of bed, when the effort of making breakfast for us before we go to school is too much.
It is the 1970s, and I am maybe seven. I watch a color tv documentary with my mother about the emergence—through four years of volcanic eruptions–of a new island, named Surtsey, off the southwest coast of Iceland. My mother was born and raised in village of Isafjordur that rests in the crook of a northern fjord. In her thirties, she moved to the US with my American dad and their combined family of five. I am her seventh child, one of two girls born to her after she became a foreigner, living just outside America’s capital city.
Usually when she watches tv, my mother’s hands are busy with knitting or needlepoint, her eyes glancing up at the screen as she works. But now, sitting in the basement of our five-bedroom house that she keeps “spic and span,” Mamma’s attention is rivetted, her chin resting on her palms as she leans toward the image of a hot ash explosion lifting over ocean water. This is unbelievable! She exclaims. There was nothing there, and now there is an island. A cooling gray river of lava, red underneath, flows slowly into the water and hardens with a crackling hiss, meeting the North Sea like a sworn enemy.
Under the water, subterranean vents continue to discharge magma that piles on top of itself in layers until it expands the land mass named for Sutr, a Norse fire giant. Surtsey began to form in 1963, and grew into a rounded mile of land where once there was only moving water. It is a slowly greening island, now eroded to half its original size. Surtsey holds a solitary place above the ocean; its only part-time residents are sea birds, seals, and scientists.
In fifth grade, in Mrs. Corkum’s class at Green Valley Elementary, each of us draws our own map of the world. Standing in her blue skirt, brown hair pulled back into a bun, our teacher holds a globe in her hands. I locate Iceland by looking for the white-painted oblong of Greenland at the top of the Atlantic, then finding the rough-edged island tucked below to its right, just outside of the arctic circle. The class is paying attention because we all like Mrs. Corkum–she is fair and talks to us like we are smart, almost grown-up. Class, when we draw our maps, continents that are small will look bigger, and some things that are big will look smaller. We are flattening something that is curved to fit it on our paper. The round world, represented flatly, is distorted. This feels true to me.
I pencil faint guide-lines, holding my hand next to a wooden ruler with a thin, metal edge bent at one corner. My map is bisected vertically by the Prime Meridian, which is intersected by the Equator, and by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We draw Madagascar first, a fat ell-shape off the right-hand coast of Africa. I trace precise coastal shapes set within the grid of latitude and longitude. Starting with Madagascar, then working our way around the world, my class copies the world map one shape at a time. Tracing coastlines through meridian grids, pencil gripped too tightly, I recreate the world in the shape of islands.
Americans don’t even know where Iceland is! my mother complains. But I do. I know Iceland is a small, independent country that had democracy hundreds of years before America got its start. And I know about Leif Erikson–Mamma teaches me to say his name right, so it sounds like “Laif,” not like “leaf”. He was the first European to go to North America, in a sturdy Viking ship. Iceland is part of Scandinavia and also part of Europe. In Iceland, women know how to dress. They don’t go around to the stores in blue jeans, and they don’t have to be skinny or stupid to be pretty. Icelandic women are not like American women. They are one right way. Like me at ten, they know that they know a lot.
Iceland happens apart from me as I watch my mother’s back. She turns herself to the endless routine of cooking and cleaning, grocery shopping and cigarette smoking. She scrubs and she shines, always moving. A few months later, she seems to just sink into herself, the fiery island pummeled by scouring waves.
As I grow up, my mother’s language is like the water surrounding Iceland, chilling in its depth. Icelandic mystifies me, pulls my full attention to its musical cadence of words I don’t speak or understand. I see the surface of the language; images appear in my head when one of the few words I know float by. I can say “sael” for hello with a proper back-of-the-tongue click on the ell, and I say “bless” for goodbye, the polite beginning and ending. “Jaejae” is an all-purpose word of mild impatience that winds things up. Jaejae, says my mother as she inhales and stands up from the kitchen table, where a yellow ashtray rests half-full. I know she is getting ready to hang up the phone after talking to one of her Icelandic friends who also lives not far from us. The landline phone is anchored high to the wall, in the doorway to the dining room. It has a twisted cord long enough that Mamma can get up and look out the back door, toward the north, as she talks in her private language.
Every land form surrounded by water is a version of my mother’s home. I sit with the tip of my tongue drying in the air, tracing the shape of Madagascar. It is bigger than Iceland. It is warmer than Iceland. It is far away from Iceland. Iceland. Island. Eesland. The place I go in my mind where the air is always clear, where my mother is happy because she is in her real home. My Iceland is both far-away and more real than this America where childhood plods along, where I make the dreary winter walk to school while dreaming of riding a sure-footed Icelandic pony past moss-covered fields of ancient lava rocks.
But I am not there. I am not even all the way in America. I can’t be popular or all the way American or brash like a boy, so in fifth grade, I try to copy the world onto paper and make it look good, make it right. Over weeks, all of the continents appear, and finally, I add the dragon shape of Iceland. Sitting up in my wooden chair and setting my blue pencil down, I see a miniscule piece of the gigantic world, almost meaningless next to so many other place shapes. Surtsey is so tiny that even adding it as a dot would be wrong.
Our world maps are drawn on three separate sheets of paper that cover the surface of our small desks. After weeks of work, with new calluses on our index fingers, we carefully connect our pieces of flattened earth using invisible tape. My map looks how I want it to look, just right, pleasing to Mrs. Corkum and to me. It is hung in the school hallway alongside the worlds of my classmates, and every time I walk by, my eye goes straight to Iceland, confirming its existence. Even today, I can’t help but center the world and much of my imagination exactly there.
The light is pretty much killing it this morning. It bashes into the white wall, plants itself on full-moons of log-ends. Shadow shapes appear on the painted cabinet: a crown! a microphone! a fishing line! A hunk of sea glass washes up next to the coffee maker. Light ricochets off snow in valiant sparks, then throws itself at me through window glass. When I try to meditate, it yells orange through my closed eyelids. I tilt my head into a beam of shade and inhale. Oooh, the light says, Aren’t I warm? Don’t you wish you were me? I exhale, inhale. Instead of peacefulness, a bouncy castle in my third eye. Light careens around the house screeching like a three-year-old, yapping like a collie running happy circles on the beach.
Our beloved recreation center closed indefinitely; we restart our membership at the club my salary once subsidized. When I worked downtown, I swam in this deluxe saline pool, killing off my stress by training for triathlons. One grief-coated spring, I counted laps using daisy petals in my mind’s eye and discovered—a month after my sister died–that I hadn’t fully exhaled since her funeral.
Emails and websites chant, “these times,” “these difficult times.” But the late fall rays bounce from the same glass tower across Larimer Street into the morning water. Sun rests on the bottom of the pool in wavy patterns, like sand shaped by ocean currents. Today I am a meatloaf swimming uphill. But my outstretched fingertips launch bubbles that rise, shining, to meet the skin dividing water from air. I approach the wall and flip, then glide through hundreds of miniature circles held in light.
In the lane next to me, a wormhole spouts opens, and—with one graceful kick–my niece swims over from Africa. Her dancing woman tattoo shines through the water, and her smile flashes as she glides by. Heat sears between my shoulder blades in the shape of the equatorial sunburn I earned swimming with her in Lake Malawi, in that time before “these times.” In a blink, she is gone again, and I haul my December gravity up the ladder, then plod my way home.
We stand on the cabin deck under a scatter of stars. Elk have tracked holes that stretch in long shadow lines through the snow. Thousands of Americans died today, and even more will die tomorrow. Today, I forgot to look up at all. The cold air holds the darkness, and I remember how ancient is the starlight, how finite this speck of humanity. The next morning, I sleep late. 5:45 pitch black turns to 6:45 faint light, making me second in line for coffee. We wait out the chill in scarves, under a blanket on the couch. Slowly, the sky brightens. One of us writes. One of us meditates. At 7:20, the switch is flipped, and a spotlight blazes over the ridge of Black Mountain. I yell upstairs, It happened, look! The bare trunks of aspen, standing in a penitent circle, are washed in pink.
A week before Election Day, the husband and I drove six hours west on I-70 to the town of Fruita, on the sun-warmed Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Our campsite was a short walk from the banks of the Colorado river. Gold-topped cottonwoods offered shade, and renegade fall mosquitos flew in clouds around our heads. I could almost forget about the pandemic, about the anger and fear swirling in its wake.
In a burst of forgetful optimism, we went to a Chinese restaurant, deciding that if it got crowded, we could leave. But soon after we dug in to our steaming entrees, a short woman with light brown hair and no mask stomped past the Masks Required sign that was posted by the door. Her bare-faced family trailing behind, she paused only to tell a carefully masked and gloved server, We’ll go to our favorite table. And there she strode, with a look on her face that said nobody was going to stop her. Certainly not the staff, all of whom, I think, were immigrants and who know much better than I how much casual racism has been give free rein when the sitting US president uses terms like Wuhan Flu and Chinese Plague.
Was I angry first or scared first as we took a few more bites and rose to leave? And was it the fright or the outrage that roiled more powerfully in my belly? Almost immediately, it felt good to resent this woman, to know that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Us-versus-them thinking, in which we are always the better people, might be built into human DNA. But that doesn’t mean I want to play along, to taste the sourness of self-righteous anger like bad whiskey on the tongue.
As we drove to Moab the next morning, I sang along to Alanis Morissette’s song “Ablaze,” in which she cautions her young children about Some separation from each other, yes it’s a lie we’ve been believing through time immemorial. But I struggled with how satisfying my resentment toward that smug woman felt. Anger is one thing–a natural and often clarifying emotion. But a grudge is something else; resentment morphs into a heavy and barbed burden. The trick is reminding myself, over and over, that I can put that weight down. And yes, the fact that contemplative biking is part of my package of privilege is not lost on me. Easier to feel the oneness of all life with a full belly and secure housing, not to mention the presumed acceptance that my whiteness still too-often conjures. I’m spoiled and I’m forgetful, losing my way every single day.
Amid the shales and sandstones of Moab’s trails, where shrubs grow in low gaps between rock slabs and root in crevices along cliff walls, few options exist for way-finding. Blazes painted directly on slick-rock hummocks dot the route like lane markers. But a rider must trust the blazes, must believe that the dashes do, in fact, reveal the optimal route. Trusting the blazes, even when they seem at first glance to offer a more difficult path, could save you mashing your body between a bike and a very hard place.
As I pedal up and down under blue sky, still ruminating about the maskless woman, I trust the blaze that tells me I can’t hate just one person. I look for the loving blaze that tells me to be less afraid and more generous. I swoop and swerve and am reminded that gravity will be gravity. The world will be the world. And a more loving perception is always an option.
Post-election, we are home in Denver where Covid 19 marches relentlessly on its own destructive path. Close friends get sick. Two of my nephews test positive. A week later, after a few unmasked minutes with a loved one who soon got sick, we isolate. We wait for our own test results. Thanks in part to sheer dumb luck, they come back negative. Our loved ones were also lucky, recovering well from non-severe cases. And this week, the election results are sticking, like yesterday’s soothing blanket of snow.
Today, gratitude hunkers down with us, mingling with memories of that restaurant and those blazes of light. I see the yellow-crowned cottonwood framing our view from camp under a blue dusk sky, how the perfect black commas of starlings flew and circled, then fell like rain to their evening roost. A perfect trip, really, one to draw joy from over a long winter.
Halloween morning, three days until the election, and I ask the same question I ask every year—isn’t the world scary enough without putting goblin heads on our front doors? Even without Trump and Covid–two frights that only make each other worse–I am a chicken. Don’t say Boo to me—my startle reflex is so tightly wrapped that seeing the word carved into a pumpkin can make me jump out of my skin. And I worry. I worry about so many small things (mice, socks, humidifiers) that I can barely make room for the big things (elections, democracy, climate). But the big things pervade, and nothing dominates the aptly-named “Breaking News” today than the soaring number of Covid cases. Rising community spread in Denver is enough to keep me home on a sunny day, but it’s time to refill my Ativan prescription.
I’m lucky that Ativan works for my anxiety (along with exercise, meditation, and the occasional self-hating rant). It’s a drug that is easy to abuse, and I know it helps me most if I use it only a couple of times a week and don’t think of it too often. It’s the difference between, say, a cute acquaintance at the coffee shop and a full-blown romantic obsession.
Today, I go to a neighborhood pharmacy where, two days earlier, they gave me someone else’s medication. (Yes, I worried about that person, and no, I didn’t mistakenly take their pills.) The only problem with my prescription is how much worry it causes me to stand in line at the pharmacy, so this second trip, on a busy Saturday morning, has shallowed my breath and dampened my palms. I have picked up a couple of bags of candy for possible trick-or-treaters, some worry-reducing ballpoint pens, and sensitivity toothpaste because I’m a very, very sensitive person. Before my turn in line, I realize that in my bike pouch outside I have left my cell phone, neatly bundled with all of my plastic and $70 cash. It’s still there when I go back for it. I resume my place in line.
The pharmacist is kind, apologetic, practically oozing with her own concern that the person behind me in line is my lawyer. I verbally confirm my name, birthdate, and phone number, but the small beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead confirm my diagnosis: anxious AF. The pharmacist hands me a $25 gift certificate and a $10 cash refund. I hand them back to her to pay for my purchases, then sanitize my hands and thank her profusely.
Making my way to the exit, prescription and pens and Halloween candy in hand, I pass less than six feet behind an older white man and say, I’m right behind you, so sorry. He turns to me and loudly replies, nose jauntily uncovered by his mask, Why are you sorry? I’m not afraid! Me either, Mister, me either.
On a soft summer morning, a Sunday in June, our front door stands open to the sleeping city. The old house inhales dawn, and our normally bustling block soaks in quiet like a sponge. The screams seem far away at first—cutting through the morning silence, rising like a set of waves on hard sand, louder and higher, louder and higher again. Coffee mugs land on tables. Listening at the back windows, then moving to the front porch, the shrieks become words. Help! I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! A young woman stands across the street, leaning on a neighbor’s railing. Help me! Help me! I’ve been stabbed!
I experienced trauma as a child, and I was a therapist for a decade. But that morning, I re-learn how perception is torn by trauma, how time pauses and re-winds. As I recognize danger, colors brighten, and sounds sharpen. The fear jabbing into my belly is immediately tamped down, creating space for decision-making.
I ask her, Do you want me to call 911?
Yes, call, I need help! She walks toward me, left arm holding her right. She pauses to lean on a parked car. The block is eerily quiet, deserted. Where are the usual early dog-walkers and baby strollers? Why hasn’t anyone else heard her screaming?
I tell my husband, Call 911. Now. She’s bleeding a lot. I grab a chair from the porch and set it on our lawn. Here, I ask her, sit down, please.
I don’t want this to be happening. Blood streaks red stripes down her legs and oozes slowly from the back of her neck. I put my hand on her fear-damp shoulder and tell her she is going to be okay. I ask her to keep her wrist up, to squeeze the towel I’ve wrapped around it to her body. I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! Her voice shakes. Her pupils are circles of glazed fear.
He stabbed me! He’s in a car. He’s still around. He’s in a car! She stands up to keep running from him, to repeat the motion that kept her alive this morning. The mind tells the body now now now run run run!
I look up and down the block and see no one.
Your job is to sit still right now while we wait for the ambulance. You’re going to be all right. I rewind. I repeat: Sit down, please. Help will be here soon. You are going to be okay.
The ambulance comes. One strong woman takes each of her elbows and walks her inside its big doors. The siren wails away.
Soon, police crime-scene tape closes both sides of our street, and pooled blood dries slowly on the plastic chair in my front yard.
The sun is high when neighbors begin to gather in tight circles on the corner. I avoid them. I try not to swirl my thoughts into whirlpools by over-telling the story. I focus my mind on the police, mostly women of color, whose compassionate intelligence shines over their face masks. Talking to my friend, I describe their supervisor, wearing a simple summer skirt, badge around her neck.
Mid-day, a firefighter hoses down the blood in the street and on the sidewalk. Water pressure flips the plastic chair over and leaves a patch of bare mud on the lawn. We use a soapy brush to clean the dried blood off my car.
The next morning, I wake up and think, Crap. That happened. I recite the thank God’s: thank God we heard her; thank God her injuries will heal. I remember my hard-won crisis-counseling mantra: trust the intervention you could give and when you gave it.
I have a nightmare the next night: I’m still a therapist, working at the university counseling center. I’m supposed to be doing something, but I can’t remember what it is. In my dream, I avoid my frustrated boss and finally tell myself, in a refrain, I’m going to have to quit. I’m going to have to quit.
Four days after the stabbing, I’m hoarding gluten-free bread. I have one loaf in the bread basket, two loaves in the freezer, and two in the refrigerator. I’m not anxious, I’m just hungry, right? Before I left the job where vicarious traumas stuck to my skin like burrs, I’d open my desk drawer to find six open bars of chocolate in my desk drawer, each with one solitary and reassuring square remaining. Under my desk, pairs of Piccolino sandals and Dansko pumps seemed to multiply on their own–as if someone else had bought them. Until I realized, until I finally said, I’m going to have to quit.
Day nine, I look down at my sneakers and see small circles of rusted red-brown. Oh. Blood specks on my shoes. I remember that, not long ago, I helped someone. I keep walking.