At some point everything comes out on my skin.
I've never put much store in secrecy. I have all kinds of secret odes to truth hidden on my laptop hard drive. How's that for irony? Not hidden really, I don't protect anything with passwords or screen protectors. I just haven't shown it to you yet. Ask me something and I'll tell you more than you were probably looking for. Touch me and I'll melt or shy away. I can't hide anything really.
I feel good in my skin right now and it shows and I don't just mean I'm looking hot today. My skin is brown from leading bike tours in the Columbia Gorge and bike tours in downtown Portland and riding my bike to and from work everyday. Some days I ride 20 or 25 miles. Some days I ride more.
My legs are hard from running up and down the paths to waterfalls and riding my bike up hills and, one night starting at sundown, riding my bike all the way from Chanticleer Point to Cascade Locks, I'll bet you haven't ever ridden your bike past some of the most beautiful scenery in the world in the all-the-way dark, down roads so familiar because I drive and bike them sometimes three days a week, down roads so unfamiliar I slow down even on the gentle bends, worried I'm about to double back in the pitch. I ride in high-heeled sandals and a swingy mini skirt on a road bike and every one of the 25-maybe miles feels so good in my body. The summer wind on my legs and bare arms.
We bike tour guides build a fire outside a brewery in Cascade Locks where I have been served Scotch-malted beer by the brewer out of its fermenting tank and we talk about mountains throwing off their brimstone and I sit on a bench feeling the heat of the fire on my skin and we talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll and when we ride our bikes like children to the island at 4:30 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the god-built Bridge of the Gods I feel the cool morning air on my neck and the sand on my thighs.
Some mornings I wake up and want to kiss everything and some middles-of-the-night I spend insomniac hours thinking only of the taste of skin on my lips and if you were me what would be stopping you from just opening your mouth and tasting the warmth and salt and brown and smooth? Nothing of course but some days a want of skin.
I want to tell more secrets, want to run up more mountains and feel every manner of fern and bramble on my arms, want to taste thimbleberries and wood sorrel and kisses, want to wish on Druid's plants for the feelings on my skin every day and more children and childishness in my life and unicorns and to turn my home's life dial all the way up to joy, joy, joy! Look at me in my skin, comfortable but not yet content, prickling with fear or sadness some days but still pumping lungs like pedals just to feel everything, cold/heat/sweat/fingernails/bike chains/tongues/tears, I've said too much again haven't I, can you blame me? I'm at the pinnacle of forty and I have to stay wide open because there is so much in this world left to feel.
It is the waterfall, in the end, I come to for salvation. I've been flogging sadness like a pack animal for weeks now, we've been locked in a death pact, I'll kill you if you kill me. But I didn't want to die after all. My sadness took a breather. Lifted its head and looked at me with its slow-blinking eyes. "I'll wait," it must have told me. "I don't give ultimatums you know."
So I got to keep him, looped the rope around my wrist and let him trail along behind, still following me like faithfulness but only nudging me once in a while lovingly, I'd like to think, but human relations with animals are tricky, aren't they?
Now we're up there at the waterfall. Me and my sadness. I'm just standing at its bottom, no grand gestures like I'll do the next week, no bounding up the hill in my silver ballet shoes to hold my arms out like spread wings, closing my eyes so I can feel the brilliance of the sun sparkling through the part where the waterfall shoots over the edge of the old rock. I'm just standing there and I'm thinking about the zen I've been reading. How hard the waterfall has to work right up there in the spray, says Suzuki, splitting itself apart into drops and it's so much easier when the water is one, one flow and eddy, one pool and current, one being all the way from here to Japan probably, the bottom of Wahkeena Falls out the Columbia to the confluence and out into the Pacific Ocean where it's all everything. Big mind, I'm thinking. Big water.
And that water is sparkling me, now, just a little, spraying gently over my face but most importantly in the breaths I'm breathing in, those drops that are struggling so to get up and over the rock and down back into the oneness, some of them are airborne now and are part of me, I'm thinking of the breathing, inflow/outflow, it's all one, I think, I don't turn around to look at my sadness because I know he'll just stick it out. Go with me anywhere even when I'm letting the waterfall become part of Big me. Big everything. And the thing is that those struggling drops might be working hard but really they've got such joy, you know? They're in me now and I can't help it, I smile, I smile with those drops invisible on my face probably but coursing through me like the way fire bleeds through your veins if you let it.
If I'd let myself look at my sadness I'd stroke him, hold my lips just above his forehead so that my breath was its own kiss, as it turns out you get to keep everything, when I drive home from the Gorge with my vanload of tourists I'm soaring, really, I look up into the sky where an osprey is banking its route over the highway, all my creatures together in their slow dance around me, we're all in this world together now, I blink tears and happiness and I can't wait to touch someone now, bleed my fire and water all over him too. Exhale.
I -- we all together -- have been saved.
The tiredness sets in behind my eyes so that I am almost blind with it, it feels like tears or hangovers or fevers, present and brilliant, dulling my hearing too, sending me into a fog. My back aches, in a total way it rarely does, from the base of my skull fanning out like fingers down the back of my neck, arching the curve of muscles over my shoulder blades, palming the space underneath them, wiping its fingertips back up my spine and sitting there, throb-throb-expand-throb.
I murmur something suggestive though. I am smiling through the dim, arching throb and gloom. I know what it is -- I think -- the emotional turmoil I've felt eventually had to become physical, had to release my heart and lungs and spread through my shoulders, up my spine, into my sinuses and my eyes, and yet -- it released my heart. I take a breath deep into my belly and feel it expand almost unhampered by the clamp of my fears.
* * *
I felt it splinter days ago, I lie in my bed in the middle of the night -- alone, my boys with their father -- feeling it like a vacuum, like an evacuation, like rats skittering from a sinking ship. At first I thought the way to fix it was to show how much pain I was in, wielding raw emotion like a cudgel, but waving that thing around hurt me as much as anyone else. And who wants to share pain anyway? I had to let myself fall off the cliff of panic, let myself be caught, ragged and bruised purple but still alive. Miraculously pieced together.
What's emptied can be filled again and not just by someone else. Sometimes you have to find your breath somehow, gather your strength as best you can and pull it all back in. If you can let a thing unwind you, can you not wind it yet again?
* * *
And here, now, all the pain that'd been strangling my heart and lungs had to go somewhere. As I worked it free, untied the knots that I'd woven to tight, inexpertly, the ends flapped hard and loose, beating flesh and sinew and nerve around it, spreading out like a spill being absorbed by the thirsty sand. At some point you have to honor that. Let the ache feel like warmth, let your breath examine it, interrogate your muscles with their center, heart, let each yank and twang settle into their rhythm, give them the prayer that's their due.
"Away with you," you murmur, calling to them softly, holding on with tears sparking your eyes like saying a fond farewell. "I know your worth," you're saying now. "You held me tight and let me go." And you're letting them grip you as long as they need to, you're giving them time, you're closing your eyes and waiting peacefully, all this ache you cherish, it's your fear, you say to it now, whenever you're ready, fly away home.
It was snowing and I'd found the garden gloves, the ones I'd bought late this summer when I was going to clear out all the blackberries and burdock so they didn't take possession of my yard. It was snowing and I was wearing my garden gloves and riding my bike, and my feet were cold even through the two pairs of wool socks and the way my cheeks felt in the wind and snow? I didn't know whether to love it or cry.
I used to have compartments. I'd put things in them, like the way my goosebumps trail up the insides of my arms or;
It is the problem of second person: the addressee. That is the question. And the way I write second person? I fail to mark transitions between "you," the reader, and "you," me putting you inside my skin. And then there's you.
Making confessions became my game, then, my practice, lopping off a length of truth and handing it to him like something, a peace offering, maybe a token like one you'd hand to a knight going into combat. -- not a war, I mean -- more of a jousting match --.
Be brave. Be more brave than you think you can be.
I am not taking my advice. I am starting essays I cannot finish. I am writing essays I will only keep to myself. Some I read on my computer or in my journal and I think to myself maybe pathetically how, wouldn't it be nice to become a famous and beloved writer, so they can be discovered after my death? I will print them out, I think, because the digital is so ephemeral. I am being ridiculously dramatic, I think. And I write more, even more quietly.
Some of it finds its way out into the world despite myself. My essay, "No Other Gods," will be published next month in the Creative Nonfiction book, Southern Sin: True stories of the sultry south and women behaving badly. It's in print, I have the copy of the book's uncorrected proof here in my sweaty hand -- I tell the story there.
If you read it, you'll know why that one was, I thought, the very hardest story to tell, one I couldn't tell anyone, not even my husband, not all the way, for years. When I opened the package with those words in paperback-print I almost threw up. Here is where I can't type out why it makes me nauseated. Here is where I also say that I am telling the story precisely because it had me so ashamed for so many years.
There are stories I only whisper to myself and it's because they hurt me or my boys too much or might, but you get to know that I'm stripping myself open these days, I'm spinning yarns about being raw and rare and bloody, like this:
And when I say "raw" I mean I'm open like a front door, like a broken cabinet, like a wide hilltop field of new-cut hay, like a body lying on an operating table, torso sliced open hip to neck bone, skin peeled back like the pieces of a dress being pinned together or ripped apart.
Like that. Like that. At least I'm putting the pins in these memories so I can refer to them later. Perhaps I'll find something to write about that's safe. And when I say "safe" I mean appalling but in a different way, do you know "safe" is a different word for me now that I'm 40 and because of a variety of things not-the-least-of-which-is divorce having to forge a new sort of identity.
"Writer," then, that's my identity, writer and mother and striver-not-to-yield. That's it.
I have stopped subscribing to regrets, even though I could enumerate the elements in my life these days I wouldn't have chosen and the total might approach infinity, I'm exaggerating of course but who would want to share parenting like this, one of my marriage counsellors once said something along the lines of, "you can let him do this with the kids in your house or you can let him do it in his apartment," and at the time I thought to myself, she's right, I'd rather not be parenting our separate ways in separate domiciles, then I'd really know what it means to be out of control, and of course at some point in the past six months I swung just past that center line to here.
Here is the place where I spend days and days away from my children, like this time over the holiday break, and I won't say anything like how precious this time of year is to me because that's disingenuous, yes this time is lovely but I'm not thinking of the Hallmark Channel special with the orchestrated candy cane family moments, but more that quiet companionship of baking and sewing and reading and the occasional arrival of grandparents bearing gifts. Not the holiness and the shopping and the capital-T Traditions but the ordinary togetherness, the getting used to each other being around in those short short days. I'm always wanting to do something grand and crashy for the winter solstice but I never do, I do buy candles though, I do light things with matches and turn on the oven more than is normal and bake buttery cookies I expect to be eaten for breakfast and lunch.
I'm pretty sure when I was in that counsellor's office considering the fate of divorce (would my whole wheat sugar cookies be subbed for Plaid Pantry snacks in dad's apartment?), I held off that fate as long as possible because I couldn't imagine being on the other end of the Hallmark Channel movie, that mom baking a tiny bowl of cookies in an empty house maybe with part of a glass of red wine, her lipstick a perfect half-kiss on the rim. Or do the Hallmark Channel heroines drink chardonnay?
I've been thinking a lot about fates lately, there's a part in Adrienne Rich's 21 Love Sonnets that goes "No one's fated or doomed to love anyone. / The accidents happen, we're not heroines, / they happen in our lives like car crashes / books that change us" and then there was a story I read in the dim light at the back of the Schnizter concert hall, about Tchaikovsky and his idea of fate. When he wrote the 4th Symphony, it's said, he was thinking a lot about Fate and his destiny was a Sword of Damocles, strung over his head on a horsehair and ready to fall, "which prevents the impulse towards happiness from achieving its aim, which guards jealously lest well-being and peace should be complete and unclouded," which "unwaveringly and constantly poisons the soul." Tchaikovsky was terrified, perhaps of being found out in his homosexuality. And I guess Rich was terrified, of the coming end of her love affair, and looking back at myself sitting on the tightly-woven tweed of that marriage counsellor's couch all I can think is that I was terrified too.
If that sword over my head was unwavering and poisonous the poison must have dripped out into the marriage, shorting out the emotional connections and corroding the switches. Maybe it was another sword that fell at another time, even though you know Damocles' sword never fell, he gave up being king -- too terrified -- something somehow fell on me in May and June, showing me not a new love but a new window on an old love. This is when I started writing about cliff faces and about all the times I'd ever fallen myself. Fate, doom, car crash? I like to think of it more as a neighborhood I move into and come to love. (More Adrienne Rich.) The car crash is the falling. The coming to love a neighborhood, the cliff wall out?
I'm talking in so many metaphors. Maybe that's the only way I feel safe.
And maybe Tchaikovsky got it wrong (is it that artists are not, ofttimes, the most reliable interpreters of their own art?) but while I hear inevitability in his symphony I do not hear Fate's poison, I hear a stirring of fear and a desperate yearning yes but also a caressing, a slow movement of the hands across the body, like the hand holding the violin bow, and is this perhaps rather beautiful? Do we not often fear what is, in the end, the very most true? The hardest thing, the best thing, the most gorgeous possible thing?
Whatever. I've always been the sort to see something terrifying and do it just to prove I could. Not something terrifying and pointless like diving out of an airplane but -- give me a quest that's full of danger and impossibility, that wrests my heart out of its cage and lets it walk around outside my body a bit, that bloodies my lips or my fingernails and bruises my thighs or my pride -- call it my fate to say "yes" and bite my lips together tight and start running as fast as I can.
It's not that I keep my emotions bottled up or anything, in fact I wear them right there on the skin of my arms or on the edges of all the ways I describe things, you know when I say "the fog lies dark" I mean my heart is in a turmoil of fear and hope and loss and impossible dreams and when I say "colors of the leaves" I really mean I've told myself for years and years that unconditional love was just a fairy tale. That's really what I mean.
Or maybe it's not. In my bed these days I am tangled and turning to find space or almost-empty, I've changed my life and loosed myself from spouse and you know how they joke about whose side of the bed you're on, well. I'm to the point of hanging hammocks for boys and toting fresh-smelling futon mattresses on bikes, of sleeping on sheets still wrinkly with the tang of eco-friendly dyes. I have no side and sometimes when everyone is asleep I arrange myself back down with a child on my belly just to feel a heart beat next to mine.
I have made a new practice of rising early. It happened within weeks of my 40th birthday and I'm not one to make a big deal of calendar dates or maybe I am but my 40th birthday changed me. Is it a practice I made or a solution my body has imposed to fit my heart? I rise early and I walk on dark sidewalks to coffee shops and I'm not looking where I'm going but I hardly ever trip. There are things I say to myself or think of saying before the sun makes light that I could have never written as my own dialogue were I to write a hundred books.
Or maybe they're what I would have written, did write, all along. I will open essays or stories or blog posts I wrote months ago and didn't publish or didn't finish and I'll gasp, because either this was a prophecy or now's a fever dream. What I wrote was "playing in the dirt" and I meant "I'm making a list now and it's really just little bits of you, " what I wrote was, "it was hot" and I meant "there are flames running up and down my calves and somehow I've convinced myself they're from the way I run fast and the heat of the sun," what I wrote was, "maybe" and I meant, "for forever. For fucking reals."
The thing is this blog post was supposed to be partly about fear and sadness and longing. The thing is this blog post didn't come out like I thought at all.
I keep my emotions spilling out all over my edges and I lots of times don't know 'til later what it was I really meant. What it was I thought. Right now I'm in a state of manic clarity and I keep knowing things, how people feel or why and what it is I have to do in these relationships. This is the way I'm telling you I filed for divorce. This is the way I'm telling you I'm looking for a new way to the words that mean "family" and you can't get there any way but through.
My kids are ok except when they very, very much aren't and I'm not doing any of the things I should except that I'm making a new "should." My rules of life are all untied like shoelaces and hell if I care how to knot them back, it works as long as the shoes don't fall off and even then, sit down on the sidewalk, stretch out your leg and flex your toes a bit, put the shoe back on.
This is the way I tell you I'm happy.
I'm standing in front of the crowd here, and it's been hard this morning. Not everyday-hard, but extraspecial-hard, I've been emotional lately and not for the usual reasons. My husband's coming home soon from three years in Kuwait, and transitions are terrifying. I'd rather do anything than transition, and I'm trying to just box that up, put the thought away and seal it with a piece of duct tape, deal with it when I know when his flight will come in. That's how I usually do things, wait until they're right in front of me, then take a deep breath. And GO.
Somehow I know that won't work this time and so I've been trying. Delving into it, then coming up for air and trying to tread water as long as I can. Look a dragonfly. Look a kid giggling. Look it's time for a snack. Get out, dry off in the sun, we'll come again to this pretty deep pool because you love it and so mama can think.
Dude, mama's afraid to think, honestly, and don't think I haven't noticed the fact I'm almost forty and what does that mean anyway. Something. I don't want to call it mid-life but what else are you going to do with a spade but call it that?
So what was right in front of me this morning was Everett, who's going to a weeklong overnight camp. He's going for the second time in his life, but last time I was there to drop him off and say goodbye. This time I had plans -- this event -- and called his babysitter to do it. Called again this morning to figure out what time he could pick Everett up, only the babysitter was at the beach. OK so then 'never.'
It's the last minute and of course Emily can help and he rides his bike down the hill with his backpack stuffed and his sleeping bag bungeed to his back rack. He's awesome. He's awesome, and proud, and I think everything's going to be fine but evidently when he gets dropped off with his health forms and instructions as who's to pick him up in his pocket he neglects to say his health forms and instructions are in his pocket and I have the mic in my hand, about to start hours of color commentary in front of the Portland Art Museum on this emotional, world-changing event I helped dream up and put together and I get a phone call. "Can you come over and sign me in?" he asks. I have to say "no can we figure something out?" and evidently this is when he starts crying. I don't hear about any of this until later.
I've been crying too, happy tears, at how amazing it is, all these families on bikes riding up the hill past the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Oregon Historical Society and to Park Avenue, this storied most elegant part of the Portland Park Blocks, and we're here in this big sweeping gesture of, I don't know, this is normal or maybe actually this is AWESOME! and now I have to shut all this emotion down and be present. Just breathe.
So I take my breaths and I do my emceeing thing and I keep thinking about Everett. I miss a call and I call back (no answer) and Monroe gets lost for almost an hour (but he's here the whole time) and I'm feeling like the world is expanding, collapsing, expanding again. I'm part of this amazing event and yet I totally blew it as a solo mom and I won't be one for much longer and the world of my emotions is pulsing around my head and I'm a failure and a success all at once.
I think at some point I hold my breath and I wonder if I've dived again, or if I'm just imagining a dive. How long can I hold my breath. How long can I put off thinking. I don't know. Can I try?
I tell myself, "Just breathe." But I don't know if I'm ready yet. Maybe I can hold it a little longer.
Everything seems wrong this week, my clothes for starters. I want to pack it up and put it all away, no not put away, give away, throw it in a bin that isn't going to require anything of me ever again. I'll keep the wool that's not too holey, I'll keep the strappy sandals and those pretty dresses, but the rest of it? Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I come home to my house and smell the sticky warmth of figs ripe and overripe, hanging from the tree like bags of gold or bleeding, ripped-out hearts. I eat some and leave the rest to flout their gore. Pour it loose, there, you fruits, spill your guts. No more than I'd do. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I've been writing the wrong things, not for the moment untrue things but not right either, typing and penciling and reading over it again and thinking, "oh how I get to the heart of it" and opening myself or not opening myself and anyway wanting to erase it all away. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
It's not just all this I want to change, but the beating of my lungs and the size of my heart and the way it runs around outside my body. Not just my heart, my brain too, darting off in separate directions with my body slinging itself around behind it. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I diagnose myself; I toss the diagnoses, scoffing; I run too fast and have to walk partway back, panting, shaking my head, letting the breath catch ragged in my chest to blot out the burn below. Can I live all in the red? Can I sew myself back together? Time to change everything?
"Change everything except your loves," the writer says. I don't even know if that's right either but I look for things with which I can fall in love safely: summer, friendships, black coffee, ice cream cones with blackberries and that burn of heat that spark your tongue, children who smile at you with wide brown eyes, protagonists in novels, boys battling with swords, pedaling my bicycle slowly around my city, red and white paper lanterns hanging in a string, with tails. I won't change that, not these right things, no way.
Take back the blog! I'm going to reclaim my storytelling, set a trail through the jungle of emotion and fear under which I've been living. Say this: flash it. Flash this life. Bits of nonfiction, to take back this space, starting now.
Monroe at the border of five and six.
We buy him a new helmet but that doesn't change the way he rides, fists pulling at the handlebar grips like he might pull the bike apart, leaning into it not with fear or competition but with the intensity of love.
It is Wednesday, six days before his birthday when he learns to ride, learns by repetition, back and forth dozens of times on the sidewalk of the street near our house, on the sidewalk near the library. By afternoon he has earned his miles in the street. By Sunday he rides nine miles. Falls exhausted over his handlebars. Then at dusk demands to ride again.
It is not his only 11 mile day in his first week. On his birthday he rides 12. And everywhere he goes he pulls his handlebars, leaning over and talking to himself and singing, making up stories, saying sounds just for their joy. I watch him pedal behind me over my shoulder; I watch him beside me from the corner of my eye; I watch him in front of me, pulling and winding and weaving, everything about him defining a state of ecstacity.
By his birthday we are, all four of us, on bikes; by his birthday we are (as he says) a "team," and on July 10th when I must put him on the back of my bike again he slumps, spent, with the moony look of a new, true, love.
ads, which strive, which fail to yield
peek into the past . I could not stop . a response to criticism . september 24 . 2012
>Because I could not stop to listen to your appeals to feminism, to ideals, to economics, I canned tomatoes.