Tuesday, October 8, 2013

To Leap Again

She looks at the picture and it reminds her of what she’d done to get it. The covered bridge in the photograph is pretty—timber trusses and beams, tongue and groove vaulted ceiling, Burr arch—very New England. Had its sides been wrapped with boards and batten it would be almost as quaint as the historic covered bridges of Vermont. But it’s likely sturdier than most of those old bridges—some of which are too structurally compromised to cross any longer—as it’s constructed to merely allude to a simpler time. The wooden rail, shiny in the left hand corner of the photo that she now scrutinizes, runs the length of the bridge and drops down to road level at either end.

She was in the car. She had just dropped her teenage daughter, Lulu, off at a friend's house, and her husband and son were away, in Lancaster, for the weekend. It was a lovely fall day and she had the evening to herself, about four hours, and she decided that she would stop by Lincoln Woods to take a few pictures in its park, before she headed on home to get some work done. To read, write, clean the house, do laundry. That was her plan, not terribly exciting but she was determined to make good use of her time.

At Lincoln Woods, she parked by the bridge just yards from the entrance. You might say the bridge marks the entrance. The beginning of a serene wooded landscape. It was such a lovely fall she determined there and then, looking around this tranquil setting, that she’d be there a while, would explore the whole park, take as many lovely photographs as possible. Home, these days, was a place of calamity. Months earlier the kitchen had flooded after the dishwasher's no-burst supply line cut loose. Walls and wood flooring were torn away, mold found, construction and deconstruction in every corner, windows, stairs, rugs, furnishings were powdered with sawdust, and she was, she felt, living in squalor. And it had rained earlier and the light was beautiful with early evening glow; the foliage like a slick field of concentrated carotene, ripened pompoms of color. Everything sprouting and dangling glistened and it gave her comfort.

The burnt sienna ground and the red and yellow woods reminded her of the October weekends she had spent with her grandmother, who lived on a dairy farm, and as she peered deeper into the woodland, beyond the bridge, she felt a trace of her childhood awe take hold of her. She saw the woods by the farm, she saw Grandmother and herself hiking through the woods bordering the farm to collect pinecones and other gems—things Grandmother would sometimes have to identify for her—fallen from the enormous conifers. Those autumn woods from which they gathered goods—the smooth boulders on which she had jumped and climbed that seemed to have fallen from the sky, plopped in the woodland’s deep recesses, the crunch of dry leaves beneath her feet as she ran between swaying timber, the smell of fresh pine tinged with the odor of manure from the farm—might well have been these. And the same old childhood sensation, a sort of possession, that she had felt in Grandmother’s woods engulfed her.

She walked across the road, and, near the wooden rail that sits below the Burr arch, looked over the bridge to a silent stream running below. A better view could be gotten from atop the rail—that was clear. Placing her right foot up on the wood rail, which was about three feet high (though it doesn't look it in the photo—in person, it looks a bit higher, or perhaps it looks lower—however high or low, it was something of which she thought she could easily step on) and eight inches wide, she tried to follow with her left, boosting up from my toes, but she didn't have enough of a start since she was standing still. Her shoe choice didn't help—little brown ballet slippers. It wasn't as easy as she'd thought it would be. She wasn't, it turns out, as strong as she used to be and this surprised her. What is this? I used to vault over a leather horse and pirouette across the balance beam in gymnastics. I used to jump from rock to rock. For chrissakes I used to fly across city rooftops when I was a kid. Rooftops!

Annoyed by this bodily betrayal, but only slightly deterred, she worked out another approach: Step back from the rail. Step back, a slight start, just a bit of speed and a hop onto the rail would get her up there. It seemed a plausible plan. A running start and a bounce was all it would take.

Now she asks herself why she did not simply walk over to either end of the rail, where it bows down to the road, bend her foot up onto it and pirouette across its top as if it were a balance beam—a surface on which she had always felt comfortable maneuvering, her balance being impeccable. But this sensible idea never occurred to her. Her eyes locked on the rail, and everything but the rail became a smudge. Standing on the paved road of this pretty bridge, at the edge of luscious and enchanting surroundings, she found herself spellbound, like she did in the her Grandmother's woods all those years ago. An uncontrollable optimism bubbled in her, her body resonated with an old audacity and, in an instant, a full lionhearted transformation took place. She remembered all the hopping and jumping and leaping of her youth, and though she was less nimble than she had once been, hopping up on a wooden rail for the perfect picture hardly seemed impossible. Yes, there was only one option and it was the one thing to which she had naively become attached: the leap.

Looking back now, she sees that she may have gotten more than just a slight start. She may have gotten a bit of a running start prompted by memories of rooftop leaping with her younger brother. Neighbors chasing them away. Hey, get off my garage! What do you think you're doing, I'm going to call the police! And the neighbors certainly could have called the police, at least that is what her brother and she imagined for they were stealing grapes off the neighbor's vines, vines twisted around whitewashed arbors, arbors they had climbed and marauded, and they were giddy with guilt. It was so easy—aloft, breathing in higher altitude, fat grapes in hand, nothing underfoot, rooftop to rooftop. There had been one close call: a toe hitting the edge of a tar shingle, a sudden jolt and then a lunge forward to the safety of a black sea of sandpaper. Except for scratched hands, they never got hurt doing it. But, as we know, that was decades, a lifetime ago. Still, she doesn’t often get hurt. Life is fairly uneventful except for, well, events.

Like the time she fell and hit her head hard while skiing. She probably had a concussion but she didn't see her doctor, didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Back then (that was a lifetime ago, too) nobody paid much attention to a head injury. They shook them off. Nobody signed paperwork confirming they had read all about the danger of concussion. If she had seen her doctor back then, she may have healed quicker. She may not be so fuzzy today.

There in the later afternoon, as the sun lowered, she bent her knees slightly and got her running start under the covered bridge, noting as she ran that the bridge did not have a wooden floor, and too bad, for it would be even prettier and feel softer underfoot had it a wooden floor. Pavement is hard and cold and, on this day, a bit slippery from the rains and the coating of wet crimson and gold leaves. Her stride, though, quickly narrowed to a skip, and she adjusted her body above the hips to match it. Yes, three skips and...

...Ah, a leap!—she was in the air just like between rooftops!—leading with the left (or was it the right?) leg, the other leg trailing, one foot hitting the top of the wood rail. She felt so alive, body in motion ascending upon the top of the rail, right or left leg following, soaring above ground in unison with the mind's intent. Yes, yes, just as planned! The air, sweet with the scent of plump Concord grapes, tasted as it had on those rooftops! She squeezed her iPhone tight like a stolen cluster of fruits, and then her right leg came in for the landing, her knee like a hinge thrusting the foot toward the wooden beam, and her foot stuck to its mount, sliding alongside its mate...

...But just then, in that moment, as she stuck her mount, she felt her knees knock together and she registered with a deep, panicky breath, a sudden and horrifying loss of equilibrium. In the next second, a second, her feet shifted and she teetered, her iPhone still in hand, reaching out to nothing—no wall, no guard, no rooftop—and lurched toward the ground, and down,




She hit the pavement hard, flattened like a grape in a crusher, at a 45º angle from the rail, all the air from her lungs trapped in the same panic she carried from the mount. Her left elbow had dug into  her abdomen just below the rib cage and the palm of her left hand was scraped and pocked by small stones. Oh no, oh no, this didn't just happen! The pain was sharp, throbbing, spasmodic, and a long moment passed before she raised herself from the cold ground.

Did anyone see? She was worried. Mortified. She felt as ridiculous as she did when, as a young teen, goaltending in a neighborhood soccer game, she was shoved into surrounding shrubbery and her backside (the part where the sun don't shine) was impaled by a splintered branch. She felt like a child who had done something foolish, only she did not have youth to blame. If she felt too mature for miniskirts or sports cars, she should have felt too mature to caper about bridges. She scanned the landscape and did not find anyone staring her way. In fact, she found no one around, and she was thankful to be alone, for how silly, small and foolish she must have looked.

There was a decision to be made now. She was up on her feet, creased at the waist, gripping her sides with crossed arms around her chest. She bent forward and back, turned from side to side, tiny, painful movements. She wanted to cry but no tears would come, she was too angry with herself. Now what. Now what will become of this weekend? Should I go home? Should I call the police? 911? She didn't dare call her husband—she didn't want to alarm him or her son. She limped over to the side of the bridge, the walkway behind the rail, and made her way to the overhang above the stream where she stood for a long while, gripping her midsection while chastising herself. When it became apparent that the pain would not subside and she would soon have to leave, she lifted her iPhone up to eye level and looked out over the stream, at its dense, leafy fringe of rust and pine hues. She centered the pinhole of the phone above the stream and pressed her thumb to the white circle three times. Click, click, click.

Her decision was to go home. But the pain her body registered overruled. She could barely walk, it hurt to move, to touch her torso, to turn in any direction, and the car took her to the hospital as if it wasn't her decision at all. She writhed in the car as the pain intensified, she moaned, she ran two red lights, drivers glared at her with dirty looks, and several cars honked. So what. Fuck you! Oh man, it hurt. It hurt even if she didn't want to know, didn't want to believe it hurt.

All the way to the hospital the accident looped through her head making her shake incredulously; she simply couldn't believe she’d slipped or done such a silly thing. Now she was worried that she had waited too long to go to the hospital—that she wouldn’t be out by ten when she had to pick up Lu. She was too embarrassed to call anyone for help. Should she turn around? What had happened to her judgment? But now in the hospital's parking lot she was committed, having lifted herself from her car, a nurse in the lot saw her wobbling and walked her to the ER.

Blood work first. Six vials. (Were they checking her blood alcohol level?) X-rays—too many she thought. And to be on the safe side, a contrast dye CAT scan to check for internal bleeding or other injuries. Her pain, tender in the belly below the ribs, had indicated spleen damage, and so the doctor was concerned about the spleen, the physician's assistant confided. She could have severed her spleen. Oh no, oh no, not that, she winced. That would mean immediate surgery. Surgery on a Saturday night! What could be worse? She watched the clock over the nurse's station move its long arm down to the six. It was now eight-thirty and she began to feel a chasm widen, its jagged black walls consuming her. Will I be out before ten? she asked a nurse anxiously. We'll see, the nurse said, staring at a monitor from behind her desk, We're waiting for results.

Shaking the quiver from her voice, she called Lulu—I am fine, don't worry, I'll keep you postedbit her lip when Lu got weepy, and then dialed up a friend. In the event her spleen had to be removed, her back-up plans were now in order.

Moments before ten o'clock, a languid-looking young physician shuffled beside her gurney just as she was expiring air from a spirometer (precautionary measure to keep the lungs clear, prevent pneumonia) after successfully keeping it in the "good" zone  (like the assistant had demonstrated, saying: See good, better, best on this chamber? You want the little yellow cap to float in the best zone. Pretend it's a hookah, breathe in slowly, hold, then out, prompting her to think, a hookah, ha, right!) and she sucked the air in, the cap rising and falling, and then let go the mouthpiece and pushed air out, joking that she hadn't done anything like this since college. Eeerrr, she whispered, holding the blue flexi-tube before the doctor—for comic relief— like she was handing him a water pipe. He smiled lightly with a sort of suspicious look that made her want to say, Kidding! I don't do that anymore, not in thirty years! She was afraid she might implicate herself in something she hadn't done; she was perfectly, perfectly, innocent. (Unlike the woman on the other side of the curtain who was brought in handcuffed and escorted by guards in gray clothing.) Besides they had the blood work to prove it.

Her failed attempt to make light of the situation, to get the young physician to laugh, made her self-conscious. Here she was, dismissing the boring and brutal truths of her advanced age, behaving like a teenager and paying the consequences. She couldn't possibly be more than a half-century-old; she didn't feel it—at least not up until this very moment, when the young physician looked at her with his long face of sympathy, and in that moment she knew it had to be true, she was old, her body was not as strong or as limber or as resilient as it once had been. The doctor straightened his posture and told her that she would be able to go home. Her ribs were badly bruised, contusions was the word, but she would be all right.

She should have been more cheered by these words, but she did not feel all right. Nothing seemed all right—the fall, forgetfulness, moments of ambiguous limpidity—nothing about her felt as sharp or as balanced as before. She was getting the picture now, a timeworn version of herself, like someone in a daguerreotype portrait—dark, silvered, antiquated—the time for miniskirts or sports cars or running around and leaping onto things has most certainly passed. Yes, everything has a time. There was a time she leapt over rooftops, a time she swung from tree branches like they were uneven parallel bars, and there was even a time when she skied five, six months pregnant (but never fell); yes, there was a time when she had done many foolish things, thinking herself invincible, and now was a time to digest the truth. She wasn’t any longer a gymnast or a dancer. She had become a cautious skier—in fact, with each passing winter, she came to enjoy the quiet and peace of skiing cross-country, along wide trails and fields, more so than racing down icy slopes. It took her longer now to read a book, to fill a page with words, to formulate plans and execute them. The truth of the matter is that some things were not as simple as they used to be, and the creeping progression of years had caught up to her; it was time to accept this and adapt to the alterations of mind and body that coincide with aging, embrace new limitations. After all, should we not, in our advanced years, be freed from the need to have to prove anything any longer?

She got in her car and back on the road, feeling like she had regained some control over herself, and picked up Lulu, who, despite being fourteen-years-old, insisted she drive home: I was so worried about you, Mama. What do you think, you’re Spider-Woman? You’re in no shape to drive. Let me, please—I know how to drive! Lu's insistence caused her more discomfort—she didn’t want Lu to think her  helpless. She snapped: I can do it, don't worry! I didn't take any pain medication at the hospital! Enough! You will listen! (She was in control, yes she was.) Lu puffed up, saying she ought to be able to drive in emergencies. This is how it went—Lulu playing mother, her playing despot—until they were safely home.

Sunday morning she woke to a terrible headache and a call from the hospital, a doctor telling her that the radiologist had found a fracture in her tenth rib. It was broken but treatment remained the same: as much rest as possible. On the couch, sore and sallow, spirometer in hand, she wondered if she would, or should, ever leap again. She told Lu that she’d never before broken a bone. Lots of sprains, scrapes and knocks, but no breaks, and she marveled hearing herself say these words, how it is that she managed to live through decades without one serious injury. What the rib break indicated, she was sure now, was a brake— a signal to yield to the years.

She looked at Lu and smiled, Is there a Spider-Woman? And she stuck the spirometer’s plastic mouthpiece between her lips, dragging in all the air she could puff, the lemony cap rattling and hovering in the better zone.

Lulu grabbed her mother's phone and scanned the picture of the bridge, gave her a hard look and said, Don't go out alone like that again.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Friday Night Frolic" — Meet Me at the Playground

[This FNF was initially published in 2011.  Reprinted here to celebrate those weeks that usher spring into summer—days in which we remember the past, commemorate our loved ones and glimpse into  future's shiny possibilities—the time of year when each day opens wide and warm and reminds us that the world is chockfull of beautiful things. Let's slow down, if just a little, and take it all in.]

At the playground, or in the park. Or anywhere the sun's warmth and the cool, breezy air conspire to liberate those heavy burdens tucked in your worn, leather satchel. (Gosh, that arm must be sore.) You might want to swap the satchel for something light, like a crisp canvas tote bag filled with peaches and champagne and a Frisbee. Wear your All Stars. Or your woven slip-on sidewalk surfers. Or flip-flops. Or nothing at all. Bring your felt Indiana Jones hat, or a baseball cap, or a straw fedora, or anything brimmed and easily stolen by the wind.

It's been a long time.

How will I know you? Will you still look the same?

Remember my small Brooklyn Heights apartment on Kane, where I gazed at Lady Liberty from the third floor paint-chipped window? I could walk to the park from there. A long walk. I won't do it like that, though. Not this time. I want to get there quickly. I'll take the subway from Cobble Hill to Prospect Park. (If I can still do that. If it's still there.) Up Flatbush. I always liked the underground surprises along Flatbush.

I'll be waiting for you. At the swings. Adorned in a long, gauzy skirt, white t-shirt, beige linen blazer and crinkle scarf. And flip-flops. We'll spread a colorful, vintage Peruvian blanket under a large singing sycamore, pop the cork and consume fuzzy fruit and bubbly. Our cheeks will blush with spring's lustrous shadegolden rays and mossy, ripening trees, cherry plumaged cardinals and deep blue, blossoming crocuses.

Late afternoon you'll decide to pull the old drum sticks from your tote and bang them against the tin filled with chocolate mouse layer cake. I'll be amazed you've kept them all these years. I'll want to cry, but I won't. The ice cream guy will come by with his cart and you'll buy two vanilla bean ice cream cones, and we'll toss the Frisbee while licking streams of sweet goo racing down the waffled spires, running through our fingers. We'll put thick blades of green grass between our thumbs and blow. If it's not playing on someone's transistor radio we'll still hear music in the air. We might even sing. We might even dance.

Then we'll head over to the playground. Remember how we used to play? Hopscotch or jump rope or the see-saw or monkey bars... You used to dangle from that damned center bar and never let me pass. We'd spin on the little merry-go-round 'til we were dizzy.

Remember some kid almost lost a leg on that spinny thing? We won't do any spinning this time. But we might hop on that little springy frog. We might go for a slide on the big one with bumps in the middle, and jump through recycled tires. (Though we might also need some Dramamine to do it all.)

Or perhaps we'll just sit on the colorful, vintage Peruvian blanket, and eat ripe peaches. And layered cake. And vanilla bean ice cream. And we'll listen to spring's symphony:  birds, swaying trees, the little waterfall, babies on the carousel, and pedal boats on the pond.

And get to know one another again.

When it's silent, in that shared-grin moment, we'll know it's time to pack up our bags. We'll meander past the playground one last time. You'll be whistling. I'll challenge you to a monkey bar duel. But this time, I know you'll let me pass. This time you might even hold my hand. In mid-air. As I pass. Your arm will no longer be sore.

We'll remember that we were always layers of percussion and harmony.

We'll still like each other. A lot.

I'll want you to take the subway back home with me. So we can get there quickly.

Percussion and Harmony.

(And lots more over at Pearl and the Beard. Go visit!)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What the Dogwood Says

Our dogwood tree has a limb pulling away from its slim, moss-mottled trunk. Michael shored it up with a supersized rubber band and golden poultice that makes it look as if a jar of mustard shattered in the limb’s collar, splattering up its scaly arm. Today, while photographing its rosy petals, I noticed that it is still oozing Dijon, but I’m hoping that it’s on the mend.

Watching Michael work at saving our pretty, fragile-looking (though its strong, sturdy wood is hardly delicate) dogwood reminded me of the day Father planted dogwoods in the back and front yards of the old colonial on Collins Street. He had acquired the trees from two elderly ladies, sister spinsters, with whom he worked at Falk Brothers, Clothiers, downtown—a part-time job he kept to supplement his teaching income. The sisters were looking for another home for their dogwoods, and were happy to give them away to anyone willing to dig them up. So, Father went over to the sisters’ place with his long handled round-point shovel, dug up the trees, and hauled them back home.

Before the dogwoods, the front and back yards were bare except for an azalea and mountain laurel that Father had also dug up from elsewhere. The young trees with their dainty petals made the yards look regal, and gave me a sense of being firmly planted in our quarter-acre city lot homestead.

I did not know then that dogwood roots are shallow. And I wonder, now, if I should try to find meaning in this, as if there is, or should be, a greater meaning. Michael and I didn’t plant the dogwood in our front yard. The front beds had already been landscaped when we moved in. Plantings were low to the ground and generously spaced. I could see the hydrangea behind the Japanese cherry. The rose of Sharon stood upright. The fire bush was not on fire. Then, we added to the beds, and now the beds are overgrown and unruly with greenery that is cannibalizing itself, a mass of roots zapping nutrients—the life—out of the mulch-covered soil.

Michael likes the overgrown beds. I like to see out my front windows. Michael doesn’t like to cut the bramble. I don’t like to watch plants suffocate or consume one another. So every once in a while, when Michael is not looking, I grab the hedge trimmers and cut. This is a game we (or at least I) have been playing for nearly fifteen years. Sometimes he notices (and gets sore at me), sometimes he doesn’t. But we’re at a point now, our shrubbery being so dense and tall, that I would have to use a chain saw to lob  off the overgrowth. I don’t know how to use a chainsaw. But I could learn.

My sharp-witted, perspicacious writing advisor tells me to search for meanings or literary opportunities that may not have been apparent to me in my first drafts. In other words, to look for what might accentuate or heighten the awareness of a certain feeling. Dig deeper, but not telegraph the meaning with hyperbole (hyperbole—ha, me?), or push hard to impart significance. Rather, the deeper meaning must speak for itself, and I must allow it to present itself to me “to record with a colder eye.” He is right. And I know it. And why I don't do this in my first drafts, when my tendency is to search for truth, meaning, in everything, I don't know. Maybe I'm afraid of what I'll find.

Still, I know this: truth makes for better writing.

There was a time when my eyes were very cold. Very, very cold, and I could have recorded most anything I observed with the harshness of an ice storm. But my range of view has widened and warmed. Shallow roots aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, a shallow-rooted tree can easily topple in a hurricane, but its roots won’t clog drainage fields or crumble a home’s foundation. Shallow roots make for beautiful blushing petals that fold out to reveal the sparkling fruit within, like the pretty dogwood that’s fixed in our front bed.

Native Americans forged daggers and arrow shafts from Dogwood. Some of this nation’s oldest textile mills housed weaving shuttles made of dogwood. The tree has been used to make golf clubs, and its bark, flowers, berries, leaves and roots have all, in one way or another, been utilized as medicinal remedies.

The dogwood’s fruit, I have learned, symbolizes endurance.

I read recently of a Christianity-based myth that claims the Romans used dogwood to make crosses on which criminals were crucified, including the instrument of torture to which Jesus was nailed. After the crucifixion, the pink tint of the dogwood’s petals, which vaguely outline the shape of a cross, revealed the “blush of shame” for how the tree was used. God later proclaimed that the tree would never again grow large, and thus the dogwood of our day is a mere dwarf of its predecessor.

When I read this, I wondered if my literate Father had known of this tale. I doubt he’d have given it much credence, or thought to root a dogwood in our yard based on its symbolism, though he did like to recount a good moral story. Father was a hard worker who made many sacrifices in order to provide for his wife and six children, holding down several jobs to feed and clothe his family, shingling the house, building decks and ice rinks and even a new room, transplanting trees in order to landscape a city lot. He could solve any math problem as easily as he corrected his student's grammar quizzes and essays. He was a jack of all trades, and I don't remember him ever hiring anyone to build, repair, renovate or manage anything that needed to be done in connection with the old homestead. He was faithful to his family and the value of a dollar. Mostly, he was pragmatic.

If anything, he planted the dogwoods because they were cheap—costing him his labor only, which, knowing Father, made the acquisition that much more gratifying. And since we know that the dogwood is a strong and durable tree, he could count on his effort paying off. The bonus was the graceful shapes, the way those trees gently opened to the world.

Almost fifty years from the day they were planted, the old dogwoods still stand in the front and back yards of the colonial in which I grew up. Healthy as ever. 

I’ll take that as a good sign.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Magnolia Has Come Around

In such a way, in a way that not I, nor words, should express. Just look. And listen.

No. Words.

"But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years 
with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again." ~George Seferis

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Month of Rains

April has come to mean many things to me. April is often when we head south during school vacation, taking time for this little family to regroup in a warmer and less hurried setting. Although this year Max is taking Drivers Ed courses during his week off from school. Driver's Ed for chrissakes!

Two years ago this month I wrote about Mary Gaitskill in The Startling Subterrane of Demonsand published eight other blog posts, including a little ditty about the la la la of anodyne, and a family trip to Niagara Falls (slowly we turned, step by step...).  Last year, in April, I wrote about losing my friend Sheila, and a family trip to D.C. It wasn't the best of months, yet there was still beauty, a lovely diffused  April glow, in its lengthened days. This April has not offered much time to blog, try as I may. And so...

Word of the day is splenetic. One meaning: melancholy (though obsolete).

April is rainy. Around this time, two years ago, I told you that Max loves a rainy day. But that the rains tend to hurl melancholy straight to my mind's warped door. The magnolia has not yet come around. (True. I just looked.) This time last year, I told you April hath thirty days. It hasn't changed.

(If I'm not mindful I could eat a whole 12.60 ounce bag of frozen m&ms in one sitting—in which case, I might become splenetic. In a different way.)

April is National Poetry Month.

(This could be The Blog of Links.)

This month, Lulu submitted her first poem for publication. She's been writing lots of poems. As she did last year and the year before that and the year before...

Here's one she wrote today:


Dribble dribble drop
There’s another thought
One, then two, then three
The emotions pour out of me
The page is filled with countless words
Ink the color of robin birds
No date or time
This is only mine

It was pouring yesterday when I picked her up from lacrosse practice. Rain and lightning and high winds, barrels and cardboard and all kinds of debris flying across the roads. She tossed her equipment in the trunk, jumped in the front seat and happy sing-songed, April showers bring May flowers!

Yes, indeed.

(I'll let you know when the magnolia comes around.)

The picture of her that tops this post was taken in an April of more than a few years back. Maybe six or seven. Or eight. I can't remember. But it was April all those years ago, and we were in Gettysburg. Lemme tell you, if the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in D.C. doesn't get to you (I know: if you are human the VVMW got to you), Gettysburg will.

After a splenetic meltdown in April in Gettysburg of all those years ago, we bought Lu a wood stock, steel barrel, pink Lady Kentuckian musket. Her brother had gotten a toy rifle the day before (against my wishes) and, thanks to her father, there was no saying No to her.  We walked Pickett's Charge, where this photo was taken, and could feel the low drumming of that war. Melancholy. There were boys on that field. Boys.

Emily Dickinson was thirty-three years old on July 3, 1863, the day Pickett and his troops charged across the open field. Though miles away in Amherst, MA, Dickinson was deeply moved by the events  of the Civil War which made its way into her poetry, in poems like My Portion is Defeat—today.

But it is this beautiful Dickinson poem (that has nigh a drop of rain but water, water everywhere), the unabashed wildness of nature, a long, long way from Gettysburg, war, the wildness of man, that I'll share with you today:

Poem 23: In the Garden

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad, —
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless, as they swim.
Happy April. Happy Spring. Read poetry! Write poems!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

We Are In Lockdown

We are in lockdown.

The police are on campus investigating an issue.

The children are safe.

These were not the precise words. They may have been arranged differently: We're in lockdown mode. Police are in the building and the matter is under control. The children are not in danger.

Or: We're calling to notify you that the school is currently in a lockdown situation. Police are here. The children are safe and there's no danger.




It was 8:08 AM when my cell phone rang this morning, and it didn't matter what the hell the exact words or sequence of words were. Something, a robot, a machine, dialed my cell phone number because that is the number on the emergency contact list kept on record at the school that my children attend. The school is in lockdown, the recorded voice announced, the school is in lockdown, police are there, children are safe.

My bones froze. A second, maybe two, I could not move. Then, Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Taft Union, Chardon High. No, it can't be that. They are safe. Safe. Upstairs, Michael dressed for work. I ran, ran, don't remember the movement of my feet or ascending the risers, the rush was too great.

"Something's going on at school," I said to him, "but the kids are safe. I'm not panicking." I pressed my hands together, my wrists trembling, my heart hammering. Something whirred in my head, like the fan Michael turns on each night. White noise. A scramble. No, I won't get in the car. No. I will wait for more news. No, I will call my neighbor. Her son is in the same school. The same lockdown. The same police. Safe.

"What? Let's find out what's going on," he said bluntly—his sober response an attempt to  contain alarm.

I punched numbers on the same phone that had only moments prior transmitted horrific words. My neighbor hadn't gotten the message. I called another neighbor, another mother. She hadn't gotten the message. More whirring: How does this work? Who gets the messages? What does one do with the words? I'll call Lulu. No. What if she is crouched on the floor, in a corner, or under her desk, and her cell phone rings and the killer hears it? No! No. If she plays by school rules, her phone will not be on. It will be in her locker. No. Kids break the rules. She'll have it. But it will be on silent. I won't call. She's safe. Why are my eyeballs tearing? Is this magical thinking? No. I won't panic. Lu is safe. Max is safe. They are safe.

The woman who cleans my house every month showed up at the door. I'd forgotten she was coming. Information about the lockdown is trickling in via text, she tells me. She knows someone who has a daughter or a niece, a relative, at the school. Rumor. Conjecture. Guesses. This is not what the school wants, I'm sure. They want LOCKDOWN. Do you know what that means? It means the opposite of evacuation. It means you are in a situation known as a state of emergency. An emergency holding. You are put in a hole, a quiet cell. A dark, silent hole. Hiding. Something outside of the hole is threatening you. Something threatening is happening. You don't know what's happening because you are not allowed to communicate with anyone within or without the hole. The hole is a safe place where you remain down and locked.

Students began posting on Twitter: This is for realz! #lockdown; Valentines day and I'm stuck in the corner of TC #romantic #lockdown #BASICBITCHTWEET; this will be a valentines day to remember #codegreen; a senior went psycho and the popos had to come #wesurvived; Police supervised lockdown #awesome #CodeGreen.

Helvitica took on a new meaning. It was no longer a “neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form.” It was Hell, it was victims, it was combat arms.

On Facebook, kids were updating their statuses: I'm scared. I'm hiding in a corner. We're in lockdown.

As I read the messages I felt worry's weight amassing, my chest constricting. Children were scared, and others coped by making light of the ordeal, turning it into a farce, a bitch tweet, a romance, an epic moment.

cracked and sent a text to my son. I know Max's phone, if he has it, is on silent. It is never on ring. In a large whale-like bubble, I thumbed (praying this wouldn't be the one day his ringtone was on): Are you ok? School is in lockdown what's going on?  He thumbed back: Fine ya. A drug search, lk 5 cop cars.

Then Lulu's text: Ya, it might have been somebody with a gun... But we r all good now so it's fine. :)

My body arched into a reflexive exhale, a warm, wheezy stream of air tumbling furiously from my lungs. Still. Lockdown. Anything can happen. Anything, terrible things, have happened. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown... What kind of messages did they receive?

(So far, in 2013, within the first thirty-one days of this new year alone, there have been eight, eight, school shootings in the United Sates of America.)

At 8:32 AM, my iPhone rang and lighted with another recorded message from the school, this time notifying parents, guardians, loved ones, people, human beings who love those kids more than anything else in the entire fucking world, that all was fine. The children are safe. Lockdown has ended. Everything is under control.

An email followed from the school principal which gave me only a vague idea of what happened within or around the school's brick walls. He wrote that their security procedures were put into place as soon as the situation called for it. A protocol was followed which required the lockdown. The lockdown ended uneventfully, the situation addressed.

"In these times we have to treat every concern with the highest level of response necessary to ensure the safety of all."

God. Help us.

The principal had been tipped off by some, I don't know how many, smart, thoughtful, concerned students as to a possible—a possibly very real—threat. He took these concerns seriously and responded the way the world must respond now: swiftly, peremptorily, judiciously. I am so thankful for this. But sad for the world. And I want the details. 

Details. As if the details will offer me comfort. Control.

Now, more stories unfold, evolve, about a quiet, long-haired boy sending messages into the world, trigger warnings, that he was coming undone. Loosened? Mad? Disturbed? Who knows! How many of us are confused and distressed and angry? I can't say what the boy did or articulated. I don't know, I don't wish to engage in conjecture. Truly, I don't wish to engage with anything at the moment. Just the keys of my laptop. It's all I can do to stay sane. Everything else I'd planned for today is finis. We are all so close to sudden ruin. Disaster. Immunity is nonexistent. Safety? Safety is an illusion. Vulnerable is what we are. We don't know what's around the corner. In the corner. Anything can happen at any moment. Any day. Valentine’s Day. While exchanging chocolates and candied hearts.

Joan Didion's words, echoing the experiences and sentiments of so many others, and of my own, haunt me:
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.

When my children leave the house I say two things:I love you. Be safe.” All I really should say is, "I love you."
            I love you, I love you, I love you.

[The above photo was taken with my iPhone at the local library—a former Monastery.]