Standing Inside Myself

"Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry" Muriel Rukeyser “For an impenetrable shield,stand inside yourself” Henry David Thoreau

Category: Essays

Reflection

gray and black rock formation

Photo by Michael Judkins on Pexels.com

Although the shore is rocky, the bottom of Wilson Bay is sandy, which makes it a nice body of water to set anchor and go for a swim. It’s normally an easy trip around Dablon Point–a ten minute ride. The wind was already picking up by the time we decided to take the boat out. When my father makes a schedule, he likes to stick to it.

As soon as we hit the lake proper, I knew I was in trouble. The chop was rough, and I suffer from intense motion sickness. Even the assisted pull-up machine at the gym makes me queasy. The wind was pushing the waves from the West, so the bay was just as rough as the lake. Before the anchor was set, I dove into the water and swam for terra firma. I contemplated walking the five miles home in my bathing suit, without shoes, so as not to have to get on the lurching vessel ever again.

Wilson beach is covered in various sizes of smooth surf-weathered stones. There are also larger flat sedimentary rocks, with fossil imprints that used to fascinate me as a  child, and huge boulders. I scrambled to the closest flat rock and sat to absorb some of its heat. The water was chilly and the wind was brisk. I was nauseous and freezing.

Both of my daughters are certified lifeguards, but this fact didn’t stop me from panicking every time they swam below the turbulent surface. I reasoned to calm myself: the water was only five feet deep, they were strong swimmers, I was overprotective, everything would be fine. But I knew if the unthinkable happened, if they got swept under, I  would not be able to save them. I was nauseous and freezing and uncomfortably nervous.

My father is seventy-six years old. Despite being in very good physical shape, he has been having trouble with his Achilles tendons, so when he dove into the water and started to make his way toward shore I started to panic in earnest. He swam a little and then walked the remainder of the distance slowly and surely with his mouth set in a firm line. He concentrated on staying upright and on not swallowing any water, while I imagined my entire family drowning in front of my eyes.

Safely on shore, the uneven rocky terrain proved daunting. He stumbled to find his footing and crumpled into a sitting position about three feet in front of me. I watched him from my stony perch. He sat with his legs apart in front of him, knees bent the way men often sit. His shoulders were slumped a little. If I were sitting closer I might have reached out and put my hand on his back, a small sign of solidarity. An acknowledgement that to age is no simple matter. When one of the girls was under the water for what seemed like too long, he turned to me and asked, “Where’s Frances?”  I come by my anxieties naturally.

My father is my America. He is a man who always tries to do what’s right. He is organized, steadfast, reliable, fair. This does not mean he doesn’t make mistakes, but he is coachable, a team player, a good sport. He is honest and kind. He will always extend a hand. When I was younger, his rules and limits seemed oppressive, suffocating, and simplistic, but I have come to realize that his solidity is what allowed me to explore beyond my perceived boundaries. It was knowing, albeit unconsciously, that he was always there firmly rooted and consistent that allowed me to become me, despite my fears.

My daughters are also my America. They are young and fresh. They are trying to find their creative paths, learning to be responsible, discovering the nuances of love in the age of contradiction and lunacy. They are bright lights with sweet hearts. They are pure potential for all things good. This doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but they are coachable, team players, good sports. They are honest and kind. They will always extend a hand.

In the current political climate I find myself sitting daily on those flat warm rocks, chilled and sick to my stomach with dread, and trying to meditate away my fears that my America might drown.  One thing is certain in this time of uncertainty, I am a strong swimmer. Had any of my family members struggled, I would have instantly been in the water. I would have attempted a rescue or gone down trying. Your father is my father. Your daughters are my daughters. Your America is my America, and I am a strong swimmer.

The waves were bigger and the wind was stronger on the way home. I sat in the front of the boat willing myself not to puke. Each time the bow slammed down on the rough water it felt like my internal organs were being crushed together. At one point, I looked back at my dad. He glanced at me and chuckled mischievously acknowledging in his own way that the lake was really too rough. The lake was really too rough, but we made it home and nobody drowned.

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Constitution Eclipse

There is an essay coagulating in my bloodstream as I fold the laundry. There is language sprouting from my gut as I wash the dishes. Words like privilege and paradox and humanity are hovering on a frequency just beyond cohesion. The more I reach out and try to grab them the more they unravel into space. I decide to swat the impulse away. I need to get my house in order. I don’t have time to write this love letter. Yet, it means to be written. It whispers to me: slow down and clear your heart. Come back to the page to expose your truth. It refuses to be eclipsed. The floor will have to be washed later.

 

At the beginning of the summer I was prompted to explore the meaning of constitution beyond symbolism. My investigation followed a specific tributary: one that desired to see self as it really is. My self. My truest self. No different from the self of other. In short, my exploration led to an epiphany. I am built in ways I have ignored. I am not the person I have convinced my self exists. And to eclipse the full totality of who I am, the all of it, the full spectrum of humanity expressed, is to allow the less savory aspects of self to flourish secretly in the dark.

 

Left untended these parts of self grow restless. I have come to suspect that while these darker characteristics of human nature are not meant to be wantonly unleashed, they need to be acknowledged: nurtured even. These shadow tendencies of self know their place.They simply want self to re-recognize their existence and then re-recognize their existence in others. The hypothesis formed. If you can recognize the shadow self within, you will be able to identify this for what it is in others: a reflection of humanity eclipsed. Therefore, all constitutions must acknowledge silhouette.

 

The problem with my experiment becomes self evident almost immediately. If shared in totality, my proofs are incriminating. They do not fit neatly in the general narrative of the who I believe I am. They do not fit neatly in the general narrative of social acceptability or moral equivalent. Others, most likely, will fail to see themselves reflected in my shadows. But at least for now, I can see them reflected in mine. And this is a beginning.

 

As the moon passed in front of the sun, I made a silent commitment to my shadowy contour. I promised my grayer selves that in  the moments when I choose not to look up for fear of being blinded, I will at the very least attempt to remove my own blinders. And when  searching for the light within, I will name the darkness as well. In this way to re- remember not only when I tend to shine but also how the light necessitates darkness, without which there could be no reflection.

 

To look closely at my own shadows.To pay attention to them. To be honest with myself. These were my promises, and I have been shocked at what I have uncovered. Still, it has been worth it if when I turn my gaze again to others, I see them through vigilant eyes of one who understands and sees her own limitations reflected in those she previously judged as lacking.

 

My constitution is paradoxical. My constitution is in flux. My constitution inhabits every possibility. It will not be eclipsed.

 

Namaste

Retta Reads To Me

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The Pokey Little Puppy doesn’t get any pudding. Henny Penny thinks the sky is falling. Lassie faces the dangerous and very angry black bull. There are unexplained giant footprints and pies baking on a ledge.

I make farm animals with Play-doh. After a while the play-doh animals develop crusty white spots. I am disappointed by this deformity.

I play grocery store with an old cash register. She saves all her used cans and boxes. I learn to count change. I learn to dry seeds on Styrofoam meat tray.

I eat white currents from the bush and pears from the tree. I eat wild strawberries at the bus stop. They are tiny and sweet.

We eat oatmeal from the outside in so as not to burn our tongues. When we get to the bottom of the bowl we see Hop a Long Cassidy.

On special occasions we have homemade waffles for dinner, but we must always eat our beans or beets or swiss-chard from the garden even if there is syrup on our plates. I do not like to mix sweet with savory.

She makes milk from powder and tells my brother it is fresh. She says you cannot tell the difference. This is a magnificent lie.

I refuse to come inside. I am waiting for my father to pick me up, and I am terrified he will not know where to find me. I leave my bologna and Velveeta cheese sandwich on the kitchen table. She cuts the sandwich into four equal parts. There is always a glass of milk.

She chases me around the propane tank with a fly-swatter. There is a smell of lilacs.

There are still chamber pots under the bed, and she uses a washing board. I watch her hand wring her underwear.

The creek runs beneath the road through a concrete tunnel. In the summer we play in this cool damp secret place.

Reflection: Day Twenty

Last year marked the first year that I held down a full time job that can be described as a “career”  as in: “Congratulations on your career change!” and “We are so excited for your new career opportunities!” As an artist-writer and then mother of two, my twenty odd years working in the service industry, which afforded me the luxury to continue making stuff while raising children apparently failed to pass the “career” mustard. A career, I guess, must include benefits like health insurance. So last year, at forty seven years of age, I became a high school English teacher of students with learning challenges.

To be honest I love working with students. Love with a capital L O V E. And even as there are many aspects of working in a “professional” environment that I detest, the energy of “almost adults” is fresh and inspiring. Sure, teenagers add drama and heartbreak, but they also bring so much joy and inquisitiveness to the table. Adolescents are the quintessential searchers. Creatively speaking, so much learning happens at the cusp of change, especially when one is actively seeking.

One of the side effects of this new career has been a significant loss of my own creative time. There are after all only so many hours in a day. My way of digesting and coping with an often difficult world is to write. When I write I feel a direct connection to God or Source or the Universe. The writing process in all its forms from day or night dreaming to meditating to sitting down at the keyboard or with pen in hand and the spilling of words that come forth: this process is what keeps me alive.

Over the course of this first year of teaching, I underestimated the importance of my writing practice. While I was conscious of the fact I was missing the time I spent with myself and words in communion with spirit, I was busy learning how to organize a classroom, developing and negotiating new relationships, researching learning strategies and taking care of my home and family. In retrospect, I recognize that by the end of the last semester I was creatively running on empty. I wasn’t writing, I was frazzled both mentally and physically, and it showed.

One of the obvious benefits of teaching is having time off in the summer. However, my unbalanced-self began this first summer vacation (with pay) with a mile long list of everything I needed to accomplish. My unbalanced-self felt like she needed to make up for lost time. The house needed to be painted, the yard was overgrown, her children had itineraries, she had gained unwanted weight, her husband needed attention, she had manuscripts to edit and shop, and bills to be paid. She also had unwritten poems in her head, and she kept missing the thread of stories that paused close to consciousness before evaporating because she wasn’t present enough to notice them.

I wasn’t present. Without a writing practice I didn’t have a clean enough filter to process the world around me. It felt like everything dark and murky about a life lived was stuck inside of my body. Alphabet soup was clogging up the works. I was becoming literally and metaphorically too thick and heavy to carry.

When I wrote in my last post that I was listening and that I was making a thirty day commitment to myself, I believe these words resonated with pure intention because, albeit slowly, after sharing them, I began to reorient, to come back to center, to remember how to sit quietly in my room, to crawl out of the abyss and allow life to unfold, to reach out to friends, and to re-establish my relationship to words and self and Source.

In another month I return to my students and a hectic schedule. Rest assured, this year I will not abandon my writing process. It turns out that writing is as important to my survival as air and water. My truth: While writers  can’t survive on words alone, they also can’t survive without them.

Memorial Day

This morning passion:

tiniest woodpecker
ever seen. He hops
in the branches above
while I drink coffee
his still bald head
and the way it looks
like he is rehearsing
for when he is grown
as he pecks at only
the smallest branches
cracks my heart wide

I maneuver through the world, for the most part, heart cracked wide.

Except when I don’t.

Except when I tighten my heart like a fist ready to lash out, or to hold close, too close, when I feel like to walk around wide open for another second will cost too much; be the undoing of me. This me.

But this feeling is just this: a feeling based on thinking, on thinking based in fear, and it will pass. Everything does. Always.

I have learned, for the most part, that wide open is never too much; that a clenched heart costs much more, despite what others tend to argue. That cliché about it being better to have loved and lost as opposed to never loving is only partially true. Having loved (or love) you can never really lose. Really. Better to love always. Always love better. Unless that is, you attach yourself to all the specifics. This. Just this. So temporary. All of it.

The Tarot card I pulled yesterday said “Let Go”. Of course it did. This of all lessons I am always struggling with.

Impermanence is my stone to cast, and yet I would rather hold tight and let it drag me to the bottom of the sea.

For this there can be no surprise: that I have landed in a classroom in a smallish school with children to love. No surprise that I have landed in a classroom in a smallish school with children to love that will flow in and out of my life at a constant rate. To remind me to enjoy the moments. To teach me to allow love. To help me let go of those that pass.

This is my practice: To be present in love, allowing of love, and un-attached to love.

The tide comes in: I hold you in love. The tide flows out: I let you go in love. As my heart cracks wider creating more and more space.

Namaste

Poet-ing

I am not much of a writer lately. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Junior Burke about writers and writing. He said to be a writer, you have to write. I chuffed at this idea. Then. But maybe he was right. I don’t know. Maybe my objection was all in the semantics. I think so. I think when he said “writing” I heard “poet-ing.” Yes. This feels better. Because while  writing may require the  act of putting words on a page, an act that requires time teaching and mommy-ing and wife-ing steal from me, poet-ing only requires sight. To be a poet is a way of seeing, with or without the action of actually placing words on a page.  Truett said this week: “Miss, I love how you see poetry in everything.”He was more or less laughing at me. And that’s okay. It’s true. I do. I remember Richard Froude predicted that few of us would remain “writers.” Life intercedes. My guess is; regardless, we are all still poets.

For what it’s worth here is a poem I wrote from the prompt I gave my students this week. It is the first I’ve been able to compose in some time. While they struggled to understand how disparate parts can bump into each other and become something unexpected-something altogether lovelier, there were some beautiful accidents, a slight  refocusing, and some poet-ing happened. And while they worked, I managed to “write” some words on a page; to be a “writer” for a moment.

Thank you Cho for the “scratching” and Ben for “the washed up bottle” and Mike for “chuffed” and Jim for the prompt.

Current Research on Patterns of Ocean Currents

 The breeze presses the low hum of morning traffic from Highway 27 against my skin. Like brown fingers cupping my face ocean tastes all fresh brewed and smells like waking up in crumpled linens. I imagine Marilyn Monroe hanging her bed-sheets on a clothes line in Uzbekistan. Marilyn Monroe would not be caught dead in Uzbekistan.

 He tells me you can’t eat or drink for an entire day before getting scratched. Only then do scars manifest—(the opposite of) shadow, an absence of pigment, lines his arm. Still, blood rarely if ever has your best interest at heart; measures nothing of badness and forget about saturation. Patience was something the mountain taught me: kill two stones with one bird.

 An April bottle from 1906 washed up on the island of Amrum. It was quite a stir when we opened that envelope. His wife stopped struggling. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always go back. Baby is getting tired, determined to fulfill the vow.  When the sky is blue winter is coming. Para bens filha. The moon listens to your every wish, forget about the bruised plate glass and grandmother’s lost tongue. Bed-sheets swirl into ocean currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honey-Bell

An orange tree in my yard was recently uprooted. It is not the first time.

During the hurricanes of 2004, it succumbed, but my husband dragged it upright and strapped it to another sturdier tree. He covered the exposed roots with more dirt and fertilizer, and it settled back into living as we settled back into fixing damaged roofs and windows and porches.

Wind is not the only menace to the trees, and like much citrus in Florida this relic could not withstand the spread of disease.

It is hard to prevent diffusion of infection once it sets its course. All we can do is look away as the leaves mottle and the fruit scar and drop and the roots slowly relinquish their hold.

When I first lived on this piece of property the tree was gorgeous and lush; my children used to pick the fruit, peel away a spot to suck; return to me with faces and fingers all sticky and sandy, ready for a bath.

This fruit grown on our own lot and all the sweeter for it.

The tree is located on the south side of our barn, and for a variety of reasons this time we didn’t notice it had fallen until a couple of days after the wind subsided. My youngest daughter saw it first. I am only surprised that it wasn’t me who noticed when my sister fell.

And there she rests: leafless now with upturned gnarled mangled greying roots. Waiting.

Untitled

There are these nouns: hope and futility. And this other noun: edge. As in the edge, which suggests a separation from hope— from futility. A suggestion is exactly what it sounds like. No, this is ridiculous. I only assume that I know how suggesting sounds. The same way I assume that ornery sounds like its meaning. The same way I assume I can accurately describe a tree. As if the word tree and all the words used to describe tree that drip from my lips are more important than what it, the word, represents. As if what tree represents doesn’t exist on the other side of language. Of course it does. But so does the word. A separate entity. I know that I know because someone once told me. And then they told me again and again until the symbol became the thing that I couldn’t relinquish. How hope is pretty, and futility is decrepit.

Decrepit was one of my students’ vocabulary words last week. They tell me in myriad ways, both literally and figuratively, how they don’t want to be temporary. They use phrases that begin with words like logically, and it’s always been, and absolutely, and of course. I try to convince them that words are not their friends. They blink. How temporary is impossible. I’m lying. I don’t tell them this. There are other words to consider like blasphemy, so instead I teach them about bias and ideology and rhetoric. More words. I tell them to discern. I tell them their thoughts are not their own. No I don’t. There are other words to consider like employability and fear. So much alphabet soup to drown in. How to explain to them the decrepit nature of language while simultaneously swooning in its hopeful porosity?

My daughter has nightmares about holes in her skin. This does not appear to be very hopeful. I take my first ballet class on my mother’s 68th birthday. This seems to resonate with futility. But these too are just groups of words perched on the edge. And if you were to reconstruct these scenes, you wouldn’t be able to tell that I have always been dancing and there have always been holes in my daughter’s skin and that holes are filled with space and that space is nothing to be diminished. Because space is composed of hope and futility. And in-between this hopeful inhale and futile exhale is the edge. And the edge is an illusion. And illusion is just that.

Lingerings

Wedding bands have most commonly been worn on the third finger of the left hand. Romans believed that a vein ran directly from this finger to the heart. Perhaps this explains why in 2009 the plain white gold band, which encircled my finger, began to make my heart beat too fast.

It was not deeply rooted magical significance that caused this new association between the symbolic circle of undying love and ensuing panic. None the less, this public declaration of hope and commitment to lifelong union and renewal was stealing my breath.

When an arbitrary band of gold is infused with symbolic meaning, the embodiment of which causes the wearer to experience episodes of extreme and irrational terror, there is no other choice but to remove the tainted metal. So, I took it off. I exposed pale white flesh beneath and placed it in a box on my nightstand.

The phrases “I love you” and “I wish to be with you forever” have a shadowy cousin: “You are mine.” This relationship is emphasized by the fact that originally rings were worn by wives only, and that marriages were contracts between families more than lovers. The truth is that I wanted a ring. I wanted to belong.  To be someone’s—a token of possession—she was no longer available to circulate amongst other men.  Black Elk says everything tries to be round. Some of us try harder than others.

After her husband returned her rings, which she had removed before going to the beach with another man, Edna behaved like a little girl when she “…slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh.” The endlessness of the circle may signify commitment, but a woman and her commitment are not defined by the existence or absence of one ring alone.

“The majority of courts find that the gift of an engagement ring contains an implied condition of marriage; acceptance of the proposal is not the underlying deal. Absent some other understanding –say, that the ring is merely a memento of a great trip to Hawaii — most courts look at engagement rings as conditional gifts given in contemplation of marriage.”

With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship,

And with my worldly goods I thee endow

You—you are consecrated to me with this ring

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity

The servant of god betrothed to the handmaid of god

In the name of the father, and of the son, and the Holy Spirit

 

I prefer white gold to yellow, so I have the engagement ring dipped. Years pass, the dipped facade is eroding; yellow festers and rises to the surface. There is a ringing in my ear. There are dark rings under my eyes. Does this story ring true? To surround, to form, to ornament, to hem in. To move, fly, or spiral in a circular course. A ring as territory. For example: to arouse an often indistinct memory. A ring of fire, ring bone, ring dove, ring leader. A ringlet, ring side, ring tailed and removing a circular strip of bark around the circumference of a tree.

The way some women twirl their rings, others sweep their floors with contempt. Once the ring is removed from my finger, it loses much of its significance. It is, after all, a symbol, a representation, which only offers up part of my story. I take my wedding band off, but the Earth doesn’t tilt off its axis. My husband fails to notice.

I start to experiment with alternatives: the thick gold band with someone else’s inscription my mother picks up at a tag sale, the contemporary amethyst my father gave me for my thirtieth birthday, a snazzy glass globe from Pier I that cost four dollars. Nothing changes except the rings. This is both comforting and disconcerting.

I have other rings sequestered away. The diamond chip in a solitaire setting my father gave my mother. She was twenty with tiny fingers. The ring does not even fit my pinky. Two chunky brass fertility rings that I bought somewhere on St. Marks, which never saw the light of day once I discovered their intention. The fabulous and very shiny fake diamond my daughter bought me at her school’s Christmas fair. My grandmother’s pearl, set as a bud in silver; shaped into a cradling leaf. A tiny yellow gold band of undetermined origin, the underside of which is so well worn and thin I can almost break it with my fingertips. The bright pink synthetic ruby in the antiquated setting Great Uncle Albert purchased while he was stationed in Japan.

And there are the missing: lost (topaz with diamonds that was much too glamorous) or gifted away (silver hands holding a glass eyeball) or anticipated to no avail (so many lovers, so few solid offers.) A ring dropped down the drain by accident. An heirloom.  A ring tone. It was her grandmother’s ring. A ring lost in the yard while gardening.

In the beginning of my marriage I considered having a ring tattooed in place of my wedding band. I imagined the relic of the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring supposedly used at her marriage to St Joseph, which was a large circle of onyx adorned with an indecipherable pictorial inscription. Like a colorful scarf or eye shadow meant to enhance, but never illuminate.

It is shocking to consider how much the culture of “ring” defines a woman, both by a ring’s existence and absence. We grow up dreaming about rings. Waiting for rings. Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes. Ring around the Rosie. Ring in the New Year. In the maternity ward a ring is the most valuable currency. Didn’t you know? An artist gives me a silver ring for free no strings attached, or so I thought and still waiting for the phone to ring on a Friday night.

Instead, he gave her his class ring. She wore his class ring; wrapped yarn around the inner semicircle until it fit her tiny finger perfectly. After he left her for another, she wanted to give the ring back. The suffering. She wanted to give the ring back.

When my husband proposed to me, or rather, when we mutually agreed to be married, there were no dramatic overtures. As luck would have it, he already had an engagement ring, which he personally designed for his previous girlfriend. This is not as bad as it sounds. It is a beautiful ring, as far as rings go. On a roofer’s salary buying a second ring for me would not only have been impractical, but also irresponsible. This would not have made me happy. I am not lying when I say this fact does not bother me at all. I could care less. Still, I never tell anyone the history of this particular ring.

Thoughts on Education

In a discussion about education a seventeen year old boy tells me he has one year of school left, and he doesn’t know anything about taxes or credit. A seventeen year old boy tells me that he has one year of school left, and he doesn’t know anything about taxes or credit. I write this sentence twice, not because it is necessary to transmit the utter desolation that reverberates in the space around these dead words, but because I need extra time to string together an antidote of jumbled letters to wish away the Prussian fear and anxiety attached to uncertain outcomes painted with certainty. Outcomes that invalidate the creative process that defines learning.

By its very nature learning is the antithesis to conformity. To learn is to transform, translate, transport. To create.  Learning is a shared fluid process. The opposite of standing still. There is always growing whether straight or crooked.  Stillness is relative since everything is constantly in flux; therefore, conformity is impossible, as if you can stop a moment from happening with fear of death and taxes. The moment still transpires, but it gets infinitely smaller with each conformed projection. Conformity tricks the mind into accepting the earth is flat.

A seventeen year old boy tells me that he has one year of school left, and he doesn’t know anything about taxes or credit. I might need to write this sentence a thousand times more in order to wrap my brain around an educational culture that can trick a magnificent child into shrinking the vault of his potential, that can make him believe he must conform to trivial expectations; that this system is anything other than a desperate illusion made manifest.

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