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[Disclaimer: I am an atheist; any similarities between the God in this story and your own God are purely coincidental.]

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Two weeks ago, the prompt in my writing workshop was a poem, Nate Klug's "Squirrels." It led me to write the following poem:

This is my mind today,
squirrels in the corner of its eye,
joyous squirrels but also wasps,
the wisp of grass on the ankle
is mistaken for ominous,
the ankle jerking upward to
meet the smack of the palm
before I realize there is
nothing there to sting me
except that slapping hand,
and then two minute later
the same tickle causes
the same spasm because
I cannot keep the knowing
in the front of my mind,
the knowing that there is
no danger in the grass's caress.

I cannot keep anything
in the front of my mind;
I have read about an eye disease,
macular degeneration,
that robs one of all vision
but peripheral,
a black spot in the middle
that expands with time,
until you look at the world always
with eyes averted
because it's the only way to see,
but you cannot focus your side gaze,
so even what you see is never clear,
and even light casts a shadow,
confusing your eyes with the contrast.

The laminated placard
hanging from the railing
near my machine at work
shifts in the air currents and
flashes at the edge of my view,
making me glance up and over
before I even know that
I'm expecting a person standing,
before I realize that I am afraid,
so that I know there's no danger
a moment before my heart quickens —
each time the glimmer,
then the understanding,
then the lurch of fear,
then shame at the lack of logic.

This is my mind today —
yesterday — July — April, this year and last.
Each day I think
tomorrow I will see
what is front of me.
But today is never tomorrow,
and my mind's eye aches
with the constant futility.

violetcheetah: (butler)
From writing workshop. The prompt was the sentence "You're not the boss of me."

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I CANNOT believe I ended up following this particular writing workshop prompt, since I loathe Christmas, and never liked Santa.  But here it is.  The prompt was to write a letter to Santa from your younger self, or one of your characters.  This is what I would have written when I was somewhere between 7 and 9 years old, had I been articulate; I remember having each of these thoughts at some point around that age.


Dear Santa,

I'm not sure what I want this year, but I know what I don't want.

I don't want a doll this year. See, I really like the dolls you brought me last year, especially the one with the straight black hair, because I've always wanted to be an Indian and have my hair not frizz and tangle and not turn red at the ends, so, I know this sounds weird, but when I play with her, I pretend she's me as a baby and she's going to grow into what I want to grow into instead of what I really am. And she doesn't look like a baby, really, she looks like a two-year-old, so I can pretend she can talk without feeling stupid. But Jenny's my favorite doll ever in my life, and I want her to always be my favorite, so if you bring me another doll and I don't like it as much, it won't be fair to the new doll, and maybe someone else would love it as much as I love Jenny, so you should give it to them, instead. And on the other hand, if you bring me a doll I like better than Jenny, I would feel really bad about not loving Jenny best anymore, and anyway, she deserves to be loved best. Actually, if you want to, you can take my other dolls and give them to other kids, if you know someone who will love them better. Except Lilly, because she and Jenny are friends, and I like her almost as much and some days maybe even a little more because she's older and can go on adventures.

I don't want any more Matchbox cars this year, unless I can have another U.S. Mail Jeep. Darrell and me have too many cars already, and it gets confusing. Oh, except if the Matchboxes are for both of us, that'd mean he wouldn't get any either, and I don't think he'd like that.

Mainly I guess I just want fewer things, period, at least at Christmas, because Darrell is too old to get many toys anymore, so he only gets like six things, and mom only gets three, and dad just gets the one from mom and the one from both Darrell and me, and then I'm still opening presents after everyone else is done and it feels quiet and weird and the air is heavy and I feel greedy with all the stuff around me.

What I really want more than anything is for the church to have the candlelight service every Sunday night and not just the one before Christmas. I don't know if you have candlelight services where you live, but what they do is, they turn off the lights, and then Brother Bob lights one candle in the front of the room. And he uses that one to light two other candles, and two deacons take those candles and start with the front row on each side, and light the first person's candle, and then while that person's lighting the next one, the deacon moves to the next row, and the next, and then in like five minutes, everybody's holding a lighted candle and there's enough light you can see the hymn book to sing Silent Night, and it all came from that one candle, and I don't know why I love it, but I want to do it every week until I can figure out why I feel so light and full and like crying and laughing and flying and curling up in bed all at the same time.

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[Prompt: Write about something you've always wanted, but that you hope you never get.]

I got baptized when I was 11. I'd been wanting to since I was 8, but I always chickened out when the call went out at the end of service and I'd think about standing in front of everyone and having to say something. It wasn't until I was 11 that I realized I could talk to Brother Bob beforehand, and he could say something for me, and all I had to do was stand and stare at the floor.

The baptism was the next week, and in between we happened to have a revival, so by the time Sunday came, there were three of us. Brother Bob explained what would happen, everything from "The water will be a little cold but not too cold" to reassurances that when he dunked me, it would be quick enough that I would absolutely not breathe in any water through the folded handkerchief he would hold over my nose and mouth. And he was right. The actual baptism wasn't a big deal: I went under, I didn't feel any different when I came up, but because I'd declared my faith in public I wouldn't go to hell if I died.

Herb Broughton was one of the other two baptized. He was probably close to 40 years old, and he'd been baptized before, but a lot of people rededicated themselves to God this way. After we'd all been dunked, the three of us and Brother Bob were going to hold hands and bow our heads while Brother Bob prayed. I was disappointed that I ended up between Herb and the other guy I didn't know, so I was holding hands not with my much-loved pastor but with two near-strangers. Herb started to reach for my hand, but then he shifted. He cupped my shivering right shoulder in his big hand. It was a firm touch, but not pushing, not demanding. And as we stood with bowed heads and closed eyes, I could feel the warmth from beneath my skin meet the warmth of his quilt-heavy hand. What I felt was sacred. Safety. Acceptance. Connection. Peace. At that moment, I adored, not God and Jesus, but this comforting man and his palm that brought me the comfort I didn't know I'd been aching for.

I sought him out every Sunday after that. Before church started, then between Sunday School and preaching, then after the sermon was over. We mainly talked, mainly the sarcastic teasing that was the only way I knew to show affection. Not every week, but often enough, he'd put a hand on my shoulder, or sometimes his arm around me to hold the far shoulder, buddy-like, father-and-son-like, and he'd smile with a slight squint that seemed a little self-conscious, and he'd keep me from floating away into the nothingness where I mostly lived.

There was never anything dark in it. I was primed to expect something sexual in any touch, and to suspect even where there was nothing, and it was never there with him.

He was, I know now, the first parent-I-wanted. Less than a year later, my mother switched from that church, where we'd gone all my life, because of a feud with another member. I was adrift again, unmoored, floating.

In 7th grade, there were three physical education teachers supervising a gym full of us. At the beginning of the year, the court was set up with about 10 different "stations," and we were divided up into small groups and rotated through half of the stations each day doing each of the activities. One station was juggling, which was Mr. Huffman's forte. He wasn't there the whole ten minutes or so each group spent, because there were more groups than teachers. But one day, when my group was ending the period there, he came over. Ora Decker excitedly told him that I'd actually been juggling the scarves. Not just two, but all three at once, in the right pattern and everything. He wanted to see, of course, and I wanted to show him, but I knew before I even tried that there was no way my hands could do what I wanted with a teacher watching. I made the attempt, though, three or four times, until I finally gave up and stood still, begging the tears not to fall in front of the rest of the group. I glanced for a second across his face, risking that moment of eye contact in hopes of telegraphing into his mind that I needed an escape. And I saw such sympathy in the curve of his eyebrows that I felt in a way sorry for him. But he was also smiling softly, and he reached out, touched my shoulder for a second, father-and-son-like, and said, "That's fine, I'll see it at some point."

For two years or more, I daydreamed of him somehow becoming my guardian.

He wasn't the last: Mr. Jacobs in 9th grade, Mr. Huffman's wife that year, too. Mr. Berryman in 10th and 11th grades, Reverend Parrish at the same time, Mr. Tyler in the summer program before 12th grade, Mr. and Ms. Lee that last year of high school. Countless others in between, including the foster father from the three weeks I lived away from my parents. Then after I "grew up," there were professors, fellow college students, coworkers, my shrink to some extent, men I thought I wanted to be my boyfriends because that's what intimacy and intensity is supposed to be about. I at least know now that it isn't sex I'm sublimating. It isn't even a parent I want, a different mother or a different father, a replacement. I don't understand what a parent feels like, so that isn't the cavity I'm trying to fill, or if it is, I have no idea what the hole is shaped like or even where it resides within me. I want. I want. It is relentless and insistent and the shame of it makes me back away always from the person I want, makes me shove, bite, run.

violetcheetah: (Default)
He'd just finished the semester at the Southern Baptist seminary, but he hadn't started preaching yet. He was 8 years older than her, one year older than her brother, and he'd always been so earnest, so gentle, that when she was a child she'd thought he was very smart; he had seemed like a college professor when he was still a teenager.

She only came back to Kentucky once a year around Christmas, so she hadn't seen him since she graduated high school five years ago. Hadn't seen a lot of people from the church, people she'd grown up surrounded by, the one place where no one made fun of her, where the grown-ups doted on her because she could memorize bible verses and then tell you what they meant. The church was home back then, back when she'd believed that she believed in God because she desperately needed to believe, needed there to be some kind power behind everything, some outside meaning underneath all of it, conducting the world like a painful symphony that would someday, someday have a happy ending, even if that day was after she died. It had been four years now since she had broken away from religion, but she still ached for it, for that sureness that there was a higher purpose and that pain was not in vain. She envied the people she'd grown up with, but atheism was as much a matter of faith as belief had been.

Not many people at this New Year's Eve gathering asked her about her faith. It probably didn't occur to them that the devout 10-year-old would have grown into a heathen. But he did ask; not if she went to church, but where? Did they have Southern Baptists in Boston? Yes, but she'd stopped going to church. He frowned, puzzled. "But surely you still believe." She thought, yes, I believe in many things: my friends, music, love; we differ on this one thing is all. She just said, "After a fashion." It wasn't enough of an explanation for him, and he pressed, and she knew he didn't want the answer she'd give, so she softened it.

"I'm a Christian Atheist." He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. She'd known it would break his brain, and there was a certain glee she wasn't proud of, but she realized she'd said it because she truly wanted to explain, wanted him to understand. He wouldn't understand, she knew, but she could still explain, could still try.

"I don't believe in God, so I don't believe Jesus was his son. As to whether the version of Jesus in the Bible is real, whether the historical Jesus actually said all the things that the writers of the Gospels said he said, I don't know." He opened his mouth again to break in, but again no sound came out, and she gentled her voice further. "But even if the Jesus in the Bible is just a fictional character, that Jesus is still an incredible role model. He helps the poor, he's kind to outcasts, he forgives horrible wrongs, he loves everyone. I try to live up to that example. I try to treat others the way the Jesus in the Bible would have treated them. I don't always succeed, but no one does."

His eyes were bright but clouded, like someone with a fever. Confusion, urgency, fear. Sadness. "But that's not enough," he said. "That doesn't earn you a place in heaven."

"Why not?"

"Because. Because you must believe, that Jesus is the Son of God and he died for your sins and was resurrected."

"I can't. I can't will myself to believe that any more than you can will yourself to believe in Zeus and Athena. If your God exists, he created me without the capacity to believe in him. So why would he condemn me for something I have no control over?"

"I don't believe you lack that capacity. You just need to find it within you."

"Well, that's another thing I lack the capacity to believe."

[The prompt for the piece: each workshopper wrote down a noun and a verb on a card, and the next workshopper was supposed to use those two words in three sentences in their piece.  My words were "She" and "Broke."

violetcheetah: (Default)
From last week's writing workshop. The prompt: Start with the following line, and don't let you pen/fingers stop writing: "That long-distant day when your father took you to discover ice."


I am supposed to write without stopping, but just saying father is enough to paralyze me with scenes, or flickers of scenes, ominous but unformed, the memory of the feeling without the memory of the event.

The flashback I've been having recently is an actual flashback, a "real" flashback. It used to be that I'd slip out of my body and hover over my left shoulder, and I was remembering a feeling, that moment before something happens, but I couldn't' remember the actual event, or events. I felt that something's-going-to-happen feeling all the time growing up, so the flashback was just of that eternal moment, hundreds of times over, infinity squared inside a black-hole singularity. My mind would swirl — I always tried to remember the event, any event, it seemed like if I could just put a scene to the feeling, it would stop. But my mind played dozens of scenes at once, all superimposed over one another on the movie screen until it was just a blur of grey and black.

Now, though, I end up in that night with the gun. Not when he fired the pistol into the wall, not once I'd turned the swivel rocker around and could see the gun pointed at me. I am in that moment in between. I have heard the first shot in the bedroom, known and not believed what it was, heard the second shot and known and believed, and in a second I will be turned around and see the barrel in front of my father's swaying body and vacant eyes. But I have not yet turned, and I do not yet know what I will see, I just know it will be bad, and it may be the last thing I see, and I need to see it, I need know what's going on, whatever it is, it's worse to not know, and right now, I have no idea, and so every possibility still exists, so many variations of blood and smoke and holes, and none can be ruled out.

I can hear the echo of the shot. I can hear it in my shoulder, the back of my left shoulder, as if there's an eardrum vibrating above my scapula, see, I was sitting sideways in the chair, my back against the left chair arm, my right side against the chair back enveloped in the curve of the chair, and my left arm, my left shoulder, out and exposed and I felt the sound there. I am 41 now and it happened when I was 16 and I saw a shrink for 18 years, not counting the crappy shrinks before him, and I described the scene dozens of times, hundreds, to shrinks and friends and in writing, over and over, and not until a week ago at work did I remember feeling that sound in the shoulder, the shoulder I hover above when I dissociate, the shoulder I look over when I don't hear someone behind me, always exposed, always cold, burning cold. I never gave it a thought; I was born with that shoulder dislocated, that collarbone cracked, probably too big for my mother's small birth canal, it's not uncommon, and I did a repeat performance of the same shoulder and collarbone at a year and a half. It's my earliest memory. Not of falling off the bed and dislocating it, not of the doctor's office. What I remember is standing in the kitchen, I remember the tabletop taller than me, and I'd just dropped a crayon, and I was left-handed, very left-hand dominant, but my left arm was in a sling, and it apparently never occurred to me to just pick up the crayon with my right hand, because what I remember is reaching over with my right hand, pulling the sling off my elbow, reaching down and picking up the crayon and standing back up, and then crying because my arm hurt. That's the shoulder, it's never been right, always too loose, prone to popping out of place, weird-feeling, just not right, but not cold and hot and vibrating with the sound of that small snap that wasn't even that loud. That feeling was that one night, and after all these years I know where I am when I'm not here, and it's such a relief to finally know, even thought it hasn't made it stop happening.

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Although once again I couldn't make Wednesday's workshop, Toni provided this poem as a prompt, and the following is what came to mind.


[Despite the way the beginning sounds, this event occurred not when I was still a child, but when I was 19 and a sophomore in college.]

It was 5 o'clock in the morning, and now it was safe to sleep, the sky not yet blue but not still grey, the half-creatures under my bed and in my closet dissolving to dust in the new morning. I lay with my back to the window, my eyes open, still hungry for daylight, watching the anti-shadow of the window lighten on the wall above my desk. I fell into sleep a few times, as always, always jerking awake at the last minute until all of me could fall at once.

See, there was a rope around my heart, a slipknot, with a long length leading out my back beside my spine between my shoulder blades. Most of the time, it was slack; but I could feel it, portentously heavy, knowing what was coming sooner or later. Sometimes it would catch on something as I walked, or a hand would reach through the back of the chair I was sitting in and yank, and my heart would be jerked back and out of my body completely — I could feel it, almost see it, hovering in the air two feet behind me — and I would have to stop where I was, stop what I was doing, stop thinking, even, and wait for it to fight itself back into my chest, thudding hard as it played catch-up for the beats it had missed. It was important not to move while my heart was missing, because if I wasn't precisely where it had left me, it might not be able to find me.

Whenever I tried to sleep, of course the rope dangled over the edge of that cliff behind me, all the way to the bottom, and the sunlight never reached that far down so the half-beings there never dissolved even when it was dawn where I was, and they pulled the rope like it was attached to a church bell. I had to resist each time until the angle was just right and they pulled the entire belfry of my body down with the bell, until my chest and the rest of me fell with my heart down into darkness. It was still painful, still terrifying in the pitch-black at the bottom of the cliff, but at least I was whole, and I with my heart could slowly work my way up the rock face and back into the world.

I lay that morning as always, resisting the pull, too tired to be afraid except for those moments when my chest was empty. I watched that window anti-shadow as I failed to fall and waited to fall. And then something new happened.

I heard a soft noise behind me, through the open window. It should have been the unremarkable wingbeats and coo of a passing pigeon. Except at the same moment, I saw the grey shadow pass in front of me. I saw the noise, I heard the shadow, and my heart nearly left my body, but I was backwards and the rope pulled at my heart through my sternum, and my sternum did not give and I fell forward and sideways and up and not back, and I was in the space between the feathers and the song, I was within the dove, clothed in down and above the ground.

It was a second. Not even a second. But it echoed, reverberated like my drumming heartbeat. I had fallen forward. I had fallen upward. Forward existed, upward existed. I had been there, all of me, whole. I had flown. I did not yet conceive of a future for myself — didn't dare, couldn't dare, to think more than a week ahead because the weight of even imagining that impending time was one of the things that could crush me — but I dared imagine a single second of a possible future, when perhaps I would maybe fall forward again.

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The random detail about getting ice cream ended up leading somewhere I'm not altogether unpleased with.

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Sep. 6th, 2013 12:15 am
violetcheetah: (chess)
I wasn't able to attend the writing workshop this Wednesday, but Toni usually posts one of the prompts on his Facebook page. This one (a poem, Joanna Klink's "Some Feel Rain") didn't strike a chord in me overall. But there was one fragment that resonated, and I ended up with this blog post.

[Trigger warning: sexual abuse]

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I guess this is a companion to my short story "After the Sun." It came into my mind yesterday while listening to Hem's "Half Acre" for the umpteenth time.


Dirt farmer

I sweep the floors every morning.
I do not take the braided rugs outside to shake;
I snap them like whiplashes in the hall,
and I gather what falls to the floor.
Each week I beat the window screens
against the same floorboards; it leaves marks,
but the flecks of wood add to the bounty.
Every fortnight — more often if it's windy —
I take the dust and dander and grit
to the pit the dead tree roots left.
I layer my treasure with holey shirts —
the earthworms prefer flannel — and I water it
with the soapless washwater
from my laundry and dishes and bath.
Yes, I know what the neighbors think,
but the snow melts and steams away
from the growing mound in February,
and in March I am ready to harvest.
I fill the narrow boxes I've made
between each inner window and storm,
and I hold back some washwater now
when I saturate the pit's new layers.
I plant six of each bean, the peas, the lentils;
four yellow squash, four green.

I thought I truly believed;
why else thresh the screens and carpets,
sponge my skin with a meager bowl of water?
I did not know I'd had no faith
until a bedtime lamplight check showed
that first fault-lined distension in the surface
and beneath the cracks, like verdant lava,
the tender life ready to erupt.
My shriek sounded not like joy,
but like someone burning, or grieving,
bringing the nightshirted neighbors across their barren field and mine
and into my spotless house and still I screamed until they saw
that nubbin.
It was not until I saw them see that I believed.
In silence we gazed at the soil —
this was soil —
and laughed tears and held each other
before shyly pulling away and taking leave.

I put out the lamp and lay on the sofa,
wanting the sun to wake me through that same window
where it would draw its first new being in years
up from earth and into light and life.

violetcheetah: (Default)
Both of these were originally written in 1999 at the latest. The first was inspired by news reports from the chaos going on at the time in Eastern Europe. The second was inspired by a documentary on The Learning Channel — back when TLC had educational value — about the planned flooding in China for the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project, and some of the sites that would be underwater, or would become islands. Anyway, there was a temple, Buddhist? Confucian? The details are fuzzy, so I'll just say, the poem is based loosely on real events.


Across the border

I watched a woman spit in a soldier's right eye
just before he put a bullet through her face.

From the cover of the briars by the side of the road
I saw another girl weep and plead and finally nod,
agreeing to the toll this bridge troll would take.
Then once his snaps were undone she recanted;
it took four aides to pin her limbs against a tree
while payment was rendered. Even I could see
he would have to kill her for going back on her word.
Still, he kept his promise: he led her over the river
to freedom before his knife opened her throat.

I make my decision and make my way to the bridge.
I brace myself against the milestone and lift my skirts
and gaze past his scarred ear at that other shore.
That tree: I will walk across this bridge and
past her throatless body and stand beneath that elm
and I will wash the blood from my thighs in the river.
I will leave the blood here at the border,
and I will never speak of it or soldiers or martyrs again.


By the river

Ancient wise words
inscribed in slow calligraphy on the long tiles of the temple walls.
There was no need for stained glass or gilt altars,
just the soft curves and sure lines left by men who knew
what matters is the message,
who died at peace, sure that the message would last the centuries.

They could not see
the soldiers coming now across the bridge to the stairs in the cliff,
following the orders of a leader afraid of anything so calm
that it might slow the white-water river surging through him until
he could hear his own words
and know that his message would not survive on the stone above his forgotten grave.

But priests and pupils
hear the soldiers' march and see the sure words blur through their tears.
They kneel beneath the tiles with faces lifted as if the words could flow
like water from the walls to fill them, but each mark is solid and true,
strong as the soldiers' steps
as they march up the steps to break what a thousand years hadn't touched.

A bowl of ink
sits on the floor; they were to have practiced their own calligraphy
with slim brushes on the parchment laid out at their feet.
The young boy stands and struggles to take down a tile as tall as he,
then turn its back to him,
dips his brush, and uses his beautiful strokes to write the lies

of the soldiers' leader,
words he was ashamed to have even heard, had never dreamed he would write.
The ink-stained hands of his mentor lift the stone to its place,
then move to take the others down while each student dips his own pen.
They have inscribed nightmares
on every tile and rehung them backwards by the time the soldiers arrive.

Each soldier knows
what is written on the true faces of the stones, but not one dares
to destroy anything that holds the writings of his general and god.
They kneel as they have been taught and recite the words they see,
then rise and step back
through the door to begin the twilight march down the cliffside.

Decades will pass,
and the young boy will learn, and teach, and grow stooped with age,
and with time spent bent over parchment and pupils, and friends' graves.
The general will die in exile, and the teacher will scrub faded ink
from the back of each stone,
turn each tile and lift it into place until he is exhausted.

But another set of wrinkled hands
will lift the last piece, and when the teacher turns he will see a soldier
who has climbed this mountain before. The soldier will kneel
as he was taught by his own mentor before he heard of his general.
He will leave his uniform shirt by the ink-stained bowl,
he will take the student's shift offered by the teacher,
and for the first time in decades, a calligrapher's brush
will call his fingers home.

violetcheetah: (Default)
I found a cello in May. It had been there for 20 years, and I'd never heard it.

I got a copy of U2's "Achtung Baby" in 1993. My father died in February, and I remember making a cassette copy of that CD to play on the plane ride, because I didn't have a discman. I listened to it after I got back, sometimes several times a day. I listened to it before I cut my waist-length hair off and then shaved my head, and I listened to it afterward. I didn't really like the messiness and noise of it at first, but I was drawn to it, then soothed by it.

I haven't listened that much in the last few years to music that's been in my life since my teens and early 20s; there's too much new stuff crowding it out, new hooks to follow and obsess over. I had to make a conscious effort a few months ago, to put on my iPod Nano some of the music that iTunes said I hadn't played in the three years since my old computer died and I had to start a new playing history.

I also ride the train, with it's rattles and drones and people having conversations, so I got some noise-blocking earbuds. I'm not a music conneseur, so I don't invest in expensive headphones, and the first pair I got were pretty good, the second pair somewhat better. But when they died, I got a pair of also-inexpensive Koss buds, and I realized there was a difference when I first listened to a Tori Amos album and was like, Oh, hey, right, she plays piano. I frequently hear bass lines and harmonies that I haven't noticed before, and each time it happens it stops me and makes me smile.

I got off the subway in Davis Square in May, headed to the monthly Queer Open Mic where I was going to read a piece of my own writing. I'd started up "Achtung Baby" on the ride there, and I walked up College Avenue wrapped in a cocoon of nostalgia and angst and comfort. And then someone started tuning a cello. It was behind me and to my right, and I stopped and looked back and across the street, expecting a busker. But there was no one there. And even though I'd turned, the cello was still behind me and to the right. It took me a full fifteen seconds to first suspect and then be sure that it was coming from my earbuds. By that time, it was overtaken by the drums and staticky guitar and vocals, but I could catch glimpses of it peeking through like a somber sun through bright clouds. I was aware that my head was tilted to the right as I walked, and that I was wearing the type of grin people don't normally have when they are not talking to someone else. But I couldn't help it. It was like leaning against a wall in the house you've lived in half your life, and hearing a click, and a hidden door opens across from you, with stairs leading to a cool stone cavern, and realizing you've walked above it hundreds of times, thousands, and never known it was there.

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[Obscenity note: This passage contains 7 "f---"s, all confined to the same paragraph.]

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Aug. 8th, 2013 11:20 pm
violetcheetah: (Default)
There was no writing workshop this week, but Toni supplied a prompt via Facebook. It led me to try again to write a piece I first attempted over a month ago.


She said she should really plant some trees. Not that she wanted to, but people kept telling her she should. The two ageless maples that had grown near the house she'd lived in for nearly 50 years had broken in the ice storm, and now all that was left were the stumps, two feet in diameter. People told her the acre looked so bare, and to my mind they were right: the small ranch house, green siding fading into the surrounding grass, at the top of the now-treeless hill. No flowers, of course; my father thought flower beds were too much trouble, and my mother never objected, whatever her feelings. From the road, the house looked both small and ominous, shrunken and looming.

Well, I could plant trees, I said, if she could get them delivered from whatever nursery she bought them from. She said actually, she'd been thinking of just digging up some from the overcrowded eastern fence row. I said I would love to do that; it appealed to my frugality and my love of the underdog, of the overlooked. Just pick out the ones you want, I said, and tell me where you want them planted. But she didn't get around to it that year.

That was April 2010, the first time I'd been "home" since December 1996. I asked again about the trees on my next visit, a year and a half later so I could be there for the family reunion so she could show me off to the relatives. She got as far as saying she'd like a couple of redbuds, maybe, maybe over thataway — she motioned toward where the clothesline used to be — she definitely didn't want them too near the house, for the next ice storm to topple. She was 69 years old, and they would be saplings when I planted them, but that was her wish. Or maybe, she reconsidered, along the western boundary, one or two to break up the expanse between her yard and the empty acre next to it. But things were busy, my brother was home and wanted to go places, and she never made her selections.

Last September was just as busy: my brother home, the family reunion, the couple of days I wanted to spend with my stepsister across the state. But I had a drive this time, overcoming my own inertia and hers, as well. I chose a tree, one I could get to, one that was at the upper end of what I thought I could manage, and I showed her: I'm thinking that one. She didn't say no, and I got out the shovel.

It was warm and humid even in mid-September, so I didn't work during the heat of the day. I spent a couple of hours in the morning, stopping about the same time the dew dried, and then went back out near sunset, digging until I could no longer see and then maybe 15 minutes longer. It was hard, harder than I'd thought, and I usually expect the worst. The ground was solid clay and clotted with sawbriar roots, tangled like barbed wire and nearly as strong. I was concerned that I wasn't hitting many roots from the sapling, but I Googled "redbud roots" and found that they have a taproot. I pictured something as big around at the three-inch trunk, maybe several feet deep, and wondered how it would deal if I had to cut through partway down. If I got that far; I thought I might have to fly home before I ever finished, leaving a dry moat and a mound of dirt until the next visit.

But once I got past the first six inches, the sawbriar roots petered out, and without them I could get a bit of purchase on the clay. With two days left, I reached the pivotal moment, when the tree leaned a bit to one side, a bit more with the shovel as a lever, then with my boot against the trunk, rocking it farther and farther askew, more work with the shovel, more shoving, and finally I put my boot against the shovel handle and rocked that, eyes squinted, ready for it to splinter at any moment. But there was no sudden crack, just the tree tilting with a creak until the branches brushed the ground, a deeper creak from within the soil as the taproot broke free, or just broke, and then there was air below the suspended root ball.

I measured the tree while it was supine; it was 14 feet tall. The taproot was pitiful, barely an inch thick, twisted and forked as it had tried to find a path down through clay too hard even for its wooden will. I was glad I'd carved out a wide root ball, because it would need all the strength it had. I was less glad once I started trying to drag the tree and roots and earth across the acre and up the hill; it took me close to half an hour of full-out sweat-dripping cursing to get it to its destination. Planting was the easy part, even counting the ropes and stakes and pulling it upright from side after side until it only leaned a little, and that into what would be the winter wind.

There were also four other trees, smaller ones whose roots had been so close to my prize that they were all but dug up anyway. I planted two on each side of the 14-footer, each a third of the way down the hill. One was a smaller redbud, two were maples — one barely a yard high — and one was a mystery, with online research leading me to guess hickory.

I called my mother in May, the first call I'd made since I'd gotten the letter in November, the letter telling me I'd made up most of my memoir out of whole cloth. It hadn't even occurred to me to call her after the Marathon bombing, and she'd never called me to ask if I'd been affected. We didn't talk about the bombing, or the letter; it was as if she'd never sent it, as if she'd never read my story. She told me that four of the five trees had survived the winter; only the mystery tree hadn't leafed out. The big redbud had even bloomed — not a whole lot, she said, but promising for the first year. A couple of weeks later, I got my birthday card, and a note that said the mystery tree had leafed out after all.

I don't know how they've fared over the summer; I haven't had the strength to call. I don't know when I'll see them — not this year, I know — or if they'll be alive when I'm next at the house where I grew up. I don't know what my mother feels when she sees them. Loved? Cared for? Looked after? I don't know what I feel. I know that what I can give her is not what she wants. But I gave her what I could, dirt and sweat and stubbornness, and a line of fragile, stubborn sentinels who will dig as deep as they are able, doing everything they can to live. Maybe it will be enough.

violetcheetah: (Default)
[This was an event that happened nearly 20 years ago.  I have turned it over in my head ever since, but never written it down.  I always thought it would be a poem.]

I'm waiting at the last bus stop in this well-groomed suburb, knowing I have not gotten the job for which I interviewed, not sorry because I knew as soon as I walked in that I didn't want to work there, but sorry because I needed the job, and I wanted them to want me, and I can tell myself they were likely looking for someone older than 22, but I know that it was something else, something offputting about me, perhaps I shook his hand too vigorously, or perhaps it was the skirt, long and full instead of pencil, or the lack of makeup, or just that I can't pass for their social class, that I don't -know- what type of skirt to wear, or what color eyeliner, that I can't shake hands limply. I wouldn't have lasted there two weeks. What I really want is for it to have been the kind of place that I -could- have worked at, the kind I imagined when I read the want ad.

It has stopped raining, but it's late October and the air still feels heavy and dull. What few leaves had been left on the trees were knocked off by the morning's downpour, and the bare branches are dark with damp as if with black mold. Along the curb, the fallen leaves have been crumpled and crushed by passing cars, the rain turning them into paste. What little color was left in each leaf has mixed together into grey-brown drabness.

Near the middle of the road, there is one intact leaf. It throbs with glowing red and orange, shimmers in the breeze with a sheen of water. It is half-stuck to the damp pavement, fluttering hopefully with each gust, but never breaking free. A car approaches, and I am not aware that I'm holding my breath until the car has passed, tires straddling the leaf, its wake almost enough force to pull the leaf from the asphalt. But only almost.

I am poised now to rescue it. It's only four paces if that, but now suddenly the cars come one after the other, an early rush hour, or parents picking up their children from after-school dance and soccer and tutoring and karate. They are in a hurry, and I don't dare, and I watch the wheels pass so close, it shivers, I anthropomorphize, I know this, it's ridiculous, I know this, my hands should not be clenched, my throat aching with the desire to yell, to tell them to stop, don't you see, just stop and give me five seconds, that's all it will take. An SUV's wake provides enough wind to finally release it from the pavement, but it swirls in an unseen current, only a couple of inches off the ground, coming to rest again only a foot farther down the road, and closer to the path of the passenger tires, and I don't want to look, but I have shifted past the front of the bus stop to witness, so it won't go alone, I anthropomorphize, it's ridiculous, I hear the low whine and turn to see the school bus coming, slow but unstoppable, do they have double wheels in the back, because if so, and I don't look away, I watch the spot I can't see through the bus, until the bus recedes, the spot is empty now. Then behind the bus, a flash of orange six inches off the pavement, a foot, spiraling up, and out, skidding to a slow stop on the sidewalk like a plane landing on a runway.

How long have I not been breathing?


violetcheetah: (Default)
Violet Wilson

October 2016



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