Then night’s dark environs curved a cave
about as I shut eyes and mind cruised
among a cornucopia of thoughts,
such a banquet that seemed not to
whet my appetite, so I let go and fell
in a wilderness of words, nets
of rapture and folly that caught me,
brave conspiracy of verbal happiness,
a wardrobe of syllables crafted for me
of dismal slags and daring surprise.
Such vocabulary leaving and arriving
hews deep, familiar pathways
to moments which manifest life
despite being paused–by age or health,
temporary material circumstance;
or that restlessness of worry,
all the hard prayers to high slung moons.
Every arc of words creates a visage
of love that recognizes me or not as yet
as I navigate waves of wakeful slumber.
These tricky acrobatics of curiosity,
capricious nouns holding forth, verbs astir,
a language of energy launching me toward
horizons colored with shining letters…
ah, may language of this small bestowed life not desert me.
May I attend and serve until the ending blesses.
And we shall leap, drift into rhapsodies of silence.
Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.
Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.
Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.
The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.
Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?
They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.
Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.
Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.
It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.
I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.
She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.
What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.
I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.
My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.
But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.
Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.
When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.
Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.
When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.
After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.
I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.
I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.
It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them prose and poetry they occasionally liked, sometimes dismissed, also found stupid. I brought in books they might read. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much but just enough that they knew I wasn’t really Miss Junior League, after all. And I admitted I was a writer.
They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.
Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, anyway, despite a precarious existence.
Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not as often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or starting a senseless, black-out fight during which police would be called.
Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.
What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude to be able to work with them for nearly five years.
I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multi-generational grudges between tribes, or certain members, even relatives. By speaking their truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms, stamping feet and shouting out joy, I knew they’d begun to help save themselves with more transformative stories. It was the good racket resultant of thawing out many “frozen” stories. They were reclaiming more of their lives from addictions.
The body holds its stories inside the skin, in heart and mind. Sometimes excavating them is hard; sometimes they come as riding a river to freedom. Other times, in bits and spurts. But they’re waiting to come to light.
What stories do you tell your children, your friends, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they offer something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are or want to become? Is your life story more submerged, floating along or making waves? You can help it speak richly and freely. Sharing your unique and so human story helps you and others live better. It connects one to the other.
My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.
“Mom, that’s for you to do and that’s good. I am the story–I’m right here living mine,” he said, then put an arm about my shoulders as he barbecued under tall evergreens in his yard.
That’s what we all do, every day: inhabiting the story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you? See what happens.
My spouse and I were headed toward a collision of words the other day about, of all things, language. I will try to approximate what occurred one evening as we executed a moderate skirmish.
So you can better create a picture: M. is the one more often silent for long periods, who is never genuinely gregarious, who enjoys solitary living more than interacting with other people. He adores ideas that bound toward him like rambunctious puppies or barking beasts. M. is such a devoted thinker that sometimes I swear I can feel his brain’s energy burn hot all the way from a room down the hall. When M. stares out the window he is not staring out a window. He is working on conundrums brought home from work; he is questioning just what or whom he views coming down the street; he is chiseling his way to the heart of a curious advertising slogan, a songwriter’s lyric, a phrase of Scripture, a riddle left him from whatever was read earlier that day or last week. My spouse daily is seen taking notes in one of a sundry of notebooks, jotting down ideas as if they are magic cyphers. He excavates solutions to knotty problems for his job and if I suggest he try going to sleep now, he replies zestfully that he is getting closer, ever closer.
And what about me? Well, language attaches itself to me even when I hang out the sign Do Not Disturb. I often speak even when the tenor of a gathering suggests it may be better to stay silent. Written or spoken words want to construct new pathways and relationships and ignite sparks to illumine corners and just dance about in a garden, any garden at all. Language–even someone else’s–is a raft that floated me down a fabulous river as a kid and it still does the job.
As any writer comprehends, I’m a story-teller who wanders about a wild and open land populated with feelings, circumstances, geographies, states of mind, startling events, and cosmologies I imagine but can barely describe. Then it all manages to coalesce into my writer’s voice, my particular language, and thus forms a tale. A glance at a scene at a bus stop can morph into a whole world: She was leaning against the post as if it was holding her up, as if her oldest friend had left her with Righteous that obese white cat, a tattered copy of e.e.cummins’ last poetry collection, and a kiss blown into the wind. And, indeed, that was all true. Despite her deep belief in the incorruptibility of loyalty. Despite her wishing otherwise.
I’m on a quest for my own enigmatic rabbit hole–an adventure!– and so must find each right word to get there. They wait for me to be picked up, dusted off and given some vital (even if minor) role. But this is all just for me, the writer, selfish and greedy as I am about words. I know sometimes less is more or so the critics say. But I seek and treasure them like they are manna from heaven.
Before we started to enter this charged conversation, M. and I were of one accord. We agreed as we always do that language is as difficult as it is easy, even when it is one’s homeland language. I not infrequently feel that he and I–and all others–speak with a very different understanding of the same words. And vice versa. It may bore some, but M. and I love to discuss the etiology of words, their multi-layered definitions and how a slight inflection or an altered rhythm can change the course of a sentence as it travels to the mind or ear of the reader or listener. It may land with a crash. In context one single word means one thing, yet in another it reveals another universe. No wonder people miscommunicate even in their native tongues. Interpretation seems the mightiest force at work.
And then he said: “A writer or speaker can change a person’s very life.”
“The ideas might ignite deeper questioning,” I admitted. “The feeling behind the words might move someone… if they can empathize with them. Or if they are vulnerable somehow.”
“No,” he insisted, “words are so powerful that they can change someone’s innermost being.”
“Hmm, well, I think they can carry great weight but they aren’t supernatural. I can’t change anyone with my words; only the person can change himself or herself. If our words have any value others use them as exploratory tools, and they develop greater insight, don’t you think? Or if they touch a person, one can allow this to stimulate and open heart and soul. Or not. Language is a worthy exchange of energy only if a listener or reader accepts it. The words and receiver both gain something more then.”
“What? How does language gain anything? We are the recipients here. And we make language happen and evolve.”
“To me, language is empoweredby the person taking it in. Otherwise, it is meaningless. Just a harmless story, a passing thought. Bottom line: a grouping of syllables. Unless we ascribe greater meaning that is personalized–”
He leaned into the oak dining table. “I’m saying language has managed to change history! It can electrify the masses. People think, feel, react to words and, thus, they do alter the course of human life.”
“I don’t think we’re so fundamentally opposed. I see where you’re going. But I’m still thinking it is primarily one’s deliberate actions that makes the change happen. Not simple words that give pause.”
“My point: without the instigating words, no change might be even sought. Cause and effect–language cannot live without it, nor can we.”
“Yes, yes…” I breathed an inaudible sigh. “I am not convinced my strings of words could profoundly change one person. And there are a myriad ways people are influenced in life, that they can be spurred to take action. And in my case, perhaps only I am moved by my own words, no one else. Is that sadly narcissistic or…?”
“How odd an idea! Well, all creative people are to some degree narcissitic but that’s another theme altogether. No, you have much to share about life, about your experience of God–you can affect others’ lives so you need to share that.”
“Maybe. More likely not. I think you are more hopeful about the miraculous power of language than am I! I don’t think people can change so easily…”
“Maybe so. It’s weird. You’re the obsessed wordsmith. Yet I may have been more directly altered by reading another’s words, according to you.”
And so we continued until—well, we quit. There is no right or wrong here; we each had points. We let it go and all that language pulled back to rest awhile, out of harm’s way. I still maintain that we humans give language its full and true life by the design work of our particular perspectives. Our experience, knowledge, insight. Love or growing interest or hate. Hope or despair. Understanding or abysmal mismatch of ideas and feelings. Ambivalence. And then when we are ready we change ourselves, with the help of God, I peronally suspect. And other human beings, whether on paper or face-to-face.
I thought about it a week–M. is not the only one who cogitates long and hard. And the conclusion I have tentatively come to is this: as a writer, language may primarily change me. Just as an athlete loves to shoot hoops or run a race, I love to exercise the language center of my brain. It beguiled me from an early age. It may have been my mother’s expressive telling of everyday tales that started it. It might have been my father at the dinner table, sharing what he read with meticulous verbal offerings. And his interest in our response. The books I read contributed, of course. But language set all the hormones of well-being rising and I wanted to take charge of more of them.
Deep wonderment bloomed as I took pencil to paper and jotted down my first letter, clean of eraser rubbings. Then came a first poem, then an attempt at plays and stories. All I had to do was imagine things; language would lift and steer me into the domain of creation. I could make known my thoughts to another, but first I made them better known to myself. And that writing–even the secret journals I hid under the bed in a locked, handmade wooden box–freed me from the constraints of time, space, situation. I felt no boundaries hemming me in. Perhaps there were (and are) philosophical or moral boundaries edging in, as we are shaped by our beliefs. But otherwise I felt liberated, neither female nor male, young or old, heroine or villain. Or vicariously became all of those and more. A free agent or, at the very least, a participant in the bright illusion. It seemed worth the effort either way.
So what of M.’s words? I know he feels he has been changed in irrevocable ways by things he has read (or heard). He mentioned a writer, now interestingly forgotten, who gave him hope when he felt bereft of it. It was something like: “Return to the last place whereyou knew you were okay.” I was silenced by this; that concept was a touchstone for him that became pivotal.
I’m not altogether sure why I don’t find such experiences to be as useful to me. Whose words made such a difference that it transformed my life? I could name a gaggle of writers including several songwriters who helped me along divergent pathways. And there is one phrase that is simply part of my daily lexicon: God is Love.
But words beyond that? Wait, there is a phrase written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The majority of the poem the narrator might seem to be musing on an ancient statue of Apollo. But the last line grabbed me and has held me to its meaning: “You must change your life.” No one else, I thought; yes, I can and must do the work.
Perfect for the closing of this post. We must change from our own need and desire yet language can potentially guide us this way or that. For me, the truth is that words bring a modicum of fulfillment more often than not. From them I can even find a treasure trove of happiness. Even in quiet they are thrumming along somewhere. And that’s just as I’d always hoped.
Perhaps all I need to say is: it was twenty-four hours when language of character failed even when it was most needed. A bridge that never got built. But it seems I must write myself forward, into the next moment, right past the uncomfortable restraints of words. I don’t want to linger on bad talk. I want action and illumination, direction and refreshment.
I walked. I was moving along with speed and decisiveness, engaging in what I have begun to think of as “a small salvation walk”–loosening difficult physical, spiritual and emotional kinks. My legs carried me from street to street, beauty to beauty. My Nikon Coolpix was in hand as I kneeled to capture white and orange daffodil petals made translucent by slanting light, admiring the design of cherry tree branches festooned with blossoms, a dappled blue sky giving it depth. There were imaginative garden decorations, burbling fountains, creatures dashing and dozing. I snapped away as eye to mind to heart worked together.
Photography often intensifies the value of a moment for me. Spiritual vision focuses, as well, while senses praise the external world which sometimes can feel imprisoning. The walking part is crucial and today, more so. I am not a leisurely walker, for the most part. My heart beat harder and endorphins surged, breathing filled veins with rich oxygenated blood. It all conspired to allow the history of the day fade, my worries to blur. But I was not looking forward to returning home, sitting with myself. Thinking once more of angry words that had hit the mark the day before. I felt wounded still.
Then as I started up another block, I heard him. He sat across the street. Perhaps ten or eleven, dressed in white button-down shirt and khakis, he was slumped in the driveway, legs sprawled on cement even though thick emerald grass beckoned. He appeared to be studying an electronic gadget. He was speaking loudly. At first I thought he was talking to someone on a cell phone. I scanned the lovely house and yard thinking there was someone else there, a parent, perhaps. No one was at a window.
He was alone and grumbling.
“It’s certainly not like New York,” he said. “I sure didn’t like that.”
A young girl’s voice floated from an unknown place and was delivered to his driveway. “Well, no. You should tell them. They’d want to know.”
“I don’t really care what they want!”
He was still looking down, as if he was talking to whatever was in his hand. I was almost parallel with him, passing from the other side of the street. I didn’t break my stride even though I badly wanted to because now I was curious and couldn’t help but eavesdrop in such a public arena. I looked around again, but no one else was outside, certainly not near him.
The girl spoke with gentle insistence. “But you should.” She paused. “Do they like it here or there?”
“I don’t know. They don’t say, exactly.”
I climbed up a hilly spot when a small movement to the left (my side of the street) caught my eye. One more house down, past bushes, was a girl about the same age. She sat on the top step, hands on knees as she leaned forward. The house was big, green, with a wide porch. Her hair, golden brown in the rich light. We didn’t make eye contact. She was staring across the street even though it was unlikely she could see him, at least not in full. But she kept talking as I walked by.
“Maybe it was just a fly. It could have been a fly or another bug, maybe a flying beetle in the room.”
“Not sure. It was dark. I don’t think so.” His words arced, floated and landed on her steps again. “But maybe it was…”
“You should tell them what you saw, anyway. Lots of spiders like houses here.”
She didn’t sound worried, only clear about what he ought to do.
“It’s sure not new York, that’s all I have to say.” He was adamant. A little discouragement along with resignation. “Oregon…”
I paused then, out of sight of the girl and the boy, wondering what was next. She was silent. As I started again she said something with the certainty she had shown from the beginning, but her words were quieter, floated and dissolved before they reached my ears. Two voices mingled as I gained speed. Crossed to the next corner, next block.
I felt as if I had experienced one of the best conversations I’d had the privilege to hear in a long while. The boy stated his issue (even if I hadn’t understood at first). He let the girl know he was unhappy with something, and that New York was different. The girl responded with assurredness but some concern. He was frustrated with his parents and she accepted this. They shared thoughts succinctly, opinions coming forward without argument. She did not give up her theme. He continued to affirm his feelings while noting his experience of an unwelcome insect. He might or might not take her advice into consideration, especially because here is not where he was used to being or knowing well and that was a mighty fact.
But she didn’t go inside; she kept communicating. She likely knows that some spiders in the Northwest leave a painful wound when they bite and carry poison, but some leave people alone or take nibbles that do not cause real harm. They are master weavers and busy at it–I run into webs everywhere, some silken designs being gigantic–and insects of all sorts are rousing in spring warmth. As far as spiders go, the one the boy may have seen could have lived in that room (his?) all winter long and either is moving back and forth across the wall or ceiling or hanging by a silken thread, Perhaps dead. He didn’t say enough for me to be able to sketch the whole scenario. He didn’t compare what he saw to that with which he is familiar in New York. From which he may have recently moved. (I wish I could have said: “I know what you mean, it isn’t my home state of Michigan, either, but it is amazing here, too, just wait.”) I could speculate all evening and then some.
But the two of them knew what they had to say and they were straight forward. Concise. Reasonable by any brief assessment. And it wasn’t just the girl who cared enough to participate. He likely began the conversation with a complaint. But he heard her. He took her words in, responded and shared openly. They were, by all appearances as I passed through their volleying words, friends. Even good friends, sitting in the last afternoon light of March, caring little what anyone else on the street thought. Creating their own privacy as it was just the two of them. Talking together.
Why didn’t he go to her house or she, to his? I wondered. But sometimes it is like that, you are doing something and then a conversation begins and on it goes, even without being face-to-face in the same space. When you are a kid, it is like that more, I suspect, and it progresses differently than when you are an adult. It can be almost offhand even when serious. Time is less critical and counted, feelings run like rivers, one into another. I have noticed over the years that children construct a whole other world and they spend far less energy caring about what neighbors or strangers think. Or precisely what words to use. They seem to use far fewer but incorporate them better into real, of-the-moment talk. They haven’t learned how or when to use the worst things that can arise from the subconscious or a store of unfortunate but readied epithets as can happen as adults. They haven’t stuffed, even hoarded an abundance of emotions so that, when given rein, they can make an unholy mess.
My walk ended well with more flowers, other children laughing and playing, dogs getting frisky and cats slinking by. Those two kids, though, followed me home. I sat with their words and small faces, recalled their perches on driveway and step. They had called to each other across the gap, reached out with meaning but with no hidden implications or grave mistakes. It was a beautiful thing.
I didn’t know what to write. I still harbor sadness. Being an adult can seem unfair, is complicated and tricky despite the training we receive all our lives, the intelligence we think we have. The hearts we love with and try to make strong. It takes a willingness to be braver and say what you think, share what you feel, dream aloud and note an error made. And for this writer it is sometimes necessary to take “a small salvation walk” outside of myself, to remember that living is an art as well as a challenge, perhaps to some a game, to others a burden. I once wrote in a poem that “making a life is a small pause on a thin reed and growing wings”. I have to discern how and where I can fly, only to alight and take flight in all conditions. I’m still open to change, to learning more about heaven above and earth below and how to navigate it all. I know I don’t always land with great judgement or take off well enough.
But I can say that I am often blessed with lessons needed; I am not alone in this. So, thank you, kids. You were as a balm to heart and soul. Stay there for one another if you can, at least for a while. And may my lips speak as well as did yours, in truth and kindness.
I am surprised by how many sources of inspiration for writing exist. They are endless, in fact. My brain is like a Pavlovian dog: when the figurative bell of an idea rings, I have to write. I post many stories that are jump-started with a photo prompt. I see it and a story comes in full force. I write quickly; time vanishes. But there are other things that release words. Inspiration does its job, whether or not the outcome is acceptable or not.
I decided to share some of this process with you, kind reader. Here are some examples of inspiration, each of which has given rise to a sentence, paragraph or whole story or poem:
1-a client (I counseled folks) talking about his advanced cirrhosis
2-awakening to saws whirring and garbage trucks clunking
3-an aged woman with a black headscarf studying a bag of chili peppers
4-a stranger’s hands that looked like my deceased father’s
5-a photo of an Italian alley with laundry hanging outside a window
6-the various erratic rhythms of my heart
7-a mouse giving my calico cat an evening of comical chase
8-my cello, cracked and silent
9-the scents of daphne, moss, Shalimar
10-a rose gold ring in the gutter
Anything can be an excuse to write. Rain at three in the morning. A daughter’s wild hair. Ghosts felt in a hotel. A beetle; I am fascinated by bugs. Music, any. No matter the nudges, words choose me more often than I choose them. When I revise what has been written, I am conscientious about my choices, scrupulous enough to re-write many hours more than it took to first write a piece. But when I pick up my pen or pencil or pound away on a keyboard, something has struck me–moved, confounded, delighted, disturbed me. I might not be able to identify the sense or sensibility of it at first, but there it is. It is requiring presence of mind and response. I take its essence into me, examine its depths and breadth. Look for its wily ways. Seek the mystical moment. Feel shocked by dangerous emotions. Compelled by strangeness. But I rarely am empty of a desire to open myself to life, then to liberate language to speak of it.
I am in love. Stories beguile me.
My husband, Marc, and I both enjoy language that performs in many ways. When watching t.v. we sometimes entertain ourselves with deconstruction of a commercial message. Or we recreate them so they seem more interesting (to us) and have a laugh. I once wished I had gone into advertising; I am fascinated how words and images incite us to think and react–or not. Last night when we were watching television, an ad came on about medication. It was not remarkable. It was for pain relief. A colorful image flashed onto the screen that seemed to depict a cross section of a nerve but, then, maybe not.
“What was that supposed to be?” I asked Marc.
“Hmm, maybe a hip joint? Looked like sinew that felt really bad.”
“Maybe the inside of pain? Red and yellow. What were those cylindrical things? Rods or tunnels of pain? Darts bleeding pain…”
Marc nodded. “Someone standing on her pain? Creature of pain?”
“How about: You follow me right into my pain. Or, I can’t get away from you inside my pain. Gosh, sounding like a country song…”
“A little more ‘singer-songwriter’ to me… I like it.”
“Hmm, maybe something else.”
I grabbed my red notebook and started to write.
So, in the interest of sharing that writing foray, I have included what resulted. It’s the first page of a poem with few self-edits.This is what happened after a commercial for pain medication that targeted people with chronic pain. Is it about physical or emotional pain, the body or a relationship? It is just an exercise; it may lead to something good, at least a few sentences. It was fun and took a simple idea to an extreme, which can lead to a mess of nothing worth keeping. Still, writing anything at all counts; it is practice. I wrote about fifteen minutes, non-stop. It was not what I might have predicted. I am a writer and we first write without restraint, hoping a phrase or two sings. You never know until you set it down on paper (of one sort or another).
You follow me to the inside of my pain. I cannot lose you, not even in the darkest well of this hurt. My pain is damaged by your hands and face, your thieving words a terrible echo. My pain is papered with your name. You are the cruel architect of a refuge my pain has sought for only rest. But it is inhabited by your acts of unkindness. I know now you cannot find your way
back to the hallowed ground, that small dominion of the humble where the loving become beloved. What will be the apex of your life as you leave this place where you once lay down your weaknesses? Perhaps you are sinking into the vortex of a soul that’s forgotten its function, its blameless shape.
What is left you, in this ending? The pain you make has left a widening wake and still, you float. You cannot even be a stone; a stone has a history of a life lived long and well. No, you somehow slip the bonds of devotion like a leaf abandons the branch, then goes where it will.
You come here where there is no room.
I breathe an incendiary pain, mind creased with memories, hands full of ash, my heart flattened to the wall when once it filled the sky. This is a point of no return, and in a blink of power who I was is gone and I become someone with no good name. Senseless. Transparent. Riven with grief, inside the bone and blood of me, undefended and indefensible.
But now with your stamp upon it, this pain is no longer recognized, no longer welcome; I will not claim it if you must set the seal of your denial here. Then it becomes yours to ruin, to own or upend. Take as you take, without guilt. I leave this rich ache of pain for another, a greater world.
I am moving my heart into the universe: you cannot find me in your state. In the interior of my living pain will not want to speak of you, I will travel past the vastness of it. There will not be one corner left for you.