OG

I’ve been working indoors all afternoon, and find them afterward sitting on the driveway painting. The grandkid has a swatch of orange across her forehead.

“You’ve got some orange paint on your forehead, kid,” I tell her.

She wipes her hands across her face several times. Now her forehead, bangs, and eyelids are smeared with red paint.

“Well, you took care of the orange,” I say.

They’ve painted a small coffin pink.

“Hey, that’s dope! What will you put inside it?”

“People!” They say, and hold the small carved pieces of wood up for my inspection. They’ve painted the heads yellow, red, blue. There’s a tiny one still to be painted.

“Is that a baby?” I ask.

“Yes!”

And here’s the thing, nobody tells you how it is. Sunlight through the honey locust trees, the hose nearby to wash paint from hands and foreheads, the small girl and her grandmother sitting on the black driveway with their little wooden bodies, and their pink coffin. You can’t anticipate this when you are twenty-two and dreaming of family. You can’t say how you will startle at the dinner table — you and her grandmother and her great-grandmother — when the child hands Mary a bow from her pants and says, “Grandma, this fell off.”

Our faces lit by a glow like firelight.

“She called you grandma!” I say before I can stop myself.

Mary nods. “She does every once in a while. The rest of the time I’m Mary. I tried to get her to call me, OG, but she wasn’t having it.”

OG. Naturally.

They are both sitting on the driveway with their legs twisted up in a horrifying way, their feet bare. I can see it, my wife as a slight towheaded child.

Fortune.

Fortune in every direction. Dappled in primary colors.

“I painted this zombie for Gavin!” The child holds up a sheet of green monster.

“That’s cool.”

“Do you know why I make him art?”

“Why?”

“So maybe he’ll want to be friends with me when I’m a big kid, too.”

“Good plan.”

We get to keep all this. The world howling somewhere beyond this huddle of trees, these beauties. I have felt a step to the outside so much of my life. The writer, always a witness. Even to her own flaying. Thinking now of the way her heart goes on in her chest in its furious way, keeping track of everything.

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Boats

I. Sylvia Beach Hotel

Fifteen years ago, this was your surprise for his 30th birthday. You’d hoped to book the Edgar Allan Poe room, but had ended up in F. Scott Fitzgerald, decorative gin bottles on desks and shelves. Late May, lonely and ill, you still had no context for your symptoms. You thought being vegan meant giving things up, but you are only beginning. The surgeries half a year away, the months of recovery unimaginable. The way you will cry into your cupped palm in the corner of your bedroom to collect all the despair away quietly.

While he slept, you ventured into the wind and walked along the grey beach. Three years earlier, you’d come for New Year’s with a woman you expected to spend the rest of your life with. The two of you tucked into the attic library, reading Jeanette Winterson, and watching the seascape darken. The hotel cat had kept you company on the couch by the window, your tea cups steaming between the globe and boxes of puzzles.

II. The jellyfish

They litter the beach like dense bubbles. Some of them still throbbing. You step lightly on one once, and hop away unscathed. On this stretch of beach, there are three lighthouses, and great dark birds that swoop up and back from the jetty. Crab get ripped to fractions. Like paper, you think. Like love letters.

The first time you came here, you stayed in a communal room. You’d turn twenty-five that week. The night before, you’d ushered in Y2K at a queer dance club in Portland. You were strong and healthy, and expected to go on that way. You thought the two of you had time. More time to understand whatever this was. Love or loneliness or a repeated collision. Something hopeful and broken. Something you mistrusted.

You’d huddled on the beach as the wind battered and battered and battered the waves.

III. Steinbeck

Most of the photos in the room are of Charley. Steinbeck’s emissary to the world. It’s not until my second day walking between the lighthouses, that I realize my memories are wooden boats, appearing unbidden from the edge of the world, from the single line where the sky tumbles into the sea. How else to explain the gondola in Venice, the olive bread, the push push push through the water?

The beach in Hawaii where we held a jacket over our bodies as though a single person took shelter there.

The cliffs in Ireland where I loved her with a rare burst of fearlessness. Where I could imagine the two of us as old women. Our bicycles and our garden. Our kayaks and canoe ready to load into the truck for whatever river needed exploring.

I came back here to let sail that old terror that I would become someone I was ashamed of. Someone small and afraid to love.

In eighteen years, the hotel cats are different, and I am different, and these boats revisit to help me see the progress. My youth, and my health, and my heart. What I expected to be true. My certainty as a young woman watching from that window, at this shoreline where I stand this morning in my middle age. These boats of memory return to allow me to see things differently and again. To see differently and again.

I kneel in the sand as a small black dog approaches. “Hi, baby,” I say, and hold out my hand. She sniffs for a moment, before letting me pet her head.

“That’s unexpected!” shouts the man behind me. “That’s unexpected! You must be a good person. She doesn’t like ANYBODY.” He points at me again. “YOU MUST BE A GOOD PERSON.”

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Plans

The kid and I are leaving for vacation Saturday morning. I have spent the last ten days waking in the middle of the night with some vague anxiety about car tires, and swim trunks, and traffic. About a country on fire, and children in cages. About the way that stories have made me stand in the middle of the world, and feel things, while simultaneously wearing the armor of metaphor.

I am predisposed to love dogs and children. To see them with the same sense of overwhelming joy. A child waving to me from her stroller will lift my spirit for days. Those dogs that seem not to notice you, but then coyly lick you as they pass are my definition of heaven.

I want my child to have safe trouble. Good trouble. Heartbreak and adventure and minor accidents. I want him to notice suffering and do whatever he can to help. I want him to be kind.

When he was an infant, I would stand in the hallway and stare at his bedroom door, and worry for him. I’d worry and worry and worry. Illness, death, injury, terrible relationships, accidents, the casual cruelty of thoughtless people. Bears. I’d worry about bears. Cars. Airplanes falling out of the sky. Monsters. Invaders. And then I’d hear him laughing, and go into his room, pick up a smiling, hungry little guy, and stop worrying. I’d be so filled with love that my mind would empty of everything else. My perfect boy. My love.

Children in cages.

Sometimes I am pure rage. Incandescent. That beautiful, terrible word. I am incandescent.

I am every mother. All of them. I have all of their hopes and ambitions. I want their wants. A better life with fewer worries. Good, safe trouble for my child. A fucking vacation. I want to worry whether I’ve packed enough socks.

I don’t want to worry if the jackboots will decide gay people shouldn’t be allowed to have children. Who will be wrong, and subhuman, next?

That’s the thing about hate. It’s always hungry.

What is this about, Jill? What are you fucking saying?

I’m saying that metaphor will never be armor enough.

I just go on feeling and worrying. Worrying and feeling. About bears. About cougar. About cruelty. About car tires. About children alone in the world. About their parents searching searching searching.

I have these plans to outlast the jackboots. Plans to go on filling up with love. Plans to see these children and love them. Plans to see these parents and love them. Plans to go on being incandescent with love. Like a fucking meteor. Like a goddamned forest fire. Like a motherfucking mother.

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The Yaak

Rick Bass has come to speak to us about writing. Chunks of emu grill beside several picnic tables of food. Bass is densely muscled and soft voiced. We’re at a cabin in the woods; the river rushing past. Dozens of graduate students on a perfect spring night talking about writing.

His small daughters have hair the color of moonlight. They ask if I’m named Soap. “Sure,” I tell them. “Will you push us on the swing?” I push them into the darkening branches of the pine trees. A bonfire and voices just to the edge of us while the little girls take turns shouting: Higher, Soap. Higher!

We feel like a collective in this place. Beer bread baked on the wood stove. Fire wood chopped and hauled. All of us anxious to help. The little girls’ mother keeps checking to see if they’re annoying me. “Not at all,”I tell her, and it’s true. I want to stay forever. Twenty-three years old, and halfway through my MFA degree. I write poems on this deck in the morning before anyone else wakes. Return to the murmur of voices from sleeping bags.

A year later, the carpenter calls and asks if I want to go back to the Yaak. The pipes ruptured over the winter, and the main floor bathroom has been destroyed. “I’m being paid to fix it,” she said, “and I want you to go with me.”

Early midweek, we drive up. Her puppy dividing his time between my lap and hers.

Not just the bathroom, but much of the living room has also been damaged. I ask if I can help, and am grateful that I can’t. She starts a fire, and puts lentil soup on the wood stove, and then begins tearing up boards.

I play with the puppy. Read to him when he gets sleepy. Write for awhile. Feed the fire, and then play guitar. Quietly at first, until I forget that I’m not alone. I play loudly, and shout lyrics toward the river, and try to forget that it’s all ending. That soon I’ll have graduated and what is purest about years of poetry and literature will be squandered in this pragmatic world. Ruined like this glorious cabin, hemorrhaging water in its winter solitude. There is no sanctuary.

It’s a long time before I notice that the rest of the house is quiet. The carpenter stretched on the deck with the opened door between us. She brings me a bowl of soup and we take turns reading aloud from Alice Munro. The light through the trees dappling the deck and the dog and the dragonflies.

And I will think of those few days all the years that I am sick and unhappily married. I will think of her beautiful work as she restored the rooms around me. How I watched her saw and hammer and drill and knew the art in those tasks, too. How the puppy began to blend with the small girls in my memories. How I thought of him leaping into the branches in the arc of their swing. The feral delight of that place and those stories. How pure love felt in the wilderness.

For a while, I held it against myself. You had a chance, once, to be happy. The Yaak like a missed opportunity. A forfeit.

But that’s madness.

Those days were a map of what is possible.

A home removed. Joyful dogs. Children in the trees. Novels read aloud near the fire. Soup on the stove. Music and projects and talk talk talk. The way the poem forms as you stand at the window. The way the day hangs from it like a sash. From the bridge, the creek rages past in its spring form, and nearby a deer watches you.

You are not close to it, but inside it. You are the child in the swing rushing toward the trees and the sky. Your voice insisting: Higher! Higher!

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Love Bombing

I’d never heard the term “love bombing” before, but I’ve experienced it. The beginning of a relationship when you are so inundated with text messages and phone calls and gifts and invitations and spontaneous pop-over visits that you don’t have time to ferret out whether or not you have concerns about this person who is flooding you with attention. Lloyd Doblering you.

In too many stories, that’s romance, right? This persistent battering of affection. I can’t breathe! I can’t sleep! You consume me!

Love bombing.

“They reflect you back to you,” my wife tells me. “You think that you have so much in common because they agree with you about everything.”

They’ve put you on a pedestal. And like all pedestals, the view is temporary.

Love bombing.

Just the phrase makes my throat tighten up. I can feel it. The unrelenting pursuit of it. You are the only person who can save me! You are the only person who understands me!

Sometimes, later, after we’ve extricated ourselves from these nightmare relationships, we tell ourselves a story that it was right person, wrong time. But that’s because we’re rarely willing to say that failure saved us. This relationship failed and I was finally fucking free. It failed because it was never real. It was never more than wishful, compulsive mirroring. Look how clearly I see you! I see the best version of you! We have all the same thoughts and opinions and desires! We get each other!

Love bombing.

Where facts are not facts. And you are not you. Not really. The intimacy as false as the sentiment.

Love bombing.

I have learned, at last, to love failure. To see these implosions in the past as the surest course to something safe and sane and real. To actual love. The kind that would never try to annihilate either one of us.

 

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The golden church

I found it in the rain. My red canvas coat and wool scarf smelled wet, and I was tired. I took myself through the graveyard, headstones with the dates worn away, and entered the Edinburgh church through a side door. A choir in front, all of them impossibly old, white haired and stooped. The church white and gold with a pipe organ.

The week before, I’d walked over Shakespeare’s grave in another church. Paid for the privilege of it.

I’d finished college, and gone away to Europe. My bag too heavy, and a worry inside me that the money would not quite last for all six weeks. Why had I come? The loneliness had become too much. Work and school and my self. Day after day. I’d stopped nursing heartbreak, but it went on now, strong enough to nurse itself.

Where was god? Was god here? In this church? Out there in the graveyard? Somewhere within me? Where?

I sat there and refused to believe anything.

What would I do now? What would become of me? What was the point of journals and poems and these tours of museums and cathedrals? Where wasn’t I a tourist? What the fuck was I doing?

The choir’s songs tapered at the ends from weariness. The voices reduced to scratches.

I touched the books in my pew, took off my backpack, and scribbled in one of my journals. My handwriting looked foreign to me.

What now?

And then I feel it. A warmth coming up through my sneakers, the damp of my pants, up my soaked collar and into my head. A lightning of nerves. I feel it. The choir has somehow banded together to sing something beautiful. Their voices more powerful than the pipe organ. Than the rain. Than all my anxiety.

I grip the pen my grandmother gave me, and this odd blue journal and I forget that I’m soaked through, and hungry. I forget that the rest of my way back to the hostel is uphill. Light through the stained glass windows reddens the pews.

What if I am allowed to be aimless? What if the miracle is having little to do but walk toward beautiful things? What if that is the fucking task? Walk toward beauty.

I went back outside through the graveyard, the hunched trees wringing the wet onto my hair. Crowned with it. Crowned with rain and tiredness and this fiery secret.

That it’s all a poem. A girl in the street with god spilling out of her.

 

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Misreading

We were in the blue station wagon, my head in her lap. We’d come to this park near the basketball courts in Honolulu because the sky filled with shooting stars. One after another, for hours, as though the world were ending in failing light.

She had her hand on my belly, and we hadn’t done anything yet. Not really. I’d grown sleepy from stars, and her hand making circles, and then I felt her hair on my face and then gently her lips on mine. I rose up into the kiss. My hands in her hair, and I had yet to imagine what that would feel like. To be both submerged and holding my breath while simultaneously rising up weightlessly, unbounded.

Have you ever tried to read subtext in every social encounter for years? Have you tried to decide when flirting is just a fun conversation and when it has an actual destination?  Have you spent years trying to decide if you are simply misreading things? Because that is the way I remember being a queer teenager. Even in the middle of a kiss, always wondering if this was real real or just wishing.

I listened to the actress who played Barb in Stranger Things read Leah on the Off Beat yesterday, and those old anxieties of trying to suss out not just whether someone is into you, but whether it is safe to be into that person yourself, kicked me in the throat. You beautiful anxious kid. Always overthinking.

Because, you know, you had to.

You had to overthink everything.

I didn’t meet an out lesbian until I was in college.

High school was guess work. The girls like geometry. There’s a solution! Keep solving for X! Use your theorems!

And then, sometimes, one would lean over you in a station wagon, and you’d open your mouth to protest her itchy hair in your face, and suddenly everything would stop as she covered up your protest with something miraculous. And it sounds like fiction but the stars kept falling over both of us, and it was a terrible thrill to wake up this person inside me who had been trying to breathe and keep quiet while being stuffed in a sad, tiny space deep at the back of my chest.

When scientists announced they’d discovered a hidden organ in our sternums, I kept thinking, Oh that spot where I hid being queer. Yeah, that organ is surprising. There and not there like queer camouflage. Is this a spot where I should wear desert or forest fatigues? The exhaustion of costume changes. You gotta learn to blend in with girls better! You gotta find some way to separate from girls because they are calculus and you are still algebra.

Please stop mixing math and costumes and metaphors. Just say what you mean.

Say how heartbreaking it was to be in love with someone who hurt you.

Say how scared you were to approach a girl who kept flirting with you when she might just be friendly. Kind. She might just be kind.

Say how terrible it was that stars fell over the station wagon and you were ending and beginning and not at all yourself while finally letting that poor, frightened girl take a breath inside you at last. You were letting her climb up and out of the scary place inside you and kiss back. You were letting her respond at last. And it was the bravest thing. To let her respond. To let her inhabit all of you, and that kiss, as herself. No costume. No theorem.

It was only a kiss. It was only a kiss. And there you were at last. Terrified. Tender. Filled with that most frightening of impulses: hope.

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Word jumble

It’s the middle of the night. And you are turned toward me in the dark, listening. I am describing the path to you. How much I loved a woman two decades ago. How I kept sort of showing up to something deeply confusing. Like discovering that you have blood on your hands and worry it might be your own. You know, romance in your twenties. How you want things with a fierceness you can barely articulate but aren’t really certain what those things are. The wanting is so much.

I want you.

That last word was always hardest for me.

Most of my life has been a battlecry of I WANT.

I’ll never get this story told the way I mean it.

Do you see? I am more myself because I love you.

I don’t regret the tantrums. The miscalculations. I was headed in my fractions toward something whole.

You told me that you are always a little worried that I will say whatever is in my head. “At any moment, I know you might say anything.”

And I might never get near the telling. I might sidestep into the wrong story.

When you leave the house at 5 a.m., I listen for the door to close, and open again when you remember your keys. I watch for the light of your phone as you navigate the house in near silence. It’s like a love song. Like marriage. To ninja your way through the darkness in silence to let the other woman sleep.

Sometimes she does.

But often she listens for you. Watches the light recede. Feels the dogs resettle the bed around her. Loves you a little harder from this distance.

Once I met a girl whose collarbones hurt me.

A girl whose head I shave, bent over the sink, the razor huddled against her tiny ears.

A girl I think of as mine. And hers. And no one’s.

Marriage is all these things. Leaned into your right hip, the woman playing her piano from stage. It’s midnight and you leave for work in four hours. Urgently alive.

Yours. Mine. No one’s.

I’d write you a love song. And get all the words wrong. And hum a few bars, waiting to get a little closer to it. Once a girl fell into me laughing and I held both of us up. Her eyes darkened and she had her arms around my neck. Her face turned up to mine.

I want you.

Simple. So simple. And not at all what I hoped to say.

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Yoga

For years, I resisted taking up yoga again. And I couldn’t have told you why, exactly, except that the resistance was unrelenting. And then, a month ago, the tendons of my right arm, from the base of my skull through to my finger tips, stopped working. I couldn’t grip a cup of water, or use the 10-key. I couldn’t pet the dogs without feeling like my palm had a razor blade at its center. I stopped doing any strength training for a week.

And there, stretched out in front of me, was yoga.

It wasn’t until I put the disc of Rodney Yee into the drive that I realized why I’d resisted. After my surgery, when I was too weak to hike the trail, or walk the dogs around the neighborhood, I’d ordered this disc and tried to put my broken self back together. I’d stretched out on the speckled carpet in the living room, with the dogs flanking me, and watched his chest open wider and wider.

I reached for the nails of my toes. For the ceiling. For the speckled carpet. I leaned over the dogs, and back into the couch. I breathed as though it didn’t hurt me to walk from here to the bathroom. As though holding myself in a sitting position didn’t cost everything. I leaned into my own body and wished and wished and wished.

Not even to be well. Not even that. Not be well or be strong. Just be. Exist. Please continue to exist. It was like a cliff face, my body. I had to climb back up it. To grip my knees, and hip bones. To rest against my pelvis. To claw into these ribs, and breasts, and collar bones. Wrap myself around neck. Bury face into hair.

I had to learn to be broken and alive and recover.

I had to lean into my body and breathe deeply and love my self. This fucking trainwreck of a self. This traitor. This scrawny girl clawing her way back.

I have so much love for this body now. For my terrible posture. For my aching arms. For the way I lean over my own knees in cross-legged forward bend, and then slowly, lean even deeper. So that I can feel the muscles expand and contract and support me. So that I can feel the breath push in and out.

Alive. Not always well. Not always strong. Alive. So alive. Grasping at myself for all I am worth. Holding on. And then letting loose again as though I were nothing but atoms. Nothing but breath. Nothing but this unrelenting desire. This love for every every every thing.

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Empathy

I had my earbuds in and Dermot Mulroney reading me part three of the last Denis Johnson collection as I climbed from the car Friday morning. A man called out to me.

I paused my story. “What?”

“Do you park here and then walk into town?”

“Yeah.” I nodded, and started the story back up.

He said, “Parking downtown is a clusterfuck.”

I nodded, but the stranger kept talking. I stopped the story again.

“I was a nurse eleven years on a cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break,” he said.

I pulled my earbuds out, wrapped them around my neck, and crossed to meet him on the sidewalk. He was a huge man — easily 6’5″ — with a giant Nike duffel over his shoulder. We fell into step.

“Are you headed to work now?” I asked.

“No, I worked eleven years on the cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break. I’m just headed to the gym.”

“At 8:30 in the morning? You’re hardcore.” He reminded me of the giant prisoner I’d taught to write 3-paragraph essays years ago in medium security. That prisoner told me he was doing 25 years for killing a man when he was 19. “I was lost,” he’d said, “but now I’m a child of Jesus.”

“I come from a competitive family,” the guy beside me says. And he starts telling me about his brother the litigator and his other brother the federal investigator. “They’re savages,” he says. “They will fuck anyone over and not give a shit. We were raised in a household without empathy.”

“How’d that look?” I ask.

“Well, we grew up in a military family.”

“Me too.”

“And empathy is weakness in a military family.”

“You have to be ready to fold up and go at any moment,” I agree.

“And our dad, he went to Korea, and then three tours in Vietnam, and he used to tell us, ‘Boys, the military needs men like me. I love killing!'”

“Oh wow. Yeah. But you worked on a cancer ward. That sounds like empathy.”

“My ex-wife asked me why I was going into nursing. ‘You don’t like people, and you don’t like helping anybody.'”

“Jeez.”

“I don’t know why I went into nursing. But I was on the cancer ward for seven years before I felt anything. I had this patient, she was dying of breast cancer, and I sat with her and felt this sadness. And it got bigger. And I realized it was empathy. I felt terrible. When my shift ended, I just stayed there, sitting with her. Everything got worse after that.”

Yeah. Yeah of course. Empathy is hard. Heavy.

And I’ve been thinking, lately, that the thing about empathy is that it isn’t about us. It’s not about figuring how to put yourself in someone’s situation or feel what they feel or anything like that. It’s about getting out of the way. About listening to the person who is suffering, and loving them.

It’s not about you.

What would it be like for a dude to grow up in that family, and go into nursing? I’ve been thinking about that all day.

I liked him. He shook me out of my story, out of my solipsistic morning commute, and told me something important. The precise moment where he recognized his feelings of empathy, and how much more difficult his life became because he learned to empathize.

It’s not about me.

I could see him in that hospital room when he told me the story. I could see her, too. And I had all this love for both of them. Seated together all this time later.

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