Injurious middle age

In February, I tore the attachment between my hamstring and calf.

In April, the outer toes on my left foot started to go numb on long walks. The nerve was compromised.

In June, I aggravated the tendons in my foot and was sent, at last, to physical therapy.

Physical therapy taught me that I have terrible balance.

My strengthening exercises involve standing on my injured foot and shifting my weight here and there.

Slow down. Balance.

Balance. Slow down.

I’m not fond of either thing, frankly.

And so, I biked all over the damn place, and gave up sugar and white flour. I made myself tremendous salads, and roasted vegetables, and learned to love plain yogurt. I went to bed hungry.

If you are going to rebuild your self, why not start with a virtual stranger? An injured woman who doesn’t eat pie. A woman suddenly incapable of walking her usual three hours a day.

And what if you discover that cutting out sugar makes her less moody? That going to bed hungry means she sleeps more soundly. That here, at 43, biking all over the damn place is a flashback to life at 9 when her whole world was a dirt bike and adventure.

What if this terrible year of limping and pain has actually brought me a pregnant joy?

I count out my reps in 30-second intervals. I stretch and ice and stretch and ice and find myself counting how long I brush my teeth, and how many steps to the elevator.

I have learned to cradle my feet and love them. To slather them with CBD ointment. To baby them with German shoes.

I practice standing straighter. Walking heel to toe without turning my foot.

I practice being a flamingo.

I practice hopping my bike off the curb on the downhills.

Fast! Super FAST!

What if this year has taught me how much better I am at love? At the quiet steadiness of it. The work. How I exercise love. Stretch its muscles and strengthen its heart.

I have become my own project. A little more fit. A little more devoted. Better at curling and uncurling my toes. Better at squaring my hips. Better at seeing how slowly we unfold ourselves like sleepy trees opening wider and wider to the rain.

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Pub crawl

We’d lost count of the bars. Nine? Thirteen? It was impossible to say. At first we had a pint per pub, but then there were shots. And now mayhem.

I’d piggy-backed a man who had run shirtless through a parking lot, and dumped both of us onto the highway. We had bicycles somewhere. Hopefully nearby.

Our numbers multiplied through the night. Where had all these people come from? I bled from road rash on my leg and shoulder. The shirtless man had fallen on his face and looked like a battered cherub.

“I feel amazing,” he told me, one arm slung over my shoulder.

Whose shirt was I wearing? The night cooled around us, as someone pushed the cherub and me into a truck, and told us they’d gathered our bicycles into the bed.

“Who are you?” we asked, but apparently we’d asked before, and now they were tired of answering. When had we secured a driver? Whose fucking truck was this?

We pulled out onto the highway, and drove four blocks into an industrial park, finding the ramshackle bar under an overpass.

“Hurray!” we shouted, and poured from the truck. The pool here cost a quarter a game. Four people managed to ride their bicycles. A new contingent had saved a huge round table in the front room. More shots in spirals on the table. We were like terrible Vikings: rowdy, injured, and beside ourselves with joy.

When I remember what it was like to be twenty-three, this is my memory. That final bar. A series of women with first aid kits patching me up, and bestowing kisses to my face as though I were a small child. I remember how they smiled as they worked on me. Long-suffering smiles. As though I would always require this kind of tending.

I found myself on someone’s lap. I looked down at her. “When did you get here?” I asked, elated. I kissed her for a long time.

“I drove you here in my truck,” she said.

That explained everything. We were sleeping together. This woman with the truck who had put one of the bandages on my leg. But it was a secret. I remembered it was a secret while I was still kissing her. Another round of shots and more pitchers of beer. We’d spilled into more tables and more rooms. It seemed like the entire graduate program had squeezed into this bar.

I looked up and noticed the small woman staring at me sadly. When had she arrived? “You’re here,” I said.

She nodded. “Your arm is still bleeding, but we’re out of band-aids.”

“Nothing hurts,” I assured her.

She looked even sadder. “You’ll never like me,” she said.

And all at once I was sober.

“What?”

“You’ll never like me. Not really.”

I was still sitting on the secret woman’s lap. I opened my mouth to argue, but I worried that I might not be capable of liking anyone. That I might be stuck on a beach in a wind storm for the rest of my life, not able to shake the first girl. That bone-crushing love.

I worry that I only know love stories, and that all of them end badly. That glorious night when we rode our bicycles into the darkening sky with our arms raised like soldiers resolves, each time, into the sad woman’s face as an entire bar stills to her single expression: “You’ll never like me. Not really.”

It was true, and a lie, all at once. Her beauty mark at the edge of her top lip rose as she smiled at me. They loved me in the same way, all of them. They loved me like a disaster. Something they couldn’t avoid. Something with magnitude.

Workmen in Carhartts weave in and out of her old apartment complex downtown. More condominiums. I walk past five or six of the bars we visited that night on my commute into work. She’d had a studio on the top floor, and let her birds fly loose everywhere. She slept on blankets on the floor. She had doves and love birds and her parents had died. She was twenty-six and wrote the most beautiful poems. She told me my stories felt like a bruise.

She’d had a lisp as a child and they taught her a British accent to correct it. She sounded like Diana Rigg. When she held her cigarette, her fingers curved outward as though she might start dancing.

I only know love stories. That’s all I know. They never end.

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Copper

The horizon filled steadily with smoke, and I put my arm around your shoulders and walked into the afternoon with something akin to joy. You, my best running mate. My most diabolical partner. Nobody. Anywhere. Stands a chance against us.

Seven years.

You tell the most terrible puns.

Leave laundry wet in the dryer for days on end.

Drop shoes in walkways.

Leave tap water running.

Seven years

of risotto and coffee.

Of riotous dance music.

Of love letters written on paper that thins and thins and thins

but never frays.

Letters left in pockets and purses

and books to be visited often.

Seven years,

the entire life of your grandchild:

her intensity a long, beautiful echo of yours.

Seven years and I cannot shake you.

I am constantly revising my path toward you.

To meet you again and again

here at the altar.

To marry you

more gently each time,

like the osprey over the river.

Wheeling.

Resolving more perfectly into this band on my finger.

I am yours

I am yours

I am yours

In richness

and laughter.

In temper

and failure.

In a landscape on fire,

I am yours

I am yours

I am yours

I am yours.

Worn, O my heart,

with love.

 

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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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