Encouraged

Can’t say it. Don’t know how. Ghosts float about the room, not dead yet. I imagine them, my readers, what they might look like, how they might sit beside me and reach out to touch me. They might stand back, and purse their lips. They might turn away. I want to bat them off, chase them out. I want to open the windows and send them off to mingle with the clouds. Here it is again, that embroilment, that fear of being seen.

Push-pull. To expose. Not to expose. I could tell you that making l*v* hurts, that it always has, that there is a physiological reason for it, that if I can hold tight and let it happen, then let go, relax into the pain, let it fill me, there’s a place beyond it where bliss waits. Pain and ecstasy are inextricably entwined.

I can tell you that my life is mostly mundane, and it’s OK. I wake and eat breakfast and let out the dogs while I water my flowers and my lone yellow plum tomato plant, and then I go to work and teach for three and a half hours, and spent some time prepping for the next day’s class and reading papers (I say “reading,” not “grading,” for a reason). And I come home and eat lunch with Nada, and sometimes we play chess. And I drive Zeke here and there (or rather she drives me, because she’s in driver’s ed and has a permit, so I sit in luxury while she finds ways to go the long way to her friends’ houses, gas prices be damned). And when it cools down I go to Nada’s and we kick a soccer ball around for a while because he quite smoking eight weeks ago and he needs something to distract him when the cravings hit. I thought, at first, I was doing it for him, that I would hate kicking a soccer ball around because I’m ball-challenged, with no coordination, but actually it’s fun. I bought soccer shoes, and he’s showing me some tricks and drills, and I can’t do any of it well, but we laugh a lot, and sweat drips into my eyes and I run under the sprinklers to rescue the ball when I send it sideways into his brother’s yard, and the cool water challenges the heat, sends it away into the rich blue dome above, and I feel like a kid again, as if I’ve found something I knew once but forgot — or maybe I never really knew it.

When we’re tired we go inside and read. He reads cognitive psychology books, his current intellectual interest, and I read papers for work or scribble all over a manuscript for a future developmental writing book that I’m reviewing. Sometimes, if there’s time, we’ll read together for a few minutes, these days from Chuang Tzu’s Inner Chapters, and he’ll be happy. So will I. I don’t mean to exclude myself. I was going to write “we,” but I realized that he in particular loves being read to, and I love to read aloud — but it gets tiring, and there’s never enough time. So we read a little from the Inner Chapters, and then I have to rush out to pick up Zeke, and cook her and her friends something. There are always kids sleeping here: right now her friend J is in her room with her, and B is on the couch downstairs, so I’m writing in my bedroom, with Sadie and Bridji snuggled up against me.

And then, finally, it’s night. I open the windows and the wind blows through, carrying cool from the mountains. I water the plants on the patio again, beneath stars, and listen to the world hum. The ghosts gather again, and they don’t purse lips or turn away. They are friends. I can write to them.

Protected: Retrospective 19: 1981 — Not lying to get attention

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Retrospective 18: 1980 — Adah Did It

“Adah did it!”

I stood frozen in shock. I can recall the moment perfectly, the tableau in the kitchen, my mother by the Aga, holding the broken kettle, my father in the doorway, my sister sitting at the table. And I stood by the sink, far from the stove. Far from the kettle.

My father had just walked in. “What happened to the kettle?” he asked, when he saw my mother holding the handle in one hand and the dented body in the other. And my mother said, “Adah did it.”

Leah looked up in surprise. “Mummy,” she said. “Adah wasn’t anywhere near the kettle.”

My mother had turned, not paying attention, and knocked the kettle off the stove. It had hit the hard tile floor and the handle had split off. My mother had bent and picked it up. She was examining it when my father entered and asked his question.

“Adah did it.” I was used to those words. The dynamic in my family had been set for years now. Rachel was the responsible one, in a way. She was more developed than me, and beautiful in a taunting, sexy kind of way even though she was barely in her teens. She was also directive and strong. She and Leah, only a year apart, were the closest. When we fought, she and Leah always sided together, usually against little Ruth May who was the constant butt of Leah’s disdain. I almost always stood up for Ruth May, having a thing for underdogs, but invariably Leah’s and Rachel’s concentrated venom would wear Ruth May and me down. Then Ruth May, who had a strong instinct for self-preservation, would switch sides abruptly to the winning team, and it would be the three of them against me. When Mum or Dad came to investigate, the chorus would begin: “It’s Adah’s fault.” “Adah did it.” “Don’t look at us. It was Adah.”

And then I’d storm out to my pony, usually crying, which earned me the name “Crybaby” in my family. Mum called me melodramatic and over-reactive. I grew more and more morose and sullen, withdrawing into myself and turning more and more to my pony, who didn’t judge or blame me.

Finally, that day with the kettle, even Mum blamed me for something that wasn’t my fault. For a long moment I stood, unsure of how to react. And then I just walked out, past Dad and Leah, and went to my room. Even now something freezes in me when I think of that day.

It is a small thing, really, compared to what others endure. I was not beaten. Dad hit me once, and grabbed me roughly enough to leave a bruise on my arm another time. The time he hit me he threw me into the wall, and somehow I ended up with a black eye. It was actually an advantage at school, but I am talking ahead of myself. My point is that I didn’t endure physical violence time after time, as others do. I was not s*xually abused. I had a good life, with ponies and later a horse, with four meals a day laid on, and my own bedroom. With four acres on a lovely little river, and apple trees and gooseberry bushes and bushels of fresh fruit and vegetables in the summer, and canned and frozen ones in the winter, all from our garden. We had donkeys and chicken and geese and goats, dogs and cats, guinea pigs and my ponies. We had fresh honey and golden dripping honeycomb from our own bee hives. When Dad wasn’t home, Mum would sit with us in the kitchen and we’d drink tea and eat biscuits and talk with her best friend and her best friend’s kids, a pack of us, laughing for hours. We had wonderful lavish sit-down Sunday dinners with my grandparents and my aunt and my two cousins, and we played hide-n-go-seek in the garden at dusk, and the midges chased us, and the smell of fresh-mowed grass followed us to sleep at night.

Beautiful, all of it. Just — here and there — the odd dark moment. And that day was one of them.

Mum came after me. I don’t know what she said. “Adah broke it,” she said to Dad as she walked out of the kitchen. Why was she so afraid of him, that she had to blame me for what she had done? That she had to insist, despite Leah’s assertion of the truth, that I had broken the kettle? I heard her, and something boiled in me. I turned, there in the long hallway, at the door to my room.

“Why is everything always my fault?” I yelled. Is that is? Is that what I said? I was blind with rage, blind with the injustice of it all, and strengthened because Leah — at least — had spoken the truth. Mum screamed back. We were like that, short-fused and fiery in our rage — all of it useless and wearing.

I don’t remember resolution. I want to say she apologized, that we hugged. But we never hugged. Years later, she did explain it — that her anger at me always calmed Dad down in some way, pleased him. She could change his moods by punishing me. But I don’t think she thought it through back then. I don’t think she could. She just acted out of her own fear — that Dad would leave her, that he would disapprove of her, and grow ice-cold for weeks, and fill the house with silence. Over the years, the pattern was established. Leah was brutal to Ruth May. Rachel ordered people around. Ruth May played the clown, and when that didn’t work, she turned on me. And I was the sullen, angry scapegoat who carried the sins of the family.

“Adah did it.”

Why not? If it made it better for everyone else — why not?

Vacancies and Writing and Buddhism and my favorite Sister

“What are your vacancies?” Bethany wrote in her blog, after writing about the voids she feels in her life sometimes. I don’t like thinking about mine. Most of the time I ignore them. If I’m to be honest, I realize my actions have disqualified me from karmic goodness. I abandoned my horse, essentially. Something has shifted in me, over the years, to feel a personal distaste at the idea of buying and selling horses. They connect with us humans, and then we sell them. They move into a life absent from us, and they could be abused or neglected, starved or overworked, and we don’t know.

Sometimes I wake to find I have been dreaming of my horse, and I wonder if he ever misses me. Does he wonder why I just disappeared? I know where he is, but I can’t bear to go visit him, although I know he is well treated. I didn’t sell him, either, though perhaps I could have made some money doing so. I just couldn’t do it. I gave him away to someone who loved him, and then turned away.

Another absence: I shared some writing with a writer friend who has been increasingly successful over the years. She gave me excellent advice, the kind that is at once helpful but also leaves one feeling somewhat down: “Why didn’t I see that? I should have known that.” But the advice was doable, reasonable, well framed. What silenced me was her comment about not really liking my style, although I have suspected for years that she would not choose to read anything I write if we weren’t friends. She has encouraged me as a writer, but she and I write differently. She doesn’t like my “Latinate” word choices, prefers simplicity and straightforward sentences composed with Orwellian transparency.

After her review, I couldn’t write. I sat down to do so and found myself silenced. No matter how much I understand intellectually that writers differ in their styles, and that one can appreciate a writer’s ability without particularly liking the style, I can’t emotionally move past the disappointment of my friend’s comment. And I can’t help but think of my mother, who didn’t like my style either. “It’s too flowery,” she said, every time she read something I wrote, and then inevitably turned to grammar. “You’ve ended this sentence with a preposition. You can’t do that.” Grammar and style. I could never get either one of them right.

I suppose there are other absences, but right now I don’t have time to think of them. I’ve been trying to write this for three days. Every time I start, someone interrupts me. It’s summer. I should have time, but I realize I’m busier than ever. I’m teaching two classes, and Zeke has driver’s ed, and her friends spend as much time here as at their houses, and the dogs need walking, and no matter how much I want to write, something holds me back.

And now, hours later, I return from an evening at Sister A’s house, where we talked about “I am the way and the truth and the light” and about Buddhism and Hinduism and her neighbors in the shelter house next door who bring her the raspberries they grow in their garden between bouts with alcohol. A homeless man stopped by for a sandwich, and the breeze blew the heat of the day away. “OK, I’m going to do my Buddha thing,” I said once, to prepare her and the others for another off-the-wall connection with Eastern religion — Buddha nature in this case. And she laughed and recommended a book by Diana Eck, and said, “You’ll like her, Adah.” This Saturday is her 60th Jubilee, and I’m going.

Right now, right this moment–long may it last–I feel no absence at all.

Her name is Lloyza

She is seven, will be eight on the 16th. She stands against a stone wall, in a pale pink top, hot pink jeans and matching pink flipflops. Her black hair is pulled back into two pony tails on either side of her head, and a few stray hairs fall over her forehead, wispy dark. She looks directly at the camera, not smiling, a probing, serious look.

I saw her photograph as soon as I walked through the main doors of the cathedral. A priest I didn’t know stood behind a table on which stacks of folders bearing colorful pictures waited. I scanned the pictures, and stopped on Lloyza’s. I reached out my hand, touched the folder, and heard the cantor name the opening hymn. No time. I turned to enter the nave and find my spot in the pew, leaving the folder behind with all the others.

The homily, given by the visiting priest, reminded us of our responsibilities to others less well off. He was speaking on behalf of poor children and aging people worldwide. “Sponsor a child or an aging person,” he encouraged us. “For $1 a day, you can make a huge difference in the life of an individual who is barely surviving. That person will receive health and dental care, food and clothing, an education.” The association he was speaking for, The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, spends more than 94% of the money it raises on the people designated to receive it. Less than 6% goes towards administration and fund raising. I listened harder. For years I had wanted to sponsor a child somewhere in the world, but had always hesitated, afraid that the money would go to some millionaire CEO and to glossy advertisements and solicitations. No. Not according to Father D. The foundation has received an A+ from one charity regulating board, four of four stars from another. He speaks of the seven children he has sponsored and watched grow up. “I can’t have my own children,” he says, “So I made a family for myself.” He names them, their ages, what they are doing. He has visited them. The foundation arranges trips to the countries where they provide sponsorships. I imagine visiting the little girl in pink, wherever she lives. I’ll look at her folder after Mass, I think.

But after Mass, Father D asks the servers to bring in packets to hand out to interested people. I raise my hand. A man walks over and hands me a folder. It’s the girl in pink.

I sponsor her. Her name is Lloyza and she lives outside Manila, in a small village, in a hut with a sheet metal roof. She sleeps on the floor, and cooks on a charcoal fire. She has two little brothers, and she helps clean the house and wash the dishes. She is “diligent in schooling.” Her favorite subject is Filipino. I wonder if she’s like me, an English-speaker whose favorite subject was English. She loves to sing.

Soon I’ll get an address for her and I’ll be able to write to her and send her a photograph or two. I hope she writes back soon.

Writing in a Hurry

Summer invited me over for paella and sangria tonight and I went gladly. A few days ago she sent me a link for a couple of requests for submissions that she thought would interest me. She does so periodically. Once, a year or so ago, I actually sent off a piece and it was accepted and published. Remembering that, I decided to try it again. In the space between reading student papers and waiting for my daughter to wake up, I wrote a query and emailed it off. In the bio, I wrote that I was an “occasional writer,” and explained myself away by saying that I am the single mother of a teenage daughter. Single mothers will understand — single fathers too.

But is that really my excuse? I always have an excuse for not writing. I’m a single mother. I’m working full-time. I have other things going on. Right now it’s summer. I should have time to write. I teach two classes instead of three, four days a week instead of five. Why is it hard to drum up 500 words for my blog during a time that should be more expansive? Today I plunged back into my retrospective, was interrupted three times, and realized that if I wanted to publish it, I needed to hit publish. So I did.

Tonight, slightly buzzed on sangria after a brisk walk home from Summer’s house in perfect night-time weather (finally the evenings have cooled down after last night’s dramatic thunderstorm), I rearead today’s blog entry. Typos, awkward sentences, moments when I could have said what I wanted to say more subtly, or more clearly. I berated myself, and then gave up. I recognize the cycle. I get good about writing regularly, get on a roll, and then get pulled aside. Then I beat myself up, and try again, and fail again.

Summer has nine months off — a time of bliss, I think. She has the summer, right now, and then a quarter’s sabbatical, and then a quarter of unpaid leave subsidized by a large artist’s award she won last year. She has been going to writer’s retreat after writer’s retreat, and last week, she received two acceptance notices for pieces she has written.

“Do I dare tell you?” she speculated, when she was over for an afternoon with her writing. She had a “piece-within-a-piece” she was contemplating for publication. I’d offered to help her read it and make suggestions about cutting. She’d taken me up on the offer.

“Tell me,” I said.

“OK.” She thrust her glass at me. “Promise you won’t be mad?”

“Why would I be?” I pour her wine. I know what she’s going to tell me, that she’s been accepted again.

“Will you be happy for me? Or jealous?” she asks.

“You know I don’t get jealous.”

She tsks and shakes her heads and sips her wine. “OK,” she says and she tells me.

I’m happy for her. I tell her congratulations. I don’t tell her that I appreciate the way she sends me links of places she thinks might like my writing. I know she knows I appreciate her thinking of me, and that she doesn’t like flattery/praise. It does make me happy to know that even though I write only rarely, in bursts here on this blog, and almost never in any other capacity, that she believes in me somehow, enought to send me a link here and a link there, to say, on occasion, “You really just need to send your writing out over and over again. Just get into the routine. Just do it.”

So today I wrote a query letter, and cut-and-pasted an old entry to it, and sent it out. If Summer says, “Do it,” I might as well try.

And I think of how lucky I am. I have several friends who encourage me. My blog friends, and two real-life friends, R.C. and Summer. If I don’t send writing out, it’s my fault. Mostly I don’t have time to write, let alone revise and edit and polish. Today’s ham-fisted attempt at an unfinished retrospective, published in the split-second before Zeke came downstairs in a grumpy mood — “Mooooooommmmm,” she wailed from upstairs, and I finished my sentence and hit publish before she rounded the corner because I knew I was in for a long conversation — is an example of why I rarely fully finish anything I write.

“In a couple of years,” I tell Summer, “she’ll be in college, and I’ll have a lot more time. In the meantime, I don’t mind being available. Those years go fast.”

Summer, childless, nods. She never protests or condemns. She has her own challenges when it comes to writing. And I have mine. Zeke, 15, sensitive and kind and sweet. Happy in general, but tormented at times by the frustrations of being a teenager in a world of doubt and difficulty. We argue sometimes, but mostly we just live in a kind of gentle, easy orbit. Her friends come in and out, in and out, and hang out and leave and come back, and I’d rather have them here than elsewhere, so my computer is commandered for MySpace sessions, and I cook baked potatoes and pasta, and I don’t write.

Still, Summer’s links, today’s writing sessions, the cool night air blowing throw the house after last night’s dramatic thunderstorm — all these feel like nods from the fates. I’ll try to write, when I can, and if I can’t find the time, I’ll try to just accept it.

Retrospective 17: 1979 — Catching up with memories

I have forgotten so much, or filtered it. Chosen this rather than that to write about. How could I forget that when I was almost 12 — was that 1976? — I got my first pony. How could I forget that at eight I rode a “tinker’s” horse, which was staked by the side of the road near our house. I clambered onto his back, and brushed his tangled mane with my hairbrush. My mother found me and finally allowed me to enroll in riding lessons at a local riding school. I loved the owners: the tall lean man who trained jumpers and who moved about in the background with a quiet confidence; his wife, a short woman with a kind face and faded blue eyes; the four children, two of whom were close in age to me. I got home from school, changed and ran down the road to spend the afternoon and evening with them. I cleaned tack and mucked out stables and groomed horses for the chance to ride Rainbow, or one day, that equine goddess, Pearl. Weekends, holidays, for four years I spent every spare minute there. I remember cleaning tack and eating fresh-baked brown scores dripping with homechurned butter from the cow, Polly, from whom we got our fresh milk every day. I’d walk home at night with a bucket of steaming creamy milk, which my mother used for icecream and cheese, butter and everything else one needed milk for. Polly was tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis. She was clean and gentle, and her milk tasted of buttercups or wild garlic or whatever she had been eating. I have never loved milk since I left Ireland.

When Cathy was 14 and Jody and I about 12, the tall, lean horse-trainer with the dark eyes stopped his car one day by the side of the road and  died. A heart-attack. Cathy fainted in school when the nuns told her. Jody stood at my side, with wide, horrified eyes, as her older sister cried and cried. Afterwards they had to move into town, sell the farm and the jumpers, and get a smaller place. I saw them less and less often, though I always visit Mrs. R when I’m home in Ireland, in her house at the foot of Br*y Head. She has survived the years by making custom chaps and other leather work, and her eyes are the same as ever.

Sometime in those years my grandparents moved from Derry to our house. They were older, and my grandmother in a wheelchair. We had visited them frequently in the North since we’d moved to Ireland, but the massive old house in which they were living was too big for them to keep up, and we had a perfect setup in our home, with a spare bedroom, small kitchen, and living room upstairs that would accomodate Granny’s wheelchair. (Our house was built on a hill, so the front door went straight to the more luxurious upstairs rooms, while the back door entered the basement, which contained the children’s bedrooms and playroom, and the main kitchen with its large wooden table and benches for everyday meals.)

After Cathy and Jody’s father died, after Granny and Granddad came to live with us, I got my first pony, a 13.2 bay  “mutt” with a shaggy black mane and a habit of deliberately stepping on people’s toes. I loved her, tough. She was good to me. I began babysitting to make money for the blacksmith, for grain for her, for show entries. So I split my life between the world inside the house, with my mother and father and sisters, and the world outside, on my pony’s back, where I could be free and unencumbered.