Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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Esther Be Gather, Indianapolis – Part 1: The Poem

“I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

all we have to fight off

illness and death.

You don’t have anything

if you don’t have the stories.”

— Leslie Marmon Silko, from Ceremony

Back in April, I was honored to accept the invitation to be a Storyteller at the first Esther Be Gather, held here in Indianapolis at the historic Madame Walker Theater. Stacy Sallmen, Esther Be’s founder, has been organizing these events — here in the U.S., Europe, and Africa (to date) — as a means of providing everyday role models for women seeking to escape the damaging (and often dangerous) silence and inaction resulting from feelings shame, fear, and guilt. By gathering women to share their stories with others, Esther Be forges connections through common experience and inspires women to build the courage required to rise up and claim the resources they often refuse — in some cases at the cost of their lives — because of the shame, guilt, and fear associated with traumatic events or circumstances of their lives.

At this first Esther Be Gather, we heard stories from women who had not only survived but rose above such atrocities as rape and incest and abuse, as well as addiction, eating disorders, and pornography. Participants shared their stories in a number of ways: through talks, songs, audience participation. I chose to share mine, with the help of dear friend Kelli B. Schmith, through the medium most natural to me: poetry.

The piece wraps free verse (“The Physics of Epiphany”) around a narrative (“The Incident”). It reflects two experiences of memory: the intellectualized, emotionally stifled one and the spontaneous, emotionally explosive one in response to sensory recall. The poem portrays the violent battle fought between the mind, which seeks to suppress or sanitize traumatic memories to protect us from their impact, and the emotions, which are spontaneously triggered by sensory memory and often burst through the mind’s protective buffering with a range of intensity.

While my own delivery of the performance began with a tone of dismissive denial, racheting up to violent physicality, Kelli read the narrative with the quiet detachment many trauma victims use to tell stories — as though they were describing something that happened to someone else.

In a separate post, I’ll publish the re-creation of my brief talk about the role of the body in creating, recording, and storing memory — and why repressing memories can result in the violent eruptions of “epiphany” that many people suffer when those memories suddenly, often unexpectedly, surface again.

I’m publishing my talk separately, in part, to retrieve a little of the poem’s visceral impact, which it loses in its print form. But I also wanted to make the reader pause in the emotional intensity the poem creates before allowing them to move into the safer, cleaner intellectual space to which we reflexively retreat when faced with difficult feelings.

Because, while our theories and our analyses and our psychologies are fine, “[y]ou don’t have anything / if you don’t have the stories.”


The Poem: “The Physics of Epiphany (The Incident)”

It begins

as a faint shimmer in the distance

a subtle ripple

a vaguely disturbing distortion of the horizon

pricking at your attention.

But it’s still easy to dismiss

so you do.

My memory of the incident itself is vague, incomplete:

I am crying, my hands pulled through the fence and held fast on the other side so I can’t get away. They shush me again and again, intently focused on what they are doing. No one must hear this. It isn’t allowed.

By the next time you glance up,

it’s gathered speed,

gained momentum

 

and it’s heading straight at you.

My panties are pulled down, and through the fence, dirty fingers probe me. I remember nothing of this, specifically; only the tops of their heads as they whisper to one another with stifled laughter.

Your first instinct is to dodge it,

deflect it.

But you’re rooted to the spot

by its inescapable gravity,

the inevitable pull of its mass.

How did I get there? What had they used to lure me? For what had I reached my hands through the fence to grasp, only to be caught in this trap?

I don’t know. I was only three.

Your lungs suck for breath

as the first white-hot cannon ball of truth

slams into your gut

forcing your stomach back into your spine.

What I remember vividly is the sound the back door made as my father burst through it as though shot from a cannon, taking the stairs two at a time, his face twisted with rage.

You feel your body crumple,

curling inward around this thing

you don’t want to know

you don’t want to know

you don’t want to know

And my mother’s voice, high-pitched with terror, as she follows him, “Don’t hurt them! Don’t hurt them! They’re just boys!” her fear echoing forward and backward at once.

Forward and backward at once,

your whole being seems to spin around this new center.

And just when it seems

you can curl no tighter,

that every fiber of your being,

every cell every atom

has been pushed to its limit:

 

the equal and opposite reaction.

Reaction is slowed. The boys are transfixed, forgetting for a moment to release my wrists. I feel my father hit the ground behind me, and the spell is broken as he slams into the fence, a bellowing bull. The boys scatter, wild with terror. I remember one, the visiting friend of the neighbor boy who still had my smell on his fingers, scaling the opposite fence like a mad creature and disappearing down the street.

You implode

scattering what you once believed

was solid and real and firm

and stable – the very core

of your Self –

in all directions.

 

You desperately try

to hold it together

because

no no no NO

NO!

I remember my mother quickly pulling up my panties, hiding my dishonor. My father stands, shaking with impotence, the damage he could never undo settling into the pit of his stomach as I whimper and hide my face in my mother’s neck.

The MESS you’re making!

 

How will you clean this up?

How will you ever tuck this back in?

How will you piece together the splintered fragments

of the mask they all need you to wear –

Something my mother is saying to him about my trembling breaks through the thick, protective skin of my father’s anger, causing him to whirl and twisting his face in the other direction, from rage to naked anguish.

– your family

your friends

your coworkers?

This, too, I remember vividly: My father dropping to his knees, the tears welling, as he takes me tenderly by my tiny shoulders and looks deeply into my eyes, his own eyes desperately begging me to hear him. He’s helpless…shattered…undone.

But you’re helpless…shattered…undone.

There’s no going back from here.

No pretending your life

will ever be the same again.

Can ever be the same.

He says it so softly, so fiercely.

And then you feel it:

 

the peace

the acceptance

the expansiveness of the broken places

the light shining through…

“It wasn’t your fault, honey. You did nothing wrong.”

which starts as a shimmer, a subtle ripple

And he gently draws me into his arms

before defining a new horizon.

and cries.

 


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A Gift of Mary Oliver

For Mary Wrobel

In my hand
the book of poetry you sent:
a bouquet of words
fragrant syllables
delicious, full,
ripe verse.

A welcome,
unexpected joy.

May some drifting breeze
blow a seed of gratitude
across the miles
and plant itself
neatly, quietly
to bloom in your garden.


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Abandoned: A Gift from the Red Chair

Earlier this year, I participated in an online course that explored vulnerability through the use of photographic storytelling. The course was facilitated by brilliant St. Louis photographer-poet, Henry Lohmeyer. I’d started following Henry on Instagram some while back and was struck by the poignancy of not only his black-and-white photos but also his beautiful reflections on them. I was unprepared, however, for the depth and power of his deceptively simple daily prompts. I was equally unprepared for the plunge into the most shadowy corners of my heart — and (dare I say it?) soul. As difficult as it was to dig around in that darkness, Henry’s course — and the beautiful community of supportive and encouraging artists who were sharing their own journeys —  catalyzed the healing and release necessary for me to move toward the new life I am creating for myself and Bodhi. 

This post is an expansion and further exploration of one I created for the course.

Follow Henry on Instagram: @henrylohmeyer

——

The day’s prompt didn’t shake me as much as those from other mornings. I read the email, listened to the audio clip. I mulled for hours about where I might find a suitable place to photograph something “Abandoned”: old buildings; distant farmlands; deserted city lots. I racked my brain, getting no closer to a destination, so I decided to just go out and drive for a while.

As I climbed into my truck, I glanced up and saw — really saw — that godforsaken red chair.

Mold streaked its fading red plastic, and weeds grew up through its slats on the little bit of overgrown garden where I’d discarded it three years ago. Over time, it became invisible to me, part of a deteriorating landscape I didn’t want to see because it reflected the slow, painful clenching of my heart. As I slowly climbed back out of the truck and slammed its door, I read reproach in the chair’s precarious tilt, in its sudden assertion of itself in the spotlight cast by an unexpected parting of the clouds. Fascinated and repulsed, I pulled my iPhone from my jacket pocket and went to work, capturing what was abandoned right here, outside my front door.

Reflections of Wholeness and Brokeness

In Arthurian legend, one of the major turning points in the story concerns the idea that “the land and the king are one.” The belief is far older and grislier than the tamer Arthurian romance version, where King Arthur is stricken with a deadly illness, and the land withers and dies with him, becoming a barren wasteland until he is healed.

I have both lived and died on this land. And it has lived and died with me.

Before I arrived, the property was all scrubby grass and tired trees. The house itself had been beautifully renovated from its previous decay, and the lot cleared of a thick wall of cedars that had acted as a screen for dark doings: insurance scams, drug trafficking, car theft. The surviving hardwoods almost sighed their relief with the changes, but the hard clay stubbornly held onto the roots of the past.

I almost immediately went about softening the soil with sand and compost, breaking beds from it in sweeping curves with a pickax and shovel. I sang as I dug in the soil and coaxed hand-seeded blooms from the earth. I tucked silvery-leafed plants among the tree roots and lacy ferns into the dappled shadows. I invited butterflies and hummingbirds to sip nectar from sun-warmed flowers. I practiced yoga and danced barefoot by candlelight on the covered porch, under flowering baskets I’d hung. I placed a red chair on the back deck from which I watched my dogs play in the thick, green grass. The land and I joyfully flourished together. It was a labor of love.

Then I experienced a love of a different kind. It was unhealthy, soul-stealing. Longing for the children I’d been putting off for too long and blinded by the lure of security, I married a man whom I believed would be my last chance. It was like living with an angry, tentacled creature. I found myself strangling, emotionally drained. Over time, I spent less and less time in my gardens, and they began to fade. Then I fell ill. The resulting surgeries included removing an ovary the doctors feared was cancerous. The pathology came back clear for cancer, but it was also clear that I would bear no children.

Throughout my illness, I begged my husband to leave me, leave my home. He worried about his “karma” — how it would look if he left while I was ill — even though he’d developed a deep disdain for me. I assured him I would heal more quickly in his absence. I was desperate. He was resolute. It was torture. I spent many hours tightly curled on the covered porch under the hanging baskets of flowers I no longer watered, letting my tears soak the dead, uncaring lumber while the living trees around me sagged.

It was months before he finally unwound himself from my life. I felt emptied out, disoriented. I buried a knife of shame deep into my heart. My mistakes were, in my mind, unforgivable.

Over the following years, as I withdrew into myself, into the pain and punishment of my choices, I let everything go. I gave up. I withered. And the gardens I’d worked so hard to bring to flower in this tough soil responded in kind. I’d abandoned not only them but all of the pleasure I’d felt in creating them, all of the pleasure I felt in creating at all. I didn’t know how I’d ever recover.

Then the final, crippling blow: The drainage system protecting my sweet little house’s foundation needed expensive repairs. The excavation would deeply scar the land. Worse, it would also destroy the back deck, where I loved to sip my morning tea from the red chair and listen to the birds sing as my dogs played. I removed everything from the deck and watched the construction crew shatter my tiny morning retreat space.

I set the red chair by the driveway and turned my back.  I slipped into the fog of a depression that lasted three years.

The Gift: Reclaiming Peace

Healing is a journey. And healing a heart is an arduous one. I’ve worked hard to walk my path to healing and have come farther than I could have imagined only a few months ago. Like my land once had, the hard clay of my heart stubbornly held onto the roots of the past. Unexpectedly, photographing the red chair and connecting with the story it told helped me uncover many of the wounds still keeping me stuck and slowly dig them from those deep, dark recesses where they’d been clinging.

I’ll be leaving this place soon. Not abandoning it, just moving on. My last gift — an expression of gratitude to the home that so tenderly held me as I fought my way back from grief and depression — has been to coax blooms from the neglected soil, resurrect my gardens, and nurture my trees. I’ve made my home bright and beautiful again, filled it with love and laughter. I’ve had the back deck rebuilt and decorated it with potted flowers and trees. I’ve scrubbed the red chair clean and placed a pretty pillow on it. I sip my morning tea there, nestled in its arms while birds sing and my dog happily chases his ball.

I’m at peace with myself and — thanks, in part, to an abandoned red chair — the blameless land, too, is at peace once more.

 


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Knowing

I almost trashed this post. It’s an old one, recalling the pain of a loss that has healed over time. I wasn’t sure it was relevant anymore. But there’s something about the experience of grief — and of healing — that prompted me to go ahead and post it.

This is for my dear friends, Stacy and Jerry, each of whom lost someone they loved in the past week. And for my cousins, Cindy, Tom, and Penny, and their father, Herb, who so recently said goodbye to my Aunt Bert. Your loved ones are with you.

I know. 

——

Some time ago, I had to drop a “specimen” off at the veterinarian — retesting Bodhi after a bout of giardia — and just inside the door was a sweet, ancient dog, at the very end of her leash, focusing all of her energy on balancing on her stick-thin legs. She had the most beautiful pale blue eyes, so I asked her mom if it was all right if I said hello, bending to stroke the frail head and murmur to the old girl how beautiful she was.

“She loves attention,” the woman said simply, but something in her voice made me look up — just in time to see that lone tear make its way down her cheek.

And I knew:

I knew from what depths of her being she had to dredge those few words.

I knew the effort required to choke them past the constriction in her throat.

I knew the full, bitter taste in her mouth as she struggled to shape it around these everyday words — ones she would never say again about this old, weak dog waiting for that last appointment.

I’d forced similar words through my own teeth about my Sachi, as my friends came to say goodbye the night before I released her soul. I’d choked on them as I’d walked my old Coyote so painfully slowly — at whatever pace she could manage — up and down our street, greeted by neighbors who loved and patted and fussed over her on her way to crossing. I battled tears, as this woman was now doing, and lost.

I gently kissed the old dog between her blue eyes before rising to wrap her mom in my arms. I stood there a few moments while this loving human emptied out her grief onto my shoulders, and I whispered to her that her sweet little girl would always be with her, beside her.

Because I know that, too.

 


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Canadian Giraffe Shortage Nearly Derails Yurt Purchase

From an email exchange, wherein our heroine attempts for several weeks to make contact with her preferred yurt-maker…

Me <4th email attempt>: “Hi there! I got your coupon, and I’m very interested, but your email keeps coming back undeliverable, and your voicemail seems to be full. Are you still out there? (Please, oh please, tell me you are!)”

Yurt-maker:

Me <a day later>: “Oooo! Oooo! My email didn’t come back undeliverable! So, I have hope! I also have questions: How much of a deposit do you need? How long does it take you to create and deliver orders? Can you deliver to North Carolina? Do any of your yurts come with giraffes pre-installed?”

Yurt-maker: “Thanks for your emails! I’m sorry we’ve been hard to reach…technical difficulties. Supplying the amount of giraffes requested by our clients has kept us busy! (Regarding giraffes: I’m sorry, but we’re sold out.) Have I exhausted your patience?”

Me: “Exhausted my patience? Nah. I just would have nagged you until you rallied the rest of Canada and invaded the US to make me stop emailing and calling you. (Although your giraffe shortage was nearly a deal-breaker.)”

Because that’s what it’s like to do business with me.

The pertinent bit:

I’m one step closer to getting my yurt ordered!

(sans giraffe)

“Nyah! Giraffe-less yurt for you!”

 

(Image courtesy Aidas Ciziunas, unsplash.com)