Wednesday, May 26, 2010


When my two oldest boys were small, I'd entertain them by writing something on paper in black ball-point ink. Whatever they told me to write down, I penned there in my large, loopy cursive handwriting. Mostly it was something silly like Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, or Hinka-binka-a-bottle-of-ink, I pooped my pants and now I stink. Or other boyish nonsense and tom-foolery. Then, when they'd had their fun, I'd dip an empty pen-point in a tin cup of milk and write my own lines in between the inky lines, like the old Greek scribes used to do. I'd write, I love you. I'd write, Now is the time for all good men. I'd write, Say you love me back. I'd write their names. I'd write my own, which changed so often back then with each marriage and divorce that I sometimes woke wondering who I was. When the morning heat of the kitchen had dried the milk and the words had gone invisible, I'd ask the boys to tell me what had been written there, in between the black ink lines which still showed plainly, as before. Sometimes the boys could remember; but mostly not. Out of sight, out of mind, as the old adage goes.

So then I'd go outside to the wobbly second-hand grill a neighbor had given me and I'd take a piece of charcoal in hand. I'd go back inside and rub it between my palms until it began to crumble and a fine dust coated the paper underneath it, and all its writing. Then I'd lift the page and shake the loose charcoal dust out the open window. When the paper was on the table between us, the words were visible again.

Wow, the boys would say, and Whoa, and they'd snatch the paper up and take it out into the backyard, holding it up to the light, squinting at it, poring over the magic of it, wondering how something which had been visible had gone invisible for a time and how, with just the right element added, it had become visible again. They thought it was better than any other experiment we did. They'd beg for it again and again. I took to leaving notes on the refrigerator with "secrets" written in milk just for the pleasure of watching them run outside to the old grill and take the charcoal in hand.

Their clothes and hands were black with charcoal afterwards and I had to scrub them clean at the kitchen sink where the porcelain finish had long ago worn thin. Sometimes, the charcoal stained those thin places and I had to scrub all week to remove the traces of it. Sometimes, I could see, for days, the lines in the boys' hands where the fine charcoal dust had settled, intractably, into the empty places, the fine places which had not been visible until stained. Eventually, though, it all washed free.

Gone, I'd think and feel a small, baffling knot of sadness in me rising; all gone.

If you were to see me now, writing at my desk, tending the thorny roses outside my house, talking to the cat, singing at the sink, preparing lessons for my grad students in poetry, a middle-aged woman in jeans and men's baggy dress shirts (my husband's outcasts and hand-me-downs), painting trim or hanging wallpaper, sitting on the summer porch reading or just idly watching the day wheel by into twilight – if you were to see me like this, you'd think nothing of it except that I'm a woman ordinary as rain, nothing remarkable. What you see is what you get. That woman.

You'd be wrong, of course.

I am not what is written plainly as all that. I live also between the neat lines of who-I-seem-to-be. Always, despite the placid countenance and the genial smile, there is an entourage inside of me. The infant boy lying all night in the crook of a grown man's arm in that over-crowded morgue. The gray fetal bodies in their glass jars of formaldehyde lining the shelves of the anatomy lab closet. The burned boy whose drunken father set him afire one night for disobeying him. That first man I saw naked, dead. And all the ones who followed away from there.

There is more than mere memory here too, a mind recalling something long-gone. There is also the body itself remembering: the nose recoiling as it conjures up again the stench a burned body gives off; something in the stomach's unruly pit knotting itself; the left palm and how it rested against a fevered brow while the right hand fingered a thready pulse; the texture of a woman's long hair in my hands as I washed it for her, toweled it dry it, brushed it into place around her thin face in preparation for the family's arrival – or the mortician's; bare pink fingertips recalling again the post-operative feel of the swollen stump and its sutures, the sticky wet weeping of the wound and, later, the crusted cluster of epithelials sealing, the healing begun at last; the sloshy gauze I'd taken in my hand – the hand I write with now, feed myself with, cook with, caress my husband and hug my children with – that strong right hand stained orange once with Betadine where I'd swabbed a woman's chest one morning, prepping her for the double mastectomy; and my ears which still hear always, waking from dreams, their little moans of pain.

This is what is written, in the interstices between one visible thing and the next. The milky ink of who-I-also-am. And when I write them back to me again - as I do sometimes - they are not "art" to me, not the stuff of rank sensationalism and poetry. They are who they are. Or were. And I am standing again at the old crossroads considering once more the twin devils of suffering and mortality. I am wholly myself again then, the visible and the invisible body. The quick and the dead. A house and all its rooms.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


When a baby does not get born right, everybody goes to church – only it's not Sunday School or worship or dinner-on-the-ground or choir practice, and nobody passes the plate. This is a funeral, and for a funeral, you must wear your blackest, plainest, ugliest dress. No one appreciates a fashion statement at a funeral; that would be like spitting in God's eye and everybody knows only the Devil would do such a thing and look where it landed him.
When you come into the church-house you must sit quiet and still as death with your eyes downcast – like the deacons do when the sermon is on womanizing or adultery – and then there will be some singing of sad songs. "Amazing Grace" is a favorite song for funerals, especially if the organist can get the "bagpipes" key on the organ unstuck. "In The Sweet Bye-and-Bye" is another popular funeral song, one that talks about heaven as a sweet bye-and-bye, not the sour kind of bye-and-bye like when my grandmother used the word to talk about the woman in her housing project who is "loose," as in, "Bye and bye, that red-headed hussy is gonna get her just desserts."
Anyway, at a funeral, there is some singing and some weeping and then everyone lines up, single-file, to walk past the little wooden box where the baby is laid out in a starchy white bonnet and gown. The ladies sniffle and daub at their eyes with their hankies and the men all stand nearby in a clump, scratching under their stiff collars, eyeing the ladies in case the vapors should come over them and someone should swoon into a black heap on the floor. Mostly the women don't – swoon, I mean – but men are generally nervous about what a woman might do in a group, especially when there's a baby involved.
After everyone is done looking at the baby, the men stand out in the churchyard and shake the daddy's hand real hard and say, "Sorry for your troubles, John."
The women gather around the grief-struck mother under the shade trees and they take her hands in theirs, one after another, and pat it and say things like, "Don't blame yourself, honey; these things happen." Or they say churching things like, "God's ways are mysterious" or "You'll see that blessed little baby again in heaven" or "He's happy in God's hands now, sister."
In case none of this seems to comfort her much, if she tells them all that none of that matters and all she wants is her baby back again, the ladies go on to the inevitable: "It's God's will."
That usually works.
It works, I think, because it baffles her. Like God's will baffles me. Preacher says it's God's Will for every one of us to turn our back on the Devil and sin and to be saved and live with him forever in glory. Preacher says whenever a child of God is saved, all the angels in heaven rejoice and Gabriel blows a tune on his horn. There is shouting in the church then and rejoicing and clapping of hands and hallelujahs all around. This is called a jubilation. Jubilation is allowed in church, but only if you keep your feet still on the floorboards. If you move your feet, then it is called dancing and dancing is NOT allowed in church. NO DANCING. Dancing is too close to fornication and we all know where that will get you.
So when you're saved, there's a party in heaven. But on earth what you get is a good dunking in cold water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. But no party. This is because, if God gets you, you get no credit for it because it was God's Will anyway. But if the Devil gets you, that's nobody's fault but your own and there'll be hell to pay for it.
But I guess God's Will, today, is the baby in the wooden box and his mother who is cross now at God and how all of us are going to have to stand a while in the heat out back of the church-house, after the funeral, and watch as two colored men plant the baby beside other babies in a long row, babies who are all in God's hands now, though their boxes are lying under little white staves with their names painted on them, just like the little staves we push into our garden furrows each spring so we won't forget what we planted and where.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The great jet has stalled, mid-runway, for de-icing. From behind the boardroom’s plate-glass window, I watch as a white truck with a bucket (like the large buckets telephone linemen use) suspends one helmeted, yellow-slickered man over the plane. He holds, in both hands, a large coil of white hose, moving it first over the nose, then inching it along the sleek body and over the great wings, down to the tail-fin. As he sprays, a thick gray fog engulfs the plane until it loses its particular shape and begins to resemble, from where I stand, a large whale, a Leviathan: a beast in whose belly sits my husband.

I have counted down the lit cabin windows to a place where, as closely as I can gauge, he sits - 19A, mid-cabin or thereabouts - impatiently waiting for the complicated machinery of flight to resume. My husband is an aerospace engineer. He designs landing systems. And he hates flying. Maybe it’s because he knows too much about all the ways in which that machinery can fail. Maybe because he knows the design is “safe” only to ten-to-the-minus-10 degrees and not one degree further. Maybe it’s because he knows, after all his years of studying how flight happens, that despite all the well-laid plans of intelligent men and women, despite all the intricate and elegant designs in aerospace and physics, every inch of it can be undone in one millisecond by something ordinary as a flock of migrating birds or volcanic ash.

If the travelers around him are lucky today, he’s already nodding off, eyes closed, the noise-canceling earplugs in place. Later, when the flight attendant shakes him awake and tells him to remove the ear-pieces for take-off, he’ll pull them out. He’ll be worse then, having to re-enter the crowded world of that slender cabin where people are herded in like cattle.

My husband does not care, much, for people. He does not wish to know the disappointments and struggles of their lives. He does not love the loud Texans with their big hats. He does not love the elderly who arrived in wheelchairs, the confused ones who sit delicately as porcelain in the seats into which they've been strapped by the flight attendants. He does not love the exuberant voices of the young women gossiping and getting to know each other. He especially does not love their small, squalling children.

What my husband loves is machinery, the clean sheen of steel, the precise way the moving parts are organized and maintained. The elegantly-coded software that drives it all. He admires software and computers and technology. He longs for down-time and quiet-time and machines which are reliable in all the ways human beings cannot be reliable. He wants things around him to stand a little apart from him, quiet and predictable and unvarnished. Like me.

Only when the plane has reached 10,000 feet above the earth's surface and the announcement has been made, only then will he be satisfied as he replaces the noise-canceling ear-plugs with the ear-buds of his iPod. He will dial the flywheel of the iPod upwards, some headbanger tune roaring mindlessly from it and into his head while he nods off again, while he snoozes and snores, dreams and drools, oblivious to anyone – everyone – hurtling, alongside him, through the high, thin winter atmosphere of sub-space.

Belly of a whale; belly of a plane. It’s all the same to him, my malcontent, modern-day Jonah, never bargaining for favor with anyone – God or otherwise – taking whatever the moment brings, whether it’s bliss or disaster, just as he must surely take this moment for what it is: fog dissipating, lights rising bluely down the runway in front of him, the queue for take-off resuming. And so the great machinery points its nose, cargo weighed and stowed, travelers strapped in for the mad hurtle through the blue-black morning, towards Tarshish or Ninevah or Dallas-Ft.Worth. And finally the loud lifting-off: that head-long rush into the un-firm firmament above, day breaking grayly over the tarmac, and me firmly in my place on terra firma, already distant, already beyond him now in the almost-forgotten glittering seaside city below.