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There are no rules but the ones we make up. Any practice helps to give structure to the void, this rolling present moment that unfolds whether we wish it or not. How to nail it down is the problem at hand. How to nail it in one hundred words, no more and no less. I don't know how I stumbled onto this site, except I was looking for help with memoir writing. Somewhere there was a link that took me here, and for reasons I can't explain I have stayed all afternoon. Guess I want company on this solitary quest.
Gus Wehland was born in Germany in 1893, and came to America as a boy. His mother took in laundry, and he taught me how to press a pair of pants so the crease was just right. When Gus was young he lived in Williamsburg. He remembered when it cost five cents to take a cow across the Brooklyn Bridge. When he grew up he was an iron worker and to me he seemed to be made of steel. Once he offered to "take care of" the problem of our Dad. I secretly wished my Mom would have let him.
I remember Uncle Gus. He was a wiry, tough little olive-skinned man who sat on the edge of the seat with his elbows on his knees. He smoked cigars and kept his money in a leather purse that had slots for quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. The purse had a zipper. He kept it in his back pocket. We called him "Uncle." And when we needed something, he'd smile like he was going to say "No," but then he'd slide that wallet out of his pocket and unzip it. When we were little a quarter was a lot of money.
It starts when you're a little girl, long before puberty, with crinolines under dresses short enough to show four year old thighs. And all the women say "How pretty!" It continues with ass slaps, and how to act like a lady lessons your Mom provides. Men admire you with guilty eyes that lead you to notice Aunt Mary frowning at Uncle Joe. You're learning that men are animals, what everybody knows. It's important to please them, the tacit assumption goes. You become a fallen angel, temptation in a body that bleeds as it grows. You wear stains on your clothes.
He came into the kitchen in his pajamas and crawled up onto my lap. I was wearing a sweatshirt with "Brooklyn Dodgers" on the front. He must have been four years old at the time. Without any warning, he suddenly slipped his little hands under my sweatshirt and cupped my breasts. I froze and my mouth opened, but not a word came out. After a frozen instant I raised my hands to remove his, but just as I did he dropped his arms out of my shirt and turned around. It was time now for cookies and milk before bed.
Here there are trees. The land has been given over to the trees. They seem ready to engulf the house and the little barn stands brave, its peaked roof sheltered and shadows playing on its sides. The trees rule this place. Their roots carve the surface in a rough uneven roll that grass backs away from. In this place, the breeze makes a light show on leaves of every color, red, yellow, green and purple. Needles from pines and firs. Seeds of all sizes and shapes feed squirrels and birds raise generations in notches where the limbs spread and trace.
The first thing I saw was a column of light leading down to a bright circle of sand on the earthen floor. Eight feet below ground, around it the rest of the kiva was lost in darkness. As I lowered myself down on the wooden ladder, coolness enfolded me like a summer shower. It felt good to leave the torrid white heat of the Four Corners summer. Goose bumps rose on my bare thighs. I stepped off the ladder and out of the light into the center of the cave. A ledge of clay seemed to beckon me to sit.
The rocks enclose me like a lover's arms, surrounding, hugging and caressing me as I ease into their embrace and as easily let go of them and flow by. Gravel and sand rise up with a troubled swirl into my urging fingers. They brush my hair in long tendrils that rest again along the rugged shore. The sun warms my flanks and shines in my shallows. It sparkles and melts on my skin. I breathe it in. Cold fingers reach from my darkness, seeking light. A turtle rises to break my surface, and all the glittering fishes swim darkly underneath.
The water comes in and laps around my feet. The water goes out and pulls me in. The water comes in and laps around my feet. The water goes out and pulls me in. The sand swirls and curls around my bare feet. It gets caught between my toes. The water comes in and laps around my feet. The sun splashes and flashes on the waves. The sun warms my nose. The water goes out and pulls me in. A seagull flies by and lands at the edge of the surf. The water comes in and laps around my feet.
The apartment was too small to have a living room. Apart from the kitchen and bath, we used all the rooms as bedrooms. My parents slept on the sofa bed. Every day, my mother folded up her bed and turned that room into the living room. Once she'd done that, we could move in with our toys and occupy the space. But if my father was still sleeping, we had to be quiet and wait. My father had a little brass bell that he would ring. That was our signal to come in, but not one single moment before then.
All night we smelled the acrid smoke, drifting in through the bedroom window. The wind kept changing, bringing it in for a while and then sending it south again. In the morning, we watched the news. It was the trees burning like torches that took the houses with them, eight of them gone. Nobody counts the out buildings. The day grew warm then, and everyone talked about the wind, the expected gusts up to fifty miles an hour. We drove to the golf course and bought a bucket of balls, turned our backs to the hot spots on the hill.
The first thing is to raise the rod while holding onto the line in your other hand. The line feeds through into a pile at your feet. Then down with the tip and up again in a wide arc over your head, and this time let the line slide through the guides and feed its way into the open air through the tip. The line follows the arc of your arm, up and over your head into the sky above like a bird flying by. It disappears behind you for an instant, and then you feel that tug. It's loaded.
No memories are so excruciating as those from childhood. Our parents gave us the world, according to them. I still see everything through that lens. Sometimes I just want to slap them. Other times, it feels like an old shoe I could easily slip on and walk in. Because my parents were so perverse, I had to be responsible for myself. A psychiatrist told me to fit in my family you had to be crazy. He was trying to make me feel better. It also made me feel worse. To write my story, I have to ride a tall horse.
We are clear of the fire line, out in the flat between the hills. They are burning and it is smoky this year. Late spring left a thick under story. Now dry as old bones, it seems to ignite in the wind. Nobody knows what starts the fires, but there is fuel aplenty, hot and dry and ready for that igniting spark. The garden needs a lot of watering and the grass is brown in places where the sun has its way all day. The air is smoky and blue sky has that telltale hint of grayish brown. It's hot.
I canít remember being molested. What I do remember is being awakened, and the whispered arguments about whether or not I was going to go with him downstairs. It was a whispered argument, because our parents didnít know. They didnít know that when I was nine years old he started bothering me, just to let him see me, then to let him touch me, and finally to have me touch him. By the time I was 13, I was so numb I couldnít feel anything. I no longer cried or laughed. I had effectively disappeared. So I donít remember it.
Sitting at the wheel, my thighs press the pan. The apron drapes over my knees. My foot leans on the pedal, pressing where the spin is right. Water runs off the edges. Cupping the clay ball, I lean in from my shoulders through my elbows and wrists. Muscles in my hands come to bear, pressing in. It centers on the wheel, eases into the spin, becomes round. Then my fingers do the opening, drop inside the center, seek deeply. Spreading now, a cylinder emerges. Sides rise between my fingers and knuckles, gently and upward, through the channel of my hands.
Today was a banner day. Today I saw my script performed by actors in my class. The characters came to life and jumped from the page into the world of living, breathing, struggling humanity. They became real. I could become addicted to that thrill. When a story is real, you know the minute when you are writing it that it is real. But even though you know it, there is still some doubt. That doubt doesn't dissipate until the story goes out into the world and lives. Whenever this happens, I am transported from an ordinary to an extraordinary life.
I called Donna today and found out she has cancer, again. She previously had breast cancer and survived it, and this is not the same type of cancer, but a whole new invader. Donna is eighty one and about as tough as they come. She said she's had the first of six chemo-therapy doses, and it went okay, didn't make her too sick, but they sure are being hard on an old lady. That's what she said, and I have to agree. But she's not up to having us visit. She said her immune system is too challenged right now.
Old me: Can you help me?
Young me: How can I help you? I'm just a kid and you're a grown up.
Old me: But that's just it. You remember what happened.
Young me: Sure I do. But you forgot. How convenient for you. Why would you want to remember now?
Old me: Because I want my life back. I forgot too much.
Young me: You forgot a lot of bad stuff. Are you sure you want to remember that?
Old me: I forgot the good stuff too. I just forgot everything.
Young me: You just need to remember why.
calling to my muse
that nameless stranger
who will not come
hides in the dark
in my empty head
elusive, stubborn, silent
leaves me alone
in this empty cave
inside my head
with nothing between my ears
but the sound of silence
and a bunch of other cliches
just like that one
then all at once she arrives
unbidden as a lark
singing on a fencepost
in the damned sunshine
with a flash of inspiration
she whispers her secret
out of nowhere
the beginning of hope
the dawn of a new day
sun through the blinds
"Ten of them."
"Them what? Ten fingers? Ten toes?"
"Ten spirits, man."
"Ten spirits? What you talkin' about, spirits?"
"Spirits, man. Spirits. You know."
"I don't think I know, bro. Maybe you better explain it to me."
"They're spirits, man. Ten of them. And they watch me, man, they watch over me."
"Ten spirits watching over you. Huh, that's really weird, you know that?"
"It's not weird man. They are really there. I seen 'em myself."
"You seen spirits."
"One time, while my eyes were still closed and I just woke up, I seen 'em."
I lick the salty sweat that's clinging to my outer lips. The sun burns down on my neck. There must be a spot of shade somewhere. But I can't see it. It's nowhere near where I am now. I pour hot water from my bottle out over my head. It drips from the ends of my hair. It was too hot to drink. Too quickly the water dries, and the brief moment of cool relief evaporates on the seventh green. I pull my putter from the bag and trudge to where my ball lays on the dry edges of grass.
Shoogie always made me smile. She was brown and round, with legs too thin and short for her stout body, and a Labrador head. Chocolate brown from her nose to her toes, when she smiled her whole face curled up around her snout. Her eyes had a twinkle in them, and they were the warmest copper tone. And when you came home, she shook and spun in mid-air, her whole body wagging her tail. She was my best friend from her cradle to her grave, and she would have eaten anybody who tried to hurt me. Her name was Sugar.
I remember going into the restaurant in my Sunday best clothes. I had never seen such a fancy Chinese restaurant, but I was in Australia and everything was different there. The first thing I saw was the big tank with the Koi in it. They were enormous, some of them looking at least two feet long. Some were white and yellow; some the typical orange you associate with goldfish. In the tank next to them were the lobsters. I knew the lobsters were there to be eaten, but the goldfish were there to be pretty. Suddenly, it all seemed surreal.
When we were kids, she nicknamed herself ďNinna Nubile the Puberty Princess.Ē She could always make me laugh. She saw the zany side of everything. But I canít think of a single thing she ever said that was funny. Now all I can remember is riding on the elevated train with Ninna, going to high school in the city. We were from Brooklyn, not even the nicest part of it, and we rode an hour each way to get to our high school, a laboratory school for the gifted on the upper east side. She was my comrade in battle.
Today is my birthday. I am now fifty nine years old. That's twenty one thousand, five hundred thirty five days. With any luck, I'll live another seven thousand days to a ripe old age of about seventy eight years old. And if I am privileged to live that long, what will I do with the time? Some of it I will spend marveling at the wonder of creation. I have already spent a lot of my days doing just that, and somehow it always seems like a good way to spend time. Hopefully I will write some more stories. Amen.
I think I missed my calling in life. I should have been an actor. The life of an actor would be full of new challenges. You would never ever be bored. Even when you were doing a show you would still need to create your character every night brand new. Talk about living in the present! And there would always be lots of bows to take, and positive feedback would be immediate. I would have liked being in front of people performing as a lifestyle. I guess I would like being in the spotlight or the footlights, as it were.
Dark eyeglasses. Bright sun. And heat, dry but deep. Coming over the rise, the valley spreads out to wrap the road in sage brush and grass, brown now and gold. A tinder box waiting for a match to explode. Chimeras dance. The pole leans lightly against my shoulder, bobber bobbing against the loose line. Where is the water in all this desert? Dust blows gusts behind truck tires, and sweat beads on my upper lip. Then in the distance, a cottonwood tree, first one by itself, then three in a row, winding down the valley below. The brush greener there.
Dust from the trail sticks to the sweat on my legs and arms, and the salt runs into my mouth. The trail seems to go up forever, over rocks and roots, through the dry dark timber of the cedar forest. Downed tree trunks litter the ground, laying at odd angles to each other, strewn about as if for a game of pick up sticks. Sweat soaks my shirt, and runs freely around my waist where the fanny pack presses. The pervasive shade is the only consolation. The kids run rings around me on the steep trail. When will it end?
The miles drag and the inclline unforgiving. I trudge on, stubborn, resolute, determined. The whole scene is brown on brown, brown dirt and brown tree trunks, unrelenting. Not a single bird or squirrel relieves the silence. A few insects scurry along the ground. Finally the sun breaks through and some green emerges along the trail side. The incline steeper now, but the prize is at hand. Devils club and Queen Anne's Lace brighten up the ground now, and a Stellar Jay jumps down into a nearby tree limb to check us out. And then the sudden drop down to the lake.
It was a day full of animals. On the drive there, of course, there were lots of cattle and horses, chickens and sheep but that wasn't what we were after. When we got to the Bison Range, we were deep in the heart of Western Montana, and the grasslands and hills rolled around us, with the glacier peaks in the background. We started out counting, six deer, five elk, twelve bison, six antelopes, but pretty fast the counting was over. We saw more animals than any of us could keep track of. It was dusk when we completed our tour.
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