Category Archives: baby

Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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If You Seek It Like Silver, a short story

illustration if you seek it like silver bohemian rhapsody freddie mercury.jpgIf You Seek It Like Silver

My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.

My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.

“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.

“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”

My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.

“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed

“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”

“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.

My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.

My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!

“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.

I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.

“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.

“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”

“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.

And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.

***

The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.

In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.

“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.

“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”

“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”

“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”

“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.

When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.

***

Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.

The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.

The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.

“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.

She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.

“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”

“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”

The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.

“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.

“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.

“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.

“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”

“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.

“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”

As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.

“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.

***

By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.

“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.

“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”

***

The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.

He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.

“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”

My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.

***

I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.

“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.

“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”

“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.

“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.

“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.

“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.

“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”

“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”

“Your father did what he thought was right.”

“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.

“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”

But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.

“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.”   Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.

***

A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.

“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.

“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.

“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.

“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.

“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”

“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.

“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.

“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.

***

My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.

“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.

“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.

“Like on a date or something,” I said.

“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”

“What did you do, then?”

“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”

“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”

“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.

“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.

***

“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.

“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.

“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.

“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”

“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”

“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.

She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.

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Edie Sedgwick Discusses Her Early Years, a Monologue/Poem/Story/Lyric.

illustration edie sedgwickI felt I was Gloria, some angel living in her own hallucination of time. We were angels on LSD, on LPS. I was cheesecake, chocolate-dribbled, sexy & asexual, pop-rocks eye candy. Wrapped in a wealthy, yet tragic, past. DEEP BREATH. With my dreamy tones; those slow, hypnotic lyrics, my subliminal heavenly chorus of all that is female, the goddess inside us. Hypnotic, larger than life.

And so were the commercials. We really were all famous for about 15 minutes, but we couldn’t see that, all we could see was right now, right then. The atom bomb age, the Cold War, suicides, the Third World starving to death… children dropping like flies in Africa from famine. India, hit by an earthquake. Viet Nam cranking up, with war profits for the conglomerating corporations; divvying up the spoils of war. Kennedy, dead in Texas.

Be the girl all the bad boys want. DEEP BREATH. Sex turned into a Technicolor rock show, pure fantasy; turned into reality. People started living according to their own fantasies of what the world was like. The awakening grew harder; grew easer; grew harder; again & again.

Material wealth. An intoxicant. A drug. Addictive behavior. Spread it around. Moderation in everything. Reasonable assumptions? No? DEEP BREATH. Spell it the fuck out. Rules-based understanding. It takes me a long, long, long time to learn all the rules, all the techniques, all the subtleties. But when I figure something out, I have fucking figured the fuck out of it! DEEP BREATH.

I’m a dreamer; I’m a practical schemer. I’m a dreamer with a BMW; I’m a bad-ass schemer; I’m a waterlogged dreamer; I give up when there is trouble; I run like a rabbit. I dig in like a lion at bay.

Falling in love is wonderful. Once you fall in, take care never to fall out. Find something to keep your love alive… anything! Fasten on & fasten hard. In every way, so they say. Rumors fly. Determining actual facts is hard. All the shit I ever believed about myself came true. DEEP BREATH.

So, my body believes, at least. Next, to make my logical mind decipher the hieroglyphs. DEEP BREATH. Then my heart shall feel; then my soul shall live. DEEP BREATH.

It’s what Andy always used to say: artists are artists, no matter their profession or occupation or job or outward circumstances, and artists are the commodities of the very wealthy. DEEP BREATH. We’re all falling prey.

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Pregnancy, a poem

illustration pregnancy

Pregnancy, a poem

(after Alice Neel’s painting, Margaret Evans Pregnant)

Puffy hands clutch the seat
of the ruffled boudoir stool
to keep the woman from tumbling
to the floor, injuring
more than dignity;

her cumbersome belly bulges
taut, looms over the
bewildered thighs
like a great question mark.
Around her delicate knees

are small white dimples;
the pulse in the blue vein
revealed within a pale breast’s
transparent skin
taps in dreamy rhythm and

though her hair is unkempt,
her eyes gleam with gentle
confidence, patient sureness
that she will pass through
the coming ordeal of body

unharmed, spirit intact; that
everything in the world,
all the movement both inside and
outside her flesh, will emerge
from its hiding place at last….

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Filed under alice neel, art, baby, beauty, birth, childbirth, poetry, pregnancy, women

Alabaster, Briefly, a short story

illustration alabaster briefly

Alabaster, Briefly

After the hurricane, but before the power came back on, Ella went out walking with her daughter, Katie, to survey the damage.  The huge old ficus tree in front of the library had toppled over, its immense grove of roots lying naked, withering now in the sun.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” the three-year-old said.  Humidity bore down on everything like a weighted fishing net.  The tree had been a twig thirty-five years ago, when Ella was a kindergartner.  She remembered the planting ceremony — her mother, president of Friends of the Library, in a blue linen sheath and white gloves, stepping on the edge of a shiny new shovel.

Now the tree, too, was dying.  The shelter it had provided was still dark and cool — the web of roots from each branch created a division of rooms like a house.  Ella pitied that sodden, gigantic mass, torn from the soil, not dead yet, but no hope, terminal.  How long did it take a tree to die?  Uprooted for half a day, the leaves were still supple and green.  It would take days for them to wilt, weeks for a crew to cut the tree into logs and load the logs into a wood chipper.  Her mother would be long-buried by then.

It was late August, and Sophia’s diagnosis had come in January, just after New Year’s.  Ella was far away when it happened, stuck in New Jersey with a new job.  Now her mother needed her and she was marooned.  She had turned into one of those people she hated, one of the ones who moved away from their family to chase money, thoughtless and selfish, leaving their sick, their aged in the hands of underpaid nurses.  “She’s in good hands,” Sophia’s friends told her over the phone, meaning the hospital.

Ella flew down after her mother’s surgery.  The decision to operate and the actual sawing open of her mother’s skull had happened faster than Ella could get there.  When she arrived, her mother was in the Surgical Intensive Care unit, bed number three.  Sophia couldn’t talk yet.  Her head was wrapped in a helmet of gauze, and over that, someone had placed a flowered disposable surgical cap.  She looked like a confused scrubwoman.

Ella’s reaction when, at first, Sophia didn’t know her was not heroism but, rather, numb acquiescence, a slow nod to absolutes.  Ella performed the worst sort of cowardice:  cutting the lines free before it was over.  In that first hour, Ella could feel the passage beginning, away from her mother — the slow casting off from love, the mournful horns, departing from a foggy land of illness.  Her mother had a ruddy stubbornness Ella was shocked to see.  Over Sophia’s lunch tray — each food sealed in a separate dish — her hands danced above a nonexistent teacup, squeezing a lemon primly into thin air.  She had gone another way, in her soft hat, her skin hot, glossy as if with fever, the surface papery-soft but no longer familiar.

After that, Sophia’s pale and knowing return to her usual self was anticlimactic.  Ella had expected to cry more, to feel something else, not this.  Nothing was how Ella had imagined it, not Sophia’s furtive, over-the-shoulder glances of fear, not the way Ella’s stomach dropped as she stepped into the room, not the aching bones, not the past no longer claimed.  Her mother seemed glued, as never before, to the newspaper and the television news shows.  Finally, Sophia confessed to Ella how, for a couple of weeks after the operation, she had been under the brain-surgery-induced delusion that she’d murdered somebody, by stuffing them full of shoe trees, and had been waiting for it to be on the news, in the paper.  How she’d kept waiting for the police to march in and cuff her, drag her off to jail.  Sophia and Ella laughed, and the way the humor was mixed with horror was something entirely new to them both.  Brain tumor jokes — a new genre, previously unexplored.  How do you get a woman to stop shopping?  Remove part of her brain.

The social worker at the hospital sent Ella out to look for nursing homes.  In one of them, a man, or rather, a man’s body — with no visible, communicable cognitive function — was being fed through a gastric tube, through his abdomen.  Ella took in the odor of urine, other bodily smells and functions.  The man was an ideal nursing home patient, permanently hooked to his nourishment line like a freakish, prize-winning, squash.  The nurses rolled him side to side in stages, every two hours, to prevent bedsores.  He never opened his eyes or moaned.  His family seldom, if ever, visited, the nurse said.  Ella stood at his open door until the nurse drew her away.  Ella wondered if she was seeing Sophia’s future.  Is that what her mother’s life — everybody’s life — would boil down to?  The specter of death winked at Ella through perfect cat’s eyes.  What was past the curtain?

There are far worse things than dying young, dying suddenly.  And so Ella said no to the nursing home.  She calculated how much money her mother had and decided to spend it to make Sophia’s remaining life as comfortable as it could be, considering the fact that inside Sophia’s skull was a bomb, gathering energy to explode.  Ella hired someone to nurse her mother twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Someone with the right hands, the right smell.  She interviewed them over the phone, scheduled in-person interviews.

Lillie had a gold tooth in front and wore outrageous wigs:  red, blonde, honey chestnut.  Her bosom was soft, like feather pillows.  Ella knew Lillie was right for the job from the first second.  How was that possible?  All Lillie’s Bible-thumping was okay by Ella.  She knew Sophia would be well cared for.  She knew Lillie wouldn’t steal anything.  She knew Lillie wasn’t, in any way, a spoiler.

Lillie believed in Hell.  She described it one night, a pit filled with fire and snakes.  Lillie’s eyes widened and Ella could see the white all around the dark iris, merged with the pupil in fear.   Lillie believed in speaking in tongues, in visions, but she hadn’t made the commitment to become a Christian because, she confessed, she knew she wasn’t strong enough yet to keep all the Commandments.  Lillie had borne a six-year-old son, father unmentioned, who lived back home with family.  He was her shame but also her delight.  She named him Christophe and had him baptized the same day he was born.  She might not be saved, but her son was.

She was from Jamaica and already spoke in two tongues — one, a lilting version of Standard English, the other, a speedy patois she used to converse with family and friends.  Ella wondered if Lillie had secrets — when Lillie spoke like that, Ella tried but couldn’t understand.  She had inklings she, herself, was being talked about.

Lillie was good to Sophia and Katie.  Katie loved to snuggle with Lillie in her bed, rolling against her enormous bosom, watching cartoons.  Katie sought out Lillie’s bed even when Lillie was not in it.  Lillie cooked chicken and rice dishes with a lot of saffron.  Her hair oils and hygiene products covered the bathroom counter and the windowsill in the shower.  She had feminine cleansing wash, feminine cleansing wipes, feminine deodorant spray and coconut-scented douche.  Ella wondered what Lillie was trying to wash away with all that stuff.

Ella and Lillie met frequently in the night, checking on Sophia.  Ella usually slept in a T-shirt, Lillie in a long, shiny pastel gown with lace about the neck.  She glided softly on her plump bare feet and suffered from insomnia.  When Ella couldn’t sleep, she’d listen at Lillie’s door and if the television was on, she’d knock.  Together, they passed hours watching twenty-year-old British slapstick on PBS.  Lillie never laughed, but most of the time Ella couldn’t stop until she suddenly remembered why the two of them were there.

You never know enough about a particular cancer until after the patient, in this case, your mother, is dying, Ella thought.  Then you know, you get the whole picture.  Then you’re suddenly an expert on the ugliness of the tumor’s tentacles laying waste to the brain, pushing aside healthy cells, strangling them in the search for nutrients, a vigorous weed nothing can kill.  Healthier than normal brain tissue, hardy as a kudzu vine.  The operation had removed a clump from inside Sophia’s head — mixed normal brain and cancer.  What part of Sophia’s personality had been stored in those cells, then disposed of and lost to the hospital’s furnace?  These neurons and those neurons, together, perhaps held the memory of Ella’s birth — Sophia couldn’t remember what she couldn’t remember.  Ella didn’t want to know for sure what was gone.

An area of brain, diseased, removed, yet the surgeon explained how the microscopic roots fanned out — to remove Sophia’s entire tumor would be to remove her entire brain.  The surgery would provide some extra time on earth, a substantial number of better days, but would not stave the weed off for long.  Eight months almost to the day.  The radiation treatments barely slowed the growth.  The terrible vitality of the cancer equaled the slow deflation of Sophia’s life.  Ella was useless to help in that regard, but took care of all the practical details, made it possible for Sophia to die in her own room, her own bed, on her own sheets and pillows.

Time moved forward but memory moved in many directions.  Sophia’s oncologist said, “The cancer appears to be in remission.”  Ella, an intelligent woman, a scientific woman, found herself pleading for divine intervention, for the laser beam of God to drill into Sophia’s head and burn out the tumor.  Appearances of remission, external, controlled for a time.  Sophia walked, talked, and played bridge again.  But for eight months lived in the shadow of death.  Ella was buoyed by the mercy of not knowing; crushed by the agony of not knowing.  Sophia lived on the edge of the river, where each tussock of cool grass might be the last.

Sophia became confused, just as she had before they opened her head.  She started taking pain pills for the growing headaches.  “I don’t know if they think they’re fooling me,” Sophia said.

Ella caught her mother looking through her 19th-century medical dictionary, the same one Ella had pored over as a child, staring endlessly at the pictures of congenital birth defects.  Hydrocephalus, and the like.  You never know what cancer will do until it’s already done it, Ella thought.  She wanted to transcend her awkwardness in speaking to her mother about her own death, but wasn’t able to.  She held her breath until she felt faint, but no words came to her.  Sophia knew she was dying; Ella pretended she, herself, didn’t.  It felt like Sophia knew Ella was merely pretending, and spared her anyway, one last act of maternal grace.  Apparently, Ella was good for only the simplest things, things like comforting her mother with voice and touch as she became more and more childlike.

But really, Ella wasn’t good even for that.  One afternoon when Sophia was knocked flat with pain, Ella tried to lie down in bed with her, stroke her back, the way her mother had done for her all her life.  “No, don’t, it hurts,” Sophia said.

Ella, feeling helpless anywhere but at her mother’s side, stared for hours at old photographs.  In one was the three-year-old Sophia, sitting on her father’s knee, dressed in white, a huge bow on the top of her head, a mass of dark curls, her small legs unexpectedly spindly, her feet surprisingly bare.  The sole of her foot held the whorls of this day, this moment.  Ella tried but couldn’t decipher the expression in her grandfather’s eyes.  What would he say, that circumspect ghost?  How to explain to him, how to excuse the futility of all Ella’s lavish preparations?

That night, Ella dreamed Sophia gave her old Bible to Lillie instead of her.  And in the dream Ella was terribly hurt by that, but since her mother was dying, tried not to show it, and wondered, with the agony of a child, why her mother hated her so much.  Lillie’s eyes, round and widened, with either alarm or fear, darted hawk-like around each room, and those eyes, surrounded by her smooth features and her gleaming, dark-brown skin, those quick eyes seemed to hold all feelings, all knowledge.

It was Lillie, Ella had to admit, who did the most work for Sophia.  In the days that followed, Ella could only watch as the bond between the two became stronger.  The next week, Ella was back in New Jersey, resigning from her job and packing the contents of her office.

“Take as much time as you need,” her boss said kindly, but she knew he didn’t really mean it.

“I need more time than you can possibly imagine,” she said, and he nodded and tried to look sad.

On the phone later that morning, Lillie told Ella how Sophia seemed so much more cheerful since Ella had departed.  “She’s perked up so much,” Lillie said.  Ella wasn’t surprised.

Back in Florida for good, Ella grew angrier by the day.  She lay awake nights fuming about the receptionists in the oncologist’s office who made her feel like an obnoxious pest for calling.  Their crisp, girlish voices made plain there was nothing more they could do other than prescribe painkillers.  Why didn’t Ella realize that and leave them alone?  Then she chided herself for being enraged by their callousness.  Rational thought had vanished.  Ella’s remaining thoughts and feelings flew around like feathers and fur and sometimes, like lazy dust balls.

Katie, at bedtime:  “I’m scared of monsters.  A tiger is in here.”  When asked to cease and desist:  “I’m just being quiet.  Don’t talk, Mommy.”  Ella watched her breathe after she fell asleep — both her daughter and her mother were flying along far, far above her, and she couldn’t seem to rise.

The day before the hurricane Sophia said, “Hi, sweetie,” and smiled when she saw Ella.  Sophia was close to dying but Ella felt her mother still knew her.  Sophia held Ella’s hand and kissed it.  She rubbed Ella’s arm.  Her mother’s head, as Ella adjusted it on the pillow, felt so warm, so heavy, and so sweet.  Her hair — smoothed flat behind her ears.  Her nails painted red by Lillie, she lay on pink embroidered sheets, sporting pale shamrocks on her homely nightdress.  The steel bed-rail gleamed, chilling against Ella’s thighs as she leaned in to try to glean some intricate, fine-grained meaning from the hour.  The charging ceramic horse she had hung over her mother’s bed, the one which had driven bad dreams away in childhood, his mane still wild and golden against the gloom, would be only a minor talisman in the end.

A urine catheter and bag hung on the hospital bed’s side-rail.  “Is that juice?” Katie asked the first time she saw it, and Sophia and Ella both laughed.  The tubes were transparent at first, then, growing clouded and organic with use, became less a fixture than anything.

It was too hard for Ella to bear.  Every time she went in the room her mother grabbed her hand, gripping with all her strength.  The way she looked at Ella — she wanted to tell her something, but what?  Ella wished she could stay away.  She wished it wasn’t like this.  She wished they could just sit in the living room together, watching TV and Sophia could needlepoint.

Ella waited for the hurricane.  Last week had been her mother’s birthday — the storm would be her penultimate gift.  But Ella didn’t know that until afterward.  Memory back-filtered such telling details — pictures of the dying mother were snapped, then parts of the view faded but parts brightened.  Life as journey, as vision, as caress.  Each thing became smaller at first, then loomed larger.  Her mother’s eyes, teeth, hair.  Perception was flawed.  The hopeless interpretation of the mind.  Where was her guardian angel?

Suddenly, Ella was in love with hurricanes as never before — yes, there was the threat of death, nothing new, especially these days, but there was also the stupefying power of the wind, the pelting rain.  Ella longed to be in awe, in supplication, flattened, watching the storm roll over her body like a man would, naked, trembling with powerful need of her, shouting with passion as she lay under him.  She was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was the way things needed to be.  For so long, a storm had been raging inside her — it was a relief to have it visible, a relief to simply be reduced to holding on.

In the past, when Ella’s mother wasn’t dying, she always drank to excess when a hurricane was approaching.  Sophia had always seemed terrified by the darkening sky, the strengthening gusts of wind, and the first huge, cold, solitary raindrops that pelted heads at random.  When hurricanes were on the horizon, she cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon-and-honey tea shot with brandy in crystal cups.  When a hurricane arrived, Sophia was always more or less unconscious.

But this time, Sophia wasn’t afraid at all, instead, comforting Katie from her deathbed — the three-year-old crawled in with her, not Ella, in the middle of the hurricane.  Ella was too tired to have any more hurt feelings.  “There, there, nothing’s wrong, baby,” Sophia crooned.  Ella pretended it was herself in her mother’s grasp.

Sophia wasn’t afraid, and then Katie wasn’t, either.  Sophia, in the middle of that hurricane night, showed Katie it was just the wind… showed her the trees, whispered into her ear, in the midst of baby curls.  Ella knew how that felt, her mother’s velvet skin between the ear and the shoulder, all of it perfumed silk.  Ella closed her eyes and slept.

Later that night, just before dawn, while the wind ravaged the trees and tugged on the roof of the house, Ella woke to hear Sophia speak for the last time, the sleeping Katie draped across her chest.  “Ella, Ella,” her mother breathed over and over, quietly, so as not to wake the child she held.  “Ella, Ella.”  Sophia smoothed hair she believed was Ella’s as she whispered.  Ella watched from her mattress on the floor, afraid to move.

Sophia’s death waited while the wind roared, her death staring with great golden leopard eyes, unblinking.  The mercy of the teeth sunk into the throat.  To stay, to leave — it became the tiniest of steps.  The tears in her eyes.  The death dance, the death rattle.  The odd, rhythmic, hitching respiration, the sticky sweat, the clock wound up by Sophia’s parents’ lovemaking finally unwound.  Sophia died late on the morning after the hurricane.  Ella was there, holding Sophia, as she drew her final breath.  And then exhaled.  Tick-tock — then nothing.

In truth, she lost track of her mother’s breathing as it stuttered and missed — her own heartbeat seeming to slow down — had that really been the last, the last?  Waiting for the next inhalation, straining to hear.  Ella just missed it, missed it.  Then it dawned on her, too late, Sophia wasn’t breathing any more.  Or was she?

“I think I saw her chest move,” Lillie said, panting hard.  She ran to Sophia’s dresser and grabbed a mirror, holding it in over Sophia’s face, peering for signs of breath.  Lillie’s eyes were dazed, her hands trembling, humid, as she passed the mirror to Ella.  At first Sophia’s hand felt the same as always, but in a few minutes her color had completely gone.  Her skin was whiter than Ella had ever seen it.  White, translucent, her dead mother became alabaster, briefly — a warm, heavy sculpture.  The funeral home people didn’t let Ella watch her mother stiffen, cool.  They hustled her out of the room, didn’t let the daughter see them zipping her mother’s body into a bag.  Had they forgotten that zippers made noise?

Lillie hovered over Ella as if she were spun glass, falling toward the floor.  Lillie’s hands were once again warm, strong and capable, but in the end had not been enough to keep Sophia alive.  She stripped the rented hospital deathbed and sponged the plastic-covered mattress with lilac-scented disinfectant.  Ella crept into the bathroom and locked the door, listening to the sounds outside with great weariness.  She eyed the bathroom window, wondered if she could fit through.

The water Ella drank to wash down her first tranquilizer was terribly cold.  On her tongue it was like an immaculate knife.  When Ella told Katie that Sophia was up in heaven now, with God and the angels, Katie’s voice grew soft and sad:  “I wanted her to stay the way she was.”  Me, too, Ella thought.  Me, too.

Ella stood in the driveway and watched the black hearse move off down the road.  Lillie was soon engrossed in cooking — gigantic pots of black beans and yellow rice.  The smells filled the house, harmonizing with the soapy lilac already there.  Ella’s first post-hurricane, post-mother walk with Katie was a mixture of familiarity and revelation — she was used to seeing that kind of wreckage.  She was prepared for the smell – the ocean things, dead and rotting washed-up things.

That night, Lillie snored through it all, her mouth hanging open, trusting, defenseless, still waiting to be strong enough to get saved.  She had not heard Sophia’s last words, and for that Ella was glad. Ella, Ella, Sophia sang out in the night like a chant, the repetition of the name apparently bringing her ease when might otherwise have been terrified.  Ella realized, as she had not before, how much she loved wind and rain, how much she loved how the world was made disheveled and clean by a hurricane.  She clutched her daughter’s small, hot hand, wondering how the child would remember this day; remember her when it came to that.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” Katie said again.  The child lifted her arms, asking to be held, and Ella obeyed.  She buried her nose in the curve of Katie’s neck and breathed.

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