Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

Live in the moment

I love to write memoir. I usually write it in present tense, as if the event is occurring.

Such as:

The nurse wheels me out of x-rays. I am trying so hard to not cry from pain and fear when I see him standing there in the exam room. He has something in his hands . . .

My Baby Ann doll. Smudged face, short white hair in cowlicks now, from lying so long in the toy box.

Despite my pain, I’m suddenly irritated: I can’t believe he brought Baby Ann! I don’t play with her anymore. Not since I was eight, last year. I want to say Daddy, I am too old for dolls now, don’t you know?

But I look at his face, I see the worry, because of me, because of my arm that the doctor is getting ready to pull and pull, to set the bones . . . and something inside me twists, gives way. I start to cry for Daddy because he’s trying to help me and doesn’t know how. I cry for me, for the pain about to intensify at the doctor’s hands and I don’t know how much.

I even cry for Baby Ann and her smudges and cowlicks.

When I write like this, I am there. It is happening. I see the exam room. I remember my red shirt with ruffled sleeves, ruined by plaster of Paris so that I could never wear it again. I see my father’s face contort, turn grayish-green, when I scream during the torturous pulling of my broken left arm to set it. I see that old doll, so vividly, in Daddy’s hands.

As I write it, see it, relive it, I think, How beautiful, Daddy.

I didn’t think any such thing at the time. Nor did he.

Which brings me to now and the idea of recognizing moments as they occur.

I saw the sign at the top of this post in a shop today. When you’re in the throes of a daily writing challenge, you learn to look everywhere for ideas. I took a picture of the sign as soon as I saw it.

I knew, in that moment, I’d write about it. Somehow.

Because that statement about living in the moment and making it so beautiful that it’s worth remembering speaks on two levels. Worth remembering in order to write about, of course. And being fully present for the people in your life. It is a call to be mindful, to savor every moment together. Moments typically aren’t as beautiful alone. Certainly not in being together and feeling alone (read “UNPLUG,” if you wish).

Memories will live, yes.

But what makes them so beautiful is how we live our now. Be present now. Make time now.

For we don’t know how many minutes we have.

-Do we, Daddy.

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.