To today and the tortoise

In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…

Until all of a sudden, it is.

For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.

For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.

One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.

One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…

One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.

One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…

One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.

One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.

One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.

One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.

Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.

But it did, and it has, and it is.

Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…

My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbag and the belt?

He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heard and can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?

One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”

“What?”

“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”

He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.

And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.

Here’s to today. And the tortoise.

Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.

Remnants

Some time ago, I came upon a giant Ziploc bag filled with disposable cameras and rolls of film I’d gathered and promptly forgot about.

I really need to take these to be developed, I told myself.

And I set them aside.

And life kept happening.

And time went by.

Until I wasn’t even sure anymore how old the film was and who’d taken pictures of what.

Last summer I finally found a shop that still does same-day printing on site (do you know how hard that is to find now?). I took my film—thirteen rolls.

When I returned for the pictures, I learned that some of the film had nothing on it. The rolls hadn’t been used or they’d been exposed and the images were lost.

Many of the pictures that did come out were weirdly double-exposed. Scenes of my children when they were little, superimposed over each other, over other people.

Ghostly. Tricks of light, of time.

In the shadows, my grandmother sits with her arm around my younger son. He was three.

Eighteen years ago.

Suddenly my father’s grinning right at me from the childhood room of my older son, who’s twelve and seated beside him on the foot of the bed, playing Nintendo 64.

Daddy’s been gone for sixteen years. Died the month after my youngest started kindergarten. But this photograph turned out clear and bright; Daddy looks happy.

Fragments of life, preserved here and there, telling our stories a piece at a time.

Kind of like Grandma’s quilt.

I left the photos and went to pull it from where it’s safely stored.

Grandma made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren. In mine many of the squares are leftover scraps of material from clothes that my mother and grandmothers wore. The brown-and-white swirled pattern was once a vest and slacks, the silky coral-and-pink floral fabric, a blouse—all made by my mother. These remnants were painstakingly stitched together by my grandmother. Random parts forming a pattern, making a whole.

This old film, this quilt. Tangible memories. Remainders, reminders, of long ago. Pieces of my life, of who I am.

Kind of like DNA.

One of the things I learned with ancestry testing is that everyone can trace their maternal haploid group, because everyone has an X chromosome from their mother. When I read the narrative of my female forebears’ migration thousands of years ago, surviving the Ice Age (for, clearly, some of them did), and who knows what else . . . it was nearly overwhelming. To think of each one going before, through the ages, on and on, all the way to my being here. That even now we are trace-able patterns of each other, a virtual, long-reaching quilt, connected, continually replicating and unfolding through time.

Not being male, however, means that I have no Y chromosome haploid history to trace. This knowledge left me bereft at first. I have no brothers, my father is gone, and with him his Y-history, which forms half of my own, the migratory story of which I cannot know. Like my old film, it is obscured forever.

Yet I carry remnants of them all within me, those ancestors, male and female. I am their remnant, a whole stitched from their infinite parts, the conveyor of their continuum, the next chapter of their narrative.

And so are my children, superimposed over us all.

Like layers of memory upon memory.

As life keeps happening.

As time goes on, and on, and on.

The door

Door

 

Once upon a very long time ago, I walked with my grandmother down the dusty dirt road of her coastal North Carolina home place. The road was little more than a path lined by deep ditches and cattailed canals. Frogs plop-plopped from masses of lily pads into the murky water as we passed by. Beyond the ditch banks rose the woods, so thick and dark on both sides that crickets sang all day, thinking it was forever night. The sun beat down on everything, yet a breeze seemed always to be sighing, shhh ssshhhhh ssssssshhhhhh, in the dark, leafy depths of the forest. Early in my childhood, I understood that the forest is a living thing.

The old houses, however, spoke of dying. In various stages of falling down, the homes of Grandma’s neighbors spoke of times past, of living and loving over and done. The long-abandoned, dilapidated houses should have haunted me and perhaps they did, in a way. I wasn’t scared. I wanted to know about the people, what they were like, what their stories were.

Grandma knew them all. The people, the stories. That day we when stopped at the fork of the dirt road, I pointed to the lone sepia-toned house nestled in the crook and asked, “Who lived here?”

“The Rosses,” she said, launching into their history, which I didn’t hear because all I could think was I want to see inside.

“Grandma, can we go in?” I blurted.

To my surprise, she hesitated. I was pretty sure she’d just say no.

“They’ve all been gone for so long,” she said, almost to herself, staring ahead. I knew she wasn’t seeing the sad little frame leaning slightly to one side or the brown weatherboard siding. She was seeing it as it once was. The people that once were.

“We’ll go to the door and peep in, but that’s all,” she finally decided. “It’s not safe to go inside.”

So up the rickety steps we went, and, with the scrape of soft wood against soft wood, Grandma pushed open the door.

An overpowering musty, mildewy smell.

I coughed, blinked.

Stairs. Windows. A bit of old curtain, still hanging. Floorboards, some curving up at the ends, and . . .

“Letters! Look, Grandma!”

Before she could stop me, I was in the foyer, bending over a stack of dingy envelopes at the base of the staircase.

Someone had addressed the envelopes with elegant penmanship, in ink faded to the same sepia shade as the house itself. The envelopes looked to have been ivory or cream once. Now tinged and mottled brown, some still contained letters while other envelopes were empty, their creased handwritten contents scattered throughout the layers underneath.

I grabbed one and began to read: “My Dearest— oh, Grandma! Love letters!”

Grandma’s hand on my own stopped me.

“These aren’t meant for us to read,” she said. “These folks may be long gone, but this is their business, their story. Not ours.”

I put the letters down and followed her out of that silent, colorless setting back into the bright, hot sun.

That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Across the years, I’ve remembered those letters, wondered who exactly wrote them to whom, and why they were left like that in the abandoned house. Why Grandma chose to let them be, when the people are dead and past caring. Stories that are now lost to living memory, that will never be known.

Oh, to go back in . . . !

But even as I wish that, a movie scene comes to mind. Another old, sepia house with another girl. If you watch The Wizard of Oz closely, you can see exactly when the Technicolor kicks in on Dorothy’s back just she goes to open the door to a world nearly too fantastic to believe.

So, for me, the image of an aged farmhouse door forever invokes story. It’s first an invitation to examine one’s own framework, the living, loving, and breathings written on one’s own heart. The going in. And then the going out to collide with vibrant colors of everything beyond oneself, to absorb, to get a sense of infinite contours so far above and beyond what we can fully see and grasp. Endless discoveries, always, whether going in or out.

I might as well say the old wooden door is why I write.

*******

Today the door opens on the Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, a post a day in the month of March. 

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

Why I Write 2018

Fossil - Aurora

Pterorhytis conradi fossil murex snail shell, Croatan Formation, Lower Pleistocene. James St. JohnCC BY

It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences (B.J. Neblett).

Our experiences are our story. Who we are. And why.

We are, therefore, our stories.

I write to tell mine.

I write because stories lie buried within me. I write to dig them out, to examine them, to find their value.

I write because ideas continually deposit themselves on top of one another like fine sediment in my mind. I am always sifting, sifting, finding the bits with meaning, determining how these random pieces connect to one another, for they surely and always do.

I write because my words will remain when I do not, imprints of my time on Earth. In the summers of my childhood, I walked little country roads covered with rejects from a local phosphate mine, gravel of shell and coral skeleton from epochs as old as Time itself. As my shoes crunched over this gravel I sometimes discovered primeval treasures—sharks’ teeth, whale ear bones, vertebrae—remnants of life gone before, lying there in my own shadow.

I write because I also walk upon all the books, all the words I’ve read in my lifetime. Within these layers upon layers of ever-deepening strata, too, lie treasures: phrases, emotions, images—again, remnants of life gone before, stowed away in the depths of my mind like the fossil bits in my childhood pockets. I carry with me always the impressions of other writers, the echo of their voices.

I write because I hear the echo of shoes scurrying in hallways, young voices calling my name: When I stop and turn, the children are there, eyes bright, faces glowing, asking a breathless question: “When are you coming to write with us again?”

I write to help them find their own treasures within, because their voices, their experiences, their stories matter; their existence matters, and they need to know it.

I write to preserve. To leave a record of those I’ve loved who’ve gone before, to celebrate those living and loving now. To share little fragments of hope, of peace, of pressing on, of rising above. My stories are my fossils, with or without value to the few who find them. No matter. They have immense value to me while I live them. They are my writing identity. My human identity.

I write because humans think and remember in story, because humanity is defined and connected by story. The sum total of our shared experience.

I am a storyteller.

And so I write.

*******

Another writing celebration: This is my 200th post published on Lit Bits and Pieces.

 

September 1st

Morning glory

Morning glory. Toshiyuki IMAICC BY-SA

 In the half-light

the barest fog

wisps about the trees

silhouetted against

a colorless sky.

The stars have gone.

Stillness but not silence

just the faintest thrum

of summer symphony

by insects of the night.

The last long encore.

Cool expectant breath

of the dawn

before day is fully awake

like the rooster nearby

with his rusty, lusty cry.

Circadian rhythm. All is well, is well.

I stand

under the haloed half-moon

drinking in the glory

of life

 even in its transitions.

Even in

farewell, farewell, farewell.

The garden

“It’s finished,” said Cadillac Man, as we laid the headstone commemorating his little companion of sixteen years.

He’d chosen this spot months ago as he watched his beloved dog wasting away, day by day. And so we laid Nik to rest here in the shade of the crape myrtle our family planted when we first moved to our home. Nik was a year old then. Cadillac Man was five, soon to finish kindergarten; he’s entering his last year of college now.

The tree in its fullness marks the passing of time. It was young when my boy with black curls and his little red dachshund were young. I think of myrtle being an ancient funeral flower, how it represents love and faithfulness . . . never mind that a crape myrtle isn’t a true myrtle. The name association is enough; the symbolism perfect. As the pink blossoms collect here by Nik’s likeness, I recollect the bright spot of happiness he was throughout my son’s childhood, throughout the life of my family.

The statue is my doing. Cadillac Man drove me on a four-hour round trip to get it. “It’s just like him!” he exclaimed when he saw it.

Yes. For the garden is not here for remembering that Nik’s no longer with us after so many years, whenever we see it through the kitchen windows or as we pass by on our daily comings and goings. It is not for mourning, or to assuage our pain.

It’s here to celebrate the gift of his life—a garden of gratitude.

It is complete.

*******

And so, it would seem, the Nik stories are complete.

The Nik collection:

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Cadillac Man shares his writing!

Dogged determination

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.

Only a minute

Hourglass

Hand drawn romantic design hourglass. jl71077CC BY

Every so often, this poem comes to mind.

I first heard it years ago, when a young co-worker recited it from memory. Listening to her mellifluous voice, rising and falling in all the right places, I thought, How profound.

I’ve used it with students for interpretation, for inferring, for fluency practice, for the pleasing rhythm.

Mostly I just mull the truth of it, in its utter simplicity.

Especially the last two lines.

I’ve only just a minute,

Only sixty seconds in it.

Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,

Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,

But it’s up to me to use it.

I must suffer if I lose it,

Give an account if I abuse it,

Just a tiny little minute,

But eternity is in it.

Attributed to Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

You’ll bring your own interpretations, images, minutes to this.

I think of all the stories that hang in the balance of a minute. In the wavering. In the choosing. There’s always that minute before the accident, before the attack, before the kiss of human or substance, before the choice that cannot be unmade is made. In a minute, lives are created, lives are destroyed. Fortunes gained, fortunes lost. The young, often consumed with this minute, blinded by now, cannot see forward; the old, bearing the weight of all their minutes, look back, see them all too clearly, and sigh.

We do not choose our minutes. We cannot save them or store them. We can only seize them, endure them, waste them, invest them, or pay for them. A choice lies inside each minute, always, even when there seems no choice.

I think of the ripple effect of one minute’s choice, how it never affects just one person but countless others, spanning families, communities, cities, nations, maybe generation after generation. For better, for worse.

I see the news. I read. I hear people’s stories, every day. We live our stories, we make them, every single minute, by our choices, actions, reactions. In some minutes I pause, recalibrate, celebrate, breathe a prayer of gratitude. In other minutes I sink under the anesthesia of why.

Only a minute, come and gone, and we are changed, whether imperceptibly or instantly, forever.

And that line whispers to me, once more. It’s never far away, really.

Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.