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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

Recent Work By Ronlyn Domingue

Mr. Jack sat under the hanging light at the kitchen table with an ashtray at one hand, a book under the other, and a cup of coffee in between. His casual posture made him look shorter than he was. Sometimes, he braced his elbow on the back of the chair and dwarfed a novel in the palm of his hand. His dark, wooly eyebrows straightened in concentration, sometimes lifting as he took a drag of his cigarette. From my place in the living room, near a lamp with a book on my lap, I could barely whiff his Marlboro. That’s what my dad had smoked before he quit cold turkey. But Mr. Jack and my father smelled alike anyway, that humid smoky scent of the Intracostal base where they both waited to fly helicopters to offshore oil rigs.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.

I am two years old.

And I am sacred.

 

 

I descend from generations of Catholics, numerous as rosary beads. My grandparents are devout beyond the expectation of prayer and Sunday mass. The One True Church is chosen for me, and I sit in one of its domiciles surrounded by echoes and incense but anxious to go outside.

Beyond the cathedral steps is the largest, oldest living thing I’ve ever seen. Almost 500 years old, it is Magnificence and Beauty. The oak tree waits for me, for my hands on its bark, for my entranced orbit around its trunk. I will learn the words axis mundi decades later, and I will know exactly where that is.

For now, the tree holds the space between the cathedral and the school building where I attend catechism. In the classroom, I’m told of the indelibility of original sin, the importance of pleasing the Lord, and the stories of a great ark, burning bush, giant whale, and woman who turns to salt.

But before I’m called away, I stand on the fluorescent-lit sidewalk within a footstep of the darkness, a leap away through moonlight into a canopy of leaves. At the ancient oak’s roots is where I want to be.

I am a pagan.

 

 

Requisite catechism classes and first confession complete, I wear the white dress my grandmother made for this first communion. I walk down the aisle with the other children to the pews—boys sent left, girls sent right. The veil’s haze blurs my sight. I kneel. I mutter what I’ve learned by rote, and I feel I’m doing something wrong. I don’t belong here. I’ve told no one I don’t believe what I’ve been taught in catechism, by example, through osmosis. I push this feeling down, hard, and it stays. The wafer on my tongue transmutes into caulk.

I am a bad girl.

 

 

We move to another parish, with a modern building and no oak tree. The priests are younger, as well as the families. The circumstances are different, but the doctrine isn’t. I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.

So I sit in the bright sanctuary where the acoustics are balanced and the pews are unworn, with the unacceptable thoughts I’ve formed on my own. I am only twelve, but I don’t believe birth control, sex before marriage, or homosexuality is wrong. I don’t believe in hell, purgatory, limbo, or heaven. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead. I don’t believe that Catholicism is theOneTrueChurch, that people of other religions—or none at all—are damned, or that the pope is infallible.

I am an apostate.

 

 

I meet with a confirmation counselor, a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking about the solemn sacrament. My feet dangle from the edge of the wingback chair. I sip the Coke she serves me. Knowing I can’t endure an act of hypocrisy, I tell the woman I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t know her, or trust her, so I summon up the most neutral excuse I can imagine. “I need more time to think about this commitment,” I say. Perhaps I come across as mature, or at least respectful. Several weeks later, after much sulking and silence, after several red-faced insistences upon my obedience, I am allowed to quit.

I am a disappointment.

 

 

I’m not prepared for the difficult growth from the tendrils of doubt into the gripping vines of uncertainty. Our Father who art in Heaven has been imposed upon me, but I have no guide to take his place. I want to be an atheist—desperately—but all I can achieve is an embittered agnosticism. My rage at God, if God exists, is complicated. I don’t want to be this way, but I am, and if my will alone can’t make me a believer, then was I fearfully and wonderfully made not to be one?

At fourteen, I begin a search for answers beginning in philosophy, psychology, and natural science. In college, I learn of a time when God was a woman, or at least not only a man. I behold the Venus of Willendorf and the Minoan snake goddess, who seem familiar to me, like someone I’ve forgotten. I read the names of the dead goddesses and their myths, invoking the Feminine in the place where the rigid, judgmental Masculine banged his hairy white fist. I encounter Joseph Campbell, the venerable sage, who reveals the common motifs of mythology and religion from all over the world throughout time. He teaches me that human beings have always assigned stories to the Great Ineffable.

I am a scholar.

 

 

During the first years I practice yoga, I acknowledge the envy I have of my grandmothers. What is it like to believe as they do, to have trust in a faith, to have prayers and rituals that hold meaning? What does it feel like to have a relationship with the Divine that isn’t constantly in question? And if there’s doubt, how does one carry its weight, the pressure that perhaps there is, in fact, nothing after all but the spooky action of matter and energy?

As I enter Eastern territory—where Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me—I also return to the Earth. I read and think about the span of human wisdom, but it is only in stillness with Nature that I discover any truth. I ache for a return to something I think I once knew, something that belonged to me, something that was stolen and buried.

Then I find peace in my knowledge that the Divine force takes many forms. Each is a fragment of the whole, a glimpse through which the person perceives according to his or her understanding. My grandmother finds comfort in the Blessed Virgin Mary. My sister’s Hindu friend has a shrine to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. My Buddhist friend sits in meditation, sometimes in the presence of Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion and action.

I reach for the ancient oak, a flower, the song of a bird. When I hold these things, I am connected to the Divine in the purest state I comprehend.

I am a seeker of what cannot be taught or found, but instead known and felt by my individual human soul.

 

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

One quote at the start of a chapter made me pause. “You can pray for someone even if you don’t think God exists.” (Real Live Preacher is credited, and I assume he or she is, in fact, real and meant to be anonymous.) If that is so, then what is prayer at its essence?

I think the feeling behind that quote is really about connecting with humanity and caring what happens to them. Even a stranger. I wouldn’t say that is the essence of prayer, but it can certainly be one facet of prayer. I think prayer is more like water, that it has many shapes, moods, origins, and variations.

The book opens with the inevitable departure of your two sons. Under these circumstances, you felt a New Year’s resolution drift upon you—to pray for a stranger every day. What effect did you expect this to have in your own life? And theirs?

I wasn’t expecting any return in my life which is funny because that has been one of the greatest gifts, the evolution of my soul if you will these last few years. What effect it might have on others? I believe in the power of unselfish prayer. One with no personal agenda but the betterment, peace, and completeness of that other person. Because I believe that, I thought surely out there somewhere, my prayers might make a difference down the road in a stranger’s life, although it was a difference I never expected to see.

You write about an inner knowing when you saw your stranger for the day. How would you describe the feeling—and dare you guess about its source?

People really want to know about this a lot. Exactly how do you choose, they’ll ask. As if it is some kind of strange science or mystical magic. But I just shrug my shoulders. Try it. That’s what I’d say. Spend a week just watching faces in a crowd. Before each day is over, someone will stand out to you. Time doesn’t slow to a crawl or the waves of people part for me to see someone. Sometimes, it’s just that crying, feverish baby, or the bus driver, or the cashier at the store. Of course, a lot of people who I’ve said hello to or told them I would remember them in my prayers that night felt that God singled them out because they needed a good word that day so much. I hear that over and over again.

You mention the importance of getting a stranger’s story. How did that exchange give context or depth to the way you prayed?

river author photo

Story really gives context to everything, doesn’t it? I love the fact that we live our lives through story, connect in story, and in my book are part of an eternal story. It has made me more aware than ever of the threads that connect us to one another.

The initial approach to strangers remained difficult for you. You thought one reason was because many people—yourself included—have a deep desire “not to be rejected.” At times, your gesture was, and one example was the intoxicated woman at a restaurant. How did your ability to handle dismissive reactions change, if at all?

Now, she probably didn’t think she was intoxicated. :) Truthfully, in all my days over these past few years of speaking to people, some might just give a friendly smile and a thank you—or Thanks—only that one has been strangely dismissive. But that’s okay. It didn’t change the quality of my compassion for that woman that night when I prayed.

Many of the strangers gave you specific matters to pray about. What were the most prevalent requests? Did people ask for themselves or for others in their lives?

Sometimes, people really requested specific things. Never for new things, or to buy a larger flat screen TV, but so very often for their husband, wife, children, and so on. Family. Love has been the major motivator of those prayer requests. Sometimes, people would/will want to keep me and tell me the names of everyone they want prayer for. I kind of sum that up by praying for the people who they love. They would make requests other times for health problems, or occasionally to keep a job, find a new job, not lose a home. Finances also seem to be tough all over.

There are some heart-wrenching moments in this book. I’m thinking of the girl with bruises who asked you to pray for her mother, the baby you comforted who would likely be placed for adoption, the woman who took forever in the grocery express lane who you realized must have been terribly lonely. After dozens of encounters like this, how did your experience of compassion shift?

I can still be so amazingly short-sighted, trapped in my own world, unaware of the needs of others. But yes, my compassion has grown—deeper. That would be the word. What happens to the people in my path matters more. And my heart, just like that old Grinch, has grown three times its size.

Sometimes, you saw people who appeared to be in need of prayer—they seemed to be in ill health or dealing with tough circumstances—and your impulse was to pick them. However, the selection of your stranger was rarely so obvious, sometimes a person who looked as if s/he had no troubles at all. What did the call to go beyond appearances reveal to you?

It’s easy to pick the person pulling an oxygen tank. That’s obvious. And no doubt they could use a few good prayers. But we assume so often that the pretty girl, the woman with a diamond ring, the man who appears to have everything—are in some perfect place in life where they have no need of prayer. My experience has shown me exactly the opposite. Those people have all opened up and said those familiar lines—Funny you should choose me, because—and insert their story here. I realize now beneath ever perfect wrapper or happy face, a story is resting that may be very much at odds with what the world is viewing.

As a fellow introvert, I was interested to see how behaving as an extrovert gave your life a new dimension. Now two years later, how has that experience altered the way you interact with others?

I talk to people more. I realize that my interaction with them has value. This is extreme for me. I have always valued words, silence, aloneness—and good friends. That’s for sure. But now I see that we really aren’t meant to be those islands. We really are a part of the main, of each other. I think John Dunne had it right.

There’s plenty of hugging between you and strangers. Is this a Southern thing?

Yes. I think it’s a Southern thing. But I also think it’s an innocent child thing. I’ve noticed that children from everywhere seem to love to hug people and each other. Perhaps it’s those protection boundaries that keep us from doing that. But I passed out hugs on my recent trip to New York coming and going. Either I’m giving off hug radar these days, or some days the whole world needs a hug.

On occasion, you would run into people you had prayed for. Some of them shared updates on their lives. What did you discover through this—about reaching out to others, or the promise of hope, or the inevitability of change?

It was a rare and splendid occasion to run into those people again. Fortunately, in each situation, life had taken a turn for the better for each of them. I’m not granting that due to my prayers at all, but here’s the most important thing to me. These strangers, what happened in their lives, the fact that in different ways they were in better spirits, really mattered to me although we had only met from that brief, first encounter.

During the last months of your resolution, you encountered a red-haired man who looked like a Tolkien character. He said your sons would come home. How are they?

Very Tolkienish. I’d like to run into him again. Both sons came home safely. They are stateside. One of them has orders to deploy again now.

For those strangers reading now who’d be so inclined to pray, do you have a prayer request for anyone or anything?

My private list would be much like those of strangers I’ve met, filled with requests for the health, safety, healing, and happiness of my family and friends. I think my one request would be that readers so inclined might offer that prayer in their hearts for a stranger. Whether it’s for a day or a lifetime, I believe only grace light, and love can come from that. I have a prayer card currently on my website, and it reads, “Every day I pray for a stranger. Today you stood out to me as someone special in a beautiful way. I thought you should know that I’ll be praying that your burdens be lifted, your fears abated, and your loves protected. May blessings, goodness, and peace surround and keep you.”

Check out River’s author website, blog, and radio show. (By the way, she has a gorgeous voice.)

Find her books through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

 

 

I’m writing my second novel by hand. In pencil, in large sketch notebooks with no lines. Or, for another part, in purple ink on letterpress-worthy paper, torn, folded, and stacked into signatures with my own little hands. When the book decided—yes, you read that correctly—that’s how it wished to be done, I balked. Seriously? With the glorious technology now available? I’m grateful it didn’t require me to use the pen and ink set I have stored in my credenza.

Yet before it made that assertion, I was writing notes by hand. In pencil, standard graphite as well as colored, for variety and emphasis. The official notebook launched October 23, 2006. It includes snippets and quotes from round after round of research, idea after idea that popped into my head, and copious ramblings, fits, furies, and epiphanies. To date, it exceeds 1,000 pages.

archive #2 crop

If I ever became famous, or well-regarded, that mother lode might be valuable, especially in the increasingly intangible digital world.

With arrogant hope, I thought about my literary legacy as I wrote my first novel. The meticulous record keeping reflected my own orderly nature, but I had the future in mind as well. What if I “make it?” What if a future scholar would become apoplectic with glee to pore over the minutiae of how Draft 1 evolved into its final form? Perhaps the notes I took from an interview with a 100-year-old female physician gives unexpected insight into a certain character. And what about the somewhat detailed floor plan of the house of one of the couples?

I wrote the first novel on a computer, but all of my notes are handwritten. Everything, from the notes to printed research material, is stored in one box in my closet labeled with the novel’s title and the word “Archive.”

“Archive” is an important distinction. In my last will and testament—drafted during a period of attention to adult matters—I specifically state that “my literary papers (i.e., stories, novels, notes and correspondence)” are bequeathed to my alma mater for the library’s special collection. However, “any and all personal journals of mine (which have been collected in a box and designated as such) shall be destroyed as soon as possible upon my death.”

Yet I’ve already begun the process to expunge my own collection.

In the summer of 2007, I embarked on a major closet cleaning, beyond old clothes and accumulations. I sorted three boxes which held the writings I’d done since I was a child. Duplicates were tossed, along with early drafts. I stacked what was left in date order and put them in one tidy narrow box. Of my personal letters, I kept what had sentimental meaning and marked those for archives.

As for my journals, of which there were fewer than one might expect, I read through them, observing my rather mundane life and its paucity of scandal and intrigue. Then I summarized the main points in a new journal, kept a few pages from the primary sources, and burned the rest.

I loved the burning. It was so primal.

What? I shouldn’t have done that?

Then, in the summer of 2009, in yet another flurry of research for Novel #2, I read a compelling biography about Virginia Woolf. Her work, and Woolf herself, had nothing to do with my novel—but I felt drawn to it anyway. (Novel #2 and its spooky synchronicity…) What disturbed me was the pointed inclusion that her family had not, repeat had not, honored her wish that her personal papers be destroyed after her death. She did not leave a clear legal will on this matter, but the last line of her suicide note read, “Will you destroy all my papers.” [sic]*

This little detail, an act of betrayal as I saw it, was the hidden reason I had to read the book. It connects to a small incident in Novel #2, one I’ve yet to reconcile. But there was a personal consideration as well.

I have to confess: I am one of those people who loves to read about long-lost and discovered diaries, letters, and manuscripts. Oooh, a treasure! I think—even if I don’t have interest in the person who left it behind. That such things warrant news coverage suggests that people are a curious bunch of voyeurs. We value whatever insight or significance we think the artifact might yield.

After reading the Woolf biography, I contemplated more seriously what I would leave behind—and why. I questioned the point of keeping records of my private thoughts since I wanted them destroyed anyway. It’s helpful to have them as a backup of memory, what happened when. I doubt I’ll ever write a memoir, but if I did, that’s the material I’d mine.

As for clumsy drafts and notes, they reveal an evolving process of both the works themselves and my development as a writer. Even I can see that, especially when I dared to skim some of what I wrote as a teenager. But I doubt I’ll ever sit down to read all those old short stories, poems, and plays. Short of the laughs, it could be excruciating.

I will never read the first draft, nor the second, or the third of my first novel again. These hundreds of pages are taking up space in a box in a closet, as well as about two megs on my computer’s hard drive. I’ve referred to the notes once or twice to find the titles of books I read for research, but for no other reason. Still, I treat the contents with respect. I know exactly where they are in case of a fire.

The second novel’s archives are even more copious and complicated. This novel had an earlier incarnation as a near book-length prose meandering, rightly abandoned more than 12 years ago. It’s the stuff of a scholar’s dream—the inchoate seed from which a mature work sprung, or at least is about to spring. The handwritten spew of one of the sections reads like psychotic ramblings with no sense of time or order. The handwritten prose of another suggests the writer might know what she’s doing. The notes show the progression of what will be an epic work. The draft-in-progress is typed and electronically archived, so losing the paper originals would not be a disaster.

Every few weeks, I edit through the typed pages of Novel #2 and stack them in my office. Then once the pile is hefty enough, I burn the printed pages in my fireplace. I love the flash of white flame when the torn shreds take at once. Clutter gone, effort transmuted.

fire

Because most of the work on Novel #2 has been especially unpleasant, I have a recurring fantasy of burning its pulpy corpus on an outdoor pyre right before it’s published. Every single handwritten and typed page. Throw in a nice full moon for effect, and of course, a libation. It’s destined to be read, in more instances than not, in digital form (an affront to a theme in the narrative, but I digress)—so why does physical proof of its creation matter?

Why don’t I burn it up as I go? Why don’t I burn the entirety of my archives now?

I don’t know.

I’ve wondered about Woolf’s awareness in her last days and hours. Her death was not sudden. She could have destroyed her papers first, or at any point long before her desperation became too much. Surely, she had a sense of her legacy and what her papers would mean to studious inquirers. Perhaps in those surviving records, Woof herself expressed ambivalence about their destruction.

No doubt I harbor some delusion, vanity, or hope that my work will be deemed worthy of study one day. If that’s the case, I understand there’s an expectation to play nice and leave something for someone to discover in a box after I’m dead. But right now, I’m the author of one published book, one in progress, and five in concept. There’s a big gap of so-what-and-who-cares between now and the spread of my own remains.

I suppose I cling to the materials—even as I question the clinging—because of its tangibility. It’s physical. My creation. Consider that a writer’s lifelong collection of effort is called a body of work. If so, an essay might be a fingertip; a book, the meat of a thigh. Those things that have no form—ideas, feelings, thoughts—incarnate as words on a page. For me, paper is matrix, binding those words together.

As technology shifts our relationship to the written word, what future is there for what is actually written? Typed pages covered in arrows and the author’s scrawls. A hasty note tossed in a box. A handwritten letter. An autograph. These things are treasures and commodities now. Imagine the frenzy of collectors and scholars who one day may want to touch what a certain writer touched—you, me, someone else. Nostalgia for what is dying must motivate me as well, a desire to preserve relics.

My last will and testament remains unchanged, but what I’ll do with my archive while I’m still alive remains unsettled. One day, I or Disaster might destroy it all, lightening my earthly load and limiting what insight friends, family, readers, or scholars might have into what I created. This may not be much of a loss.

If I do my job as a writer, I will leave a body of work that speaks for itself.

 

*Noted in Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf by Mitchell Leaska. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998.


final_merm_cover

Carolyn Turgeon and I met in a rural, rainy corner of East Texas in January 2007. We were surrounded by tiara-wearing, book-sharing Pulpwood Queens. A surreal lovefest of words if I ever saw one. That’s how I got a copy of her debut novel, Rain Village. Whimsical and heartbreaking, the book convinced me that she’d be a writer I’d follow.

My 90-something-year-old neighbor is almost blind. She might still see the shapes of trees and the color of them in full leaf. She might even see the blanket of the spent ones, assuming she let them pile up. She doesn’t.

Her yard man comes nearly every weekend with his trailer loaded with equipment. In December, the neighborhood trees hung on to half of their leaves—the drop is late in the Southbut the ones that had fallen on her lawn met with a 200 mph windstorm. A relentless, two-hour onslaught.

My patience exhausted, I left the house. As I drove off, I glanced at our littered yard then noticed the spotless little grasslands on the rest of the block. Black plastic bags hid the dead. Once, I would have been shamed by our violation of social norms. No more. I appreciate the crisp rustle and tumble until Todd mows it into confetti compost.

fall scatter

We’re the third owners of an International Style house built in 1950. The architect—who claimed no aesthetic inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian periodchose a site in a new neighborhood that had mature trees. Attendant to mid-century modern practicality, he intentionally positioned the house’s longest facade to face south. He understood the value of deciduous trees. Shade in the summer, sun in the winter. He left several large swamp chestnuts standing and allowed a few young ones the chance to grow. A patch of urban forest thrived.

In 1960, he leveled most of the back yard and used part of the space for a regulation tennis court. Not long after his death, we asked his family why the court had been installed. One of his daughters laughed. “He hated to rake,” she said.

I joined in, remembering my grandfather. He hated to rake, too, and had no trees on his property, a small lot in an established neighborhood otherwise full of trees. I did not inherit his disdain.

maple

When we bought the house, the tennis court had succumbed to the earth’s slow shift. Cracks and rifts buckled the concrete. Sink holes threatened to swallow legs up to the knee.

These hazards were hidden under two autumns’ worth of fallen leaves. The second ownerfollowing the architectrented the house to various tenants for years. The last ones left the property a wreck. We, the third owners, had considerable clean up to do.

Two scrappy teenagers we hired stuffed dozens of plastic bags full of leaves. In the damp patches that remained, rich soil coated the hard gray surface, alive with microbes and worms. I scooped this up when I could and sprinkled it under the trees, who made the mess in the first place. I stood in the sink holes where the roots of long-dead trees had disappeared from their graves. I imagined the woodland that might have been.

After we had the tennis court removed, the clay valley received fifteen yards of river silt. Fertile enough to sustain grass, the silt was seeded with centipede. For two years, it crept and endured with water and hope. Our mulching mower chopped the green blades and dry leaves. The decay would yield topsoil.

The return had begun.

oak red

Bill, a native plant expert, smiled with affection as he peered up at my favorite swamp chestnut. Its thick canopy cast deep shade in the afternoon. Here and there was a fallen leaf the size and shape of a cow’s ear. The ground under some of its roots was barren except for a blanket of leaves. We’d removed the iron plants that choked together near its trunk some time before.

“This is what it wants,” Bill said as he pointed at the ground.

“What? Leaves?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s it’s food,” he said. “Spread them as far as you can.”

I kept my mouth shut. What a dolt, I thought to myself. My well-conditioned concept of a proper yard shattered with a sudden, but obvious, revelation. Grass was not normal under trees. Leaves, moss, ferns, and shrubs were. What forest had St. Augustine, centipede, or any other variety of turf growing across its floor?

“I want to create a woodland in the back here,” I said. The tennis court had become a wide boring rectangle of green.

Bill smoothed his beard. “Start with leaves. As many bags as you can get. Pile them up and let them decay to build the soil. Do this for a few years. You’ll have to pull a few weeds and any trees that sprout. Otherwise, it’s low maintenance.”

That fall, Todd and I spent Sunday mornings collecting what our neighbors diligently bagged and left at the curbs as trash. We received askance glimpses as we filled the truck bed with our roadside loot. I noticed the grassy front lawns. Ours looked—and would continue to look—no different. A polite concession to real estate, and community, values. But part of the back yard would be released to some wildness.

I turned myself over to patience, tentative as a new leaf.

hornbeam

These few years later, fourteen trees root into ground that was once covered with concrete. Under their young canopies, I can scratch into sweet soil and find the creatures responsible for the black gold. The red bud will come into flame soon. The fig tree might produce enough for the mockingbirds and us. The maple, hornbeams, and winged elm promise respite from the August heat. The slow-growing swamp chestnuts struggle to reach deeper into the clay.

Next fall, we won’t have to raid our neighbors’ curbs for leaves. I expect the trees will have enough to feed themselves.

What becomes of them will turn into memory. The young trees join the cycles of my human years, my growing appreciation for change and the assurance of return.

oak orange

The presumptuous and their eager green, frostbitten

Wise pecan, trustworthy officiate of spring, unfurled

Merciful shadows, blessed shade, summer in and out

Doodle bugs under the magnolia perfumed with spiced decay

Small blistered hands cool in the pile, the reward for raking

A gust of visual birdsongthe notes flutter down, down, down

Pneuma and terra dance the fairy whirlwind

Empty grasp at the blue, the gray, to be filled again with new life

parsley haw

The bank’s assistant manager approached me with a friendly smile and an immaculate suit. Charles looked his part—competent, precise, rational. He also looked younger than I am, much younger, but appearances are tricky. He asked why I’d come in. I explained I needed to shift some money around to keep it liquid. I was a writer who dipped into savings and was contemplating a move to another state.

Tante Nan made ragdolls by hand. She lived on a family farm in the country, near sugar cane fields. She once had been busy outdoors, a self-sufficient wife and mother with eggs to gather, animals to slaughter, and crops to tend. My great-great aunt was elderly when she sat down with fabric and thread to create the toys.

The lyre-leaved sage emerged with vigor the following spring. A true perennial, it returned in the same place it had been planted, and then some. Several descendants appeared nearby. They announced themselves in rosette bursts of dark green leaves alive with purpled veins. Started by seeds, I thought. Happy ones. Within weeks, tall stalks—dotted with rows of pale blue-violet blossoms—grew straight up from the leafy centers. Each flower had a triangular yawn with a wide protruding lower lip and thin top one. Noticing the sage’s effortless replication and early color among the other sleepy perennials, I let them sprout forth.

They went to seed sooner than I expected. I had a habit of cutting back what exhausted itself. My decision to leave these plants alone was a matter of curiosity. This plant had been in my garden only one year. I didn’t know what would happen. Cyclical study had not been my horticultural m.o.

On the cusp of summer, I sat near thriving echinacea, the hearty clerodendron, and spent sage. The sage’s narrow stalks were dry and brittle. Two little finches rushed into the stems. They gripped the stalks with their feet and leaned over to ones nearby. At the throats of dead blossoms were seeds. Dozens were still attached. The finches had a feast.

Had I read of this relationship, it would not have sparked the bright, simple pleasure of witnessing it for the first time myself.

* * *

For a gardener like me, red salvia is a perfect specimen. It spreads by seed, transplants easily, tolerates drought, attracts bees and butterflies, and blooms for months—late spring through fall. The brilliant blossoms snap fire in the air, against almost any background.

salvia multiple blossom crop

In all the years I’ve grown them, I’ve enjoyed their attractiveness in color and of critter. I cut them back when the stalks stopped blooming and turned brown. This promoted new growth. More color, more nectar. The seeds that dropped and germinated were allowed to keep growing. I left them rooted in the earth itself.

But this year, I planted some of the spring seedlings in the large pots on the patio. Typically, I filled those with fuchsia and red pentas, favorites among local beasties. The salvia went in because they were free—homegrown—and something different. When I sat in my office, on the chair that faced the patio, I liked the promise of long red-blossomed spikes for months to come.

Summer sun and air didn’t have a chance to dry out the pots. The salvia thrived under my care. This was a bittersweet stewardship. Almost every morning, I took my 16-year-old cat outside to walk on the patio. She was living with lymphoma, with tumors in her abdomen and behind her right eye. Ariel had spent her life indoors, protected, basking in the light filtered through windows. I felt compelled to give her whatever comfort fresh air and dappled sun could bring.

Too frail to run, she strolled around the patio or sat still gazing at the world through her strong left eye. I drank coffee, watered plants, watched the birds and squirrels with her. I tried to stay in the moment, in the presence of her life, in the beauty of our own back yard.

Ar walk pause

The salvia grew, bloomed, went to seed. No stalks were cut to encourage more flowers, although I had done so in the past. The profusion of blooms waned, as did the visiting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (oh, they were a surprise). It was all I could do to simply keep the plants alive. I let things go as Ariel prepared to leave.

* * *

Several days after Ariel’s peaceful death, I rested in the chair in my office and looked into the yard. The coreopsis had no yellow flowers, only spent ones. Several areas required weeding. Young shrubs planted in spring needed more water. The fig tree had tripled in size.

The salvia had random speckles of red. I thought to myself that it needed a serious trim to bring back some life and color. There was time for one more push before fall. In that instant, a finch landed on a brown stem. It reached out and nibbled a stalk.

salvia seed stalk butter gard

The finch ate the seeds.

I remembered the lyre-leaved sage and my delight of discovery. I didn’t know the red salvia gave food in another form as well. Then I realized the plants were in the same family, their stems and flowers almost alike. The connection between them had been lost to me until the bird arrived.

The finch continued to eat. The moment held complicated gentleness. My patience with the sage and my willingness to watch taught me about its cycle. Ariel’s illness stripped away all that was not essential, disrupting my patterns, leaving me open to what happens when things are left to be. There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.

Sitting there, I smiled even as I grieved.

salvia bush 4

Mother’s bleeding her dead children
single-celled, invertebrate
born in the water of her womb
after the Word, below the light
amniotic deaths, sand and silt shrouds
mass graves of viscous black rot

Mother’s bleeding, her dead children
finned, feathered, furred
still in the water where life began
anointed by the exhumed hemorrhage
innocent sacrifice of awakening
your sleeping terrestrial siblings

Mother’s bleeding her, dead, children
thin-skinned, thick-headed
water and oil have never mixed
excuses confuse a simple choice
eat, drink, breathe where if her wounds drain dry?
return to her—or return to her
She will welcome you, either way

Four Years after The Party: A Prelude

Lynnie shared notes and aghast looks with me during French and geometry. We had overlapping circles of friends, subsets of the nerdiest, quirkiest, and smartest kids in our high school. She lived not only outside of the school district’s boundaries but also the city limits. Because our school had a gifted program, she didn’t have to go to the less challenging institution closer to home.

She lived in the boonies, BFE, on the rural edge of a small town. Not that I’d been there. This had come up in conversation a few times.

She invited me to a party at her house. I was most certainly non-committal when I accepted her handwritten driving instructions. I had plenty of reasons why I didn’t think my attendance was a good idea. The most consciously unsettling one–a boy I liked, far more than I wished to admit, might be there. 

But I decided to go. Bravely, come what may. I was old enough to drive and borrowed the family car, a burnt-orange station wagon, for the journey. It was dark when I left my house. I drove out of the neighborhood and onto the highway. The wrong one.

I realized the mistake too late, half a mile from the city limits. Panicked, I sped through the night, trying to remember where I could get off to turn around and go back west. I’d been on that highway dozens of times—during the day, my dad driving—headed to my grandparents’ house. At night, alone, the road stretched far beyond the geographic 11 miles to the next exit.

When I returned to civilization, I took the exit I knew connected to the state highway that led to Lynnie’s house. I found myself confused again, befuddled by streets I’d been on throughout my life in my hometown. When I damn near crashed into another car as I tried to turn left—the other driver actually laughed with visible Mephistophelian glee—I pulled off on the shoulder and reckoned with myself. This was not meant to be.

I went home. It wasn’t even nine o’clock. “I got lost,” I told my parents and, later, my friends.

The Party

At 12, I was an adequate, although not especially enthusiastic, clarinet player. However, I was enough of a competitive perfectionist that it mattered to me what chair I held and what scores I received at competitions. That I had been moved to 8th grade band as a 7th grader said more about my persistence than talent. Practice mattered. (And I got to wear a fetching red blazer.)

band pic crop

A middle school across town hosted a band camp the summer before I started eighth grade. In the freezing band room that first day, I sat with my instrument on my lap and realized I didn’t know anyone. I was uneasy but didn’t freak out. I was shy, but I wasn’t incapacitated by it. My strategy was to keep quiet, don’t attract attention, speak if spoken to. No extrovert, I was at least socially competent when I needed to be. Had someone done a Myers-Briggs test on me, my “I” score would have been unsurprising.

Someone else broke the ice. Within a couple of days, I became friendly with fellow woodwinds, Blanca and Kathy. Blanca played oboe. Kathy played bassoon. My school band had neither. This made them immediately interesting.  

We became summer pals. We hung out. We went swimming at the pool in their neighborhood. We giggled at silly jokes, drank Coke and Dr. Pepper, ate Doritos, Hot Fries, Lay’s Potato Chips. At twelve on the cusp of thirteen, we had no idea what adolescent horrors awaited us.

Blanca made the teenage transition first. 

She invited me to her birthday party. I was excited about this. I had hosted and attended birthday parties before, of course. The old-school kind enjoyed with your closest little pals, a cake decorated with carcinogenic food dye, and non-electronic games. What thrilled me about Blanca’s invitation was that I’d been included in the first place. I was an outsider, a girl from another school. This meant we were really friends. I almost felt cool.

The evening of her party, my parents dropped me off. Blanca opened the door. Her mom and dad greeted me when I arrived, their gorgeous Venezuelan smiles and cadences making me feel welcome. The living room was superlatively 70s, a solid wood stereo cabinet along one wall, heavy Colonial revival furniture, and thick brown carpet. A few other guests were already there, all of whom I recognized from band camp.

Then the first wave of queasy hit me. I didn’t know anyone else there, really. I might have said hello to those kids, but I’d never actually had conversations with them. This wasn’t band class. I mean, chatter before and after practice was limited. At the party, there were no instruments, no sheet music to follow, and no director telling us what to do next. I might have to interact. And this party had girls and boys.

Then Kathy appeared. Thank God. I was able to hold my own through a bit of small talk as long as Kathy or Blanca was nearby. I was nervous but optimistic. I could do this. My first real party.

The second wave of queasy came when Blanca turned on the stereo. A mysterious force overtook half of the kids. They paired up to dance. Yeah, the Frankenstein’s monster slow dance, knees locked, weight shifted foot to foot, girl’s hands on the boy’s shoulders, boy’s hands on the girl’s waist. The Holy Spirit between them. Kathy and Blanca had awkward partners.

Queasy mutated into mild panic. What if a boy asks me to dance? Not that I expected it. At all. But what if? And I don’t know how to dance. Good musical rhythm did not lend itself to movement in my case. What am I going to do? What any self-preserving pre-teen would under such circumstances. I went to the bathroom. I slipped into the solitary calm of sink, tub, and toilet. Breathed. Then I used the toilet. Flushed.

The paper dallied at the top of the water. Again, I pushed the lever. No suction. Panic ensued. I had already been in there a long time and no one had knocked, yet. I couldn’t leave with paper in the bowl. Someone would know what I’d done in there. I waited for the pitch to rise in the reservoir and flushed again. The paper shredded. I was in a red-faced sweat, willing the bowl to evacuate itself. I wasted a village’s worth of water to reduce the refuse to a mere strip. I washed my hands, collected myself, and went back to the party. Nobody waited outside the door.

The number of dancing couples had dwindled. Kids mingled with soft drinks and chips. I joined a small group standing near the sofa. I attempted to contribute to the conversation—and here’s where I go blank in part of the memory.

I don’t recall the topic, but I remember Buddy. That’s what everyone called him. I’d seen him before laughing and horsing around with his friends at camp. He was a husky boy, the polite term for overweight then. He had porcine eyes, brown hair, and a round head. Whatever I said in response to someone else provoked him to turn and half-yell a reply at me. It was so unexpected and vehement that I physically backed away from him. He scowled. Kids laughed. I got the message. I stood mute for a second then stepped away. I got something to drink and intensely concentrated on the cup’s symmetry, in silence.

I rode the third queasy wave. That punched-in-the-stomach, kicked-in-the-throat feeling stayed with me. For years.

Afterword

When I got lost on my way to Lynnie’s party, I wasn’t so much lost as avoidant. The way one is toward plagues and pain. Somewhere in my adolescent brain, the memory of Buddy’s sneer—and all that happened that night—reminded me, unconsciously, of a threat beyond my control. Parties are bad. You will not have fun. You will feel ashamed and excluded. Danger! Danger! Stay away! This I see clearly, in the light of an honest adult moment.

The fear of rejection motivated me far more than the want of company.

This is the truth, and a life-long one. I shunned group activities whenever possible. I worked around my social anxiety with deftness. There was almost an algorithmic genius involved.

If an event was an obligation, I assessed its risks. Weddings and funerals were safe. Familiar faces, predetermined activities in predictable order, bathrooms with multiple stalls. Family gatherings ranked high in acceptability, too, for obvious reasons.

School and work functions merited a subset of considerations, including whether my absence would be frowned upon, who needed to see proof of my attendance, and how long was long enough to stay.

If an event was purely social, I determined what connection I had to the host and the likelihood I’d know other guests. I would rarely go to an acquaintance’s party unless I was confident I’d see several friends. I could sometimes will myself through a close friend’s event if I was certain I’d know a few others. I mastered the skills of bookshelf browsing, perpetual random motion, and bathroom escapes. Small talk I managed but disliked. Still do.

My maturing adulthood required situational extroversion. Did I have to lead a meeting? Speak in front of a crowd of 10 or 50 or more? Teach a workshop or a class? Chat with bookstore staff and readers? No problem at all. I even enjoyed it.

My 12-year-old self doesn’t like that I’m more inclined to attend purely social occasions than I used to be. She glares with quiet warning. Disaster awaits. The ilk of Buddy is still out there. No matter that her Buddy likely grew up to be a sitcom cliché—bald, fat, disgruntled, inept—and her adult self turned out okay. This gives her no comfort. She’s hearing none of it.

If I could, I’d take her back in time. Revise some parts of our life together. We could start with Blanca’s party. She’d remember that she’s smart, kind, and a good listener. She’d recall when she watched her dad fix the toilet tank’s float, an easy, damp adjustment. Buddy’s bark would startle her, her arm would hit someone else’s, and she’d knock a drink on the front of his husky-sized pants.

Later, she wouldn’t get lost on the way to Lynnie’s party. She could tell the Buddy story, if she remembered it. Everyone would laugh, even the boy she liked, who’d keep a cautious but curious distance.

A dead baby is in our guest room. It’s wrapped in a blanket, laid out on the bed. The cat doesn’t seem to mind. My friend Alison suggested that I not put it in a closet. I think she was right. It’s not meant to be hidden.

Don’t worry. It’s not a human corpse. It’s only an idea, incarnated.

What hands

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

Tonight, Paw Paw, this one’s for you.

Saints 1987

Let me disclose that I’m not a sports fan. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care at all about the Super Bowl.

This time, it’s personal.

For weeks, the Saints’ winning season has been part of conversation, TV interviews, and social networking posts. It’s been impossible not to feel a little energy from the possibility that this year, my home state’s NFL team could go the distance.

What I noticed—beyond the typical sports fervor—is how often people have invoked the names of loved ones. Wistful wishes that departed family and friends had lived to see this day. Affectionate musings of what those dead might be doing in Heaven, what game-changing powers they might have now on the other side. Maybe such a phenomenon happens everywhere. Maybe it’s not some peculiar Southern thing. Regardless, you wouldn’t believe the tear-filled eyes and wavering voices. It’s really touching.

I can’t help myself either.

Hours before the game, I think of the living and the dead, my uncles who get to watch a wish fulfilled and my grandfather who surely hoped such a day would come.

Dare I? I’ll do it for them…Who Dat?!

Aside from family and friends, here and beyond, the Saints’ part in the Super Bowl is a moment to be proud of my state.

That tells me I, too, am capable of a little old-fashioned, vicarious, collective symbol making. Today, the Saints stand for us all. The team’s accomplishment—win or lose tonight—is ours as well. It’s a reward for decades of perseverance, gumption, and nerve. It will shadow all the lists we’ve topped for all the things we wish we didn’t. (Louisiana’s record could be better in some areas.) It will soothe the sting of many who endure memories of a horrible storm and the rebuilding left to do.

The Saints stand for me, and I can’t even believe I’m admitting it. I can’t believe that some ancient, tribal, familial pride stirs in my chest and puts a smile on my face.

8:49 p.m.

Ain’ts no more.

Outside my quiet house, neighbors are screaming at the top of their lungs, “We won the Super Bowl!” Firecrackers are exploding in waves. I can only imagine what’s going on in New Orleans and Heaven right now.

I watched the miracle of the intercepted pass and the 74 yard run to a touchdown. Yes, I even shouted and clapped as it was happening. I thought of my grandfather, wherever he is, and my uncles half-crazed with joy. The win was imminent, then final. I turned to my partner, native Louisianan as well, and said to him, “Oh my God, the Saints won the Super Bowl.”

This was a long time in coming, an answer to many, many prayers, a reward for all those fans who supported the team with faith, hope, and loyalty. There’s a joyful noise, and a few toasts, reaching up for the Saints tonight.

I guarantee my grandfather has his hands and voice raised high.


When I was eight years old, I took dancing lessons. Besides the standard tap, jazz, and ballet, the studio included a beginner gymnastics class. I refused to do tap, tolerated jazz and ballet, but enjoyed the tumbling. I had good balance and appreciated the capacity of my small body to bend and twist.

One night, I was turning cartwheels in the houseno, probably not a good idea, but kids have a different concept of danger—and I hit my head on a wooden bench. The impact stunned more than hurt me. I sat on the floor and said, “I’m fine, Daddy,” then touched my forehead. Dripping. I vaguely recall being hauled into the bathroom, my blood a left-behind trail of spots in the green carpet.

I lay face up, nearly blinded by the bathroom’s ceiling light, as my father compressed the wound. Outside, a ferocious storm with thunder and lightning rattled the window. My mom entered the room. There were worried faces. I sensed my two younger siblings in the hallway. It might have been my dad who said, “I think she needs to go to the hospital.”

I went ape-shit, screaming at the top of my lungs, “Noooo!” But it didn’t matter, because we were all loaded into the station wagon. Why one parent didn’t take me and the other stay behind with my brother and sister, I haven’t a clue. I recall the drive to the emergency room, my head on my mother’s lap, the rain pounding against the car windows. I wondered why we didn’t stay safely at home.

The wait in the emergency room wasn’t long. In a room that felt huge, exposed, a young man, likely an intern, came to look at me. He was calm, seemed kind. He said I needed stitches. Then my parents were sent out. I don’t know if that was the edict from the intern or the sadist who was about to stitch me up.

“It’s going to sting for about 15 or 20 seconds,” the intern said. “Can you count to 15?”

“Yes,” I said, exasperated. I was eight, not two. He smiled.

My body reclined on the stretcher. The ER doctor came up and put a white paper cloth over my head with a hole in the middle. All I could see was a half moon of light and his hand. I was given warning…the anesthetic was coming…start counting. By one, I felt pain, by two, it was excruciating, and I never made it any higher because I screamed, the pure sound of agony alternated with begging for my mother. Two, maybe three adults, had to hold me down. The sadist doctor then did something that hurt me even more deeply than the excoriating flame in my head.

He clamped his hand on my mouth to suffocate the sound.

Temples soaked with tears, I lay there as I felt the sadist sew up the wound in the middle of my forehead. At my hands were the intern and a young woman. I heard their voices. They put a lollypop in each hand. The intern talked to me, I have no memory of what. Then I asked if I may have another piece of candy to give to my little sister.

“Awww,” the intern and the woman said. Someone put two more into my little fists.

When I sat up, I touched the prickly tines of the sutures. My parents came in. Someone, I think it was the sadist, said that if I hadn’t had a little patch of fat on my forehead, I might have died.

A week later, the stitches had to come out. I went to the medical clinic where we were taken when we got sick. The pediatrician with the Burt Reynolds moustache, whom I despised, said the scar would move up into my scalp as I grew. He said that it wouldn’t hurt to remove the stitches. I didn’t believe him, and said so.

“Don’t you trust me?”

“No.”

Then he and my mother laughed, that oh-what-a-spunky-kid laugh. Never mind that the stitch removal was nothing but a few tugs. Their response crushed me. I remained silent. For years.

In my twenties, I told my mother what the sadist did. Her eyes glazed with tears. She said she’d heard me screaming from the waiting room. She said she knew she should have stayed. Then she apologized. I said it was okay. I shrugged. I thought it was all over.

Three decades later, early one morning, I fell in the bathroom and split my chin open on the sink. When I stood up and turned on the light, I saw blood drip from my chin. Give me a gory horror movie or someone else’s injury, but not my own blood. I can’t stand the sight of it. I sat on the toilet with tissue against the gash and breathed. I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay.

Next thing I knew, I was face up on the bed, my partner’s hand on my chest, shaking me.

“You fainted,” he said.

“I fainted?” I’d never fainted before. A piercing wind rush noise deafened me.

He turned on a light, looked at my chin. “I think you might need stitches.”

And it all came back, every horrible moment of that point in my eight-year-old life. Hysteria barely contained, I pleaded and refused. Don’t make me go. I will not go.

“Okay,” he said with quiet and calm. “You don’t have to.”

He helped me move to my side of the bed and propped my legs up with pillows. He put a damp, cold towel on my forehead. The cut hardly bled at all, even though injuries to the head and face usually gush. He found gauze and tape in the bathroom cabinet. Carefully, he cleaned the wound and placed a bandage. As he sat next to me, it was the old trauma that made me shake, the past that kept playing in a loop. Later that morning, he bought butterfly bandages and tended the gash again. He smiled at his handiwork.

I will have two scars for the rest of my life.

The one on my forehead is a scratch on my third eye. It’s a reminder of lies, that it’ll only sting for a moment, that the scar won’t be visible when you grow.

The one under my chin isn’t noticeable unless I lift my head. But I know it’s there, and that’s okay.

I remember the gentle hands of a kind man who closed the wound for good.