Testimonial

church
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Allison Green

David arrived at our house in an oversized raincoat. He’d brought a magazine for assistance; it was somewhere in the folds of that big coat. My partner Karen handed him a jelly jar, and we agreed that when he was finished he would put a candle, unlit, in the front window. Karen and I left him to his magazine and walked down the block. The day was pleasant for a Halloween in Seattle. We kicked at dry leaves heaped along the sidewalk and laughed at the strangeness of the situation, how we were waiting for David but trying not to imagine what he was doing, how none of the residents of the neighborhood could have guessed what we were waiting for.

After about fifteen minutes, the candle was in the window. As we went up the walk, I sang that Rocky Horror Picture Show song about a light in the darkness. Karen and I smiled giddily at each other, then stopped smiling so as not to spook David. I tried to act normal as we entered, not avoiding his eyes but not staring either. He was already wearing his coat. From its depths he pulled out the jar, wrapped in a washcloth to keep it warm. We thanked him. He raised his eyebrows and went out the door.

•••

Karen and I had been together twelve years when I finally agreed to have a child. We had been moving around the country for jobs and graduate school since we met in 1985, and finally we had settled back in Seattle, my hometown, with solid jobs, mine at a community college, hers at the public health department. We bought a house. I could think of no more reasons to wait.

I’d never felt an urge to have children, but Karen always had. Still, when I agreed to try, I also agreed to carry the child because of Karen’s health complications. If anything, pregnancy and birth sounded cool to me; dealing with a toddler didn’t. I put one big condition on my agreement: I wanted a known sperm donor, not an anonymous one. He didn’t have to be actively involved in the child’s life, but I wanted to be able to show the child a picture and say, “This is your father.” I was squeamish about putting a stranger’s semen in my body, not for fear of disease—the latest testing procedures seemed reliable—but because I needed to know who I was communing with on a cellular level. I needed to know what he looked like and how he talked, what he cared about and how he treated people.

After spreading the word to our friends, Karen and I found our donor in a writer I’m calling David. He had gone to graduate school with a good friend of mine, Wendy, and wasn’t attached romantically. He was interested in helping us because neither he nor his brother had had children, and they probably never would. Although he didn’t want to parent himself, he liked the idea of his family’s genes continuing on. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in California now, not Seattle, but we were willing to pay for his flights up, and he liked the idea of free visits to a city he loved.

David was funny and self-deprecating, which suggested a sweet vulnerability underneath. I liked him immediately and grew to feel a brotherly fondness for him. Although we didn’t have a relationship that allowed for this, I often felt the urge to lay my head on his shoulder and nestle into him.

After discussing expectations, drawing up contracts with lawyers, having medical evaluations, and charting my ovulations for a number of months, we were ready in late-1997 for the first insemination.

David left that Halloween afternoon, and Karen and I sighed, glad to be alone. In the bedroom, I shimmied out of my pants and lay down, feet up on the wall. My doctor had given us a catheter syringe and tubing, and Karen put the syringe in the jar to suck up the semen. We both squinted at the jelly jar. It had been a long time since either of us had seen that liquid. It was oddly translucent, not milky, and there didn’t seem to be much. Karen wrinkled her nose, but I was fascinated. So much intrigue surrounding such a modest substance.

Karen was having trouble getting the semen into the syringe. “Maybe a smaller jar would be better,” she said.

Finally, she got what she could into the syringe, inserted it into the tubing, and pushed the plunger. I felt nothing, not even an ooze. And now I was supposed to wait, feet on the wall, for twenty minutes. Karen sat on the edge of the bed, keeping me company. It was exciting; it was nice. I felt engaged in something purposeful and good.

The next morning I was a wreck.

•••

At the same time that Karen and I were trying to have a baby, I was casting around for a new writing topic and was drawn to the story of my great-great aunt, Ruby Jane Hall Thompson, a woman long dead. She was very large, which had earned her a nickname derived from the town in Idaho where she lived: “Lewiston,” as in “Here comes Lewiston.” It wasn’t a nickname she knew she had; my father told me his uncle used to call her that.

Ruby Jane was a Christian Science practitioner. At first I didn’t know what that meant, but I learned that a practitioner was a kind of faith healer. Christian Scientists, as I understand it, don’t believe that matter exists; our true reality is the spiritual. Believing in God means recognizing the false nature of the material world, including sickness and disease. Practitioners help Christian Scientists pray through their self-induced periods of sickness and back into right alignment with God.

What drew me to Ruby Jane was the idea of being related to a larger-than-life mystic, a western Idaho healer. I imagined Lewiston in the early twentieth century as a desolate, wind-swept town, and I imagined Ruby Jane there exerting her power in one of the few but classic ways available to women: as a kind of witch. My novel would be gothic, magical realist. I began to research Christian Science.

Mary Baker Eddy, it turned out, is the only American woman to have founded an influential religion. Born in 1821, she had health problems throughout her life, and in her ongoing quest for relief, she finally hit on the principles that would inform her famous book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy must have had tremendous determination, skill, and charisma to self-publish this book, teach a growing legion of followers its principles, and start the church in 1879. By 1894 she had erected the church’s first building. By 1908, when she was eighty-seven, she had started the Christian Science Monitor. Thousands of people still attend her church. On Wednesday nights, they gather to tell stories of miraculous healing.

That the church was started by a woman, and that it is peculiarly American, with its focus on optimism and boot-strapping, made it all the more fascinating. My great-great aunt Ruby Jane was born while Eddy was still alive, and the founding mother must have been a thrilling model of what a woman could be. Indeed, the church is quite female-centric; the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father-Mother.” I imagined Ruby Jane as an ancestress of power and wisdom. I would go in search of her.

•••

When the inseminations began, I had been on Prozac for a year. After a decade of attempting to manage my many bouts of anxiety with meditation, hypnosis, exercise, and therapy, I had given in: Give me the drug. It worked, to some extent. Going on Prozac felt like finally taking an aspirin after a life-long headache; suddenly I could see more clearly and function more smoothly. As Karen and I began talking about having a baby, I researched the influence of Prozac on fetuses. Although there was a small risk of damage, many researchers said that the risk of depression was equally bad if not worse, so it was hard to say whether a woman should stop taking the drug. I decided not. Still, sometimes it didn’t seem to be helping.

The morning after insemination, I felt as if I’d mainlined fear and shame. What if the donor is infertile? What if he has HIV after all? What if I get pregnant and it feels like an alien sucking at my insides? Why do Karen and I have to share such an intimate act with a stranger? Why do I have to hold such a humiliating position against the wall? What is this body that used to be mine?

I did everything I knew to reduce the anxiety: writing down my fears, giving myself pep talks, going to yoga, working out. As usual, the tension would take days to dissipate.

Nine days later, I got my period. Maybe we mistimed my ovulation or maybe my cycle was weirdly short that month, but we were using an ovulation predictor kit and monitoring my cervical fluid, although it was often hard to read. One of the challenges of the process was predicting ovulation with enough accuracy to get David on a flight in time to be at our house during the fertility window. He hated to fly, and as the months went by and I didn’t get pregnant, his fear ballooned. He came off the plane each time sweaty and weak, which couldn’t have helped his sperm count.

In December, I made a chart of the logistics: David was arriving on Thursday. Whether the ovulation kit was positive or not, we would have to inseminate. If the kit was positive on Friday, then pregnancy was still possible. If it wasn’t yet positive Saturday, then we had wasted the month. What were we doing? Had my demand that we have a known donor doomed us to fail? Did I really want a child?

•••

One of the terms from Christian Science that captivated me was “malicious animal magnetism.” The idea of “animal magnetism” was around in the nineteenth century, and Eddy added the word “malicious” to the phrase. It’s a way of describing evil, and in Eddy’s theology, evil always comes in the form of bad thoughts, that is, thoughts that contradict or undermine God. Therefore, people’s thoughts can be corrupted by malicious animal magnetism. In her memoir about growing up Christian Scientist, Blue Windows, Barbara Wilson calls malicious animal magnetism the “repressed madness” inevitably created by a church that focuses so relentlessly on the positive. She says Eddy was paranoid about competing healers and used the phrase to refer to their attacks on her.

The idea of evil as something tempting and animalistic somehow makes it less frightening to me; it’s not deliberate but subconscious, a feeling that sweeps one up and makes one do things. It’s the evil wrought by a scared cat, lashing and hissing from a corner. When the fear passes, the cat retracts its claws.

My anxieties seemed like a form of malicious animal magnetism. And like the Eddy cure—which was thinking right thoughts—various authors, doctors, and therapists had suggested that I write down my thoughts when I felt anxious and analyze them. So I did: It was obvious that I was afraid of having a child. But I was also afraid of not having one. And I was afraid that my anxieties about having or not having a child would hound me throughout the entire insemination process. In other words, I was anxious about anxiety. This was ridiculous. Surely it was normal for a woman embarking on a pregnancy to be afraid. I needed to accept the uncertainty of the situation and relax, let the cat retract its claws. Of course, relaxation was easier said than done. Maybe what I needed was a practitioner.

•••

The following June, I skipped insemination to go to Boston on a Christian Science pilgrimage. I saw the Eddy monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I listened to a tour guide at the Mother Church talk about why she wore glasses; she wasn’t spiritually advanced enough yet not to use them. I walked through the Mapparium, the stunning, three-story, stained-glass globe made in the 1930s of over six hundred glass panels. I wondered if Ruby Jane had ever seen it.

One afternoon I sat on the outdoor patio of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, reading the copy of Science and Health I had picked up in a used bookstore. Men played chess nearby, and pigeons strutted beneath the table. According to Eddy, prayer should be silent; loud prayer excites the emotions. Prayer as it is often practiced is not that useful; it tends to make us hypocrites, as we promise God things we can’t or won’t deliver. In any case, God knows our thoughts already.

This conception of prayer sounded sensible. Prayer should be silent, like the silence I was trying to coax out of my body through yoga and meditation. I shouldn’t make promises to be less anxious, just strive to be. One of my yoga teachers said, “You don’t breathe; the world breathes you.” Replace “the world” with “God” and the phrase would mesh with Eddy’s philosophy.

Indeed, it was striking how Eddy’s ideas dovetailed with so many of those made by the books and therapists who had tried to soothe me over the years. In a book on meditation, for example, the author said that he noticed a small lump on his neck and started to worry. The lump had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed it that he became afraid. In other words, his mind made him afraid, not the lump. Eddy would have concurred. She would have gone further and said the lump didn’t exist. Still, Eddy and this author shared a common solution: Stop thinking about it; think of something else.

I drank my coffee, listening to the chess players smack their timers. Maybe Ruby Jane could help me. Maybe I could conjure her when the fears threatened to overwhelm. Or when I was lying there, feet on the wall, willing the sperm to dance on up to the egg and get introduced. I didn’t have to become a Christian Scientist to recognize the value of positive thinking. Or to mentally rely on my ancestress, the faith healer.

•••

In July, we seemed to have timed the insemination just right. My mucous was stretchy; the ovulation predictor turned a positive shade of blue; David was punctual. But I didn’t get pregnant.

In August we agreed to try one last time. By now we weren’t awkward with each other, even as Karen and I returned from our walk. David could get his part of the job done in nine minutes. We opened the front door, and I joked, “My man!” He passed over the jar.

This time, we all knew that I probably wouldn’t get pregnant with David’s sperm. We smiled tenderly at each other, hugged. We said goodbye. Karen and I went into the bedroom, and I put my heels on the wall. All weekend afterward I cried and moped. It felt as if someone had died. I was sad for us, sad for David, sad for what could have been.

On Wednesday, I got in the car and drove the five hours from Seattle to Lewiston, Idaho. The trip took me through an area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, a surreal landscape of undulating brown hills that rippled to the horizon. Driving through them was like winding through a maze with no obvious exit. Once I had emerged from them, I confronted the Lewiston Grade.

Lewiston is at the bottom of an abrupt two thousand foot drop from the plateau of eastern Washington to a valley where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers converge. The highway built in the 1970s smoothly descends to the city, but the old highway, called the Lewiston Grade, sweeps back and forth in sixty-four curves, an engineering marvel of its time. Both my parents, who grew up in the region, remember sickening ascents and descents of the old highway, so of course I had to drive into Lewiston that way. The disconcerting series of switchbacks, a trip Ruby Jane must have taken many times, made for an atmospheric entrance to Lewiston.

After checking into my motel, I went to the public library and found Ruby Jane listed as a practitioner in a 1941 phone directory. It gave me her address, and I drove to her house, a modest, two-story structure near the cemetery. The church she attended had been abandoned for a new one in 1965, so I couldn’t see it, but I still wanted to attend a Christian Science service in Lewiston.

I entered the church that evening hesitantly, wearing a dress purchased for the occasion—I didn’t otherwise own one—and hoping not to attract too much attention. A dozen people, mostly women, were sitting in blonde pews. I took a spot in the back. The early evening sun saturated the colors in the glass panes: red, purple, and an earthy, 1960s orange-brown. On the wall hung two quotes, one from Eddy—”Divine love always has met and always will meet all human needs”—and the familiar “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I had timed my trip to be here for the Wednesday night service, traditionally devoted to testimonies of healing. I wasn’t prepared for the coincidence of the evening’s topic: reproduction. A man sat at a card table in front of the pews and read passages from the Bible and Science and Health, passages which I later learned are chosen by the Mother Church and read at every service on that day throughout the Christian Science world.

One reading expressed the idea that children are not created from matter but from idea/mind. I listened, looking down at the place where my belly would swell if I were pregnant. If Ruby Jane were still alive, and if I had the courage to explain the inseminations to her, she would probably have said that my failures until now had been my fault, that I hadn’t believed enough. It was true that I had trouble believing I would get pregnant; it seemed fantastical that a child could coalesce out of cells swarming in my fallopian tubes. But hadn’t I done all I could, given the circumstances?

The reading went on, contending that parents must take as much or more care planning their children as they would propagating crops or breeding livestock. This language was straight out of the eugenics movement, a popular effort in the early twentieth century to “purify” the human race; it used the cover of science to mask its racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant intentions. If I had needed some prompt to help me better imagine my great-great aunt’s time, this was it. Ruby Jane had probably believed in eugenics, and she would have been horrified by my request for help with my fertility. Not only was I a lesbian, but the father-to-be was the son of immigrants. Better, she might have said, to let this opportunity pass.

I listened with growing skepticism to the testimonials that followed the readings. One woman got over a headache by reading the Statement of Being. Another said she had been praying about the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. She didn’t like Muslims—Hindus were okay—but she was trying to love universally.

A third woman said her child had felt fine during the week but something strange had appeared on her face. The girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t go outside to play. The mother put her in front of the mirror and said, “Do you want people to see you like that? No? Then you will stay inside until you look the way you want people to see you.” Surely the girl had chicken pox. And surely the mother knew she was contagious but couldn’t admit it. What a twisted way to deny disease.

My romantic obsession with my great-great aunt ended right there. Ruby Jane was probably only as wise as her time and place allowed; we probably wouldn’t have liked each other. At least, we wouldn’t have agreed on much. I had come to Lewiston to learn the truth, and the truth had set me free.

•••

My period arrived that month as usual; I would never get pregnant. I continued to work on a novel inspired by Christian Science, but it would go nowhere, even when I ran across the story of a woman, a contemporary of Eddy’s, who got pregnant when her husband was out of town and claimed Eddy was the father. A lovely twist on lesbian insemination.

Karen and I broke up a year later, for reasons unrelated to the pregnancy attempt. As I tried to understand why I had gone through insemination despite a lack of maternal urges, I came to understand that having a child with David, friend of Wendy, was a way to create an extended family, whether the members of that family were genetically related to me or not; I wanted us bound to each other, loving unconditionally, the way families are supposed to be.

When I considered the pleasures of childrearing, they weren’t what most mothers probably think of first: the cuddling, the joyful giggling, the birthday glee. Rather, I was thinking of a community of relatives and friends joined by the connections among our children. I imagined sharing coffee with other parents while our children ran in and out; imagined barbecues and croquet games and badminton; imagined roving holiday feasts. What I was remembering was the community my parents had made at a midwestern university when my father was on tenure track there. The most fun I ever had was darting through the parties of drunken academics, like the summer party where the associate dean roasted a sheep in his backyard or the winter party where the anthropologist taught me to fold wonton skins. That is, it wasn’t a child I wanted but a community, and my insistence on a known donor was related to that desire.

My obsession with Ruby Jane was related, too, to a desire for connection, one that stretched back through time and ancestry. She represented a visionary woman, someone on whom I could call for strength and clarity. But ultimately, I realized that whatever genetics we had in common, we probably didn’t have much else.

Some years after my last insemination attempt, Wendy called one June afternoon to say the baby had almost arrived. I raced to the hospital and ran into the room just a few minutes before Eva’s little head and gangly body emerged. The midwife handed Eva to Wendy’s husband, and we all smiled, breathless and awestruck. Every year thereafter, I have been invited to Eva’s birthday party. And the children run in and out, and the adults drink wine, and the party goes on well into the evening.

•••

ALLISON GREEN is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan), and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Calyx, The Common, and other publications. Web site: allisongreen.org.

 

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Something Happened While I Was Away

By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr
By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr

By Jacob Margolies

We’re waiting in front of the building, under the canopy and protected from the rain, when the town car pulls up. It’s a chilly early morning. I’m going to the airport and should be in Seattle by the afternoon. My wife’s friend, Sarah, who has been staying with us, is heading home to Maine, and we’re sharing the ride to JFK.

Our driver is an elderly Korean man. All the drivers from this car service are Korean. “You can take Atlantic or Linden. Whatever way you think is faster,” I tell him.

He drives slowly. His hands, gripping the wheel, are trembling, and every few seconds he lifts up his right hand and glances at it before smacking it down on the wheel.

The old man heads down Coney Island Avenue and passes Caton. When I let him know he’s missed the turn, he points to the GPS. “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around,” I say. Again, he points to the GPS and drives straight ahead.

It’s out of our way, but we’re going out to take the Belt and ride alongside the shoreline. It’s the scenic route. There’s almost no traffic on the parkway. We can see glimpses of marsh adjacent to the water. Cordgrass and common reeds, the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. In the sky, flocks of birds are flying in formation. At this hour, with the rain coming down, it’s possible to imagine the New York Island in its natural state before the salt marshlands were drained and filled in with buildings, highways, and airports. In my still-drowsy state, these intimations of a physical world untouched by human activity strike me as startlingly beautiful, an impression punctuated by our driver’s periodic and emphatic slaps on his steering wheel.

We drop Sarah off at the Jet Blue Terminal. She says something about how lucky we are to have missed the storm, although, even if it hits, it’s not going to reach New York until late the following day. We’ll see. Weather forecasters are always hyping storms that usually end up veering off course and being less than advertised.

The plane lands in Seattle on time. I’m there to attend a conference on interactive media. There will be panels on social media, advertising, online commerce, and digital storytelling. Representatives from Facebook, AOL, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of smaller digital media outfits are attending.

The Japanese newspaper where I work has about ten million print subscribers, and its leaders are suspicious of the digital onslaught and new media carnival barkers. For fifteen years, I’ve been taking around colleagues, who are visiting from Japan, to American digital media companies claiming to have discovered the secret to a bright electronic future. Many of those businesses no longer exist. For over a decade, as American newspapers were blithely putting their publications on the Internet for free, their Japanese counterparts always insisted that anyone reading their stories online pay the same price as a print subscriber. Bolstered by a network of zealous sales agents and a reliable home delivery system, newspapers in Japan remain a staple of daily life. But since the 2008 Great Recession, Japanese newspapers have been facing the same afflictions battering print news publications in the United States. The Japanese, like Americans, are glued to their phones, and the handwriting on the wall says that before long, most of them will be reading the news on a digital device. So I have come to Seattle to attend panels and meet with whoever will talk to me, and I hope I’ll learn something that I can report back to Tokyo.

The next morning, as I’m heading out of the hotel lobby for the Convention Center, the rain is coming down hard. A smiling concierge is distributing sturdy extra-large umbrellas to guests. When I ask him if he wants my room number, he tells me it isn’t necessary. “We trust you,” he says. For some reason, I find this unsettling. An umbrella is something you buy on a misty street corner for three dollars from a Senegalese street vendor, or from a South Asian immigrant at a newsstand, or at a shoe repair store from a Russian guy who doesn’t speak English. This thing I’ve been handed is a piece of furniture. It seems so durable that I’d feel guilty about losing it.

Across the street from the hotel, there’s a cafe. I’m running late, but figure I can get a cup to go. At this place there’s a ritual around ordering coffee that I don’t understand and an elaborate art to making it. After answering series of questions from an extremely friendly barista, I wait and wait. It’s not yet nine in the morning and Seattle already has me rattled.

This is some of what I write in my notebook on my first day attending the 2012 Seattle Interactive conference.

News is getting faster and smaller. It travels at the speed of light. There is more news. There are more sources.

The story is reported before the media gets there. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone is covering the news. We get our information in different contexts. How do we know if something is true?

What does it mean to tell a story? Trust your community. Connect. Embrace the share. Storytelling is a narrative to which people surrender.

Interactive is nonlinear. Multiplatform deployments. Epic mix.

Amygdala hijack leads to an immediate overwhelming reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus, triggering a deep emotional reaction. Storytelling is an interaction. A single story builds on emotional connection and triggers long-term memory.

Forces of nature are reshaping the world. Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. This transformation is happening and we must adapt to survive.

When I get back to my hotel room that evening and turn on the computer, I see that just a couple of hours earlier, the big storm that had been approaching the east coast the day before has struck New York City. This one did not veer off course. Hurricane Sandy has made landfall. There has been flooding and an explosion at a Con Edison substation, and the southern part of the island of Manhattan has gone dark.

On YouTube, I see a video of cars floating down Avenue C, just two blocks over from the Lower East Side building where my parents live. It immediately occurs to me that they are prisoners in their tenth floor apartment. My father is eighty-seven years old and has Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, he’s had a series of falls, and every step he takes has become an adventure. There’s no way he’s going to make it up and down ten flights of stairs. It’s too late to call New York. In anticipation of the storm, my wife’s company had given everyone the day off. We live in Brooklyn on higher ground, so I guess that things aren’t too bad for her. I’ll check in with everyone tomorrow.

The next morning my eighty-year-old mother assures me that despite the lack of power and water, everything is fine. Neighbors are checking on them, she tells me. Later on she’s going to take the stairs and try to buy batteries from the hardware store.

The second day of the Seattle Interactive Conference is a lot like the day before. A chorus of warning from casually dressed marketing mavens to the survivors of a news industry decimated by the digital revolution. “Change or die” is their message. The electronic acolytes are exultant. There is a universe of possibility. The neophyte presenters have their beady eyes on the future. There are no elegies here for all that has been washed away.

I have lunch at a Vietnamese place with my friend Claire who has attended a morning presentation by someone named Shingy who works for AOL and has the job title Digital Prophet. She tells me Shingy’s got a space alien look with big electrified hair and that he’s very fond of certain words—mobile, leverage, social, branding. He’s a showman. Evangelical, but in a wink-wink way. A hustle here, a hustle there. She’s charmed by his audacity.

“I thought that all the digital prophets had left AOL and migrated to a different platform long ago,” I tell her.

“Not all of them. He’s a minor prophet,” she explains.

“Did he say anything about the flood in New York?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. But he’s only a minor prophet.”

I call home that afternoon. My wife Joanne says if the power stays down she’ll drive into Manhattan and pick up my parents. They can stay with us until they get electricity back. But the car needs gas, so she’s going to have to deal with long lines of panicked drivers at gas stations. I’m not sure my dad will be able to make it down the stairs, but if they go very slowly maybe it can be done.

Later on, I speak again to my parents. “Any looting going on yet?” I ask, remembering the 1977 blackout when local kids broke into stores on Avenue B and on Delancey Street. The Sneaker King was especially popular on that night.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother tells me. She is English, from the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire, and moved to New York in the 1950s. “Everyone is being very friendly. Hassan, the super, knocked on our door to see if we were all right. When I went outside, it reminded me of the war. The long lines. All the blackout periods we had. We could be fined if even the glimmer of a light escaped our home because it might aid the German war planes.”

I tell her that Joanne will pick them up tomorrow if the lights are still out. “Really, that isn’t necessary—we’re fine,” she says.

After the second day’s final panel, I go back at my hotel room and look at the New York Times web site and catch up on what has been happening. Subway stations and the tunnels under the East River are flooded. The South Ferry stop is covered track to ceiling with sewage. More than one hundred houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point. Two hundred fifteen patients were evacuated from NYU Hospital after the backup generators failed. There are photographs of garbage and debris in the streets, sandbags surrounding the Goldman Sachs building, a flooded plaza on Water Street, a parking lot with hundreds of partially submerged yellow cabs, and free pizza being handed out on Avenue B.

I read a story about some of the dead. A twenty-three-year old makeup artist in Queens electrocuted by a severed power line. An old man swept away from his house by flooding waters. A young couple in Brooklyn walking their dog, crushed by a falling tree. A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter drowning in their Staten Island home.

I talk with our newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief Yuji Yoshikata. He lives on the twenty-sixth floor of an apartment on East 39th Street that has lost power, and over the past twelve hours he has rushed up and down the stairs several times. There are interviews to be done and photos to be taken. Japanese daily newspapers have both morning and evening editions. So there are facts that need to be gathered, and context and history that must be provided. Deadlines must be met. For the Japanese, the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed over 15,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes will be the lens for understanding what is happening in New York. And for Yoshikata, who spent ten days in Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake there, the events in New York, will be filtered through his own recent memories.

There’s an email from a friend who has just gotten back from a Brooklyn bike ride through the destruction. He’s checked up on another friend who lives on a barge docked on a pier and writes about seeing fish onshore where the water has receded and cars that have been moved several hundred feet. People with gas-powered pumps are draining their basements.

I speak again to Joanne. She tells me they’ve set up shelters for displaced people at the big Armory by our house and a nearby high school. She’s been trying to contact our friends in Red Hook. They have lived for twenty-five years on Van Brunt Street in a house that, over many years, they renovated themselves. There are photographs online of terrible flooding on that block. “If they need a place to sleep, they should stay with us,” I tell her. She tells me she’s going to drive over the bridge and see my parents in the morning.

The two-day conference is over, but I have another day and night in Seattle. In the afternoon, I’m supposed to talk to some people at Amazon about putting newspapers on the Kindle. I call my airline to see about an earlier flight back to New York, but I give up after spending time on hold listening to recorded music. At 3:00 am, I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, insipid platitudes that I’ve heard over the last two days keep running through my mind. Paradigm shift. Game changer. Ride the wave. I pick up my phone and open up the laptop on the bedside table and check Twitter and Facebook. A flooded basement in the Rockaways. Scroll down. Houses in flames. Swipe. An outdoor Staten Island Red Cross station. Tap. People on cots in a makeshift shelter at the Armory. Click. The digitization of catastrophe recorded in real time on my news feed.

After my meeting with the Amazonians, I call home. Joanne’s upset. After waiting for two hours on a gas station line that hardly moved, she gave up and went home. She feels bad about my parents. “You did your best. They’ll be okay,” I tell her.

Later I speak to my mother who tells me that tomorrow, if they can make it down the stairs and manage to flag down a cab, they are going to stay with their friends George and Peggy in Hell’s Kitchen, where electricity was never lost and life has returned to something close to normal. “Peggy said your father can sleep on their massage table and I am going to be on something called a futon,” she says brightly. I’m sitting outside along the waterfront near the ferry terminal as we talk. It’s October 31st. Halloween. On the street there are people walking around in costume. Witches, superheroes, Mitt Romney, oompa loompas, Elton John. In New York the big parade has been cancelled.

Fortunately, my flight back to New York the next day takes off on schedule. My car service driver meets me at the baggage claim area, and I’m surprised to see it’s the same old man who drove me out to JFK five days earlier. This time we take Atlantic Avenue, and about half way home everything comes to a complete stop. The westbound traffic has somehow gotten tangled up with a long line of cars waiting to use a Shell station. “Very hard to get gas today,” the driver says. I tell him I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone to meet me at the airport. “Very hard,” he says. “Everything going up. Gasoline, insurance, taxes. And less work, much less work. Very bad since Lee Min Shok. I very angry at Lee Min Shok.”

I wonder if he’s talking about a new owner of Green Light Limo, or perhaps a dispatcher who’s giving him a hard time. After sitting in traffic for about twenty minutes, I realize he’s talking about the cascade of cataclysmic events connected to the day four years earlier when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In East Asia and, especially in Japan, these misfortunes are often referred to as Lehman Shock. It’s no wonder this poor guy keeps smacking the steering wheel. Some disasters are natural and others are manmade. Eventually the traffic clears and we make it onto Eastern Parkway, then up Prospect West, and finally, as night falls, home.

I speak to my parents. They successfully navigated the stairs, got a taxi, made it uptown to their friends’ apartment, and spent the night there. “The futon was very comfortable,” my mom says. My dad, who is on the other line says, “Don’t believe your mother. She’s just being nice Sleeping on the massage table wasn’t so great either.”

There’s still no train service into Manhattan. I tell my parents I am going to take a bus into Manhattan and walk around the old neighborhood. I’ll let them know what I see.

Later that day after waiting in a long queue, I catch the bus on Atlantic Avenue by the new arena. It travels over the Manhattan Bridge. I get off on the Bowery south of Houston Street and start walking. Just north of Houston, two kids with cans of spray paint are tagging a solid metal bar grate covering a storefront. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone doing that since I was in high school. On St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd, which is usually packed, there are fewer than a dozen people the entire length of the block.

I head over to Avenue B. Nearly all the boutiques and restaurants are closed. For this one week at least, the Avenue has been reclaimed by poor people. Many of them are black or brown. There are elderly people pushing shopping carts and bohemian types who would not have seemed out of place in grittier times. The streets are a ghost land of times past. I find I’m sliding into a 1970s reverie, looking at strangers and exchanging with them the head nod of recognition, which involves the slightest tilt of the chin upward. The Lower East Side head nod is a vestige of yesteryear. Its unspoken message was, “You know I belong here and I know you belong here, so we’re okay, right?” If accentuated with a tilt in a particular direction, it was also understood to mean, “Can you believe this shit?” The shit in question being the existential condition at that moment, which might have been expressed by the sound of a siren from a fire truck clambering along the avenue or a warning about those troublemakers down the block. So much communicated in a tilt of the head.

But now it’s November 2, 2012, and this head nod is acknowledging that there have been four full days without electricity, which is triggering in those of us who are old enough to remember some kind of supernatural time travel, or maybe just a new hyper awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything. And walking here, after the flood of instantaneous digital images and audio from these same streets that I absorbed just days ago from three thousand miles away, there is a deeper conjuring up of emotion and associations. What does it mean to tell a story? How do you know if it’s true?

Hooking back to Avenue A, I pass shuttered storefronts that once were Ukrainian coffee shops. Pirogi reveries. On the corner of 7th Street, long-gone Leshkos, where a girlfriend once threw a glass of water in my face and stormed out, leaving a plate of food that I finished because I was hungry. Sour cream memories.

One more block west at 1st and 7th Street there is a collection of bedraggled fair-skinned young adults huddled together. The hardware store on the corner is open, lit by candles, and as I get closer I see those gathered under the chilly gray sky are taking advantage of a portable generator to charge their phones. Looking to connect and share. They remind me of junkies, who forty years earlier, lined up on nearby street corners waiting impatiently, desperate to make a different kind of connection. Then and now, searching for a rainbow and an escape from being alone.

Up to 14th Street and then east and back to Avenue B. On the corner of 11th Street a large congregation of young people has come together in front of Congresswoman Velazquez’s District Office. They are loading cases of bottled water, blankets, and canned food into vans. A woman with a clipboard is asking if anyone speaks Mandarin or Spanish. “How’d you hear about this?” I overhear one of the volunteers, a young man, asking a woman.

“Facebook,” she says, making it sound like more of a question than a statement.

They’re being dispatched to deliver aid to the elderly and infirm trapped in their apartments. From this catastrophe, something unusual is happening. A communion between these fortunate good Samaritans and their often invisible neighbors, the tens of thousands cordoned off in the neighborhood’s flood zone, the brown brick shadow city of public housing developments running south and west along the FDR Drive. Each project has its distinct history and character. Wald, Riis, Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers, Gompers, Campos Plaza. The long narrow strip is the last bastion for the Lower East Side’s destitute and working class.

Gathered on this corner, the volunteers appear calm, resolute, and cheerful. While I’m aimlessly walking the streets, these kids, unburdened by the curse of memory, are actually helping people. These streets belong to them now. They have the run of the place. They’re the ones who will have the challenge of living on the island as tides are rising. Maybe someone among them will help figure something out. Wind, solar, fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon. Science could be our salvation. Or maybe the deluge swallows everything. These kids though, they are all right. They’ve set up a makeshift assembly line and are passing along pallets of bottled liquid from one person to another to another. Up close, I read the labels. Poland Spring. “People are thirsty and need water,” someone says.

•••

JACOB MARGOLIES works in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work as a journalist, his writing has recently appeared in Project Syndicate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Summerset Review.

Ripple Effect

handshearts
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Candace Kearns Read

I was driving around what seemed the perfect neighborhood, looking for signs, when I found the sprawling, two-story log house for sale on three park-like acres, filled with ponderosa pines and giant rose-colored rock formations. The location was ideal, with easy access to the highway, yet no visibility from the road. The price on the flyer seemed too good to be true.

•••

Our community is made up of a few small towns strung along U.S. Highway 285, which curls through red rock cliffs and rolling ridges of forest as it climbs two thousand feet in elevation, from the historic two-block town of Morrison, up through Tiny Town, Aspen Park, Conifer, Pine, and all the way to Bailey, Colorado. The speed limit on the highway is 55, but most people take the curves closer to 70. Once you start ascending, you can feel the wildness of it, from Turkey Creek Canyon through Windy Point all the way to Crow Hill.

•••

According to the news reports, on September 27, 2006, sixteen-year old Emily Keyes drove to school as usual, with her mother Ellen and her twin brother Casey in the car. The sun was rising over distant mountain ranges, and they turned the Red Hot Chili Peppers up loud as Emily navigated from their mountaintop home down the narrow twists of a dirt road lined with aspen groves. At the highway, she followed the winding path of the wide, rushing South Platte River. At 7:17 a.m., Emily and Casey got out of the car at Platte Canyon High School, and Ellen drove to work.

•••

The house we were living in, which I’d bought with my previous husband, wasn’t even on the market yet, but we were ready to sell it. It didn’t feel right to live there anymore with all those memories. We needed a new home, but we wanted to stay in this community. It was the kind of place where neighbors watch out for each other, and people still cared.

•••

The 285 corridor and surrounding areas are referred to as the Foothills of Denver, but there’s no doubt that we live in the mountains. In early fall, when the elk start to rut, we can hear the bugling for a mile, and months later, dozens of pregnant females take their afternoon naps in our yards. Deer eat our flowers all summer long, staring at us like the invaders we are. It’s not uncommon to see fox dashing, cat-like, between the aspen. Bears will rummage through our trash cans if we leave them out, and we live in fear of mountain lions snatching our dogs.

•••

Between 8:42 and 11:40 a.m., a dilapidated yellow jeep, later discovered to be the living quarters of a fifty-three-year-old homeless man by the name of Duane Morrison, came and went from several different spaces in the high school parking lot.

•••

I pulled up the long circular driveway on a mild day in October 2005 and there he was, standing next to a weathered gold Jeep Cherokee with a little red light on top. He wore a crisp cotton button-down, broken-in jeans, and cowboy boots; he introduced himself with that nice clean Irish name. The business of real estate can make me uneasy, but I felt instantly that this was a guy we wanted on our side. I was sure my husband would agree. He had a humble calm you don’t often find in sales people, and he mentioned that he had a lot of ties in the community. I later learned this was an understatement.

•••

We are what’s called a bedroom community; most everyone commutes to Denver about thirty miles away, and we run our errands and go to the movies down the hill. Up the hill, there are a few bars, a couple of gas stations, and some small specialty stores. Until recently, there wasn’t even a Mexican restaurant. Most of the businesses are family owned, and you always bump into someone you know at the market. The schools are ranked some of the highest in the state.  Crime is practically negligible, and the natural beauty surpasses that of most places. Some might say life up here is idyllic.

•••

At 11:40 a.m., Duane Morrison, who had been living out of his car but had a Denver address, calmly entered the school building, claiming he had “three pounds of C-4.” He was wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and carried a camouflage backpack. Inside were a semiautomatic pistol and a handgun. Morrison headed upstairs to room 206, where Sandra Smith was teaching honors English. He instructed her to leave, and when she would not, he fired his gun into the air. He then told the students to line up facing the chalkboard and made everyone leave, except for six girls, of which Emily Keyes was one.

•••

In the course of our dealings with the realtor, we learned he was also a volunteer firefighter. When he wasn’t helping people buy and sell houses along the 285 Corridor, he was responding to accidents and other 911 calls, often saving lives. He’d pried toddlers out of crushed cars, fought forest fires, and evacuated the sick and elderly from deathly blizzards. He’d signed up nine years earlier for the excitement. He’d stayed on because it taught him to appreciate that, as he put it, “life is brief and precious and important.”

•••

A code-white alert—meaning a full lockdown—was sounded over the intercom. County Sheriff Fred Wegener began negotiating with the gunman. The sheriff’s son Ben, a junior who once had a crush on Emily Keyes, was in a classroom nearby. Morrison wouldn’t talk to Wegener directly—he used the girls to relay his messages. The only clear demand he made was that the police back off.

•••

I tried to imagine what it must be like to live with a high-frequency radio in your home. We awakened to acres of blue sky above pine-covered peaks, the sounds of an occasional dog, crows cawing and squirrels chattering. Our realtor and his wife must emerge from dreams to the beating static and cacophony of voices reporting drunks, families killed in car accidents, petty thieves, and the elderly having massive heart attacks in bed. Or one morning, as you’re writing up a carefully considered Inspection Objection—as our realtor might have been on the morning of September 27, 2006—you hear words reverberating over that crackling scanner that make you briefly pray you haven’t really woken up at all. “Six students have been taken hostage at Platte Canyon High by a man claiming to have a bomb. The school is being evacuated—negotiations are ongoing.”

•••

Morrison sexually assaulted all of the girls before releasing four of his hostages and keeping two. Fifteen-year-old Lynna Long later said that even though they were all lined up facing the chalkboard, she knew the other girls were being molested because she could hear “the rustling of clothes and elastic being snapped and zippers being opened and closed.”

After the four girls were released, Emily, who was still a hostage, managed to respond to her father’s text message, which asked, “R U OK?”

She wrote back, “I luv u guys.”

•••

In July, our realtor called, asking if my husband and I wanted to join him and his wife for a Rockies game. There was light rain that day, but our seats at Coors Field were sheltered by the overhang of the level above us, so even when it sprinkled, we were protected. We drank beer and ate hot dogs, basking in the relaxation of the ballpark. His wife and I went for a second beer during the sixth inning, but our realtor stopped at one, since he was driving.

“Seen too many accidents,” was all he said.

•••

By 12:10 p.m., all eight hundred students, except the two remaining hostages, had been evacuated. A four-mile stretch of Highway 285 on both sides of the school was closed. Ambulances were parked in the end zone of the football field.

All the parents standing outside the school were urged by authorities to go back to the sheriff substation.

At least twenty parents shook their heads at once and said, “No.”

At 3:20 p.m., the gunman told police that something “big” would happen at 4:00, and that it would “be over then.”

The Jefferson County SWAT Team had witnessed Morrison sexually assaulting the girls, and at 3:30, Sheriff Wegener made a decision. Later he’d say that he made the decision, “Because I’d want whoever was in my position to do the same thing, and that is to save lives.”

At approximately 3:35, the SWAT team stormed the classroom, and Morrison used the two girls as human shields. When she tried to run, he shot Emily Keyes in the back of the head before killing himself.

•••

Our realtor was just one of many who stood by and watched as Emily was carried on a gurney from the classroom to the Flight-for-Life helicopter.

Emily’s father, John-Michael, who had been waiting there all day, hoping to see his daughter, shouted out, “Is there anything I can do to make her more comfortable?”

Someone replied, “No.”

The helicopter took only a few minutes to arrive at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, where Emily was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m.

•••

The word community typically refers to many people, and sometimes it’s a group so large that it fills a whole highway. On October 7, 2006, close to six thousand motorcyclists rode the forty miles from Columbine High School to Platte Canyon High School in a show of compassion for the victims of the shootings at both schools. After a moment of silence and a balloon release, they rode off beneath an archway of pink balloons. Sheriff Fred Wegener was among them. Proceeds from the riders’ registration fees went to The “I Luv U Guys” Foundation, established in memory of Emily Keyes. This tradition has continued every year since.

•••

Emily’s life was full of accomplishments. According to those who knew her, she was trusting, kind, and fearless. She was active in speech class, worked on the school paper, and played volleyball. The day before she died, she had done such a great job on a world history paper that her teacher had read it out loud to the whole class.

Her boss at the restaurant where she waited tables said she was, “One of the nicest girls. Just a real sweetheart. Always a please and a thank you and a smile.”

•••

On September 27, 2006, our son was almost two, and we’d lived in our new home about five months. This was where we would parent him through his childhood and adolescence, and where, fates willing, he would someday graduate from high school. I mourned fiercely, almost inappropriately, for Emily, so consumed with shock and sadness that I could barely think of anything else for days.

It was as if I knew her, and in some ways I did, for we all drive the same roads, watch the same aspens turn to fiery gold each fall, and notice the same rise and descent of the trout-laden South Platte River, which feeds the same creeks we all drive alongside each day.

•••

Every year now, on the Saturday closest to September 27th, my husband, children, and I walk up the big hill to where our neighborhood meets the highway, carrying a cardboard sign that reads “We Love U Guys” written in bright red poster markers. We stand there waving at thousands of honking motorcyclists, our sign bending in the wind as they pass. From time to time, we exchange the international sign for “I love you”—thumb, middle and ring finger down, pointer and pinkie up, with a rider.

Up the highway a few hundred yards is the fire station, where the tallest truck is parked, emergency lights flashing like fireworks in honor and commemoration of the children killed in our schools and those who’ve leapt in to save them.

Throughout the hour that it takes for all those bikes to go by, I keep waving and smiling, stinging hot salt in my throat, doing my best to explain to our kids in choked-up stutters why we come here each year and pay tribute to a girl none of us knew, but we all remember.

I really do love these guys. I love that they show their compassion with a bike ride up a twisting mountain highway, I love that they all wear pink in honor of Emily, I love that so many of them see us here by the side of the road and answer our hand signals with a wave. But what I love even more is that when they reach their destination at Platte Canyon High School and join Emily’s family, whose foundation now helps schools everywhere enhance their safety, they’ll have carried our message to where it belongs.

•••

CANDACE KEARNS READ is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Morrison, Colorado. She is the author of the screenwriting guidebook Shaping True Story into Screenplay and a forthcoming novel, The Rope Swing. She blogs at lawomantologlady.wordpress.com, and can be found @ckreadwriter, candacekearnsread.facebook.com, and candacekearnsread.com.

Reclaimed Ambition

aspen
By k rupp/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.

Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.

The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.

Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.

•••

My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.

I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.

I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.

•••

My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.

“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”

“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.

“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.

“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.

“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.

I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.

“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.

•••

Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.

The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.

I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.

I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.

My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.

Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.

When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.

Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.

•••

“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.

Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?

Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.

I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.

I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.

Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.

The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.

In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.

Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.

Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.

I’m with the Band

[This is kind of art you get when your editor is a former band geek. —ed.]

By Rebecca Stetson Werner

In the enormous domed metal building—a cavernous space dominated by three regulation size basketball courts where adults coach the kids’ teams, shouting to be heard above the din—I find the court for Nicholas’s game and quickly sit down on the bleachers. Every once in a while, a dissonant buzzer shrieks, so awful a sound, so jarring it makes my scalp tingle, and I curl in on myself in anticipation of the next blast.

Nicholas’s good friend passes him the ball. He catches it, sort of, but his grip is not quite firm enough, and it barrels on through his hands and down onto his shoe, bouncing out of bounds. I hear a groan and a snicker from somewhere to my left. I fight the desire to turn and glare at the person. Nicholas smiles, forcedly, and I see him apologize to his friend.

Then he throws me a pained look. Hoping to communicate with him as the one person in the crowd who knows and holds his vulnerability, I try to return my best version of what proves to be an impossible expression: a blend of a smirk moving into a softening around the eyes and then a goofy grin, with a bit of a shoulder shrug.

But I am not sure I get the expression right, and I may have missed my chance to connect and communicate with him. Because today, from the moment I entered the arena, I have retreated to the sidelines, taken a stance as an outsider. I am tense, self-conscious, distracted, and frustrated with those around me.

While all the other parents on the bleachers chat and yell and gesture and growl, I am caught up in my own head, spinning through a series of questions. When did this happen? How did we get here? When did we stop wanting our children to play nicely together, stop insisting on apologies when they hurt one another, stop valuing kindness and social skills above competitiveness and drive? And when did it become a good play to foul someone on purpose? When did we stop calling careful with that stick across the playground and start shouting check him?

“Out of the paint!” one parent bellows. Another shouts, “Boards!” every time a player shoots. I have no idea what they mean and wonder if I may be eavesdropping on a bizarre carpentry-focused reality show. I amuse myself for a bit by trying to overlay this crowd’s behavior onto a playground scene from when our children were younger. I imagine what it would have been like to sit on the benches next to the swings with coffee cups in our hands, interrupting one friend’s narration of her clogged mammary gland to shout to one of our kids: Swing harder! Pump those legs! Come on, work those monkey bars! Share those Cheerios!

I’m tempted to turn to the parents beside me on these bleachers and offer an explanation for myself: I was in the band.

•••

In high school, I was a band geek, although there were lots of other, less kind names for members of this motley gang of musicians. On Friday nights, when the popular kids would sit in the bleachers with their French fries and sodas and cheer for their friends on the football team, I was there, too. But off to the side, clad in a royal-blue polyester men’s uniform, helmet perched atop my head, its plumes long ago snapped in half, yellowed, or simply lost.

On school days, I stood when the intercom called for the pep rally participants to go to the gym, and I left the room with all the Blue Knights in team jerseys and school colors. In the gymnasium, however, I was absent from the groupings of chairs in the center of the polished wood floors. Instead, I sat First Chair, adjusting my piccolo to a well-tuned B flat and offering it to each member of the pep band. Then I’d sit down again and await our turn to accompany the cheerleaders and play our school’s fight song.

And it wasn’t just pep band. I could also be counted on to maintain the spacing and pace of the most complex marching band formations, my whole row guiding left toward me, peering across the music holders affixed to their bent elbows. In the two-person pit orchestra, I routinely covered three woodwind instruments during school musicals, and would lean across the flute, piccolo, and oboe that lay in my lap so that I could reach the keys of the synthesizer. I must admit: I am a bit embarrassed for myself right now as I write this. Total nerd. But these musical talents did help me pass a bit socially, counterbalancing my polyester uniform and allowing me to relate to the jocks and popular kids. Sadly, these impressive skills were not sufficient to produce a flurry of prom invitations.

At some point during high school, I began singing, a sensible extension of my musical activities. Although some of my most important relationships were formed through singing groups, I never felt completely at ease in the choirs I joined. So I wasn’t surprised when, after her school choir concert, our daughter Julia unintentionally voiced what I also struggled with when singing. I asked her what it had felt like to be on stage, to stand before an audience.

“Well, I liked it when I played the xylophone,” she said. “I knew what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them when I was singing.”

Like me, it seems, Julia may be an instrumentalist at heart. I was accustomed to holding and playing instruments on stage, to having something protective between me and the audience. I often carried my black cases with me to keep my instruments warm enough, or because they didn’t fit in my locker, also conveniently giving my hands purpose as I moved through my school’s crowded hallways. I used to practice fingerings for scales on my desktop. It gave me something to do while I chatted with the more gregarious kids before classes began. Even now, when I am feeling nervous, my adult fingers long for the feeling of my oboe’s cold wood and silver. I can still call forth the smell of cedar and beeswax and saliva wafting up into my face as I open the case. I can even hear the creaking of the hinge as it opened and the snapping shut of the lid to my reed box. I mentally run my finger down the turkey feather I used to swab my oboe dry after I played.

But singing? As Julia said, it’s just you and your voice on the stage. But I pushed through this unease, this vulnerability, for whatever reason, and it led to something, someone, for me.

•••

My husband, Jonathan, and I met in our college’s choir. He was a dancer and a singer in high school. He tells me of an awkward stage involving leg warmers and acne medication and asking a friend when football rehearsal was over. When we met on his first day of college, I was his assigned greeter, or what we called a hand holder, sitting with him while he waited to audition for the choir that I had already joined. What I noticed about Jonathan—after overcoming my fascination with his strange fashion choices, including a do rag, white t-shirt, tightly cinched pants and shirt cuffs—was that, though I was there to make him feel less nervous as he waited, he was not nervous at all.

The next time we met was in the basement storage room of the performing arts center. I, in my role as choir manager, was responsible for fitting the newly selected men for their tuxedos. This was my first time measuring inseams for men’s attire, and Jonathan, third in line, intervened. Clearly I looked as confused and mortified as I felt, awkwardly holding a measuring tape, trying to figure out how I was going to determine pant lengths for all these young men I did not yet know. “Have him hold the top, and you hold the bottom down by his ankle,” he suggested.

Ah. Ankle. That’s good. I can handle ankles.

But I think the night that our relationship moved from friendship to more than that was at the famed a cappella karaoke night. That evening, we sang each other’s songs. Which is not a euphemism. We actually sang each other’s solos from our respective a cappella groups. There were a lot of red plastic Solo cups in people’s hands that night, though not in his or mine.

He actually volunteered to sing my song, confidently and in full voice, which was a folky Tuck and Patty love song. Jonathan knows how to work a room. But I was then involuntarily pushed up to the front of the crowd as his group began the accompaniment to his signature song, “The Reflex” by Duran Duran. He typically performed with full choreography, and there was clearly some expectation that I would shimmy along with his group as they boogied down. I was completely terrified and uncomfortable and breathless and uncool and not at all uninhibited by the contents of a Solo cup. Yet he stood in the middle of the crowd and mouthed the words for me, smiling warmly the whole time.

In that moment of my vulnerability and his strength, my discomfort and his ease, and during many other moments in the next few years in which we flipped and flopped roles of lending support and revealing weaknesses, our friendship grew into understanding of and love for each other. We were able to give each other what we needed when working through our most difficult, most vulnerable moments.

There was the night, sitting in the middle of our college’s clay tennis courts, in which he—overwhelmed by his work and the high expectations and his exhaustion—confessed, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And I told him he could, and we did. Together. We created our us and, eventually, our family. We sang Tuck and Patty while rocking our babies years later. And our kids still think we are so weird when we lapse into the fle-fle-fle-fle-flex refrain on road trips.

Back then, we didn’t think about selecting someone who had skills that complemented the other’s. We didn’t anticipate the need to tackle our own home improvements or the requirement that we support all of the different homework subjects. Or that one person’s musicality should be rounded out by the other’s athleticism. And therefore, given our poorly planned love, our house is repaired with duct tape and the kitchen faucet drips. Yet we have inadvertently managed to rock the homework subject coverage at the kitchen counter. And, although our three children each fall in their own unique place on the continuum between gregarious and introverted, luckily, between Jonathan and I, we truly understand them.

Yet without question, our weakest collective skill set is athleticism. Jonathan is a self-described great blue heron with sore knees when asked to assume an athletic stance. And I am awkward and clumsy and often find it difficult to walk across a room without tripping. Of course, as with home improvement and homework coverage, engineering well-rounded genetic loading for one’s potential offspring is not typically how one goes about choosing a mate. One is much more likely to be drawn to another who likes the same things, someone who also shows up to the same a cappella karaoke event.

•••

This us, Jonathan and I. What we know from experience, despite our lack of sports expertise, is the importance of allowing oneself to feel and express one’s vulnerability. And we know the importance of where you place yourself in a crowd. As a couple, we are the result of the push and pull of social dynamics playing out while two people connected amidst a crowd’s pulse and noise. And we know how coming together—finding each other through an extended moment across the room—can evolve into a life together. A dance in which two people stop synchronizing themselves with those around them and fall into their own rhythm. Jonathan and I? We wish for nothing more than these moments, these connections, for our children.

Lately, I have been returning to that nervous, uncertain glance Nicholas shot me across the basketball court. About who I was, or perhaps wasn’t, for him in that moment. And about how Nicholas saw me, sitting among the spectators as well, caught up in my wonder at how our children are getting older and at how parenting requirements change with time. I lost sight of how this is all still about the connections, about forming the closest and strongest relationships we can with each other, relationships during our childhood serving as a springboard for embracing and moving out into the rest of the world. I want to change how I receive his searching look when it next comes my way. Though I know this will not always be the case, our children are still young enough that their raw and vulnerable glances are still directed at me.

Nicholas’s glance has also sent me back into my memory of that moment, albeit a more grown-up moment, between Jonathan and me so many years ago. Of the feeling of finding Jonathan across the crowd. And how that look moved us forward, shored us up, and helped us live. And the desire for connection with Jonathan is still there. I still hope for our eyes not to pass over each other, searching through the mess of parenting and work and distraction and stress. For our eyes to meet and linger, for this look to make the noise around us quiet. Once these intense and precious few days of parenting these beings has shifted and they move outward, that Jonathan and I will still be us, still finding each other, as the crowd thins and moves on. And for our growing children to see this, to know we are in the crowd for them now and for each other, available and strong. And for them to someday find this for themselves with another.

•••

REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and three children. She has contributed to Taproot and Grounded Magazine; this is her second essay for Full Grown People. She writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at treetoriver.com.

Karaoke Tips for People Seeking Joy

mic
By p_a_h/ Flickr

By Jennifer Niesslein

The main thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter if you can sing. Karaoke isn’t a talent show. The trick is having confidence.

That said, do yourself a favor and start with something easy. Everyone can sing Billy Joel, say, or Huey Lewis and the News. REM’s not too tough. I once worked at a bar that held karaoke night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I looked forward to it, if only to escape the monotony of the manager’s Bonnie Raitt tape played on a loop. (“Something to Talk About” still triggers in me an olfactory memory of fajita grease and spilled beer.) There were some regulars who did rousing versions of “Friends in Low Places” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” However, it was the summer of “Love Shack,” a little old song that young, drunk women believed could transform them into Kate Pierson. It was painful. For now, you should probably leave The B-52s alone.

Singing louder makes it easier, weirdly. Also, you can’t sing karaoke ironically. You can use a silly voice all you want, but you’ve chosen your song because something about it speaks to you. A stray lyric, the particular beat, a memory you associate with the song. When it’s just you and the microphone, you can be anything—younger, older, freer, tragic, more bad-ass, more soulful, more successful, unspeakably sexy—for the length of the song. When I sing, I feel something akin to joy.

•••

Even if the n-word is in a song you choose, you still may not use the n-word. Substitute “ninja.”

•••

I have a karaoke machine at home, and that’s normally how I sing karaoke. We’ve amassed a pretty nice selection of karaoke CDs that has nearly overgrown the drawer where we store them. If our collection were a radio station, it might have the tagline, “The best of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, and today!” A little something for everyone.

Public karaoke can be hit or miss. The best public karaoke experience I had was seven years ago in Ocracoke, North Carolina. My friend Sundae is a local, and she took my husband and me out to a karaoke bar one night. The place was a huge, windowless building on a two-lane road leading out of town, away from the tourist traffic. We got there early; a small crowd gathered in the back, drinking. By the time the karaoke DJ got set up, I was one of the first to sing. I chose “The Deadbeat Club” by The B-52s, ignoring my own advice. I pulled it off okay, although I sensed that the crowd didn’t know the song and didn’t care about my rendition. An hour and a half later into the night, it was time for my second turn. At this point, the place was packed. Smoky, wiggle-your-way-to-the-bar, wait-in-line-to-pee packed. The DJ called my name, and I took the mic.

Ba-ba-ba-bada-dun-dun.

That’s right. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby.” The crowd went insane. I was loaning the rock star experience, listening to scores of people singing along with me, watching the room bounce to my voice. For the first time, I understood the allure of public performance, the high that you get from knowing you created this mass of energy.

The next day, a woman stopped me as I was leaving a restaurant restroom. She congratulated me on my performance.

The worst public karaoke experience I had happened in San Francisco at a small Mexican restaurant located on one of those steep streets on which it’s impossible to maintain any sort dignity while walking down. Brandon and I had already been out with some writers I knew, had already eaten dinner and had cocktails, but by the time we got near the hotel, we weren’t ready to end the night. The place had one raucous group when we got there, and it seemed like good times. I chose a song; Brandon chose a song.

But by the time our turns came around, the fun group had left. I had chosen an Alanis Morissette song. I will just say this: There is nothing more humbling than scream-singing about oral sex at the movies, in a room populated by only your husband and the stooped older man running the establishment’s karaoke equipment.

•••

Don’t try to put your own stamp on it by changing the phrasing or some such.

•••

Lyrics can throw you, even if you think you know the song. One holiday, at a family gathering, my mom requested that my nephew sing Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” Brit did, and we watched Mom’s face slowly register the meaning of the song’s lyrics. We refer to it now as “Grandma’s Favorite Methamphetamine Addiction Song.”

At one of our neighborhood parties, a friend volunteered to kick off the night with the first song. We were two drinks in—FYI, three is kind of the optimum place to be—and I suggested he try “Tainted Love,” a song on the not-challenging level. We were all having a good time, until he started in with the “touch me” part and happened to look around the room. Most of the adults were in the kitchen, noshing. In the room where the karaoke was, we were surrounded by children, all eager to get a turn at amplifying their own small voices.

It could have been worse. He could have been singing “My Sharona,” with its surprisingly creepy lyrics. Ick! Ick! Ick! Ick! Run, Sharona!

•••

I sprung for the nice microphones from Radio Shack, so don’t swing them from their cords, like you’re some sort of David Lee Roth.

•••

I grew up Presbyterian. Although as an adult, I consider myself a superstitious agnostic, I sometimes miss the ritual of a community gathering in song.

Brandon and I used to host an annual karaoke party on New Year’s Eve in our neighborhood before some of our friends moved and the new neighbors didn’t seem as interested in singing. It was one of the highlights of my year. We’d lay out some snacks and drinks, and we’d catch up. Eventually someone would start the singing.

We’d been hosting this long enough that I knew what people would gravitate toward. Ed and Lucy would do a Rocky Horror Picture Show song. Steve would sing Def Leppard’s “Photograph” with touching earnestness. Because Trisha is Canadian, she got first dibs on Alanis Morissette and the Barenaked Ladies. She also got “Me and Bobby McGee,” slapping her own thigh to keep time. Brandon and Dan would duet on some ’90s songs, and Sara would sing “Son of a Preacher Man” because she’s the daughter of a preacher woman. I’d go heavy on the hip-hop, the kids Top 40 songs, and then at some point Melissa would bust out the Grease soundtrack, and we’d all gather round and shout it out together.

At midnight, those of us left at the party would gather on the back porch with our glasses of champagne or sparkling cider to watch the city’s fireworks. Sometimes there would be a straggler, and in the first moments of the new year, we’d hear melody from inside the house.

I really need you tonight!

Forever’s gonna start tonight.

Forever’s gonna start tonight.

And then, year after year, it would.

•••

JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is jenniferniesslein.com.

We All Dance Together

swan
by !Lauriin/ Flickr

By Rebecca Myers

The Persian Tea House in Atlanta is the opposite of a dead, hollow concert hall—it’s alive with flowers, Persian rugs, and the aroma of tantalizing herbs and spices. Against the crimson walls, the lavish feast looks like a still-life masterpiece. This concert will be like no other I have experienced.

Tonight’s concert features Sattar, one of the pioneers of Persian pop music. He was an icon, the Frank Sinatra of Iran, before the revolution in the late seventies. His music still reigns nearly four decades after the revolution banned him from singing and put him in exile. Now living in America, he performs to an expatriate community who yearns for their country.

To my right are ten “beds”—raised wooden platforms separated by rails. Each bed is richly appointed with a crimson Persian rug and large tapestry pillows; each can host about a dozen people who sit cross-legged and dine picnic style.

My best friend reserved the prime bed with the best view of the room overlooking the dance floor, musicians, and other guests dining at round tables. Her Farsi name, Afsaneh (OFF sah nay), means “fairy tale” in English. For a decade, she has introduced me to the delights of Persian culture and hospitality.

Persian concerts can start one hour late. It’s much more important for the Iranian community to spend time connecting. I witness an overture of hugging and kissing.

Iranian women prepare for such events with great attention to detail. Dark eyeliner sets off their eyes. Crystals sparkle on their dresses cut in the latest American fashion. Gold jewelry adorns their hands, necks, and ears. Stiletto heels boost the figures of the younger women. They are elegant birds gracing the arms of their men, handsome in their suits. Afsaneh is no exception. She welcomes her guests by kissing us on both cheeks.

We sit on the thick rug, drape our bodies against the pillows, and nibble on Kashk-e bademjoon (eggplant and onions), borani (yogurt and spinach), shirazi (cucumber, tomato, and lime salad), and Naan-o-Paneer-o-Sabzi (Iranian thin bread, feta cheese, and herbs). When we’re ready, we can step down from the bed and join the dancers.

All of Afsaneh’s guests are couples, except for me. And alone is not the only way I feel different from the others. I’m overweight. I dressed sensibly in a pantsuit so I can sit cross-legged, although not with any kind of grace or comfort. My knees stick up in a V instead of a flat, yoga style. I’m awkward and out of my element eating while sitting on a rug in front of others. I can’t seem to find a comfortable position as I balance the food on my lap. I feel underdressed next to the exquisite fashion surrounding me.

I’m a duck that has just waddled into a bevy of swans.

To escape my awkwardness, I stand up, perch on the railing of our bed, and close my eyes, absorbing the music into my body, tuned to the key of Middle-Eastern music. The dark, minor chords infused with joyous rhythm resonate with my own dance of life, which has taught me that joy has its roots in sorrow.

My mind shuts off its negative chatter as the music elevates my spirits. I forget myself as I sway and arabesque my hands.

I figure I will probably hand dance the whole night. But Afsaneh breaks my reverie; she calls and invites me to dance with her and her date. I step off the bed and join them.

Encouraged by Afsaneh and feeling anonymous in the crowd, I let the full flow of the music speak through my hips, torso, and arms. My hips create figure eights of infinity; my arms are undulating snakes.

I keep dancing even when Afsaneh and her date leave. A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I turn. A young Iranian couple wants my attention.

The man asks me with a quizzical look, “You…Iranian?”

I smile and shake my head, no.

They both shake their heads and she blurts out, “Noooooo! You American?”

“Yes, I’m American.” I raise my eyebrows in question.

They look at each other and he says, “You wonder why we ask?” He pauses. “It’s because you dance like an Iranian—a beautiful Iranian dancer!”

I’m stunned and it clearly shows on my face.

“You don’t believe us!” They laugh. He holds up a camera and points at it. “We take a picture of you, we think you dance so beautiful!”

I blush. In a split second I go from anonymity to the spotlight. A duck to a swan. The swift shift is jarring. If they were Americans, I’d chalk it up to alcohol, but no drinks are served at this event. Are they sincere or making fun of me? As if in answer, people sitting near the dance floor meet my eyes, nod, and smile. A waiter passes by; he winks, one arm laden with dishes, his free hand motioning thumbs-up.

I breathe in their good intentions, their smiles. A rush of profound gratitude fills me. Speechless, I put my hand on my heart to acknowledge their kindness.

After a few more dances by myself, I feel another tap. I turn and see a handsome Iranian man with salt-and-pepper hair and a younger woman. “You are a wonderful dancer,” the woman says.

The man nods eagerly. “You dance with me!” he exclaims.

I look at the young woman.

She smiles. “This is my Uncle Ali. I’m his niece.” She waves us on. “Go dance!”

Ali and I swirl around each other. When the music changes, he pushes through the crowd to make sure I get a close view of the star singer. Sattar’s gray, cropped beard and darker mustache frames his songs, while his handsome face and dark eyes emote the song’s joy and passion.

Time for a break, I think. I’m about done in.

But a tall, big-boned woman with flowing bronze curls parts the crowd as she strides up to me with a powerful presence. Ali steps back, watching. “You dance with me,” she demands with a smile.

We dance around each other as Iranian women do, and as Afsaneh and I have often done. We mirror each other’s movements and send our arms back and forth under our eyes toward each other while our eyes lock. The surrounding dancers encourage us by clapping to the beat.

At the end of our dance, she turns and looks at Ali. “Sooo—are you with her?”

I fully expect him to say no. Any American guy who has just danced with you a few times would say no. “With” could have complicated meanings, and we certainly didn’t arrive together.

Instead, Ali leaps up and proclaims, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” with much enthusiasm.

“You’re a very lucky man,” she declares to Ali.

I suddenly feel hot and shake my head in wonder, caught somewhere between crazy reality and magic. My hand on my heart silently thanks Ali for his exuberant yes. I observe this scene like a reader of my own story, as if I’m floating outside my body. This moment shimmers in suspension.

She then turns to me and intimates with a sweep of her hand, “You know, I know all these people here for many years. The Atlanta Iranian community is close, but they come from different religions. I myself am Christian. There are Jews here as well as Muslims. But you…” She pauses and cocks her head. “…I think you are Sufi!”

I am honored. I love the illuminating poetry of the Sufi mystics, Rumi and Hafiz. Six to seven centuries later, their poems are still beloved around the world today for their spiritual beauty and wisdom, their weaving of natural wonders with profound insights.

We part for dinner and rejoin our own groups.

The Persian feast is sumptuous. Iranians show their generosity and love through food, and this event is no exception. Pyramids of apples, oranges, dates, figs, and pomegranates. Festoons of grapes. Dishes of eggplant, onion, and garlic. Fresh greens and mint. Skewered lamb, beef, and chicken with tomatoes and green peppers. And fragrant rice sprinkled with dill or saturated with rose water. A feast to feed your soul!

After dinner, the lights dim. The darkness reflects the mood shift from gaiety to seriousness. People hush, anticipating. I sit on the edge of our bed as everyone returns to their seats. Sattar changes from singing upbeat pop music to a traditional song full of ancient, guttural tones.

I close my eyes and feel the pain of a people separated from their beloved homeland and families; their longing to be reunited; their love for their mountains, deserts, ancient civilization; their cities and culture. They have their freedom, but not their home. I find myself weeping at their heartbreak.

Sattar ends his song. The silence speaks the audience’s profound respect and emotion. I need a tissue for my eyes and nose. I’m a mess. I open my eyes; sitting next to me is a petite, chic woman with ebony hair. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn. She stares at me with gorgeous green eyes swimming in tears.

She huskily asks me, “You…you…understand Farsi?”

“No,” I apologize, “just a few words of greeting.”

I gingerly venture forth. “But I think the song was very sad—about missing your homeland, about all you’ve sacrificed…yes?”

Her eyes widen with surprise. Her voice trembles, part anguish, part anger, when she says, “I raised two children in America, but they don’t understand!”

We hug each other for a long time. In this moment, we’re no longer two women from two different cultures, but simply mothers connecting through the universal love of children and home.

I walk toward the door, and everyone waves goodbye to me. “MerciKhodaa haafez!” We’re no longer strangers. As I step out under the stars and breathe in the gift of this night, I remember Rumi’s words: “There is a community of spirit. Join it, and feel the delight … Close both eyes and see with the other eye.”

•••

REBECCA MYERS writes about transformation through travel, nature, work, culture, and relationships. She currently translates complex science into language our grandmothers can understand for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She also teaches creative writing to her colleagues and is writing a memoir and a children’s book series about the spirituality of nature.