December 28th, 2010
I am happy that many of you have asked questions about Trackbacks links, e-zines etc. I would be glad to respond in the affirmative to all. The problem is that I’m not computer savvy. I’m a writer who would love to know how to make my site more visible to Google and all the other internet opportunities I fail to utilize. I don’t even know what a Backtrack is.
Any help or instruction any of you could provide would help me answer your questions more knowledgeably and would be much appreciated. Show me how to answer you and I will. I may be leaving myself open to exploitation but I believe strongly in the good will of people who are attracted to my writing.
No, I did not design my website except for providing the picture. The credit for the design and the graphics belongs to my publisher, dog ear Publishing and their staff. My book is self-published because I never found an agent. I also believe strongly in the merits of self-publishing. Thanks, Gerry
September 21st, 2010
Is this essay about depression or is it is it about the creation of a work of writing, a short story? What is the connection between the two—the story and the essay preceding it?
The connection is that the story is about death, or depression, a symbolic or near death suspension and I’m writing the story while attempting, in the essay, to show how the story came to be written. to share how the writing process “happens” in me.
For me, a story begins as a thought, a single thought that forces its way into my consciousness past all the other “filler” thoughts which occupy most of my time. It’s a thought which fights for a hearing, perseveres until it is noticed. causing it to become something other than clutter consigned to the “junk heap” of my consciousness. And it is drunk with images, random images that charge like a flight of hornets seeking a place to land. There is no place yet.
All thoughts which arise within me are born from the same ground, the same set of experiences and mental recordings which are only mine. But they are not all of equal strength. Why does the thought persevere, move from the place of initial bare existence to the place of recognition that is to come? That is more difficult to answer, is perhaps connected to some unexplainable life which others have called inspiration or the “muse”. What is singular is that the thought has no words, is more accurately a feeling, a feeling holding within itself all its branches, its full meaning already contained—as in an acorn or a seed, yet more than in an acorn or a seed, more than a potentiality, because glimpses of the full-blown tree flash across the screen of my mind, sustaining themselves with the images that still circle. But there are no words yet.
I am moving in a circle that is beginning to open into a straight line.
From the place of a feeling-thought to the place of an idea is a more radical leap, but one which was predicted by the initial thought. My knowledge has existed as long as I have recognized myself. I know that the idea struggling to take shape is from me, from wells of known things which have grown as my body and mind and which may communally be a part of other lives, with generations I don’t know. My shared knowledge begins to emerge, shaking itself loose from the earth in which it has waited
The thought, feeling, and images join with a self-knowledge deeper than I am, knowledge uncovered yet still shaking the darkness from itself wordlessly and convey to me but cannot yet convey to anyone else. The naked thought- feeling must put on clothes, fill out, be expressed.
My thought-feelings and images grow into ideas with more than my own knowledge, with more than what I alone am.
But this is philosophical explanation and I return to the outline of my initial intention
First I feel a story, a story which is not yet a story. Only then do I begin to know it—after settling securely into a thought and feeling so strong it will carry me through the act of creation, the work, the sorrow and then the joy.The form of the writing comes from both, the feeling and the knowing. accompanied by images in frenzy, hovering, seeking to rest, and knowledge primeval because it has always existed within me yet sophisticated because it has grown and become more of as I have grown and developed myriad branches.
The feeling I began with in this particular story was a feeling that came with a fleeting image of me watching the loss of some part of myself. The image was not fleshed out. It was not clear. There was only me looking at myself, at first in an unknown context. Then the image began to clear itself, hesitant than frenzied because it existed. The feeling was sadness. I was looking at myself when young, without words but now a definite picture. Perhaps I was bemoaning the loss of youth. I don’t think so, however, because it seemed more specific than that. I don’t know what it was, only that I was sad for me. This is difficult, I know, but I present it as an example of how vague, impressionistic, yet strong are the images that visit me before I begin writing, and how immersed in feelings these images, feelings, thoughts and knowledge are, so that it is almost impossible to characterize them as one or the other. Yet it is from this elusive kernel that the piece is born. I am more convinced as I write this of what I have always known—-that writing is a mysterious, a miraculous act. So now I am dealing with four things–feeling, thought, knowing and imagery. (It would be easier to explain this phenomenon in terms of bodily sensations, which is ordinarily what, as a writer, I would do, that is, use the most concrete ways to reach my reader.
For example, I might say I saw a picture of myself enjoying a walk in the country in good weather, observing the offerings of a serene and unthreatening nature, or a picture of myself soaking in sunlight on a day at the beach. For each of these enjoyments, it is true, my body as well as my mind is necessary. I need good legs to take a pleasant walk, but also my brain to feel the muscles in my legs contract and expand with pleasure as movement travels throughout the rest of my body. Movement invigorates all of me in ways I do not completely understand, because they are ways which not only involve my physical parts but also my mental parts. In the sense that my body is not separate from my mind, all of me is exercised, all of me is refreshed. Yet the primary experience of this pleasure appears to me at first, as physical.
The same is true of pain. One does not always know, or is perhaps less aware, when all is right or not right in one’s head, that is, the head understood as the mind, or thinking part of ourselves. One is almost always immediately aware, however, when all is not right with one’s body. What does this digression have to do with what I am trying to say? I believe it is relevant. Partial, less than total awareness is involved in the kind of mind illness currently labeled as low-grade depression. To the world which observes, and to the person themself, the body/mind functions in normal ways, appearances are as usual. So even to the one who suffers—and I do not use the word without thought, because the person who is depressed, suffers greatly—a false sense of health settles in and stays for a while before it disappears, then returns, only to disappear again. In this merry-go-round fashion, one is confused, deceived, worse, led to believe that the mind is completely slipping away. How the body reacts to this mind/body delirium is only beginning to be explored. Doctors are sure only of this–our state of mind is intimately connected to the illnesses that manifest themselves in our bodies. I can say that my image/feeling involved me in my most auspicious physical self, that is, with strength and vitality. Yet I was aware that something was lost, was missing, a something that could not be found again. I also know that in this image/feeling, I was staring at my own young and shapely arm, an arm that was fully visible because I wore a short-sleeved sweater, and that my arm was adorned with bracelets. For some reason, the bracelets caused the greatest sadness of all.
From that image/feeling, thought amd knowledge, I did not so much decide, as have the decision made for me, to write a story. This story will have to do with death, a death, my death, a word which at first sounds trite, melodramatic. I want this to be neither, but more, a true elegy, a mourning for myself, and a description of what “loss of self” means. The word death, then, is somewhat misleading. Death is being narrowed to a more specific kind of death. It is not physical death, but another kind of death about which I want to write, a spiritual or symbolic death, whatever kind of death the words “loss of self” involve, or at least what they involve for me at this point in the creating. One can suffer the loss of self while living. Much good writing attests to this. It is an important theme and writers use it often, wrestle with trying to capture a feeling which is by its nature difficult to capture. This loss of self occurs each time a person’s self-esteem is brutalized, wounded by another person, by events which are so traumatic they cause one to doubt one’s own inviolability, or perhaps even by the sense of tragedy, mortality that is a part of life, and about which one suddenly becomes aware in various, individually personal ways.
I believe that the self can endure even the most difficult external circumstances and survive, that it is most often other persons who deal the most lethal blows to the sense of self. Yet these other persons have almost always been victims themselves, so that the trail of injury has no real beginning or end. This death of self, depending on what stage of development a person has reached, may be death before living, or simply a state of non-living. So that the person so injured has a great sense of loss, and justly so, a loss that is correctly termed depression, a state in which the body and the psyche, inseparable again and always, are kept from engaging in the fullness that is life, are locked away from what others are privileged to know. The person so hurt senses this loss, even though he does not understand it. Internal sorrow does not cease; the person is powerless to halt his own weeping, a weeping for the death of one’s self. But do I want to write a story about depression? Is that the direction in which my original thought/image was pointing?
I think about William Styron and his recent chronicle of his own depression. Surely no writing of mine could improve upon that. But I am not sure if that is exactly what my thought/image was trying to mean. I use the verb “mean” deliberately here because I am still hunting for meaning in my initial image/feeling. It may have been about regret. Or contrition. As in a sense of sorrow for foolish things done. But that, I sense immediately, is wrong. It is not sorrow for things done that I wish primarily to capture in this writing, except in a peripheral way. It is for things done to the innocent, for things that the human being suffers that are beyond his control.
I write best, I think, in the first person. But I rule that out for this story, because of the danger of sounding like a whiner, someone complaining about life’s unfairness. It is not complaining I wish to do, but to show in a kind of intimate yet dispassionate manner, that life is not fair. There are those I know who feel that stories send messages, that we owe good messages, good feelings about life to the reader. I also believe this. But I believe that the truth is the strongest good message, in the sense that it increases our awareness, our empathy for the human, for what others suffer.
To this end, I will not dress the truth in false clothing. I will rely on the reader to take what I am able to offer and use it in the process of his own growth. The story, then, may be about depression, but if so, it is about the depression that exists without awareness of itself, the depression that exists side-by-side with what may seem to be a natural cheerfulness, or happiness. It is the feeling that does not know what it is, for if it did, it would call itself by its proper name and ask for help. I think then that I have a direction in which to travel.
I will conflate myself into a character, become someone else, use my own experience/knowledge as a base. I believe that one writes best about what one knows, so I will use what I know, embellishing where necessary, allowing my character to take me where she wishes. At least, I hope for this, that she will take on life and “go”. I am ready to begin, but starting is the hardest thing of all, as any writer knows, whether it be one of my students with a paper to do, or a writer who considers this her life’s work. My first sentence is usually very un-exciting and is re-worked, as is most of the piece, many times. Here I go.
THE STORY OF LORRAINE
Lorraine’s eyes held a darkness that made one think of summer nights. Lightning flashed in those eyes, the light of a mind that understood things quickly, often suddenly. Nor was hers a superficial penetration. Her intelligence was high, her work habits consistent, so that almost without fail, the projects she undertook were successful. Not only did she attract notice because of her physical beauty but also because of her wit and her fairly sophisticated knowledge. All who knew her expected that great success would follow her as a matter of course.
… I am the comet in the sky…many trails in my wake…I have my light and others’ also…I give what I choose to give…those who take from me are grateful, and I am grateful for their gratitude…none can stop me, keep me from the place I am destined to go…I will arrive alonethe product of myself…
Lorraine had no mentors, no champions to whom she looked to for guidance. Perhaps a certain pride kept her from relying on anyone except herself. She often became impatient with those who were not able to keep up with her, did not bother to wait or offer them help, and found herself in a rather limited circle of persons who shared her interests and could exchange with her on a somewhat equal level. Her closest friend in college, with whom she now shared an apartment, was a young woman who frankly admired her, an admiration in which Lorraine basked, since her friend came from a wealthier background than she did.
But the admiration was not one-sided. When Lorraine met Norma in college, it was as if she was again meeting someone she had always known. Often when the intellectual work of the day or the week was finished and fatigue had arrived, a relaxation settled upon them in which they became children again. Together they traveled back to a point in time where they could revel in the mere fact of existence, at times giggling helplessly for reasons which at first sight seemed unknown, reasons which, even though the room was full of people, only the two of them understood. This evening Norma walked into the room balancing books,a duffel bag and a large white box which emitted a delightful fragrance. “Hey Lor, how long are you going to work so uselessly on this thing”, Norma teased, about the paper Lorraine was writing for psychology class. ‘The characteristics of true intimacy’….sure, Lorraine, sure…how about ‘knowing when to tell your dorm room buddy she has b. o’”…and Lorraine could not help but laugh because the paper was a bore and she was tired…”Let’s have some pizza”, continued her friend, plopping the huge paper box on the table and lifting its cover so the room was overtaken by the unmistakable smell of cheese, tomatoes and anchovies…They ate greedily, zestfully, nurtured by each other’s presence as they were by the food. Norma had even brought Coke. Lorraine looked at her friend, aware of Norma’s inexpressible necessity in her life, aware of how much she loved her, thought of how lucky she was to have Norma in her life. Lorraine also had a lover who was drawn by her beauty and her mind. They went to school in Boston, where Bob and she had met and although he also came from a more privileged background than she did, they found they had things in common, traveled together around Boston, enjoying all the manifestations of its cultural life. Lorraine loved the city and went wherever it was possible to go, sensing this was a period of her life in which all she was experiencing must be captured and stored for future remembering. She had not known many cultural things. Her home seemed now to her like a dull meal, fit only for peasants, containing crude dishes that could do little more than satisfy hunger. Boston was like a rich dessert one could order over and over again without tiring, a delicacy one ate in a certain way, almost paying more attention to the manner of eating than to the eating itself. She ignored an inner voice which could barely be heard, a voice which whispered her own fears—that she was an invader, one who did not belong at this feast, and who would be ejected as soon as someone discovered her identity.
Lorraine knew that in many ways, she did not know Bob. He was a riddle waiting to be solved, a book she would read and understand more fully later. Now there was only the breath, the life they gave each other, a life that existed first in their youth and bodies. They shared a common insecurity, although Lorraine did not know the words to express that. She sensed that Bob chafed under the close auspices of his family, especially his mother, and that in some way, she was a part of his rebellion. At times she heard herself saying that he drank too much, but she told herself that all the other guys did also. It was a collegiate hazard, nothing serious. She did not ask herself, never wondered if there was any other way for men to be. Lorraine wrote poetry and the city with its variety of people and sights was often her subject. Sometime, she herself was the subject, delighting in a way that was not vain or arrogant but simply a natural love for the things that she was. Everyday, it seemed, brought a new awareness of herself. It may have been something as simple as staring at the smooth contours of her well-formed arms, the way the bracelets lay loosely on them, breaking away and returning to the skin so that they circled her arms and danced freely, all the while making a pleasant jingling sound.
Lorraine was not aware of having a worry in the world. Whatever misgivings rose to the surface of her consciousness from time to time were ignored. It was like carrying packages to the back of the house, and hiding them in an out-of-the-way closet. The closet was easy to forget because the house was big and filled with many other rooms that demanded immediate attention. Being away at school was not difficult for Lorraine; she actually did not miss her family at all, preferred, if she had to admit it, being away from her parents and two siblings, both sisters. In a way, her father was non-existent, an unskilled laborer who found it more and more difficult to earn a living. Her mother supplemented what he managed to earn by working as a waitress and doing housework. Neither of them were “educated”, as her mother often put it, but they were proud that Lorraine would be. They could do little to help her gain this education, as her mother also often explained, but that did not bother Lorraine, because she had scholarships and also worked at night as a tutor to other students, work that paid decently and helped pay her share of the remaining school expenses.
Lorraine’s mother called her often. It was usually to complain about her father or her other sisters. Lorraine did not enjoy these conversations but a sense of guilt, or responsibility, she was not sure which, kept her from admitting this to herself. Her inner core did not emerge fully to talk with her mother, was only partially present, retreated again with relief, to look around her dormitory room with its evidence of her life away from home, and believed herself safe. “I can’t tell you how embarrassed I was when he did that,” Lorraine’s mother intoned sadly, reproducing in vivid description her father’s drunken debacle at a family wedding. More and more now, her father drank too much. Lorraine was sorry her sisters had to live with what she had left behind, but not sorry enough, she knew. If she were, she would have done something to help them. Lorraine’s anger at herself simmered slowly, barely perceptible. “Right in front of everyone, your Aunt Jean and Uncle Frank, and grandma and grandpa too.” Lorraine’s father flashed before her eyes, his loosened tie dangling like a noose around his neck, his face red, as he bellowed things like a wounded animal, flailing this way and that in his desperation, looking, pleading for help, for approval, a laugh at the things he said, things he would never say when sober. Lorraine had heard all these complaints before. She knew her father—he was never violent, simply absurd when drunk, lost in his efforts at heightened masculinity. Automatically, she responded to her mother in her routine way. “Oh mom, you know he’s done that before. No one ever takes it seriously. You worry too much.” “Yes, but your aunt Anna looked at me with that look in her eyes, you know, the one she always uses when she wants to make me mad—like she pities me or something. I tell you, Lorraine, it gets hard to take, working hard to keep this place together and him embarrassing me all the time. I don’t know why I married him. If it wasn’t for you girls, I could do something about it.” This was gratuitous, something her mother said out of habit, because Lorraine could no longer be considered a burden to either of her parents. It was her ten and fifteen year old sisters who were guilty, if anyone was, of forcing her mother to stay with her father. But she could not stop the sorrow she felt for her mother, sorrow that settled in her like a familiar weight. She knew her mother could not understand what had happened in her life, saw its adverse developments as undeserved, could only react with reproaches toward her husband. Lorraine thought of her sisters. Marilee, the ten-year-old always loved watching Lorraine as she dressed for a “date”. One evening before Lorraine had come away to school, she went to the theatre with a young man from high school. Marilee sat on the bed, her eyes alive with admiration. “What’s that”, she would ask, as Lorraine took out cosmetics, examined trinkets. “Can I smell it?” or “Can I try it?” or “How do you make it look that way?” all followed each other with excitement, admiration. Then, “Oh, that looks nice”, in an incredulous murmur as Lorraine outlined her eyes and accented them with eye shadow , and “You should do that all the time”, when Lorraine, after experiments and tentative decisions, finally settled on the hair arrangement which seemed most flattering. The final touch to her outfit was the jewelry. She tried various pieces, but nothing brought about what she was seeking, had that power of tying in and bringing together all the elements of her look. She pulled her gold bangle bracelets from their box…steady, reliable, old friends that could always be counted on, feeling immediately, as she slipped the bracelets onto her arm, the natural ease with which they lent themselves, brought into existence the self she wanted to be, the self she could almost believe existed. They were the mark of her own good taste, defined what she was. “Oh yes, that’s perfect”, Marilee affirmed, like the lady-in-waiting she was. Lorraine felt good about the way she looked and the way Marilee was a part of it. Nothing would be as happy, the way she looked would not matter as much if her little sister was not here to observe.
Lorraine took a last glance in the mirror. The gold bracelets lay on her arm, an insignia, a stamp of elegance, of grace. Barbara, the fifteen year-old, also looked up to her. She had cried when she learned Lorraine was going away to school. When Lorraine tried to assure her that she also would go away to college, Barbara shook her head sadly. “I’m not you, she said, and it was true she was not as bright as Lorraine. But that did not mean she was not bright enough. Barbara’s eyes that day swam in pools that Lorraine knew could not go away. Rage filled Lorraine then in a strange shape she did not understand. For a brief moment, she considered not going, then brushed that away like the senseless thought it was. But something settled on her like a pall. Something long subdued demanded its time. At night, sleep no longer came, only endless tossing and turning. During the day, she cried a lot, telling herself she was only tired. It was as if Barbara’s desperate pools had now moved into her, had found a new home. Sadness announced its intention of remaining, of becoming her constant companion.
Finally, her mother insisted she see the doctor. It was only their family doctor, and he gave Lorraine some strong pills to take, lovely little pills that forced sleep, so that when her mother looked in on her, Lorraine knew and loved her mother as if she was a child again, the same child she had always been, had never stopped being. “I love you, mama,” came some small and grateful voice from inside as the waves of sleep fell over her, drowning her slowly, continuously, overcoming her as she wanted to be overcome. …it holds me back, but it is not a they, a him, a her…my feet in mud, I fight to move…my feet in clay, I cannot move…the rest of me becoming clay, red, heavy, damp…my tears sharp, frozen, crystals of ice drawing blood, carving furrows as they descend…
The insomnia passed and Lorraine thought no more of it, becoming busy with preparations for leaving, preparations that seemed normal at the same time they seemed strange, like the pained movements of a bird afraid to leave its cage. She knew such feelings were normal, told herself that she would probably be homesick for a while, but these feelings existed along with what she could not admit was relief that she would soon be gone. Her guilt grew as she saw the things her family did for her. Her mother bought her clothes, things she found on sale, that Lorraine knew were not easy for her to eke out of her limited budget. Barbara bought her underwear and a nightshirt she saw in a magazine, the kind that college girls would wear. Even Sarah, the 10-year old, bought her papers and pencils, glue and scotch tape, supplies she thought were necessary for anybody going to school. One evening about a week before the day of departure, Lorraine laid all the things out on her bed to admire. In the midst of all these possessions, their colors and textures new, unused, sat a grayness, a shadow that moved stealthily in and out of the room. Lorraine was vaguely aware of it, like a pebble that sat in the bottom of her shoe, but she walked on it anyway, ignoring the slight pain. She felt someone behind her. It was her father, his eyes bright, misty and faintly red. He also smelled a bit of alcohol, although not as much as usual. Wordlessly, he put his arms around her. Lorraine felt herself slide into them easily, naturally, wanting to hide inside him as she had when she was a little girl. “Daddy”, she heard her voice, feeling herself loving him, abandoning her self momentarily to that love, then stiffening, withdrawing, vaguely becoming conscious of that love’s weight.
Her mother walked into the room and her father left silently. Another weight was added as Lorraine felt accusation seeping from her mother, coalescing into an iron ball. “He has some nerve”, her mother said, assuming Lorraine’s agreement with her sentiment. “Yeah”, Lorraine heard herself answer. So at school, she never heard from her father, only knew what her mother told her. Sometimes she asked Barbara but Barbara talked only shortly, saying he was the same as he had been, or that he was doing the same old things. Their conversations were now the guarded words of prisoners in the same cell, neither wanting to admit the fact of their imprisonment. Marilee was perhaps most unfamiliar with him, since she was the youngest and her mother’s baby, was sheltered from her father as from someone with a dangerous disease. It was Lorraine and Barbara who remembered the times their father had taken them places or bought them toys and Lorraine, of course, who remembered the most. Like the general of an army, it was Lorraine who bore the most responsibility for defeat. Lorraine’s best memory was of a time she knew would never return, a time when her mother and father and Barbara and she had shared each other as naturally as the seasons in their time.
She was in grade school and her father had come home early from work one day, wearing a sense of excitement almost as palpably as one wore a coat. Lorraine thought she could hold that day and its happiness in her hands forever, that nothing else would ever be as real. It was a time when Lorraine’s mother shared her father’s moods. They all gathered around freely beneath the feeling that captured and held him as if he were a boy. “I won some money”, he laughed, waving dollars in the air like flags, “in the office football pool. We can all go out, whatever you want, maybe to the show and for something to eat”. Mock solicitude covered Lorraine’s mother’s face. “But Joe, we could use that money for some bills”. It was half-hearted, though, and she laughed also as Joe swung Barbara in the air like a rag doll, making her giggle uncontrollably. “The hell with the bills. We’ll pay those tomorrow. Today is for us.” And it was for them, especially for Lorraine. She held her father’s hand tightly because she was his girl, his first princess, as he called her. They walked past store windows downtown, looking in all of them, each of the windows a world reaching for them, drawing them in—willing prisoners in a story that would not end at midnight but would continue on, Lorraine thought, as long as they were together. She could not name the feeling that engulfed her. It was a fire that burned steadily like the lights above the store windows, that would return tomorrow as surely as the night returned and the lights turned on again. It was first love. She was in love with her father and her mother and Barbara, with her father’s joy, his confident assumption of strength, with her mother’s shy deference to him, the secret glances the two exchanged, glances that reverberated inside Lorraine like the ripples which endlessly surround a stone thrown into water…with Barbara’s abandon to the pool of happiness that lay before her… There were few more such days to recall, or at least that her memory was able to retrieve. Perhaps some good memories were repressed because of the pain in remembering once-known happiness.
Sometimes before she fell asleep at night, a glimpse of some previous life visited her, sought to leave quickly, like a stealthy lover, but she held fast, forced it to remain, and the feeling it brought became her mainstay, a feeling she could summon, return to whenever things became difficult, stressful at school or more often, at home with her long-distance family. This previous life was more confused then understood by Lorraine. She knew only that she was able to travel to a place of generous peace, a place where she found what she recognized as her own elusive self, a self that spent its time hiding in the everyday world. In this place, Lorraine loosened the chains that kept her from that self, became free, and felt something within her dance…and sing, like a child. Her mother and father were always there, their faces serene. They were also different selves, untrammeled by the weights they had taken on their shoulders, their backs, over the years. Lorraine imagined their faces, their pure, innocent, smiling faces, knew that her own freedom was somehow tied to theirs. But Lorraine well knew that place was imaginary, a meditation she herself evoked. In reality, later memories of her life at home became entangled with something she understood only as her father’s betrayal, the failure of his unspoken promise, and her mother’s increasingly frequent reminders of that, until, like a broken bird, her father attempted no more flying, but settled down, as if waiting for something inevitable. It was this sense of inevitability that filled Lorraines’s days…became the condition which governed all her decisions, all her actions, although she had no real awareness that anything had changed from what it had always been, so gradual and imperceptible was the passage from one state to another. It became her own inevitability, however, was transferred from her father to herself, so that now she felt it was she whose promise would also fail, she who was the betrayer.
But she could no more express these feelings than she could talk about the intimate parts of her body. They were there but she did not know them. Once or twice, the thought occurred to her that she could not do what other young people were free to do, because she was different, because some dark fate awaited her. She kept these thoughts at bay by ignoring them, the only strategy with which she was equipped. Throughout all, a terrible anger flourished, grew stronger each day. It was anger at her self, because in some inexplicable but certain way, she was at fault. At school, she continued to excel, having a genuine love for scholarship and learning. These pursuits, however, also acted as a camouflage, consumed all her time and energy, so that no time remained to think of anything else. It was under the cover of such busyness that she best managed to live. Once, after Bob and she made love, she tried to formulate her misgivings about herself, tried explaining to him what she herself could not fully understand herself, but stopped, because she did not know what she was trying to say, and because she did not trust him enough to understand what was unexplainable and existed only as an ever-present sense of dread. Some inner knowledge told her he would ridicule her, seeing in her only the girl who had the world in her hands.
“Let’s get married”, Bob said one night, as jokingly as he always made that remark, and she barely noticed, because they always did banter together over that, each of them knowing implicitly they would marry eventually, that the present arrangement was only one for the duration of their schooling. “O. K”, she answered, being certain of the joke, “as soon as you provide me with a big diamond ring,” then feeling terror as he reached into his pocket and produced a small package. “Voila, madame”, came his quick reply, as he gleefully tossed the box in the air, almost like a toy. She was caught between her love and a nameless despair she could not recognize. She thought of living without the antics that exploded from him like fireworks, lighting the somber landscape within her, bringing back recollections she had thought long-gone, of her own father as he once had been. She thought of being without his body, a body which made her own a place of constant discovery. Then she thought of other things, the half-formed plans for herself, for graduate school and the possibilities that existed like jewels to be gathered. The ease with which she dismissed these possibilities was not a revelation to her. It was as if she had always known it would be so.
Their plans set off another bout of insomnia for Lorraine. Wearing her diamond ring, she walked the floor at night, dragged herself to classes the next day, only to face the same thing the next night. The pattern continued without an end in sight. Finally, she could do nothing but cry helplessly, ashamed, unable to tell Bob what was wrong when he asked. She did not know. She knew that she loved Bob, that she was marrying into a wealthy family, and that she should feel happy. Yet she existed on the edge of a precipice. Everything within her self waited, smiling in diabolical certitude, anxious for the fall. …a place in which one lives…and called the place of fear…its face is known, familiar like a friend…arriving always, like the night, and never late…a door that never opens, phone that never rings…you always know who waits, who calls…fight to lift yourself above the mark, to reach where it is light again, and warm…but know, before you try, and as you try…that you will fail, because you have no name, and cannot give one to yourself…
Lorraine phoned her mother to tell her the news, that Bob and she would marry at the end of the semester, never expecting that her mother would greet the news with anything but disapproval. She was not prepared for her mother’s news, although in retrospect, it was not surprising, could have been predicted, though Lorraine could not explain why. Barbara was getting married. Her sister and her helpless eyes would become even more filled with helplessness. Barbara had just turned eighteen. The man she was involved with was thirty and they had met in a bar. Lorraine’s anger at him was matched only by her own guilt. In her powerlessness to help Barbara, she had failed again. She knew with certain knowledge, that Barbara would not listen to her or anyone else, that Barbara was as unable to act any differently as she herself was. Lorraine felt as if a gigantic wheel was turning somewhere, that Barbara and she were both caught in its revolutions.
She could not speak her unhappiness. It lay inside her like a meal consumed and turned rancid, poisoning her entire system. She recognized that this poison within her was an anger that fed upon itself, growing stronger each day. The lack of enthusiasm which greeted her news was not surprising, but she knew that it would be no different even if Barbara was not doing what she was. Her mother never had good things to say about marriage.
“I think you should look at me before you get yourself into the same mess,” came the accusing tone, a tone in which her mother tried, Lorraine knew, to hide her pain and her inability to understand what has happened to her life. Lorraine wanted to put her arms around her mother, to hold her like a child, but that surge of love was dispelled in the next moment.
“Well, what could I expect, trying to do it all alone, I was bound to fail.”
Even now…even now…exoneration…condemnation…but her mother was right. Lorraine knew that her father would want no part in any of this, was probably somewhere this very moment, grieving for his daughter, it was true, but grieving with the help of his liquor. Lorraine said a hasty good-bye, wondering how she was going to keep this reality from Bob, because for some reason she only vaguely understood, she was ashamed, not only because of Barbara, but because her family would now do even less for her own wedding. Guilt, then anger again, gnawed at her like twin devils. What right had Barbara to be doing this thing now, to be taking away from her own more legitimate plans? There followed a line of days which began to blur into one another. She kept up her work, but was not present in any of it, although she tried to be, believing that work could save her, could carry her away from what she could not bear. Times with Bob were desperate meetings in which she tried to catch hold of him as if she were drowning. Bob did not understand, she knew, interpreted her mood as one of intensified feeling for himself. Somehow, the took part in the wedding plans his family was making, but saw herself acting from a place high above all the activity. She was able to do all that was necessary, even sound the proper enthusiasm, as long as she kept her self apart, an observer.
But Norma knew something was wrong. She tried to talk to Lorraine. A larger fear kept Lorraine from revealing her fears to her friend. She could not explain what she herself did not understand, the thing that existed inside her as an impending sense of her own destruction. Such feelings were not rational and she also feared appearing irrational. A state of inarticulation took hold, a state in which she was rendered mute, could not speak of this mounting pain to Norma or to anyone else, a state in which life consisted only of the effort to contain the threat that clamored to break free, the threat of her own disintegration. With a resigned and noiseless cry of anguish, Lorraine realized how far apart she and Norma were. It seemed then that they had been friends only on the surface of their existence. Perhaps all friends were that way, only friends until a more basic reality intervened. Only she and Bob were real. Lorraine knew she needed him in order to survive. And there was nothing else.
Ignoring Norma’s pain, knowing she was now controlled by the nameless thing she had always expected would control of her life, Lorraine felt the silent way in which friends move apart. She had no real energy to think of her sister but knew she could not fault her. Barbara was also trying to survive. …it takes no prisoners, murders all…I am being slaughtered, pinioned in the teeth of a giant vulture, chewed alive, swallowed, spat out into the sea…always still alive…the sea is comfort, cool, soothing to my wounds…till I am caught again, swept up…chewed alive, swallowed, spat out into the sea…no one to curse…all those I see, also chewed and swallowed, spat alive into this sea…all watching the sky, for the next fell swoop of blackened wings…no place to hide in these transparent waves…
Alone one night in their apartment, because Norma now avoided her, Lorraine looked at pictures of herself taken before she had left for school. Looking at the past was looking at a different person. It was not physical changes that primarily marked this difference. She knew changes had occurred within her, or perhaps grown larger, she was not sure which, changes which removed her from parts of herself. She also knew there was something in her which always remained the same. This was the self she loved, the self she longed to help, but did not know how. She could not separate that constant self from the physical, could not think of herself as separate from her body. One picture showed her in full height, wearing a sleeveless summer dress. Her arms were worth weeping over, finely contoured, delicate growth, like spring shoots which belied their strength. The face and the eyes were innocent yet knowing, harbingers of that same spring. The pose of the body, its slight awkwardness, its uncertainty, disguised a grace, something hidden, a beauty not evident to the untrained eye, almost the promise of majesty. Looking at the pictures, at the promise of what could not be, was the same as mourning, a sorrow beyond weeping, a pain almost no longer felt, so deeply had it buried itself.
As the day of the wedding drew nearer, Lorraine found herself acting as another person, a stranger going through necessary motions. There were moments when a genuine excitement tried to overtake her, almost succeeded, and she caught glimpses, if only for a moment, of what happiness could be, could believe for one short moment that this happiness was for her. After Bob and she were married, there would be a home, perhaps children, friends. Norma would forgive her and they would visit each other, happy young mothers in the suburbs, women whose lives existed mostly at night, when there was love. Norma and she would get together for social things with their husbands, would play cards together sometimes, make jokes about sex, and laugh in their old way. The entire future course of her life was now built on the assumption that the answer to everything was Bob’s love. At the same time, a veiled knowledge existed within her, a voice which tried to be heard, but could not, a voice which told her that this scenario was built on illusion, that the edifice being constructed was cracked at its foundation, would come crashing down upon her in ruin. And again she felt anger at herself—because she was powerless to stop the inevitable—but mostly because she could not even put any of these things into words, could only feel them, dumbly, her inner voice having no tongue.
About a week before the wedding, Lorraine was at Bob’s house, where she had been staying. Bob’s mother, at first strongly opposed to the marriage, had at last resigned herself to her son’s wishes. Lorraine knew Bob’s mother was mistrustful of her, knew she did not represent the kind of choice his family would have expected him to make. Lorraine had none of the polish, the sophistication that their Boston friends had. She did not fight this fact. It was sufficient that Bob loved her. A kind of desperation existed within her now, one in which she felt that the wedding must take place before she was discovered, although she was not sure what it was that would be discovered. She must not lose him. The rest of Bob’s family had responded with surprise to the sudden plans but rallied in support of him. Bob’s father genuinely seemed to like Lorraine. He not only made efforts to talk to her when his wife remained as silent as a stone, but sought her out, tried to engage her in conversation at times when his wife was not present. Lorraine felt that he was a genuinely kind man. “It will be a pleasure to meet your family,” he remarked jovially one night at dinner, as they talked about their upcoming trip to Lorraine’s home for pre-wedding activities.
Lorraine felt herself sink under the weight of the boulder that settled upon her. She thought of her mother and father, their faces flashing before her eyes. She wanted to hold them close, to tell them how much she had always loved them, even as they had torn her, caused her to bleed like an animal with a mortal wound. In the same instant, she saw, felt their wounds, wanted to tell them she knew how they suffered, how she knew they did not know how to stop the suffering, how to stop the hurt that now held them all.
She wanted to lash out at Bob’s people and tell them to stay where they belonged, to leave her family alone. What did it matter that the lights flashed off their wine goblets like diamonds, that they ate from plates etched in some delicate gold. Once long ago her father had bought Barbara and her a stuffed rocking-horse with gold braid trimming his saddle and his halter. Once long ago her mother and father had held Barbara and her between themselves while they waltzed to music from the radio. They were her mother’s and father’s little girls…she was always their little girl. With another flash the picture was gone. That night before preparing for bed, Lorraine tried and retried several dresses, looked in the mirror, decided which she would wear the next day when Bob and she went to the printers to order wedding invitations. Wanting her outfit to be perfect, wanting to look beautiful for him, she tried accessories, even jewelry, came across then her favorite gold bracelets, bracelets she had bought for herself when she first began to feel like a woman and independent, buying them with money she earned at the store where she worked after school. Even Bob’s mother would approve of these bracelets, she thought with satisfaction, then of herself, that she did have an eye for lovely things.
Again a picture flashed before her, uninvited, surprising, disturbing, of her mother in one of the outfits Lorraine had especially liked and thought she had forgotten, and the thought of how her mother always did look womanly, even when money was tight, so in that moment knowing, rather knowing again, what she had once known and shut away, about the things she valued in herself and how they came from her mother. She slid the bracelets onto her arm. They always made a perfect complement to whatever dress she chose to wear. Tonight, as she held her hands on her hips, positioned her arms so the bracelets showed, they smiled a golden smile, in the reflected light of the bedroom lamp, gleamed against the sheen of her arms. Then a familiar heaviness entered the room, fell upon her, and swallowed the shine and the gold like an insatiable god demanding its sacrifice. Knowing again what she had always always known, that the bracelets were not enough, that she was not enough, she felt the silent tears, dry streams resuming their journey, parched rivulets carving their familiar path, etching their rocky pattern through her insides, moving, pushing their inexorable way down the worn canyons of her face.
September 21st, 2010
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August 13th, 2010
Jonah thought of the end of his journey. The thought made him happy. He was as certain of its ending as he was of the sun which burned his eyes and lined the day’s blue light with gold.
Dragonflies whirred overhead. The quiet flow of the river was broken by intermittent flashes of green and blue which disappeared almost as immediately as they came. The life of the riverbank was a comfort to Jonah. The only creatures who appeared as discomforting strangers were the frogs, giant croaking beings who appeared fearless of his slow movement, stared at him with cold, unblinking eyes. If the frogs had resisted him, had registered concern at his appearance, it would have been something he knew and could understand, might have been a kind of safety. But they were strangers and they did not care.
Jonah felt the security of his paper sack. He tried to ignore the unblinking eyes that disturbed him. There was bread and cheese and fruit in the lunch which Hannah had prepared and he had a bottle of fresh water. The food made him think of Joseph and Hannah and their kindness. They had taken him in a few years ago, had become his family, loved him as one of their own, even though the county paid for his keep, and that was the reason they had taken him.
No one in the town had ever been unkind to Jonah, but except for Joe and Hannah, he could detect the edge of an indifference which spoke of the fact that he did not really belong, that he was a stranger. Life in a small Southern town in the 1930s was mainly a matter of survival for sharecroppers like Joe and Hannah. People’s emotions arose like slabs of concrete, exhausted them, were generally meant to settle issues of importance, like money or sex. Jonah had seen more than one fight over a woman. For ordinary feeling, there was little expression. Even Joe could not say things easily, although that did not matter, because he knew that Joe and Hannah really cared about him. When Jonah had talked about lying about his age and going into the army, Joe only said, “I unrest’ boy”, and put his old but still strong arms around him and held him close, furtively wiping his eyes with his big red handkerchief.
While he lived with Joe and Hannah, Jonah had listened and gathered whatever facts he could from the talk of people in town. It was not that they talked often of him, or that he was a matter of any importance, but through careful listening, he managed to discover the name of the man people believed was his father. He had heard that his father was working now in a logging camp at the mouth of the river, that he had a job cutting down trees and stacking them on the barges which floated downriver to the sawmill. It was an impressive job, one which men would fight to get, so that Jonah felt pride welling inside him, pride for the father he did not even know, that he should have a job other men envied. So Jonah had to make a journey, this journey that would take him to where he belonged, to his place. Hannah had warned him against expecting too much. “You musn’ be so sure he wants to see you, boy”, she warned, the wrinkles at the corners of her cloudy eyes turning downward with concern. But she knew he could not listen. Despite Hannah’s warning, he was certain of all he would find at the end of the river. As he walked along its bank now, a voice inside him began to sing.
He was not tired but the shade of an overhanging tree, like everything else today, beckoned invitingly to him. Its branches were large, the ground beneath it still cool and moist, resilient with morning dew. He reclined beneath it, closing his eyes against the only threat he would not allow to enter—the motionless stare of the unblinking frogs at the water’s edge.
His eyes floated lazily across the clear sky as his mind floated across the days he had lived until now. Here, on this journey, he could afford to think of them, for it was almost as if they had a purpose. His journey, his life that had been, would have an end, one that would be as perfect, as comforting as this summer day.
Memories drifted in hazy succession, like the clouds in the sky, moved into one another, blended, became indistinguishable, only certain bold ones drawing attention, like the silver and rainbow scaled fish that broke the silence of the river and flashed light for a moment before falling back again through the motionless, colorless air.
His earliest recollection was of a home, a place with many children and he was only one. A woman stood out clearly in his mind, a woman who bathed, clothed and fed him. But he could not remember seeing any emotion toward himself on her face. She screamed at the other children, even struck and beat them on occasion, but never him. Not that he had ever deserved to be struck—for he recalled with justice that he was too quiet to be of any trouble to anyone. He learned to understand that he did not belong with them. Once when an overpowering emotion had compelled him to throw his arms around this woman as she prepared him for bed, she thrust him from herself, as if repulsed, then hastily covered him against the night’s cold. He had huddled under the covers obediently and listened to the sound of her voice berating her own children while they secretly laughed. A cold, black stillness crept inside him. The thought of finding his own family, of belonging to someone the way these people belonged to each other was the dream awake which always put him to sleep. There was a clock on the wall with a light that was friendly toward him and he often fell asleep staring at the hands which glowed in the dark, as if speaking to him of permanence, telling him their glow would be there to greet him each night.
Jonah later learned that his mother had died, that his father had left him with this woman who was his father’s sister. He had been very small and he did not stay long with his aunt and his cousins, but even now, Jonah could not recall that his aunt had ever spoken a word to him except the necessary commands and directions for each day.
From that point his memories became clearer. He was sent to a place where there were only boys, boys of all ages. There was a school there and he had learned many things—to read and write and, in a class called geography, some things about the world. Learning to read was a key to himself. Whenever he found time to read, he did, because the world and the things in it fascinated him. Most of what he learned, he learned himself, because the teachers at the school were not interested in any unusual effort, wanted only for their day to end so they could leave.
The most important thing he learned was that he could not be himself. He learned to read in secret and to speak little to the others of his interests. He learned to avoid violence when he could, but when he could not, he learned to be violent.
He met a boy named Todd who became his friend, taught him about the pleasures his own body could give, that it could comfort him, be his friend even when Todd was not there. His hands thrust over the warmth hidden inside his pants, stroking the firmness which was himself dispelled loneliness, assured him that he need never be completely alone. Most of the time, Todd and he were inseparable but the other boys did not tolerate this easily. They were jealous of the tie he and Todd had. Later Todd became very possessive and it was not easy for Jonah to dispel his advances, so he often submitted, not unwillingly, but passively, to ward off unwelcome violence from his friend. Others also sought him, were more threatening, so he learned of the power of other kinds of passion, that it could be harsh, could cause more pain than pleasure, could make it impossible for him to refuse, to be himself. To belong to them meant at least peace and there was always the quiet moment when he could be alone and use the knowledge he had learned of his body in his own way. With coaxing and a quiet rhythm, he could bring his body to its final outburst. He learned every nuance, every movement of himself there was to know, so that even now, under the safety of this giant tree, at least he had himself.
From the boys’ home, he had gone to live with Joe and Hannah. There he met Laura, a girl who also came from the county and who had lived with Joe and Hannah for many years. When the county stopped paying for her, Laura just stayed on, helping Hannah with some of the things she could no longer do. Laura was shy, probably because her face had been left scarred from a childhood bout with some sickness but she was kind and Jonah never thought of her scars when he looked at her. With Joe and Hannah, she was Jonah’s only family, even though Jonah knew it was only a temporary one.
Now Joe and Hannah and Laura were gone. He had left them, had only himself to rely on again. But soon that would be over. The end of the journey would first bring him to his father who would help him, then would lead to other things, things which would show him that everything Laura told him was true. Without words or formal talk, she had taught him that he was inadequate for himself. “It’s not good to be by yourself”, she would say aloud, as much to herself as to him. “Everyone needs someone for lovin’”. He knew she was telling him that his body could sing louder, could vibrate more deeply with someone who loved him, and that he also could give the gift of this pleasure to someone else. He would love someone, sometime, Laura’s unspoken prediction told him. Perhaps he had loved Laura but he knew she would have said he didn’t, that she would have talked to him like a mother, even though only six or seven years—no one was sure—separated them, that she would tell him she was too old and he must discover many more things about himself before he could love that way. He believed Laura, knew that he would discover, would learn.
Because Laura was very smart, was studying to be a schoolteacher. She had given him books to read. Some were poetry books and he even found that he liked best the same ones she liked. They talked for long hours, sometimes of sad and serious things, sometimes of joyful things. Sometimes she was playful, would hit him lightly over the head and he knew there would never be anyone who would be his love in the same way again. Now, embraced and sheltered by the arms of this powerful tree, he thought of a line from something by someone named Edna St. Vincent Millay in one of the poetry books. It reminded him of the things Laura had meant but did not know how to say, that a woman sought “A man’s bared breast to curl inside”—or something like that. That was the way it was meant to be between men and women. A man and a woman.
Before he left, he learned something which did not surprise him. Laura belonged to someone, a man she knew from school and who was certainly much smarter than Jonah was. She became engaged to be married to this man and when Jonah saw them together, he was able to watch them without jealousy, could see everything Laura had talked about. Their love was like another person he could almost see standing beside them, a person alive and real, whom they shared. Each word, each touch, each look, was a message from this powerful person standing there, a message taking form in, settling into, becoming the secret intimacies he was allowed to observe. No, he could never return to Laura, but she had explained to him how unnecessary that was. It did not matter. His father was waiting; they would have a life together that would bring more life, all the other parts of life to Jonah, more happiness to them both.
Jonah began to walk again. The memory of Laura and the peace of nature which surrounded him here continued to assure him. The transparent river, the steady rays of the powerful sun, the birds that halted suddenly in midair before diving into the water like bullets—all would lead him to the end of the journey and the one who would help him, to his own, his father.
Laura had a record player and several records she had received as gifts from her fiancée. Once she played a melody for him which she explained was an aria from an opera by a man named Puccini. Jonah did not understand the language of the words, but the music ran through his mind now, its sorrowful beauty fitting into this perfect day like the last piece of a puzzle. The aria was entitled “O my beloved daddy”. Jonah hummed it to the sounds of the woods, sounds which enclosed him like soft walls. He hummed it as slowly, as deliberately as the green leaves of the trees parted, then re-settled, as he passed them by. “O my beloved daddy”—that was the secret. He must first belong to his own. Then love between himself and another would drift in as naturally as one season followed another. He did not know his father, had never seen him, but it did not matter what he was, what he did. They were flesh of flesh and they belonged together.
He was not very hungry, but he came to a bend in the river, where he found a shelter created by a slight depression in the earth and a canopy of trees. Light filtered through the dense roof of foliage, scattered itself like jagged pieces of glass across the deepening shade. He decided to eat before he continued his journey. It would not be very long now, only several more miles, and he might not find another place of such solitude. He opened his bag and ate slowly as he watched a family of beavers construct their dam from pieces of wood and stone and grass at the water’s edge. They did not seem to mind his presence, as if sensing that he did not mind theirs. But he had never known that frogs could be as huge as these, or that their unblinking eyes could annoy him so. They were colorless creatures unless one peered carefully at them, which he had no desire to do, although he could see one which was almost close enough for him to touch as it flicked its long tongue like a snake into the air at its prey. He picked up a stone and threw it at the ugliness which disturbed, resonated within him like a bad dream he could not forget. The creature fled, but only further away to the safety of another rock from which it sat staring at Jonah—unmoving, ignorant and unafraid. Jonah turned his eyes away and finished his meal. Hannah had even wrapped him some fruit in a paper, so succulent that the paper became wet, his fingers and his mouth streaked with juice. He thought of Laura’s voice and her long fingers, of her face which he thought beautiful without remembering its scars, felt again his lack of rancor at the man who would have her forever.
He packed the remainder of his lunch in the paper sack and left his shelter, continuing his walk along the water’s edge, for the warmth of the day made the wetness feel cool and nourishing. A family of ducks waddled by unhurriedly and he threw scraps of his bread at them. They poked their silken heads lackadaisically at his offerings, as if life were not a frantic effort, but his gift was not rejected. With dignity, they pecked and swallowed, the large brown pools of their eyes bulging enormously, as if speaking gratitude for this unexpected generosity. They devoured each morsel. That pleased him. To give and to receive was to be alive. He also expected and received. The peace and life of the river was his; he was already a recipient. Shortly, he would receive the generosity of this journey’s end.
He found a bittern along the water’s edge that had become entrapped inside a mound of twigs and fallen branches. Its wing was damaged, hung limply at its side like a folded flag. He lifted the bird carefully from its trap and placed it in a nest of moss and mud in the crook of a tree branch, high enough so that it would be safe until it could fly again. He even managed to catch several small fish. The river was cold but clear so that when he plunged his hands in swiftly, quickly, he caught the fish easily. Deftly and assuredly, because it was necessary, he killed the fish with a rock, then placed them close to the bird so that it would not starve. The bird had trembled in his hands when he first lifted it, but now it seemed to relax in the nest, even though it continued to watch Jonah’s movements carefully. When the bird began to eat voraciously, he resumed his journey. He hoped that the bird’s wing would heal, but he did not look back. There was at least another mile to go.
His eyes could already see the bend of the river ahead which meant that the journey would soon be at its end and there would be other people to contend with. He thought of this somewhat sorrowfully, heard a small voice which he would not allow to speak remind him that he could not know, could not be as sure of the journey’s end as he was of the travel, of his life here along the river, this peace with himself. He could only be sure of one thing and that was his father. The loss of this solitude, this aloneness, was a small price to pay for the joy which lay ahead. In the old manner, he almost thrust his hands into the opening of his pants to allay his growing fear but then he remembered Laura and the music and the promise. He would settle for nothing less.
He began to hurry now, anxious to store the memory of the river and its beauty with the rest of his good things. He had a file in his mind for those good things. They were few in number. He could now add the memory of this journey to his memory of Laura and his time with her.
At the bend of the river, the sky still covered the earth with its blue. The trees still rustled their acknowledgement of his presence; the scurry of life around him did not cease, accepted his existence. It would be the same ahead as it was here, and as it had been. Joy overflowed. He was a vessel which could hold no more.
He turned at the river’s winding and stopped abruptly, his thoughts paralyzed with a rush of longing that washed over him like the water of the river now rushing to the source which was also its end. There he saw a group of men working on the logging project. The river had become a giant gluttonous creature, was being fed with sacrificial offerings, with flatboats piled high with wounded black trees. The barges floated down the ravenous water, reached the river’s mouth and the trucks waiting to carry them to a giant building where they would be shaken in gigantic baskets until they became naked. Amidst the endless screech of saws, the round white flesh would be fed into a powerful maw, digested, transformed. The air at the river’s mouth carried the unmistakable odor of newly-felled trees, but the air in the factory held the deeper sweetness of newly-cut planks. Sawdust floated upwards, then settled, incense blown to the sacrifice of the mute forest behind.
Jonah saw a team of seven men wrestling with the huge chainsaws and the giant trees which were their enemy, trees which demanded, because of their presence, to be cut down. The metallic clacking of the saws, the rocking of the trees as they fought to stay alive, then fell with a mighty thud, overcame the former peace of the river and its life.
He had no trouble knowing who his father was. A tall, burly man with not much expression in his face worked fiercely. A certain joy which seemed to preoccupy the others was missing in his face but the joy would be there shortly, Jonah was sure. He stood there for many minutes, observing, knowing he was a speck on the horizon, until the men saw him. The activity ceased, soundlessly, wordlessly. Some premonition of dread had invaded the air.
Jonah did not know how long he stood there, before daring to approach the one he knew was his own. The other men stepped aside as he came, seeming to know toward whom he was headed, then resumed their work, but this time more slowly, laboriously, as if in fear of the nameless omen which now surrounded them all, made them prisoners. No one spoke to Jonah.
He stood before his father. The men continued to work at sawing and felling trees, as if the screaming saws, the shudder of the earth each time a tree fell, would somehow dispel the unwelcome vision before them.
“Father,” he said softly, expectantly, but the saws continued. The man did not look up.
“Father”, he screamed. This time his voice was heard, the screaming of the saw overcome by his own. The man stopped and raised his eyes. Jonah gazed into the eyes searchingly. Something was missing. The eyes did not answer his own.
Finally, the man said, almost fiercely, “Whatcha want with me, boy?” “Father,” was all Jonah could reply. “I am here, to be with you.”
The man stared at him dumbly, as if this were some sort of joke. “Can’t be with me boy. No place for you here.”
“I can work. I can learn.” Jonah began to stammer. “I can do whatever you want and we can be together. I can help.”
“Nope”. The eyes met his again. It was not that his look was cruel, or angry; it was simply that some link which tied one person to another, even in ordinary conversation, was missing in those eyes. They were vacant, empty of concern, could concentrate only on what needed to be done. This interruption which had come upon him was a threat.
“But I am Jonah, your son”, he heard himself pleading.
“Know that. Don’ know why you came here though. I ain’t got nothin’ for you.”
“But we could be together, and I could help you—and you, you could help me.”
His father did not seem to hear. “Wouldn’ even be you, if it wasn’ for that damn woman. Her doin’, not mine.”
Jonah felt his insides begin to quake like the trees. “O my beloved daddy”, ran through his mind, crazily, mocking him as the river had mocked him. The sky seemed to be darkening and the faces of the men took on grotesque features, like ugly animals, black and motionless, chiseled from stone.
“Please”. As this last word broke from him, the man looked up at him again. “Go away, boy, don’ bother me no more, never no more. You ain’t none of mine. Ain’t nothin’ that is mine.” He began to laugh and walked over to a rock from behind which he drew a large brown bottle. He put the bottle to his mouth and began to drink, endlessly it seemed, the strong-smelling brown liquid running in rivulets down his bearded chin. He drank as if his thirst could never be quenched. “Hey guys”, he yelled angrily. “Kid here says he’s mine. Won’ go away.” He threw the bottle to one of the men who began to drink also. The bottle was passed around and they all began to drink. There was no work now, only a circle of men gathering around him, the smell of the whisky on their breath mingling with the wood smell in the air. His head reeled. He became nauseated. Their silent, staring faces became one with the black sky which stood by and witnessed everything, did nothing.
One man grabbed his arm. “Go away, kid, fast. He ain’t right. Ain’t none of them right now”. The men began to laugh. Underneath their wild laughter, Jonah could still hear the intermittent, disinterested croaking of the giant frogs.
His father stared at him again. In that moment, Jonah could see the hatred growing. His father was no longer an uninterested person, but even anger was better than the total non-engagement which had first sat in those eyes. Jonah stood rooted to the ground, as if chained. “Dumb, ain’t you, boy,” his father jeered. “Too dumb to know there ain’t no place for nobody.” He picked up a stone the size of a man’s fist and hurled it at Jonah. The blow struck him on the temple. Jonah could feel the blood trickle in a stream down his face and into his eyes but his feet had no ability to move. He knew some horrible dream had reached its climax, that some truth was working to break its way into his consciousness and he must see it to its end. Scenes of his first home, then the orphanage, then Joe and Hannah and Laura passed before his eyes rapidly, like a movie running at a ridiculous speed. The man picked up another stone. This time it struck Jonah in the shoulder and the pain was sharp, sharp enough to jar him to his senses. He found his ability to run, turned and ran up the course of the river, his head and his should throbbing with the feeling that was beginning to return. He felt two more blows strike his back, thrust his hands to his ears to muffle the sound of the mens’ laughter, ran until he could hear the laughter no longer, then fell exhausted on the black and murky moss at the river’s edge. The water of the river was unfriendly now, slapped against the banks, stared up at him, as if jeering, its surface waves covering the deeper darkness below,
Jonah lay for a long while, his body numb, his mind unable to form thought. Suddenly he became conscious of something staring at him. About a foot away stood the huge frog with its unfeeling eyes. It croaked loudly, stupidly, but did not move. Jonah crawled toward it slowly, deliberately.
Tears broke from his body in a torrent of release. With one thrust of his arm, he grabbed the frog. With one more quick movement, he twisted the creature’s head from its body and let it fall. The brackish brown blood that flowed from its deformed mass mingled with the red blood of Jonah’s own wounds in the darkened water. They moved together to form a stream, as if seeking each other out. The black water of the river carried away their stain–together, inseparable, eternal.
August 5th, 2010
A Polish Christmas Eve
I have always wanted to remember and preserve something of the Polish customs I remember as a child at my grandmother’s house. One year, Sephanie, my daughter-in-law who understood this desire gave me a book entitled History of Poland and Polish Customs and Traditions.
The word vigil refers to the watch on the night before a feast, observed, my dictionary says, “as a day of spiritual preparation”. But I know this. Being raised as a Roman Catholic, I was surrounded by vigils, or maybe it just seems that way because the two most important vigils, Christmas and Easter, loom so large in my memory.
And so I read about the “Wigilia”, or Christmas Eve dinner. I tell my children I want to do the Wigilia and make it perfect and authentic. I read that I must serve many different foods, all of them simple and basic in their ingredients if not in their preparation—- flour, potatoes, mushrooms, fish, the kinds of foods I think must have been staples for peasants. For one night, the night our ancestors considered the holiest of the year, we will become as they were, poor peasants sitting together at the table, in the center of which rests only a small white cloth covered with straw.
It is impossible to prepare this feast alone, but that is not a problem. In my family, we have been eating some of these traditional foods for many years, though not in any formal way. My mother makes the pierogi which she has always made at Christmas and Easter and has mastered so well that it is discouraging for me to even think of trying to make them. But that is not really the truth. It is mostly because of the huge amount of work involved that I shrink from the task, a task that is becoming more difficult for my mother each year. She asks for my sister and I to learn how to make the pierogi so they will not be gone when she is gone, but neither my sister nor I volunteer to learn. Her call goes unheeded, until one day my daughter and my daughter-in-law express their desire to know. I am asked to believe that these young wives who have never ironed a shirt for their husbands are going to keep up this tradition, will devote hours of their time each holiday season to this heavy burden. So they say, and one year they go to help my mother at pierogi time. My daughter’s husband videotapes the entire procedure.
Pierogi can be described only as small pies, the outside of which are made of a white flour and sour-cream dough that must be mixed, then chilled, then rolled out and cut into circles, the dough having become heavy and recalcitrant with the waiting and the chilling. It turns into a powerful mass that will not cooperate but must be subdued by strong arm muscles, a man’s work, really, except that a woman’s infinite patience and attention to detail are required, at least the way my mother does it. The circles of dough are filled with various fillings—cheese or sauerkraut, raisins or potatoes, even apricots or mushrooms, then crimped shut with the fingers and boiled in a huge pot until they rise to the surface like little white boats. Hopefully none will spring leaks at the seams, the mark of one’s skill being how many break or do not break open, lose or do not lose their contents in the boiling. The pierogi are cooled, will be fried later in a small amount of butter until sizzly brown and slightly crisp, then topped with sour cream. If you wish, you can fry and eat them right away, if it does not happen that, as the cook who has been wrestling to bring this creation to life, you have lost all desire to eat them, the reward being the delight you know others will have in the eating.
My mother also makes the kapusta, a sweet-and sour cabbage in which the exact vinegar-sugar flavoring is crucial and the placek, a sweet bread with a crumb topping.
I make the beet dish. And the mushroom soup, which I think is the crowning glory.
No one in my family has ever made the mushroom soup. My mother tells me that she tried once and it failed. Then I know for certain that I must make it. First I think for about a week, planning how I will do it. The cookbook says it is important to have a good stock, and recommends making your own, so of course I must do that. I find it difficult to find soup-bones. I am told by several butchers that, for some economic reason I am not sure I understand, all beef is now shipped boneless
I finally get bones in a supermarket where I place a special order. The beef bones must first be scraped and baked at a very high temperature, until every bit of hidden meat has been purged, fallen off like variously-shaped dried slivers. Then they are placed into a large pot of water. Carrots and onions are chopped and added to the water. Even the crackly skins of the onions, according to the cookbook, need to be used because they add to the brown color. Then everything is boiled for twelve hours.
For me, the boiling becomes the mystical part. I know that what I am doing is being done in the most elemental and thorough way, and that there will never exist a soup such as this, the bones, in giving up every bit of life they contain, becoming something other than what they are. It is a distillation of essences, the essence of life turned into more life, then a giving of that life to those you love. The bones continue to boil, turning the water into broth, with me tending carefully, observing and stirring periodically. The air in the house becomes more pungent with each passing hour, takes on a characteristic fragrance, not delicate or exquisite, but solid, unashamed, the vegetables, like the bones, giving up all their life to become a part of the new thing.
After the boiling is finished, I pour the stock through a cloth so that only the rich amber liquid, an elixir, comes through. The spent vegetables are discarded, their life already captured, their hulls empty. Then come the mushrooms, which I have also hunted to find, special dried European mushrooms that are “reconstituted”, which means they must be soaked in water, until they open into craggy, wrinkled heads. These are not the mushrooms I am used to seeing –small gold buttons—, but dark-brown, rough and strong-tasting umbrellas of flesh, carrying sand and sediment, like the forest. I slice and add them to the stock. I add carrots and potatoes and green beans, also the barley which has been cooked and is waiting, barley that has exploded in its boiling water into a mass of soft beads, beads turned slightly golden by the butter which I slide effortlessly into their steamy warmth.
And so the mushroom-barley soup is my masterpiece.
We have nine different foods. Some say there must be seven, some say nine and some eleven. I compromise. There must be a beet dish I choose a casserole of beets and onions and apples. There must be Christmas cookies, or pierniki, that seem like traditional cut-out cookies with white icing and colored sugars, but are not the same. They are made with honey, begin with a tablespoon of sugar that must first be carmelized by melting and stirring it in a large frying pan until it is brown and bubbly. I lose the first try with the sugar because it begins to fry, turns overly brown and tastes burned, and I know that must be wrong. So I begin again and watch carefully this time, stopping the frying/melting at exactly the right moment when it has not a delicate but a pronounced caramel taste so the tablespoon of sugar will permeate the entire batch.
But the cookie dough is not easy to work with. I chill it overnight, adding more flour until it can be rolled, wondering if I have done something wrong or if Polish peasant women were just better at the skills of baking than I am. I buy the bread from a Polish bakery, never having baked bread in my life and knowing there is not sufficient time now to learn. It is rye bread with caraway seeds, a combination of textures, a firm brown crust and a soft middle.
The fruit dish is to be made from dried fruits, like apricots, raisins or prunes,
all soaked overnight in sugar water and flavored with lemon juice, grated lemon rind and a touch of brandy. My sister takes this job but she cheats, bringing a creation of canned pears in a rum sauce, delectable but not authentic. I tell her that this does not seem like a peasant dish to me. We laugh.
I am confused because the Polish tradition says this is to be a meatless meal. This rule survives from the days when important feast days of the liturgical year, like Christmas Eve, were considered days of abstinence. Yet my friend tells me that salt pork is one of the customary Wigilia foods. Perhaps like all the other customs we think have always existed in the form we know them, this tradition has been tampered with along the way. Whether because of necessity or carelessness, bastardization occurs. So it is that being Polish-American means being “tampered with”, being not quite authentic, like a quick visit to the “old” world before returning to the “new”. Next year I will wrestle with the question of serving the salt pork and the groats.
I buy the fish on the morning of Christmas Eve, so that it will be fresh—.
fleshy pink-and-white catfish filets, to be broiled with butter and lemon just as the meal is beginning.
On Christmas Eve the centerpiece on the table—a white napkin with a sprinkling of straw— represents the manger, soon to be filled with the Christ Child. There is an empty place and an empty chair at the table for any in the family who have died in the past year. The tradition says they will be here in spirit to share the vigil with us.
For me, this night is a night of love. I spread the table with a white cloth, so that we think of the snow and the cold outside the manger. The candles are also white, but I alternate red and green napkins, so that we are reminded of the coming festivities, of life that thrives despite snow and cold, of the nobility of the evergreen and the holly, spreading their branches, offering themselves to the sky, in love, like the Child who comes to offer His love.
The Wigilia is not only food, but like important things human, begins with the sharing of food. The most important part of the tradition, I think, is the breaking of the “oplatek”, or unleavened bread. This breaking begins either with the oldest member of the family or the father of the house. My mother has the honor of beginning. She offers the bread to the next oldest person, my husband, who breaks off three pieces to eat. As she offers the bread, my mother speaks her wishes for health, prosperity and happiness to my husband. My husband then turns to the next person at the table and offers his wishes as they break off three pieces of the flat white wafer. This continues around the table until everyone has been The wishes, or blessings, become very personalized, specific
The important part of the Christmas Vigil is that the family is together and does things to mark the feast. After dinner, I suggest we sing carols. My grown sons protest. They will not sing. I smile inside. I know they think they are too sophisticated for that but some of us go to Midnight Mass together where we certainly do sing, loud and robustly. I think of all my family—my mother, my husband, my children, my small grandchildren.. My heart swells, soars higher than the notes of the music.
I know it will not be possible to keep this tradition for long. My children’s families are expanding. They all live in different cities, some twelve hours away by car. Soon they will need to be home on Christmas morning, with their children waking in their own home, running to their own tree to see what Santa has left. Customs will be further diluted as we are absorbed into the blanket of American culture. I can’t know if anything will be taken from tonight’s experience, if any of it will be remembered by my children. I hope it will.
March 1st, 2010
For the Love of August
by Geraldine Wierzbicki-Roach
I am an animal lover but I had more than the usual feeling for Augie Doggie, my son’s golden Labrador, when we first met and I read the language in his large brown eyes. Subsequent events validated my initial feeling.
When my son and his wife were awaiting the birth of their third baby, they were simultaneously moving to a new home in Baltimore. As it is for most present-day grandmothers, my son and his family live in a city distant from me. I welcomed the chance to spend time with my grandchildren. Sophie and Gerald, who are 3 and 2 years old. I was called into service and was there on the very day the moving vans were unloading.
We know now what we did not know for the first years of Sophie’s life. We can look back and explain behavior that at the time we had no way of understanding. Sophie, my son’s oldest child, is autistic. I don’t think she had been diagnosed at that time and it was difficult to know how to cope with whatever it was we were facing. We are since much more educated. Sophie attends an excellent school system and is progressing very well.
Behind Bob and Stephanie’s (my daughter-in-law) new home was a lovely woods, stands of tall trees penetrated by shafts of sunlight, a floor matted with years of leaves and pine needles and numerous treasures of uprooted trees and large rocks that served well as mountains to be climbed. Our “forest” was contained in a fragile silence broken at intervals by the rustle and scurry of hidden life, the song of birds and the lazy gliding of leaves through the air. Best of all, if you walked to the end of one of its paths, there was a paddock for several horses.
I remember the “busyness” of that first day in the new house. There was so much activity — moving vans in the driveway, furniture being carried through rooms, the constant call of directions—- that the two children, fully armed with carrots for the horses, were happy to go for a walk through the woods with me.
Sophie, Gerald and I embarked on our hike, accompanied, as always, by Augie Doggie. After we had fulfilled our obligation to the horses, even managing to crawl beneath the wire fence to view them up close and touch their soft noses, we resumed our walk. Each of the children became involved in their own discoveries. I fashioned a lovely walking stick from a fallen branch Gerry brought me and, despite the multiple sclerosis that can be a nuisance, was able to keep up very well, needing to rest on a fallen branch or tree trunk only occasionally. The children looked under rocks for anything that looked the least bit spooky, loaded themselves with unusual stones, and called to each other to view their discoveries. Augie Doggie was never far. Although he sometimes ran ahead, he stopped and waited for us when we lagged too far behind. His presence could always be detected by the sound of crunching twigs beneath his feet, or his barking at anything threatening, like the squirrels. They continued to nibble nonchalantly at whatever they held between their paws, as they looked down at him from their safe perches in the high branches, as if to say, “Boy, how dumb can you be”.
Then we happened upon a real find, a small stream of water meandering in zig-zag fashion to an end that was out of sight, whereupon the activity of choice became throwing stones over and into the stream. Augie ran after stones and brought them back, did a great deal of splashing and sniffing and generally became covered with mud.
We stood together at the stream’s edge. Suddenly, Gerald stumbled into the half-inch of barely moving water and his howls, emanating more from indignation than injury, were enough, I am sure, to be heard by any creature who had been unaware of our presence. I was obliged to rescue my fallen comrade and turned my head for a moment to retrieve and comfort him. When I turned around, Sophie and Augie Doggie were gone.
My cries rang through the forest, bounced off the canopy of trees and returned. Dragging Gerald behind me, I hunted frantically along the various paths we had traveled but there was no sign of her anywhere. I had to face the prospect of returning to the house and telling my daughter-in-law that I’d lost her child. She came with me and we further combed the woods together. Until we had to gave up. Stephanie called my son to ask what we should do. I remember distinctly that the first question he asked was whether Augie Doggie was with Sophie. Then he told Stephanie to call the police.
It is characteristic of autism that a child lacks normal fear. I don’t know why Sophie ran away, or what distance she had run, but it was very far, I believe, because I had never seen the border of the woods, nor, for that matter, heard any traffic. She ran clear through the woods until she reached the end and arrived at the highway, where she began walking on the side of the road. Augie Doggie was with her every step of the way. Witnesses said he had been “clipped” in the rear by an auto, or autos, but would not move out of the way of the traffic, would not leave Sophie’s side. When motorists saw a small child and a dog walking in traffic, some tried to help, stopped to ask Sophie her name and where she lived. She wouldn’t respond.
Truth be known, even if Sophie had responded, she didn’t know where she lived
My son and his family were barely settled. Most people in the neighborhood were probably not even aware that a new family had moved in, and if someone was aware, they certainly couldn’t have known the new family’s name. The police “investigation” somehow led to the mailman who knew a new family had moved into the neighborhood because he had seen the moving van, and delivered mail with a new name to the house . He was able to tell the police the address.
Sophie was transported home in the back seat of a police car. Augie, I guess, found his own way home. Sophie’s mother and I— I should really say her mother, because I was trying to fade inconspicuously into the background when Stephanie was receiving her reaming—were given a stern lecture from the officer in charge on the importance of supervising children properly. The neighborhood newspapers received word of the incident and I had the dubious distinction of being a celebrity. There were headlines announcing that “grandmother loses child in woods”. Or some such thing.
I only know that Augie Doggie was in the article also, as the dog who would not leave a small girl he considered his charge despite the danger to himself. Thankfully, his bumps had not injured him. After the incident was over, my son told me how relieved he was when he learned that Augie Doggie was with his daughter.
Sophie was my oldest son’s first child and it was never difficult to see that she and Augie Doggie had a special relationship. They still do. Stephanie tells me that Sophie’s favorite toy is her doctor set and that Augie Doggie is very patient as he has his blood pressure taken repeatedly and his imaginary injuries bandaged.
From what I have seen, Augie Doggie has always been patient but life is more difficult for him now. Although he still chases and fetches the sticks we throw into the water when we are on vacation, managing to triumph over some pretty big ocean waves, he is not the same dog he was when he and I first met. But then, neither am I. He has severe arthritis, has difficulty raising his hindquarters off the floor and moves very slowly. The bittersweet truth of life’s ending must be faced and I know Bob and Stephanie will not allow Augie Doggie to suffer needlessly.
He will not be there when we are on our family vacations. He will not sit beside me at dinnertime and receive my scraps of food, will not run through the woods and splash in the water, will not chase sticks into the ocean as if he were a motorboat, will not warn us about the dangerous squirrels lurking nearby and, the biggest loss of all, will not be there to love the children, especially a little girl who finds something in him, as he does in her, that the less initiated of us do not understand.
I use a prayerbook that contains prayers written by people of many faiths and nationalities. One I love, probably a translation, is entitled “Reunion”, by Francis Jammes, a French poet who lived from 1968 to 1938. It is only four lines:
O God, my Master, should I gain the grace
To see you face to face when life is ended,
Grant that a little dog, who once pretended
That I was God, may see me face to face.
For me, there is one obvious inaccuracy in this poem. Augie Doggie is not a
“little” dog. His body is big. But in no measure is it as big as his heart.
December 23rd, 2009
By Karen Murray (Albany, NY) – See all my reviews
I was carried away instantly by this moving book, from its first tragic pages to the poignant and lovable characters throughout the story. Geraldine Wierzbicki-Roach takes us back to a time and place brought vividly to life by her beautiful, evocative writing and keen knowledge of the Polish immigrant experience. This novel gives insight into characters who live on the fringes and draw their greatest strengths,and suffer their deepest heartaches, from the ties of love and family.
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5.0 out of 5 stars excellent Christmas present, December 11, 2009
By GERALDINEWIERZBICKIROACH “literary” (buffalo ny) – See all my reviews
Thus Bound: The story of Tadziu and Marysza
I believe my book would appeal to mature readers of both sexes. The book begins in the years of the Great Depression and continues to the years of the Vietnam war. Older readers will remember their parents talking about the poverty and hardships of that time. Middle-aged and younger readers will recognize the poverty , joblessness and homelessness that wrack our country today despite officials telling us this is not a depression.
Both sexes could be captured by the book since every plot event is seen through two sets of eyes–those of the male protagonist and those of the female. Things seen become thoughts and thoughts become interpretations, interpretations which the reader can asess as he/she listens to the voices speak in the stream-of-consciousness manner introduced into English novels in this century.
The children on the cover are children of Polish ancestry who meet in grade school and fall in love though they do not understand their feelings yet This early encounter will direct the course of their lives.
Marysza is orphaned in infancy when her father dies and her mother cannot face the physical and emotional poverty of life without her husband. Tadziu, the eldest of five children, is beset by his father's violent temper and his mother's depression and
via Amazon.com: Thus Bound: The story of Tadziu and Marysza (9781598588774): Geraldine Wierzbicki-Roach: Books.
December 9th, 2009
You know, my book would make a perfect Chhristmas present for everyone, for older people who remember the hardships of the Great Depression, and those younger who are suffering through the depression our country is experiencing today The tribulations of poverty and hunger are not as far removed from America as we Americans would ike to believe.
The book would be perfect for anyone of Polish ancestry as well as those who enjoy being immersed in a culture that differs from their own. Yours truly.