19 September 2015

When drowning, dive deeper

Photo by Lauren Gray

On the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, I learn a simple truth: that plunging nose-pinched, legs silvered as minnows, under a wave as it stretches into yawn, unfurls, foams at the lip, stretches a bit more, and just before it minces you like fish bait, you can slip unnoticed beneath the swell, and let it roll tenderly over your back. I didn’t believe before then, that this was true. My toes, bulb-like and goosefleshed, would root, wriggling into sand, and I’d assume a statuesque pose, stiff, stoic, and afloat. I always thought that most importantly, I should keep my head above water, only to have the wave break an unholy mess over my head, and wash me into shore, a tangle of hair and seaweed, knees rug-burned on the carpets of crushed shells that embank in the shallows, salt water rasping in my lungs.
  Photo by Elijah Majeski

And I thought, diving and darting underneath the breakers that birthday eve, petted by the warm sea, and shoulders pinked with sun, that maybe life is like that. That we stiffen, when we should soften; attempt to be immovable, and imprison ourselves in a state of panic, convinced that if we don’t keep our heads afloat at all times, we’ll drown, we’ll never make it to the surface again. We won’t make the grade, won’t get into a good school, won’t get a job or a promotion or be able to compete with our peers. The dishes teetering on the lip of the sink won’t get washed, the wadded laundry growing out of the wicker hamper, with its octopus limbs of wilted shirt sleeves and lone socks, will leave us naked and humiliated, the refrigerator will be looted by our growling stomaches and suffer a famine, the leaves will be buried by snowfall, or the grass won’t get clipped and the neighbors will complain to some neighborhood association concerned about curb appeal.
  Photo by Nishe

We tread water until our legs seize up and our arms cramp, we think if we can just remain steadfast through the fury of this or that wave, if our mouth still breaks the seal of the surface, still breathes, we can rest. We can sit down and begin that piano composition that always gets put off for the oven timer buzzing, we can go out and for a walk and really see, everyday beauty, a woman wrinkled with stories waiting at a bus stop in a baptism of afternoon light; that a butterfly can survive a hurricane. If we could just catch a lull, we could muster up the guts to buy that train ticket to a new life in a new city, a new state, a new country. We could pen that novel, bird by bird, read that book, let ourselves be swept away by a symphony of euphoric violins; the sweet melodies of a friend under a porch light with a guitar on one knee, a chorus of moth wings, and the hum of cicadas in the cypress trees.
  Photo by Paul Bailey

When you think about all that life could be, does it make your knees soft in haloed awe, does it make your lungs fill with longing, regret, and rejuvenated assurance that there is something more? If it doesn’t, you’re not thinking hard enough. You’re thinking within limits, within boundaries, you’re thinking about that mess left behind on the kitchen table, you’re thinking about that overdue book under your bed, you’re thinking about that parking ticket you got last week, or that cavity. You think you’re drowning, and you don’t have time to think about this stupid question, eyes cobwebbed with blood vessels blinking at one newsfeed or another, hands tweaking your schedule in muscle memory, as inky midnight rubs its palm against the windowpane.
  Photo by Elijah Majeski

If you feel you’re drowning, dive deeper. Whatever you leave behind on the surface can float, it is only skin-deep, not the crux. Dive for the core, the heart. You aren’t drowning because you missed an appointment or ate dinner late or neglected to get your hair cut and take out the trash, you’re drowning because you didn’t. You forgot to laugh, you forgot to read, you forgot to breathe; you let your dreams drift in the tide, out of reach.
  Photo by Sophie Fontaine

Dive deeper. As long as the sun and the moon are hung above the ocean, the waves will keep marching, keep sucker punching, keep their finger poised on the timepiece that lets the years tick away. Dive deeper, and let a well-groomed life fade, for a day, for a week, for a century, for one unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to find beauty in the messes, unafraid to let go. Dive deeper, and let the wave roll tenderly over your back, under, onward, embracing the expanse of life beneath the surface, the unknown.
  Photo by Joe Curtain

What is it, you've been putting off for infinite tomorrows, because today always seems to be too busy, and you're just trying to keep your head afloat? What would you do, if you knew you could not drown?

Photos: (1) Lindsay Gray (2, 5) Elijah Majeski (3) Nishe (4) Paul Bailey (6) Joe Curtain

12 September 2015

An open letter on why I can’t seem to quit this blog

Photo by Sophie Fontaine

As a child, I was told love is this: a roof over my head, a bowl of ice cream if I ate my dinner. It was also, chauffeuring me to dentist’s, so my teeth could be probed and I could “ah” and “um” into the empty spaces around a folded wad of reddening gauze and gloved finger. As a child, I was told that love was a sharpened pencil in the three leaf clover of my thumb and forefingers; a deck of playing cards that can be built a house and collapsed. 

In a dimly lit hall, in the basement of my parent’s house, there is a white sheet of copy paper, imprisoned there for years in the smell of must, and old carpet stains. It is covered with the magic marker drawings of my wobbly five-year-old hand, and the words, “I hope you love me.” I hope. If I incinerated all my adolescent diaries, the smokey, sloping letters between pale blue lines, in the lot where weeds grow from beds of concrete, I could still sum them up in this: I hope you love me. I hope

I remember when my father first called me delusional. My hands were damp from plates scraped and left to slip and knock about like capsized boats in the sink, water frothing with soap and filth. What I had said, what I seemed to have come out of the womb saying was, “You don’t love me.” And I was told love is this: my mother slipping a pair of scissors from their plastic sleeve, and sitting me in the kitchen at night, under the starkness of a single bulb, the cold, eel-like shiver of metal at the nape of my neck, slivers of my dishwater blonde hair landing on dingy linoleum. It was also a sandwich with bologna and cheese, sliced on the diagonal. I wanted to think that this was love too, but I couldn’t puzzle it to fit the emptiness I felt. 

I thought love would be like this: not having to begin the story of something that happened that day, half a dozen times at dinner, before giving in to the din of my brother’s screams that rotated necks and glances as sure as earth’s gravity, and knowing two truths: that what I had to say, was not worth listening to, and that I was getting a door shut in my face and an evening of isolation, if I screamed to be heard too. I thought love would be my mother turning away from the cookstove with a smile that shone out of her eyes and not a trick of the mouth, as I held up for evidence, an aced test, instead of a hollow word thrown away absently over her shoulder. I thought too, that love would mean no longer being made to believe I was a delusional, thankless daughter, for hoping that that someone would understand the pain of feeling unloved, alone, of being invisible. 

My salve was in the plastic-wrappers of borrowed books that crinkled pleasantly beneath my thumb and hammock of fingers. Losing myself in twenty-five cent paperbacks, loping one leg, dappled with bruises, into my bunk or the cleft of a tree, to read. And then I wrote. 

At age eleven, I learned I could wield power with words, that they could be bent, sculpted, butchered, crucified, and resurrected, and to my disbelief, something changed. My English teacher told my parents she thought I had talent, and it earned me hallowed and desperately longed for moments of attention, the feeling that I was going to be somebody, that I was somebody. It bubbled into obsession, lobbying for more minutes on the family computer, and then, on my dad’s battleship gray laptop, old and cumbersome, but loaded with a word program that let me disappear under great-grandmother’s afghans and into worlds I governed with the strokes of my fingers, from waning winter afternoon, into the cold, hard blue of evening. 

I wrote fluidly, at first, seldom editing, exhilarated, goosefleshed, gobsmacked with joy. I still have cardboard boxes wilting at the edges, from the weight of these early manuscripts. I won a national writing contest. It was the only thing I ever did that made either of my parents say, “I’m proud of you,” and those words seemed to stand ten feet tall. Then I blinked. 

The gavel came down, landing the fragility of this newfound bliss, splintering with tense insinuations at dinner, that they, my parents, would take my manuscripts and publish them, against my frantic protests, against my knowing they were still flawed, half-formed, that they didn’t have their wings yet, to leap from their prison on the page. I was told the profits from my words, would be their’s too. My loss, they sneered. 

It was a loaded gun. The thought of it so violating, that I did the only rash thing I knew, to not lose my grip on what ground I had gained, to change the direction of that loaded gun and point it back: I swore I’d never write again. 

And I didn’t. Not for a long time. I straightened the stacks of manuscripts, of short stories, of juvenile poems, notebooks with their feathered edges from torn entires, and put them under my bed. I pretended to be as indifferent to them as the dust that settled there, and five years ran through the sieve. Slow enough to see, too quick to catch. I went to New York, not to study, which is what I told my parents and adults who asked out of nosiness or good-nature, but because nothing tethered me home. I was nobody’s. Nobody. 

I made this blog, and gave it a name like a flash in a pan, like summer that couldn’t grow or be taken with me. I didn’t think I’d need to. I was mining, fumbling around darkly with the tools of language, until I hit gold: photo, words, photo, words, photo words. 

I received fourteen comments. Then fifty, then some two-hundred comments would come in for a post. Strangers became people whose mother died, who were learning to drive, who shaved their lilac hair into a buzz cut. They had dimensions, points that could be mapped like constellations. I came to depend on their familiarity, on their being more than a set of syllables in a screen name, latching onto that sense of belonging. Others were never more than anonymous, but their words still floated me, in secret smiles and disbelief, to a nirvana where what I had to say, was worth listening to, where I was worth being loved. 

You have to know two things: it has a name, emotional neglect. I was fed, and clothed, and a roof hung over my head, but I still cried under the cover of thunder and the dull roar of water plunging itself into a bathtub, because I was made to believe I was delusional, for not being shown affection, for being left alone, left out. The other is: I don’t mean to be this way. I’m half-formed, trying to be whole. I don’t say “I quit” to poke around people’s emotions. Every time I’ve said it, I’ve meant it, it’s just that I’m also indecisive, undecided, inconsistent. 

I purged most my social media, blogs, and almost this, because the pain of being at last loved and then unloved again, of being slowly forgotten, slowly receding, had become almost unbearable. I was, and am, still that wisp of a girl, not yet grown into her legs, saying, “mama, mama, mama, dad, look, watch me,” and not being seen. Who was sat to the side in family photos, my brother swaddled like the Christ child in my mother’s arm, my father embracing my sister’s shoulders, and I, untouched, looking somewhere distant of the lens. Invisible girl. 

I come back, because I want to write. God knows I’ve tried to quit. I stopped believing in myself, as I did when I was twelve years old and thought I could fathom into words the delicate strength of a flower pushing up from snow, the melancholy October rain, wet leaves peeling off windshields, the paradise of dusk into darkness. I come back, because I am learning to believe again. So consider this, this vessel of words, whether public or private, unfinished, indefinite, infinite...

Photo by Sophie Fontaine

21 February 2015

When I think of my childhood.

Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower
Photo by Matt Bower

When I think of my childhood, I have this feeling like I’m running downhill and going so fast that I can’t stop, flat soled sneakers never white more than once, echoing against gravelly pavement, and everything feels thunderous, lungs at last alive, not just idling but humming, inflating, kinetic. It is always summer.

Sometimes I’m at the sea, in these memories, running down to the waves at low tide, that ecstasy impenetrable by any sisterly bickering and ten hours in the backseat. The sea heals all wounds. Sometimes it’s dusk, and full of hotdogs and ketchup stained and barefoot in the backyard, we catch jars of fireflies. There are palm trees, and red plastic baskets of hush puppies, and sand in the bathtub, sunburnt cheeks and freckled noses. The sliding glass doors to the wooden balcony, below which the fish jump like skipping rocks, and salt air is brought in from the dunes in sticky breezes. There’s the sun bleeding a deep orange between the wooden blinds and the bunny ears on the TV, ice cream melting in my hands, and the pendulum of the clock. Then the hiss of the ac box in the patchy backyard, and granddaddy’s squash in the garden, and my legs growing long, cicadas, and the yellow linoleum and the laundry room that smelt of sunshine, always. To this day, I still love the screech and clap of screen porch doors, dusty wood beams under my feet, snapping beans in a bowl on my knees. There’s bloody elbows and being called to dinner by daddy's bobby whistle, and the comforting murmur of grown-ups as the sun sunk pink into twilight, and we swung up to the heavens and down again in, pumping shin bones and knees bruised the color of lemonade, in arcs, up and down and up and down, and letting go.

But if my life were cut down to film of only one second, it’d be of my mother’s embrace, her arms around me, and nothing more.

Photos by Matt Bower

07 April 2014

For book lovers everywhere, but especially for the littlest book lover in my life.

Photo by Katie Eleanor

Dear Margaret,

At 15 months old, nothing makes my heart swell with pride and affection quite like when you bring me books to read, and perch expectantly at my hip, or stretch so that your tousled hair is tucked under my chin, and your toes tickle my knees. I read you even Kerouac through the first summer of your life, and though I may have just sounded like a comforting droning on, as you gazed at your mobile, or drifted into a sticky, sweet sleep, your neck cradled in the crook of my elbow, swaying on the porch swing, cicadas singing, my love of books has rubbed off all over you, just as I had hoped it would. By 9 months old, you’d inquisitively peer for long stretches of time, at a page of puppies or Dr. Seuss’s whimsies, before gently turning to the next, and the way you thumb the pages of my paperbacks, they way you’ve seen me do, makes my heart swim in strokes beneath my rib cage.

This is where it all begins. Before you are the best years of discovering the beauty, the glory, the sucker-punches, the sorrows, the comedy, and the triumphs, all sewn between spines. I hope there will be evenings in which you shovel down forkfuls of dinner so fast that you mother tells you to slow down and your father laments the way the sponge barely touches the dish in your hurried hand, as you take the stairs two at a time, soap suds still snaking from your wrists, and toss yourself, barefooted across your bed to where the book, whose plot arc and characters occupied your thoughts in every moment between, still lies faithfully waiting, open-faced and dog-eared on your pillowcase.

I hope you’ll know to bring at least two tote bags to library, because it will always be a mystery how you can walk in with one book in mind, and walk out with a couple dozen, dangling like jewels from your tender elbows, thumping into your knees, as you adjust the weight of them all several times, and step into the street. They’re not like jewels, they are jewels. Your father will tell you to marry a man who will buy you expensive jewelry, diamonds to grace your neck, that it’s a wise financial investment. Respect your father, but remember a man who buys you books, is the one who invests in your heart and your intellect. If black opals don’t make you swoon like Lord Alfred Tennyson, forget them.

Though the other kids may compare what phones they have, or brag about seeing adult movies, and girls who lean against the sinks in the school bathrooms, painting their lips, gossiping about boys, may roll their eyes at the book under your arm, don’t ever let others snuff out something you love. If you learn anything from me, let it be that. You may feel you’re a million miles away from society sometimes, like a strange anomaly or alien uprooted from its home, and wonder if reading is irrelevant or unpopular — it may very well be the latter — but remember that the written word, that storytelling itself, has survived all the turmoil and triumphs of humanity thus far, and you are its torch. Keep it lit and and it will give you light. Forge into darkness with the knowledge of those who have gone before you, who have felt what you feel, and some who have felt what you’ve never felt, who have experienced things that will crack your mind wide open to new ideas, cultures, and understanding.

Some will say books are magic, and not mean spells and witchcraft. This magic, is that time machines and portals to other worlds have already been invented, they’re not farfetched and futuristic, but something that began with the first wordsmith. One day, you will look up and realize hours have passed unnoticed, that golden afternoon has become the ebony night, all while you had inhabited another soul squeezed out between the pages. In the madcap scramble of our world, this is magic, to unshackle ourself from the constraints of time, the consciousness of our flesh and blood and beating hearts, if only for a few hours.

Don’t ever let anyone fool you into thinking reading isn’t living in the real world. There may be few things more real than what people impart to the page, when they pick up their souls, dust them off, and shake them out into ink and paper. I have traveled thousands of miles, figuratively and literally, because of books. It was a fictional character that gave me the courage to quit a dead-end job and buy a one-way plane ticket and never look back. I’d never have known you, if it wasn’t for that book.

But sometimes reading will be an escape, an emergency exit you take when life becomes overwhelming. When fire chokes the air with smoke of melodrama and indecision and heartbreak, let them be a breath of oxygen. On other days, they’ll be the kindling for your imagination, for your sense of wonder, stoke that fire often, and it will burn passionately. Stash a flashlight under your pillow for when a book won’t let you sleep until you’ve devoured every last page, because there will be books like that.

I hope you have to press your cheek into the carpet as you peer under your bed to find that last library book, because with so many, they’ll have spirits of their own, and spill into every corner of your room, even when you could have sworn that were all neatly stacked just yesterday. I hope you feel the ache of their weight, when your fingers curl at their covers and spines, chin and outstretched arms the parentheses that encompass them. You don’t have to like every book you read, and you won’t, but I hope there’s a few that make you feel something so powerful, that all you can do is place it in your lap and weep.

In a few years, you will begin school, and you and I won’t have our days interwoven together anymore. Yours won’t be the first face I see in the morning, beaming, with brilliant, gummy smile, at the sight of me (or my keys, because I know they’re jingly and delightful, when you’re only 1 year old). One day I’ll be nothing but nostalgic and fleeting memory from your childhood, and that’s okay. People come and go, chapters begin and end, books open and close. Some will break your heart, both between the pages, and to your face, the trick is to learn from each of them, because no matter how good or bad they may seem, books or human beings, all have something to teach you.

You’re my teacher too, and I love you.

Photo by Katie Eleanor, whose otherworldly photos remind me of the feeling of reading, when I was a child, and subsequently inspired me to write this letter to the baby I nanny.