21 February 2015
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
18 February 2015
Now, it may have been a cow with horns, despite what I was told as a child, that only bulls have horns, that’s a lie, and really, we should all have more misgivings about what we’re taught in our youth by grown-ups, a lot of it is lies they learned in textbooks too. But I digress. This brush with a death, was in the birth canals that bear you down to the Ganges River. Don’t think of them as streets, they’re no thicker than a hallway in a house, and could about squeeze the air out of you, but I guess that’s what they were: stone paved waterways feeding into the Ganges, where corpses are shouldered down to the burning ghat, swathed in saffron and garlands, and flies halo heaps of rubbish and cow dung; where the sweet tang of mangoes hangs suspended in syrupy heat, and bangles encrusted with small stones, or painted with a careful hand, glint and beckon you to unclasp your coin purse.
I’d been sitting on the bed sheet with a small, impish floral print that was always feverish with sweat—mine—with a growling stomach in a room that grew wild with color, a real zoo of chromatic mishmash, and I say that with affection. I was taller than the door, all gangly legged, and I knew that the zesty colors and even the caged window, were but a magician’s slight of hand to misdirect the eye from that the fact that the window only looked out to the hallway which had no windows either , and that surely you felt stuffed in an oven alive. To breath the air in Varanasi in July, is to breath fire.
So I went downstairs and out into the street that was leaner than the hallway my room looked out on, for some fresh air—fiery-breathed as it always was—and a plate of dinner at the cafe with a promise of a nightly sitar performance on a signboard outside. There were two white bulls or cows, or a cow and a bull—well, I’ve already laid the ground for the pitiful truth that l’m not particularly skilled at assigning gender identifies to livestock—that had set up camp, swatting flies with the whip of their white tails, tufts of fur at each rope-like end, moseying, getting some shut eye, and whatever else they do. They’d let you squelch sandal-footed through some warm cow dung, oblivious to your predicament of needing to be somewhere else, just past their beastly breadth, and this evening was nothing out of the ordinary.
I was just flattening whatever fat clung still to my body, the heat having melted off the rest, to shimmy by this bull-cow (we’ll call it a bull-cow from now on, as I’m still undecided), when in a flash, I found myself pinned like some pathetic specimen, a butterfly or another insect, a beetle perhaps, backbone crushing against dusty stone. The pins, as you’ve guessed, were two ivory horns, and with horror, my eyes trailed the movement of its mammoth head, that seemed to have swelled in size at such close proximity, as it bowed almost meekly and then thrust at me those thorny points, narrowly escaping my thigh.
This is when I realized it could all be over. It wasn’t like when I was a kid and caught off guard by a cavity in the asphalt on my bike, or a branch broke, and gravity lent me just enough time to realize I was going to go home with a bruise or a broken bone to be plastered carefully by a doctor. Actually, I’d spent most of my life thinking I was invincible, as most young people do, and then in that moment, it’d all caught up to me, my mortality and everything I’d ever felt sure of. This was it. I was going to be gored by a bull, a bull-cow. And so it goes.
It bowed its head and aimed again, more skillfully, buffeting my thigh it’d missed a beat before. I howled. I mean, honest to God, I howled. It was the most inhuman sound I’d ever made. You ever end up on the wrong end of a horn? It hurts. A hurt deserving of an original string of profanity, not that I could remember any curse word I’d ever heard if you’d asked me then. And I don’t know, I guess I was scared, my vision fading then so that everything dripped and swirled together like something Van Gogh would have painted.
I could see streaking, brush strokes of beige, I later realized were the uniforms of armed the police that fringed the Golden Temple night and day. They were shouting or maybe I was shouting, and then it was over and I was folded like an accordion, unable to even stand up straight, and suddenly crying. I hadn’t cried so uncontrollably since I was a child, and never have I cried like that again. They weren’t silken tears, slinking quietly, but fattened, blubbering tears, and beneath the four layers of sari silk that bound my legs, blood oozed.
I don’t know which I mourned more, the mushrooming eruption of pain or the loss of the idea that I was invincible.
P.S. I mostly post here these days, but I realized I never really posted many stories from my travels, so here's one...Maybe I'll post some more sometime.
07 April 2014
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.
03 March 2014
I sleep to the lullaby of sirens — hardly the honey-tongued, motherly, sweet melodies sung to us as babes, but more of a mother whose rope has unraveled to a quickly disappearing wisp of patience, pleading on her knees for you to behave — am lulled by the train’s whistle, gently swayed by polluting trucks rumbling past, and am distantly welcomed to the MTA at 1AM, as a bus puffs to curb, for a beat, and that strange pre-recored voice, that is both human and not, wafts up three floors to reach me through sleep-lidded eyes.
My sins are convicted by a voice without a body that booms from some street corner unseen, in an impassioned sermon that impresses most upon me, the innate ability some people possess to shout for thirty minutes straight, barely bringing any breath back into their lungs. The neighbors — and due to my very poor ability to decipher the direction of sounds, I don’t really know which ones — indoctrinate me with a muffled history of 1960s soul music, from 10pm to 3am, a course I did not know I’d signed up for.
Hustlers dot the street corners, as I coast off the interstate and slither three lanes over to wait. There’s the rose-seller, supposedly in a cult, the one with suspicious foil covered tins like little space ships, the one with dreadlocks that stroke the soft bend at the back of the knees, the one with stacks of CDs slipped from hand to hand who moves to fill the frame of my window, and when I nod a “no, thanks” regresses again, jostling the plastic cases with no jacket art. I sit at the light and let myself be hypnotized by the revolving auto shop sign winking every few seconds in the 5 o’clock sun, until the punch of green that breaks the spell, and I’m gliding in an arc through the intersection.
The salt-combed streets disappear beneath my tires, also chalky, and every car in its thick winter coat of filth. Peeling down [omitted] St, I can almost see aristocratic ghosts, with a drink dangling between their fingers, lingering on those wrought iron balconies that masquerade as delicate paper lace. Cut from the cloth of a very eclectic quilt, bohemia is juxtaposed against the ghetto, a strange tango, the two of the them, and prostitutes and starving artists and judges and hustlers and good family men and deadbeat dads and drug addicts and ministers all live within this same strip of Baltimore. That’s its charm, more gambling than a casino, a roll of the dice, and you never know if you’re going to get, a friendly smile or .32 caliber bullet through your brow.
“Hey, lady in black, how you doin’?” a night-blind cat-caller sings, and I say nothing, but sling the bulging bags of groceries over my shoulders and clumsily climb up the three flights, the bags now dangling like ornaments from my elbows. When I go, darkness still clings to the corners like cobwebs, and when I come home, a teardrop of burt sun splits the wall, as I half-shuffle out of my shoes, pushing the heels off with my toes and sliding them into my closet.
The wood beams slope gently from one room into another, creak and moan and bear the scars of a hundred something years, the ceiling bows a little, and the single-pane glass of the windows let the wind in — an unwelcome guest. In the evenings, I sometimes sit in one of the front windows and am lulled by the shifting of the traffic lights, the rhythm of cars coming and going. I can never see faces, from this angle, just hands gripping the wheel, reaching to tune the radio, or curling around a cup of coffee.
I know my neighbor in apt. 4, as Mr. B’s owner, because I’m embarrassingly bad at remembering names, except for those belonging to canines, it would seem. Mr. B., is a pleasantly well-mannered tea cup dog that rarely barks, and his owner, whose cigarette smoke mysteriously drifts into only one of my closets, calls me “baby girl,” or “sister,” depending on the day…
Excerpt from a letter I wrote to my friend Misma Andrews. Photo by Alison Scarpulla.