Cicadas, Dry Grass and Afternoon Sadness

When I was something like eleven years old my parents went out of town and left my sisters and myself with friends of theirs. The friends were an older couple, poetically nondescript in a perfect brown carpet and beige kitchen decor kind of way. Al had some sort of growth that gave him a Rudolph nose, more bulbous and increasingly red each year. He was the kind of guy who made it his schtick, teasing children about what he had done to get this nose, making up wild stories about how it came to be that way, and how we could avoid a similar fate. His wife, Linda, was big on top with stick thin legs and all her clothes were square, including her dresses which featured prehistoric, or perhaps just militant, shoulder pads. As a child, their property and home had the same vibe to me. Even the grass was brown and the most interesting thing around was the orchard, filled with rows of eerily twisted apple trees. There’s a vague memory of Al in a bee keeping suit, and a dark wooden shed where he kept the honeycomb in jars, the only light coming from a crude window screened in chicken wire. Fresh honeycomb had to be the most delightful thing I had ever tasted in my barely a decade of experience.
They were incredibly nice people and even took us on vacation to Branson, spending a day with us on the scorching tar walkways of Silver Dollar City. But, about fifteen years later, what I remember most distinctly is the savory nothingness and the flawless boredom. What I mean by this is hard to put into words. It’s laid out in neatly framed, moving photos in my mind’s eye, in a way that has come to define summer.

I hate Kansas. When we’re on the road and people ask where we’re from I typically say either Kansass or, “I’m not telling,” and I frequently offer the advice that, if you aren’t farming or cooking meth, stay the fuck outta the entire state. But my memories of the couple weeks at Al and Linda’s somewhat resemble a soft spot for the pulp of summer and vast lack of substance. It’s the simplicity, the feeling of almost comfort in the limbo quality of the place. I don’t like to admit it most of the time, but when the air becomes thick enough to drink and pools up on your skin, and cicadas thrum in rhythm with the miserable heat waves, a piece of me feels some connection.

At Al and Linda’s there was a lot of hang time. My sisters, being too poised and mature as new teenagers, mostly stayed in the air conditioned house, curled around books, while I slipped out the sliding glass door to wander the orchard or challenge myself to find something interesting. There was hardly any shade on the property. If you’ve ever met an apple tree you know that’s not really its purpose in life, and if you’ve ever been in the Midwest, you’ll know how useless even real shade can be. I’m always amazed when we go west, how I can be baking in the sun, step under a tree and get too chilly, so that I want to step back into the dry heat. I didn’t even realize until a few years ago that Kansas has a sub tropical climate, having once been beneath the sea. It’s a low spot where all the moisture runs and stews its inhabitants. The grass withers, the trees shudder and sometimes begin changing colors out of either confusion or self defense, and everything seems to pause.
Summer, in Kansas, can be a bit like night, because only those with a specific purpose are still dragging themselves about. Walking outside can be like wandering a vast secret clubhouse, the only other inhabitants in possession of the same closely guarded information as you, so that there’s no need to stop and converse; your shared presence means you both already hold the key.

I remember walking the drainage creeks to see where they led, the chatter of birds and insects a dull waterside roar. Saplings who had the luck of blowing into this unseen territory, rather than the well trimmed properties a few yards up the bank, willing their leaves to wave in a nearly imperceptible breeze. Leeches and frogs alike, lying in wait, hoping not be noticed in the stinking mud. I was always afraid of water snakes. Something about the way they glide so elegantly across the surface of the water coming across as royalty, and a bow, or at the very least a clearing of their path, is warranted. If snakes are the rarely seen kings and queens of this dominion, mosquitoes are the swarming street peasants, guarding over their disgusting broods not out of care and concern, but only to ensure that their vile lineage be carried on. Someone has to help the ticks keep the soulless deer in check.

I braved the muck and critters as though I were discovering parts unknown, willing to bleed and stink a bit in trade for adventure. My imagination never failed me as a kid and these creeks could be anything I wanted them to be. I might be journeying to a mystical temple deep in the jungle, wading the Amazon to test my courage against the legendary anaconda, turning sunfish into piranhas and salamanders into baby crocodiles, or perhaps I was an orphan, turned to theft and survival dependent on crime, the storm drain tunnels my secret refuge. If you never strolled through one of these tunnels as a kid you’ve missed out on a kind of magic. They seem roughly palatial, ten to twenty feet tall with varying amounts of water trickling or pouring over their floors, impenetrably dark at their centers with small passages snaking off into deeper shadows like black holes in the wall. Sometimes animal remains and paintings decorate the hide outs, and my imagination required I suppose the bones were those of a human, sacrificed long ago to some fire in the sky.

And all along, the cicadas, thrumming, voices soaring, their stridulation defining the pace and secrecy of the summer.
At Al and Linda’s there was that incredible stillness; life free of time. I don’t remember waking up there. I don’t remember going to sleep or eating dinner, just one long stretch of afternoon and eternal sunlight. Timelessness. I finally put my finger on it. Summer on a plain of dry, golden grass is like living inside a sensory deprivation tank- you float, you cease to exist in the conventional sense and life takes on the quality of ink on a page, as though you are a static character in the midst of being written, alive and in motion only when a reader lifts your book and allows you to travel as they turn the pages. And the quintessential insect song only adds to the suspended quality of events, droning constantly on, varying only in the number of voices, fading in and out but never completely quieting.

I’ve always preferred ambient light to artificial and enjoy the way it changes throughout the day. I also enjoy the various feelings of places based on the quality and source of their light and the visual flavours experienced as I move from one place to another, traveling through worlds six feet apart but vastly different. I loved to play outside in the summer until I was too hot to stand it, and then retreat inside the cool dark house, walking slowly into the blackness of the hallway, focusing on the light slipping in from the kitchen trying to reach through the shadows of the foul smelling corridor that housed the opening to my father’s lair. It was always either dark or artificially lit in there.
I would take off my shoes, set them neatly in the row along the wall and walk quietly into the blue living room.

It was in this space the “afternoon sadness” was born, the opposite of golden timelessness. I have this distinct yet fragmented memory of sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, uncharacteristically silent, looking out the window at the movement and sunlight beyond the glass. I must have been between the ages of five and seven. The curtains were blue and there was a room sized blue and white braided rug we, for some reason, called “The Family Rug.” There was almost the sense of being inside a fish tank. I watched the neighbor’s small dog running back and forth in the yard, but didn’t hear it bark. I watched their enormous elm tree wave its fingers over their roof as though casting a spell, but I didn’t hear its whisper. I watched the top of the small coniferous shrub right outside bend under the weight of a bird, but as the feathered creature opened its beak and threw its head back, I heard only the stillness of the house. The feeling that the day was winding down disappointed me in a mortal way, as though the sun’s descent through the sky signaled the end of all things. The Lord giveth, they had taught me, and he taketh away. He must be the one, then, flicking the burning ball of light farther from me, farther towards my father’s waking, towards my nightly battle with terror of things I wished would just show their faces already and get the fear over with.

The isolation was nearly tangible, the color of the light and the decor as though I was frozen inside a block of ice. I could feel my father sleeping at the other end of the house. Even with his eyes closed and his breathing slowed, all subjects were at the king’s disposal, servants of the silence of the house, that he might sleep through the day, undisturbed, and work through the night to avoid the life that played out before him against his will. It was as though, as a small child, I could feel the inevitability of time slipping, slipping, slipping, (if I may) and how meaninglessly so.

My mother would come in from her yard work smelling of sweat and her secret cup of diet Coke, forbidden by her husband because fat women shouldn’t drink soda. She would turn on the radio and, as though they knew what I was struggling with, the christian radio station would taunt me with what I still think of as “end of the day” music, and I would stay in my spot until my mother sent me away or asked me to help with something, or my sisters entered the room to mock me with their beautiful singing voices and pointed helpfulness. “Your daydreams are over,” they may as well have whispered. “It’s time to Help. Are you even doing anything?”

The day would wind down soon. It would be harder to see out the window. False, yellow tones would fill the house, and any sound would be as phony as the light, piping from the throats of a flock of sheep in the presence of the wolf, trying to placate him as his yellow eyes flickered across their meat. When allowed their freedom, there was nothing they wanted to do anyway. Our mother would enforce bedtime and I would lie awake in my windowless bedroom, imagining the sun, fresh, as though never seen, lilting over the garden and gracing the strawberries come morning. I would quietly dress, tease the squeaky back door open as quietly as possible, and slip out into the still cool day, convinced I might catch a glimpse of a fairy sprinkling small droplets over the butterfly garden and grape arbor. Our yard would suggest the inhabitants of the small house may have souls, but in the quiet afternoon, in the wind-down of sleepy light, I knew otherwise, even then. I just desperately wished-no, then I still prayed-that it weren’t true.

Daily Dose- Bottle

via Daily Prompt: Bottle

I nearly drown
Way back then,
My head held under the surface
of years
of your inability to cope with your own shadows.
You struck fiercely
Out of fury at your own brokenness.
You inflicted the kind of misery
That made eighteen years seem insurmountable ;
Absolutely not worth pushing through
To see what comes when dawn breaks.
For years afterward I would tell myself
What a childish fallacy
That perspective had been.
Life outside your walls was magnificent,
Smooth sailing freedom.
What I couldn’t know,
Recognized too late,
Was that my demons should have been faced immediately,
Not left in boxes in dusty corners of my mind
To grow
Into beasts that fill all corners,
Gaining strength beyond my own,
waiting, until their victory was guaranteed,
To stage their coup.
What I didn’t realize
Was that my demons would not simply pause,
Tamely allowing their vessel control.
They quietly pulled the strings,
Hiding behind all my seemingly innocent desires and motivations
Until it became impossible to ignore any longer –
The Truth
That my younger self bottled up
And clutched tightly
On nights when the end seemed more promising
Than endurance.
She knew
What I wanted to forget.
She knew
That some stains are set deep
In the fabric,
Some stones
Can’t be chipped out of the foundation
And no matter how wide open
The future seems,
Sparkling before me like a crystalline sea,
You tied a stone around my being
That no matter how fiercely I paddle,
How desperately I try to stay afloat,
My soul will be drawn to the ocean floor
As if by magnetic force.
My younger self knew, too,
That survival was an option,
A definite possibility,
But unlike my featherweight counterparts,
I would require significantly more emotional muscle
To perform the same mundane daily tasks.
“Normal ” for me,
Would be a struggle,
A dogged attempt to keep my head above water
Across a never ending sea,
And to give in to exhaustion
Would be the end
Of all I worked so hard to gain.
You see, my younger self had a tangible enemy-
You stared her down with shifting eyes,
Controlled her every move.
Your opposition was obvious.
But your pitiful girl
Grew into a thing that forgot
To fight.
I find myself wondering, was it worth it, after all?
Can I learn to see the unseen forces
Guiding my actions,
Enough to overturn the mutiny,
Like you never could?
Do I know who I am,
Apart from the demons?
Do you wonder the same,
As you stare at the phone,
Knowing it won’t ring,
On a day your daughters have only escape
To celebrate?

The Inspiration of Seasons

Art offers the promise of entrance into some secret club, where minds are sharper, emotions both more raw and rich, and the word “we” holds a private magic, vague and exclusive. The written word especially, for me, bears profound enchantment, as though each letter was selected with me in mind and I want to tattoo all of them onto my soul.

Perfect poetry has that ethereal quality, each shimmering word carefully selected, like stars plucked from a decadent indigo canvas. I can get stuck in one of two ruts in my own writing, because they’re comfortable to me, but may become monotonous to hypothetical readers.

One is the pleasant dream/afternoon sunlight  motif; a place of golden light and gossamer curtains. Hope and regret. Memory and slightly bored peacefulness. A place where cats sleep on warm wooden floors and flowers bloom in pots on the windowsill. Leaves, in their most majestic attire, flutter through crisp, cloudless skies that are always scented like something familiar, and snow transforms the world into a secret hideout, where only the brave venture.

The other mental room in which I often write is vast and cluttered, like a living trinket box. Floor to ceiling shelves, desktops and chairs are stacked with post cards and tattered envelopes, sparkling rocks, empty pill bottles, bones, half read books, journals with pages torn out, scribbled on and crossed out, burned and thrown to the floor. Photos of terrible memories and mementos of failed friendships hang on the walls and litter the floor. Everything is mania inducing inspiration;  bittersweet, harrowing, unquenchable, eternal- these are the words that live here. This is a room I enter alone and cannot leave until something is exorcised, lest some part of me remain trapped there. I loathe interruptions when I am here, and what comes out of this place is for me and me alone, raw and uncensored because nothing can help me if it isn’t brutally honest. I share only because it may help others, or at the least entertain, and then my plight is less useless. The danger in this writing is recognizing the thin line between purging and wallowing.

Little hurls me headlong into one of these two spaces more than the change of seasons, or happiness; the latter simply because it has always been such a foreign concept to me that it is still nearly always bittersweet. All of this is the thought behind a new category, posts inspired by the change of seasons.

Now, with summer looming like an ominous wave, exciting only to schoolchildren and teachers, and our return to an old haunt (the place of the bus’ marooning), my mind spins through memories of summertime sadness. Thunder storms and the scent of lemons, old days on a dirty lake and my first whirlwind of freedom that nearly ruined me for good. There are older memories, of hedgerows and imaginary games, the “family rug” and treehouses I built for my dolls out of bamboo placemats on the rungs of bar stools (though my parents left out the word “bar.”) These are the most bittersweet memories, because my days of innocence and wonder were spent isolated in a dark and vile place, ruled by fear and contempt.

This summer offers second chances and triumph; malts and the rebirth of the M.U.T.S. bus. I have nothing to lose, and everything to remember.

… Like a motherless child

The only thing worse

than the death of someone you love

is the complete and utter failure of that person

to fulfill their role in your life

while there’s breath in their lungs.

They’re walking about,

talking to others,

sharing glances and smiles with people

who are not you.

My mother won teacher of the year,

I was told,

and I wonder why it is the children of others

she came through for.

I guess it’s easier to speak up on behalf

of children whose demons are not of your making,

and whom you are paid to tolerate.

I wonder if she thought of me at all,

the child who desperately needs someone to talk to

and is left to call an 800 number and say,

through tears,

“This is the kind of day you call your mother, but mine is dead. ”

It’s easier than explaining that she just doen’t care,

the person who was supposed to love me forever,

like me for always,

as long as she’s living…

I guess dead inside counts too.

Daily Dose: Denial

via Daily Prompt: Denial

My husband closes the full screen window,  starts looking for something else to watch.

“I don’t think anything like that ever would have happened,” I say in reflection. “I mean, he was violent sometimes, yeah, but he was more just pathetic .”

My husband laughs  dryly, without humor. “We just watched, what,  four things, about how pathetic men kill their families. I know you don’t want to admit it, and you’ve distanced yourself from it, but you Were just the same as those women.”

The Beauty of a Battlefield

It was sprinkling, not enough to be considered a drizzle but more than a mist. It was quiet and humid in the car. Despite the precipitation we rolled the windows down a bit and breathed the tangible air. My life was absolutely shattered at the moment, I was a husk of a human being and reeling, experiencing at once the sensations of freedom and fear, loss and joy, hope in a hollow heart. It was incredibly hard to be in the moment, and as we drove through the Appalachian Mountains, on towering road bridges like a castle keep over the forests which were just past the stage of looking as though they’d been splattered by a paint brush with warm hues, one place blurred into the next. Tiny mountain towns where we weren’t sure we would find a gas station, restaurants with “Mama” in the name, tourist shops built of logs displaying furs in the windows. I couldn’t tell you if we fought in the cemetery in Ohio or Indiana, or if the town where people only helped us to get us to leave their town was in Pennsylvania or West Virginia.

I was steeped in sadness, and not the kind that had become an almost comforting familiar face throughout my shadowy upbringing. No, this was heavy and sharp and unnatural, like a chunk of asphalt broken off in my chest and all I could do was replay everything I had done to bring this on myself. I was with the man who would become my husband, patient, compassionate, trying to lead me through sun drenched forests, over stretches of highway far from any of the  horrors at my back, but I couldn’t talk to him. I was disgusting. Pathetic. Fragmented. I had nothing good to say.

We went a bit too fast, not stopping as much as we should have and learning that, in the East, “My Cows” is nearly impossible to play, cattle farms as infrequent as they are in the oldest settled part of the nation, but thousands of corpses to lodge in fields that grow only stones and polyester floral arrangements. You would wait an hour, scanning the horizon intently for the chance to shout, “My cows!”, only to lose them as you passed yet another graveyard five minutes later.

Although much of this trip is lodged in my memory as a blur of blacktop and trees, I remember a handful of things distinctly. The covered bridge in Confluence, Pennsylvania was my first experience standing in the middle of a calendar page (outside my time spent in wheat fields in early summer, which are photographed for their pastoral quaintness, appreciated only by people who never leave the city.) The river tumbling over stones, its temperature measurable just to look at it. The red bridge, bright like a barn, but with a more exciting job, doing an eternal plank in honor of the people who lived in the woods on the far side. It may have been that same day, I’m not sure, my future husband warmed slightly by the rare glimpse of a smile on my face at the bridge, wanting to see it again. We stopped somewhere I can’t recall the details of now, it may have been a state park.

It was in Pennsylvania too, a historical site in the woods. The trees were tall and thin, grass carpeting much of the wood, giving it the feeling of a meadow full of trees as opposed to the closed off hide out feeling of the western forests. (Although I hadn’t seen those yet.) This day was grey, my favorite. Somehow bright, sunny days had more of a melancholic effect on me, as though baring the opposite nature of all the experiences and memories that have filled my existence. On cloudy days there’s a sense of excitement, secrecy and the promise of life. I bounded from the car, ready to jump over stumps and brave rain slick, moss covered logs. We read the sign at the trail head. A Civil War battlefield. I remember the log hut in the first clearing, stopping to snap pictures of its roof becoming host to creeping organisms, the small flowers gracing the ground, their leaves edged in my favorite autumn hue- that explosive shade of orangey-pink that glows around the sides of still-green undergrowth. Every inch within my site was teeming with a feeling bordering on mysticism. Every plant; every tree both fallen and alive; every standing crystal droplet, holding onto its individuality before melding with the landscape; they sang of secrets I didn’t think I had it in me to access.

My love and I discovered the mirth of shaking thin trunks so that the rain drops resting far above our heads would come toppling down on our shoulders. I could feel the spirits in the clattering leaves. All the young trees here had fed on the blood of soldiers. The ferns had sprung from soil made of men. Men who believed fiercely in the creed of their homeland, or men who had to take a side to protect all they held dear. I admit, I wasn’t mentally present through most of high school and in middle school I just didn’t give a shit, which results in very spotty historical memory. I don’t know on which platform the men of Pennsylvania largely died. And that day, in my bones, it didn’t matter the most minuscule bit. What did matter was the wisdom their ghosts imparted, the simplest of messages, that I so desperately needed to hear. The message that had spurned my golden hearted love towards the road with me in tow, this time around. He just has this way of pushing me into living the answers I need and discovering them myself, without being told. The fallen soldiers whispered what he wanted me to see- “You are alive,” they intoned. “You are alive, you are alive, you are alive.”

In that moment, racing between the trees, scrambling over disintegrating logs and rocks whose lovelier colors the rain had released, I felt what I had always longed to feel: Endless possibility. I did not explore under my father’s crooked eye. I had no rotting hole to return to when we called it a day. My adventure was not piloted by judgement, control or fear. Anything, from that day on, was achievable. The stench of my past still clung to my clothes and hair, haunted my gaze and stooped my frame, but that was not my final state. This was not the end of me. I did not die defending my freedom. I broke out, of both the shadow I was born into and the darkness I stumbled into afterwards, unable as I was to see in the light when I was released from the cage of my youth. My naivete could have been my ruin but, though I live now with the scars of blind trust and the desire to see good in anything, they did not manage to own me. I did not pen the introduction, only scribbled unsanctioned bits in the backstory when I could rend the writing implements from my captors. I did write the first chapter, poorly at that, and full of unnecessary ills, but here I was, standing firmly in the next installment. I had lived as though it would never come, nearly resigned myself to defeat, but blood coursed still through my veins, not in the roots of trees over a century tall. I belonged, at last, to myself.