Monday, January 25, 2010

heart. beat.

There's a tiny starfish drifting in the water swirling past my feet. I am standing in the front yard of my house in Chuburna, looking at the vast ocean, the unending horizon. The delicious blue sky melts to lilac where it meets the water, and right there where they join is a band of dark blue. How far can that be from my front yard to where the water turns to cobalt? And how can that same water, rushing toward me from the endless horizon, become such a delicious, sunwashed green? Verde is the Spanish word for green, and it sounds just right for this color. Verde. Verdant. Divine.

The starfish has ridden the waves from the deep, its tiny spark of life adrift somewhere in the ether. Next to the starfish, my toes are buried deep in the sand. I stand here in the light surf, feeling the waves washing over my feet. Each incoming shuuuush feels like a breath, and the outgoing waves make a sound like an exhalation. I also breathe in, and exhale, standing here in the middle of my dream, rooted to this spot, my feet fully buried now in the sand. I can't even feel my heart beating. I feel part of these gentle waves, of the sun overhead, of the sand washing around my feet.

I flew into Merida after dark Wednesday. The cabin lights were out and I watched Yucatan appear out of the night sky as we approached land. Twinkling lights strung out along the coast glowed in welcome, and it felt like coming home after a long absence.

I noticed for the first time in weeks that my heart was beating slowly. North of the border, I am plagued with a skipping, racing heart beat, a beat that has been examined and tested and assessed over and over. It is nothing, this skippy beat, nothing but stress and too much coffee. Destress, the doctors say. Avoid caffeine. But my life is nothing but stress. Stress and exhaustion and caffeine to keep going, to push beyond my limits, to endure; thus the beat, as if my heart's trying to escape, to lead the way out.

But here, in this place, on the coast of a country not my own, I feel at peace. I can take a deep breath and feel it all the way into my belly. My heart beats like a metronome, a slow and steady tick tick tick.

Standing in the surf in my front yard, my feet rooted deep in the sand, the waves are rushing around me and the wind picks up. There are electric flashes of white light in the sky and I make out tiny birds rushing in from the north. There are hundreds of birds, white ones, with flecks of black, and they're making little chirring sounds, soaring, swooping, and diving.

Pelicans have come, frigates are soaring overhead, and I am laughing out loud with the joy of it all. This ocean, this beach, the water, the birds, this house, this life, this place I call home. I can't help but laugh while my heart beats with the rhythm of the waves. I can hardly believe it, but this is my life now. I thought I was stuck but somehow, magically, this is my home, will be my permanent home by November. And on this magnificent day, I am here, standing in the waves in the front yard of my house. The tropical sun warms my head, and life feels fine, very, very fine.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

moon over the osage

I'm flying down the highway through the thick of the Osage. A corpulent yellow moon hovers huge on the horizon, bathing this empty landscape in a golden light. Oil wells and Indians, some of the richest in the state, populate this largest county in Oklahoma. My childhood was spent in Kay, but just across the river, across the rickety bridge, lay the endlessly fascinating wilds of Osage County. Osage County ~ the Osage ~ with rough and tumble Pawhuska and the seedy glamorous, redneck dancing danger of Jump's Roller Rink, temporary home to every swinging, twanging western singer from Bob Wills to Hank Williams to Haggard and Jones.

Hank himself is lamenting his lonesomeness on public radio, and I'm wishing I could cry as I'm driving because the world is a lonesome place at times and heartache is the only word to describe this pain in my chest. I've spent the day with my father and it hurts. It hurts that he is there and not there, that we connect and then the connection is lost. It hurts in my heart and it's physical, this ache, a wound that will never heal.

He's endlessly fascinated by my car, laughing as I race the streets of Ark City, of Winfield, downshifting on the curves, letting the muffler pop-pop-pop to make him smile. I remember my first experience with speed as a child. Waking in the front seat of my daddy's sharp finned Ford Fairlane, I watch big eyed as the needle on the speedometer climbs over 100 and my daddy's foot presses harder on the accelerator. My studious, intellectual father is running that V8 Ford hell for leather across the Salt Plains, side by side with his best friend Gene, racing for the joy of it. Speed and freedom transform two brilliant scientists into wild men. I'm enchanted and terrified, experiencing my first ~ nowhere near the last ~ fear-induced adrenaline rush in the company of wild men I love.

My father is a car man, and so the questions about the six speed Mini are endless. Good gas mileage? How fast will it go? How's the gas mileage? Who makes it? What's it called? What kind of mileage are you getting? I answer each question as if it's the first time he's asked, and I remember his joy in driving another tiny car, a big finned Sunbeam Alpine convertible he found in back of a barn in Texas. That car lived in the garage next to a Cadillac Fleetwood and then a Chevy Nova, jacked up in back, and carting a big block 454 engine, eating way too much gas and moving far too fast for the times.

We spend a happy hour discussing cars of the past: the pink Rambler, the host of big-nosed Studebakers and the 1940 Woody station wagon, my favorite of all. We talk about the Salt Plains race and that fast blue car. My mother vanished in the Fairlane Christmas of '69 and I see the perpetual question in his eyes even before he says it: Do you think she's still alive? Audrey? A wound, a heartache, one that never dulls for him. Why doesn't dementia take the agonies of life as thoroughly as it steals the joys?

We sing our way through Winfield where he started college at 18. Tears come to his eyes and he chokes up as we read the words on the monument at his alma mater. At the top of the 77 steps he used to run without a thought, he holds my arm for support and we are bathed in the golden light of the afternoon sun. He is remembering what life was like nearly 70 years ago, when he was 22 and the world was abrim with possibility and promise.

He sat with my mother there ~ right there ~ on the bench commemorating the class of 1898. He proposed to her on Reservoir Hill, the 1930s lover's lane behind the Kansas State Home for the Mentally Disabled. We saw it today, that scalped hill topped with red brick buildings, now turned to use as a prison. Nothing new there. More horror and pain, different inmates.

We stop for ice cream and coffee and by the time we're done, he can't remember that we've been to Southwestern, that we've driven by St. John's and so we do it again. We stop at the boarding house where he lived with seven other young men, and he says "I never thought I would see these things again" and his voice is choked with tears of memory and the lump in my throat is the result of seeing this place for the third time today.

"Did you have fun today?" He asks me that, and my heart wrenches into a knot. I had fun, I did. But I know he's asking for himself: Did I have fun? Did I? For most of my younger years I longed to have my father to myself. I'd rise at dawn on holidays at the cabin just so I could have him to myself for a few minutes. We'd drink coffee on the terrace, watch the sun rise over the lake, and talk about life, his life and mine, about politics, about the world. It was so hard to get him alone in those days. My family centers around him, a benevolent patriarchy of love.

And now I have him to myself as much as I want and I can talk to him endlessly and it's not the same. It's not the same when he doesn't remember. I feel as if I'm fighting against the black emptiness in his brain, the evil nothingness where a frontal lobe used to be standing in the way of my connection to my father. It's a kind of lonesome Hank Williams never sang about, the lonesome of being unknown in this moment to the man I've loved my entire life.

It's intolerable, this feeling. And so I'm driving fast through the Osage and the moon has gone high and cold and the sound of Hank's lament is long gone. The lament in my heart, though, it never ends. I can't drive fast enough to leave it behind. Dementia is a god damned fucking shame and I am on this night, on this empty road in Oklahoma, so lonesome I could cry.

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good girl

It's a hot June day at First Lutheran Elementary. We're making construction paper baskets and filling them with candy. I'm pleating tissue paper between my fingers, sneaking jelly beans when no one's looking. Vacation Bible School would be a trial if not for the crafts and the sugar. Through the jalousie windows, I see Gloria's mom. She's carrying a box and I'm happy because her peanut butter and chocolate cookies are the best.

Our candy baskets are going to the nursing home; we'll take them on Friday, a parade of eight and nine year olds, little Lutherans doing good deeds. I've been doing good deeds since before I started school, urged on by my mother and my personal theme song, as sung by my father: "There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead, when she was good, she was very, very good" and every time he would smile and hug me. I'm 10 before I hear the last line ~ and when she was bad she was horrid ~ and it stops me in my tracks, shocked to hear that a good girl can go bad.

I feel dozey in the Oklahoma heat and I want to get out of here, home, where we'll play baseball all afternoon and run the neighborhood with Danny and Tim and John. It's an idyllic childhood, which I don't actually know until I'm grown up and see how most kids live in the age of electronics. I just know that summer days mean absolute freedom outdoors catching frogs at the pond, playing baseball, swinging statues and red rover, spying on neighbors, staying out til dark uninterrupted but for meals, and it's heaven.

My sister and I are the only ones who have to do Bible school, a fact the neighbor boys point out with some frequency. Danny and Tim and John barely even go to church. I'm envious of their freedom and their families' casual approach to religion. They don't do many good deeds either, those boys. Danny in particular is a rowdy boy my age and he's pretty bad. Rough, a little mean, quick to hit or throw a baseball bat. I know this and I feel a little bit smug. Of all of us kids, I'm the best, the sweetest. I am very, very good.

We're set free at noon and my sister and I walk home. Walking home, from Sunday School, from church, school, it's expected. It's not an ordeal, we don't whine and cry. We cut through yards and wave at neighbors and imagine we're grown up and living on our own. We're absolutely safe in this northern Oklahoma town, and so we are fearless, free to roam and dream and pretend we're all grown up. We imagine our lives 10 years down the road, how we'll go anywhere, live anywhere we want. Good girls grown up, out in the world.

At the corner of brick street Elmwood and Overbrook, we turn right, away from home, so we can buy grape bubble gum at Jack's market. Down the hill and then back up, we pass Mr. Johnson's house both times, but on the return trip, he's outside and we smile and wave because we're friendly girls, Lutherans fresh from Bible school, good girls.

He motions to us to come over, says he's got something he wants us to see and we follow him around to the back of his house. There are no backyard neighbors. Mr. Johnson's house sits on the creek we float after summer rains. There's no one around and no houses nearby in the aptly named Acre Homes, and Mr. Johnson's got something we simply must see, he tells us this as he opens the back door and ushers us inside.

This feels wrong and I'm torn between being a good girl, obeying an adult, and telling a lie about having to go home. His TV is on and he's got a little table set up with brownies and a pitcher of milk. Has he prepared this for us? This is weird. My eight year old brain knows this and in between his shutting the door and our moving to the table, I get a little kick of fear.

But this is Mr. Johnson, our neighbor, a grown up, and he's made brownies for us and so we sit with him and watch TV and eat. When we're done, we thank him and start for the door, and he says he's got something else to show us and tells us to sit back down. He brings out a box full of geodes, cut open, but unpolished and we do find them enchanting, the crusty round stones with the crystal centers.

I'm picking up each rock, testing the weight, looking closely at the crystals when Mr. Johnson moves behind my sister and rubs her shoulders. I catch Margene's eye and she has the frozen look my little Easter rabbit had when Zachariah scared him to death. The cat ran up on the rabbit and never touched him, but the bunny died of fright, eyes staring straight ahead as he shook to death in my hands.

Mr. Johnson is touching my sister and he's scaring her, me too. He's rubbing her nine year old shoulders and I don't know what to do so I drop a rock on the table and he startles, a wash of anger before he smiles again and says it's okay. He lets her go, though, to check the table. There's a tiny dent in the top and he licks his finger, rubbing his spit into the dent making it darker than the rest.

He's focused on the dent, licking his finger again, and we're standing up, saying our thank yous and goodbyes and moving toward the door when he's suddenly in front of us. His fly is open and his back's to the door and he's saying "I'll bet your mother's wondering where you are, do you think she's worried" and other things that scare us near to death and all of a sudden, I know how the bunny felt when Zachariah pounced.

I want out of this house and I want my sister safe too but I'm shaking and scared and I don't know if good girls can die of fright like rabbits, but I feel sure I'm going to. My sister is a zombie, unmoving, and I give her a shove and shout "my mom is waiting for us right now and she'll call the police if we don't come home" and he's out of the way, the door magically open and we're free, running. I look back to see him in the dark of his house and he's not human to me, he's evil, a demon and we've escaped.

Margene and I are running and fragments of the 23rd Psalm loop through my mind. We're crying and breathless and because we're little Lutheran girls, we're not supposed to fear any evil in the valley and the Lord's supposed to be with us, but I'm petrified and we're alone. We're running, running up the hill, all the way to the safety of brick street Elmwood, home and inside.

There's my mother in the kitchen, smiling just like it's any other day, and she hugs us and asks us why we're running, why are you crying and she says "What did Danny do to you?" and sweeps us into her arms, kissing our heads, holding us close. This is safety and it smells like White Shoulders and it feels soft and warm and I think of the demon inside that house and my heart races while my mother holds me tight.

We stay in the rest of the afternoon and my sister and I, we never talk about it, never mention it again. When we walk down Elmwood, though, going to Jack's, to Miller Market, we don't ever walk on Mr. Johnson's side. We look away and hurry past that house, the white house with the blue trim and a demon inside.

I am 14 years old and it's after school. I'm standing on the library lawn where the bad kids go, learning to inhale the Salem in my hand. My friends have mostly mastered this art and I want the bad girl cool that comes from smoking. Danny comes over where I'm standing and says "that pervert died, a fire truck hit him" and I say who? but I know that somehow Danny knows about Mr. Johnson, about the things he likes to show little kids, about his open fly and what he keeps inside. How could that be? I say "Johnson?" and Danny nods and we both smile. The demon is dead and I'm a bad girl now, working on cool. It's okay to be glad.

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