When the Devil was an Angel

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The metal bottle cap with pinched edge flies like an arrow released, making a line drive across the field of a fifth grade classroom.  It misses the heads of students seated in neat rows, but finds a target, the brown-nosey girl in the last row, standing as she reads aloud.

The cap’s velocity is such that when it finds resistance, it digs into flesh, piercing her ear.  The girl yells out her pain, turning her head like a raptor hunting prey.  It becomes obvious that the boy with blue eyes, wide with surprise, his mouth forming a little pink “oh!” is responsible.  Holding the blood-tinged cap in her hand, the girl points in his direction.  He is the shortest student in the entire fifth grade. He compensates by earning the reputation of trouble making clown.  His short legs seem in opposition to his deep, raspy smoker’s voice.  She could have loved him out of pity, for her sense of compassion tended to fall on rejected people, animals, even inanimate objects like the Raggedy Ann doll who was found on the road, run over by some uncaring driver who obviously hated red-heads.

Bart Jackson wasn’t one of those who made her heart soften.  Holding the cap, she felt the heat of embarrassment pulsing in her stung cheeks, as if freshly slapped on both sides.  Shriveled-Up-Apple Head (the name the neighbor boys gave to her beloved Mrs. Stratton), asks the girl what happened.  “Bart Jackson threw a bottle cap at me, and it hit my ear!”

Stratton’s mild response sends anger rising behind the embarrassment.  The girl, now experiencing betrayal from her favorite teacher–wasn’t she supposed to be her friend? Or at least responsible enough to care about the safety of her students?  What if that cap had taken out an eye?— stands, indignant.

The injustice of no consequences for Bart Jackson make the girl feel strangely cemented, like a statue that won’t budge.  Class was not going to return to map reading or vocabulary or whatever unimportant page lay exposed on those 25 textbooks.

“Bart Jackson needs to go to the principal’s office for throwing the bottle cap at me.”

Seeing that Jenny wouldn’t sit down without some kind of action, the teacher motions the boy to go sit in the hall.

Go sit in the hall.  Go sit in the hall? A reward!  A nice little time-out for Bart, minus the coffee and donuts, or in Bart’s case, a smoke.

Jenny sits down, feeling empty handed.  Like she’s lost something important and can’t get it back. A feeling of surprise appears inside this bag of freshly opened emotional garbage. Surprise that executive punishment will not be forthcoming.  Her request, or in this case, demand, denied— by the harshest, most stern disciplinarian in the fifth grade.  Not counting Mr. Jones who throws erasers and Mr. Mallory who probably just looks mean because of his dark eyebrows and black rimmed glasses. Could it be that Mrs. Stratton was not the hard, mean crone that everyone believed her to be?  Did she have a soft spot for misbehaving, struggling boys as well as over-achieving girls? Or was this another case of “boys will be boys?”

Mrs. Stratton’s nickname didn’t just signify “old” but “mean.”  She was known for being intolerant of horseplay, talking out of turn, sassiness or disrespect of any kind.  As fifth grade teachers went, she had a reputation that passed down from generation to generation.  Kids all over town groaned to see her name on the their room assignments at the end of summer.  When Ted Weaver saw Jenny’s fifth grade assignment paper, he suddenly became sympathetic and consoling.  Normally the neighborhood boys, besides her brother’s best friends, were antagonistic toward Jenny. Why? Who can say.  She seemed average enough, but maybe kept her head a bit aloof.  If only they knew that not participating in their kind of fun kept her out of trouble at home, maybe they’d be more understanding. Instead, they saw her as a tattle-tale and a bossy bore. Ted’s sudden kindness had the effect of making her afraid to start school in the fall, an event she normally anticipated like Christmas morning.

After a few days of moping around, Jenny’s dad demanded an explanation.

“I got Shriveled-Up-Apple-Head for a teacher!”

Jenny’s dad, not a lifetime resident of the town and having no knowledge of the reputation of local teachers, was not sympathetic.  In fact, he was pleased to know that someone with a disciplinarian backbone would be a daily presence in his daughter’s life.  But he also said, “Are you going to believe what people say about someone before you even meet them? Find out for yourself if the reputation is based in fact or myth.  And never be so sure that a teacher with strength is automatically a “bad” teacher. You will learn the most from the hard ones, and if you keep your mind open, you may even discover a friend.”

Jenny wanted to believe her dad.  But on the bus that first day of fifth grade, the imagery of a wizened, shrunken head perched on the shoulders of a wool cardigan wearing, ruler-wielding, wide heeled teacher stuck firmly in her mind.  Suggest anything to Jenny, and her imagination fills in the blanks.  She was doomed.

It turned out that Shriveled-Up-Apple-Head didn’t carry a ruler, but possessed a shiny metallic chalk holder that protected her smooth, powder-white sticks from breaking while she ribboned out long reams of perfectly looped cursive on the green board.  Turning to face her students as she waited for hands to raise around the room, in these moments of waiting she had a habit of rolling the tube like a kindergartener rolling a snake of clay, up and down her fingers and palms.  As the chalk holder passed her wedding band, it clicked pleasantly, like the turning of a gear while students contemplated (scrambled for) possible answers.

Her face was old, with plenty of wrinkles behind her cat’s eye frames.  Her hair was obsidian, shiny black and wavy, keeping up with the 1920’s flapper fashion. If she was a flapper at one time, all the party in her must have been long spent and forgotten.  She kept a small brass bell on her desk  to ring when someone whispered or talked out of turn.  She had placed an odd assortment of plastic buckets and bowls around the room to catch the drips from the leaky roof on rainy days.  The sounds in the classroom were a mix of inhales and the frequent exasperated exhales of children at work, set to a backdrop of plip-plopping rain drops, the click-click of the metal chalk holder, and the tinkling of a brass bell. The room smelled like a wet, neglected basement, much like all the other rooms in the trailer that sheltered all of fifth grade.  Jenny’s mom complained that she came home smelling musty.

But on ordinary days, Jenny loved the idea of being separate from the rest of the elementary school.  It was kind of like being “off campus” on her way to bigger adventures in middle school.  The day Bart Jackson threw the bottle-cap, she was inspired to grow up and stand up, the sense of injustice growing like the Grinch’s heart when he realizes that generosity feels wonderful.

But in the place of generosity, her heart grew bolder with resistance, beating harder with an urgent need to have someone, anyone, be on her side.  A witness, maybe? Someone to agree that this was wrong.  At least someone to ask, “are you ok? That looked like it hurt.”  But in this unexpected moment of standing up for herself, Jenny learned that sometimes the ones who stand up for justice are often targeted for takedown.  The reality of  constantly trying to be rewarded for good meant that a persona was created; a perception that Jenny was, in her neighborhood and in the bigger world of school,  a goody-two-shoes, know-it-all-brown-noser.  There is a hollow downside to being a perfectionist in training. The silence of the class and the lack of response from her teacher made Jenny feel like she was making a big deal about nothing, like whining over a hornet sting, or a scraped knee.  Nothing to cry about.  Everyone back to work.

Maybe the problem was in the wording of her objection.  “Bart threw a bottle cap at me and it hit my ear” didn’t accurately describe the way this object shot across the room like a harpoon, turning the sharp-edged metallic disc into flesh piercing shrapnel.  How did he do that? She wondered.  A sling shot?  Years of practice at a target?  Was her yearbook picture pasted to a red bull’s eye in Bart’s back yard?

Jenny did not readily accept his mumbled “sorry.” Too huffed up on righteous fumes, she believed his words were insincere.  She didn’t care that his clothes were rarely washed and his hair, perpetually oily, lay flattened in a straight line across his forehead.  She didn’t see that maybe in her privilege, she deserved to feel a little sting, to be taken down a peg.  Maybe this was social justice after all, the impoverished piercing the righteous, comfy middle, even for a second.  Did she deserve this? Did she feel better than Bart? Morally and socially superior? Academically superior? What if she had sent the bottle cap flying? Would she be sent to the principal’s office?  Once, in kindergarten, she was sent to the office for wearing shorts.  On a hot day.  Maybe this air of superiority that she carried was the only defense against the degrading episodes of being picked on. Was she really just a hurt and angry girl who was repeatedly told that if a boy picks on you, it just means he wants your attention?  That it’s normal and acceptable for boys to play pranks on girls because they like you. This explanation silenced her.  She doesn’t think to pose a counter argument: if this were a case of “boy hits boy with speeding bottle cap” the scenario would likely involve a playground fight, and everyone would accept the outcome.  But now, in this moment, think of the possibilities! A boy likes you!  It made her want to die.

She doesn’t imagine physical violence as a possible solution. Fighting a boy would lead to trouble, and this is what she wanted to avoid at all costs. But accept his mumbled apology? This time,  she refused to fulfill expectations with forgiveness.  She refused to be submissive to make everything seem okay, a habit she would learn how to do later with boys and young men– in order to be acceptable, to win affection, in order to stay married.

Maybe it was a case of classic jealousy that hardened her heart.  Jenny never got away with anything.  Even that time when she accidentally whipped the neighbor boy on the neck with a freshly picked willow switch.  When this neighbor kid told her dad what happened, the same green switch was applied to the bare flesh of her exposed bottom.  And though she should have by now been accustomed to the sting, like that whizzing bottle-cap to the ear, shame and anger stacked up in piles like a thunderhead on a humid summer day.

The whipped neck incident was an accident.  Jenny had been enjoying the sound of the wind resistance that it made while she handled the weapon, flicking it up and down with her quick wrist. She had been following the boys at a distance, but suddenly they stopped, and the whip found a mark. A very red mark on the back of a tender neck.  Was Jenny subconsciously acting out some dark desire to control? Freud would say something along those lines. Was she a first-born wanting to be the boss? A sinister dominatrix in the making?  Or was she a kid just enjoying the pleasing sound of a cracking whip?   She loved things with texture: sounds, sights, foods.  The clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestone, the snap of the leather as the driver prods the horse. The crunch of acorns underfoot in the fall, the way shrimp seemed to burst on her teeth.

If you believe the latter, then maybe the bottle cap incident was an unintended miracle, a once in a lifetime event, like a buzzer beater shot from half-court to win the game.  Was the assailant simply enjoying the practice of his new skill as a bottle cap skeet shooter?  Maybe Jenny stood up a fraction of a second after the release, and it was just her misfortune to be in the wrong place at the right time, but also her good fortune not to have taken it in the eye.

Maybe it was because she had a history of being harshly reprimanded for small innocent mistakes and little lies told in order to remain in the good graces of authority.  Maybe this explained why she felt bold enough to demand a harsher consequence for Bart.  And who knows, maybe he did get some when he got home.  Maybe a beautifully handwritten, instructional note was sent home to his mother.  Maybe he took a harsher beating that involved some hard object.  Maybe he had to give up his collection of bottle caps, the only “toys” he possessed.

And now, this girl, all grown up, thinks this would be a shame.  Because in this world today, there are so many worse things happening to girls than ear piercings via sailing bottle caps.  And Bart’s childhood was obviously not filled with good things. But there’s a funny thing about physical pain when it’s inflicted by someone else.  The kind of pain that happens when a dog attacks or when you are punched in the face, having your glasses broken and your nose bloodied.  Instead of laughing like a hyena as in the case of clumsy accidents, you rage like a lion.

At least, you do inside.

But here’s a curious thought:  when an emotional stabbing takes place, we sometimes take those into our hearts, inviting them inside, making space for them to grow and sprout dark thoughts.

One day, while Jenny rode her blue bike with the white banana seat, a boy from another neighborhood rode past and said “you’re ugly!”  And Jenny replied, “I know!” For a long, long time, she believed it.

This was the same boy who slobbered on a cherry flavored cough drop and threw it at the back of her head while riding the bus home.  The red sticky gob stuck in her now curly brown hair (thanks, puberty!) so that she had to walk past all the kids on the bus with it dangling like an ornament on a sad Christmas tree, the syrupy gunk like a strange, bleeding jewel.

But then, soon after, by the grace of some benevolent spirit judge, Jenny received justice from the cough drop incident.

As an unfailing tradition, Jenny’s Dad dressed up like the devil every Halloween.  He had a rubber mask that accentuated the whites of his big brown eyes, and a pair of horrid gloves with a bloody gash and long fingernails.  He carried a pipe in his teeth with the face of the devil carved into the wood.  He wore a flashy, red satin cape that whipped like a flame on a dark night.  He wore red tights and a satin tail that he animated with a hidden wire.

When trick or treaters arrived, Dad the Devil played creepy sounds on Mom’s old organ, and slowly turned his head, eyes wide, toward the children.  By today’s standards, this would be mild, but in the late seventies before pyrotechnics and digital recording, some kids got really freaked-out.

And late one Halloween night, the cough drop boy appeared at the door with his best friend.  Dad did his scary best, including deep intimidating  questions about what they were doing out so late.

Both boys, by now old enough to have outgrown costume traditions for the sake of seeming “cool” ran away, backwards and tripping, out into the darkness without their treats.

Dad had no idea what this meant to his daughter.  To see cough drop boy afraid and scrambling. Not afraid because he was being bullied, but spooked by the drama of Halloween. Dad didn’t know how this event healed the buried, sheltered pain of body piercings by bottle caps, the sting and shame of misguided willow switches, the embarrassment of cough drop hair ornaments.  The need for justice, from all these things, melted away.  He doesn’t know, will never know, how his little bit of darkness, his pretending to be the Devil, gave me so much light.

 

 

 

 

 

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This is The Story of You Book Review

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Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude.  The best stories do this.  They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller.  Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.

The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy.  Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters.  That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.

Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media.  Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems.  Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.

This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic.  There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family.  I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease.  Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely.  Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often.  The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry.  Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict.  But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.

If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft.  My favorite line of the book:

 

“We die backward.”

 

In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death.  In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing.  The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves.  People died when Sandy hit.  Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news.  Maybe only if we knew them personally.  But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.

As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life.  None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us.  Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.

My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep.  Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn.  In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing.  I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers.  The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins.  The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss.  Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.

 

“We die backward.”  Indeed.

 

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you?  Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres.  Is it poetry?  Is it fiction?  Is it memoir?  Is it mystery?  While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all.  Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact.  Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another.  This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.

There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.

Here’s one of those treasures:

 

“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys.  I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark.  I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano.  I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves.  The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016.  Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)

 http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/p/this-is-story-of-you.html

BethKephart

Put the Inner Critic Out

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Here’s a fun little experiment for those who struggle with the inner critic.  Try kicking her out and letting her sit on your desk.  Then you can talk back to her when the writing is happening.

My little hag is named Finnola, inspired by a character in Catherine Cooper’s The Golden Acorn.  I made her for a children’s book club gathering in the woods.  Once all the children found her hiding place, I took her home.  In between moon time, where she might sit on my nightstand…she works in my writing space.  I wonder how chatty she will be when I sit back down to work?

I Run to Trosper Pond

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I Run to Trosper Pond

Fallen yellow leaves damp and fragrant

make their way by scented droplets

to my inhale.

Down, down, then up the hill on Oak Tree road,

where patches of woods hold space

for squirrels and a canopy

for warblers, hawks and owls.

A blue ream of after the rain sky opens

as I turn the corner,

cumulus and stratus stretch out

in a diagonal, north and

south.

I run to Trosper Pond and there is

country.

Grass tall around a painted mailbox

with a black and white hunting hound,

suspended, mid-leap,

bounding for the pheasant.

I stretch my stride and seek the grass

as a silver compact car

accelerates without concern

that I’m inches from his door.

But why be angry; there is joy

in the near miss…

I live and run on to Trosper Pond,

where a gaggle of new white geese are raising a ruckus

on the gravel path

that leads to the weeping willow

and the rippling surface of the water

so gentle it will embrace the cloud

that has somehow found a way to float there

while also hanging in the sky.

A little A-frame boathouse sits by the empty dock,

inviting me back to those years I wore two braids, and

dad called me injun.

He a descendant of the Cree Nation, a fact hidden

from school and workplace,

passing for white because being a native

in the time of his parent’s short life

was as degrading as being black or worse,

you were dirt–

a drunken vulgar savage

with no rights to live free,

being so poor his mother hid her children

in pickle barrels

from social service tyrants,

who believed poverty was a reason to separate

a family.

I run to Trosper Pond

700 miles and six years after his death

to find him here enjoying this late afternoon light

and these obnoxious geese,

and the dogs who bark at us

all the way home.

Casting Leaves Forth Upon the Wind

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It’s been a couple of decades since I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  With so many newer, more modern and post-modern works to choose from (much less the loads of nonfiction writing on the internet) it’s not often that I go farther back in time in search of stories.  It just seems too cumbersome to plod through the complexity and the confusion created by words and phrases we no longer use or hear spoken.

But there’s a very good reason to keep going back to the old stories. There are truths that still remain, and discovery to encounter that feels fresh and new.  Although we are travelling around an orbit in our civilization building, rising and falling as a people, living out life cycles and birthing new generations who always think they are the most advanced, returning to something left behind feels like a renewal, the way spring feels new each time we pass that mark around the sun.

If for no other reason, pick up an old story to discover the closeness of our humanity through time and space.

Nathaniel Hawthorne gets me.   And I get him.

Opening the first pages of The Scarlet Letter, I am surprised by an introduction that follows his “apologia” for not changing a single word in the second printing.  In this introduction, Hawthorne attends to the problem I have in deciding to attempt the writing of memoir.  He shines a light on why writers like me are sometimes compelled to share personal stories and to ask questions or seek possibilities in the process of deep introspection.  He asserts that the need to write autobiographically is something that “possesses” him.  And he knows it’s not very polite or proper to be so indulgent.

And that is what I’m doing by writing my memoir story.  On reading my handwritten notebook pages, I realize I’ve become very self indulgent..  As if I’m eating up all the junk food in the cabinet I’ve stored in the back, hidden behind the healthier choices of vegetables and broth and rice.  Why am I so greedy in my telling of things that should probably stay hidden?  It’s just not right to be so bold.

I was comforted to read this line on the plastic covered flap of my library copy: “Hawthorne was plagued with self-doubt as he struggled to master his chosen craft.”

In The Custom House, (an introductory passage to the novel), he writes:

“The truth seems to be however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside this volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.  Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind, of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his circle of existence, by bringing him into communion with it.  It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally…”

And as I read his words, I feel as if I may be the “one heart and mind of perfect sympathy,” which makes me feel special and intimate and chosen.  This is another magical aspect of reading wonderful stories.  Someone has decided to share something with me, and with all of us.  Something deep and beautiful and sacred, or painful and ultimately empowering.  A writer gives.  A reader receives the blessing of that giving.

And so I write on, in the hopes that the “leaves cast upon the wind” will land in “the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy.” And I will take Hawthorne’s admonishment.  There will be an editing process out of respect as I remember Hawthorne’s warning about decorum.  I understand that “speaking all”  leaves nothing to imply in the reader’s mind, leaves nothing of mystery, leaves not a fertile ground for seeds of curiosity, or growing questions for the reader to ponder, which for me is part of the enjoyment of diving into a great story.  I want to be left not knowing it all.  And now, on to Hester Prynne.

A Person is Not a Country

100_2062The following poem will appear in my memoir, Riding Shotgun, a work in progress that gets a small but steady amount of attention every week.  If one uses the “birthing” metaphor for book writing, then I’d say that the rough draft is entering it’s third trimester.  I’m hoping to tie up all the loose ends and create a moving finish by December.  In case you are wondering, “it’s a girl!”

A Person is Not a Country

A person is not a country

not a food like tacos

Not a pigment like black or white

or brown yellow red

or blended shade that forms in the development of

skin organ inside the womb.

A person is a person and not a piece of cloth

draped over brow and face,

I always wonder how those stay in place.

A person is a person and not the region of their origin,

the place where runaway slaves found freedom,

the place where snow falls on a child’s dark eyelashes,

lace against delicate petals.

The place were breath is visible, where cocoa steams

from styrofoam cups on the sidelines of the high school football game.

Where you speak the way it sounds funny and strange in the south.

A person is a person and not the weapon they carry,

hidden, disguised, or blatantly worn in the open,

that sign of fear.

A person is a person and not the poverty they are running from,

like you did, Dad,

when you kept on going to school even though your mother

tragically died,

those horrid, open wounds,

the eating away of her flesh when the cancer crept out to the surface,

and you were there carrying her to the outhouse

and she cried of embarrassment

because you were her boy,

and fourteen.

A person is a person and not the car they are driving

while you sit shotgun dreaming of another kind of life to be living

away from all the things you think you need to be or say or do

to win approval and security and pride and acceptance, and literally,

food.

Be shameless in your skin

and leap from atop the racing stagecoach

when you find that you’re passing a lovely garden

reminiscent of Eden.

Let the shotgun fall where it may.

A person is a person and not the lies they tell

nor the penance they long to be released from.

 A person is not their sadness

nor longing nor disappointments, nor even their passing joy.

And a person is worth the same worth as the next,

born today, born yesterday, born in the future,

struggling to survive.

A person is a person and will change at a rate

faster than a country organizing revolution

or deciding to save what’s left of nature,

the life sustaining provider

they assume will recover and be generous to us

after the slaughter and poison and progress.

A person is a person and not a country,

a visitor,

for a moment

then gone,

even after all that work,

or because of it.