Animate Object

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I need a new metaphor for strength. Since my late teen years, thanks to powerful role models and fantastic friends, I have seen myself as a strong woman. It helped to come of age protesting the first Gulf War. I can still remember Vietnam era activists visiting my high school to provide training on sit-ins and passive resistance. They were eager to share their wisdom with a new generation of outraged citizens. I was hungry for it. By the time I was nineteen, I was standing in the town square, raising my own fist and quoting Oscar Romero and Audre Lorde in a tireless call to rally the masses (however trifling they may have been) to right the latest wrong.
I was strong. Everyone told me so, but I did not need to hear it from them. I knew it inside. I knew that when I walked, I embodied the determination of a warrior. I painted the image with my fingers onto the walls of my mind, urging it to life:
A revolutionary leads the call-and-response of the swelling army. Eyes blazing, posture unshakable, voice speaking truth to power in rhythm with a thousand comrades.
Never mind that at night, fear and uncertainty would grip my heart and squeeze out the tears. Never mind my confusion pounding itself into the pages of my journal or into the recoiling chest of some lover. Come morning, I was strong. Raise the flag, compañeros! March into battle.
Nineteen also welcomed the genesis of my running life, and my body grew lithe and powerful alongside the public persona. I began to dance soon after. In the studio, I tapped into a creative capacity I had never known existed down there under the surface of things. Being able to speak for a more expansive way of being through movement only increased my vocabulary and enhanced my sense of potency. The form of dance I first explored – contact improvisation – allows dancers to move together around points of contact, using weight and gravity to form beautiful, fleeting pieces. Pure expression. Such power lives inside the ability both to lift and be lifted by muscle, bone, and intention. Sweat poured. Legs hardened. I felt lengthened and electrified by movement. In long strokes, another symbol:
A whitetail deer bounds up and over the hillside, never caught by bramble or tar pit. Reaching. Free.
Simultaneously, the mind demanded its perpetual improvement. College gave way to facilitation and teaching. Writing became central. Graduate school was next, followed by more teaching. Along with the decision to develop expertise in an area (any area!) came the simultaneous commitment to eschew short-lived comforts in the interest of the long-term investment. As both student and teacher, I would sleep while others socialized, wake up at dawn, study for hours while my peers slumbered, and plunge all my attention into the heart of the question at hand. In the interest of inquiry and craft, I maintained the ascetic self-image.  I did not drink or watch television, I did not bother with fashion concerns beyond basic grooming. In this fastidious attention to my work, I felt invincible. I painted the life into it:
Leonardo da Vinci, hands grasping a brush, a bone, a chart. Heaps of books litter the space. Sketches and diagrams and spilled ink on pages of formulas. Behind his stillness, his eyes are a frenzy of motion.
Then, years turned into a decade or more, and I acquired a marriage and a child.
Whatever I believed to be true about myself not only thinned under the relentless rub of these primal and primary relationships, it bled. Bug’s intensity from the moment of his arrival until today, 5 ½ years later, has demanded a kind of responsiveness from me that is not my natural strength. Patient attention to another human being for days, weeks, years? Staying steady in the face of flash and fury? Living with constant yet unpredictable interruption and need? So much for da Vinci and Archbishop Romero. Neither of them had kids. Family and its strange, claustrophobic isolation sapped my strength and rendered my metaphors impotent.

My fingers drip with paint but the wall flexes its blank expanse. How quaint those old symbols seem now that they are emptied of their magic! In the absence of a functional concept of power, I find myself regressing to the ways of my elders. The patterns raked into this soil early in my life, far before I chose my own way, become the trenches that both trip me and trap me. I do what comes unconsciously when faced with these new, completely unexpected challenges.
Bug is aggressive and erratic, and I find myself tensing into a tight ball and barreling down on him like a bull in the ring. Is this strength? It feels strong, but the fit is wrong, and the chilling fallout indicates this approach weakens us both.
When I have to get through a hectic morning, I power up like a pneumatic drill. Snapping back help and narrowing my gaze, I grind with gritted teeth through each task. Constriction. Tension. Stress. Is this strength? It feels strong as well, but the power is deafening. Stiffening. A good way to snap.
My work situation is still less than adequate to support us financially, and I am Atlas, taking on everything and then some. I bear it all and look for other opportunities, and seek seek seek a way up and out. Is this strength? It, too, feels strong, but it leaves me sapped and hopeless. An absence of faith is the opposite of strength. It is defeat.
All the oldest ways of being strong – not ways I have chosen, but ways I have learned regardless – are the ones I am relying on now. Guard and push and limit and clutch.  Come up with plans of action based on the idea that something is lacking and must be added, improved, removed, or fixed.
My notions of power are in need of renovation.  As a working single parent struggling to make ends meet, living with her parents, and trying to learn from the failure of a marriage while dating and co-parenting – in short, as a person whose situation is wholly different from any she has faced in her past – what symbols do I animate? How can I draw true strength into this unfolding story? A metaphor is a gift Daedalus fashions to lift the narrative up and out of the turmoil of conflict and into the breathing space of redemption. Where do I let the wings carry me?
These days, I am sketching the rough outline of a few to see how they fit. One is bamboo, bending in the highest wind but not breaking. Another is riding the surf, staying loose, knowing another wave will hit, and feeling the way. I even try to hold onto a picture of oysters at the bay’s edge, adapting as the sea leaks into their beds. Instead of withering, I imagine adjusting the needs and ways of my flesh to the shifting climate.
So, tonight, I spread my palette with gneiss and stir in snippets of long-threaded moss. I let my fingers make the first strokes as the shadow of a new strength unfurls on the cave wall.  As my hand does its uncertain work, I notice the ghosts of the ones that came before. Thank heavens I quieted my impulsiveness and did not wipe them clean. In a far corner, the others – warrior, deer, and scholar among them – begin to stir.

And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

Because life is what it is, I suspect the toughest days are ahead. Fortunately, magic is never gone from anything that once possessed it. The old symbols, and even this old girl, may have a bit of juice left. It does not need to be much. Just enough to give awakening breath to the life unfolding before my eyes and right here, at the tips of my fingers.

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