“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”
– James Baldwin
I’m not married to him now.
I remember these things.
He could weave string into bracelets. Yarn into pouches. He picked up discarded wrappers and curled them and knotted them and made them into chains.
When he asked me to marry him, he brought out the ring in a box he had made from paper tucked in on itself.
He is not my husband now. I remember these things.
The soil of my own life was restive in my hands. Its thrum vexed me. It was so pliable. So insistent. It offered no clues yet demanded everything of me. As if some larval creature moved through it, the contours kept changing. I would press my fingers in halfway but pull back, plugging the divot before it had a chance to drill open a corridor in me I was unprepared to claim. I could not – would not – choose a manner of shaping, let alone the shape itself.
My very own life in my very own hands. I was confounded.
Potter, sculptor, bricklayer, farmer. Technical skill is just the beginning, all hammers and season, chisels and heat. The other work is the inversion of craft. Abstruse. Intangible. Vision? Call? It is the sense of shape before shape. It is a moment of conception in stop-action. The mind must coil around the shimmer and foam and draw from-in-with it, frame by frame, a creation splitting into its own origin.
Here is art. Here is courage.
Skill marries imagination in a painstaking process. It requires coaxing that inner membrane out, out to reside within the material at hand. Slipping. Adjusting. Aptitude falling short. Hands seeking the next nuance, the next skill to call that thing into being. And the thing, the virtual life, when it meets tool and clay, shivers without permission into forms no one ever imagined. It slips into sync with the material world as much in spite of the artisan as because of her.
This was me, holding a pulsing handful of wing and seed and licorice root, warming the rank, luscious matter that cannot be created or destroyed but is always only changing form. This was me without any idea which of the six dozen flitting shapes in my mind it might take. This was me, seeking an instruction manual. A trail marker. A sorcerer for whom I could apprentice.
He offered me a tiny folded box. It fit in my palm.
I learned to knit while we were married. A bucket of bamboo needles. Yarn by the mile. A haberdashery of hats and scarves and ill-fitting slippers.
I squirmed on the sofa. I ignored the ache. I forced my gaze to zero in on the next stitch in the pattern.
This was me, making something with my hands.
At last. Something.
This was me, turning fairytale outside-in. Deaf to the clatter of limb against wall. Surrendering to threads biting fingers, ankles, throat. Hewing my own Gepetto out of fine-grained evasion and then feeding him my lines.
My son grew into the oversized hats then grew right out of them.
The man I married looped ribbon into lanyard. He did this, as all things, without haste.
I took up those strings. I practiced those boxes. I pulled and folded.
I pretended they were mine. I wanted them to be mine. His paper box fit in my hand. His cellophane chains fit my wrists.
My fingers ached. Below me, the fecund earth roiled. I stilled the urge to plunge.
In the winters, our house, whichever one in whichever time zone, was edged in white-gold lights. He laced every corner. He installed timers at the outlets. I walked through the dark mountain frost on those blue-black nights. Miles from any town, the only cloud brushing that carpet of stars was the one I alone breathed.
I followed the bend until our house appeared on the hill. My cloud found its kin. A fire there. Odd relief: the communion of breath with ash, the shared obscuring of depth.
A ribbon of smoke, a runway of light. A place to land. The home we made.
I imagined it was ours and that I was an equal part of the Us who created it.
Our marriage. Our son. Our Christmas. Our hearth.
A rectangle of lights framed the door. A square of lights outlined the window.
Strings of light made boxes of light made chains to grip in the direction of travel.
Always, the urge to plunge. Did I admit that it was almost as strong as the one that pulled me back? Almost. Not enough.
It could have been.
Down to the creek, the glassed stone, the trout slipping down low. A canopy of mist kissing the water’s quaking skin. Somewhere near, the bald eagle in its nest. A screech on the hillside. The towering stone, the natural bridge, the dirt road twisting down and away. Down from light. Away from the frame, the flame, that steady glow.
My son in there. I went home. Always.
Until I couldn’t.
Now, I am making the Christmas that a good mom should. My son and I drape aquamarine garland from the doorframes. We follow lines scratched deep in the vinyl.
The sound is tinny. Grainy. There is dirt in the grooves. Weeds push up through the cracks. Seeds rupture. Their dogged tendrils erode the smooth edge.
Something unfurls in the air here. It is not pine. It is not mulling spices.
Carapace and decay. Bud and birth.
The Christmas I make is my penance.
Yet no one is demanding it. No one has handed me an invoice or called me before jury.
Peers don’t speak their judgments aloud. Not now. They have their own failings to answer for.
The man who was my husband is not holding a yardstick. He never was.
The box fit in my palm. The box fits all of him. Of course it does. It is his. It always was.
The man who is not my husband still has the Christmas stocking from his childhood and he takes it with him every year no matter where he ends up on December 24. He makes sure our son’s stocking is wherever our son will be on December 24. The stocking goes back and forth like a lunch box.
Like our son.
The tree twinkles. Gifts are piled in heaps that brush the low boughs. Cards wend their way around the globe.
The season squeezes. The strings pinch but no one is here to pull them. No one but me.
I find a spade. The dulled blade is still sharp enough to split threads. To crack floorboards. To pierce ice and soil and root.
In these moments when my son is with his father, I marinate in disquiet. I look around the home we are making and see the places where we spill from the corners. The dining room table is a hard-hat zone of paint and pennies and half-written poems in calligraphy ink. The empty floor of the living room yawns wide and pulls me to dance under low lights. I write. I pace. I wander out into the night with the dog and turn my bare face to winter sky.
Christmas is changing shape. Everything is.
The material comprising the ground under my own feet still puzzles me. Frightens me. Yet this terrain I inhabit, both alone and with my son, is all I’ve got.
This is me closing my eyes and seeking the shape preceding shape. I follow its source. I feel its beat and match my pulse to that throb.
I bend. I reach.
This is me.