Water Born

sand dollar 1

Popham Beach, Maine

These feet mapped in silver. My weight displacing stars.

We are chasing the tide even before we begin, trying to outrun the sea. The sun follows us, staying at our backs for five miles across moonscape and dune. Wind has carved ridges like Atlantis exposed.

Here is where my friend comes now. Every week, a pilgrimage of sorts. She has recast herself a collector of sand dollars, displaying them in gleaming mason jars around her house. She’s brought me along this time and I don’t have questions at first. Now, the stretch of land and water before us is framed by a giant question mark. “Where is it we are going?” It must be the third time I’ve asked, and we’re barely out of the parking lot. She gestures vaguely forward. At the end of a dark ridge, the shore curves then disappears around black tip of land. It is forever away.

She’s checked the tidal charts. She sets a brisk pace.

Continue reading “Water Born”

82. Things I Can Watch: Dream Reels from the Projection Booth

Sleep. . . knits up the raveled sleave of care.
 
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

I follow him along the circumference of the earth. The globe bends under us. A rusted iron chain strewn out loose on the ground guides our hands, our feet. We walk near the shore then into the surf which licks our ankles as it rises. Soon it sweeps us up, the surge, and I clutch at my father’s back while he swims hard for a distant city on stilts. It is all that is left of our land.

Dazed and shivering, we climb to the rickety boards and look for a place to rest. A man squats against a corner of railing and hisses out the rates. Six to a room, he tells us. Fifty cents extra to use the loo.

All night and into morning, the brine clings and the heat swells. My father gives way to the other one, the who knows me as equal no matter much I long to be less. We have to find a place for our children on the sick earth. We have to fashion them a refuge, even if we are its only walls.

These choking and sumptuous images careen across the terrain of my imagination. I have seen such places only in glimpses, only when far from home. Kissed by spray from the Zambezi, I leaned over the precipice of Victoria Falls. Two decades have failed to dull the breeze lifting my pink skirt, to damper the white roar slamming geysers upon arrival.

I made a vow then: If I ever choose to die, it will be here. I will soar from this arcing explosion.

I have kept few promises in my life. This one holds, at least so far: I am allowed an escape hatch only of extraordinary proportions. I know that the effort involved and the miles covered will force me into new life.

Now, the stone edge of that Zimbabwean river is etched into a vein of recollection where the cliffs of Cape Breton gather around the New Forest’s scraggy tangle. The faraway place is memory, which means now I travel in dreams.

Sleep is a ticket to a steady body and a capable mind, but it is also a free ride to the outer limits. Just four bouts of it now — four dead zone nights following four decaffeinated days — have spun me along gilt-edged galleries and coursed me through sea caves, then pulsed me back out into the clutches of grinning dystopian warlords.

Through glass walls of a time-warping rocket, wrapped safe in a cloak of gravity and linen, I see worlds that maybe were and those that maybe will be. My soft spine arches as I clear the next mountain rising between the two. From both above and below, I watch as the laws of physics clash and spring against spasms of turbulent time.

 

68. Things I Can Send: One a Day

Airmail Letters

In Zimbabwe, I wrote letters. Some were to my parents, some to friends, a couple to myself. Mostly, I wrote to a boy who’d loved me when I left but wouldn’t when I came home. During those months making sadza with my Sisi Portia and singing songs at human rights retreats, I covered thin blue airmail pages with stories and wishes and questions and promises. Sometimes the outsides of the envelopes were canvas, and I’d doodle around the address and play word games at the flap.

The highlight of any week was finding something in the mailbox from the states. How young I was then. Deep in the Masvingo province, red soil stained my shoes as I blistered my hands digging the foundation for a schoolroom. At the edge of Harare, I crammed myself into the back of an emergency taxi with six strangers to make the commute back to my host family. Passing through the market, I breathed smoke rising from tin drums where the maize was roasting. I ducked my head against catcalls from men too long at the beer hall calling, “Hey, musikana, marry me! Buy me a walkman!”

Here was this 20-year-old girl learning to carry on an entire exchange in a Bantu language, and it was still the mail from home that lifted me.

It’s too long ago to remember anything in those letters. The boy and his housemate wrote to me together a time or two, though they mercifully kept me in the dark about their new status. The content of any correspondence mattered far less than the fact of it. I wanted to touch a place that held me, or maybe just know I was remembered.

I understand now that mail from home was a status report on the acceptability of the exchange. This was its real value. My correspondents were still in the game. Play could continue.

I was too busy writing to realize that the act itself was shaping the journey. As much as these missives were “mail,” they were diary and commonplace book, hymnal and captain’s log. An envelope from home was an invitation to keep coloring in, keep making the story into what it was trying to become.

When I returned to the states, the boy handed me all that stamped and creased paper I’d sent from Africa, now neatly tied in string. He gave me back my pile of words. I hated him more for that than for choosing the other gal. The letters were for him to cherish. For that semester in Zimbabwe, I rode high on a precious delusion that he prized every word. I pictured him sneaking into his room and closing the door to read, re-read, get drunk on ink and fall a little more in love with me.

Did I mention how young I was?

I figured he’d guard those letters with his life. And here he was, handing them back to me.

Maybe I took them but it’s hard to remember now. Too many moves, too much life. I looked away, and the decades absconded with the bundle. I wish I had grabbed them from him and stashed them in a fireproof box. I wish I’d known what a story they’d make.

I wish a lot of things.

Today, I wish that on my son’s first day of his first year of sleepaway camp, the newness will offer him an untried self, the guides will provide a net, and the knowledge of home — out here, always here — will run so deep in him, he forgets to need me at all.

But in case he does, his mom will be there. Every day at mail call.

 

59. Things I Can Begin: The Research

Ireland Balloon Flight

It’s one thing to talk about taking a trip. It’s another to board a flight. The in-between is the true test of commitment.

The stunning Silverleaf stopped by to comment on Sunday’s travel post. Her visit jarred me into action. I’m still months away from anything so radical as a B&B reservation. Last night, though, after reading Silverleaf’s encouragement, I edged a few minutes closer.

The goal is to take my boy overseas next summer. To shrink the options to a reasonable handful, the criteria for selecting a destination are these:

  1. Manageable for an American mother and a 9-year-old kiddo traveling as a duo
  2. Affordable on a working-mom income, saving a few bucks every month for the next twelve
  3. A place my feet have never seen (ruling out France, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Costa Rica, Canada, St. Lucia, Mexico, and Zimbabwe)
  4. Safe for driving (or otherwise getting around) without pressing all of my crowd-induced stress-buttons
  5. Rough in places where we can wander off the map
  6. Familiar enough that if kiddo or mama becomes disoriented, it’s possible to navigate to a helpful place
  7. Far enough that it will open a window onto the big unknown

These carry me directly across the water to the land of castles, bogs, rain, and the River Shannon.

Silverleaf’s nudge sent me bopping around the internet last night when I should have been tucking myself into bed. I zig-zagged over the map, looking for an Irish island or village that might make nice waystation for us a year from now. I bookmarked some (Farm animals in the hostel yard, oh yeah!) and jettisoned others (Antiques in the lobby? Maybe when Bug is 20).

Because it was all still rolling around when I finally did make it to bed, it naturally bubbled up in conversation today. The bubbling occurred in a brief exchange with a colleague who has more money in his bag of golf clubs than I do in my son’s 529. Travel discussions tend to involve him telling me about his most recent Icelandic mountain expedition while I tell him about the water park down the road.

It just so happens (I learned today) that this colleague is good friends with an Irish couple who owns a hot-air balloon company. It also just so happens that this colleague is also is more than happy to send Bug and me their way next June.

A blink, and the picture is another degree sharper.

A click, and we are another minute closer.

 

 

56. Things I Can Read: The Travel Section

We pinned a world map to the living room wall. It guides our fingers and our eyes when we trace our neighbor’s travels or the origins of our takeout spring rolls. The radius of our life spans less than an inch on one pink edge, missing the rainbow sprawl of continents, canals, deserts, and seas.

The tax on growing older is an unsettling measure of frugality and caution.

It also demands a revised dictionary.

Continue reading “56. Things I Can Read: The Travel Section”

26. Things I Can Ignore: Contrails

Way up there, a tiny plane skates across the early spring blue. Here, the bus wheezes up to a stop sign, waits its turn, then groans on. The sun has hours yet to make its languid descent into rooftops and half-clothed branches.

Scuffs streak the plexiglass. The eyes are trained to peer right through.

What would it be like to see only this in here? Only what’s behind? I still have hopes of Corsica. Each year another scar cuts across the frame. The edges blur. It’s clear enough, though, for today: Maybe almond trees, maybe the Pillars of Hercules. Or Galapagos. The Badlands at the very least.

It was just now, or near enough to now, that I pressed through a scouring wind to summit Mt. Snowdon in Wales and cooled my blistered feet in Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas. Such a thing could happen again. Those engines up there could carry me to the source of the next pool where my toes touch bottom as fish nibble down to live skin.

Another renewal.

It’s not impossible.

Or if I choose to walk lightly, I could use my own traction. Starting on this very bus, I could cast off on a winding route to the borderlands where the last of the wildcats hush their flanks against night.

The sky is a door. I am 41 and just came from the gym where I pulled 70 pounds and crunched 100 times on an incline bench.

Now my pooch who narrowly missed her date with a Chinese abbatoir flies like a formula one race car across the dog park that backs against the freeway. She turns fast enough to send mulch and dirt blasting into the sound wall. I shed my jacket and hurl the ball, my arm getting looser now with each lengthening day.

Now I sit in solitude at a dim table at the Indian restaurant. I taste it all: the whang of the cilantro leaf, the spring of my jaw against cubes of cheese, the smoke that lingers in papered boils on the flatbread. Tabla music patters against the sizzle and clank of the kitchen.

Now I bend to this page and rub the dull lamp until it glows.

Everything here is here. Everything here is forward.

What luxury, this illusion.

How fleeting.

The texts ping in, one, then six or seven more. All day in bursts, each sounding a claxon. She is in the ER. She is prepping for surgery. She’s in the OR. She’s in recovery. Her hip is fractured. Her hip is mending.

If she makes it through the next three months, she’ll turn 95 in July.

What must it be to come up out of the fog of anesthesia into the even more stifling smog of dementia? To see only through scuffed glass, to see only the scars? No forward. Not even a here, really. The machines that didn’t exist in your lifetime then did, now they buzz across a silent blue you can’t see. Now they carry other people away into pockets of the world you’ll never know.

If you’ve even lost the comfort of memory, what then? Where do your eyes alight?

I am 41 and grip hard to delusion. This blank page is an open window. That sunlit frame holds no pane. I can step right through and cast my line up against gravity, snag that jet and let it ferry me into another fable, one waiting just for me.

I ignore the microscopic particles, the wind and all it carries, strafing the body of this vehicle. I pretend the light falls through unimpeded. Against the mounting evidence, I claim this day and this endless tomorrow.