Aloysia Donahue, if I followed the tune to your window, I imagine you’d welcome me inside– meeting in the space a century divides. But before stepping through your rounded wooden door, I’d breath in the braided heather of your thatched roof, the boggy breezes of your moor.
I’d run my hands along the whitewashed walls of your cottage–dense turf and clay–and then center myself beside the heated stone of your hearth– the gathering place for warm stories and Irish trads played on tin whistles.
Rosy-cheeked with bun askew from days of shearing and hauling, you’d hand me a piping cup of malty assam tea. We’d sip between nibbles of curds and chocolate potato cakes and smile about the things blood-kin know without the need for speaking.
Peeling off the wool comfort of our overdue reunion, I’d then tap my toe to verses of Mourne Mountain on the mandolin. I’d hum along to rhymes of West Cork’s Fuchsia blooms and the Cotton flowers of the boglands. And just when we’d danced atop the plateau
of County Clare and fiddled our way through the Maidenhair ferns, you’d say it’s once again time to rest. To close the wooden door until another ballad tumbles out the window onto the green below– welcoming me back home.
The sound of the ice cream truck softened us. We’d had a hell of a day, my four-year old and I. A pricey plumbing issue that had somehow left a stench in my mouth, frenzied flight arrangements for my husband’s last minute business trip, and an upsetting incident with the Pre-K sociopath.
We’d spent the late afternoon on eggshells, tip-toeing around for a remedy. Thomas ran to the front window when he heard the truck — his glance darting expectantly from the street and back to me. “Oooookay,” I sighed smiling. He bounced on an invisible Pogo stick as I rooted for change in the bottom of my purse. Running to the end of the driveway, we waved our arms wildly. “Ice cream! Ice Cream!” we shouted.
It was Carla leaning out the window. Her hair had grown back — just long enough to tuck behind her ears. Matted. Dishwater blonde. The purple bruising no longer tracked her arms and she had a pinkish whisper to her cheeks.
Hoisting Thomas up with a groan, I watched as he carefully examined the faded mural of options on the side of her truck. He used to fit against me like a fleece blanket, but now his lengthening frame and sharp angles wrestled to find a fit in my arms. “That one,” he said pointing to the Fudge Delight.
I hesitated while Carla dug in the coolers. I knew that this could be a quick exchange or a lengthy medical update. “How are you feeling?” I asked locking her eyes as Thomas slid down my knee. Handing me the Fudgesicle her stare was intense. “I think I’ve cured myself of cancer,” she said. “Well, that’s good news!” I replied while tearing open the plastic and handing the fudge to Thomas.
She went on as I zoned in and out. My mind drifted to the plumbing bill and my husband’s whirlwind business trip until she waved my dollar in the air bellowing, “…[T]hat sham of a medical system! Don’t let no one tell you cancer is anything more than a virus!” I caught bits about herbs, vitamins, and some sort of citrus cocktail. “Now you tell anyone who’s got ‘cancer,’” she said with exaggerated air quotes, “exactly what I just told you!”.
I nodded dutifully but imagined myself being handed a terminal diagnosis — driving wildly around our neighborhood streets, seeking out the siren call of Carla’s ice cream truck. I scolded myself internally and handed her an extra dollar — a consolation prize for my shitty attention span. “Thanks Hon,” she said, making her way back up to the driver’s seat smiling. Even at Carla’s worst, when her friend had joined her on the route, she had never stopped driving.
Again, I lifted Thomas — his face now covered in brown, sticky drips. I forced his head into the nook under my chin and breathed out the ache of the day. For a few minutes (seconds really) the in-and-out of our chests were perfectly synchronized. The music from Carla’s truck faded as she made her way back down the street-a haunting anthem. And as my son slipped down from my arms, I buzzed with gratitude for the remedies that we find in the most unexpected places.
I give myself one day. One day to hide underneath this giant duvet. This tent of false security. This small grey cave where (somehow) all of my broken pieces can find a space.
I give myself one day to let the ache sit in my chest as I feel it begin to slide, roller-coaster like, into my stomach. The uncomfortable whoosh when I think of the friends who’ve lost all footing.
I give myself one day to look at my son’s puzzled face as he asks why the man who mud-slings and name calls got picked. And one day to tell him that I’ve got no answers, but that I’m looking for them too. I give myself one day to keep things black and white. To suss people up with a stare — and to blame. One day to think angry thoughts and to slink at the levels I condemn in them.
I give myself one day to quiet every white man with my hand. To roll my eyes when they say “It will be okay.” To reply the animal way. With a growl that says you’ve never felt your foundation quake.
I give myself one day to crawl out of the downy layers of this duvet to bake a tray of cookies which I will eat for breakfast lunch and dinner.
And I give myself one day to fall asleep with my left side pressed too hard — too urgently against one of the good one’s. And his heat will reassure me.
And then I’ll crawl out. Cookie crumbs will spill off my edges. I’ll reach for my black turtleneck but — last minute — will throw on my brightest scarf. I’ll smile at the texts from soul-friends
as they, too, emerge. I’ll brush my hair and teeth. I’ll inhabit my email replies with the warmth of face-to-face. I’ll wash things and fold things and swallow my books like comfort food — all as the veil inches away.
And when my son assesses me (his morning diagnosis) he’ll still sense the weariness there. The hovering ache. But he’ll also see my eyes scanning the room. Doing what it is we do when the clouds roll through — seeking out the spaces where the light peeks in.
I picked up my charcoal and went back to the eyes. They were vacant, but not in a good way. Not in the way that makes a self-portrait haunting or provocative. They were dead, really. My teacher, a seasoned artist, was hosting a two day workshop in her home studio. As the hours passed, she made her way around the room of seven, issuing critiques on our technique and progress.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked, her breath on my neck. Ever uncomfortable when she approached, I immediately began shading an area that didn’t need it. “Just adding some detail,” I blubbered. “Jenny-you have got to step back. You’re being too literal here. I mean, you are drawing each individual eyelash. Can you actually see each eyelash when you look in the mirror?”
Thank God. She’d given me an opening. “As a matter-of-fact,” I responded looking at her deadpan, “with my new Cover Girl Lash Blast Mascara, I can”. She half-laughed and began making her way to the next easel. And just when I thought I was off the hook, she looked back over her shoulder. “Something’s missing,” she said. “And I suggest you explore it.”
I knew she was right. I knew I had heavy chains on both ankles. One that tethered me to a city I didn’t want to live in and the other latched to a nasty hangover and the unrelenting itch for 5 pm. But drawing that version of me wasn’t on the table. I didn’t know how to draw a stranger.
So I pushed through the exercise, attempting to make it blurry and abstract enough for her approval. Never daring to reveal the gooey, monstrous mess that my insides had become. The portrait that resulted was of a woman that looked nothing like me. It wasn’t interesting or important. It was a throwaway, like the paper you’d wrap a fish in.
But instead of scrapping it immediately, I kept it close by for four more years. A bit of shading here, a sparkling earring there–adding layers to a mask that hadn’t suited me in the first place. An artist friend once told me, “The secret of creating something beautiful is knowing when to stop”. Her words vaporized as I kept at it. If I could just get the angle of the chin right. The whisper of a cheekbone. Then, surely, she would be complete.
What should have been an exploration–an artistic purge–had immobilized me. My inner-territory had grown so foreign, so wildly unattended that it was impassable. I was a madwoman sketching in the dark. Zooming in on my lashes, the curves of my ear–was self-preservation. A frog splayed out in a tray with pins in each limb. Up close, my parts didn’t seem at odds with one another. My facts and fictions were separated by marked out squares, and could be examined separately–or not at all.
More years passed until my charcoal became an unusable stub. The paper, torn through from my sweat and heavy pressing with holes where my eyes should be. I had no choice but to toss me out. I upgraded from newsprint to canvas and bought some colored paints. But as is the case with any renovation, the demolition stage came first. At times, the transition was excruciating. The colors fought against my blending. The canvas laughed. I eyed the balled up original in the trash and contemplated pressing her out. Returning to the comfort of my previous vacancies.
But eventually, the redesign took shape. And the new portrait, the one with a palette as vibrant as my insides, is a work in progress. And when she’s looking at me wrong–when her mouth crooks to the side or her eyes drift toward the hollows, I don’t mindlessly slap on new layers. Instead, I reach toward the painting and I hook her eyelids with my thumbs. I pull them back until she’s forced to focus back at me. And we stare at one another until a silent pact is made. A promise to share the weight of who we were and who we’ve become.
Both of us willing to explore the untapped wilderness.
I envy the small green snake
peeking out from behind my Begonias.
Tired of her skin, she slithers out of it. Sloughs it off,
leaving it tangled in the leaves like a discarded coat.
One ziiiiiiiiip from eyecaps to tail and she is new.
Scales shiny as airport shoes, she carves through
the thick St. Augustine grass. A regal
huntress, parting the tides with
I envy the patient cicada
ground-bound, larval and waiting to push
his way out of his dusty incubation. Tree-
clinging as he unwraps his luscious iridescence
from it’s casing. Blazing from silence to
symphony in the course of one day.
Tymbals vibrating their eager
mating song, attracting love
on the first go-round.
Buy why? Why don’t I
have buttons down my spine or simple
snaps to yank at when my body begs to re-emerge
as something new–when I ache to boast and shine?
Why? Why must I carry these heavy rewrites
in my cavity (this evidence of change
like anchors on my wings) when
all I really want to do is sing?
Maybe one day you’ll see me
latched barkside to that tree.
Teasing my way out of the skin
I’m in until I plunk into the dirt.
Until I slither and then fly. Shiny
and high. Leaving only
an effigy–a hollowed-
“Scattered thunderstorms predicted throughout the day”. I roll my eyes as I close the weather app on my phone. “Always a chance of storms,” I mutter as I head to the closet to pull out my running shoes. I undo the double knots, resisting the urge to jam my heel into them while they’re still tied. Once I’m all laced up, I open the door. I see the clouds, blackest at the edges and try to gauge their direction. “Uhggggh,” I say as I set off down the street, desperate to see some light.
It was 12 years ago when I injured my back, and there have been very few pain-free runs since then. Machines have documented every jacked up bone in my body. Smile, spine! You’re on camera. Doctors have poked and prodded my every vertebrae, Does it hurt when I do THIS? Physical therapists have twisted me Cirque du Soleil style, Step right up folks, see a real-life Gumby!And despite all of this, I run anyway.
And as I run, my eyes inventory the world around me. The woman pulling weeds from cracked concrete — knees resting on the Welcome mat. The man with the sweaty blue work shirt — checking his watch as he flings his briefcase into the backseat. The young girl with her backpack on one shoulder — standing several feet from the cluster of other kids at the bus stop. Each of us carrying aches and pains that hail from different sources.Each of us serving time in our own ways. We all know about life on the inside. We’ve all been contained.
Some of us? Prisoners to our parents — the adults who could have coddled our sense of magic and creativity but instead seemed hell-bent on scrubbing it out of us.Some of us, prisoners to an internal well of loneliness that we attempted to fill with food, alcohol, sex, drugs — anything but self-love. And some of us prisoners to a misguided sense of success that led us closer to filling our mansions and our jewelry boxes but further from filling our hearts.
Universally, though, it was these vacancies-these empty spaces- that landed us here in our cells. We share the one smudgy mirror. They cover it in thick plastic to protect us, but it distorts the reflection to the point that we’re indistinguishable. Business attire long since replaced by orange jumpsuits. Hair, once Clairolcolored and smoothed just right — now a tuft of gray frazzled roots. Formerly contoured cheeks, flesh-fattened— stuffed daily with potatoes and macaroni served from ice cream scoops.
And when you serve time, you lose things. Possessions, friendships, marriages, self-worth. And at some point your heart gets so hardened-so black, that feeling nothing becomes the norm. There’s a safety in the monotony. A cadence to the humming florescent lights. A comfort in eating from the same trough everyday.
And after years of wrapping ourselves in these blankets made of ice, we realize we have two choices. We either stay in the confines of our cells or we escape. The answer seems so obvious. “Escape, of course”, says our heart. “It’s so blank in here”.
“You’re better off staying put,” says that other voice — the one that’s gotten much louder since the the day of our sentencing. “You’re safe here. You have a routine. You have a roof over your head and 3 meals a day. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s a helluva lot better than what’s out there.”
This dialogue goes on for hours, days, months, years. And for some — until coffin lids close and darkness bathes us. Others of us, though, still feel our mouth corners turn up at the mention of sun. Some of us want out. We’re an elite group of plotting escapees, whispering through floor vents, collecting tools beneath our mattresses. Co-conspirators in a den of lemmings.
The moment arrives. The day we’ve all waited for. The guards backs are turned. The door that leads to the gate is cracked. We look back at the cells one last time. A landscape so memorized, so soul-etched that we’ll see it in our sleep for years. And then, we look at each other. It’s go time.
One by one we shuffle out the door. All gripping the various tools we’ve collected along the way. All desperate to feel the rays beat down on our sun-hungry skin. But it’s overcast. We see the clouds, blackest at the edges. A chance of storms in all directions. Shoes laced, hearts braced — we run anyway.