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Two Women Dance

The girl who drove the Volkswagen bus plastered in Dead stickers fell off the face of the earth after graduation. West is what I heard. Community bordering on cult, new name. I pictured her in a homespun dress drawing water from the well for backwoods apostles.

She popped up on Facebook — as we all do — 25 years later. No bonnet, no copper kettle. Her profile shot is blazing female Gumby, bronzed flesh arched in a yoga bridge against the setting sun. The other photos are strappy heels, flashing sequins, rhumba beats and a man in a fedora testing the limits of her psoas muscle by pressing her stretched leg flat against his chest before dropping her into a dip.

She’s dyed her hair black and let it grow wild. It cascades down her back, frames coconut buttered cheeks, makes her diamond white teeth pop from inside that California smile. She teaches Zumba and places in Latin ballroom competitions. Her day job calls her just as much as the music. She’s a certified nurse who loves God’s gifts and bedazzles her posts with emoticons blowing kisses.

And she looks like this, only amplified by 10:

Black Fringe

I’ve just come home from my own Zumba class. I had to hack and slog through inertia to go, which is a truly sorry state of affairs. Zumba is one activity I undeniably, unconditionally adore. No matter how few hours of shut-eye or how burbly the belly or how wretched the commute, I go. I dance.

For seven years, Zumba has been the straightest route from ennui to awake. Some days, I have to remind myself of this unfailing truth. Some days, I’m too enamored of my misery to follow my own advice.

The firm reminder is necessary today because the car failed inspection. Gamble on repairs? Junk it and wave my magic wand to conjure up the cash for a new ride? This, just after shelling out a several thousand dollar deposit for a home repair project. I’d been saving my pennies for two years. I thought I had enough. For windows and a patio door OR a new car, not both. And certainly not to repair the leak in the bathroom ceiling that greeted me when I came home from work yesterday.

The firm reminder is also necessary because I spent the evening in the company of plumbers and neighbors and ears to the wall, and went to bed with an unsolved but very damp mystery on my hands. Its uncertain cost lurked in the corner all night long.

I’m weary from walking the dull edge of this knife (dull because who has the money to replace it or the time to go get it sharpened?) The paychecks are so thin I can see right through them. They cast a scorched sodium tint over everything further down the road. The anger surges, sprays scattershot. Anonymous ones catch most of it because once familiar, they become too cherished to fault and too fraught with their own troubles to be responsible for mine.

So I peel myself from my desk, pull my hair into a ponytail and head to my Zumba class. I’ve barely stepped out of the car when I hear the rhythm hollering at me from the studio. I aim for it. My feet alight and slip instantly back off the earth. Soaring first then bouncing, I ride air currents whose striations are skimmed from the walls of canyons. I am somehow both round as sugarbowls and long as lightning bolts. I multiply. Animal cocktail. Chimera. I am the mixed and marinating DNA of heron, tamarind, bumblebee.

Back home and filled with the liquid pulse, rich with all the Yes and all the Can, and money will come, and solutions will doubtless generate from this most fecund form, I click open Facebook,

And there she is.

Silver icestorm crashing past her skin. Lats and biceps, lean meat, light. She is elements, she roars. On the polished floor, her tiny tarsals are hailstones, flashing as they meet gravity and ping skyward again.

She knocks me flat.

Never, I think.

Never will I be so breathtaking.

Just moments from my own dance and I deflate. The material me frays from its grip on the wind, sags, and puddles back to earth. I become stretch marks and scars, lipids and flatulence, a jellyfish washed up on the shore. My bulk bloats and wheezes, suffocating any sinew beneath.

If only I could channel such discipline, such bliss,

such erasure

such entirely someone else.

And then I remember this:

Admire

The shift makes an almost audible crack, physic chiropractic, and I can see

SEE

This ravishing galloping creature, this distant woman who has found a way to spin straw into light. Art twines with skill, and her form becomes sharp as kites against cloudless sky. I can see her

because I stop trying so hard to un-see me.

I see how she slips stillness between motion to punctuate the moment, how her neck swivels and snaps, how the smile opens, impossibly, even more.

I see

that she is her own entirely, and I my own,

and also that we on our opposite coasts and intervening decades can dance ourselves together.

Then I am up, my spine remembering the long stride between cells, how even bone is blood and air,

how always a beat

to unblind me

again

again

a beat here

carries me again

here

I am not going to read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.

Never mind that he’s on deck for a Monday evening book group at the Unitarian church right up the street. And I have two full weeks until then, which is more than enough time. And it’s an opportunity to talk ideas and raw human family concerns with like-minded, world-eyed liberals right here in my community.

And that I want more than anything to disrupt this aching lonely purposeless robotic toil-consume-pick up-drop off-sort-pay-do-it-all-again-tomorrow middle aged existence by weaving myself into a project bigger than me, and attending this group is one simple step towards a richer life.

Because that’s a lie.

I want other things. This I want, yes, but only as much as other things, not more than. Maybe even less than, if I’m really honest.

My 7am Zumba is a few notches higher. That’s why, instead of reading past 11pm, I turn off the light and quiet myself down.

Also higher on the list? Long, meandering walks through the neighborhood with Noodle.

Making my own hummus from scratch is up there too.

Drawing crayon doodles on the envelopes into which I fold letters to Bug at camp. And scritch-scratching in my journal. And tip-tapping here: All higher.

Also whirling through loops and riding over soft plateaus in nighttime phone conversations with My Mister. And deadheading the basil. And transplanting the peppers. And mining the deep vein of creativity when the tough tasks come calling during my 8 hours.

Lunchtime yoga. That’s higher too.

If I really want that book club and the currency I imagine it carries — I mean, if I really want it — the choice is simple. Kick Jared Diamond up to the top of the list. Let something further down fall off.

And here I am, standing at the local library about to wave my key-card under the scanner. I look at what I’ve got. An Alice Munro collection of short stories, a thin volume of poetry exercises, a Stewart O’Nan novel called Last Night at the Lobster.

And Jared Diamond.

I think, What would it hurt to just take him home? Maybe if he’s there on the bedside table, I’ll pick him up. He might enthrall me. Just imagine how edifying, how engaging that discussion group! Fourteen days? No problem.

But why do this to myself?

Why this relentless work to repair, mutate, improve?

(Or prove?)

Somehow, I still fear the call chorusing through me is a siren’s song. The desire I drive so hard to override must be Peter Pan at the window, stunted id and stars for eyes.

Somehow, I am still trying to get this growing-up thing right. And still doubting that the woman right here in this skin is actually enough.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

I’ll do better (because doing better seems to be so damned important) if Jared Diamond makes his 512-page case somewhere other than my bedroom. I set his down on the re-shelf cart.

The moment I do, two quick but powerful currents rush past from opposite directions. The first says, Rock on, Girl! You’re free of that pointless assignment!

The second one is harder to decipher, but I still manage to catch its gist. It says, There goes another chance to be a person of substance. Have fun playing in the shallows, my friend.

And because my father earned a PhD, lists dozens upon dozens of publications on his CV, and spends a good chunk of his weekends reading not only the entirety of the Washington Post but a good portion of the works of nonfiction reviewed in its “Book World” — because of all of this, I am forever falling short of the mark.

That mark written on the bones of ghosts.

That mark mapped in disappearing ink.

I beep through the library checkout with only poetry, short stories, and a novel. As I do, I take a deep breath and tell myself the true small truth. This one has nothing to do with Jared Diamond.

It is this:

I will never be my father.

The heart shivers, resists, cries out for the comforting lie.

Then lets go.

I carry home my works of fiction and image. I walk my dog, slice peaches and cherries, talk on the phone with My Mister, then come here to write.

Fiction. Image.

Lyric. Story.

(So much closer to nonfiction than anyone let on.)

Something alights outside my bedroom window. It calls softly.

This song, I’m learning.

This song, mine.

 

 

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.

 

Soap Bubble

He squeezes his eyes against the suds and grabs for a dry cloth. His hair is long again, melting down his neck and licking at his shoulders. He glows like cherry wood. Cross-legged and bare as he is with his hair slicked back, he is small. Almost like a girl. Like a picture of me gleaming up from an old album.

He rubs his eyes and they redden. His lip trembles now. The soap was patsy. A more formidable foe flicks through the shallows.

“I don’t want to go to sleepaway camp,” he murmurs. And with that, his whole body collapses into sobs.

What ensues is a conversation, gentle questions, analogies about basketball, acknowledgment of feelings. Words, words and more words. I perch on my knees, a thin bathmat meager protection from the sturdiness of the tile. I lean in and let the easy expression settle across my features. A smile, beaming almost. A gaze, open as petals. I remember very little from The Art of Listening, but this stays with me: Approval, Delight, Respect. A hypnotist’s voice in a bedtime cadence carries the blood-deep lyrics of reassurance across the foam. Yes, and Yes.

He cries some more then talks. Pouting, furrowed, but he talks.

My hand inside the sage green cloth weaves between and under the words. I dip it into the water, stroke it along his shoulder. Dip it into the water, trace his ear. Dip it into the water, outline his cheek.

After he has dried off and brushed teeth, he climbs onto the bed and worms up under my shoulder. His sunburned cheeks are an electric pulse under the damp straw and silk. He giggles and crawls on top of me. Laughing now throaty and wild, his need gives way to a different sort of crying: “Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle!” He whoops and burrows into my ribs. He has grown to twice his size, unfolding like a sponge drunk in the surf.

 

They sit on the grass in a loose circle. Rain has steamed the patches that remain to a fecund spill of harlequin and jade. The one with long hair and glasses is a swaying stem, her pod at the edge of splitting open. “He had a whole philosophy about the virtues,” she says. Her hands flit out to catch the round putty of this idea then stretch it out, out.

On these summer days when dusk falls near bedtime, the lunch hour employs a more forgiving clock. Two men in dusty coveralls striped with orange reflective tape sprawl on a bench next to chain link. A temporary enclosure wraps around campus like silver Christmas ribbon, knotted somewhere hidden, impossible to pull free. You’d have to find the shears. Behind them, a sign strapped to wire: Do Not Move Fence. Someone has not only tried but succeeded. The lousy lot of us — students and faculty and staff, our shared absence of virtue rendering us indistinguishable from one another — has such an excess of time on our hands (or perhaps a paucity of imagination when it comes to selecting a target for our disaffection) that we need reminding how to treat a fence.

The younger one is white, filmed with dust, his red goatee threaded to rust. He holds a phone — or the amalgam that now passes for a phone — aloft. A noise crackles from it. His buddy’s hair fans in every direction. He is black, though in this case the speciousness of the designation is even more palpable than usual. Dry soil has powdered them to an identical tone.

Race, of course, is about everything else that churns under the surface we imagine solid. It is thrumming here. In the way they speak, sit, gaze. The one on the left splays his legs and drapes his arms, one over a knee, the other along the back of the bench. The one on the right leans forward, stiff, holding the phone-like object. Whiteness and blackness is in this posture, this way of taking — or pretending not to take — the measure of passing students.

The crackling is a voice, a distant Barack Obama. The president’s unmistakable cadence, the falling and punctuated pauses, is carrying across a field of cameramen and wind, piped through the pinhole speaker next to the tiny screen now aloft in the younger man’s grip.

Has something happened? While I was in my lunchtime yoga activating the parasympathetic nervous system with happy baby, did another plate shift? Another city block catch fire? Another of my neighbors fall in the dark hush of a redacted narrative?

I look around at the others. The grass-bound circle of literary acolytes is now far behind me. Women perch on metal chairs outside the student center which houses a new Panera. This is the most popular lunch spot on campus despite a growing national suspicion of Bread’s intentions. A beauty in a creamsicle dress and platform heels turns heads like a stadium wave, collapsing construction worker and student into one undifferentiated hunger. The only ones oblivious to her liquid progress are two younger men striding past. They clutch the straps of their backpacks, heads bent at such an angle they almost meet at the temple. The one speaking rushes out words and stumbles over them. They hadn’t run it with the new numbers — that must be why — that’s why it turned out like that. Neither breaks stride as the sundress swirls across their path.

The president’s voice pings off leaf, satchel, water bottle, sunglasses. If something has happened, the light would scour this plaza instead of skidding as it does off bared calf and shoulder. The fountain would pound instead of froth, the faces furrow, the gazes tunnel into the things we call phones, seeking an answer or maybe a map in those digital libraries that far out-Alexandria Alexandria itself.

When it happens, whatever it is, so much we think is solid in this place will tumble like rockfall into the ravine through which we course. Momentum we imagined our earned and maybe even natural pace will back up behind that unthinkable-but-now-here flash of history. In that instant, downstream will transform into the bewildered trickle of a future uncertain how to fill the space it occupied when it was so lush, when it was able to slake the thirst not only of its own banks but of everything in us that came there to drink.

 

easel

We sprawl on the living room floor alongside the dog. Damp from our run, we stretch in the low light and work our hands down under the stubborn weight of our shared lassitude. They call it Weltschmerz. I call it unwelcome. I angle myself against it. Endorphins are my lever; grit, my fulcrum. It barely moves.

In the hours preceding this moment, in all the hours in all the days that fasten together like chain link, we work. In our respective offices in the company of our respective bands of fools, we grind upward and forward against a blind rock face. Tasks, demands, questions whose only answers we must hand-stitch from materials stashed in unmarked cabinets. The stone there is as unyielding as the mood seeping into us as we strain against it.

The dog licks and licks, rolling over and nipping at the back of his shirt, hoping to avoid a scolding.

Once upon a time, we lived in that cloud-furred treehouse Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Maybe it was only for an evening, or the length of a paddle stroke through churning river, or the width of a felt line across the blank page. We have lived there.

It has been so long.

We stand up together, the dog stretching upright and nosing our shins. We consider the easel, we take the measure of a bucket of markers.

We remember.

As we edge our way back to that recollection, we lean into its threshold and touch our fingers to the empty place where the door should be.

He removes the red cap. I, the blue.

Like Harold with his purple crayon, we draw the door open.

It has a sound.

The dog with her ears cocked hears it too.

It is the way you know in the forest that water is near.

It is the way you move towards it.

It sounds like sighs. It sounds like Here.

Come here.

 

 

Last night, I danced at my cousin’s wedding. Danced like a toddler does, right up front.

Like this.

I’m guessing everyone else out there enjoyed Sara Bareilles’ music video for “Brave” at some point in the past two years. I just today discovered it on About Face, a website promoting positive body image.

Just as she intends, Bareilles’ video shivers open a smile that leaks tears.

Remember the game you used to play in the doorway? You stand facing out and press the backs of your hands hard against the doorjamb. You push there, muscles working, and count. Twenty, thirty, one hundred. Then you step out, and after a breath, marvel as they rise.

As if invisible threads.

As if a secret deal to suspend the laws of physics.

For most of the hours in most of the days, I push hard against something. The clock, a hunger, my doubts, someone’s needs.

The deadline breathing fierce at the base of my skull.

The flashing cursor, the buzzing phone.

The undertow.

It seems a whole life becomes this pressed angle, wedged here in a narrow doorway. I barely recall the name for air.

Until song calls me out, and shows me again the secret to tricking gravity.