The Digger’s Mirth

moss woman

There is no end to pleasure. Our flesh, how its tastes change.

You barely pause to wonder how we end up in the garden. Crepe-skinned crones in sun hats, we busy ourselves with one of the few benign industries left to us in our diminished worlds. We cannot captain the ships, you reason. Cannot write the laws. We must see life backward now as our children and their children take the keys and set the route.

In your haste to cover the stretch of highway still spooling out ahead, you don’t waste attention on what occupies the roadside. We bend there, indistinguishable from scarecrows. From garden gnomes. It stands to reason (if anyone were to ask) that we surrender to these tiny corners of the world. Our puttering a last gasp at creation. Bygone artists, barren makers. Do you see us deflating into bodies long past their use-by date? Do you see us at all?

Invisibility is a curse for certain, though one we have a hand in casting.

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Hinge at the Joint

Manoj Mauryaa Balance

Bright smile and thick glasses. He slips the frames into a pocket while striding over to claim proximity.

Bigger than I’ve been since pregnancy. Stripped of makeup, wrinkled and pimpled and rank with sweat.

Side planks face to face.
I’ve known his name exactly three days.
Here we are grinning like teenagers and losing count.

Not done yet.

Dedication to each small climb, each tiny triumph. Here an apex.
A falling away.
Even on Skyline Drive, you’ve got to pull over and step out. Otherwise it’s just another commute.

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Drink Loose the Noise

What young self didn’t know was that cool is a lid that screws down tight on the swelling delight of yes.  From the edge of her ancient eye, older self notices women in the dark corners of the bar bouncing in their seats.  Girls titter near a post trying not to sway — girls who are surely women but seem so far from their fullness.

The dude in an oversized plaid suit and orange ponytail hollers into a microphone while the bassist ducks his eyes under his fedora and yanks on steel strings.  Two spaghetti-armed boys blow brass right through the back wall.

Older self stands and strips off her sweater.  She steps toward the unnamed sister, the one in a cherry red tank top and spiked gray hair. She touches her arm and draws her onto the space in the center of the room.  The worn Persian rug there is a far cry from a welcome mat, but carpet is no great challenge.  Years earlier, she sent her young selves scurrying off to road-test every surface. Concrete, rooftop, mountaintop, pier.  Boardroom, waiting room, snowfall, bed.  Every floor is a dance floor when it’s time to dance.

It’s always time to dance.

She pops her hip and snaps her hand, beckoning to the one across the room who’s been having trouble sitting still.  They are three now.  Soon they are five.  Soon nine.

Low ceilings press in on the battered cafe.  Amateur pencil sketches hang crooked the walls. Light shifts and a gleam slices across the bowl of the saxophone.  Soon it’s a glittering ballroom.  Soon the pulse of the Cotton Club on a Saturday night.

The wall of dudes collectively holds confines itself to straight faces and non-committal postures until one man, pushing 70 easy, steps into and sheds 10 years. The young women form a ring of cool, turning their taut backs out for protection.  The rest shimmy and grin knowing there is no outside and no in.  Guarding one’s soft parts is a survival skill for certain,  but the older ones have learned the taxonomy of danger.  They can differentiate battlefield from playground now.  It wasn’t always so clear.

Here, the belly is free to roll towards the snare’s smash and crack.  That’s lightning for sure, but older self unfurls anyway inside the grounded body of her scars.  She twists the lid loose and drinks the song’s bright rain.  She is growing older still.  Time is running out, so she runs out into it.  She fills her bones until they spill over with dance.


 

Lapping at Edges

Triathlon

In the neighboring lanes, retirees walk the slow churn. Sinew writhes under mottled hips, hearts chug in their loose cages of hollowing bone.  We turn the creaking millstones of our musculature and send low ripples along the surface.

Mid-afternoon is a world apart from evening here.  During the late rush, fierce middle-aged racers tear a wake between ropes.  Teen divers knife skyward before the plunge.

Now, the most animated bodies in the water are a half-dozen preschoolers gripping swim bars and kicking with all their might.  The rest of us sway.  We are seaweed, we are prey.

I stir the lapping shallows.  My feet somewhere down there take the long strides of a sleepwalker.  A faceless predator closes the distance of its asymptotic approach, forever almost crossing over into awakening.  The water is a tar that grips.  Also, it buoys.  These competing forces are reminders of its latent power.  So too are the lifeguards with red floats who pace the edges and peer into our unsteady depths.  Even as we come to it to carry us over our pain, we all know that this pool could lay any of us down for good.

Rinsed and combed, up from the locker room and out through the lobby I limp.  Lopsided steps favor the right leg and give the left a breather.  Even with easy breaststroke, the busted hinge in my left knee pops and yelps.  But I’ve moved, I’ve worked up an almost-sweat.  This is energy, back for a throbbing moment, a reminder of what it felt like before.  What it may feel like again after the surgeon fiddles with the clockworks and seals me up.

But even if the repair is unsuccessful or — as is inevitable — temporary, here is water.  This is reason enough to be grateful.

As I plod out the sliding doors, a man enters. Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk, towards the welcome desk.  Another ancient one here for the healing waters.  He leans on a cane.  Thin layers of marbled skin drape from thighs and elbows.  Around his left knee, a black brace.  The red flesh trapped inside grates at its confinement.  He moves with such care.  Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk.  His eyes are fixed on that low place on the floor one meter ahead, a place all too familiar to me now that avoiding a fall is more appealing than the vanity of vigor.

As I hobble past, I point to his knee and say, “I’m getting over one of those too. Thank goodness for the pool.”

He looks up at me.  His face cracks like the lid of a chafing dish.  Something in there simmers and pops,  steam and all.  A slow grin.  “I bet you didn’t get yours hitting a deer while riding on a motorcycle.”  He chuckles.  His wink, an invitation.  He holds his gaze a second, another.  Then he turns and limps on.

A buzz shivers through me, potent and odd and all the more startling from its unlikely source.  Out the sliding doors and into the parking lot.  Sun licks my shoulders.  A breeze cuts through the damp hollow where my hair lays across my neck.

There are no old folks here. Not broken bodies, no lost days.  We long for what we are, even now.  We are all younger than we imagine, as raw as we have ever been.

We are all being born.

We face the open water.  We surrender.  We surge.


Photo credit:  Uncertain origin; possibly from Triathlon Scotland

Injury Reconstruction

Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

96. Things I Can Witness: Sickness, Health

My mother was in a severe car crash yesterday. I say “crash” because of course it was an accident. Also, two drivers slammed their vehicles into each other. Damage and injury ensued. Crash it is.

I learned about this crash from a text. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to walk Noodle today. I’m at the ER waiting for a cat scan.” This is my mom. The request for help is ever-so-gently implied and braces itself for disappointment. Also, she cares always that others are okay. Concern for everyone else gets top billing even when she’s just wobbled out of an ambulance.

I called and texted to dead air. I was already en route (though it was anyone’s guess which hospital), having left a garbled message for my supervisor about missing our afternoon meeting. Then my mother called back.

“I’m mostly okay.

“Is Dad there with you?”

“He’s at a lunch meeting. He said he’ll come when they release me. I just got out of X-ray and now I’m waiting for the scan.”

“So you’re there alone?” I’m already turning off campus and heading north. I have to press because I know she’ll cover for him. It’s a ridiculous charade. Hell, Bug and I were their housemates for three years. She knows and I know that my father puts work first, so I ask again and she half apologizes for him even while pinching her lips at his absence.

“Oh, it’s fine. I was worried my teeth were broken, but it turns out I only had a mouthful of glass.”

We hang up and a few minutes later she pings me back to let me know my dad is out of the meeting and on his way. Sure enough, he arrives before I do, so I turn back and land at my office in time for my boss.

After a diagnosis of bruised ribs, a goose-egg, and random surface havoc, they send her home. When we talk later, Vicodin drags her speech out and she assures me she’s fine. “The shower stung a little.”

“What do you need?”

“Your dad’s here. I had a can of soup. Really. I’m fine.”

I’m sure she is, though I’m less than certain of his capacity to keep her so. She takes very good care of my father. Even around the edges of her own career, she always stocked the fridge and made the vacation plans and supported my sister and me well into our respective adulthoods. She tends to her chaotic extended family, schedules the carpet cleaning and window replacement, and feeds the cat. She keeps everything humming along.

My dad has his own ways of contributing, and I see this a little more clearly now that the fog of my adolescent daddy issues has (mostly) lifted. When my mother’s frustration with her husband’s obliviousness makes her want to explode — she was in Scotland for 2-1/2 weeks and returned to a fridge full of rotten food — she repeats her mantra: “He is a good provider.” Indeed, he is better than anyone I’ve ever known in this regard. He would have made his own daddy proud.

True to the gendered roles of his generation, my father takes care of all the outside chores and most of the structural/mechanical/HVAC aspects of the house. True to the equality rebellion of that generation, my parents work towards their financial and retirement goals together.

It is as surprising as it is obvious that my father would leave off work halfway through the day to care for my mom. In his way, he is her warm (if itchy) blanket. As she convalesces, she’ll have to give him a grocery list and remind him to take out the garbage, and he may forget to follow through on both. Even so, behind her voice on the phone, I hear his. He’s there next to her on the sofa, cracking jokes and laughing with her at Bill Maher.

For most of my life I have run in the opposite direction of my parents’ relationship. I’ve sought out intimacies that were so dissimilar, they may have been a different species altogether. Certainly my marriage was an odd imitation. It outgrew its costume in less than a decade.

The friction my parents generated in the first half of their marriage led to a separation and almost-divorce when I was in my teens. The concessions they both made to repair that rift seemed far too pricey. I have been determined to be more communicative, less gendered, more adaptable, less childish. Along the way, I’ve build expansive and byzantine and ornate and enchanted romances with people who were wildly unsuited to me.

But I have yet to build a home.

And this, I hear through the phone, is where my parents live.

My father is there for her. Sure, this comes after a pause to complete the work which occupies at least 75% of his attention. Nevertheless, he comes. And she asks now for only a smidge more than she ever hopes to receive. Sure, the longing for a more complete union is forever pressing from beneath, stretching taut the skin of her diplomacy. Nevertheless, she accepts what he has to give.

He stayed and worked from the house today. They took a break and he ferried her to the lot where the tow truck stashed her totaled Honda. After emptying the glove box and trunk, they headed back, stopping at the supermarket together to stock up. He will be with her when she starts test-driving new cars. She will be with him when they review their bank accounts to decide what they can afford. He’ll go back to work. She’ll return to her book clubs and volunteer ESL classes and (fingers crossed) walks with Noodle.

For as long as this chapter of their lives together lasts — and we all see with more sharpness today how instantly the book can close — they will be the ones who take care of each other.

Here I sit, quiet and a little stunned in the solitary place that contains the whole of me. It is night here. My son is at his father’s. The dog dozes by screen door. A retreating rain and the thrum of the interstate are the only voices that pass by. They dance at the windows then slip away.

It’s a marvel. Somehow, for all their mistakes and failings, my parents have fashioned a partnership, a love, a home. I pick up some of the discarded garments and turn them over in my hands. Split seams, yes. Stiff stays and rough hems and oversized buttons. Still, they could fit. If I arrange them to my form, if I piece them together with my own tattered wardrobe, I might find they suit me after all.

 

 

70. Things I Can See: Her Beat, Mine

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