Many thanks to Ginosko Literary Magazine for publishing the “What We Are Given” in their latest issue. You will find this essay on page 122 of their PDF file. It a deeply personal essay about the years my partner’s mother lived with us.
When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.
Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.
We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.
Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.
This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.
Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY
Happiness is a tenuous state, vanishing under the slightest scrutiny. As soon as we become aware that we’re happy, we break the spell. Most of the time.
I have found a wormhole to happiness, a way to enter and possess this fragile condition, at least for an hour or so.
It starts on my drive home from work, as I reach the neighborhood I live in. Darkness falls early now and I drive with care, watching for evening walkers, a loose dog, a child. I consider how quickly life can cave in, the countless hazards I’ve been spared, through vigilance or luck. The close calls I know nothing about.
I get out of the car and pause on the walkway to admire the silhouette of the giant cedar in my yard, the cold bright stars above it. The air smells of fall leaves and wet tree bark. The porch is lit, waiting for me. I can see the living room through the window, the string of willow lights on the mantle and the mountain sculpture above it. I am smiling already.
The front door is a portal to another realm. I cross the threshold into a place of rescue and reassurance, a habitat my spouse and I created to calm ourselves and honor the natural world. Here is a sconce fashioned of paper birch and manzanita branches; here is a hawk with moonlight on his back; here is a carved wooden owl taking flight from the wall; here is a large photo of a deeply fissured redwood in a forest of ferns.
My wife greets me with a kiss, just like in the old movies, then heads into the kitchen to shake up the martinis—one apiece, never more. Fine gin is strong medicine and should be handled with ritual and respect.
We take our drinks into the living room and sit down to discuss the day. Settled into my recliner, I look over at the electric fire with its obedient orange flames, and the carpet with its undulating lines that remind me of wave-lapped sand, and my wife, whom I have loved every minute of our thirty-eight years together, and my joy is so great I cannot speak, can only wonder how, in this world of microbes and menace and mad men, we have been kept safe, why we were born here and not Somalia. How have we managed to hang onto our vision, our limbs, our minds? How have we survived our blunders, our fathers, the things we will never, ever speak of?
A second thought, the slightest change on any given day, and we would not be sitting here now. Had we been moving toward each other all along? Did our detours bring us together, or did we meet, magnificently, in spite of them? To think that we began our lives no bigger than a grain of sand, then had to swim, crawl, walk, run, bike and drive to reach this precarious moment.
I lift my drink, which never fails to knock the rough edges off my work day, and turn to my wife. I can hardly wait for whatever she might say.
It is this way every night.
Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.
The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.
Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.
For nature lovers who enjoy audiobooks, Strange Company is now available on Audible. Listen to a sample, narrated by Nikiya Palombi. I am delighted to hear my essays rendered so beautifully. And thanks again to Mark McNease of MadeMark Publishing for believing in me and this venture.
Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.
I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.
Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.
Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.
Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.
When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.
I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.
Joan Didion wrote: “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.
As if I could have managed without her.
I just read a quote attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Love is something eternal—the aspect may change, but not the essence.” It reminds me of the way I regard my former romances. Those powerful emotions are still out there—emotions are a form of energy and energy cannot be destroyed—but they exist in my wake. We molt out of necessity, just like other creatures who shed feathers or shells or skin in order to renew themselves.
Now, I am not talking about the sort of love from which we do not emerge, the people we cherish beyond time and reason. Many of us become so deeply involved in our partners that we cannot recover when we lose them. The subtraction stays with us, alters us; for the rest of our years we live with an absence. The grief subsides, allowing us to eat and move about, while the love goes on as if nothing happened. The love will not be denied or replaced. It is a bare fact. We remain alone, not out of faithfulness, but because we lack even the smallest interest in acquiring someone else. We are bound and free at once.
So what happens to the loves we do leave behind, the tears and vows and rages that fueled those erstwhile affairs? What becomes of the rampant need we had for someone who now brings nothing but a shrug?
When I consider my old romances, I picture neither their ruin nor their passion. I see these people in random snapshots that leave me curiously unmoved, aside from faint sympathy for whatever happened to us. Like the rags of the dream, the details fade away and nothing is left but mercy.
I loved these people, loved them to my marrow. Which I guess is why I keep them safe and tidy into eternity. I see them in the order they arrived, set some distance from one another, on the side of a winding highway. I see them as packages wrapped in brown paper and white twine, and each one has a name printed on it— no address of course. They are not going anywhere.
Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/halfbisqued/2353845688/”>lemonhalf</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-SA</a>