Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Six-Inch Valley Through the Middle of My Soul

In response to a comment, I am posting this essay I wrote about twenty years ago. Originally titled "Drinking Blue Milk," I have renamed it in keeping with the tradition of this blog.

--for vinestreet--

I have often heard of the chastity lesson with the milk and the ink drop: Sister Smith drips, almost tenderly, the midnight blue ink into the whiteness. The point is, I presume, that the milk is supposed to be ruined. I have never seen it done, but would, I think, probably watch in delight as the blue tendrils curl softly, coaxing the white, joining in gentleness until the glass is filled with pale blue. I know I would do it again at home to see the softness of a new color come to life. I have heard that others use chocolate cake: offering the largest teenage boy a slice of cake, then, instead of using the knife, plunging his hands through the cream and crumbs to offer, as it were, a spoilt offering. I cannot but envy his sensation as his fingers pierce cool cream, then rough, warm crumbs, dark chocolate working its way underneath his nails. I would have asked to do it myself, to be able to feel the texture ooze through my tightening fingers like river mud.

I am the fifth child in our family—a girl, who always wanted to be a boy. Perhaps it was my brothers' fault: I wanted to be like them. I have two of them immediately above me in the family line-up: Jonathan, three years older than I, who was small and asthmatic (no longer). He played the piano and the girl parts in the school plays at his all-boys school. We fought constantly, perhaps because we had nothing in common, but maybe because I was just as big as he was until he hit his growth spurt at 17. I do remember though when we both had chicken pox. It must have been an uneasy truce that day. Mom was gone Visiting Teaching, the sky was pure blue and the breeze blew salt through the house—early summer in the Cape. Suddenly we found ourselves naked at the swimming pool in the back garden, our scrawny white bodies dotted in fiery red pox, jumping off the electricity pole into the deep end. The water felt cool against my skin and we laughed.

On the other hand, Paul is big and brawny with bow legs and crooked teeth. My mother was asked to remove him from nursery school, I think, when he was four: he was teaching the other children to swear. He had a mess of freckles strewn across his round face and report cards filled with comments like "A satisfactory result but Paul is not reaching his potential." His room smelled like rugby boots and mud. He played the recorder and the guitar, crooning "Norwegian Wood" into a tape recorder to send to the mission president's daughter up north, and about the only eligible Mormon girl in the country beside his sisters. Paul left for BYU when he was seventeen, the first of the children to leave. I dreamed I would marry Paul, but he loves Janet Nicole, whom he met in the Reserve Library. When she first saw him, he was wearing Easter grass in his moccasins—he wanted to be a walking Easter basket (as I remember or disremember the story). Janet knew it wouldn't be boring to spend a life with a walking Easter basket, so she married him.

I don't remember when my body started changing. I just know I never wanted to be a girl. I even fought once on the rugby fields of Rondebosch Boys High School with a boy who disbelieved me when I said I was a girl. Secretly, I am thrilled, but I have to defend my honor. So we wrestled until he finally conceded my femininity. I was ten years old. I even went through a phase where at night I prayed to be changed. Come morning, I would sneak my nighty up ever so slowly over my stomach only to be disappointed.

Womanhood came early the next year. It came before I wore a bra, before my first kiss. It came when Harry moved his hand slowly across my chest. He whispered roughly, "Let me show you how I love you." I kept my eyes firmly on my book, trying to pretend he wasn't there, that he wasn't doing what he was doing, that I wasn't feeling what I was feeling. "Touch me," he whispered as we walked between the pillars of the garden gate to the front door. His voice was hoarse. "Please, touch me." I ran, pretending I hadn't heard. I was twelve years old. He was my sister's husband.

It's a strange thing when you're twelve, in seventh grade at an all-girls school, and a man touches you. It's a fascinating, repulsive thing when you're eleven and a man shows you pictures, pulled from beneath the Welsh dresser in a secret drawer, of things you don't know the words for. It's an anxious thing hoping the family won't see when he kisses you hello in an open-mouthed masquerade of familial affection. It's an agonizing thing waiting to see who will take you home after a night of babysitting. It's fear rising inside as your sister asks Harry to drive you home; she's too tired. It's knowing his hand will come over the back of the front seat to find you in the dark where you sit huddled in the corner. Most of all, it's a frightening thing, when at eleven and twelve, your prayers are filled with earnest pleadings that your sister's husband will drown at sea and never, never come back.

I didn't know what else to do. I was twelve years old. He was my sister's husband. He was family. He told me it was a good thing, a beautiful thing. He told me never to tell. I never did. I loved her too much. And so I prayed, and feared, and prayed, and felt my body respond in ways I had never known. I hated my body; it betrayed me. I hated him; he betrayed my sister. I loved him; he was my sister's husband. I felt in some way responsible. If only I hadn't started developing so soon. If only I didn't look back when I was seventeen when I was eleven, eighteen when I was twelve. If only, if only, if only. Eventually, I just learned to block it out. I carried on doing homework, I carried on reading, I carried on (with a few bouts of bulimia in between). What else could I do? I carried on, in silence.

Until one summer twelve years later.

I returned home after two-and-a-half years away, half of that spent in missionary service to find our family reeling and an older sister, numb, spirit deadened. After thirteen years, she had finally had enough. Enough of trying to raise children in a maelstrom of emotion, of trying to remain calm in the face of violent episodes, of trying to placate and reassure a hair trigger. In one long afternoon, Mom and I sat at a kitchen counter making chocolate cakes, and she told me the story. Then, hesitatingly, awkwardly, I told her mine. But it was not only mine. It was my younger sister's story too. He had done the same to her, convincing her it was right because Tessa, her older sister, had done it. In her distraught whisper, Mom said, "I must tell your father."

Perhaps the biggest reason that I never told anyone is because my father loves his children. I thought he would kill Harry if he ever knew. His reaction surprised me.

We walked along the beach front at The Wilderness, an isolated village on the east coast. The air smelled of salt and sand and the ocean mist creeping grey across the horizon. Mom and my youngest sister, Alex, and I had joined my father that weekend in his speaking assignment, about 600 kilometers from home, to a tiny branch of about 11 people. Arriving early after the six hour drive, we drifted to the beach where we had come so many summers before as a young family. I can see myself, brown curls sandstapled to my head, turning hand-sand-sky down the slopes of the dunes to land cold in the ocean. I am older now, the sun has gone down, and Daddy walks ahead of me, his legs still lean, his belly a little bigger, his hair grey. I can hear his words, the words I have feared for so long: "Oh sweetheart, I don't know why the Lord gives us such strong urges. It's hard to control them and so difficult to understand. But we must learn to battle them and to be forgiving." I consciously loved my father more then than I had in years. I wondered at his understanding of human nature. Then I remember he too had had to forgive another's urges so that his life and theirs could heal and go on. With his kind and gentle wisdom born of experience, he gave me the family's permission to feel the peace that I had felt for years. At that moment, for all I knew and had experienced, my episodes with Harry were gone and forgiven.

I had forgiven Harry. To enter the House of the Lord, I had to forgive. But the healing began long before that interview day. I don't think I was the one who consciously chose to heal. Through the silent and divine process of time and faith, the pain was gone, first buried to ease it, then washed away in an understanding born of age and time. My bishop asked me whether there was anything in my conduct relating to my family members that was not in keeping with the Spirit of the Lord. I remember searching the faces in my mind: childish fights with Jonathan, harsh words with Laura, but, more recently, letters of love and support; rocking Alex to sleep; Daddy and I watching Silverado on a rainy Saturday afternoon. From a recess, long unvisited, came shadows of fear and anger and Harry. I hesitated then, and said, "Yes, but it's over now." He must have understood because he said, "I sense no animosity." And he was right. I did not hate Harry then, ten years after the fact, and I don't hate him now.

I realize that what happened, happened. Not much I can do about it now. I had hoped my husband would have been the first to touch me so; but he doesn't condemn me. Sometimes, I wish I hadn't sat through youth classes knowing exactly what the teacher was talking about. I wish, in hindsight, that those very strong feelings and passions had not been stirred in me at such a young and inappropriate age. Often, and still, I wish I had not learned to associate those expressions of love and tenderness with sick men and misguided desires. That association is so hard to undo.

To preserve the normalcy of my life, there is another association I have been loath to make. I do not find it easy to call myself "a survivor of abuse," "a victim." Those are words I see emblazoned across angry T-shirts on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw—applicable to someone else more desperate, more vile, more dirty than I am. Or are they? To realize what happened and accept what I am because of a man's actions stirred a smoldering anger that I don't quite know how to deal with. So, sometimes, I smile, in self-deprecating humor (which is only to leaven my anger) at the thought of being a statistic. In the beginning, I used to cry. To be so violated and so young is so unfair, so unjust, so ungodly. While the understanding of human mistakes and the forgiving came relatively easily, my healing continues still. Mostly, I remove myself.

Before I was married, I did not think very often of what happened so long ago, but when I saw the stretch across the back of the mountain sky, or I saw the swell of the hills green in the spring, or when I felt a hand resting warm in the small of my back, and lips gently brushing my neck, then I remembered, not Harry, but the swells of passion and I had to fight against them. I knew, dangerously well, how to focus my mind on something completely unrelated to the activities of my body. I knew how to turn off the guilt; and how to rationalize, even enjoy in a panic-heightened state, what was happening to me. I needed to do that when I was 12. It was vital in order for me to psychologically survive. And Christ knew, even in my youth, how to succor me so that I could go on. He dimmed my memory and dulled the hate, turning me to acceptance and a hazy understanding of why Harry did what he did. At twelve, I did not consider myself a victim. In fact, I did not regard myself as anything out of the ordinary. For all I knew, I was normal, healthy, passionate.

But I am 26 now, married and a mother, and the legacy lives with me still. However, there is no longer one person who must suffer from this period in my life. In fact, when I was alone, I did not suffer. If I kept control of my life and my passions, I could avoid situations like those of 12 years before. But now, married, I think Kevin and I are both victims of what happened. I use the word victim with trepidation. I don't wish to shift the reasons for our situation onto anybody. But, in my case, I can share the blame. What happened is a dark thread in a rich tapestry, useful perhaps to make lighter colors seem richer in comparison. However, sometimes, it is hard for me to see anything but that one thread. I know I would never have chosen so dark a thread as that fear of intimacy and sexual guilt which Harry brought into my life.

I struggle to know that Kevin really loves me. I convince myself, through some strange logic, that if he loved me, he would not ask me to share myself with him. I struggle to dissociate the sacred acts of husband and wife from the perverted acts of a middle-aged man and a 12-year old girl. I misinterpret Kevin's loving caress as gropings. My mind tells me that Kevin cannot be the same as Harry, but many times, that silent, rigid, young girl is closer to the surface than I realize, waiting and watching with bated breath, trying not to panic as a hand comes closer and closer to her body. These are the things I struggle with.

I entered marriage with Hollywood dreams and third hour allusions to the delights of marriage. We were going to live happily ever after in satin sheets and temple garments. I thought, because Kevin and I were so passionate in our dating, that the same passion would continue in our marriage. I could not have imagined the irrational fear and guilt that accompanied our first nights. I needed more than Calvin Klein lace lingerie to still the sobs and screams welling in my throat. My perplexed new husband could not reconcile the stiff, frightened girl before him on the bed with the demonstrative, passionate woman he had been engaged to. We could not have imagined I would fight him, pushing him away to physically escape what I had mentally escaped before.

Our marriage is not smooth at time because of this. Kevin shrinks from expressing his affection (not a natural posture for him), not wanting to be mistaken for Harry. I retreat behind a barricade of silence, protests of fatigue and mountains of books. (Robert Ludlum is the equivalent of a swear word in our family. I took the Bourne Ultimatum on our honeymoon and finished the book—all 700 plus pages of it. Reading is my way of escaping, of going somewhere else when the intimacy required becomes too much.) We are beginning to talk. The talking helps. Knowing Kevin is trying to understand me helps. But how can you really understand a feeling, a fear so irrational, yet so real unless you have felt it yourself. The revulsion comes in a wave so unexpected that even the sweetest kiss turns instantly rancid in my mouth. The swell of passion that causes me turn my body into his freezes me even as I feel it. The fear and guilt are with me still. Even after bearing a child, I still feel afraid when I try to enjoy my body with my husband or try to enjoy his. Just as I learned to fight the passion, I need to now let it ride, climb on its back, do something, anything to enjoy those moments.

Kevin enjoys me. He loves me passionately. He's a remarkably kind, gentle man who entered marriage with the same passion-filled dreams I did but with the capacity to fulfill them. Unfortunately, he married me, a survivor of abuse. I don't think he regrets the decision. Nothing indicated things would be this way between us, that I would be so crippled. But at times, he struggles to know that I love him, that I find him desirable. Because if I did, I would want to make love to him. But, most days, I don't. I tell him it's nothing personal. He doesn't quite buy that. Round and round we go.

So we struggle through this area of intimacy and withdrawal, which may or may not be different, from the struggles each sexually inexperienced newly-wed couple goes through. I often yearn to love my husband but feel myself incomprehensibly incapable of expression, frozen in some adolescent fear of guilt and complicity. I cannot but help it would be easier for me, for Kevin, for us, had we not had to drink blue milk. While I am not ruined as Sister Smith insisted I was, I am irrevocably changed, different. To give oneself clean and undefiled, naive and inexperienced, eager to participate, must be a fearful, reverent, divine moment free of shadows and fear and guilt. It was a moment I never knew. But I know, I hope, that I can come to know that moment. If there is such a thing as forgiveness and a lighter yoke, then there have to be for us, for Kevin, for me, nights and mornings and lazy summer afternoons of sensual, sexual, divine moments. They are not with us yet. God willing, they will be.

Postscript: Fifteen years after I wrote this, I am thrilled to announce that we have been the blessed participants in many "lazy, summer afternoons." There have also been tricky nights and petulant mornings. But enough "lazy summer afternoons" that we keep coming back for more.

Title from Bruce Springsteen, "I'm on Fire"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ready, Ready, Ready, Ready to Run

I survived May. And might survive June.

The laptop hard drive is still crashed, along with all my legal files for the last three years, the family photos, and the iTunes of over 1,500 songs. Not to mention the hundreds of Sims characters that died with it—to whom Adam didn’t get to say good bye properly. Apparently, I got it so hot it actually melted. The hard drive itself is in a freezer somewhere, right next to Ted Williams, hoping for a resurrection in a kinder technological time and age. That happened May 1st, an auspicious start to the month, that only went downhill from there.

The Supplemental Reply to the Supplemental Opposition to the Reply to the Opposition to the Motion for Class Certification is being stamped at the San Diego Court house as I write. Every case has been checked twice, every subtle allusion to Defendants’ incompetence and disingenuity has been slightly smiled at many times, every legal premise tied firmly to the extant case with a simile so clear even the thickest judge could draw a favorable comparison.

The water has been restored. Turns out the little swamp to the north of the house that gave us bulrushes so beautiful we could reenact Moses in his little basket boat wasn’t really a natural spring. And the pipe that dripped water wasn’t really just part of the old irrigation system, but actually our water main—which the landscaper cut early on a Friday afternoon. (Did I tell you Provo City doesn’t work on Fridays? Part of the very efficient four-day work week). We’ve gone without toilets before (and discovered that our sewer line runs in an L-shape about 650 yards down the hill), but without water for three days! You can’t fix that with an Albertson’s bag and a shovel. No teeth brushing, no hand washing, no dishes, no laundry (the silver lining?), no cooking water, no showers, no baths, no watering the garden, no fresh water for dogs, cats, birds. By Sunday evening I started to understand why Christian organizations build wells and houses before they teach the message. Somehow a Saviour seems just a little theoretical at the point where you have to walk seven miles to fetch water in a paint can propped on your head. Forget living water, just water will do fine.

The U12 AA Division 2 soccer championship has been won, which required me coaching games about every night of the week for the last week of April and the first week of May, at the same time as Little League started, as the same time as Spring Basketball started, at the same time as All-star Softball started, at the same time as every possible end of school year function and important sporting event: Softball Banquet; National Honor Society banquet; Senior Prom; Senior Dinner Dance; Senior Tribute; Seminary Graduation; Seminary Graduation Talk; mother-in-laws Mother's Day Brunch; Ranger’s soccer tryouts; the dance festival; the third grade Legends of the Corn God play in which Adam played a rock; the fifth grade American Heroes Wax Museum, in which Seth played Colonel Saunders with live chicken in a cage; the New Scouts overnight; the Cub Scouts day camp (not attended—more guilt); the UVU basketball camp; the interminable weekend spring basketball tournaments; the Fathers and Sons camp; the AAU tournament; the beginning of lacrosse. All the while, I was thinking, I have no documents from the past three years; I have no documents from the past three years; I have no documents from the past three years, and our family has ceased to exist in photographic form.

New soccer teams have been found and formed for next season—which all need to be registered for tomorrow, and I still need to figure out how to resize a photo, and track down a birth certificate for a boy whose parents are, apparently, in Denmark.

The oldest child, and only daughter, has graduated from high school. If the pictures showed my ankles that day, you could see a dirt ring where the mud from the pond that leaked oozed over the top of my sandals about thirty minutes before the ceremony started. The curly hair is not a style; it’s a minimal effort, and has, if you could touch it, dirt in it, which only provides more volume. The tears that burst out of me like (no joke—a broken water main) when she walked across the stage were completely spontaneous. I turned to Kevin and sobbed, “I can’t remember her life at all. Did she have a good one?” “Pure Victorian hysteria,” said was the expression on his face.

The Senior All-night party, thrown on the night of graduation, is over. The consequent sinus infection is almost. I had not believed it possible to entertain fifty seventeen- and eighteen-year old boys with five dodge balls and a basketball from midnight until five in the morning. Who knew? Those 3.99, Ben Stiller, dodge balls were the afterthought bought hurriedly at Shopko after the ping pong tables I lined up to deliver to the high school all proved too big to get out of their basements. They’d all been assembled down below and had never seen the light of day. The basketball was dredged up from the back of the car, a remnant from basketball season, and covered up with balls, cones, pinnies and ladders from soccer season. Forget the inflatables, the bingo, the karaoke, the DJ, the hypnotist. The boys played dodge ball for hours across the width of the gym, with a basketball game played blithely in the middle of the killing ground.

The stream through the backyard has been relined with river rocks. (My children DO know how to work!) The hill behind the house is cleared of Chinese Elm and partially planted with perennials and covered with chocolate bark. The others still wait. So far I’ve lost one ruby red gaillardia to unplanting and a few speckled yarrow are looking iffy. But the cone flowers and the sage are doing swell, and I’m sure the transplanted red hot pokers will make a strong comeback next year. (I laugh at the plants in the nursery whose tags say, “Prefers well-drained, evenly moist soil with regular fertilization.” Yeah, don’t we all?) The baby blessing for 60 and the surprise 40th birthday party for my sister with about 100 guests five hours later on the same day came off without a hitch; barely a rain shower.

The sprinkler system is currently being installed. For one brief shining moment that was known as June 6, 2009, the back garden in my own home matched the back garden in my dreams. No more. Now it looks like a giant mole has made its home beneath us. Either that or a really low budget WWI movie is being shot on site. No more irrigating with moving pipe and skirts tucked into my underwear. I’ll miss those mornings, when the water arrives with a rush over the waterfall. My best watering days were on Sundays when I’d run home between meetings to check to see whether it had shown up yet (we’re at the end of the line). If it had, I’d strip off my dress and shoes, and running in underwear and pearl earrings, move sprinklers and watch watering patterns, my feet soaking in the cold water moving across the lawn. I’d return to church, wet around the edges and under my bra, hair dripping mist, smiling—my own communion.

The trek has come and gone, as has the post-trek commemoration a week later. Enough! I haven’t finished that laundry yet, or returned the borrowed tents. I also still haven’t mailed out our Christmas cards or Julia’s graduation announcements. I might do that by the end of the summer. While I’m at it, the Christmas wreath is still under the couch; and as I don’t remember using it this Christmas, I’m thinking it was from last Christmas; but we might have used it as a centerpiece this year; that’s a definite maybe. (It will take me about three minutes to take it downstairs to the wall in the basement that holds the various wreaths. But, last time I was on my knees looking for the remote under that particular couch, I thought, "Aaaagh, is that still under there?" and made no move to take it downstairs. Don't know why I resist so.)

In the very middle of it, I swore off matching socks for the rest of my life. The vow went something like this: “I am not matching socks anymore. From this moment on, I am not matching socks. See that bin right there. You can all go dig in that bin. Matching socks makes me feel very bad about myself. I don’t want to feel bad about myself anymore. “

Three days later, “Mom, I can’t find any socks.” “I told you, I am not matching socks anymore. See that bin right there. You can all go dig in that bin. Matching socks makes me feel very bad about myself. I don’t want to feel bad about myself anymore. “ “But what else do you do all day Mom, except play on the computer.” “I am not matching socks anymore. See that bin right there. You can all go dig in that bin. Matching socks makes me feel very bad about myself. I don’t want to feel bad about myself anymore. “ He’s been wearing the same pair of yellow baseball socks (unwashed) for the last five games. He takes them straight off, sometimes after sleeping the night in them, and pairs them back up so that he knows where they are. It works for us both.

Not to mention, it has rained for three weeks straight. Grey skies; hail on Father’s Day. It feels like Utah has up and moved to Oregon, or London, but with no added benefit of Wimbledon. I'm getting to the point where I pack eggs away in the microwave and my keys in the fridge. As for the six-layer dip that we bought at Costco last week and Seth swears he brought in from the car, I'm afraid to find out where it actually is. We haven't seen it and can't find it. I'm sure we'll smell it pretty soon.

Yet I breathe.

And can I tell you my deepest thought, after all this? I fear I am at the stage in life where my boobs have become a bosom—that broad, table-like shelf, one continuous form, upon which one might rest one’s arms, a baby, or one’s dinner plate. The body part whose configuration forces one to choose either above or below when learning up against a window sill, or a fence, or a counter. The kind of body part that looks good on the front of ship or the front of a hospital matron who walks competently through the dimly lit corridors, clipboard clutched to side of said bosom, said bosom trussed up in a contraption (that comes with its own instruction manual) from Dillards Lingerie department and draped in water-colored silk, with a brooch pinned to the upper left, the first thing one sees as it breaks the air in front of her. “Good morning, I’m Sister Tessa, and this is my bosom.” I don’t mind getting my mother’s hands. They’re earned through months of mornings and afternoons spent pulling weeds and planting. But, my grandmother’s bosom! I already have her Shetland pony legs. Did she have to bequeath me the bosom?

Title: Dixie Chicks, Ready to Run.

Monday, June 22, 2009

'Til You Are Sleeping

Sitting on a bus dressed in quasi-pioneer clothing (half Banana Republic/half J.Jill), surrounded by 48 teenagers in same said clothing, precious bottle of Diet Mountain Dew (bought at the Bear River State Park, Wyoming vending machine with borrowed quarters) clutched in my lap. We had a 5 a.m. start and there are miles to go before we sleep. My bowels are sluggish and not timed to coincide with rest stops. I wonder how they will fare with the longdrop toilets, two per gender for 260 people.

The kids are worried about the 8 miles we get to trek this afternoon pulling handcarts and who will be assigned to which handcart families. I'm worried about how the tennis shoes are going to look with my outfit once I take off the Franco Sarto silver-buttoned sandals and hit the trail. I think I would have been the woman who insisted on taking her piano in the handcart, and her books, and her favorite, bright red shawl with orange poppies embroidered on it. Flour? Pans? What? I might have wandered off to look at the stands of Indian paintbrush. Later, around the fire, Kevin would ask, "Have any of your children seen your mother?" "I don't know Dad. Last I saw, she was rounding a hill, running with wolves." "Well, I guess we can unload the piano."

I'm watching Wyoming go by through the bus window. I'm wondering. First, just why? Second, why did somebody build a luxury hotel with free ice cream and a 31-inch screen in every room (if the billboards are to be believed) in the middle of Wyoming? Third, what does one do in Green River, other than eat at the Arctic Circle? Seems to me if I lived in Wyoming, I couldn't live in a town. The towns spread out beneath the Wyoming sky just reinforce how small and insignificant they really are. I would have to live out, out and away, just me and a home and a barn and fences and pronghorn antelope, beneath a sky that dwarfs any pretensions of grandeur and clouds that lift one's eyes heavenward by their very nature. Where, when the wind blows, you can see it move through the grass like water, echoing the river's face, and the clouds' trace across the sky. Where, when the wind blows, you don't measure its irritation by the sound of the branch banging against the loose rain gutter and the damage it could do to your potted plants, but its power as it moves across the space of your vision into other worlds.

The place we're going is Martin's Cove, a place where Mormon immigrants pulling handcarts into the face of an early winter blizzard were rescued, but not before starvation, exhaustion and death. I've been there before. Six years ago, in exactly the same pioneer outfits, with some of the same kids. So, I know what to expect. It's ground like Gettysburg. Hallowed ground, where lives were given for an ideal, laid down in front of the very rocks and trees I will walk between. I know I will feel those spirits in my bones, as I did at Gettysburg.

But today, I'm not thinking about death and sacrifice, today I'm thinking about rescue. About what it takes to rescue and be rescued; how it's so much easier to rescue those who are dying politely, quietly desperate for your help.

I try to imagine the scene as the forward parties of rescuers who had been travelling from Salt Lake City since October 6th or 7th came upon the desperate companies between Devil's Gate and Martin's Cove. These men had been on the trail from Salt Lake City for two weeks, leaving, it's said, their crops in the field, taking their best horses and wagons, racing against time and a startlingly early winter to reach those still walking toward the valley. One man's responsibility was to keep the roads over the mountain passes open by trampling the waist-deep snow with his oxen. Imagine that duty, to keep the roads open at the top of Rocky Mountain passes during blizzards. You don't even get to be the hero riding in on the wagon. You just get to trample snow until you've made a passable road, not knowing whether what you do will be of any effect.

I'm thinking it's best for the rescuers to come upon those waiting to be rescued when they're half frozen, with blackened feet, in a circle of rocks outside Devil's Gate, surrounded by unburied corpses, and trying to survive on four ounces of flour a day in wet clothing and temperatures below zero. You'd get greeted with the kind of humble ceremony and gratitude you'd think fitting. When you're helping, particularly if you're leaving your crops and taking your best horses on a two week slog into early winter, you expect those being rescued to be appropriately humble, grateful, and fittingly destitute. It's a little off putting when they offer opinions about your help, or request the exact manner in which they would like to be rescued, which of course, is not precisely the manner in which you envisioned it, and by their comments, your best efforts are obviously falling short of their expectations.

What if the people needing help (the notion of what help is needed is also up for discussion; sometimes the help given is an attempt to get their lives to look a little more like ours) are like the penguins that need rescuing off the coast of South Africa after oil spills.

Some haphazard, oil tanker goes aground of the Cape of Storms. The tank ruptures and oil spreads through the breeding grounds and rookeries of thousands of penguins that live off the coast, on rocky outcroppings and islands. The penguins get covered in oil. Oil-covered penguins sink in water. So boats rush in, filled with rescuers who scoop up the oil-covered birds, which birds, in turn, bite, and hard.

I remember seeing pictures of oil penguin rescues in the Cape Times, when I was a kid. The rescuers hands and fingers were wrapped in thick tape and bandages, either to ward off against the penguins' beaks, or to cover cuts and bites already inflicted by the birds. It looked like they'd been playing with chainsaws. The penguins were held in a death grip on the cleaning table, and still they turned their heads, Chucky-like (never seen it) to bite the hands cleaning them.

At some point, say after the fifteenth bite maybe, if I were the rescuer, I would be wont to throw my hands up in the air and say, "Alright then, okay then . . . die, sucker . . . just sit in this oil and die." Which response might be marginally okay when it's penguins, except if they're on the endangered species list. (But judging by the colony at Boulders, the penguins are doing fine, Liberian ship captains notwithstanding.) But not such a good approach to take with people—especially people with children whom they drag along with them, to a fourth generation of misery.

As I think about this on the bus, William Faulkner-like stream-of-conscious, I wonder, when is it okay to abandon the rescue? When it gets unpleasant (penguin crap on your shoes); dangerous to limb (penguin beak slashing across your hands); dangerous to life (penguin beak in your eyeball penetrating to your brain)? When those to be rescued don't really want you there? Do you turn around and leave? Can you do that? Abandon ship mid-rescue?

I suppose an easy cut off point is when your tour of duty is up: your one year in Vietnam; your eighteen months in Billings, Montana; your nine months as the fifth-grade teacher at Wasatch School. Even though the need might not yet be met, the artificial finish line gives us a sense we've done our part. But for those rescues with no finite finish, with those that involve the people around you whose need you have noticed and responded to, I'm sensing it has something to do with what/who started you on that rescue; with the impulse that motivated you; with the purpose behind the impulse to rescue. I'm thinking that on one hand it's not okay to stop when the impulse ends. The decision to stop has to be more than just "I'm not feeling it" anymore. After the fifteenth bite, my impulse is to let the sucker drown.

I am reading Freshwater Road this week, about a young "high yellow" woman, Celeste, who leaves Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she is going to college in the sixties, for Pineyville, Mississippi to run a voting project to enlist black voters during Freedom Summer. As she stands on the street corner in Jackson handing out voter information sheets to black and white alike during her training, she thinks about her mother who has opted out of the race race by moving to New Mexico where classifications are not as rigid as in Pineyville, Mississippi. She senses her mother's disdain for what she is doing, her incredulity that Celeste would put out for people who would not do likewise:

She shook off thoughts of Wilamena's . . . assumed superiority, as if every kind or giving gesture toward another human being qualified as a favor that had to be reciprocated. Wilamena never got what the gesture did for the person offering—not as something to lord over others, but as an expression of one's humanity. Just like the graduation.

Wilamena couldn't put herself out to attend her own children's graduations from high school, and yet thought it just fine to continue asking them to come to New Mexico. Some people got it and some didn't. There was no blessed community in required reciprocity, but there certainly was in flat-out giving.

There in, perhaps, is an answer. We rescue because we are able. We give because we can and have. We continue until we are no longer able, or no longer needed. How long? Not when authority tells us to stop, but until we don't notice need anymore. In the legal world, if you give somebody notice, you make them aware that an action is starting against them. In my internal world, when I notice, I know I have been called to action. If I notice, like the Good Samaritan, I believe I have been called to rescue by a universe that knows all need. There is some combination of what I can give and what is needed that causes me to notice. Ironically, as I move to fulfill need, in my movement toward and my commitment to, I become more genuine, more filled with compassion, more human; and our community, more blessed.

Title: from Les Miserables, "A Little Fall of Rain."