Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the Road to Find Out

I was evicted once—from the adult section of the Rondebosch Branch of the Cape Town Municipal Library—for trying to check out Great Battles of World War II. I was 8 or 9 then, my library cards were an oak green with my name and the expiration date printed boldly across the front, 1976-03-03. The adult cards were bright yellow. I suppose that was the librarian’s first clue. The other must have been the small brown hand that came sneaking over the top of the counter, clutching three tattered cards, wilted by the summer heat. If she had peered over the edge, she would have seen me on the tip of my toes, nose crushed against the wood, straining for those extra inches. She told me, not too unkindly, that I was to go downstairs. I think the mortification of discovery was edged out by the pang I felt as I saw the Great Battles of World War II disappearing under her desk.

Children were not allowed in the adult library. We had our own library. It was at the bottom of the sweeping staircase to the right, behind tall doors with brass handles and a window in each, across which windows was spelled, in gold block letters like an old fashioned lawyer’s office, Children’s Library. We had our own librarian, our own books, even our own little armchairs with chopped-off legs. The library was beautiful. The light came through twenty-foot, white framed windows, sandwiched like archer’s holes between the sandstone cornices. The floors were hardwood, yellowish, maybe teak to match the staircase that wound up the center of the building.

I spent months of my childhood there, even with the strangely colonial hours of operation: Mondays and Fridays, 10.00-18.00; Tuesdays, 10-13.00 (adults), 13.00-18.00 (children); Wednesdays, 10.00-13.00; Thursdays, 13.00-20.00; Saturdays, 9.00-12.00 (to coincide with the farmer’s market taking place in the alley between the library and the train station). I can't count all the times I would walk over the granite threshold, holding my breath in anticipation to be faced by closed doors. I had forgotten it was Wednesday, and with ruthless Afrikaner/British efficiency, those doors were closed at precisely 13.00. It was a long walk home on those days.

The summers were long; we had no television; the library was close by; and the walk took us through the river and along the railroad tracks where the engineers would wave to us from the steam engine. Why not go to the library? Besides, it was a place my mother would let us walk alone from a young age. So, I spent my summers walking to the library, wading in the river, waving to the engineers, dawdling alongside the tennis courts. Each visit I checked out three books—one for each card. Each day, I would read as fast as I could, and then return. I remember one zenith of almost psychotic reading, when I checked out By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, and Little Town on the Prairie one day and returned them the next, all read from cover to cover. I had lived in a Dutch attic for months to evade, without ultimate success, the invading Nazis, and tunneled for what seemed like miles through German dirt, dropping that same dirt pocketful by pocketful as I walked the fenced perimeter.

Reading transported me; overcame the limits of my physicality; made other worlds and experiences possible. The day of my expulsion I already knew what it was like to fight in the American Civil War—I had read Across Five Aprils four times. I had already poured molasses on the snow and made toffee men; what molasses was, or snow for that matter, I had no actual idea, but Alamanzo had done it, and, therefore, so had I. I had caught clams, and picked blueberries in my overalls and gappy teeth.

I had one of those time-collapsing moments a few weeks ago. I ran into our public library to pick up Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs for book club. We were meeting that afternoon, around the lunch table, and I had about two hours to read those 90 pages. I had originally planned to check out the book, run home, ditch stinky gym clothes, shower, get presentable (not having a job to dress up for anymore makes every moment out of the house an occasion) and then sit down to speed read through the turn of the twentieth-century novella about Dunnet Landing, a fishing village in Maine. Then I saw, under the window, a row of armchairs with an end table a Shetland pony leg-length apart from one of them. My perfect fit. I thought I would sit down for just a minute. I sank into the armchair, pulled the table a little closer with my heel, crossed one leg over the other on top of the table, and began to read.

It wasn’t a quick read. Sarah had set coastal Maine—tongue, life and hearts—to paper. To rush through would be like running into the gift shop at Gettysburg and buying a t-shirt to say you’d been on the battlefield. So, I curled up and read. Then spread out, spread over, curled up again, and read more. Took the fifteen-minute snooze that tends to come on about twenty minutes into reading. You know that fugue state where the words start to blur, the patrons start whispering underwater, and your body goes noodle warm. Waking from such a state is gentle; the shift from sleep to wake unnoticeable. Then I read more in the hushed, twilight, dustmote sound that seems to permeate libraries the world over.

I showed up late to book club, unshowered, in my pilling Winter Olympics 2002 sweatshirt, and took the end seat at the lunch table. But I had met Mrs. Todd, the local herbalist whose rumbling, wide-bodied passage through her garden is marked by the scent of rosemary and thyme crushed by her skirts; and Mrs. Blackett, her 86-year old mother who lives with her bachelor son and her very best tea set on Green Island off the coast. And soon I would know Joanna who, after being jilted on her wedding day, put herself away to hermitage on a solitary island. She was, her neighbors said, one of those people better at “being loved than loving.” There—my shaft of light.

Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of almost 1,700 libraries in the United States. According to his terms, he would provide the construction funds, and the town would provide the land and the operating budgets. Each town chose the design. There are Beaux Arts, Italian Rennaisance, Baroque, Classical Revival and Spanish-American Carnegie libraries in insignificant places like Grass Valley, California; Greencastle, Indiana; Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania; and Jefferson, Texas, population 2,024.

Yet, among them all, there were constant design features: Each library had a prominent, welcoming doorway. Each doorway was accessed by ascending a staircase, so that when the person entered the library, their physical movement would presage their intellectual. In both body and mind, they were be elevated by learning. Outside every library there was supposed to a lantern or light post. For enlightenment. Inside, the shelves were open stacks. An innovation. Prior to Carnegie libraries, a person had to request a book from a librarian, like a perpetual Special Collections. One book at a time. Now, each person would be able to choose their books for themselves.

Thank you Mr. Carnegie for that innovation. Does anybody else love those pregnant moments when you run your finger over book spines as you walk down the stack, feeling the curve of an author’s courage swelling beneath. A literary roulette. Where will the ball land? Where will the wheel stop spinning? Who’s the lucky winner today? In the library, me, always me.

I love the sensations the library makes possible. Simultaneously slowing and lengthening my steps. Running my fingers along the spines of books. Hooking my index finger over the spine and pulling out the book for a 45-degree angled peruse of the cover. The dilation of my pupils when a book I’ve been tracking finally shows up on the shelf. The whiff of papery air that puffs up when I open the cover. The author’s eyes that stare at me when I turn, mid-chapter, to look at his picture, thinking, “How on earth did that face, living as it does with its wife, two children and three cats in Birmingham, give birth to these words?”

I know I’m waxing lyrical. But just this afternoon, I asked Julia to copy pages of my favorite books before we returned them to the library. “Why are you doing this, Mom?” she says. “Because I need to keep these passages.” “Oh Mom, you are such a nerd.” She ruffles my curls. “Such a nerd.” I suppose I am. But these words have moved upon me. Wind on my water. I have become Zeno’s arrow that is caught, stationary in flight, page after page, words piercing my here and now with their shaft of light. For me, it is no mistake he is called The Word, given the power of words to transform, transport and transfigure.

Title: On the Road to Find Out, by Cat Stevens.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Here’s to You, June Williamson

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit - this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.


I've met her twice: June Williamson. Once standing in line at Einstein's Bagels, on the first Saturday in October, after my early morning soccer game. And the other, about a week ago, in front of the clearance racks at Old Navy. I never knew she existed before that October morning. I suppose I had driven by her house in the southern part of the valley. Our children might have played soccer or baseball against each other in the Summer and Fall Leagues. But, we don't live in the same town, and our children don't go to the same schools, and so we are destined never to meet . . . unless, by some twist of fate and luck, we both decide to head to Einstein's on Center Street to get a bucket full of bagels to help us make it through four hours of televised church on a Saturday.

There I was standing in line, behind the tiny figure of a woman dressed all in black. One of those ballerina figures. About 5 foot 3 inches, impossibly long neck, with thighs the size of large zucchinis, clad casual chic in black yoga pants, and black base layer turtleneck, and some kind of black jacket or vest, nipped in at the tiny waist. She wears semi-hiking boots, that look really good on her about size 6.5 feet. Her hair has lowlights. Her coffee-colored hands are long-fingered and I can see the sinews connecting wrist to knuckle.

There's me, 5 foot 8, in soccer shorts, from which protrude my very strong, Shetland pony legs, with soccer socks shoved down around my ankles, my size 9.5's shoved into my son's Adidas slides, the sweat imprint of the shinguard still visible on my calves. My hair's pulled back in the ponytail I've been wearing since grade school and which I still find the easiest hairstyle of all. And, just like grade school, the curls have escaped the elastic and are buzzing madly around my very red face.

She's trying to find enough bagels to fill two dozen but everybody has had the same idea this morning. All the blueberry, cranberry, chocolate, honey wheat, cinnamon sugar, asiago, and sunflower seed bagels have already found homes. She is left with only odd varieties, like one cinnamon raisin, two spinach, one rye, and several dozen sesame seed, chopped onion and pumpernickel. All I really want is a salmon lox—smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers on a toasted plain bagel. (Ten points if you know what the salty little caper actually is).

As she tries to find the assortment of bagels that will satisfy her children, I pull into the spot next to her along the display case to place my order.She turns to look at me, with a look of apology on her high-cheek boned face. "So sorry . . . there's just nothing left and I promised them that I would bring bagels." She has topaz eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across her cheekbones. The accent is pure Midwest American.

We both finish ordering and move to the side to wait. The conversation starts easily. I can't remember what started it. But, by the end of the ten minutes it took to get our orders, and the extra five minutes we took just standing around not wanting to leave, I found a fellow traveler.

She's from Thailand, adopted by an American service man who married her mother. She came to Utah to attend university. Her name's not really June, but June was the closest English name to her Thai name, and so her father called her that. She's married to somebody she met in college, and has five children. They live in the southern part of the valley, in a town that, I would guess, has maybe ten darker than white faces. She finds out I'm from South Africa, that I too moved to the United States, and that we have both married Americans.

The conversation skips to high schools, and to why I like sending my kids to the "ghetto" high school in our town. I tell her about growing up in South Africa and not knowing about the other in anything but a very superficial way. I share that I want my children to not be able to know what the majority looks like and by choosing this high school, they have hard time identifying the power structure by the color of a person's skin. She tells of her daughter's struggle to define herself when her peers ask her what she is. Not many know where Thailand is. We question why it is that they even have to ask the question.We laugh that we look like each other's names. My name, Hispanic at first glance, and hers, the name of a fifty-five-year old, white matron with whirligigs in her front yard and a root cellar with bottles of parsnips and apricot jam.

I walk out of Einstein's breathing deeply, my face in a grin. I feel better for knowing that June Williamson lives near me. I think I might never see her again, or, if I am brave, I will call her up and say, "I would like to be your friend." Either way, I've had one of those moments when I come face to face with a soul I recognize. C.S. Lewis describes the feeling as that moment when one person says to another, "What! You, too? Thought I was the only one." I'm filled with a sense that this person I have known before. When we meet, it's not a "Nice to meet you" moment. It's a "Well, there you are . . . where've you been?"

Every winter, South African girls in primary school play either netball or hockey. I first saw Julia Elizabeth when I lined up next to her on the line that demarcated our defensive third from the center third. She was Micklefield's Girls wing attack; I was Oakhurst's Girls wing defense. We were ten, and playing netball in Cape Town in the mid-seventies. Julia, no doubt, wore her pink pleated skirt and white polo shirt; I must have been in my green pleated skirt and white polo shirt with my "takkies" recently whitened with a stick of shoe whitener to make sure they were sparkling clean and thus suitable shoes in which to play netball.

Our schools were both girl-only elementary schools, with about 200 pupils. I know Oakhurst had only one class per standard, about 25 students per class and 7 standards in the school. I think Micklefield was even smaller, housed as it was in an old mansion off Sandown Road. It was a private school. Our two worlds were completely disconnected, except for those 40 minutes twice a winter season when Oakhurst played Micklefield in netball.We met every winter on the line, and played against each other, Julia trying to pass the ball into her team's shooting circle, me trying to prevent their team's attack. On looking back, it seems strange that we played the same position for three years running, and thus always played against each other.

During the last game of our last year in primary school, we lined up again, big grins on our faces at seeing each other again. "So, where are you going to high school?" we must have asked each other, there not being a given area high school one attended, at least not in the white Southern Suburbs anyway. There was the girls-only Rustenburg Girl's High School for the academic, attended by my older sisters, or San Souci, for the not-so-bright; the religious St. Cyprians for the Anglican girls, and Herzlia, for the Jews; and then there was an upstart, a new school, only twenty years old, which was co-educational and English-speaking, called Westerford. "Westerford," we must have both replied. And then I remember grinning, knowing that Westerford with Julia wouldn't be half as strange as I imagined it might have been.

The first day of school, we were assigned to the same class, 6C with Miss Jones, who wore semi-sheer blouses through which you could see her slippiest of slippy bras. Five years with Julia Elizabeth, or Jules, or Raynham, both of us in plaid, collared dresses. Five years of every day, copying each other's homework because our handwriting was identical, watching Mr. Bisset's beautiful hands from our front row in History, visiting each other's churches and youth groups, growing older, growing apart, moving back together again.

I saw her for the first time in twenty years last year when I visited South Africa, for the first time since I left for college in 1984. We're older. She's a traditional doctor, practicing healing and medicine from a workshop in her garage, filled with bones, rattles, herbs and stones. She also choreographs for her modern dance troupe, which was flying out the next morning to Algeria to participate in a festival of French-African dance. Her fingers are just as impossibly long. When we hugged in the doorway of her urban farmhouse the width and feel of her narrow shoulders was as familiar to me as the curve of my own children's. I felt time collapse as I stood there in that hallway.

Here she was, Julia Elizabeth. We span thirty years, most with very little contact. Yet, she is one of the tallest flowers in Goethe's garden of souls. She is my hollyhock, I suppose. I have a picture of the two of us as teenagers pinned to my fridge. It's tattered and water-spotted. When I look at us twenty-five years ago, I am filled with warmth. To know that somewhere on this earth, she still breathes and laughs and pulls her hair back with those impossibly long fingers is just a wonderful thing. Just in case, to keep her close, I have named my only daughter after her. I have my own Julia, a Julia Rose.

So, this is my paean to the kindred and kind and beautiful spirits who have risen at unexpected moments and filled my life. I'm sitting here in America, thousands of miles from my childhood, from my teenage years, from my mission, probably thousands of miles of thoughts away from those I'm thinking of. Time though, seems, inconsequential. That I have been there, with you, at some point is all that matters. I don't even know whether you think of me like I think of you. It doesn't matter; I don't require it to be reciprocal. Like walking into the Gallerria dell'Accademia in Florence and seeing David, in all his marble beauty for the first time, when I walk into this particular garden, I am always breathless with wonder.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leather and Lace

Mary took the mirror from the wall and threw it on the floor. It broke up into many angled pieces. Each piece reflected something of their house and the clothing of their children hung on pegs on the wall, and one large piece shone with the image of the sky and its early-morning adornment of cottony clouds overhead tumbling southeast in the early breeze and the bright dots of cottonwood leaves.

Two married people found themselves on separate and barren planets, alone in a place called Young County in the remote land of Texas. In an instant they realized that the bonds between them were not strong at all, but very fragile, and if these were broken they would be solitary and isolated for all eternity, and all that they had made together and the children they had made between them would be thrown out on long orbits like minor comets. . . . They were caught up in a rage of destruction, both hoping at some point the other would realize how serious this was.

--Paulette Jiles, The Color of Lightning

We have a painting in our hallway to our bedroom. It's called Lovers Running, and shows a man and a woman dressed in white on a green hillside, holding hands, and running in their bare feet. Sometimes, I get the title mixed up and call it Running Lovers. The same artist, Brian Kershisnik, has done another painting, which he calls, The Most Difficult Part. It shows a man and a woman in black leotards trying to perform a gymnastics move. One figure's standing on its hands while the other holds the feet. While the bodies look smooth and plaint, the move itself looks difficult and the stance is clumsy. Brian has said this piece is his metaphor for marriage. Not the only one, but one of those images that helps him makes sense of marriage. I know what he means. There are times in my marriage that I would feel more comfortable doing the reverse backhanded double Swedish helicopter backtuck with a triple twist, than in going forward.

At those moments, precipitated in particular for me when I have not been what I had hoped I would be for Kevin, I feel myself pulling away. I am literally the running lover. And I'm running to the corner, putting myself there and waiting for Kevin to come find me. I become silent, and watchful. I don't initiate any conversations, and my replies are brief. I try to take my cues from him. I suppose I want to know that I am still loved, despite my inability to even remotely balance a checkbook while being able to use one with dexterity (one of my difficult parts). But I can't articulate that. Some part of me won't say it. I want him to feel that and sense my distress. I want him to be my emotional GPS beacon. I want him to come running, my personal St. Bernard to rescue me from the avalanche in which I continue to sit.

All he sees is that I am gone. Tessa is gone, somewhere else. I won't speak to him, engage with him, flirt with him, touch him. So, he searches his memory for what he has done to precipitate this kind of distance. He doesn't know that all I want is for him to come find me and to reassure me that, despite it all, I am still loved. Instead, he feels that he is not loved, that t here is something innate within him that must be unlovable because his actions certainly don't warrant such a withdrawal. Therefore, it must be him. And if it is him, the very essence of him, then what can be done about that? How does one change one's very nature?

These are our individual thoughts, as we grow further and further apart. There we spin the two of us, in orbit around each other, wary, and always aware that the other is in the room.

It is during these times that I want to touch Kevin so desperately my teeth ache. I orient myself to where he is, to the distance between us on the couch and to the console between us in the car, and his right hand resting on his thigh. The pull to him is actually physical. But, because of some rule I have devised about who makes what move first and when, I don't actually close the gap. I'm sure there are some of you out there who find this behavior completely baffling. You touch easily and often. Your preferred manner of sitting next to your family on the pew or in the car includes a backrub. That doesn't come easily for me. I watch people who touch easily, wondering how they do it. How do they push past the force field of personal space and march in with arms outspread, hands at the ready to grab shoulder, or wrist, or, our personal favorite, perform the double-thump man hug?

At night though, my resolve crumbles. It's hard to sleep in the same bed with your lover and not touch him. More than hard, it's unnatural. The entire exercise seems like a farce: Get into bed, speaking politely, take care to wonder what the other one wants to watch on TV, blankets pulled up, both lying flat on our backs, not turned to the other or turned away as comfort dictates. Kevin manages to slip into sleep slower than the three seconds it normally takes him—a full five minutes or so. He turns his back to me. I start to read signs in the sheets.

Obviously, I don't sleep well. After much soul searching and bluster, I decide I'm just going to use his body for my own gratification in a reverse of gender roles. I reach out and slip my left foot into the space between his ankles bones. He doesn't respond. His breathing doesn't even change. I then spend the hours calculating what it means that he doesn't respond. Perhaps the snoring should tip me off that he is actually just fast asleep and doesn't feel me reaching out. But still I think and ruminate, my mind hesitant and fearful.

My body cannot wait though. I push my foot further, turning my body to spoon against his. I slide my right arm around his chest, and slip my left under his pillow. I rest my head against the broad of his upper back. Then, in his warmth, whether he is asleep or not, I don't know, I can finally sleep. Sometime during the night, the rigidity in his back will loosen, and he will sink toward me. His arms, which have been folded over his chest, will unwrap themselves, and his right hand will find mine. No longer lovers running. And maybe not then, but soon, just lovers. After, always the words: explanation, seeking forgiveness, giving forgiveness and reassurance, the laughing, the disbelief, the sheer relief that we are back together again.

I've written before about the capacity of the mother's body to teach me what I didn't know I needed to know. Things like the capacity of the body to provide sustenance for a child even though the spirit is unwilling. About the sacrifice required to mother well, giving all the body has to provide a safe haven for children entrusted to my care. Lately, I've been thinking about another lesson my body teaches me: when my heart and mind are so at odds with themselves that I cannot see straight and cannot talk straight, and when the distance between Kevin and I grows longer and longer, my body aches for him. I want him, with a hunger that's not, at least for me, a daily occurrence. I want his hands, his bare flesh next to mine, his fingers in my hair, his feet against my calves, our fingers knit together. I have been taught since childhood to learn to subdue my body, to discipline it, and to shape it, to take control of it and to push aside the urges and desires. In this case, wisely so, I am learning to listen to my body talk.

This hunger is, I think, my body's way of getting to where I want to be when I cannot get there myself. When my thoughts are so jumbled, and my ideas so convoluted, and my motives not even apparent to myself, my body knows with a wisdom beyond my own experience that what I want—body, mind and soul—is to be one with Kevin. My body knows how to start the process of healing, of restoring unity, and it will drive towards that with a pressure that cannot be stopped. It's my body's way of saying, this unity you seek, this oneness, where he reads your mind and you read his, that's not attainable yet (or ever). But this love, this physical unity, is . . . and it is the taste and the mirror and the bedrock and the promise of what can be.

I know some couples can't make love until it's all worked out, until all the talking is done. (Sometimes the talking takes months, and that's really too long of a time to ask somebody to wait.) But I cannot talk freely until I have made love. Chest to chest, with his arms around me, with my forehead pressed against him, I can talk. What I say then is what matters. It's not the jumbled thoughts, the half-formed recriminations, and the accusations that filled me before when most of me was worried I wasn't loved or even lovable. It's just my feelings, my fears, my thoughts, and my reasons for doing and for reading into what he did. And it's half of what filled my head before. The rest has settled or been blown to the wind, like the chaff, that inevitably grows up amongst the marriage wheat.

Title: Stevie Nicks, Leather and Lace.