What Is the Word For

zocalo

well-travelled photo of a boy in the zocalo

When that president talks about Mexico and Mexicans and The Wall I pretend that instead of saying Mexico he is saying Xwatthewetymz—a far-off galaxy where I have never been or met anyone from.  And after that I remember my mom telling me how she got her ears pierced.  She was living with a family in Saltillo, Mexico, and one morning a sister from the family pierced her ears with a needle and an ice cube.  The school bus showed up, and the little brother had to run out and tell the bus driver to wait, that the American girl only had one ear pierced.  I imagined her wincing, bleeding, and I simultaneously imagined the kids sitting yawning on the school bus, board and numb.  Isn’t that always the way?  One person’s pain is someone else’s impatience.  Thank you very much mister president.  I studied Spanish in school, but my mom said total immersion was really the way to learn.  It got me all the way to Never Never Land, she said, referring to her job at Disneyland as a tour-guide for Spanish-speaking dignitaries.  She basically got paid to go on rides all day with tourists in a good mood.  Many people thought the park had given her a fun fake name for the job.  But Nelly Bly was the name her parents had given her.  One time she and some other workers jumped out of their boats on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and hid on a fake island in the dark, ducking fake gunfire under fake stars.       

When I was in high school my mom arranged for me to live for the summer with a family in Oaxaca, Mexico.  I was different than my mom, though.  I was scared of people.  By age 16 I had crawled further and further into myself, into homework and books and my room.  Even when I went to school—watching my feet as I walked, adopting the posture of an 80-year-old with osteoporosis—my interaction with people was limited to a few words and ducked eye contact.  The girls I had known since Kindergarten travelled the hallways in loud, bold packs, laughing about their weekends.  When I saw them coming I stooped to the side from a long way off.

In Mexico City I had a long delay and realized, just by sitting in various terminals, that I understood no Spanish.  What is the Spanish word for Zero again, I scribbled in my notebook, Because that is what I know.  I scribbled notes the whole journey in attempt to curtail my panic, but my pen shook on the page, making my printing appear like a polygraph test.  Some people in the airport held my eyes and smiled kindly, like they had no idea I was a loser.  A few times I believed them and smiled back.  When I arrived in Oaxaca, which I had practiced pronouncing for weeks, the father and mother of the house were away on a trip.  Their daughter was at university, and their son was working at the coffee office.  The maid seemed amused at the arrival of a teenager who couldn’t speak.  When she showed me to my room I remembered the words siesta, and por favor, and gracias, and I pulled the sheets over my head and fell fast asleep.  The body probably can’t discern panic from hard labour. When I woke up I could not place where I was. The power had gone out, so it felt as though my eyes were still closed.   Giant reflections of a candle flame in the hall soared and flapped, like the dream of a monster with wings.  I could make out voices, but whether they were talking or singing I didn’t know.  Then I remembered it was Spanish.  I heard the chime of silverware in action, and I realized I was really hungry.

This is the moment I think about, when I apprehend that a president is proposing a wall between the USA and Mexico.  I remember how scared I was to pull the covers back, and stand up, and walk out to meet the voices.   Out there on the table is a box of sugar cereal, which the son—no longer a kid—will still eat for dinner when his parents are away.  There sits Renato, who will call me Carrie On! Carrie Out! Carrie Over! with a happy bounce.  And ask me five times a day, How do you say….?, placing himself in the role of foreigner, giving me a chance to instruct.   And each night we will laugh together to The Benny Hill Show, because outrageously-blatant comedy is something we can follow at the same fast pace.  Out there, on my morning walk to the bus stop, a bunch of boys will be playing soccer in a plot of dirt, moving like dancers with the white clouds racing above them.  Out beyond that, two bus rides away, is the zocalo, where bouquets of balloons blot out the sky and so many stories-in-the-form-of-people drift past, a spy’s paradise.  Out there is the boy with the scratchy voice and a smile like a lit match, who teach me how to pick up a pigeon with my foot.  Out from that is the Universidad Benito Juarez, where I will conjugate verbs hesitantly and meet a friend who goes by a fake name, so I will never find her again.  But oh!  She will teach me to stand straight enough to carry my books on my head, like she learned in The Peace Corps in Africa.  She will teach me to hitch rides to the ruins in the back of pick-up trucks.  She will take me to a coastal village with the happiest cemetery in the world, and we will shower under the drips from the clothes we wash in the sink.  And we will be adored by two separate fisherman whose extended families will eye us warily, knowing we will leave.  And we will leave, and leave each other.  But we will never completely leave.  For instance, when that president talks about building a wall, I am right back there in the dark, in a strange bed in Oaxaca.  I hope I can fake the confidence to be as kind as they are, whoever they are, is what I think.  And I swing my legs over and stand up.

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Talking to My Boys about Girls: Doors

wyattdoor

If someone’s face appears to you before sleep and right when waking and then also between, in dreams.  If she suddenly appears at your window, and she’s stepping through grass or gravel or sand or water or mud—or whatever is your yard—to visit you.  Always come out your door.  And stand in front of it and lift your arm very high and wave.  Just keep waving.  The further off she is the better, and best if she’s still a speck.

Whatever you do, don’t hang around inside waiting for a knock.  Because when met with closed doors, some people become awfully like maimed birds.  They try to take off, they try to knock.  But their wings, their hands.  The words flutter and sputter sound so close, but only one holds any promise of moving forward.  And for this hand you’d have to use sputter.  Even if the girl finds the courage to ball a fist and swing it, it might halt suddenly, freezing six millimetres from the wood.  Which is plenty of  space for words and weather to slide in between and change several times.  The sky might resemble a completely different monster when she finally dips backwards, as though pushed, and gives her hand again to her pocket.

How can I say it but to say that when a girl stands at a closed door, she stands at all the doors that ever closed on her.  So throw it open early.  Then wave.  Hopefully you can wave just like the way you wave at me now, with your hand seemingly untethered to a wrist. How easily your wave bounces and flaps, oblivious to bones or barometric pressure.  You might be giving a Hello or you might be giving a Goodbye, but either way you’re standing in a spot completely free of locks or slams.  And I know it sounds crazy to say your wave has a sound, but I swear sometimes I can hear it.  Occasionally it seems to stream music out of it: some piece that conjures people so happily reunited that they can’t stop talking overtop of each other, like the 3rd movement of  Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.  Other times your wave is slower and quieter than that, and the words lob off it so faintly I might not know what I’m hearing, if it wasn’t always some similar variation of the same needed thing.  Something like: Doors are just boards.  And boards wear away to sawdust.   And here, let me stir up some wind with my hand.        

This Bug

k9

For a time I was lucky enough to live in a house alive with animals.  It was very small, and the front half of it was screened.   I thought of it as a porch, and felt it as a porch.  Doesn’t a body always relax on a porch?  Or maybe that is just mine, which is nervous about being sealed in.  In any case, this porch had perfect light and every spot my eye fell on was friendly, worn smooth with time and light.  Think of the way a piece of beach glass feels in the hand—so comfortable it might be part of the hand.  This is what being in that porch felt like to me.  I couldn’t always tell where I stopped and it started.

At first light a donkey from down the hill brayed in fits of honks, more like choking than talking.  Then the birds: the shrill notes of their songs like pelted BBs. The whizzing of their wings past the screen, their small feet scratching on the tin roof.  In the grey dawn the deer crept by like stalkers—but bad stalkers, in that their footsteps broke branches.  When the heat of the day settled the bugs stilled and mostly disappeared from the porch—they had all-day whizzing parties down at the river, it seemed.  Except some spiders who worked diligently all day on webs near my writing desk, setting the example.  They kept a steady pace, spinning out and sliding down the silk like they could see clearly what it would become.  I wanted my hands to dance across the keyboard like that, with an inner knowledge that left thought or doubt out of it.  A lone praying mantis used to also visit the ledge beside my desk, waving and crossing its spindly arms in cryptic signals.  I imagined if I could decode these signals I would know exactly what to write next, and what to cut out entirely.

At night an armadillo would sometimes go scuffling through the brush towards the porch, and I would follow at a distance with my flashlight.  What weird blind, albino animals they were.  As though they came from outer space, and I was stepping gingerly after them on the pitted ground of some dark planet.  One middle-of-the-night I heard what was the soundtrack to a horror movie:  a deep grunting roar, followed by blood-curdling squeals.  The ground shook.  I didn’t dare sit up in bed but I did open my eyes, as a horror movie with no picture seemed more frightening.  A giant wild boar, heavier than me, was barrelling for the porch, her babies in tow.  She would crash right through the screen, trampling me as her lowered tusks simultaneously sliced me to strips.  Have I ever laid so still?  She ran by.  I was so relieved that their horrific sounds, as they faded off into the brush, seemed almost musical to me: the low bass bellows of the leader, the choir-boy sopranos, squealing their replies.   

But the nights belonged, mostly, to the bugs.  Even before the sky crept from pink to navy blue the crickets started up, like little jingle bells shaken in a closed fist.  The cicadas would join in long raspy trills and I would have to wonder, as the crickets and cicadas ramped up in unison, whether they were competing for volume.  I would wonder if they understood each other.  If they were speaking different accents of the same language, or if they were speaking two entirely different languages.  I got so used to their overlapping cries that even now, on cicada-less summer nights, the loudest of cricket chirps seem diminished to me, only half-there.   

I would read to sleep by the light of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.  The moths and flies and beetles who found their way in would beat around it in droves.  And many outside would perch on the screens, displaying the intricate undersides of their wings and thoraxes and abdomens.  Sometimes a large luna moth—greenish-white like it should glow in the dark, its tail narrowing to a lacy taper—would grace the screen and take my breath away.  My eyes felt a constant battle was being waged for them, between the words on the page and the bugs.  It didn’t seem to matter how good the book was, which made me doubt my devotion to literature.  At that time I wrote half the day, and would often read the other half–preferably in an inner tube down at the river, where dragonflies used me as a landing pad.  But my focus at night so often shifted to the screens, and circled back to the light bulb.  Maybe I was more interested in bugs than words.

One night I was lying in bed pretending to read when a click beetle landed on my cheek.  It crawled quickly, seemingly with purpose, towards my ear.  It didn’t even hesitate at the hole but crawled right in, and kept crawling.  I stood up.  the beetle’s clicks came at the volume of gunshots.  And the sensation of it, crawling down my eardrum—I can only describe it as falling.  If you didn’t know how far you would fall, or what was under you.  If you were falling in the pitch dark, off a cliff you hadn’t known was there.  That is close to what it felt like.  The click beetle, as I found out afterwards, has a very flexible connection between the sections of its thorax, so it can move its top legs and head separately from the rest.  This makes the clicking sound, and also allows it to flip as it likes, even to upright from its back if necessary.  And so the beetle traveled down my ear drum, clicking as it flipped around.

 I began bouncing on one foot with my head tilted sideways, hitting above the ear with my hand.  This was what I did to get the river water out of my ear.  I grabbed the flashlight too, and pointed its beam into my ear, thinking the beetle might crawl towards the light.  But it kept on going the way it was.  I heard myself making a sound that was between a scream and a whimper.  Perhaps I also called for help using that very word, Help!—but my cries died immediately in the howling cricket-cicada chorus.  My eardrum was longer than I thought possible.  When the click beetle reached the end of it, it began to dig.  I could feel all of its legs scraping frantically at once to get in, to get out.  And I thought, This is my punishment for being so alone.  A bug is going to scrape all the way into my brain, and kill me.   Or at least make me brain-dead.  I must have cried then, because I really did love my brain.  The beetle kept digging at my ear.  Maybe it was crying too.  At last it did a full turn—and I felt this as the worst pain, since the beetle’s body was too long for my narrow eardrum. It must have been a feat for it to get around, and I felt each tug of its difficult pivot as a sharp agony.  Then the falling sensation again, but this time less scary, like I could see the ground beneath–it was crawling up the way it had come.

When the beetle emerged from my ear I grabbed it, and hurled it to the ground.  It didn’t crawl right away.  I imagined I could see it panting.  After a few seconds it started waddling, and I picked it up again, and cupped it in my hands.  I stepped along the trail to the outhouse, where I knew there was a little jar on the shelf.  My ear was both pounding and stinging, and I was still whimpering.  But after I put the beetle in the jar I  crawled into bed and turned off the light–that bug magnet–quickly, covering the other half of my head with a second pillow.  I thought about whether I would read more if it turned out I was half deaf.  I thought about if it was healthy to live all alone, at a young age like mine, or at any age.  What if you choked or had a stroke?  What if an animal accidentally or on purpose tried to kill you?  But even with the pain and fear fresh I wondered: how could I be so quietly and attentively with the bugs and the nature and the words and the things and myself, if I had to be with people?

The clicks in the jar reached me faintly, what with the glass around the beetle and the pillow over my exposed ear.  After awhile I heard them, soft as fingernail clicks, and turned on the light again and got out of bed.  I carried the little jar along the rocky trail, past the outhouse, to the little yellow stand-alone kitchen.  I found an ice pick there, and covered the jar with a cloth while I poked some air holes into the lid.  In the morning I went to see a doctor, and as I sat in the waiting room I noticed how the people around me were careful not to stare at the little jar I held in my lap.  This bug, I said, when it was my turn. It crawled into my ear last night, and started digging.  I watched as the doctor lifted the jar and tilted it, making the beetle slide and collide into the glass.  It scrabbled its legs and issued a protesting click.  Then the doctor shined his light into my ear and pulled back, wincing.  He did a little test and determined I could hear fine.  I just couldn’t swim in the river for a week or so, while the scrapes healed.  I didn’t ask him how far the end of my ear canal was from my brain.  But the doctor did ask me, as I got up to leave, why I had made air holes in the lid of the jar.  I sighed and thought how to say it, then whether to say it, before finally answering, Because I don’t believe in the death penalty. 

But it wasn’t just that, of course.  I made air holes in the lid because the sounds the animals made felt more soothing than conversation, or sealed-house silence.  I made air holes in the lid because I wanted to live alone.  I made air holes because the words air hole and ear hole were nearly the same.  I made air holes because when I stepped out of the porch at night to pee the stars were so bright and sharp, and they seemed to be guarding over me. I could swear each one winked and glimmered like it was moving.  And on the ground too, if I shined my flashlight there, the bugs were moving and glimmering and winking.  Sometimes towards me, sometimes farther away.  And really, that was all there was to it.  I made air holes because bugs were the stars of the ground.

clickbeetle

my click beetle, coated in ear wax

Future Glimpsed in a Puddle

fergus

there’s no capturing an investigator

I fashioned a sailboat out of book pages, driftwood, rope and a ripped shirt.  I found a puddle that held lots of light.  And there I played, at the edge of the puddle.  A child approached with some pebbles and we put them into the boat, just enough to wet the boat’s side higher.  The child wanted to name the pebbles and the one she named Windy capsized (with the help of her fingers) into the puddle, and drowned.  The child’s mom came along and tried to play—she wanted to know all about making child’s toys such as the boat using materials that were safe and sustainable.  She admired the sentiment of the sail, but then the crease in the space between her eyebrows darkened.  She was worried the tips of the child’s shoes were going to get wet, and that puddle was probably polluted. She thought the child might be cold.  She thought the child might be hungry.  She thought the child might be tired.

After they left I kept the pebbles in the boat.  I remembered all their names.  I moved to my stomach and pushed the boat around a little with a stick, until the wind came up and took over.  I was admiring how the boat seemed to leave ruts behind it in the water, even though it had no wheels, when a pair of green canvas sneakers appeared beside the puddle. I had to squint and then shield my eyes to see it was a man.  He looked either handsome or familiar, I couldn’t tell which.  Does your boat need a propellor? He asked.  I can’t really give it an engine, he added, But a propellor would make it look like it has one.

He sat down in the dirt beside me, holding a pinecone.  I watched as he carefully plucked out the four largest teeth of the pinecone, and we debated whether to call them teeth, when there was no mouth really and when they looked more like fingernails.  He began soldering four of them them together with the sap at the pinecone’s base, and we talked about the things right there, in the puddle.   It was strange how the silver gum wrapper at the bottom of the puddle and the reflections of the clouds racing on its top seemed to be of the same ghostly weight and substance, for example.  Also It was hard to tell the reflection of leaves from the real floating leaves, and so he said that aside from being a boat captain and marina manager I was also an operator of a funhouse. It takes a lot of responsibility, he said with a smile, to run a hall-of-mirrors.  I joked that it also took a lot of Windex.  A tiny sparrow landed at the edge of the water, testing it with a foot before taking a drink.  And we played with that too, imagining a whole row of people lifting their feet up to the bar, dipping their shoelaces into pints and wine glasses.

The propeller didn’t have an engine, and it didn’t spin around.  It was just an accessory he attached with fishing wire.  But it looked neat on the back of the boat, like it had been carved by hand from fine wood.  And I knew whenever I looked at it I would see too the man’s hands, which were also fine.  I was about to remark that the tips of his fingers seemed particularly square—squared I guess is the word—when he got up suddenly and said he had to go.  He stood looking at his watch, and then his phone rang, and he said the word busy.  But you’re so good at this! I said. I meant playing.  I meant looking at things.  Maybe I meant caring.  About the puddle and the boat and the moment, which to me felt as nice as caring about me.  But there’s no money in it, he said.  There’s no future in it.

I stayed put, but the space around the puddle had a hollowness to it, an emptiness that hadn’t been there before his green shoes appeared.  I tracked the boat carefully with my eyes, trying to care about it again until I did.  How could I make money off of this? I wondered.  If the boat produced energy, I thought.  If dollar bills were tiny enough bugs could hold them, and wanted across.  If I painted masterful renditions of the boat.  Or I could make an art film about it, maybe attach a feather-weight camera to the boat itself.  Was there a future in this puddle? I wondered.  I decided whether there was or not I would stay there and make boats—even ferries and riverboats with spinning paddles—and then I would launch them.  Children might appear, and leave their mark on the boats, and say cool things that would make we wonder what kind of grown-ups they would be.  The kind who wanted to play, or the kind who were too busy?    I thought if I waited long enough a dog might trot up to me.  And when the dog saw how I was right inside the moment—how I also just wanted to play and explore—he would sit solidly at my side, proclaiming himself mine.  It had happened before.  I knew we’d be pretty happy, though at times I would wish the dog could talk, or had hands.  I would wish he wouldn’t tromp through our puddle, or chase away all the birds.

So then I’d have a dog, and a puddle, and a boat or six, and the sky.  We’d all be connected. The dog would drink from the puddle, for example, and the puddle would hold the sky.  The boats would gently thump against each other and sometimes against the dog’s nose, even when the course of the wind dictated otherwise.  As for human company, I figure occasionally an adult who didn’t worry or plan or complain or summarize or advise or scold would come and sit beside me and the dog.  And then time would seem to stop.  Though the light on the water would shift, though the puddle would change from white to orange to midnight blue.  And when the person stood up to leave—always suddenly, it seemed—I would try not to wince or crumple to the ground.  Instead I would think of how the dog did it, when the dog he was playing with got whistled away.  How he stopped mid-dash with his paw in the air, as though the abandonment had turned him to stone.  All but the stump of his tail, which slowed from fast-wagging to medium to slow.  Two last oozing tilts to either side, before it stopped altogether, melding into the statue of himself.  And when he moved again he would do it slowly, with his face to the ground.  Each step would be a stiff, reluctant jutting, as though all four legs at once were questioning the how and the why of getting anywhere.  But here’s how the dog did it.  In seconds—mere seconds!—his body would shift from sadness to interest, from despondency to curiosity.  His slump, as it turned out, had been just a launching pad.  From which he would spring up with perked ears, asking, What’s that?  And: What is that?  And: What. Is. That?!   Even if I couldn’t quite master saying my goodbyes like the dog did, turning them into hellos—it would be something I’d aspire to, on the edge of a puddle.  Because certainly there was a future—there were so many different futures—in What is that?

puddle2

The Prescription Form: A Perfectly Crummy Self-Portrait

selfie

This Morning’s Perfectly Crummy Self-Portrait

The sun’s shining on the ice and slush today, dear readers, which makes me just happy enough to share with you the secret recipe for one of my favourite work-enhancing tools.  I call it a Perfectly Crummy Self-Portrait.  If I’m going to be writing or drawing something important, I’ll often quickly make one of these Perfectly Crummy Self-Portraits beforehand, as an offering to my inner critic. I say offering, but it’s also a form of practice, a warm-up, for maneuvering and bargaining with that ever-whining, dissatisfied saboteur (I just used that fancy word there to appease my pompous inner critic, who is doing all he can to keep me from writing and sharing this particular blog post.)

Instructions for A Perfectly Crummy Self-Portrait

1. Choose some coloured pencils (let the colours choose you).  Leave them dull or broken, just as they are.  I also always choose either a black charcoal pencil or a black pen, because I happen to like drawings that look like forked sticks caught inside storm clouds.    

2. Crinkle and fold a piece of paper until it looks like some mistake aimed for a trash can.

3. Flatten it out and start drawing yourself.  You can look in a mirror if you want, but you probably don’t have to.  We know ourselves better than we think.

4. Scribble out all you want but don’t erase.  When your inner critic shouts, Stop! You’ve got to change that!  It’s horrible!  Just keep your pencil moving.

5.  Only draw of yourself what you feel like drawing.  For example, I left out my hair in the picture above because it takes certain kind of masochism to draw the lights and darks of hair, to convey both the congruity and dissent of a head of hair, and this morning (luckily) I just didn’t have it in me.

6. When you’re done you can scrawl some comments—either yours or your critic’s—onto your features.  If you spent too much time in the past attentively listening to your critic, It may be hard to discern whose comments are whose.  Don’t fret that you despise yourself; a love won through hard argument-to-the-contrary is an honest, everlasting love.

7. Put the portrait in your work area, close at hand.   The inner critic, for all his bashing work, is ultimately lazy—so set your decoy close.

That’s it.  You can then sneak into your real work and the critic will likely be swayed—for long distracted intervals, at least—with the mess of your Perfectly Crummy Self-Portrait.  How trashed it is, how sloppy, how juvenile, how rough.  The word Typical.  The word Always.  The word Fail.  You won’t hear any of this, though.  Because you’re doing your work.  Sometimes  you might want to reach over and crumple your portrait in your fist again, or stab it with your pencil, uglying it up to buy you more silence.  And if in the course of writing (or whatever you do), your critic starts to doubt and gag and whine, to convince you that the words you’re forming lack beauty or coherence or worth and therefore you do too, just say, well duh–and gesture over to your intentionally-flawed paper self.  

A cool thing about these Perfectly Crummy Self-Portraits is that when I survey one later, even the crummiest, I can often see in it what all I made that day, after I made it.  I see too a glimpse of the blathering force I had to overcome, to make anything at all.  And then the slashed and crumpled picture looks pretty perfect to me, almost like fine art.  I hope whatever you use to tediously bargain with your inner critic acquires the sheen or impact of a masterpiece.  

Go and make your face and then make stuff.