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I condensed the most essential thing about myself into half a page each morning before I went to school/work in downtown Portland, Oregon, though my guidebook said you cannot condense until you have finished expanding. I never liked essentialist traditions: women were this way or that because breasts or uterus or vagina. Some women liked to paint their toenails; I was one of them. I owned the vital need to make something and have other people to see it.
I was old but learning how to make and edit a video in order to teach it. I learned how to set up the tripod for the camera, learned how to unsnap the tripods for the lights, learned how to screw on the lights, flip them open and on; I learned I liked the brand name: VELVET. I learned how to fix the black balance and the white. Spatial relations perplexed me; I usually guessed the wrong way to turn, thought north was south, etc. (I knew which word in a sentence had to go. I could feel the tone of a room when I walked into it and calibrated accordingly.) I pressed play on the camera, walked to the chair I’d set up, sat in the right spot, and answered my own questions. I was insecure yet I took chances. I rushed headlong. I was dumb. I had guts.
I was shattered by the year, but so was everyone else. Strategies: no television news, no coffee after 10 a.m., meditation, walks where I was consciously thankful for clean air. It felt sad to also be thankful for food and health insurance. My objective: prevention of flying apart. I wanted to float in a tank. Primal screaming in my husband’s rowboat started as a joke.
I don’t know if a physical thing happens when your children who are grown men separate from you. Mine moved out and came back. They took turns. Was I like a girlfriend after too many break ups? Over it, yet not.
The idea of being whole was not real.
Though I was coy about it, sooner or later people who knew me learned I did not like pets. Okay? During confinement I noticed that squirrels, crows, jays, and raccoons seemed to believe my front and backyards belonged to them. The raccoon splayed in the v of the cedar visible through the kitchen windows where I sat in the nook with my oatmeal and gave me a precise view of its gleaming anus. On my back step squirrel intestines strewn and smudged, head a few feet away on the grass. I’m sure crows were involved. (If they did not commit the murder, they enjoyed the meat.)
During ritual walks in the park, I overheard many stories told through masks. In time I began to sense the relationships. On first dates people wore outfits and held paper cups of coffee. Friends power walked in leggings. Either way, the word “I” was emphasized repeatedly. They spoke of work, bosses and virtual co-workers, families: parents, partners, kids. First date people were explanatory, exploratory, esoteric. “My” was featured as much as “I.” I, my, I, my, I heard as I followed the path through the park designed by descendants of Frederick Olmstead; the duck pond changing colors depending on the algae issue. In the woods there were fairy altars, on the lawns people hula hooped, bent into tai chi, or balanced on ropes tied between trees.
Once I got the shot, I got back on the bus to go to work at the high school, the term “late stage capitalism” now easily present and recurring regularly in my thoughts. I looked out the window at boarded up buildings downtown but I knew it was temporary and, in a way, almost for show. See what happened to me, the buildings were saying as the bus zoomed past. Yet there they stood, marble, concrete, brick, stone, glass. Not all were banks, but all were money, and it was easy to see they were waiting for the moment to pass, for the fever to break so they could shrug off the plywood and once again shine. The people on the bus were another story. Masks pulled down to eat spoons of ice cream in between talking about Methadone. Or standing, holding the silver pole with one hand and a gargantuan plastic bag filled with empty cans with the other.
One morning I conceptualized myself as a houseplant among other plants. Some were tall, some squat, some drooping, some flowering, some brown-leaved. Water arrived randomly, overflowing saucers, dripping to the floor. The association with other plants was positive, though why exactly I wasn’t sure. Was I a vine? A scented lily, a thick succulent, a tough fern? Sometimes I wished more sun came through the window or that I had a different position on the shelf. I was moved occasionally, or turned, and that felt fresh for a while. I grew in new directions. Or grew less. I knew I shouldn’t spend too long thinking about myself as a houseplant.
I had new admiration for people who survived, and I conjured extreme examples to shame myself out of weakness. Mothers whose sons were in prison. Mothers with sons committed to mental hospitals. Mothers without their sons, separated by borders. Mothers who worked in another country to make enough money to feed faraway sons. The world was filled with inequitable absurdities, most of which I benefited from. (In my yard, raspberry bushes set fruit.)
The problem with the truth: people didn’t see it the way I did. Even I looked at a fact or an event, any occurrence really, through different lenses depending on the year. The lens of being a detective, or shit happens, or forgiveness, or who cares. Feelings were like water or mountains, soaking in or evaporating or pushing up or wearing down.
The fun house mirror effect – I felt this. The work I did with high school students was so important, and if it failed or caused harm catastrophe would ensue, the sun blotted out. My sense of perspective and proportion out of whack – due to communication over a screen? Was I trying to be responsible for too much? Or was I simply limited? From 18 to 22, I waited tables, but other servers could handle twice as many tables.
My architect friends referred to the outside of a building or house as an envelope, which is supposed to be impermeable. I’d sucked the scattered, jittery, flashing, endless, flickering, blaring, destructive, booming world inside my body, becoming not so much another organ, but an insistently kicking baby.
How far to take a disciplined mind? A little OCD kept things organized. On my phone I listened to a man’s deep voice: be the mountain. Yes, fiction writers were control freaks. I also cultivated an earthy and free way of being in the world; I went barefoot, laughed easily. Creating other people – projections – was beginning to feel dangerous and irresponsible. What I hugged close in brain and body was that I was in fact responsible.
I dreamed my husband, all along, was married to both me and one of my younger sisters. In the dream I was shocked, humiliated, outraged. In the morning I wondered what else I was missing. My daydream: alone in a retreat run by nuns, one narrow bed and window, white walls, unpaved places to walk and, most of all, nothing to do and no one to talk to.
My ability to imagine disaster on the personal, interpersonal, local, national, and international level was wearing me out. It wasn’t just the awareness (usually submerged) of people herded into settlements and camps or prisons. It wasn’t just walking past people living on the street inside the tents and tarps, old gas grills nearby, a state-sanctioned toilet vandalized and graffiti over the proud sign stating that having somewhere to eliminate was a human right. It wasn’t the people on the sidewalk – not even in sleeping bags – passed out, face to the sky. It was me, doing what, exactly, to help? During the Gulf War when I lived in New York I had wanted to scream on the subway platform, Everybody Stop! But I didn’t.
When I couldn’t sleep I looked out the window. Sometimes the moon glistened between dark clouds. Sometimes what I thought was the end was only a pause. (At concerts of classical music, I didn’t always know when to clap.) It had been painful to be a child. It was right that my sons needed to find their own ways, but I found it hard to watch.
Was I a spider? Spinning my sticky web and catching others in it? Was I a caterpillar, inching along? Was I a slug, emerging at night to wallow in damp places? Was I an earwig, burrowing, fleeing when exposed? Was I a cicada, every 17 years filling the air with sound, then streets with my dry carcass? Was I an ant, following an invisible mandate? Was I a moth meeting up with another moth in the sunlight to circle and dip then fly away?
My first awareness of anointment was in church. An oil daubed by a priest. I bought my essentials in multipacks from TJ Maxx. Calm Awake. Peace & Love. Rubbed my wrists together, attended other bodies: babies, husband, parents. (Sometimes) when I saw the lists of writers’ names in tables of contents (sans mine), this word popped into my head.
I chose my clothing for our trip to the Redwoods with intention but, looking in the mirror at the motel, saw my shirt was a rag. The walls were chalky, the coffee weak but hot. On the riverbank I tended my skin, pulling straw hat over face, sweater over chest, sarong across thighs. Lay back on hot stones. Missed one shin with the sunscreen. It turned red, hot to the touch, but in the night hurt only occasionally.
The osprey flew above the ocean where the waves broke. Hunting. Turning. Dropping talons first for fish. I was lying on the sand in a spot set back against rocky cliffs, near logs and trailing vines. Fresh water ran down the rocks into a little pool. When the sea otter emerged onto the beach, I thought it was a baby seal – I’d seen one or two on the shore in California, driving up 101 where I was again now, only this time much farther north, near Oregon. After its initial slither, the otter walked, though warily, tail dragging in the sand. Gave us a wide berth. Back into the shallows it went, only to slide out and, according to my friend, climb up the rocks to wait for us to vacate.
At home the washing machine and the dishwasher and the vacuum. The lawnmower and weed whacker and power washer. When the grass was cut I felt soothed. I was training myself to sit still, my essence impulsive. I liked to set things in motion – trips, parties, meals, stories. Julia Butterfly lived in a tree for a year. I returned to my daydream, the nuns, no, the narrow bed, the tall window. How many days it would take to bring me back to myself – three? Seven?
Being nice a form of seduction. Of power. Largesse. Of course enthusiasm was natural. And making people happy a rush. It was a way of taking care of the self. Mothers and teachers had to be careful. (I wondered how powerful I was or could become.)
Endings were hard because the energy was depleted. The promise had either been fulfilled or dissipated. I tried to think of a metaphor related to eating a hot fudge sundae, but the beginning was the best part.
Beginnings contained endings. Go back into your story to find answers for your story is excellent writing advice from a teacher of mine who recently died. Four years: high school, college, a presidential term. Beginnings set the tone. Endings call for ceremony. I thought I was finished. I wasn’t. I pulled weeds, cut ferns, raked leaves, pared the no longer useful, removed what obscured.
I had hoped my need to tell a certain story would pass, would break like a fever, but instead the inchoate urge remained, preventing me, I finally realized, from telling any other story. It was as if this story was the key to a door I had to unlock to get to other doors, other levels. I didn’t play video games but my sons used to when they were little, and sometimes I used to sit next to them feigning interest as they clicked on parts of the screen to find what they could unlock, and thus discover how to move on.
Mary Rechner is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women named to the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the novella The Opposite of Wow. Her fiction has appeared in the Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Washington Square, and her criticism and essays have appeared in The Believer, Oregon Humanities, Propeller, and the Oregonian.