Pre-dawn. I’m groggy. You draw me to our desk, our milieu safe, your intent, crystalline. Your skin, smooth, cool to my touch, awakens me. I pick up my pen and we begin. Conjoined twins, we share a single brain. Communicators, over our lifetime, we aspire to impose form upon reverie. More often, though, we revisit unresolvable, old arguments and -isms knowing that at day’s end, we’ll shred them. Still, we labor to array our words into thematic sensibility. The work is maddening. Your patience reassures me-- screeching screeds never daunt you. We decided long ago to allow our discourse to wander where it will: And that keeps us sane.
I don’t remember the actual snapshot being snapped though I do have clear memories, my own and some gleaned from family lore, of the night it was taken. I didn’t like being photographed. Mom probably insisted. I imagine her coaxing me.
“You’re so pretty. Smile. Just once.” I probably cried, instead. I sense someone said or did something silly, then smile, snap, and here we are, Mom and me.
I’m six years old, shy, uncomfortable around people. Dressed like a porcelain doll in a light blue sateen, long dress with matching hat, I’m to perform with my first-grade class. A special night for Mom. She wears a stylish polka-dot cowl-collared, dark-colored dress and a silver necklace with matching earrings. At twenty-four with four children she couldn’t often dress up and go out. Earlier in the day she accomplished a hair miracle for both of us by transforming her jet black and my golden kinky hair into soft, trendy styles. She’d trained as a beautician during her teens. She enjoyed fussing with her three daughters, hair. Every day we were brushed, combed, braided, curled, and snipped. That afternoon, she inspected her handiwork and gave me no chance to mess it up.
“You cannot go out and play.”
Mom was excited, proud, talkative as she dressed us both. She insisted I needed make-up.
“You need make-up so you’ll show up on stage.”
“You’re so fair-skinned. The audience won’t see you.”
“I don’t want them to see me.” I cried in protest. She dried my eyes. “Just a little.” I acquiesced. She applied face powder, eyebrow pencil, and pink lipstick. “That’s better.” She reviewed her creation, pointed to her bedroom chair, then did her own make-up. I licked the lipstick from my mouth while I sat. When Mom finished, our struggle over the photo ensued.
Mom walked me to school, told me she’d be in the front of the auditorium where I could see her. She kissed me and left me at my classroom door. Inside the classroom, Sister Bernadette Marie, my teacher, sorted her chattering class into couples. We lined up in twos. She walked up and down the line inspecting us–hats on girls secure, neckties on boys correct, shoes buckled and tied, no candy or gum in our mouths. This was an important night. My partner and I were third in line. Show dolls, we would share first row center stage with another couple. As I came under her scrupulous eye Sister said, “Oh no, Joann,” then reached into her sleeve, pulled out a red lipstick, lifted my chin with one hand, applied the lipstick with the other.
“That’s better. Now the audience will see you.” She finished her review then marched us to the auditorium where we took our places on a semi-dark stage.
The curtain rose. Lights lit up our class. The audience was dark. Where was Mom? Panic. The piano struck the intro. We sang, “In my sweet little Alice Blue Gown….” and danced a few slow steps holding hands, boys guiding girls on tiptoe around them. I forgot to tiptoe, tripped over the hem of my dress and started to fall. The audience gasped. I regained my balance. The audience quieted. We finished our routine. Applause.
And the audience saw me.
Half past sunrise.
The woodland mist around my house dissipates.
Damp dirt, pine, and wildflower fragrance tease my nose.
A light breeze brushes my face and the underbrush rustles.
Are forest dwellers changing shifts?
Or dryads winding down their overnight play?
A lone mourning dove sings its sorrow.
I close my eyes and contemplate my mountain home.
Gentleness and wildness,
hospitality and hostility,
mythology and reality
all meld together.
I yearn to capture this moment, keep it forever.
But I can only create a memory.
I sip my strong espresso.
Something stings my ankle. I set down my cup, swipe the culprit away, and scratch. It flies into my coffee.
I lift my camera, scan the bush through its lens.
I snap my photos and muse:
Can treetops touch the sky?
A chorus of crickets, katydids, and cicadas sweep along an unceasing, summer breeze. The internal resonance is ever-constant as ear-rending vibrations posit never-ending noise.
Tinnitus drones me to sleep each night and accosts my consciousness each morning. And I yearn to hear a simple flash of a moment’s true silence.
I salvaged a treasure when I was five. My mother discarded some paperbacks. On impulse I grabbed one from the garbage. I remember nothing about the book’s title or content but once I seized possession, nothing—candy, toys, or threats of lethal germs—could redeem it from me. Clutching it close I ran into my family’s basement apartment and found a pencil. Then, outside again, surrounded by urban noise and smells, I sat on my Bronx tenement’s concrete stoop and scribbled inside my book.
“Wouldn’t you like some blank paper to draw on?” someone asked. I shook my head. “I’m not drawing,” I said. “I’m writing.”
Decades later this memory fuels my passion for writing. Indeed, I played a game that day but I also labored over that book with as comparable a focus as any adult author. Ideas and stories poured from my head onto the pages. I surrendered to the process and my ego swelled.
I draw on this memory whenever I mine my imagination. It inspires me to persevere despite slippery wordings, shaky sentence scaffoldings, or conceptual cave-ins. I return here every time I write. Here I find courage and the determination that strengthen my self-image. I return when my notions defy excavation, when I wander through tunnels of phrasings that lead nowhere, when my fear forces project abandonment, and when, in desperation, I yearn for words to manifest magically upon my pages. Indeed, digging through intellectual rocks and shifting emotional layers is no small task. I never know whether my work will yield anything until I’m well invested in the endeavor. Yet, my hope of discovering something worth cutting and polishing spurs me on and forces me to take the risk necessary for success.
As a child I lost myself in make-believe by adding scribbled footnotes to my stolen treasure. I trusted the nature of the ores deep within my consciousness. My combined effort and play extracted precious gems. And that pleased me. Yet my energies brought few accolades from adults in my world. My scribbles’ meaning was indecipherable. Without real letters designing real words scribbles lacked coherence and relevance. They provided representations only I could “read’ and my chances of holding onto their substance diminished with the day. Unlike a sketch adults could appreciate, scribbles did not declare, “I am a polished gemstone.” But I didn’t care. The book in which I scrawled was a precious showcase, a unique reflection of my world. And though I didn’t understand it at the time, I sensed a sketch could not bear witness to its own inner state. But through writing, I could, and that was the point.
Of course, at the time, I knew nothing of motivation, only that my behavior satisfied my need for words. My little girl compositions have long vanished. But I cherish my returns to the experience that gave me my first awareness of my love of writing. I truly believed in the make-believe life and the credence the process gave my thoughts, and in the confidence I felt. I believe it still.
That night, as I slept, my mother returned my treasure to the trash. I probably cried over my loss the next morning though I don’t remember. Most likely, I applied my pencils to other media. Of course, I would not realize until adulthood just how much my scribbled-up paperback served it’s purpose and sealed my own. I continue mining memories, digging through the rocks, seeking gems, and writing them down.
Looked out my window this morning and saw the brilliant, crisscrossed sky.
It was zero degrees Fahrenheit.
I threw my bathrobe over my flannel PJs, grabbed my camera, ran out onto my front porch, and shot these.
A short time later, the temperature rose.
Radiant sky turned gray and cast a dismal shadow for the remainder of the day.
Snow is in the weather forecast for this evening.
Whether ’tis noblest in the mind
to proffer opinions unto vexation’s peak,
to sketch sentiments conforming to a menacing decree,
to splinter our pencils and sprinkle unenlightened charcoal atop unreflective, withering leaves—
(What would Shakespeare do?)