Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On converging stories and hearing voices

I grew up with an intermittent longing to play piano. Not until I got older, however, did I hear songs - or snatches of them - in my head, like the words on the tip of the tongue, not quite formed. If I was near a piano, I would sit down and let my fingers rest on the keys, poised between mounting desire and frustration, consumed by my inability to give musical expression to what I was hearing. 

Sometimes, the same is true with writing. The difference is, it carries a heavier weight, deeper pain, greater cost, to not find expression. Instead of hearing music, I hear voices; voices inaudible to all but the ears of the soul. These days, the core of who I am feels inextricably bound with giving voice to what I'm seeing, hearing, sensing, in the world around me and how it intersects with mine. 

I grasp for words, not unlike I've done many times as a writer in the past. And at the same time, utterly unlike any grasping in the past. 

There's an urgency to what I find myself compelled to write. 

There's an overwhelming lack of words to wrap around it all, to know where to even begin. 

There are two stories converging, parallel voices. I am seeing the transition and turmoil of my inner world reflected back to me in the natural world I fiercely love. It's as if we're both groping along in the dark, clasping hands tight, in this journey together for better or worse. To hear one speak is to know, in some facet, a curve of the other, for we belong to each other. But I am the one with a voice that carries through the noise of a human-centric world.

And there's confusion and fear, over whether it should all tumble out as a rant or dirge, prophet or poet, mystic or madwoman, another voice drowned out among the many. As if there's only one way this voice should sound, instead of the natural rise and fall of inflection and tone and cadence and style that voices tend to have throughout the telling of a story. 

It feels too big, too vulnerable, too painful, too unresolved. Too sacred to do justice to the depths of beauty and raw ugliness of it. So much so, these days, I don't even want to try.

It's a magnificent, terrifying racket in my soul and I fear that, sitting down to write it, I'll once again find my fingers on the keys with no sound coming out.

But still, I try. I begin here, and I begin again and again, as many times as it takes to start. And when words fail, as they often do, I come with pictures.

These images come from one of my favorite places in all of Seattle, down by a corner of the lake in the neighborhood I call home. After a mild, dry winter and a hot, dry summer, we are in the midst of drought, ravaged by numerous wildfires in other parts of the state. I choose to let these have the final words of this post today, as I have no way of wrapping things up neatly. 

And neither do they.


Monday, August 10, 2015

As ash in the wind: On long goodbyes

In April, my family spent two nights at a beach house, in a quaint little town on the Oregon Coast we retreated to many childhood summers. Since long before Papa died, we hadn't returned to this place together. But this is where we decided to scatter his ashes, nearly seven years after his death.

This scattering was to be our goodbye. I knew in my heart, somehow, it wasn't mine. Not yet. 

When I saw his ashes, I couldn't believe how they looked like sand. Sand in an hourglass, bleached white; I'd been prepared for them to resemble the remains of a fire. It was surreal, seeing him reduced to nothing more than what fit in a modest plastic bag, to hold him in my hands, to feel him slip away.

I took a portion of him home, in the beautiful ceramic urn I bought a month after he died, at Saturday Market in Portland. It's sat empty for all these years on my wooden chest, waiting to hold him. Waiting, for who knows what. 

* * * * * 


I will forever remember him in a handful of cashews. 

Buried in the chest of artifacts of Papa is a plastic bag of cashews nearly seven years old. I brought it home from Guatemala, from the peddler shuffling the streets of Panajachel along Lake Atitlan. He approached our table, four of us girls, as we sat dining outside with our cheap wine and flan, hauling his sacks of roasted nuts to sell. I answered him quickly, as I'd grown accustomed to doing, "No gracias, SeƱor."

He didn't press us further, didn't hardly seem to register us, as if he were suspended between one world and another, then turned and walked away.

Papa had been less than two months dead. He hadn't yet shown up in my dreams, but I caught my first glimpse of him sitting on the steps of an open shop at the end of this day. Wearing a familiar tattered green sweatshirt, white socks, black shoes, sacks of roasted nuts at his feet. This memory of him is a watermarked photograph, singed around the edges.

We passed him by as the darkness spread through streets, hurrying back to our hotel. And he, wearing the weight of the day, of life, of dejection, of who knows what, on his shoulders, sunk into me.

I turned back to him with haunted eyes, this ghost of my Papa in the flesh of a Guatemalan man on the steps.

His name was Fransisco.

This time I really looked at him, looked at the lines on his face and deep into those weary eyes with cracks of light filtering through. I looked until my soul broke through its windows, spilling down my cheeks. Until I had to turn away. But not before I bought a handful of cashews with the remainder of my coins from the day and we locked eyes for a moment, and he smiled, faint and piercing, into my pain.

Back at our hotel, I excused myself and disappeared in the dark lobby, pressed into a corner, doubled over in waves. A flash flood of grief and questions.

* * * * *  

It's not normal, I think, to catch his reflection, like a peek of his nose or bat of his eye, a swath of his skin, in such unlikely places. In such unlikely people. Because it's troubled me. Since that day of meeting Fransisco, I've only ever seen Papa in the faces of homeless men. Impoverished men. Men bent over, hidden in quiet masks of sadness. This is not how I wish to remember him. 

But while the Papa of my childhood is fuzzy and nostalgic, endearing and hauntingly distant, the Papa of my adolescence and young adulthood is mangled, crushed in spirit, an ache in my gut. He is a storm battered ship, leaning into the wind, even as the hull is cracking. He is a set of blank journals, like those left behind by her mother in Terry Tempest Williams' When women were birds, speaking volumes and mysteries in the absence of words. This is how he's come to me. As if I've been entreated by the grief he left behind - his lonely ache, his unfinished dreams, his hopes deferred, his unspeakable pain - to see what he bore. To bear witness. To lay his pain to rest, as we have his ashes, save for the ceramic urn of what remains of him on my wooden chest. 

I didn't know all these years, the depths of layers of grief. How his grief has haunted me in a cast of many faces. And I've searched to see him, to listen to these faces, to let go, as ash in the wind.

* * * * * 

Seven years of sands have slipped through the glass. 
And now I see, as I write this story, that these words are his ashes, scattered again and again. Through seven years of grieving and storytelling, digging deep, exposing layer after layer, slowly mending. This is my long goodbye.

I've written this story of the cashews twice before, and with each telling, I release him to the wind, to the sea, to the earth, to the heavens. Until today, when I do what I wish I would have done at the coast with his ashes, now with my words: I build a sandcastle, dig a moat, lay his remains in the trenches, watch the word-ashes carried slowly out to sea.

He must be at rest now, no longer haunted or haunting, no longer entreating me to listen. There is no grave, no grave marker, but this moment. I've born witness here, it says. Now, rest in peace, sweet Papa.

I will always love you. And my heart concurs, It is enough. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Till all that remains is soul

I'm running through wooded trails on creaky knees. Cocooned in quiet, under umbrella of shade, in that middle space between light and dark. Each step radiates warning through my legs, axles grinding. But I can't stop. 

Because the sun has lit her match and I'm racing the ring of fire.

In the heart of the woods, I see. The flames dancing on tree trunks, across forest floor, through fingers of peeking branches. They point toward the fire and I turn to follow their gaze. To the edge of forest, where all is set ablaze, burning yet not consumed. Here in these woods, I, too, burn. From head to toe and underneath my skin, as if to say, I'm alive I'm alive I'm alive.

Reluctant, I exit the fire. 

The air outside the forest is a wool blanket on a summer night and a sheet of breeze flapping on the line; it is both. I gulp air, limp toward water, shed shoes as fast as the sun has smudged pink ash across lake shoulders. The water welcomes, soothes radiating skin, a cool hand brushing across my cheek. I plunge in head first and still I'm racing toward the edge of smoldering fire. Eyes squinting through curtain of water, enough light to see ahead, one breath to three strokes. 

In the middle, I flip over to my back and I'm staring now at pale blue mystery, baptized in bigness. 

My husband waits for me at the shore, holds my towel up and wraps around my shoulders. Dripping wet, I'm still burning, and I don't want to leave this place where flames dance on my skin, too, till all that remains is soul. 

We drive the lake perimeter home, all traces of fire dissipated, until I look back at forest growing distant. A naked moon glows, bold and sheer, in bare chested sky above the woods, strikes a new match and sets me ablaze.

Burn, she says, and carry on.