Joy at 16: Just a Girl

We lived in a small gray house built on sand. The two-bedroom frame house had one floor, no basement and no attic. Four similar houses and a narrow one-way street separated us from the bay. Twice a day at low tide the smell of our neighborhood was its most distinguished feature. Stinking mud and dead fish marked our territory. The air was kinder at high tide as the rising water bathed away the stench. Misty breezes swept across the bay or rolled in from the ocean on the eastern shore. On this peaceful side of the island there was little traffic or noise, even in summer. Bell buoys rang in the distance, guiding ships along the shore. We could hear the solitary cries of seagulls, an occasional clamor of ducks by the bay, the murmur of small boats passing. These were sounds so familiar we barely noticed them, as we moved through the daily drama of our lives.

West Maple Avenue was just three blocks north of the tracks. The people who lived on this backside of the island were firmly anchored in place. They were descendants of whalers, fisherman and sailors and they still got much of their sustenance from the sea. Crab traps dangled from the bulkhead by the bay. Neighbors who did not have boats fished from docks, from bridges, or from the shore. Many still knew how to dig for clams or harvest oysters. Most families had rowboats, often handmade. Roped to pilings in the shallow bay, these small boats were left stranded in the muck by the receding tide, and were lifted again when the water returned. Knowing the schedule of the tides was essential. To arrive home by boat at low tide meant that mooring close to shore was impossible. No one could walk from boat to beach once the receding water exposed the soft muddy bottom of the bay. No solid ground existed beneath the sucking slime of the island’s muddy shore. If careless, a person could sink slowly into the mire, and disappear without a trace.

All the houses on our street were brown, gray or white. Our own was shingled gray with white shutters. Flower boxes made of gray and white brick lined two sides of our front porch. Our front steps met the sidewalk. A patch of grass grew between the sidewalk and the street. Narrow strips of grass sprouted in the sand in the alleys between our house and our neighbors on each side. Fences covered by blue and white morning glories in summer, by brown vines in winter, bordered our square backyard. A willow tree grew on one side of the yard, a lilac bush on the other. Blue sky, purple and yellow pansies, red geraniums and patches of green leaves splashed the only bit of bright color on our otherwise pale landscape. On this west side we had gray water and mud. We had sun bleached sand, seashells and concrete. On the east side of the island, neon motel signs lined the beach. Flashing lights on arcade signs and amusement rides lined the boardwalk. A sightseeing boat painted bright orange and blue was moored on the east end of the harbor. These colorful exceptions stood in cloying contrast to the quiet tones of earth and sea that surrounded us. Even those garish symbols of commercialism often disappeared under the heavy blanket of fog that so often covered our island.

No one I knew ever left this place. There were no vacations to faraway places, no commuting to work in distant cities, no moving away from home. Generation after generation weathered storms that swept houses off their foundations. Again and again residents rebuilt their damaged homes. Every few years hurricanes or northeasters brought floods that washed in from all directions, burying the island for days at a time. Surging tides pushed sea water into our homes. Inches of mud had to be shoveled out before evacuated residents could return. Our wallpaper had several lines of water marks, the highest two feet above the warped floor boards. Cushions had floated off the chairs and sofa in that worst of all storms. The water destroyed all our family pictures. Our salt stained, mud caked shoes, left in closets or under our beds as we fled the rising tide, had to be sprayed clean with a hose. Once they dried in the sun we tried in vain to return the stiff leather to its natural softness by lathering the shoes with Vaseline. We wore them hard and cracked and falling apart. Like everything else they smelled of mold and mildew. The musty odor never left our homes before another storm came to intensify the damage and the smell.

From a distance of more than forty years I turn my thoughts with trepidation to that old gray house by the sea. For a week I have allowed my mind to wander outside, remembering the island and the neighborhood, but avoiding this house. Today I have decided to be brave. It is dark inside as I enter by the front door. No one is home. The red glow of hot coals radiates through the glass door of the old metal stove in the corner. I think of Goldilocks as I walk slowly forward. What have the people who live here left behind for me to borrow?

A voice from the past reminds me that I am no Goldilocks. I remember my father’s ornery laugh. “I always wanted two children” he would say to whomever might listen. “I wanted a boy first, then a girl. I wanted a little girl with blond curly hair and blue eyes, like Shirley Temple. But first I wanted a son! And look what I got: a girl first, a girl with straight mousy brown hair and brown eyes. Not a curl on her head! I had to wait three more years to finally get my son!” Sooner or later everyone he knew heard this story. His female, brown-haired, brown eyed, first born child heard it often enough to help assure that she would eventually be the one to leave this place. She was barely sixteen when she swung her errant hair over her determined shoulders and strolled quietly away.

Transcending Gender

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Wholeness requires
the unclad truth
the irrelevance of the body
the particulars of body
the gender, the sex
the categories imposed
on the contours of place
the who is touching
what with what
when a loving hand caresses
the small of the back
or cups a smooth shoulder
or strokes the rise and fall
of a lover’s soft downy belly
when lips encircle responsive flesh
and a voice whispers tender truth
I love to touch you here
as legs entwine
and strong arms give shelter
as silken hair brushes the cheek
and fingers trace a gentle path
through the garden of celebration:
What name shall we call ourselves
and whose approval shall we seek?

 

Doors

SoCS

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This week I want to think positively about doors. I have passed through many in my long life.  Some of my favorite doors are in New Orleans.  I want to think about vacations in New Orleans.  But in a response to a prompt to write about a door I passed through this week my thoughts go to a darker place.  I teach with my back to a door. Every day the decision: do I follow my fear and lock the door? Late students will not be able to get in. They will knock on the solid door I cannot see through, and then I decide: do I open the door?  Is it safe?  Or should I refuse to succumb to fear, leave the door open, act like there is no threat to a college classroom, to the students who look to me to tell them why the world is as it is. I want to think about vacation doors… not the dead bodies of school children shot to death through a classroom door.

 

Stream of Consciousness written for soCS.

The Friday Reminder and Prompt for #SoCS Feb. 24/18

Unicorn: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time, farmers were free to plant seeds.  After harvest they collected and saved new seeds to plant again come spring.  Then came a greedy monster named Monstrosity, who sought to rule the land.  First, Monstrosity built a laboratory where he manufactured fictional corn. Then he took over the government, and made a law that real corn could not be planted forevermore.  The real farmers lost their farms. Monstrosity thought he’d won. Then one magical night a unicorn named TimesUp came and ate all of Monstrosity’s corn.  Rage consumed the monster, and real farmers came back home.

 

Flash Fiction challenge response for:
February 22, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a unicorn. It can be realistic or fantastical. Go where the prompt leads.

February 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspired by the Young

Young people are rising up in this country!  Today my students were full of energy, imagining a better world, one with respect and fairness as core values. Emboldened by the example of high school children organizing in Florida after last week’s mass shooting, one young man asked, “But where are we going, what kind of world can we build, what comes next?”  He said he feels like “we are driving through a hail storm and we can’t see where we are going.”  All semester this young man has expressed his concern that too often we speak of ‘equality’ when what we need is the maturity to think about ‘equity’ – real fairness, not just sameness.

A young woman in the class made a diagram to illustrate how voting might be conducted and tallied to avoid hacking in the future, and brought it to me after class.  Earlier, during class, she said “People have been divided into small groups and each group has been encouraged to believe that they have no power. But now people are learning that they have power when they stand together.”  Until recently this young woman never spoke a word in class. Now she speaks with authority, and what she has to say energizes those who choose to listen to her.

Another young woman said, “At first when I learned what European Americans did to indigenous people I wondered why they didn’t fight back more viciously and do the same thing back to the people who were torturing and killing them and taking their land.  But now I see that by keeping to their traditional values, Native Americans show us that a better world is possible.  We could learn to live together and solve our problems if first we adopt the values of respect, humility, courage, generosity and compassion.”

Today young people are laying their bodies down for social justice in Washington D.C., and in other cities around the country they are speaking out, angry and determined.  They say they have had enough.  They want change.  They are calling out our national leaders, identifying the betrayals, the lies and the policies that are undermining all that is good in this world.  I stand with them, inspired and hopeful.

We have to stop accusing our politicians of ‘acting like children’.  If only that were so; if only we could be led through this hail storm by people who seek a road that leads to social justice and equity for all, as these courageous children do.

Spring on Ice

In fickle spring I decide to launch my canoe on a frigid Adirondack lake. The seductive sun is full of false promises.  Soon loons will return to nest, mayflies will entice rainbow trout to dance for food, and vacationers will arrive in noisy droves. For now, I journey alone on this peaceful water. I rest awhile in the center of the lake, sipping warm tea from my thermos.  It’s an idyllic day until clouds roll in and the temperature takes an ominous dive. Floating chunks of ice menace the canoe, pushing together, refreezing, as I frantically paddle toward shore.

 

 

 

Written for Carrot Ranch Literary Community: February 15, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story on ice. It can be an event on ice, a game on ice or a drink on ice. Go where the prompt leads you.

Joy at 15: A Childhood Lost

FB_IMG_1519741983860The warm sand cradled her exhausted body as Joy collapsed on her back in a secluded valley hidden deep within the dunes. Through swollen lids she stared at the sky as it slid from blue to grey to a night darker than she had ever known.  The pounding heart of a lost child squeezed hard beneath her sore breasts.  The heart of another pulsed low in her swollen belly.  As stars began to appear she sat up, remembering her purpose.  Reaching into the waistband of the girdle she wore to hide her fast growing secret, she removed a folded piece of aluminum foil.  She opened the folds to find the pills she had taken from her mother’s medicine cabinet the night before.  Salt tears stung her chapped cheeks as she remembered the good-byes she’d said to her family that morning as she left for school – good-byes known in their finality only to her – and to one other.
Her throat closed around his name, the memory of his face set cruel against her pain, his cold insistence that she better not fail him.  He would take his own life, he promised, if she did not end hers as they had planned, and on that day. She only half believed him.  It made sense that she should be the one to do it, he told her, since the mistake they had made lived in her body.  It was she who held the power to erase the shame, to fix his life, to restore him to his promising path of worldly success.  Thus was the logic of a seventeen year old boy, raised on this island where it was always men who mattered most. It was a logic she only half accepted. If he died she’d be left to raise the baby alone, in South Jersey, in 1967, at the age of fifteen.  That was impossible.  She had waited months, hoping for another way.  But her body threatened every day to betray her. Her time had run out. She had to act. He wasn’t going to save her.

She swallowed without water one bitter pill after another, struggling to open her throat to the promise she had made to him.  She would die here in these dunes. She patted her bra, checking to be sure the note she had written to absolve him was still there to be found with her body.  He was her first love, her only boyfriend, but her note said he was not the father of the child she carried.A dense fog rolled in from the sea, covering her as she slept. She woke now and then dazed, and wandered over the dunes searching in vain for her shoes.  Her bare feet felt numb in the damp chilled sand of that cold May night.  Her face burned from salty tears and sea spray as she finally curled her body onto a boulder on the jetty that held her just above the pounding waves of the vast Atlantic until dawn broke.Her small body was invisible to the rescue crews scanning surf and shoreline that night. Their search lights reflected back on them in the impenetrable fog.

Her thin dress and spring coat were all she had to shield her from the night.  Her bare brown limbs and dark hair, damp and stiff from the saturated air, lay exposed with the seaweed left behind on the jetty with her, as the sea began to recede in the early light.The search crews had given up and gone home by the time she stood on shaky legs to survey her surroundings.  Sea gulls circled above her in the gray-pink haze of lifting fog as she remembered her dream. Her mother had come, telling her to meet her at the house.  ‘What house?’ she wondered as she stepped from one slippery rock to another, heading toward the long stretch of barren beach that had brought her here.  There were no homes out along this inlet.

The sand shifted beneath her stinging feet, cut by barnacles and broken shells as she’d wandered the night before, drugged and unaware. She had yet to discover the scratched and torn flesh on her legs from the sharp dune brush she walked through and fell into time and again before she made her way to the jetty. She would wear the scars of that night for decades to come, but she didn’t know that yet on this first morning after her failed attempt at suicide.As she climbed to the top of a dune she spotted a small building. Not free yet of her dream cloud she decided this must be the house where her mother waited. She made her way down one dune and up another as the sun rose over the sea behind her.  She made her way over a series of thick wires as she crossed a stretch of sand behind the small house.

Suddenly she spotted a figure, frantically waving arms in the air, and moving quickly toward her.  As the person came closer she could see that it was a man and that he seemed to be very upset. She turned to run back to the shelter of the dunes, but tripped and fell face down in the sand.  She heard the man shouting as he approached her. She froze as she felt his hand touch her shoulder.“Are you trying to kill yourself?  These are high voltage wires!” he said.She looked up and saw genuine alarm on his face.  He stepped back and drew in his breath.“Are you lost? Are you the girl they’ve been looking for?” he asked, seeming to know the answer before the words left his lips.“My mother is waiting for me at the house.” That’s all that she could think to say.  Why did he think she was lost?“They’ve been out searching the beach all night,” he said, “What happened to you?”As she stood up to face him he looked down at her legs, then up at her face. He frowned, his mouth open but silent now, his eyes asking all the questions.  She looked at her legs. They were covered with blood-encrusted sand. She began to back away, tugging at the hem of her coat.  He shook his head gently and said, “Let me help you.”Without another word he lifted her and carried her across the field of wires and into the small building.

He offered her a chair. He brought her a cool wash cloth for her sand covered face.  He asked her name, and she told him it was Joy.  She was fifteen, her father’s name was Jim – Jimmy Godfrey.  He nodded; everyone on the island knew her father.  The man offered her a Coke and a bag of potato chips, apologizing that he had no other food to offer her. “I work here,” he said. “This is the Coast Guard electronics station. You could have been electrocuted out there.”  She barely heard what he was saying to her, nearly deafened by a pounding pressure in her ears.“I have to call your father,” he said. “Or shall I call the police?”  She heard that but could she choose?The potato chips and Coke were burning and making the skin on the roof of her mouth peel away as she tried to eat.  She had an awful taste in her mouth and her legs itched. She was tired, so tired, too tired even to fully remember the depths of her usual fear of her father’s predictable wrath.“You can call my father,” she whispered through her sore mouth.  Then she added, “But can you wait a little while?”

“He must be very worried about you,” the man said gently. Can you give me your phone number? She recited the familiar number, and he walked to the other side of the room where a phone hung from the wall.  Tears welled up as she watched him begin to dial.  He continued to speak gently to her, assuring her that it would take half an hour for her father to get there – she’d have a little time.Something vast opened inside her as he began to speak into the phone, no longer to her.  She sunk into a deep pool of surrender as she waited for all that would come next.  Her young body had refused to die on the beach that night, but nothing could restore her lost childhood to her.  The child who was Joy would wander that beach, forever bereft.  But this child, scarred and scared now in that desolate place by the sea that she loved, would one day give birth to someone new.  She would bring to life a free woman, who in time would find her way back to Joy.