A Ring of Bells
The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2014
Chautauqua, issue 11 (2014)
American Athenaeum, Summer 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, July 26, 2013
Driving to Door County
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 22, 2013
Apeiron Review, May 2013
The Commons, May 1 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, April 10, 2013
Wisconsin Trails, May/June 2012
Wisconsin Pubic Radio March 14, 2012
Wisconsin Public Radio, October 21, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, June 1, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 4, 2011
Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005
Learning to Ski Skate
Silent Sports, December 1998
Things That Matter
First published in So To Speak, 2015-2016 print issue. It won the So To Speak Nonfiction Contest. The contest issue can be purchased here.
Judge Barbara Hurd's comments about the essay:
"According to the author, 'Things That Matter' include the physical body, singing, and kindness. But it’s also clear that what matters to her is the longing to see the world and to say and to shape what she sees. This essay does so with careful phrasing, with language both precise and resonant. In musical sentences and a profusion of fresh images, she takes a long and paradoxically unsentimental look at aging. The result isn’t the balm of false hopes: it’s the relief of small truths, delivered with artistry and grace."
Things That Matter
A morning with a gift. After two weeks apart and a rocky reunion, there is enough time to make love with my husband and then to walk with him to his job on campus before sitting down at my own desk at home. Walking back to the house shortly after eight, I see streams of people on bikes and in cars, rushing places with their backpacks and brief-cases: all that industry and purpose, just when the vegetable world is finally done with its own urgency and lolling around, sluggish in the sultry heat, at a lull, a pendulum pausing before it gathers momentum. It is early September, and the nests have been built, filled and emptied; the chicks hatched, fledged and flown; flowers have budded, bloomed, and been pollinated; seeds have been formed and released; ears of corn have swelled behind their silks, while worms have eaten the tips and lie comatose in their pupae, metamorphosing into moths. Jewel-weed looms over the bike path near the lake, huge and overgrown, shrinking the trail almost to a tunnel, making it impossible to see around each corner to what might be coming next.
The trees are so full and laden with leaves they look like ships of the line, the “unresting castles” Philip Larkin called them. Such a weight and volume of living, photosynthesizing tissue. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen over the summer as ten people inhale in a year. I ask my scientist husband whether part of our winter malaise comes from being oxygen-starved because all the leaves have fallen, but he says no. Production shifts to the leafed-out trees in the southern hemisphere, and their oxygen molecules can make it all the way to us here at the other end of the globe. Stubbornly, I still maintain we are more robust and oxygenated in the leafed-out season. We seem to breathe a better air.
I buy two pounds of sweet, black figs for a bargain price—they are labeled “opportunity buy”—and eat the lot within a day. All that we eat and drink becomes us, incorporated into our own cells, our DNA. My son is molecularly a Wisconsin boy. Raised on water from the Cambrian aquifer we live over; water stored in five-hundred-million-year-old sandstone. The corn that grew in a particular kind of silty soil in Cross Plains. The cantaloupe from Black Earth. The spinach from Belleville. The bell peppers from Mazomanie. The peaches from Door County. The cheese curds made from the milk of cows that ate grass in the fields just outside Paoli.
The green of the trees’ leaves is tired; they are a darker shade now. Many of the maple leaves are blemished with tarry spots that are ringed with yellow and look exactly like the black rubber patches used to repair punctures in bicycle wheels. Things have heavy heads; the pear trees are laden with green fruit, some of it littering the ground. The sidewalk is dwarfed by a line of enormous sunflowers weighted down by their own ponderous manes and faces. In the neighbors’ gardens there are tomato plants laden with reddening globes and ovals, their leaves bedraggled, drained of color, flagging with the effort of reproducing; there are fat, vivid marigolds and giant zinnias. In our own front yard there are great, cream hydrangea heads, so heavy and lush with panicles that they threaten to break the branches; on rainy days, they are bowed in U-shapes. The shrub itself has grown enormous, reaching up to the top of the living-room window. The walnut tree is firing off lime-green missiles that sound like gun-shots when released, and thud to the earth for squirrels and chipmunks gnaw on, leaving black detritus that stains our deck, clothes, skin.
The outdoor pools have just closed for the season, but I am still stained with my swimmer’s tan as if I’d been daubed with walnut-juice by the wicked queen in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” criss-crossed with white on my back and my left wrist under my watch. I have panda-eyes where my goggles were, and a stripe of milky forehead below my hairline, left by my cap. After decades of swimming, even wearing factor 50 sunscreen, my arms and legs have become deeply freckled, unlike my son’s, which are still smooth and unblemished. Now that I can no longer swim outdoors, I feel a great loss. And a certain sense of injustice at having been deprived of this pleasure so soon. It is still warm, after all. There is still time to luxuriate in the sun; things are still growing.
Morning glory has twined itself around the front porch beam and is raising its fragile purple trumpets to the sky, programmed to grow spirally. I leave my bike on the porch one night, and by the morning it has grown several inches and twined itself over my front wheel. My husband shows me a green corkscrew of it clinging dauntlessly to one of his spokes, riding with him around town. We laugh, incredulous at its tenacity, its tendrils that look so delicate but are hell-bent on rising to the light, as if defying the oncoming equinox.
This early September air burns my husband’s eyes, making his nose stream and swell. My son struggles to fall asleep, because when he lies down, his sinus cavities fill up, the way salt water fills a hole dug in wet sand. I don’t get hay fever, and I hate that they have to suffer like this; that these last days of beautiful weather come at such a price. The air itself, the plants, have become their adversaries.
What matters to me now is the body, bodies, present and absent. My own body, of course, still strong but showing signs of irremediable decay, of parts wearing down, wearing out. Age splotches on my arms, forehead, cheeks, jawbone. Creases in my ear-lobes. The pillows of cartilage in my knees now ripped and pitted, leaking. The grey hair that is proving harder and harder to conceal, and the stray white hairs starting to appear in my eyebrows, on my pubis. The stiffening lenses in my eyes that are making it increasingly difficult to read, even with progressive glasses. To play the piano, I now have to hold my head at a very particular angle, otherwise the notes swim out of view. My knees crackle loudly when I walk up stairs. Bits of me have been carved or ripped out, leaving scars; a pea-sized tumor from my cheek; a vein from my leg that overflowed its locks and sluice gates; a suspicious-looking mole on my left breast; more suspicious—because unreadably dense—tissue within that breast.
I adore the body in motion, the strokes I take in the pool, the long glide off the turn, arrow-straight, face up to the sky, the dolphin kick pulsing from my hips that brings me back to the surface, lungs bursting, gulping in air. My husband’s body still strong and soft at once, the back pain he has that wakes him from sleep and gets him out of bed every morning. His stout stomach and smooth, muscled thighs. His worn and weathered face, crumpled and furrowed. The feel of his soft skin under my lips, his cock in my mouth, eyes closed, greedily licking and sucking each other’s flesh, taking each other in, wanting this never to end, this fusion, this feral tonguing, this being incarnate. Wanting the salt and moan, wanting transfix, wanting ecstasy. Wanting to be transported by our bodies out of our bodies, into the only heaven we will ever know.
These are the bodies that made my son. Who is growing larger every month, cells added every day, every hour, replicating, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. His long bones are expanding in both dimensions. The weight and girth of those bones, the solidity of those legs that will have to carry him through the world. At times, while he lounges with his feet up next to me on the sofa, I surreptitiously stroke his long, dry shins with their faint, pale fur. They are so massive and heavy. His body becoming other is part of what matters to me now: measuring the time I have left with him, the time I have left in my own body, the tide that is pushing him higher, higher, almost to eye-height.
The smell of his maleness rank in the toilet, the sound of that powerful stream of piss pouring out of him, steaming with his heat. The way he still gives me a peck on the lips to say goodnight or goodbye, the way he began to do of his own accord when he was a toddler, the way my father, sinking under Alzheimer’s, has begun to do, after a lifetime of reserve. The pungent smell of my son’s sweat nowadays. His unbroken voice singing behind a closed door.
Singing matters to me, too: it takes me out of my body and fuses it with others. But it is made of my body, the vocal chords in my throat, the tongue and soft palate and lip muscles of my unique mouth. Poetry, too, is uttered by those vocal chords, is written by my right hand with its flexible phalanges and opposable thumb, its sinews and tendons and nerves.
What matters to me is sex: and the fear that we are not perennials, that this might be our last flowering, in this early fall of our lives, our late middle age. How will we keep the dark at bay_ The light is diluting, leaching out, week by week. There are spots and dark crusty patches on the apples and the basil plants, which put all their energy into white flowerets, leaving the leaves anemic, sapped, not that soft, lush green of midsummer. How long can I keep flowering? How long can I be in a body I still enjoy for its powerful shoulders and lungs? I am still able, when I remember, to stand tall. Not yet permanently hunched, though that will come.
My ovaries, the handles on my hidden chalice, are winding down, no longer releasing an egg every month. Production is sputtering out, my blood no longer a red tide but more like the rusty stains I remember from my very first period. Gutter and flare: I am seized by sudden heats, and I crave sex more than I have since puberty. But my juices are drying up, and to counter that, I wear an estrogen patch which I now apply twice a week, hidden beneath my underwear. Life, in some ways, is a long process of losing. A female fetus has about seven million putative egg cells. By birth, she has one million. By puberty, she’s down to 300-400,000. She loses about a thousand a month from then on. But I still have enough eggs within me to people a small town. And traces of the son I have borne—as well as the other child I did not—still live within me, at a cellular level, and will probably be there when I die. During pregnancy, in a mysterious phenomenon called microchimerism, cells from the baby escape from the womb and migrate throughout the mother’s body. These fetal cells can come to her rescue in later years. They appear to target sites of injury and disease, congregating, for example, at the location of a stroke, or heart damage.
How can I learn to be kinder, before it’s too late? That’s all that matters. It’s taken me over fifty years so far, and it will take the rest of my life. How can I learn to be kinder to my husband, and he to me? A quarter century of marriage come and gone. Our wedding vow was to take each other “to have and to hold, from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” It was never a question of love, I know that. We have had each other, always, and we have always loved each other, despite our frosts and cutting words, our bitterness and intimate despairs; despite his withdrawals and my anger. It’s the companion verbs in our marriage vows that need attention now: “to hold,” and “to cherish.” Love is the fact; cherishing is how you act. In old myths and ballads, when true lovers die, a tree grows out of one grave, and a climbing plant out of the other, growing up to wind itself around the trunk, like the morning glory, refusing to be parted. The genders vary: Iseult’s grave sprouts a rose tree and Tristan’s a vine, but in “Barbara Allen” the red, red rose grows out of sweet William’s grave, while out of hers, a briar.
Those old stories of love, of opportunities tragically missed, spoke deeply to me when I was a teenager. Barbara Allen repenting of her haughtiness, too late. Tristan seeing the black sail and dying of a broken heart, when all along Iseult was alive and coming to him. My friend says the greatest tragedy of all would be to live with someone and not realize that what you needed was there all along, that you were loved in a way you could not see or appreciate. I have burned and longed for and wept over so many men in my lifetime. I came close to leaving this one. And now, to my amazement, we are learning to live together all over again, but on a deeper level, learning for the first time how not to hurt each other, how to heal, how to meet each other’s deepest needs, only now, in this early fall of our lives.
Photos of my mother twenty-five years ago, when she was the age I am now. My mother in India, working as a teacher; in Australia, exploring; in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago from start to finish. In all of them, she is young and beautiful, her heart-shaped, olive-skinned face and dark eyes radiant as she turns toward the camera. My mother, whom I thought so old at the time. My mother, whose body I have bathed with such shock and tenderness, after her second hip replacement went so wrong; whose hair I have washed, noticing how it has thinned so her scalp shows pink; whose feet I have rubbed with lavender and rosemary oil, her toenails now thick and discolored, the feet of an old woman. Who is still beautiful, although she is no longer physically strong.
I started writing about the decline of the body and the loss of beauty when I was in my thirties. No doubt, in twenty or thirty years, if I am still alive, I will look back with amusement and pity at the losses I am lamenting in my fifties as trivial and myself as deluded, self-indulgent. Will I wish I had known to enjoy the strength I have, see it as greater than the future rather than less than the past? How can I learn to be kind to my body when it is no longer strong or beautiful? Self-compassion will be needed as day-to-day movements become harder to perform, as I become increasingly invisible to the young. Self-criticism is a bad habit I need to lose: I need to be mentally stronger than ever to deal with the hardships of old age, the loss of power it brings.
How can I be kind to my son, support his moving out and away from me? I have to learn how to nurture him from the distance he now needs in order to grow into his future self; but I must not let the pain of that separation harden me. Some part of me, I know, will always be on call, ready to step up when he asks, as long as I live.
Walking home, I notice that the colors of fall wildflowers in Wisconsin are yellow, purple and white. Yellow for black-eyed Susans, mullein, sunflowers, sneezeweed, compass plant, tansy, butter-and-eggs, cup plant, and prairie coneflowers. Purple for asters, knapweed, and sweet clover. White for snakeroot, boneset, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, and water hemlock. The yellow, purple and white flag belongs to the Japanese city of Kyoto, the city which Basho immortalized as a place of existential longing: the place we cannot grasp, the place we yearn for even while we are there. Like fall in Wisconsin, in the face of the oncoming cold and dark. Like the autumn of my life.
I cannot hold onto any of it, not this shining day, not the sensation of being entered and filled and entering another, not my son’s body, or my husband’s, or my mother’s, or my own. I can’t stop the hemorrhaging, the loss and destruction within us and around us. All I can hope to do is to notice, to be aware, to be truly alive while it happens. I sit gazing at the blank page of my notebook, click the top of my ballpoint pen. The day is moving on inexorably around me, even as I write.