Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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Freedom & Forgiveness

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Veil Nebula

It has been three months, give or take, since I wrote My Story on this blog and went through the experience of processing that event from twenty years ago. Still, it mystifies me that we can hold memories and experiences in our hearts and minds for so long and not be able to see them clearly until through a process of heart-work and attention, can achieve a moment of clarity, seeing ourselves as we truly are. While it feels like a very heavy weight has been lifted from my perception of myself in my life, it is still a great mystery to me: why do we hold secrets from ourselves and others and why are we afraid of vulnerability?

I may never know the answers to those questions, and it may be that part of my journey on the Earth is to explore those ideas with myself and others. I feel a shift happening in my course of work on the Earth; I still feel that teaching is my purpose, but I am wondering if it is time to start teaching in a different way, forum, or circumstance. I am choosing not to worry too much about it and let it all unfold.

Since I started writing here, almost four years ago, so much has changed and so little has stayed the same: many moves, changes of fortune and circumstance, friends, love, and discoveries. Thinking of the person I was when I wrote that first post from Maine, when I had just ridden the park loop bus around Acadia and had decided to stay and live in Maine, I am happy for her, and happy for me. So much processing over so little time coupled with so many beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching experiences. I think of ice skating, and watching the first snowstorm of my life fall outside my windows whilst watching every episode of Six Feet Under. I think of drying flowers on my porch, en masse, and later drying so many more flowers in the ante-room of my studio at the Tool Barn, both projects related to sharing beauty with other people. I think of the Halloween parade in Northeast Harbor, and Dan’s barn, Lisa’s cabin on Cranberry Island, and Sam’s small paradise on Islesford. I think of the one room schoolhouse on Islesford that I almost taught within, and the many wonderful girls I met this past year. I think of giant fish made out of paper, and sculptures made out of junk, and the woman I taught at Haystack who built her broken back out of brass and copper. I think of all the people that I met, and how much I miss them. I think of all the people I love here in Austin, and how much I missed them.

Life is like a seesaw in so many ways: most of the time we are aiming toward a peaceful level of equilibrium, but life’s many feathers of fortune fall on either side, shifting us slowly (or quickly) up and down. It is a matter of balance, as it is constantly shifting out of balance. Like the seesaw, it’s all about riding along, moving upwards and downwards, watching the trees and bushes blur, smiling at the person across from you, and trying not to bump your butt too hard if the other one jumps off, or if you push too hard and end up thumping against the ground.

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7th Grade Girls

7th grade girls are sweet and funny oddballs who change so much in nine months it’s almost bewildering. This year I have heard all range of things, like:

“Ms Blythe. I was fine until _____ destroyed my life!”

“Ms Blythe, why do you know everything?” answered with, “Because she’s secretly a goddess who has lived for thousands of years.”

“Ms Blythe – do you like me?” I answer, “yes of course I like you!” Answer, “no you don’t.”

“Ms Blythe, Ms. _____ hates us.” I answer, “no, she doesn’t hate you.”

If 6th graders are bundles of raw emotion and sweet happiness, transitioning into teenagerdom, then 7th graders are bundles of raw emotion, anxiety, confusion, tears, and absolutism, albeit momentary.

I have taught 7th graders for most of the years that I have taught. I think, in fact, there has only been one year that I haven’t taught them. My friend Jackie coined 7th grade “The Crying Year” because most of them, at some point, will break down crying, sometimes for no reason. One of my favorite memories of The Crying Year was one day, several years ago, when we were listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends while drawing botanical drawings of pinecones. I looked up and noticed a child had buried himself in a fortress of binders. I went over to him, knelt down, and asked if he was ok, to which he replied, “this music makes me so emotional”, in his strange, monotone voice. Later I coaxed him out from underneath the fortress by changing the music.

We just ended our year, my first year of teaching 7th grade girls, as opposed to boys and girls together. I also taught 6th grade girls, but as I said above, they are still bundles of light and joy and excitement. They scamper everywhere. 7th grade girls can be sullen, funny, energetic, silly, disrespectful, lazy, and philosophically challenging. This year, one asked my coworker if she wanted to always be a teacher. She answered yes, and the student asked, “don’t you have any aspirations?”

It is an adventure working with middle schoolers, but in a single-gender environment it is almost as if the daily emotional toil is concentrated and ever-brimming at the surface, apt to boil over. The dramas are similar to the infighting of a small town; alliances shifting and changing daily, for very small and insignificant reasons. It is as if 7th grade girls exist on an emotional see-saw, perpetually tipping the balance in the direction of interpersonal dramas for a day or a week, and then reverting the see-saw to equilibrium once more.

I learned this year that this is the year in which kids stop talking to their parents and they seem to grow an almost adult concept of not wanting to burden their parents with their thoughts and fears. They seem to not want to add stress to their parents’ lives (a mark of their growing maturity) but also desperately need people to listen to the contents of their worried minds. Perhaps this is why we all glommed on to our junior high school friends so intensely, but I cannot tell you the amount of times I said this year to different students: let yourself be a child for a while longer, and tell your parents you love them and need them.

On Thursday, when we all said goodbye and ushered them into cars and buses, there were many, many tears and marker-signed shirts and yearbooks with “H.A.G.S.” written all over the inside pages (Have A Great Summer). I giggled at them and hugged them, telling them they are fine as they are coming back to the school in a couple of months, but it was to no avail: “Ms Blythe! I love you so much. I am going to miss you!”

I am going to miss them, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Is A Field

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Rumi

 

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Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

Doors open, and doors close. There is one door in my life that I seemingly have cared about over all others that occasionally peeks open, as if wedged outward upon its tight hinges and overly-secure lock. Light peeks out, love even, if only for a moment. And then, it inevitably closes, tightly, lips pursed, as if the opening never occurred. At this time in my life, it is the first time that I have felt that its closing is not my fault.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi

 

 

 

Snippets from Steepletop

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First Fig 

MY candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

Second Fig

SAFE upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

The Singing Woman from the Woods-Edge

WHAT should I be but a prophet and a liar,
Whose mother was a leprechaun, whose father was a friar?
Teethed on a crucifix and cradled under water,
What should I be but the fiend’s god-daughter?

And who should be my playmates but the adder and the frog,
That was got beneath a furze-bush and born in a bog?
And what should be my singing, that was christened at an altar,
But Aves and Credos and Psalms out of the Psalter?

You will see such webs on the wet grass, maybe,
As a pixie-mother weaves for her baby,
You will find such flame at the wave’s weedy ebb
As flashes in the meshes of a mer-mother’s web,

But there comes to birth no common spawn
From the love of a priest for a leprechaun,
And you never have seen and you never will see
Such things as the things that swaddled me!

After all’s said and after all’s done,
What should I be but a harlot and a nun?

In through the bushes, on any foggy day,
My Da would come a-swishing of the drops away,
With a prayer for my death and a groan for my birth,
A-mumbling of his beads for all that he was worth.

And there sit my Ma, her knees beneath her chin,
A-looking in his face and a-drinking of it in,
And a-marking in the moss some funny little saying
That would mean just the opposite of all that he was praying!

He taught me the holy-talk of Vesper and of Matin,
He heard me my Greek and he heard me my Latin,
He blessed me and crossed me to keep my soul from evil,
And we watched him out of sight, and we conjured up the devil!

Oh, the things I haven’t seen and the things I haven’t known,
What with hedges and ditches till after I was grown,
And yanked both ways by my mother and my father,
With a “Which would you better?” and a “Which would you rather?”

With him for a sire and her for a dam,
What should I be but just what I am?

The Prisoner

ALL right,
Go ahead!
What’s in a name?
I guess I’ll be locked into
As much as I’m locked out of!

The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society

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Reflections in Memory

We took a walk on the beach one day, in the summer. It must have been late summer because I remember the slanting sunshine: the warmth of it. We walked along the beach in Salisbury Cove: the part of the cove that would later be left behind for the quieter end, off Old Bar Harbor Road. My father and I, probably five or six years old, walked the beach.

The beach in that part of the world is gray with shale and rusty with ironstone. The stone forms in thin layers and is cracked into a thousand million pieces with the roots of trees. While they crack the stone, the root hairs also hold its myriad pieces in space, braving winter’s storms and the shrinking-expanding process of freeze and thaw. The beach itself is made of tiny to large pieces of stone, too many to count. There is no sand here; the closet thing is tiny pieces of basalt that have been tumbled and thrashed for eons. Here and there are pieces of kelp, ends of rope, bottles, a jellyfish or two, sea urchin skeletons and so many mussel shells. Mussel shells are demure on top: brown, black and white, but reveal indigo or lavender pearl inside. I have always loved them and they were my brother’s favorites when he was a little boy. I have many memories of Carew carrying mussel shells by the dozen back to our cottage.

On the day of the walk, my father and I sat on the top of what seemed like a very tall rock, out on the edge of the beach. I don’t know how long we sat there, only that it was warm. Over time, the tide came in and separated us from the beach. In reality, the water was probably 2 or 3 feet deep, but I couldn’t cross, and my dad hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me to the beach, to safety.

My father has many stories. When I was studying for the GRE, which I never used for graduate school, I learned a word, legerdemain. Meaning slight of hand, I always thought it applied very well to my father. He is a gifted storyteller who holds his own cards tight to the chest. He plays no personal hand: very little is divulged. He is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain.

During the process that I related to readers here, I realized that I had held guilt as my definitive characteristic for twenty years. It took hard and heavy realizations to see that I had to let that go in order to be happy and be in my present reality. It took risk and resulted in reward, but the path was frightening and new. I think that guilt such as this is ultimately useless, and a barrier between ourselves and those who would really love us. Nothing anyone has done, save very few barbarous actions, could result in someone not being worthy of love from those who choose to do so.

When I think of my father and his life, I can see a life of a world traveler, an instructor, a bridge jumper, an oil man, a golf player, a Mercedes lover, an eldest son, a highly sensitive person, a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic, a rage-oholic, and a depressive. But despite all of that, my father is worthy of love. However, it would seem that he believed he was not, and so acted out so intensely as if to prove that fact. My mother, my brother, myself, his friends and his family are here to prove that otherwise, despite his faults.

I gave myself and was given forgiveness by those who love me. Forgiveness, like commitment, is freeing and highly emotional. It is the letting go, of staring off into a space of love and friendship, and stepping out into the mystery. As my father sits in the television room of my parents house, on the quiet side of Salisbury Cove, staring down at a coastline that we once walked, I hope to say to him: “I love you. We all love you. You have done nothing to disappoint anyone. There are no mistakes. This is the time to think about all the stories, all the adventure, all the things you have to be thankful for. Let it go. You are loved.”

From Both Sides Now

It is a strange but comforting memory.

It is made of a wooden door with glass in the front, and squeaky stairs that go up, and then an old jukebox bathed in amber light, and lastly, an ice cream counter. It is a place in Galveston, a town about an hour south of Houston, where my family went together many times when I was a child.

There was a store there that sold imports, I think. It had wooden bins full of little things like beads. It had shelves on the walls with fabrics folded upon them. In this store, just after my grandfather died, I was wandering around and looked up to see a very white haired man in a button up, loose-fitting, short-sleeved shirt, wearing glasses and a camera hanging from his neck. It was my grandfather, and by the time I looked back at him, upon recognition, he had, of course, disappeared.

Galveston has a long, tall, cement wall that stretches along its seashore and was built to protect its citizens from damaging hurricanes, like the one in 1900. Some parts of it are painted with murals. Some parts of it are dotted with seashell shops, which sell lots of seashells not native to Texas at all, and many of those pretty shell chandelier-hanging lamp things. I always wanted one of those.

When we had the dog, Bear was his name, we would take him to the beach and he would run around. Once, my cousin Bruce came to visit from New Jersey, and he took Bear way out into the water. The dog panicked, and clawed Bruce’s back to bits trying to save himself in Bruce’s arms.

We used to stay in a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula that belonged to our family’s lawyer. It was a brown house, made of wood, on stilts, and, at night, you could go out to the dunes with a flashlight and hunt ghost crabs. One visit, we discovered that the house had been robbed and things tossed about, as if in a storm. The two policemen who came demonstrated to us, flabbergasted, how they thought two people had gotten into a fight and thrown each other around. My parents didn’t agree with the theory, but I don’t remember ever staying there after that.

When I look back at time, and try to piece the story together, as I have been wont to do of late, I have been looking back to see when the family functioned well and when there was evidence of happiness and contentment. I think it ended just before my grandfather died, when my parents lost their house, their car, and many of their possessions. We moved into a small rental house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I lived in a tiny room, which I loved, and I had curtains around my bed. I used to sneak out of the huge window and go and walk in the park, later whilst smoking cigarettes.

Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, a time I only remember because I was in a Texas History class at Knox Junior High School when it happened. My teacher was not a good teacher, but did have a slight obsession with Dan Fogelberg of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The only three things I remember from her class were Dan Fogelberg, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and learning a computer software that, I think, was some precursor to PowerPoint.

During that time, I have very few memories of my parents together or apart. I remember being alone a lot. I remember my brother playing with all the kids in the street all the time, and that once we had a massive, neighborhood-wide pinecone war. I remember doing my homework on a blanket in the front yard, and waving every day to the same lady in the same car. After a bit of time, she stopped and introduced herself. She was Irish and lived down the road a bit. I went to her house for tea. She became a great friend to me and we would talk and have tea; I remember she had a wonderful tea towel collection. I remember my mom coming to pick me up there one evening.

That time is shrouded, and soon after, we moved into another house, the one in which we lived when I graduated from high school. Come to think of it, that was the house with the large window from which I snuck out. All I remember of that time, in the house with the duck on the door, is darkness (it was a dark house). I remember my dad being in the bedroom all the time, and I remember not understanding why there was no one home and it was hard and dark, scary and confusing. I remember buying groceries for the family at the grocery store, and coming home to put them away. I remember doing laundry, and making sure my brother was all right. I remember getting into wearing vintage corduroy mens’ jackets. I remember catching the bus. I remember that sweet old neighbor, whose name I have forgotten.