A collaborative essay
So come closer, come into this. There are birds beating their wings beneath your breastplate gentle sparrows aching to sing….
“Feb * 1964”
Let us start with the tree. Because where else can the eye go first than that young Ash—its smooth trunk, the branches thin as whips. And the girl, a sapling herself. Someone—her mother or the stylist at the beauty salon at Bullock’s Department store—has cut her bangs straight across on her forehead, the rest of her hair curving into a pageboy bob. Leaves throw shadows across her face, her skirt, the dry lawn—as if the branches sway in a strong breeze, out of control, not sure which direction to grow.
February: but the girl wears short sleeves and seems inordinately pleased with her suspenders, the buttons that hook on the waistband, the Peter Pan collar, the pleats that brush just above her knocked knees. The light is bright, dry. All the houses on this cul-de-sac are young, too, waiting for their landscaping to fill in.
1964: on the television she’s seen President Johnson trying to manage a jungle war from his offices in D.C., his face solemn and jowled, though her mother turns off the TV when young men in battle gear race across the screen. She has seen Peggy Fleming, so elegant in her pleated skirt, win the U.S. Figure Skating championship, and this girl has pretended, in secret, to be Peggy, twirling in her bedroom alone, or gliding with arms outstretched across the dry expanse of the back lawn.
The olive tree in the nook by the front door has not yet developed fruit, but it will, more olives than anyone can stand, messy in the way they fall with abandon. Just as this young sapling will grow to tower over the house, its trunk thick and cragged with age, leaves blanketing the ivy on the slope. The girl will never be as pleased with her clothes as she is on this day, when she and her tree are fresh and new. She can feel the sap running in the wood, a force that surges up. They are both growing; nothing can stop them now.
The tree reaches the girl, leans into her. Its leaves shadow across her face and her jumper. They are separate, and they are together, the young tree and its ropy, curving branches. The young girl and her cheeky smile. Her fleshy, hyperextended knees.
This particular shadow is cast by overhanging leaves intercepting rays of the sun. It is not a symbol, or prefiguration, even though the shadow is in the foreground. It is not the shadow of death, a spectre or a ghost, or even a spy lurking in the background, even though shadow and darkness are companions, and shadows always travel with light.
Shadow versus substance. Shadows obscure, conceal. Are fleeting and immaterial. But things change when shadow shifts from mere being into action, when shadow protects against attack, or screens from blame, or punishment, or wrong, or at the very least, shelters from the blazing sun.
There is no epic battle against evil or darkness here. Just a girl with her arm around a tree. Just a tree leaning against a girl. Both of them depending on the light.
When I was a daughter, my job was to close the curtain on the voting booth. Later, as I grew older, my mother let me switch the levers, and I can still remember the satisfying click as I cast each individual vote. We would finish, and open the curtain, then the poll worker would enter and reset the booth as we made our way to the exit, then most often, to the grocery store. I remember voting, or at least accompanying my mother as she voted, long before I was old enough to vote on my own. I guess you could say the cultural value of voting was instilled in me from a young age, an act which could be interpreted as buying in to national ideals, but in the 1970s, women in the United States had only been voting fifty years. As the women in my family demonstrated—my mother, grandmothers, and aunts—it may have been a civic duty, but it also folded into our days as easily as trips to the post office, the bank, as easily as cooking a family meal.
When my daughter was young, voting booths had changed from levers to paper ballots we punched with a metal stylus. Of course, I let my daughter punch each hole with her chubby hands, and when the ballot was complete, I would fold it over and hand it to her, so she could slip the rectangle of paper into the slot on the sealed, metal ballot box. The poll workers, older ladies, volunteers, made sure she received the red, white, and blue I Voted sticker. Then we made our way to the table of baked goods for sale in the foyer of the neighborhood Episcopal church.
My grandma Ruth always said she could never vote against a library bond, or a school levy, and I like to think of myself in the same light. Now Washington state has a vote-by-mail system, ensuring a paper trail—which neatly balances voter rights and limits wide-scale, institutional fraud—but I confess I miss the social aspect, the event of gathering as a community to have a voice, to shape the way we want to live. I miss the sweet, civic-minded volunteers, I miss the baked goods, and I miss the silly stickers. But most of all I miss seeing my neighbors brought together to witness the individual actively participating in our collective future, a reminder that we are responsible not only for ourselves.
My eye is drawn to the woman running in the opposite direction. Her white dress suit crinkles and billows; there is urgency and motion in every part of her body. Something is happening, and she needs to be there.
Perhaps she was one of those women watching from the street, going about her business, shopping for sensible shoes. Perhaps she heard the faint cadence of women’s voices raised in chant, or somehow felt the wordless commotion a group of women makes as they band together in a common purpose. Perhaps these women took to the streets in silent protest, their silence a statement in itself. In any case, she looked up from her handbag, gradually understood something new was afoot, felt the murmuration of women on the move.
And so she does it. She steps off the sidewalk. She makes the transition from bystander to participant. The air feels different when she does this: more charged, oxygenated. She has never run in her life, never moved at more than a brisk walk, but now her body picks up speed, her shoes alighting with steady ticks on the asphalt, her Sunday dress rustling around her legs. She can feel the turning of heads, the gazes of those still remaining on the periphery.
She catches the eye of a young girl holding a sign. She does not yet have a daughter—her children are all boys—but if she did, she’d want a daughter like this: pretty and sure of herself, willing to stand at the front of the line. She wants a daughter who can look ahead, her vision unimpeded, to see clearly where she needs to go. She wants a daughter who will be the kind of woman the future demands. She carries this idea of “daughter” with her as she runs toward the back of the line, as she finds her place among women, all of them shifting to give her room to march.
April * 1964
You’ve got your sheet cake, decorated by hand; you’ve got birthday hats; you’ve got noisemakers; you’ve got party favors in little cups at each place. You’ve got your dress; your party dress, with its crisp waist belt, its smooth pleats, its ribbons of pale flowers. Your mother must have ironed it carefully at her station in the dining room. You must have twirled in that dress when you put it on. Your mother stood back to behold this daughter in her finery, then enlisted your help as she set the table just so.
She spent all week with you planning this party; everything is perfect. Brothers have been banished; the room has been transformed into a girl’s domain. Soon guests will arrive with carefully wrapped presents they’ll lay in a pile on the coffee table, each one eager for you to open them, to show off what they’ve brought. One girl has shown up early; perhaps it’s her birthday too. Both of you smile with real pleasure, your eyes alight, though you’re not sure what to do with your hands (this will be a theme later in your life, too: what to do with your hands, but for now you’ve found a way to hold them softly nestled within one another, holding on.)
And the balloons. My god, the balloons. They are nothing fancy: just dime store balloons in the expected shapes—ovals, teardrops—and the expected colors—violet, orange, red. But they hover above you in mid-air, no strings attached. It’s an illusion, I know: they are holding onto the wall by static electricity. I can picture how you did it, your mother showing you how to moisten and stretch the opening, press it just so to your lips. You watched her fingers with their beautifully polished nails splayed to each side, her lipsticked mouth pursed, and the balloon inflating with just a few good puffs, the end quickly tied in a knot.
She handed each one to you, and you rubbed it quickly against your dress until the hairs on your arm stood up, then touched it lightly to the wall where it held, bobbing a little as it found equilibrium. You did this over and over until your whole body felt charged. You stood on a chair to get the balloons artfully arranged, then stood down satisfied with what you’d done.
The photo captures you right before the mayhem ensues: before the other kids arrive to make a mess of everything. Before the cake is demolished, the napkins crumpled, the candles blown out to leave only sooty wicks. Before the balloons lose their gumption, their staying power, and fall off one by one, unnoticed, too tired to even pop. Before your mother cleans up everything into a big garbage bag she will set by the curb.
Before you grow out of your party dress and decide it’s a sin to eat cake. Before you discover helium balloons and their compulsion to lift without any help from you. Before you take acid, Quaaludes, Ecstasy: anything to feel that electric charge, the uplift away from the body. Before you cleave yourself over and over to boys. Before you come to understand a little the law of physics: what keeps things together, what drives them apart, what makes anything stick.
The first Halloween party you ever attended was given by your friend Kevin, and you were excited he asked you to come early, you so loved being on the inside of things. In the know, so to speak. And when the other partygoers arrived, you already knew where everything was: the bathroom, the galvanized metal tub filled with water for bobbing for apples, the cookies and spooky Halloween treats. So when everyone was in the vacant lot next door playing after dark, and someone smelled a skunk, when Kevin asked you to go ask his mom for a flashlight, you felt special as he told everyone you weren’t scared of going to his house alone, you weren’t afraid of the dark—you were friends, he trusted you.
So you went out the side gate and around to the front door, because you knew it would be faster, but on the way you spied a man in a car parked against the curb, a man with a hat, and when he saw you see him, he slunk down into the driver’s seat and pulled his hat down over his face. You don’t remember if you stopped, or froze, and you probably kept moving, but it felt like you stopped, like time stopped and it was just you and the man, who shouldn’t be there. You knew that even at six. You knew because that tight feeling in your stomach as you and the man in the hat made eye contact, then he spoke into a walkie-talkie, and the next thing you know is that you rang the doorbell and told Mrs. Long everything, although you don’t remember what you said. All you remember is the sound of the car ignition starting up, and the squeal of the tires as the car fled, and the kids coming in through the patio door asking what was wrong. All you remember is huddling in the safety of the kitchen until your mom came to pick you up and take you home.
Later you would learn that the house on the other side of the vacant lot had been ransacked and vandalized, nothing taken or stolen, just drawers overturned, couch cushions slit, paint cans dumped on chairs and beds, walls, carpets, and toys. Every single thing ruined, the house inhabitable. What you learned was that sometimes bad things happen to people who go to your school, that maybe you should be afraid of the dark, and that you would always trust that feeling in your stomach. Even though you had no idea what it was or where it came from, like your mother told you, that feeling in your stomach was right, it was always right.
I don’t know how to write about a brick home, single-story with a sliding glass patio door, a dog in the backyard, grass worn away where the dog, a Great Dane, or invisible children, run back-and-forth, wearing a path along the chain-link fence. I don’t know how to write about a typical American home from the fifties, that burst of single-family dwellings popping up across the country. Promises of opportunity and harmony, a kind of Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver idyll—a father coming home from his day at the office to his housewife and 2.5 shiny kids.
The home in the photo is not my home, but is familiar, with minor differences: trade the chain-links for a tall wooden fence. Trade the Great Dane for a dachshund. Trade the tan dirt for red. Trade my invisible family for the family that exists outside the photograph’s frame and what do you have? Some version of a story, some version of the American Dream.
The dog’s on guard. She is a guard dog after all, the reason my father bought her in the first place. He’s probably the one taking the photo, standing in the far corner of the yard. Perhaps he’s trying to capture the entirety of the lawn: a map for the future, plotting where the Doughboy swimming pool will occupy space, or the basketball hoop for his son.
My mother is frightened to be at home alone with her two children, living in a suburb 3000 miles from her New York home. There are too many windows, too many entry points. Too much space and silence. Too many cracks that can be breached; not like in the busy borough of her childhood, so many neighbors and family members always in sight.
I’m two years old and watching this dog through the mesh screen. Maybe I’m touching the screen, feeling its rough texture, smelling the dust that accumulates despite my mother’s constant cleaning. It’s February, and winter light showers the new backyard, with its naked walnut tree and two lounge chairs that sit side by side, facing the house—as if the chairs also keep watch on the family.
The dog and the chairs—they’re alert for any movement. The dog’s snout is so large, so intricate: she can smell a threat from a mile away. She begins her steady patrol along the fence line, sniffing along the ground, running like a colt toward the center of the lawn. She’s only a puppy, a very large puppy, but knows her duty. I smell grilled cheese for lunch, the browned butter in the pan, hear my mother making her quiet racket. The dog makes one more round along the periphery while the chairs ache to be filled, waiting for someone, anyone, to settle down, to relax.
Sometimes we slumber in landscapes of mountains and valleys, rivulets of cotton and feather, bamboo-filtered sunlight shimmering across sheet, across skin. We seek solace in silence, through intersection of finger and clavicle, the brush of ankle and thigh. Sometimes we seek the other. Other times we seek oblivion, the place where waxwing and tree branch and contrail and breathing become indistinguishable, merge into one.
Last week a Homeland Security helicopter hovered outside the bathroom window while my husband was on the toilet. There’s nothing like eye contact with a pilot while you are on the shitter, he said. Once, in Los Angeles, I woke up, my body illuminated in the middle of the night, light sweeping back and forth over my body like in a dream. My husband said it was normal, the police were searching for someone. I could hear the chop of the rotors long after the helicopter was gone. Sometimes I can still see the light, even when I close my eyes.
Sometimes, we become like platters on a sill, patient enough to gather nothing but air. We are the open window, the rustle of bamboo leaves. We are the aftermath of love, a rumpled sigh. We do not speak of inconsequential things. All things now have consequence.
We have flat edges; we are not bowls. We are infinity pools. We contain nothing, everything slides right off. Our breastplates no longer armor, bristling our crests of arms. They soften into nests. We disarm, dismantle. Rise and then fall. Come closer, whispers the wren in the underbrush. Come closer, chants the glacial tarn. Pink heather trembles among the rocks.
A sign: the wind moves more slowly next to the ground, and even a tiny pebble can create a protective windbreak. The alpine parsley gives a little wave; we follow where it tells us. We have no volition, no anyplace to be.
A child plays in a stream that can be crossed in one step; she skips though it anyway, to feel the lick of water along her calves. Making a dam?, we ask. She digs with a blunt stick, carries damp dirt drizzling between her fingers. It always washes away, she says, but happily she builds it again and again. We stroll alone at 8,000 feet. Our feet do not touch the ground. We sing of meadows to the meadow. We braid our voices into thin air.