“The great Chaco civilization, trading partner of the Maya, established a far-reaching sphere of influence in the North American desert a millennium ago. Among the most remote and mysterious of their outposts was Chimney Rock, in what is now the very southwest corner of Colorado, 90 miles from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the center of the culture…'” NY Times…
It’s a crisp, clear February morning in East Old Town Fort Collins. I hobble out over frozen grass to pick up some Golden Retriever remnants on the neighbor’s lawn, loving the crunch beneath my feet. I scatter a little snow melt over a patch of ice right where I position my left foot while I lift my right leg into my truck. Then, a gust of ice-cold northern breeze hits me and sends its withering hands up my gym shorts: yow!
I come back in and one eye open, pour the water for the coffee onto the floor, and start over. Every day, every morning, there are numerous small startings-over, my absent-minded hobbling from room to room, thinking about the business of writing.
I return to the words of the memoirist I ran across recently at Greywolf Press. If I had spare cash, I’d send for this book; it makes so much sense. He says that you’re ready to write when you have perspective and its perspective that helps you gauge the value and significance of events.
It has taken me 40 plus years to feel that writing about childhood and adolescence is looking back from a distance, as opposed to pulling on-living trauma out of my guts. I touched on this in my post about Moving On, below, and elsewhere, but it’s still on my mind. I was editing a piece I wrote last week about our family’s trip to Albuquerque to pick up an antique piano for me many years ago. Bringing that trip back to life was, overall, a great experience; time has given me a sense of humor about some of the things that I anguished over as a teenager– such as my relationship with my Mother.
My entire M.F.A. thesis is a paean to my mother, a forced attempt, through narrative poetry, to forgive her, I think. But I don’t think I had any perspective on her or any appreciation for what she tried to do when she was able to function and be present– she introduced me to the great soprano Joan Sutherland and gave me a record I played and played called The Art of the Prima Donna. She gave me an album of folk songs recorded by Joan Baez. At Christmas– my brother has said that our living room looked like a Macey’s store window– she would inundate us with the things she knew we would love. In fact all year long, she lived for Chrismas, stowing things away in her bedroom closet.
Coming back to me as I write the vignettes that at some point I hope to gather together as a book, are some of the things she said and the humor and wit in them. We had a good laugh once, when I was grown, over how when she bathed me and I asked her about the private places of my body, she would say, “That’s your anatomy, dear,” hedging her bets.
My brother and I put a lot of energy into making both of our parents laugh. My brother, home from Estes Park on a Christmas visit years ago, had brought his sketchbook. He has always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe– something I think he’s outgrowing, now that he’s in his fifties. At any rate, he showed my father a sketch of MM in a racy pose and told him a racy story that ended with, “I’m calling my new sketch “Motorboat,” because she left wakes in my sheets.” My father cracked up. My bad boy brother, who like me, keeps assailing new peaks, putting distance between himself and the chasms of family pain by summitting Colorado’s “Fourteeners,” showing himself that he doesn’t have to fall.
For me, to write of my family means a reclamation and an end to denial: yes, it was that bad. Yes, it was that beautiful. Yes, it’s hard to go digging around in the ruins for a flash of silver, a worn concho engraved with the words: “significant moment”…
This in turn makes me think of our summers at Fort Valley outside Flagstaff, running across pine needles under great trees, finding arrowheads scattered everywhere. Try finding an arrowhead now. The cultural memento mori of the Southwest is now protected by the people to whom arrowheads really belong.
My father taught me about birds, rocks, planes. He took me to the dairy up Rio Grande Boulevard where I stood in fascination among soft, new calves, letting them suckle my fingers while he returned a glass bottle and picked up two fresh half-gallons of milk with cream risen to the top. He taught me to swim, ride a bike, in later years, drive. He helped me set my hair when my mother wasn’t there. He took me to the store to help me pick out my first bra, which neither of us wanted to do, but he did it– he did all of these things, as did she, and for years and years, all I felt was embitterment, never gratitude.
As I’ve mentioned here, yet to write a full-blown piece about it all, I spent six months in the nursing home next door to rehab my fractured leg. I was surrounded by fifty versions of my parents in wheelchairs. I was in a wheelchair too, and I found out that there is an entire human universe below eye level. One virtue of being there is that it put a dent in my self-pity; many, many souls there were in far worse shape than I was. There was also an ongoing disappearing act: someone would roll into their room in the morning and in the afternoon, they would be absent at dinner, never to return.
I listened to every word that any of my cohorts on wheels said. They spoke, when they spoke, pure poetry. Next to my room was a grouchy old woman named Joanne. Every time I rolled out into the hall, she would be sitting there, glaring at me. “Damn bitch,” she would mutter to me, her mouth a thin, down-turned line. As soon as I looked at her, she would turn her head away.
One day she slumped over in her chair while she was sitting in the lobby. She was put to bed. Aides and others came in as she went into reverse labor, the work of dying. I was very dismayed, often going to get the nurse, wanting Joanne to be given more morphine.
One of the aides came in and set John Denver playing on her CD player. The nursing home administrator admonished me when I complained that no one was sitting with Joanne. She said, “She needs to die among her roommates. She is fine.”
On her last night I went in and sat next to her, singing gospel songs; I think she was sick of John Denver by then, and no one had turned it back on. Then it occurred to me that maybe she was indeed fine and didn’t need me or anyone. I went to bed, parking my wheelchair where I could get to it, settling back on my pillows, turning on the fan that helped me rest. Sometime in the night she vacated her room.
A flash of silver in the ruins. Sunrise over something obscured by shadows; suddenly, a sense of presence, a hint of a life lived under the jutting lip of red rock.
In the late 80’s I had two crazy therapists, who told me I needed to be “re-parented” and should move in with them. Truly. I was still unsure enough of myself to believe them.
I moved into their strange, vine-draped house in Loveland, where they cooked macrobiotically, emitting much gas along with other hot air, and meditated a lot in spidery-web rooms the walls of which were covered in macrame’. I didn’t stay very long, for the right reasons, but at one point, we took a trip to New Mexico, the three of us.
We camped in a tent amid the ruins of Chaco Canyon. I knew that years earlier my Aunt Winifred had scattered my cousin Ann’s ashes at Chaco; it was one of our family myths, the business of Annie’s alcoholism and how Winifred bore up and kept on at her job as editor of the alumni magazine at the University of New Mexico.
Winifred had also at one point edited a Chaco magazine called “Digs”. My parents had taken me to Chaco on picnics as a little girl. I remember my mother holding my hand, and our walking through thickets of mesquite, hearing meadowlarks against otherwise vast silence, a silence of the absence of a people.
When the pair of therapists mercifully left me alone to hike in the ruins, I found my way to the visitor’s center, where grey-haired men in khaki uniforms worked, helping tourists and maintaining the museum there. I remember that I copied an Anasazi poem I read, written on deerskin with a translation beneath it, into my journal, and dreamed by the fire. I felt safe there.
I wasn’t ready to hike in the ruins then. No one should force such a thing on another person.
Later, I was to graduate from one old horse to another more spirited and younger one until, having been nervous about riding at a dead walk to the end of a driveway, I found myself on the back of a beautiful trail mare, on a vertical climb to the top of a mountain up Poudre Canyon, north of Fort Collins, where I could see out over the West. This was my summiting.
For some reason it is a ride I take seated in a wheelchair at my desktop every morning, for good and for ill, climbing among ruins, climbing back into the saddle up into the ether, where I have the best view– where somehow I can look down at miniature adobes, small salt-box Colorado tract houses, even into the lamplit windows, into hearts where I didn’t believe love was incarnate in anyone, and now know better.