There is no way to tell this story without first telling you I have never been able to decide on a clear path. I change my mind a lot. I cannot choose which way to go, but only spin like a top when it comes to finding my way. It makes people around me wonder […]And, she is me. — mary june brown
And, she is me.
There is no way to tell this story without first telling you I have never been able to decide on a clear path. I change my mind a lot. I cannot choose which way to go, but only spin like a top when it comes to finding my way. It makes people around me wonder about me.
It makes me wonder about me.
It makes me wonder about her. The other me, the one who things happened to, she who knows the things she knows born out of the experiences she walked through. She – her – that girl.
So much of what she has seen and felt, I don’t think about. I can remember scenes from the past and feel sympathy for her. She was alone and friendless and kept her books and her brother close to keep her company. She walked home by herself, blocking the sounds behind her – mean sounds and mean words from the classmates she grew up around. Her town was a small one, there was no escape from the repute that had been draped over her at a young age: dorky, ugly, heavy. Weird. “Mary Goon, Mary the Goon—turn around! Why are you walking so fast, come talk to us, we want to ask questions, we want to –” She runs as fast as she can.
I feel pity for her, what a terrible time for that little girl.
She had experiences I can barely believe really happened. But, they really happened. Many were good: she really did find friends in college – they didn’t know she was “the weirdo.” She really did the hard work to grow up and to assess which parts of her home life in childhood had been good. Which parts had been bad.
Some weren’t good: she really did have someone put a gun to her head while she was alone at work. That really happened. I don’t like to think about what that must have been like for her. I think that would be pretty traumatizing.
She really did fall in love and have her heart broken. Well, I can relate to that—that’s a pretty universal experience, I think. I remember how she cried and cried and cried, so heartbroken it could have inspired epic art…poems, paintings, passion plays.
She really did receive phone calls informing her of the losses—grandfather, grandmother, grandfather, in-law, -in-law, in-law, mother, father, husband, in-law. Beloved brother. The people she loved who one by one fell out of her sense of space and who she will be greeted in tandem when she departs into the afterlife.
That girl was blessed with multiple lifetimes in this lifetime. She’s experienced worlds of pain and iterations of love, ad infinitum. She was a child, she has children. She felt hurt, she feels hope. She continues to spin, a top spinning into the next verse of her prose, into the next chapter that is the story of her life. I care about finding out what happens to her.
In this place.
My agent called with the news – we have an offer, a good offer! And strangely, I felt upon hearing these words a kind of slow-spreading, somber sadness. A low bass note filled my heart and tears welled up – don’t blink, I told myself, so that tears will not fall. Inhale a quick breath and square the shoulders, be strong. Be strong.*
Detach. It’s just property, it’s just a building. Take scissors and cut the string binding your heart from the rooms and the things that happened, good and bad, in these rooms.
Detach – it’s an asset, an investment (and a good one at that).
(Time stops and mind starts: But it was within this asset that I lost and found my way, it was in this house that my children last jumped in bed to snuggle or came to tell me of a nightmare, in this property I cooked and sang and loved and laughed and prayed. Here, in this place, I last saw my brother alive. In this building, I wrote the words I’ve writ, and I’ve read the books I’ve read. It was here that I cried a thousand tears and laughed ten thousand times.)
My agent: Hello? Are you there?
Me: Sorry, yes. I will think it over and call you tomorrow.
My agent: Mary June! I cannot tell you what to do…but I’m telling you…you have to take this very good offer!
It was the verbal equivalent of shaking me awake.
My agent is wise, and I do begin to detach. Detach from the property, comfort yourself with your memories. We are all going through this short passage of time and none of these things in these rooms will go with us wherever we go next. I will keep: an internal memoir from the time spent in that house…the place of it. I will take: the family. The family is my home, it is there that I attach.
*Sometimes I cannot be strong. Sometimes, I want to give in to the complex grief, the trauma, the stress, anxiety, pain, surreal-ness, sadness, residual sickness, misunderstandings, quiet hurts – and sometimes, I do give in. Sometimes, it is too much to hold in my too-small hands.
And sometimes, I find out how strong I am because strong is the only option.
I’ll describe it here as best I can.
What is this sensation that is happening now? I talked it over with my therapist and she imparted that this is the feeling that settles like a residue over complex trauma. I suppose it’s possible it’s happening to others, perhaps even to you. After all, the bells that play when the culture is in trouble are ringing.
I will describe it this way: It seems I’m waning like the moon, I’m falling behind in the races, I’m leaving the front door open when it should be closed.
I cannot help but notice the expanse before me is utterly chaotic. The view contains colors ad infinitum rising from the air, coming in from the sides, falling to earth from the sky – everywhere is imagery of something that cannot be real. And, I hear an assembly of sounds impossibly low and wide. Where am I?
Have I disconnected from myself, have I entered into another lifetime? A lifetime embarked upon now at the age of 50, the next channel of an existence spent paddling from one lake to the next, waterways of experience (there has been fear, and worry. There has been love, hope, feelings of low affect, shock, endurance, love again, partnership, and this dreadful, dreadful anxiety that permeates everything, especially these days).
The separation of bodily reality from what we have always believed to be real has examples in every direction. Have you any experience with these certain phenomena?
- One gazes in the mirror, minutes go by. After some time, one may begin to feel a strange non-recognition.
- Another example: one is startled at the sound of one’s recorded voice and asks, “do I really sound that way?”
- One looks at a typed word long enough that it becomes impossible to know if it is spelled correctly.
(“Come back to me,” I tell myself.)
There has to be a way to span this void. There has to be some way to connect within myself, to have peace, for the colors to stop being over-saturated and instead be the filter I look through with a calmed spirit. The way, I know, must be created in me. I resolve to find it. The first step will be self-compassion, empathy for self.
Will the second step please reveal itself?
I had to look for you on the world map. I had to know exactly where on earth you are.
(I fell in love with you so quickly; it’s been two weeks.)
You are unwell. From moment to moment, I think maybe you can withstand this sickness, maybe you will survive. But the disease is so aggressive, so unwieldy, maniac even. And we do not know which new lesions will form, and spread throughout your body.
Watching you grow worse, I say your name over and over, with a broken heart, tears in my eyes. I have watched as you have been pulled away from Humanity, have watched as your basic needs and desires have been ruined; I have wondered if the end would come today, every day – but you do not succumb.
I have dreamt of you, thrown what money I can at you, sobbed for you. I see blue and I think of you at the Sea of Azov. And, as I see you swathed in lemon, it makes me think of hope. Blue and yellow: courage.
You valiant, valiant lionheart, you refuser to Power, you David holding a sword defiantly to Goliath. May God bless you, I pray.
Pray with me:
Dear God, my God,
Please protect and bless the body of Ukraine. I give you all my worries, all my anxiety, about the evil and destructive advance of inhumanity and violence shown to the world through the atrocities in Ukraine. Please hear my prayer and help me and others balance the fight between good and evil in modern times. Please show me any way that I can be used for good. Please take the pain and the suffering and convert it to something good. Please let me see your Glory even in the face of this struggle. Let me give strength and comfort to others and finally, please deliver the miracle of peace to those suffering. Amen.
Ukraine, my heart is with you.
Today you would be 47. Today, if you were still here, you would have received an enthusiastic “Happy Birthday!” from me and from so many others who knew you, who loved you, like those who stood at your funeral, one after the other saying, “He was my best friend.”
You were my best friend.
You were the one who lied to me in innocence, convinced I was perfect. You would say, “but you are perfect!” when I was so far from, but love is blind blind blind, and you reached out your hands to navigate any room we stood together in, shuffling in small steps so as not to hit anything, because your blindness, your unseeing love, was so complete.
Growing up, I always liked saying, “we are very close in age. Only two years apart.” And that was true for 44 years. Now the gap spreads like a torn piece of flannel coming apart across a frayed seam, only I try to take safety pins to it, to close it again. I try to close it by meditating on your memory like the dear ones meditate on world peace or end of hunger. I try to close the tattered tear by reminding myself of what it was like to play, as small children, to be happy together in our individual, and in our shared, pursuits. You would play “fort,” and I would play “library.” At some point, I would bring you a cool drink in the fort, and at some other point, you would ask, “Can I check out a book?” Our shared world, when we were small. It was our story.
(Today you would be 47.)
When we were adults, we left behind the pretend games and you would tell me your troubles, and I would try to solve them, thinking I could make everything better for you. Then, I would tell you my worries and you would say with confidence, “It will be just fine—you always know what to do!” We were both wrong.
(Today you would be 47.)
The fact of this, your birthday, repeats in my mind, again then again. Each time, it is a little whisper, a trail of ashen smoke sent upward as a signal for my heart. Each time, my heart answers with a cry of recognition. It says, “I see you, I see the smoke! I know you are there!” It’s peculiar. It’s painful, it’s hard and it’s … I don’t know the exact word to define it so I’ll make one up. It’s choraltonic. It’s me dealing with your death, still and again. It’s me dealing with your death on the date that marks your birth.
It’s me, remembering. It was our story.
“There’s nothing left to write,” I write.
It seems I cannot find a series of words to loop together, nothing smart or wise to form eloquent ideas to change anything for anyone, or change something even for myself. It seems I’ve lost my way with words.
I try to make something pretty, a poem or lyrical wish, something artistic and apt, but I falter.
Here, have a poem:
I viewed the County website
Where the statistical arcs of COVID live
On the screen – a graph, a land
A scape of hills climbing and reaching skyward
And disease soars overhead
(Hills became pointed mountains and the valley of death stood in their shadow)
See? Trash. No meter, no rhyme. Nothing in it that elevates or paints, just the cool hint of despair, and let’s face it, that’s already in good supply everywhere.
We don’t need artists like me (“artists!”) – those who skip even the low-hanging fruit in favor of the dregs, the rotting soft berries lying on the valley floor. We want the inspirers, the ones who can use the page as their unmarred canvas and make something fresh, something that makes us feel enthused, gives us a glimpse of better days.
I’m only one person, I think. (This, my way out of trying to make a real difference.) What can one person achieve? I don’t mean the Spectaculars – people who alone made such inroads and who lit the flares of change by themselves. See, they are notable because there are only a handful each generation. I live in the masses, down in the tedium, in a place where there are flashes of greatness. But flashes give way to the cold and they flick out.
(No genius, no award-winning poetry prize
No honorable mention for my silly dies, buys, lies, cries, dries, French Fries?)
Except, we need artists like me – those who talk out loud about the self-doubt, the forging on in the face of mediocre talent. We need the ones who will try to make a difference, even alone as one person, who hold themselves to account for sentimental musings about how they are not enough of a lit candle to illuminate much. I look beyond the Spectaculars, to you, who inspire me by simply living with goodness, even in the tedium. Down here, in this valley, we can gather and stand in the shadow of hope where our simple lives mean, collectively, something like poetry.
Could I, inartistic and clumsy me, be a writer?
Could I grasp the letters rising from the ground, floating through the atmosphere, and sift them into words?
Could I then put words into some kind of order, one after the other, like the cars on a train going cross-country. Like the train, could they deliver something tangible? Not grains of wheat or pallets of goods, and not anything of this place, but expression of heart or something like connection?
Could I be a writer whose words someone, somewhere—you!—reads and then, you feel a strangeness, a sensation that you aren’t reading at all but rather that you’ve been read, and somehow your world has been put to paper.
Could I be a writer and put into sentences what you’ve touched, known, felt: your tallest arcs of achievement and your most hollow holes of despair and hurt? The chest-swell of pride and the broken neck of shame?
Could I be a writer? Could I express the pain points I’ve known, the grief and heartbreak caused by the loss of people I loved, or the love of people I’ve lost, and it make sense outside in the world, to strangers and friends alike? Could I lean over my keyboard like a pianist leans over a keyboard and play, play, play one letter…one note…after another until something lyrical is born and takes its first full, shuddering breath?
What is art? What is talent? Could I find in me something artistic to scatter in the air, something that catches on a breeze and becomes buoyant as it floats up up up into the ether, floating above me and my clumsy expression rooted to the ground, my inability to communicate well, my failure to be vulnerable in this lifetime.
Could I, tongue-tied and mere as I be, be a writer?
Q & A.
The stress is perfectly real, a buzzard bird at the throat, and if you sit here long enough, you will be scratched by rough-hewn talons.
Out of the corner of your eye, you intuit a mouse running near your chair, and swiftly move your head to spy it: It is not there. It is only a trick. A skitty-skatty hoax played on a pinned-and-needled mind.
Driving home, you grip the steering will, not trusting that you won’t make a stabbing, veering crank right off the bridge, or into oncoming traffic.
Tell yourself to breathe: breathe slowly, with measure. Calm down. You are fine.
Are you fine? The virus-y breath on the back of your neck whispers ‘sure you are.’ What is this feeling? (The professionals on the night’s news talked about fatigue, and fatigued, you cannot not watch – you flip to your favorite talking head.)
An alert on your phone coos a zzz-zzz, a vibration to let you know of another problem close by – the power is being turned off, there’s smoke drifting in from the fires. This part of town is closed due to protests. Someone is stealing BLM signs. And someone was conked over the head walking to work, for no apparent reason. The local news sighs and rolls over – make room, here comes the big stories, the day’s highlights:
There’s Russian interference. Do you think there’s voter fraud? Claims of USPS corruption. Hospital beds are filled again. The Dow Jones plummets. Hurricanes. Homeless. Relapse. Hoarding. Furlough.
A tickertape newsreel of misery unfurls, nightly at 7pm. Change the channel. Oh, misery there, too. Where to look now?
(On Facebook, a post by someone you don’t know very well, haven’t spoken to in 20 years, you can’t remember her face very well, even. Her uncle has died, she posts. You swallow, make a donation on GoFundMe.)
Bracing yourself for whatever the news is going to deliver next, you hear the same question over and over, it wants an answer, but you don’t know what it is. The question is unsatisfied, and it gets louder every time it is repeated: “Where is my country? Where is my country?”
I see smoke.
I always want the sun the most. And I smile when the weather is predicted to be scorching: I always want the sun the most.
A California girl to my core, I want the sun to heat me through and through—to bake my bones until they’re soft and mellow.
Yes, yes, I know, all the time, that fire is a heat-cousin. Fire is the warmth of the sun, melting and white, shimmering and yellow, unproportionate and squared a factor of one hundred times on earth. Fire is a torch from the devil, I believe, and the term “hell fire” is an apt one. Hell fire: the slow-mo liquification of all you hold secure, safe.
A recurring daymare we dream every fall. I stare at it via the newscast.
See, I always want the sun the most, but I want it for the pool, for the chaise, for the beach towel. Miss me with the scorched trees and the square number of acres that are blackened from the choked air and the exhaustion of the bodies who run toward it, while we flee, while we pack important papers and baby pictures and linens our grandmothers wove. Evacuate with what? The clothes on your back, the dream of an easy life left to steam in pools of the water we prayed would pour from the skies but came from helicopters, from trucks—all is waterlogged in the aftermath.
And we are told fire season is not upon us, as yet. This is the warm up. The arsonist’s lit match before the storm.