Anne-Girl

If I sit quietly awhile and think long and deep about those people and things that have captured my soul and shaped my thoughts, Anne will come to mind.

Amidst all the books in all the world, most precious are those that carry in their text the extraordinary ability to bring the reader back to the moment when first they opened the page. Anne of Green Gables is keeper of that charm for me. I read, and all of the rosy hopes and castles in the air come streaming back, like birds flocking to their home tree at evening.

But Anne is no mere expression of childhood nostalgia. She is universal girlhood. And girlhood is a special, hallowed thing. The wistful yearning for love and beauty that burns within Anne called clearly to my hungering childish soul. Kindred spirits abound in Avonlea and I clung to them with all my heart. Author L.M. Montgomery understands the intricacies of human nature and childhood, and bundles these universalities into a very personal package. Even though I could not yet understand or express this, somehow, intuitionally, I felt that here, I belonged.

There is something inherently wonderful about L.M. Montgomery’s coming of age story; the redemption of an unloved orphan by a pair of stiff and ancient siblings, and the community that comes to both belong to Anne and claim her as its own. The childhood predicaments, sorrows, and sheer joy chronicled here are both amusing and tender, unveiling the familiar thoughts and experiences every child has known.

Unlike much of the classic fiction touted in this modern day, the world of Green Gables is not a respite from all that is wrong with the world. Rather, any idealistic naivety in Anne is gradually realized for the sweet, albeit vain, soap bubble dream that it is. The imaginative dreamer glimpses reality little by little, culminating in Anne’s first tryst with grief.

Perhaps this is the beauty of growing up with Anne. I read the book (and the other seven in the series) many times over the course of my childhood. In the beginning the imaginative dreaming and grandiose quest for all that is bright and beautiful resonated most deeply with me. I felt the world, with all it’s aches and cheer, rather than saw it. I wanted to catch it all in doubled fists and release it back in words and music and colors. Anne of Green Gables called on me to not be a passive purveyor, but a fellow creator. In befriending Anne I came to understand that art is meant to be loved, enjoyed, and echoed back.

Now as an adult I read the same words over and see a greater, truer light. I too fell headlong into romantic and idealistic naivety. Perhaps such is the downfall of the budding artist. I too learned that there is a curse that touches all, and that sorrow is as integral to life as joy. As a child I identified with the search for beauty, and as an adult I understand that it is found in the heavy and the yielding. What a masterpiece Montgomery has created. Human nature is revealed poignantly, wondrous and weak. The depths the soul are laid bare and raw before my eyes. Anne is me. Anne is us all.

At some point in life we begin to gaze back upon those days of dreaming instead of looking forward to them. The orphan girl buds and grows, and while Anne’s imaginative ardor remains, it has been tempered by trials of body and spirit. To quote the girl herself, “I’m not a bit changed–not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real ME–back here–is just the same.” And though I too have packed away my castles in the clouds, I am able to return and find them standing just the same each time I open Anne of Green Gables.

Let’s Be Honest

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 presetTo call these “weekly” pregnancy updates would be a crime. So I’ll spare you the apologies and cut to the chase…

Pregnancy Update! Weeks 21 – 24!

Baby: Our little girl was the size of a banana when we last met, and now she’s the size of a rutabaga! Yes, we’re all wondering what in the world that is and how many inches long/wide, etc. it is. Wait, wait, I just looked it up – it’s a cross between a cabbage and a turnip, so try to imagine that. In any case, Baby Charlotte is getting bigger as the fruit/vegetable size references get vaguer. She’s about 13.5″ head to toe now and weighs around 1.5lb. A much more meaningful assessment of her growth (for me, anyway) is that I can’t comfortably lean over because *something* is in the way. She kicks like crazy and I love knowing her rhythms of being awake and asleep. At night, when I lie down, I can feel around and find where in my belly she is and she’ll begin her aerobics as soon as we start poking her. She’s begun to respond to any pressure placed on my belly, whether it’s the seatbelt, my hand, or Zack’s head, she’ll retaliate with a kick or a punch. Basically at this stage in development she’s just filling out and (hopefully) getting some hair. Over the next month she’ll get a bit fatter and her senses will become more developed as she starts to open her eyes, practice breathing, and can hear loud noises. I have yet to feel hiccups, but I’m assured that this is coming.

Belly: The bump just gets bigger. I think the weirdest thing about all of pregnancy – and I’m sure some may dispute me on this, there’s just so much weirdness – is having an organ that grows exponentially bigger over the course of nine months. My uterus started off the size of a pear, and now it’s roughly as big as a soccer ball. Having an internal organ balloon like that is just crazy – and uncomfortable. It’s absolutely remarkable how a woman’s body completely changes to accommodate this new life. I love my pregnant body – I love my belly and feeling my baby respond to my touch. It’s surreal to look in the mirror and see the bump reflected there. For so long I dreamed about this time and I remember taking that pregnancy test and trying to imagine what I would look like and how it would feel to have a baby bump. It feels pretty great ;) Also, did I mention I officially have an outie now? As my body changes so much and acquires, ahem, new features (stretch marks, anyone?) I have had some worries about what I will look like postpartum – how different it will be. But my husband is a wonderful man. He assures me each day of how he loves my big belly and our baby, and I love looking up to catch him staring at me with such a wonder and love in his gaze. He is just as in awe of the masterful design of motherhood as I am.

For some reference points, let’s look back to my very first every pregnancy picture and compare to one at about eighteen weeks, and one from today (ignore the extremely poor photo/staging quality):

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 My Favorite Things: Most of my favorite things aren’t exactly baby-related lately *guilty grin*. Sorry baby, but Mama’s gotta get her house in order! I’ve been Craigslisting up a storm and trying to pull our home together and have some semblance of order and comfort before Charlotte arrives. Here’s a list of faves: my Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bag (!), my beautiful new (to me) dining set, adorable baby clothes being gifted left and right, maternity tank tops, our humidifier, red raspberry leaf iced tea, iced coffee (yes, I know it’s winter, I just can’t give up my iced drinks), the model babies my midwife brought to my last appointment, Sweet things – yes, lots of sweet things sound yummy. I haven’t really had many cravings, per se, so I’m thankful to be able to assuage these sugary desires with things I make myself. I love Chocolate Covered Katie for delicious, easy, healthy desserts. Oh, and nesting! Oh, nesting. I have been so focused on this absolute need to feather our nest. I even caught myself neurotically planning how I would fix this dilapidated house I passed while driving the other day. *first, clean the yard – plant some rosebushes, new coat of paint to those shutters, re-shingle the roof, bright yellow door* … um, no.

My Not-Favorite Things: This crazy cold-flu thing going around! Seriously, Zack and I were sick on and off for the entire month of January. Some things that helped, to all those still up against the beast: lemon water, hot-water-lemon-honey mix, a humidifier (thanks for the tip, Kellyn!), garlic, spicy food, which allowed us to breathe again, and rest. And Battlestar Galactica, which falls under the rest category, of course. That said, I’ve become even more aware of how sickness brings about the need to pause and the opportunity to think about why there is illness and discomfort in the world. So we are thankful for the month-long callback to note the effects of sin in the world and remember the great mercy of our God :)

On My Mind: It’s really starting to sink in that we are having a daughter. A little girl. I’ve been reading Bringing Up Girls by James Dobson, and the precious nature of this child entrusted to us has become all the more real. Girlhood is a special, hallowed thing. I’ve written about this before in reviewing Anne of Green Gables and the beauty of girlhood. It’s all the more meaningful to me that our daughter’s name attests to that beauty. Charlotte means feminine and Avonlea is home to Green Gables and the little orphan girl. I feel this need already to protect Charlotte’s girlhood and to safeguard it to be a time of beauty and growth that will provide a steadfast foundation for the whole of her life to bloom and grow out of. By God’s grace I hope to mother this little girl in a way that empowers her to embrace her talents and serve the Lord. It can be the most daunting task to look at and realize that so much of a child’s physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing is dependent upon her parents, but the Lord’s grace is sufficient and only by that grace can I do any semblance of good in my daughter’s life. So I rest in him.

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18, 19, and 20 Weeks (or, I’m a Terrible Blogger)

I had a feeling this might happen.

But I do have a good excuse for missing three weeks of “weekly” pregnancy posts! The holidays, for one. Vacationing for the holidays in Maryland with my family, for another. And then, of course, the best excuse, which any mother-to-be has inalienable rights to for the entire duration of her gestation: I’m creating life at this moment. So, without further procrastination,

Pregnancy! Weeks 18, 19, and 20!

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Baby: was the size of a bell pepper, sweet potato, and banana respectively, and currently weighs around 10.5 oz. From this week on babies are measured from head to toe, as they aren’t so curled up all the time, as before. We learned at 17 weeks and 5 days that our little baby is a girl! I was stunned by the news. I was thoroughly convinced baby was a boy. How are these convictions created? Pure gut-feeling, baby. Not a single ounce of logic went into that belief. It drove Zack crazy. I think we’re both happier now that we know for sure one way or the other. And a girl!! The dresses, the bows, the tiny pony-tails! We are so, so excited. Baby has officially been named Charlotte Avonlea. Charlotte means “feminine,” or “strong woman,” and Avonlea is where Anne of Green Gables lives, as do my childhood hopes and dreams. Had baby been a boy we’d have named him Edmund Alexander. Zack was secretly hoping for boy-girl twins so we could use both names, but I’m cool with just one baby to baptize me into motherhood.
Belly: the growth slowed down there for a week or two, and I don’t feel quite as bloated-balloony-”I’m-going-to-explode” anymore, which is great. But we’re back to itching again as Charlotte goes through another growth spurt. On the upside, I discovered I’ve gained 10 lbs, which is exactly what I was hoping for at 20 weeks in! Apparently a pound a week from here on out is the norm.
My Favorite Things: maternity clothes!!! How did I not ever want to buy you? You are so comfy and make me look more like a gestating woman and less like a homeless man. Seriously though, I love the few maternity outfits I bought. Macy’s Motherhood section is great, as is H&M’s Mama brand. I especially love the maternity jeans I bought there, which don’t have that hideous front-pouch thing that most maternity jeans have, and actually fit at the hips and make me look normal. I love prenatal massages too! Zack was so sweet and bought me one for Christmas and it was the best thing ever. I also love my return to a normal diet and energy level. I didn’t believe it would ever happen, but lo and behold one day I awoke and felt not-so-pregnant. It is marvelous. I’m back to eating lots of beautiful salads, drinking my veggie smoothies, enjoying cooking, and not feeling like I’m going to collapse every five seconds. I even went to the gym for the first time in three months!
My Not-Favorite Things: remember that gym thing? Yeah, now I can’t walk. Turns out I was way more out of shape than I thought. An epsom salt/essential oil bath is in the near future for me. It is amazing how pregnancy completely changes your body. It’s humbling and incredible and I am thankful for it. Another thing on my not-favorite list: being sick. Which I am. Sore throats are the bane of all existence.
Movement: baby Charlotte is out of control! Seriously, folks, she just doesn’t stop. I love the evening ritual of lying down and feeling her kick and punch and swim around. She feels so close to me in those moments and it’s amazing to think that only a few inches of skin and muscle separates me from my baby. I began to first really feel her kicks while getting my ultrasound and being able to watch her move and feel the corresponding nudges. In Maryland over the holidays I began to distinguish her movements from everything else, and Zack was able to feel her kick his hand. It was absolutely precious to me to see his eyes light up and watch him go immediately into the next room to announce to the family, “I just felt my daughter kick!” And that’s when it started to sink in. We have a daughter. A precious baby girl who is being knit together and formed within me even now. She knows my voice. I praise God for his mighty works in creating new life in such a near and confounding way.

17 Weeks (and counting)

Well folks, here we are.

I’m not sure if procrastination is officially considered a symptom of pregnancy, but it should be. I should petition for it, start a movement, write a letter to ACOG, something like that…eh, maybe tomorrow.

Long story short, I’ve been pregnant for, oh, say, about the past four months. Blogging has been something I’ve always been great at – in my mind. In fact, I’m so great that I often plan out beautifully intentioned posts about seasons in life and what marriage is teaching me and books that are great and everything in between. I plan it all so well in my head that by the time I am through I feel gratified enough that I never feel the need to actually execute it. It’s the thought that counts, right? *Sigh*

Anyway, one thing that I had DEFINITELY planned on blogging about was my foray into the garden of delight/fire swamp that is Motherhood. “I will definitely blog when I get pregnant,” said I. And four months have gone by with nary a peep. Well, today I have decided upon a path to (hopefully) fix all that. Weekly pregnancy posts! So for those of you who do not attain thrill from reading an average woman’s log of being a human incubator, turn away now. You have been warned.

Mom, I know you’ll love this. Friends, you no longer have to receive my weekly texts about how my clothes don’t fit and I can’t sleep because my bump is uncomfortable – it will all unfold right here if you want to catch the action. Without further ado, I give you:

Pregnancy! Week 17!

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Baby: is the size of an onion and is putting on some baby fat. He/she measures about 5 1/2 in from head to rump and is busy practicing for life outside the womb by swallowing, sucking, hiccuping, and moving like crazy

Belly: my bump is, well, big. I really “popped” these past couple weeks. And what’s better, I have begun to attract rude comments from random strangers/people I barely know! On another note, my skin itches like crazy as it stretches.

My Favorite Things: this week I am basically living in leggings, which is an indication to me (along with the fact that my jeans don’t zip) that I need to get some maternity pants. I did buy a super-comfy long sweater from Gap this week and I’m in love with it too. Another fave I found is Alaffia raw shea butter with lavender and peppermint essential oils. I’ve been rubbing this stuff all over my belly to keep the stretch marks and itching at bay! It also smells amazing, which is a plus.

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My Not-Favorite Things: nosebleeds, a common pregnancy symptom; jeans that don’t fit; breathlessness; constant, ever-gnawing, bottomless-pit-type hunger!

Movement: it seems he/she is kicking and squirming lots, evidenced by the doppler, but I have yet to feel baby’s aerobatics.

Gender: We don’t know yet, but we have a gender-scan set for next Friday! Everyone seems to think that baby is a) a girl or b) twins or c) twin girls, but I remain convinced for absolutely no reason other than a gut feeling that baby is a boy. Zack has no gut feeling, but has suggested that baby is possibly asexual or  a pair of siamese twins.

Things I’ve been thinking about: I’ve been envisioning my birth these past few weeks and looking forward to it with excitement! I know it will be tough – the toughest thing I’ve ever done – but it’s a challenge I have confidence that my body can take. With each week the reality sinks in a little more that we are having a baby and that he/she will be here in just a few short months! I’ve been mentally planning my baby shower and the nursery, reveling in examining cloth diaper options and methods of care for newborns. There is so much joy in thinking about the things that I love and will be able to share with our children. I wonder who this baby will be, what his/her personality is and what he/she will look like. I pray each day that our child would grow to love the Lord and would do great work in the Kingdom. There is such hope in having children. Hope for a legacy to be established and maintained, for the end to a beautiful season in life and the beginning of a family. One season dies away before the other can be rooted, and it is bittersweet to think that our days of just being “the two of us” are nearly over, but all is for a purpose and that purpose is deep and wonderful and will be more beautiful, more agonizing, more rewarding that what has come before. Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Each new season builds upon what has been established before. Deep echoes unto deep. Praise the Lord.

The Canal

I never saw my mother cry except once, and that was when I was four years old. The power was out because of the monsoon. We sheltered in the bathtub with the electricity out. The roof leaked gallons and Mama set down her Coors Light and wailed, “Oh God, I can’t swim.” I still remember, down to the green and awful sky, even if it was so many years ago.

Some things in life you do because you have to, and some because you want. But there are things you know you need to do. Who knows if you’ll die or just be unhappy if you don’t, but something calls, pushing you to act.

That night I needed light like I needed air. I worked up the courage to leave behind my mother and stuffed rabbit and returned with matches and tea-lights from the kitchen drawer. We sat in the bathtub with candlelight flickering and watched the paint peel off the walls. Flood insurance never seemed a necessity living in the desert, but the downpour proved otherwise. When the sun broke through the next morning we packed our things and left behind a waterlogged life.

I was six when we first moved into the Apartments at Dell Ridge, and eight before I ever had a friend. The children at school made up stories about my name most days – Hannah Went to hell, Hannah Went insane, and the like. I too made up stories about my name, but they were nice stories, the kind that I could fall into during History or Math and not emerge until days end. Hannah Went to the moon, I’d think, and there she found moon boys and girls to play with in the craters and space-dust. I lived for adventurous tales and myths of grandeur, but most of all I dreamed of a companion to share them with.

I met Seth one cloudy spring morning. He was new to my school and in the third grade too. Being new was one of the worst offenses a person could offer. It was Friday, and that meant dodge ball. Seth was pummeled and got into two fights by lunchtime. We both sat in at recess. Seth wasn’t allowed to go out, and I didn’t care to. I shared my sleeve of half-crushed saltines and Seth contributed a bottle of pop and together we called it a lunch.

When school was out we sat shyly beside each other on the bus ride home. I peeked at his unabashed cowlick and white-blond lashes from behind my heap of books.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at my journal. The bus turned and the book slid off my lap onto Seth’s feet.

“My mermaid,” I answered, setting it straight again. “I cut out the picture from a magazine I found in Mr. Petroli’s trash. I wanted the Little Mermaid journal at McFrugal’s, but my mom said we didn’t have the cash.”

“Oh,” said Seth, still looking at the mermaid. “Why doesn’t she have any clothes on?”

“Real mermaids don’t,” I explained. “That’s why the picture was perfect. I drew the tail on with markers. Mr. Petroli says it’s pretty damn funny, but I think she’s lovely.”

“Yeah, she’s nice,” said Seth.

We pulled up to the bus stop outside my apartment complex. The weeds were nearly taller than me, and the paint had chipped away in most places, showing the molded beams beneath. The corners of the buildings were faded beneath the rain gutters. I thought of it as a happy, tired grandma building, but the kids on the bus made faces out the window called it ugly and old and a “crap-shack.” I felt my face grow hot as I gathered my things and got off the bus. I didn’t want Seth to know I lived there. But when I turned around to watch the bus lurch away, there he stood beside me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, somewhat disgruntled he’d followed me.

“I live here,” he replied.

“No,” I said. I knew everyone in our complex; it was small enough to run from one end to the other in a matter of minutes, and I was the sole child on the property. Our apartments sheltered a varied collection of human detritus, unrivaled by both the Motor Vehicle Division and the nearest Wal-Mart.

Seth didn’t bother arguing with me. We trudged toward building B and he followed me up the creaking steps to my apartment, swinging his arms and imitating the birds that overflowed the giant trees outside the building. They flocked there every evening. By sunset the whole complex roared like a jungle. I liked it, but my mother said it made her nervous.

We reached the landing where my front door stood open, oblivious to the sweltering heat. Not that it mattered. We rarely turned on the AC before the temperature crawled over ninety. My mother leaned against the doorjamb. Her fingers curled around a pack of Camel mild’s, one lit between her teeth. The smoke unfurled round her dirty-blond hair like a halo. She worked the evening shift at a sleazy bar down the street – The Cougar Den, it was called. On the odd weekends she had to work she’d take me along and get me to dance on the stage in my cowgirl boots and bring in a few extra bucks. Lately though I’d taken to begging off and staying with neighbors instead. The phosphorescent lights and fog of smoke made my head spin.

“Mama, this is Seth,” I said, kicking dust clouds out of the carpet on the landing. Our neighbor to the left, Mr. Petroli, lined the shared front porch with carpet remnants he found in the dumpster. He said he liked to feel the carpet between his toes when he went out for a midnight smoke.

“Hi baby,” she responded, waving to Seth with her free hand. “Your daddy’s waiting for you down the hall. Asked me to tell you to get over there as soon as you got home.”

“Thanks,” Seth called over his shoulder as he sprinted off. I turned, bewildered, to my mother.

“He lives here?”

“Moved in with his dad last night,” she replied. “They’re in Curtis’ old place.”

“Oh,” I said. I was surprised she mentioned Curtis. Nobody wanted to talk about a man who hung himself and didn’t leave a note to let others know that the smell working through the building was not his overflowing trashcan. Curtis was the first person at the complex to kick the bucket. People, even the old ones, usually moved away as soon as they could.

“Does Seth have a mom?” I asked my mother, picking a scab on my elbow.

“Everyone has a mom, Hannah,” she answered. She sounded tired.

“Everyone has a dad too, except me,” I responded before hopping into the apartment and closing the door.

We lived in a small unit with a galley kitchen in back. The front porch stretched the length of the building and was shared by all four apartments on the upper level, a circumstance which promoted a good deal of strife between tenants. I slept in the one bedroom and my mother used the futon, where she fell asleep each night chain smoking through reruns of Bay Watch.

I’d never known the presence of a father in my life. My mother didn’t obsess over being both maternal and paternal towards me in her parenting. She ploughed on with her life much the same as she had before I came along, and together we dug ourselves into a rut, out of which she never climbed.

I entered my small bedroom in the back, and threw my schoolbooks onto my bed.  The room was mostly bare. A small daybed sat against one wall and a bookcase that doubled as my dresser stood against another. There my few and finest possessions sat interspersed between t-shirts and piles of socks. I had stacks of chapter books and crayon drawings, a seashell, a porcelain basset hound, and a small silver letter opener – all treasures gifted by Mr. Petroli, who dumpster-dived like a pro. I had formed deep attachments to each of my treasures, and kissed them gravely before climbing into bed each night. I waved greeting to them and grabbed my favorite book off the shelf before rushing back out the door.

“Be back before dinner,” my mother called after me. “I’m serious,” she added, so I waved over my shoulder before continuing on.

I ran down our segment of the patio, but had to carefully make my way through the section by Mr. Petroli’s front door. He was a collector, Mr. Petroli was. Barber chairs with missing legs, a dilapidated weight bench, rolls of carpet, dumbbells, screen doors, pottery, and a rusted sink filled the space between his apartment and the next. Jones, who lived next-door, called it a fire hazard and protested to the mayor and the apartment manager, but neither seemed to care.

Mr. Petroli once told me he collected his “treasures” because it made him happy to know that the forlorn objects were adopted into a new home. He brought back new additions every day and lovingly found a place for each, if not in his own home then in someone else’s. Mr. Petroli was a good-natured scoundrel. He was a Russian with a surname that reminisced of Rome, and his mustached mug could often be seen grinning over one trashy magazine or another. We were friends, though he constantly raged over my tendency to run into his car while roller-skating in the parking lot.

I made it safely through Mr. Petroli’s field of junk and picked up my pace again when I reached Jones’ part of the porch. He leaned over the porch railings, his grizzled chest hair overflowing his V-neck, a pair of binoculars in his hands.

“Hannah, what a pleasant surprise,” he drawled. Jones was originally from Texas and wanted everyone to know it.

“Hello,” I answered. As preoccupied as I was with reaching Seth’s apartment, I was curious to know on whom he was spying.

Jones caught my eyes on the glinting metal of his army-grade binoculars. He had been a sergeant in Vietnam and frequently revived the glory days.

“You like ‘em?” he asked, patting the binoculars in a paternal way.

“Yes,” I breathed, and touched them softly. “Who are you looking at?”

“See for yourself,” he said, and handed me the tool. I obliged.  Through the glass I could see the parking lot magnified. Lantanas overgrew their planters and the pavement baked in the sun. Out through an open ground floor apartment swept a woman, her maroon-dyed hair knotted on top of her head and her arms weighted by two sloshing buckets of water. Madge Durfee, the complex cat-lady. She plowed ahead with a force uncontested, aimed at a parched lantana and tossed the contents of the bucket, drenching the plant as well as the four square feet of surrounding pavement.

“What’s she doing?” I asked, marveling at her strength.

“Lord knows,” Jones responded. “I think she’s trying to save the plants from the heat wave – what a gal.” A smile played on his lips as he leant over the railing and resumed his people watching. I had thought for some time that Jones had taken a liking to bony old Madge, and this interlude confirmed it in every way. I looked back and watched Madge take another heaving swing with the bucket and then return into her apartment to fill it again. Four or five strays followed her pitifully, meowing at her ankles. Jones looked on and tapped the porch with his toes.

I saw that I was no longer wanted and continued on my way to Seth’s apartment without a backward glance. I found the door to Curtis’ one-time home lying on the porch floor. The doorway to the unit gaped open like a lost tooth. Hammering away at the retired door was a man. His bald head gleamed in the afternoon light and his t-shirt was soaked through with sweat on his back and chest. He looked up and wiped his forehead.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

I stared, suddenly shy.

“Dad, this is Hannah, I told you about her, remember?” Seth came out of the unit, chewing on a pop tart. My stomach growled.

“Uh,” grunted Seth’s father, settling back to his hammering. Seth broke off a piece of the pastry and handed it to me.

“Want to go play?” he asked. I nodded, afraid to speak in the bald man’s presence. We turned to go, but his father’s voice stayed our feet.

“Seth,” he barked, “you be back before dinner. I don’t have time to run all over this damn place trying to find you.” He didn’t look up from his work as he spoke. The hammer falls punctuated his words.

“Yes sir,” said Seth, with something like meekness. He seemed cowed in his father’s presence. We walked to the end of the porch, where another staircase led down to the parking lot. He looked and me and grinned.

“Come on,” he said. We ran down the stairs and away towards the pool.

The pool had been empty for two years now – after the pump broke. The repairman said it was plugged with palm fronds and cigarette butts. The plaster cracked and bled water stains in rusted rivulets down the sides. We sat in the shade of a few tall weeds and I opened my book.

“Tales of Robin Hood and His Merry Men,” read Seth. He stroked the bright illustrations. “I like it.”

“It’s my favorite,” I told him. “I got it from the library at school last year.” I had intended to only keep it for a few weeks, but over the summer I fell in love with Sherwood Forrest and when school resumed I was unable to part with it. Consequentially I was no longer allowed to check out books properly, but occasionally I went and read in-house. Seth held one end of the book and I the other. We read together beneath the weeds and sucked the sweetness from blades of grass.

After a time the shadows from the weeds grew taller over us, and the story no longer held our interest.

“I’m bored,” said Seth. He tossed a thick chunk of quartz into the empty pool. It echoed as it rolled about and settled at the bottom.

“Hey!” a voice bellowed nearby. We jumped up. A fat man in a maroon, velvet suit lumbered in our direction. He waved us over. We stayed put.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the man shouted. I cowered beneath his rage.

“It was an accident,” replied Seth brazenly. “We’re sorry.” Seth looked anything but apologetic. The man came closer, heaving. Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He breathed over us, his face a discomforting shade of puce. It was The Manager.

“I see, I see,” he said in a calm voice that intoned he didn’t see at all. “Hannah, dear,” he smiled nastily, “keep away from pool. It’s a danger to children and I wouldn’t want to be – ah – put in a position of turning away families from living here. Whatever would your poor mother do then?” I nodded and stared at the ground. “Young man,” the manager continued, coldly, turning to Seth, “you will kindly refrain from throwing rocks anywhere on this property.” Seth glowered but said nothing.

The Manager pulled a cigar from his breast pocket, clipped it with his teeth and spat out the end. He wiped a bit of tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth daintily and lit the cigar. Thick smoke obscured his face momentarily.

“You children had better run along. I wouldn’t want your parents to worry,” he said, grimacing as the smoke cleared away.

We turned and fled, not stopping to catch our breath until we reached building A. Beneath the staircase we sat in silence. Seth kicked a rock and plunged his fists vehemently into his pockets. I picked at paint peeling from the wall.

“Who does he think he is, anyway?” growled Seth, throwing three stones in succession in the direction of the pool.

“Stop!” I hissed. “That’s The Manager! He’ll kick you out if he wants to.”

“No he won’t,” said Seth. “My dad won’t let him. My dad doesn’t let anyone tell him what to do.”

I decided to change the topic. “Do you have a mom, too?” I asked.  Seth shoved his hands farther into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. “My mom says everyone has a mom, but that means everyone has a dad too, and I don’t,” I said.

“No,” he answered, then added – “I used to, but she died last summer.”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry.” Quiet overwhelmed until I added, “A man in our building just died too. He used to live in your apartment. His name was Curtis. Maybe you’ll see his ghost.”

“Nah,” said Seth. “Ghosts aren’t real except for in cemeteries and haunted houses and stuff. Not in real life.”

“No! Jones said he sees his friends who died in the war and they have whole conversations sometimes,” I replied. “Maybe you’ll get to see your mom sometime.”

Seth brightened. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. That hope seemed to calm him, because he ceased hunting for rocks to throw.

“What should we do now?” he asked. An orange kitten melted out of a dark corner and meowed at our feet. I stroked him.

“I don’t know. We could play hide and seek,” I suggested.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” said Seth. He tickled the cat’s whiskers with a blade of grass. “Why don’t we go exploring!”

I hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“Come on,” wheedled Seth. “Why not?”

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to,” I said.

“We won’t get in any trouble,” Seth asserted. “We’ll be back before they even know we’re gone.” I continued looking glum. “It’ll be fun,” he coaxed.

“Oh all right,” I assented. “Let’s go!”

We ran off behind the building and explored the various nooks and crannies of the small complex. I knew most of them well already, but I followed Seth along anyway. Eventually we exhausted the bounds of the apartments. We leaned against the building wall, bored once more.

Seth searched for a new activity, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun.

“Hey! What’s that?” he exclaimed. I turned to see to what he was referring.

“Oh, that’s the canal,” I explained.

“Why’s it empty?” Seth asked.

“When it doesn’t rain it stays dry. It’s there to catch the rainwater so we don’t get flash floods. My old apartment got flooded one time.”

“Wow,” said Seth, looking impressed. “Let’s go check it out.”

“No way,” I said, and shook my head. “My mom would kill me.”

“Awe, come on,” cried Seth, “she won’t even know. Besides, it’s not like there’s anything else to do.”

It seemed to me Seth was correct on both fronts. He ran towards the wash exuberantly, yipping like a coyote, while I tailed behind trying to stifle my aching conscience.

Soon we reached the canal. It sloped down several yards behind the bounds of the apartment complex. No pathway led into its bowels, but Seth ambled down quickly enough. He held out his hand when I stopped short at the top.

“Here, I’ll help you,” he said, and he did.

The canal seemed to have held more trash and debris than water in its lifetime. Its sides were unevenly spread with concrete, but the bottom was dirt and sand. Several stunted trees climbed out from cracks in the bone-dry earth. Bits of glass and plastic bags littered the ground. I couldn’t have told from above, but the canal appeared to stretch on indefinitely. It was about a football field in width, and deep enough that I would need help to get out. Not a person was in sight, and I imagine Coronado hadn’t felt finer when first sighting the Grand Canyon. Seth and I stood and surveyed our kingdom. Crumbling though it was, it was marvelous in our eyes.

“Wow,” said Seth. His eyes shone. A piece of bone jutted out of the sand and he scampered over to inspect it. He whooped happily as he unearthed it. I followed uncertainly.

“Do you think there’s snakes?” I asked, eyeing a small tunnel in the dust.

“Probably,” answered Seth gleefully. “Though,” he added, seeing my trepidation, “they’re probably all asleep right now. It’s called hyper-mating, or something like that.”

“Oh, good,” I breathed.

“Hey, Hannah, look!” Seth bounded away toward the largest tree in sight. It was a weeping willow, and its fronds brushed the dust delicately, creating a tent within. It loomed over us, shadowy and mysterious. My fear of snakes gave way.

“Wait for me!” I called. Seth held the leaves back with his arm and I entered on hands and knees. The fronds fell back into place and the air glowed green. Inside there was room enough to stand, and the trunk grew up in hunched-backed knots. Though the air outside was humid, it was cooler beneath the shade of the willow.

“This is nice,” I said, feeling the trunk against my back. “Sort of like Sherwood Forest.”

“Yeah,” said Seth. He jumped up and grabbed a nearby stick. “En garde!” he cried, brandishing the branch as a sword.

“You don’t need it to be a sword, stupid. Little John uses a quarter-staff anyway.” I laughed and ducked Seth’s false blows.

“But I’m not Little John,” explained Seth, twirling his stick-sword from one hand to the other. “I’m Robin himself, prince of thieves!”

Not to be outdone, I reached for a different branch and grabbed a rusted beer can lying close by.

“Then I’m Friar Tuck!” I shouted and pretended to slop beer down my shirt. I took staggering, drunken steps while swinging at Seth. He gave up the fight and fell to the ground, howling with laughter.

Our interest was renewed in tales of Sherwood Forest, and we lay on our bellies in the dust and poured over the pages. I basked in the green light and felt like all my life, this was what I had missed.

Soon enough the shadows of the dancing willow leaves drew long across our foreheads. Night beckoned. I started with a gasp. Seth had fallen asleep against the tree trunk and his mouth lolled open. I had been immersed in the book and lost track of the time. My mother would be searching for me.

“Seth, Seth!” I called, shaking his shoulders. He woke and rubbed his eyes.

“I fell asleep,” he said.

“We need to go.” My voice was urgent. “They’ll be looking for us now, and we’re not supposed to be down here.”

“What time is it?” Seth asked, not worried.

“I don’t know, but the sun’s setting. We were supposed to be back by dinner. Didn’t your dad tell you to be home by then?”

For the first time I saw something like fear in Seth’s eyes.

“Let’s go,” he said. We picked up the book and left the willow behind. The sun slept low over the mountains and the air had cooled. Above our heads the breeze carried the voices of a search party. I gulped.

“They’re looking for us,” I said.

We trudged on in the direction we’d come from. There at the top of the cement wall stood a group of adults grimly awaiting our return.

My mother stood at the front, her arms knotted, fingers devoid of a cigarette. Behind her stood Seth’s father, Mr. Petroli, Jones, and Madge. The manager was nowhere to be seen, but I felt his snide presence lingering.

We stood at the bottom of the wall and looked up.

“Hannah Christine Went,” my mother seethed, “you get your sorry ass up here. Now.” I held back tears and allowed Jones to grasp my hands and pull me up. As my feet found the ground I looked up with trembling lip at my mother. She slapped me, hard.

“How many times have I told you not to set foot in that wash?” she yelled. My cheeks burned and she slapped me again and yanked my arm so that I kept pace with her as we whisked back toward the complex. Behind me I could hear Seth being pulled up out of the wash and his father’s voice booming. I cried in shame without a hand free to wipe my tears. I turned back enough to see the shadowy figure of the willow rising out of the wash, the leaves glowing silver in the twilight.

We reached our building and I was dragged up the steps; my mother’s ranting punctuated each step. I bit back a cry as my foot got caught beneath a stair. My mother pulled me free and up the last few steps. Inside the apartment I could still hear Seth’s father shouting. Jones gave me a sorry look as my mother slammed the door.

That night I could not sleep. I lay in bed awake, my face tender from my mother’s sense of justice. She had yelled at me until she was tired and her voice rasped and then sent me to my room without dinner while she recuperated on the futon. At first I had cried and then I fumed, but eventually all the feelings gave way to hunger. I waited for the smoke to cease creeping under my door and then I crept into the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich and stole back into my room to eat it.

After eating I pulled out a flashlight and made shadow puppets on the ceiling while trying to ignore my still grumbling stomach. My fingers shaped a goose, a dog, a spider, a tree. But the tree reminded me of the willow, and that was too sad. I buried my head in my pillows. Then there was a rap at my window. I looked up and through the slit screen a thin package slid through. I tore it open. It was a book, wrapped in day-old newspaper on which was scrawled, “Hannah – found this while treasure hunting. Thought of you.” I beamed. One of Mr. Petroli’s treasures. I turned the book over and inspected it in the beam of the flashlight. “The Moon Child and the Coyote,” I read slowly, “A Tale of the Southwest.” The cover was decorated with pictures in jewel-tones of mesas and cacti. A mournful woman stood in the background and a smiling girl stood in front with her arms wrapped around a golden coyote. I touched the coyote’s fur – it looked so soft in the painting. I opened it and began to read.

“Many years ago,” it began, “in the time when the Moon and the Sun stood together both day and night, there lived a girl and her mother. The mother was a child of the moon, and they lived just beneath its silver beams. The mother was content to live near to her moon-mother, never out of reach of her wisdom and guidance. But the girl pined for change. One day she saw the coyote from a distance. The loping grace excited the girl, but she knew her mother had warned her never to leave their moonlit home. Every day she watched the coyote, and every day her heart yearned to leave and follow.”

“One morning the coyote stood golden against the sunrise, and the girl knew it was too much to bear. She forsook her home and joined the coyote in the warmth beneath the sun. Bereaved, her mother called after her child to come back, but alas, the wicked West Wind carried her cries away. It was then that the mother knew the only way to bring her daughter home. She extolled the radiant Sun to hide her face and allow the Moon to shine brightly until the girl came back. At first the Sun was adamant, she would not hide her brilliant beauty. But the Sun was expecting a child of her own, and when she heard the mother’s tale of grief she hid her face and wept.”

“The driving rain and darkness turned the coyote’s golden fur black and shaggy. The girl was miserable in the cold and wet, but she persevered on, certain that her happiness lay elsewhere. For many dark days she traveled, until she was worn and so desperate for light she thought she might die. She turned around and saw in the far distance the silver Moon shining in the night. She looked behind and saw the coyote had gone on without her, deeper into the dark. So she left. The soft moonbeams drew her onward, shivering through the rain until she reached her old home. Her mother’s joy was great at her return, but no sooner had the girl stepped inside, she fell dead in her mother’s embrace. The journey without light had left the girl so cold she could not survive. The Moon grieved and blamed the Sun for hiding her warmth as well as her light. But the Sun replied that she had only done as the mother requested. Angry, neither the Moon nor the Sun could look upon the other’s face. And now they appear in the sky only when the other is gone. The sun for the day and the moon for the night.”

The final picture portrayed the mother weeping over the forlorn body of her daughter. I stared for a while at the image. Would my mother care if I left? Would she entreat the world to stand still if it meant being reunited with me once more? Somehow I didn’t think so. Somehow I felt more of a burden than anything else.

I mulled over this in the night, absently stroking my stuffed rabbit and staring into the darkness until bright dots danced above my eyes. When morning broke I sat much the same. The birds called in the growing sunlight. My hunger reawakened.

I rubbed my eyes and splashed some water on my face. A faint outline of a hand still stood out on my cheek. I blushed to think of it and instead hurried to the kitchen where I quietly loaded handfuls of raisins into a plastic cup and exited the apartment quietly. My mother was curled beneath a heap of blankets on the couch. Only her head was visible, looking ghostly, disembodied on her pillow. She stirred, but I knew she rarely woke before noon on Saturdays. Usually she sent me out as soon as I woke and I never returned before lunchtime.

Outside the air was warm. I threw a few raisins into my mouth and chewed while hopping down the stairs and keeping my eyes on the birds busying from one tree to the next. I was unsurprised to see Seth waiting at the bottom. He held a steaming, over-large thermos in his hand and a long green bruise grew from his eyebrow to his cheekbone. I resisted the urge to gasp and ask questions, knowing well the embarrassment he’d feel.

“What’s in the mug?” I asked instead. Seth seemed grateful for the diversion and smiled.

“Coffee,” he said. “Want some?” I wrinkled my nose. “It’s good,” he promised. “I put lots of sugar in it.”

I sipped cautiously, then exclaimed, “But there’s no milk!” Seth laughed.

“It’s black,” he explained. “Real men don’t use milk.”

“Oh,” I said. I sipped again. It seemed the best thing to do. We watched the birds for a while. Seth caught my eyes on his bruised cheek too many times, so he finally blurted,

“My dad hits harder than your mom.” He rubbed his cheek softly, then added, “I don’t think he meant to.”

I nodded and said nothing, but I saw his gaze rest on the handprint on my cheek, and I knew he understood.

“Where’s your dad now?” I asked.

“Sleeping,” he answered. “He got sad last night and drank too much. He hasn’t done that in a while.”

“You hungry?” I asked. Seth nodded and I handed him a fistful of raisins.

“Do you love your dad?” I asked after a while. Seth thought for a moment and sipped coffee contemplatively.

“Sometimes,” he said. “I used to love him more when my mom was alive.”

“I don’t think my mom loves me,” I said, and tossed raisins at a rooting crow.

We didn’t say anything else for a while, content to witness the waking of the apartment complex. The birds were always the first to rise, but soon came the cats, stretching sleepily and meowing at Madge’s door. Mr. Petroli stomped out to his ancient Buick and saluted us before exiting in a cloud of exhaust fumes for his morning treasure hunt. I smiled my thanks to him for the gift he’d slipped through my window, and he grinned in understanding. Madge finally opened her door and quelled the caterwauling on her porch by setting down an enormous bowl of kitty chow. Her ginger hair was in curlers and she wrapped her pink bathrobe tighter before waving at us. We waved back and snickered. It was all great fun, watching the apartment come to life. We enjoyed greeting the various tenants, but when a broad man wrapped in maroon and wreathed in smoke became visible on the horizon the mood quickly soured.

“Morning, kids,” huffed The Manager.

“Morning,” we replied, subdued beneath his leer. He squeezed up the stairs and left behind green smog. We coughed and shot hateful looks at his gargantuan velvet back.

“Let’s go,” whispered Seth. We sat on the side of the building and exchanged worried glances. The manager visiting the tenants couldn’t mean anything good.

“Does he ever come up to see people?” asked Seth.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but I’m at school during the day, and on Saturdays my mom makes me go play with the cats or hang out with Mr. Petroli. She doesn’t want to be bothered on her day off.”

“Maybe he always comes up on Saturdays and you just never see him,” speculated Seth. “It might not be anything bad.”

“Yeah,” I replied, unconvinced.

We played I-Spy to pass the time, but before long we were famished.

“He’s got to be gone by now,” said Seth, hugging his growling stomach. “Let’s just go check. We have some bread in my house, I know. Do you have any lunchmeat?”

“No, but we have peanut butter,” I said.

“Is it creamy?” Seth asked hopefully.

“Nah, the food bank only has crunchy most days.”

“Okay,” sighed Seth. We peered around the edge of the building. No manager was in sight.

“Come on,” whispered Seth. We crept up the stairs and dispersed at the landing. I made my way down the porch, maneuvering through Mr. Petroli’s junk pile and taking care not to trip on the mismatched carpet remnants. When I reached my apartment I paused for a moment and caught my breath. I didn’t want to wake my mother, especially after what happened the night before. I also wasn’t sure whether I was grounded or not, and didn’t care to find out. I exhaled and turned the doorknob slowly. A crack of light opened, illuminating the living room as the door creaked open. On the futon the blankets were piled haphazardly, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Thinking she must be in the bathroom, I skipped through the living room and into the kitchen. I found the jar of peanut butter in a cupboard and began rummaging through drawers to find a butter knife. Upon locating one, I closed the drawer, gathered my things and prepared to leave, but a sound from my bedroom stayed my foot. It was a sound unlike any I’d heard before. A quick gasp, slight like a sigh, followed by a low grunt. It was not my mother. Fear gripped my heart, but dread curiosity prevented me from running. I walked nearer to my bedroom door.

The door sat ajar, and as I crept closer I could see something moving in the shadows. My eyes adjusted to the dim light, and I pushed the door open further. There, in the corner of the room on my bed were two people.

One had his wide back to me, devoid of the characteristic maroon. One had her back up against the wall, her hair in her face, her body as naked and mystical as my mermaid. She licked his neck. He bit her ear.

My mother looked up. Her eyes met mine. I ran.

Down the stairs, three at a time, past the parking lot, past crazy Madge tossing buckets of water on drowning lantanas, to the side of the building I ran. And then I wept.

Seth found me there, ten minutes later, my head in my shaking hands.

“Hannah! Hannah,” he cried, “what’s wrong?”

I struggled to respond, but something was not right with him either. Through bleary eyes I could see welts growing up from his arms and face.

“Oh, Seth,” I sobbed. Seth rubbed his eyes.

“He woke up,” he said. “He woke up and he just screamed at me. He said he wishes it was me.” Seth sank down against the wall and buried his face in his knees. “He wishes it was me that died and not my mom.”

I sat beside him against the warm wall. The sun had left the mountains behind and rose free into the sky, but coming in from the west was a host of clouds, fast and weighted with rain. The birds stopped singing.

“My mom and the manager,” I began, but my voice cracked. I shook and couldn’t speak, but Seth knew.

“Why do we even stay?” he cried, his voice anguished.

The sky grew dark as the storm approached. We heard above us the sounds of tenants preparing for the rain. The wind picked up and all the world was blowing about us. Without plan or hesitation we joined hands and headed to the canal. Propelled or drawn, who could say?

The way down seemed shorter this time. The dust blew fiercely through the air and the clouds flew nearer. The plastic bags and bits of paper were tossed about in the wind, and my hair stood on end. Far away I saw lightening touch the earth. We passed the weeping willow, peaceful despite the storm, and it seemed ages ago that we’d been there. Somehow I was not the same as I was the night before. We walked with purpose, neither fast nor slow. Over bone-bare rivulets and beneath stunted trees, the wash stretched on and on. When the first low rumbles of thunder greeted our ears we were at least a mile away.

There was no need to speak really, and we knew it. But every so often we’d look up and smile to reassure one another. The clouds rolled in, each larger and darker than the last. When the first sticky raindrop wet my face I licked it off my lips and grinned. Seth did too.

At first I worried that the rain would fall too hard and we’d be washed away. Bits of trash floated down in muddy torrents, but soon the rain slowed to a gentle drip, a drumbeat to step to.

It grew dark too early, and we walked on, tired and hungry. The deepening evening brought with it the sound of the wind and a cricket chorus beneath the moon. Coyotes cried in the distance and I heard a rattle close beside us, and for a moment my heart beat fast. Seth squeezed my hand and then I realized that I was not afraid of snakes or coyotes or being washed far and away, but only of losing heart.

When the sun finally stretched its pink and golden rays, we could no longer see the place we’d left behind. Warmth reached over the mountains and onto our faces, lighting up Seth’s hair to a dazzling white.

Neither of us knew how far the wash extended, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes you just do what you need to do. We would have walked it to the end if it stretched on eternally.

On Art and Creativity

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I believe that man is created in the image of God.

Created in the image of God. We were born out of infinite creativity, and in his image, we are likewise creative. Deep echoes unto deep, and our nature responds to the nature of he who formed our substance from dust. Our soul, our very essence, demands creativity. In all areas of life we have the potential to express this deep communion; it is only human.

Some have said that because all are created in the image of God, all are artists. Certainly, all are creative. In the ways that we form unique thoughts and act upon them: planning, shaping, evolving and constantly bettering our methods. Even in something as humanly basic as cellular regeneration or procreation, we see how physically and spiritually we cannot escape our creative nature. By nature we bring forth newness and life.

Yet, I find I cannot say that all are artists.

I believe we’re missing here a crucial definition; what is art? If art is merely creativity, then all are artists and all is art. Like the age-old maxim that “everyone is special,” art becomes meaningless and trite when expanded so broadly that it encompasses everything. All are special, all are artists; no one is special, no one is an artist. In order to avoid sinking in the sand of postmodernism, we must narrow the scope and differentiate between concepts that are similar, but not the same.

Art is the use of the subjective to reveal the universal, a symbol manifesting reality. Art is relevant to all people at all times and places because it expresses objective truths about our human condition. We are sons of Adam. We all experience life under the sun. We all die, too.

Whatever this is, whatever we want to call it, creativity cannot sum it up. One can be creative in their occupation as a nurse, a businessman, a police officer, but one is not expressing objective truths through universal symbolism in doing so. Life is not art because life is what’s real. Art is a symbol revealing the real. This is not mere creativity; this is something deeper. The symbol wrapped up in the crescendo of a concerto and the metaphor of a sonnet bear a far deeper expression of not just the artist’s soul, but all souls. Creativity is an expression of the self. Art is an expression of humanity.

And this is in no way belittling creativity. In expressing ourselves we express our nature, our soul. We showcase our likeness to our creator, infinite God. This is no small thing. But artists bear the privileged burden of summing up humanity in all its glory and flaws. The rest of the world has the joy of being able to look into the mirror held up by Bach and Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Van Gogh, and see their own reflection and all the world’s, captured fully and exquisitely. For when you meet with Hamlet and Mr. Darcy, or hear Beethoven’s fifth, or join the blind beggar crying out along the dusty Jerusalem road, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” and your own soul is met in theirs, unity is glimpsed. The human condition is realized through human expression. All mankind is able to commune. And in this communion, we break not bread, but barriers.

Order, Chaos, and the Space Between – A Review

order, chaos,This month the Phoenix Art Museum is showcasing Latin American art from the Bruce and Diane Halle collection. Many of these pieces were born out of fear and loss, created by people living within war-torn and poverty-stricken countries. Most are dark and troubling, some, confusing, some, begging the question of whether they can be defined as art at all.

Upon entering the exhibit one midweek night, my gaze was immediately drawn upwards by a vortex of black butterflies that rested on the wall beside me. They climbed upwards to the ceiling, swirling round and round, creating a path of sorts to the Halle Collection. I could not help but find it a fitting entry to an exhibit whose goal was find the happy medium between wild beauty and impenetrable darkness.

One piece caught my eye immediately from all the way towards the back of the room, drawing me irresistibly in. Strange, and certainly not an ordinary work of art, the weathered hutch stood tall against a back wall like a discarded ruin. It’s glass windows were pressed close against a suffocating force of dried cement laced with old clothing, metal like shrapnel piercing through. The hutch had been unearthed, along with the clothing and metal, from houses whose occupants had fled from the Columbian civil war in the late twentieth century. The piece, by Doris Salcedo, is untitled, as though not to give credence to the unspeakable events the wordless belongings witnessed within the abandoned home. The combination of empty clothing, metal, and cement, housed carefully, solidly within the wooden hutch created an aura not only of loss, but horror. I could only see children where their old clothing poked through, and bones where jagged bits of steel gleamed though the dust and concrete. I felt as though I was looking upon a mass grave of memories,  kept like precious, sinister trinkets within a wooden box. We turned away from the piece, weighted heavier than when we first came.

Across the hall from the cemented hutch sat a rather different piece from the collection. A pile of mint-green wrapped candies lay in the center of the floor, piled into a shapeless mass. The wall beside it bore a plaque explaining that the artwork is ever changing in size and shape. Viewers are encouraged to take candy for themselves and the sweets are replenished each night. This is supposedly representative of our transient state in life, and the changeability in the world. I must admit, we stifled laughter when reading the plaque and comparing the deep, philosophical words about order and chaos to a pile of cheap candy on the floor. All of the art in the exhibit was contemporary, but this is as post-modern as it gets. I felt forced upon as I viewed this nameless creation, and got the impression that the artist was attempting to make a very particular point, as though it were propaganda of sorts. Perhaps he strove to say that anything could be art; that all is art; that everything we interact with on a daily basis says something about the universe and it’s ebbs and flows. But instead he left me more emphatic in the belief that not every expression of the self, or of the world, is art. If everything is art, then why create art at all? Perhaps next time I’ll skip the museum and head straight to my pantry.

After viewing many other post-modern pieces that I am hesitant to describe as “art,” we were tired and began to doubt we’d see anything else of interest. It was then that we happened upon a gem. In a small room off to the side a miniature theater had been set up, with film being projected onto three of the four walls. Across the walls spun dozens of black, twirling objects. The film portrayed the traditional Latin American game of battling tops. Although the hands of the players could be seen as they threw the tops into the battleground, the identities of the competitors were unknown, allowing the tops to attain a sort of personality. The tops were all black, varying in size, and the ominous, rolling sound of their tracking across the cement battleground filled the small theater. One by one they dropped, sometimes in violent bursts, as though suffering the shock of a bomb. They viciously cut into one another, drove across each other, destroyed all in their path. One large top in particular took enemy after enemy down. But in the end, the remaining top could only spin for so long, and wavering, collapsing, eventually succumbing to gravity, lay fallen amongst the other casualties on the floor.

This one art piece made the entire exhibit worthwhile to me. The concrete filled wooden hutch was a close second, and everything else was more or less worthless, but this gem left me feeling hollow and excited at the same time. The beautifully filmed game was fearsome and sublime. In those spinning tops I saw the battles of thousands of years and my own heart mirrored with countless others. Piles of cheap candy on the floor can never accomplish what those few minutes of beautifully filmed saga said of human dignity, powerful hunger, and  soulless, crushing war.

We left the museum that night satisfied with the two excellent pieces we’d seen. Order, Chaos, and the Space Between is well worth the time of any museumgoer, if only for those two. The rest of the artwork from the Halle collection at the Phoenix Art Museum was convoluted or left lacking, and art, true art, does not say too little or too much.

Glory in the Fight

When I made the decision to begin exercising earlier this year, it was out of a grudging realization that I needed to for my health. Never have I worked out consistently (except for that brief stint in eleventh grade), and never had I been even remotely athletic. Memories of that fated kickball game (where everyone was shouting my name as I stepped up to the plate and then missed the ball) haunted me. How could I even like the idea of exercising when I was convinced I would fail?

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I also didn’t like the implication that my body needed work. Yet, the evidence that it DID need work became insurmountable over the months that I gradually became more health conscious. Looking over the laws of health, I knew exactly where I was lacking. Yoga was great, but no matter how hard I tried to justify it, I knew it just wasn’t meeting my fitness needs. I decided that I’d go to the gym five days a week, muscle my way through some god-awful exercise routines, and hopefully I’d begin to see some progress.

So I did just that. I ran some, lifted some, sweat some, all the while telling myself through gritted teeth that it was worth it. There’s something about those 5:30 a.m. treadmill runs that brings out the gritting teeth and self-affirmations.

Then something strange happened – I began to love it.

It started with a small measure of enjoyment. After a hard workout I would walk towards the locker room and look back over my shoulder at the large gym full of machines and dumbbells and think, “I want to do more.” In fact, the only thing stopping me was that I simply didn’t have the time. I liked that feeling. It made me feel more vibrant and health savvy then even drinking a veggie smoothie before heading off to yoga did!

Then my hubby and I evaluated our goals and decided to hire a personal trainer for six months. As we began the fitness program in March I discovered that working out together with my best friend was fun! Who knew? We race, encourage each other, and point out growth and accomplishments. And it is fun. Even when we’re both too sore to drive the Honda (stick-shift) home.

Now I know what it’s like to sweat and love it, to feel sore and relish it. I walk a little taller knowing that I’m actually doing my best. Half-assing it (pardon my French) just doesn’t bring that same sense of fulfillment.

And for the first time in my life I feel strong. Progress is slow, even painstaking. Sometimes I second guess myself and feel like a failure because the results take more time than I have the patience for. But I came to a realization this morning as I stared at the mirror and saw the small successes. It is good that the progress is painstaking. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. Because when I wake up at five in the morning to put together nutritious lunches, blend up vegetable and fruit smoothies, and then do a cardio and core workout, I am preparing myself to become that person I want to be. When it feels like my entire day is spent taking care of my small household, and even the very last moments before bed are put into preparing salads for the morning, I am learning to work towards a goal and set myself up for success. These are life skills, not simply health motions. Some quick-fix fat loss wouldn’t take me there. I have to take me there. And through the painstaking diligence every single day, I will grow. I don’t want a merely beautiful body. I want to be a healthy, persevering, disciplined person. And I will be. And it will be glorious.

My Mother, the Missionary

It’s mid-morning in Maryland, and the day is clouded and dull. The air hovers thickly: heavy and rain-scented and electric, evidencing the stormy weather we’ve been subject to all week. We lounge in the family room, my mother and I. The ruby shadows of a red lampshade encompass us; without sunlight filtering in through the bay windows or the stained glass, artificial lighting is necessary even in the morning. The happy jumble of noise from the kitchen suggests that the rest of the family has communed there, while the dog’s tail thumps exuberantly from her place on the carpet. All about lies the evidence of a home lived in: books, shoes, DVDs, and guitars are strewn around, encircling us two. My mom leafs through a stack of old film photos, their edges rounded. Some are shaped into circles, some as squares, as though they had once been featured in an album or book. Whatever their original status, they have now made their way out from a grubby plastic ziplock. Yet, my mother touches them tenderly. Her eyes glimmer as she thumbs through the stack, well-worn images flashing through her fingers, triggering long gone memories. She carefully searches the faces, pausing to smile or sigh. The year was 1988, and the photos don’t lie. My mom, twiggy and permed, dressed in oversized T’s and shorts. My mom holding crocodiles, leaning out of a grass hut, so different from the manicured woman who sits beside me now. She picks out three photos for me to see, but we end up talking about just the one.

It’s a darkened room she stands in, but my mom assures me it was early morning. Another morning, twenty-three years ago. A different hemisphere. A time worlds away. “It was called Irian Jaya then,” she tells me. Papau: An island peopled by the primitive. “The Dani tribeswomen used to come to us, the missionary hospital, to give birth and then go home.” She tells me of these village women, their nakedness and strange strength so unlike any other women she’d seen before. The photos depict them grinning, hugging the missionaries close, kneading out their sago paste. One of these women had traveled from her village to the hospital to birth her child in the cool hours of the night. I ask my mom if the woman brought anyone with her, for support or comfort. “No, they don’t have girlfriends,” she laughs. Without her husband there beside her, in the midst of these white-demon strangers, the Dani tribeswoman birthed her child in the dark hours of a new day. It was the first birth my mother had witnessed. The photo depicts a room crowded by a bed and a few medical supplies, my mother cradling the wide-eyed baby, swaddled in a white blanket, a shock of black hair crowning his head. She stares down at the infant, her expression tender, comfortable. Perhaps she thinks of one day cradling her own child in her arms. Perhaps she will treasure this memory as she carries me, her firstborn, a few years later. The tribal woman would give the child a title of her own, one that would fit his place in the village. But to my mother the tiny newborn would forever be Benjamin.

My parents married when they were in their mid-twenties, fresh out of Bible College and anticipating missionary life. Together they ministered to the poor immigrants in the slums of Chicago. That summer in Irian Jaya had been a precipice for my mom, a hill from which she could see her life spreading out before her. Now, two years later, she and my dad began to understand that God laughs at the plans of men. I was the product of their first year of marriage, and my sister arrived soon after. Unforeseen joy entered their home as their many plans ebbed away. We left our tiny yellow house in Wheaton, Illinois for a new home in Arizona. There, beneath the expansive desert sky, my brother was born. Their missionary dreams slowly faded. This previous life, this ministry life, was foreign and forgotten, abstract and distant to me. The stories that defined their former endeavors were no more than amusing legends of my parents’ youth. I never realized that the pictures portrayed something real, that the images reveal a part of their person I never knew.

I stop short at this concept and pause to inspect it. My mother was a missionary. There is a part of her that I do not know, kept safely in the confines of a plastic bag. I think of my goals and aspirations, and the impending arrival of parenthood. What part of me will I lose when I become a mother?

I step out of my reverie as my mom stares deep into the photograph and grows silent, holding it cupped in her hands. I ask her what the picture means, why she chose it. She thinks a moment, studying the image, and explains the feelings of awe and amazement at seeing new life ushered into that dark room. She remembers the quietness of the Dani woman, the crude scale made from what looks like fishing nets. “I wasn’t there to perform medical procedures.” It was an opportunity, unexpected. A special memory. My mom is quiet as she remembers, and then laughs as she speaks of my Dad’s incredulity at discovering that his squeamish fiancé was present for this birth and other procedures. Unexpected indeed.

She smiles, and I ask her if the photograph brings back fond memories. “Oh yeah,” she replies. “It’s a very special memory.” That summer was filled with new experiences, but she places this one as a specific highlight of the trip. She describes the mission trip as being “like National Geographic, but in person.” And assuredly, the photos she took of Papau seem magazine-worthy. Swarthy and wild men standing beside their dugout canoes, grass huts, a dark man peering in through an open window hole, a great grin on his face, bones puncturing his nose and lip. These photos are the foundation of the many stories of my mother’s summer in Papau: the fruit bats startling thumps in the night, the shock of discovering that the friendly natives were cannibals only twenty years before, the wild pig that ran through the camp and interrupted the Jesus film. They were the anecdotes passed down to us children, the stories of this previous life. Mythological; we could not understand that our parents had been people before we arrived.

I peer over my mom’s shoulder; she looks at the photo in her hand. “It was a life changing summer,” she tells me. Because of the novel experiences, the things she witnessed. I look at my mother now, three children later, a woman who went to school and prepared for years to be a missionary to far off places. A woman who instead raised a family in Phoenix, stayed home with her children, who never did return to the darkness of Papau’s jungles. And I picture her thinking back to the life worthy of National Geographic as she nursed babies and raised children. Did she miss it? Did she pine for the wild intoxication of “unexpected opportunities?” I wonder if she ever wished to be back on that precipice, immersed in strange and foreign cultures, dizzied with love, anticipating a life of this. Does she wish to have raised us up in the midst of the natives? To have birthed us in the dark rooms of a missionary hospital? To have been the necessary woman, the healing woman, the white-demon missionary woman? To be the woman she intended to be? The woman I never knew.

And then I think of the many photo albums of my childhood, the photographs lining the halls, the frames that inhabited each nook and shelf with our images: my sister and I as toddlers, our choir photos, school pictures, family portraits. The piano serves as tribute to the musicians who once lived here. Our art graces the walls. Above the couch we sit on now hangs an ornate frame, holding our most recent family photograph, and in our hands are the faded memories of Papau, unearthed from their forlorn storage.

I don’t wonder anymore.

There stood for many years a model canoe houseboat on our bookshelf at home. My sister and I imagined the type of men who would operate the boat, we pictured the women in their huts making sago paste, the little tribal children singing praise songs in the missionary choir. Images furnished by the videos of Papau village life we watched. But before this day I had never heard of Benjamin. I didn’t know that my mother witnessed his birth, held him, asked for a photograph of the moment. And where was he now? Living in some primitive village, eating sago, spearing fish from his dugout canoe? Perhaps his own mother told him stories of his birth: the dark room, the woven scale, and the white-demon woman who held him close. He is twenty-three years old now, a year younger than my mother when she witnessed his arrival, two years older than I am now. He exists worlds away from us as we tell his story, worlds away from the photograph of his birth.

The light begins to grow dimmer as we converse on the couch. Raindrops trace trails down the windows and we pause to add some extra lighting. I ask my mom if she has changed much since that summer in Irian Jaya. She notes that she’s had three children of her own in the past twenty-three years. She’s moved to three different states, changed churches and theology, grown to understand their faith as the reformed men of old had taught. She schooled us, mentored us; she was our chauffeur and our coach. My mother mothered many. My parents never became missionaries. Life was not what they had expected. Is it ever?

My mom was twenty-six years old when she became a mother. She received her college diploma over a protruding pregnant belly. She and my dad decided against finding out the gender of the baby before the birth. A surprise. They waited those nine months impatiently, somehow sure of a son. They brought boy’s clothes to the hospital. There, beneath the bright lights my mother gave birth. Surrounded by shining white surfaces I was born. They named me Sarah, “princess”. But had I been the boy they were expecting, my name would have been Benjamin.

Our conversation dwindles, and we look through the pictures, lost in thought. Soon enough it is not just the two of us looking over the memories anymore. My brother and my husband are intrigued, and can’t help but make their way into the living room. They kneel before the coffee table, heads knocking together above scenes of Irian Jaya. I can’t help but grin as my husband leans in closer, brother to my own brother; my mom glowing happily as the stories begin to emerge. The wild pig interrupts again the Jesus film, and lo and behold, the tribesmen were cannibals not so long ago. A dark and naked man grins through an open window, his neck entwined with a necklace of bones, the sago is mashed and pulsed in rhythm, the little children stomp about and sing. Papau as I knew it. And here we are, telling stories of this former life from the recesses of the living room. God knows we love this life. I catch my husband’s eye and smile, glad for this moment, for this epiphany. Glad for him to see my mother as the person she used to be. Who will we become?

My mother was a missionary. She never returned to the jungles of Irian Jaya, never saved those souls. The memories were bagged away in a battered ziplock. My mother had three children and taught them at home. My mother raised us far from tribal villages; she birthed us in bright rooms. She surrendered her expectations, forgot the woman she intended to be. She became something better. My mother was a missionary to us, her children; she forged a way into our heathen night and brought with her a great light. She entered the heart of darkness and saved the souls of young savages. She shaped our minds, our lives; poured out herself unto us and became foot-washer to her little natives.

My mother, the missionary.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Review

beasts-of-the-southern-wild02Beasts of the Southern Wild is everything I can ask for in a movie. Fiercely beautiful and sincere, this feature presents a simple story that is as exquisite as it is savage; visually poetic and triumphant.

The film, headed up by first-time director Benh Zeitlin, chronicles the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, living out an atypical life immersed in extreme poverty and characterized by proud defiance. The tale is set in an isolated bayou, separated from New Orleans by an enormous levee. The ramshackle community, situated on the wrong side of the levee, is affectionately known as “The Bathtub,” home to a collection of human detritus. Satisfied with their derelict homestead, the residents of The Bathtub revel in festivities and teach their children to be survivors. “I am meat, ya’ll asses meat,” proclaims one Bathtub native to a group of children. “Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.” Meat – and the death it takes to obtain it – is a central symbolin the film. Wink teaches Hushpuppy to catch fish with her bare hands, farm animals decay on the flooded landscape after an earth-shattering storm, alligators are shot and deep fried. And alone in her house, Hushpuppy proclaims with a raw bluntness, “if Daddy don’t get home soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”

The film is at first a rugged telling of a community identifying so deeply with their homeland that they refuse to leave when a great storm threatens. Parallel to this runs the story of Hushpuppy and her daddy. What at first seems to be a strange, if not downright neglectful relationship culminates into an understanding that what they have is deep. Their love is primal; a wild and natural affection one might see between lions and their cubs, or killer whales. These two stories are intertwined and consummate, blending poetic vignettes of glaciers cracking and roaming arctic beasts with stark realism. Myth and matter are interwoven. The Bathtub residents are preparing for a disaster not unlike Hurricane Katrina, and Wink and Hushpuppy have their own storms to face.

The bold six year-old is the star of this feature, no doubt about it. Played by Quvenzhane Wallis, Hushpuppy is a thunderbolt in a community that expects nothing less of their offspring. This disheveled, unkempt child makes complex observations about the fine tunings of the universe one moment, and relishes in the sound of her own scream the next. Hushpuppy is at once a vulnerable child yearning for affection and a wild and uncanny creature quite capable of fending for herself. Her father, like many of his neighbors, relies on alcohol to brace him. His moods are erratic as a result. Early in the film Wink is hospitalized, disappearing for a day and a night. But Hushpuppy is hardly nonplused by his absence, settling for a canned cat food supper that she cooks by lighting the gas stovetop with a blowtorch.

The visuals in this film are radiant, poetic. Swirling dust is captured in sunlight, rain is caught glinting on tin roofs and bare skin. Hushpuppy is frequently surrounded by bright, sparkling lights. She’s captured twirling amongst firecrackers in the beginning of the movie, and towards the end Hushpuppy and her band of orphaned friends are held and rocked side to side by mothering prostitutes in the soft, hazy glow of a saloon. The film constantly alludes to itself. Ancient cave-drawings are tattooed on a woman’s thigh, and Hushpuppy draws stick figures with charcoal, stating that, “in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”

The film bears an overall emphasis on wholeness. The Bathtub residents are one with their land, and Hushpuppy proclaims that, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” One of the strongest scenes in the movie features a tugboat captain who saves his lunch wrappers, littering the floor of his vessel with chicken biscuit papers because it makes him feel cohesive. “I wanna be cohesive,” says Hushpuppy.  “Oh you will be,” replies the captain. “I got no doubt in my mind.”

Aurochs, the gargantuan ice-age beast, are another reoccurring symbol in the film. At first their appearance coincides with disaster and fear. A herd rampages through the town, devastating The Bathtub between takes of a hurricane rolling in. The boar-like creatures feast on a fallen comrade as Hushpuppy soliloquies on the brutality of life. Aurochs are devastatingly powerful beasts, identified with the series of hardships that fall upon Hushpuppy and The Bathtub. Yet as the film progresses, a kinship and likeness develop between the people and the wild animals, culminating in Hushpuppy’s final encounter with Aurochs. “You’re my friend, kind of,” she says simply to the great monster kneeling before her. And this is why the movie is so fiercely tender and wonderful. The characters don’t ever escape the hardships, but they master them. At six years old, little Hushpuppy learns that trials are a necessity of life. “Everyone loses the thing that made them,” sheproclaims. The wildness of the world calls to that wild part in our souls. Hushpuppy knows the call. She listens for it in the heartbeat of every creature she comes across. And this is the triumph: that in the midst of the hardships there is a perseverance that can be clung to. The film concludes with the rag-tag group of homeless souls traversing a narrow road with the waters lapping up on either side. There is no going back. And they are moving onward, triumphant.