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separate skins

June 10, 2013

Imagewe sat in the screened-in porch and discussed what other kinds of things we could have done with our lives. the air was flat and sticky, poking through windows and walls.   


our daughter, seven months old, slept fitfully in our bedroom. my body tenses when she hears or sees something ugly, like the day before when two teenage boys passed by throwing curses with hard jagged motions. we were walking on a sidewalk and I slowed down, let them pass, stopped myself from sprinting across the road. she showed no sign of noticing any of this, just gazed curiously from face to face, all the passing strangers with all their secret worlds. if she has nightmares I don’t know what they’re about: maybe they’re about sharp-worded teenage boys or maybe they’re about hunger. I hope she dreams of beautiful things, like the radiant-winged azalea blossoms outside her window and fairies guiding her through a sunlit forest. I hope that my love warms her even in the coldest corners of her dreams.


my husband thinks that maybe he should have been a scientist, a dendrologist, to spend his days in the hushed company of trees.


we sat in the darkness. outside, there was a mass of black space and it was the forest breathing itself to sleep under a starless wave of sky.


I thought of a walk I used to take with my parents, where the woods bordered on a classmate’s property. all through the walk I would wonder what he was doing, wonder if he could see me which of course he couldn’t and I laughed extra hard. stood extra tall with my chest open wide. the land was electric with pre-adolescent fantasy and  lust. (a strange kind of lust, a ravenous and abstract craving which may have sounded like whining to the passersby.) years before, in the fourth grade, I’d slapped his back with my winter hat as an attempt at flirtation. he turned around and I smiled sweetly, shyly, but he must have growled something in response because I remember flaming hot orange in embarrassment and I never tried flirting again.


my husband would make a good scientist. he’s curious, focused, perseverant when there’s purpose to a task. when I describe myself I worry that I’m setting limits on who I am and who I have the potential of being but I’ll go ahead anyways and admit to a lack of patience. a kind of frustrated restlessness when the undertaking is too mundane or challenging or boring. as a therapist I can train myself to drift in cradles of stories and free-floating words. if a woman says ‘life is too unbearably hard’ then I can sink into the center of that phrase and nod my head. I can say ‘yes, yes it is,’ and then help her climb out with different words, different images, different symbols. I can say ‘feel the chair holding your weight.’ ‘feel the stillness at the core of every moment.’


in college I panicked, felt ill-equipped to live in this world. I became obsessed with the tragedy of being my own individual person bound by a skin marred with weakness and flaw. I followed the solitary swan to her place by the Charles River and settled into myself, a different kind of self than the one I was before. awed by my aloneness. bitter about it, and wondrous. I ate dinner alone as often as possible and came out on Friday nights to smoke marijuana with people who knew how to talk about nothing.


when my daughter was born I thought, I don’t want her to experience pain. every mother must think this, to see the shining tiny creature that’s come from her womb. if mothers could live by this feeling then maybe war wouldn’t exist. but how could they? the infant is hungry, thirsty, and tired, and maybe that is pain. the infant sees her mother leave the room and maybe that is pain. she wails and it sounds like she knows all the suffering in this world. a mother must learn to live with an aching heart, or she must let it turn to stone.


sometimes I imagine that I’m a tree, a tall and thick one, ancient. hemlock or cottonwood. catalpa, gingko, or weeping willow with my hair hanging loose. in their bodies I swallow the energy of earth and sun. I draw nourishment up through my roots, honor my ancestors and the parts of them that shape my life, exhale and reach, grow in intricate pathways towards the light. my skin hardens. the hardness of strength, not cynicism not judgment. I watch the shifting of things around me, I feel the movement of my limbs, I feel my leaves swelling and pulsing and dying, dropping to my feet. I feel the tremblings of procreation. the cool arms of a fickle wind. I feel a stillness in my center, the place where breath collects the ashes and carries them home.


the violence of humanity mirrors all the internal battlefields where volcanoes shoot fire from deep within and oceans open to inhale the rain. our contradictions shake the glowing core. people leak their lava everywhere and when my daughter was born I cringed at the lethargically sour inflections of my own imperfect voice. she was like a white dress made of lace.       


my husband and I watched the darkness. hidden trails of rhododendron flowers and dead leaves twisting through the garden. for some time we stopped speaking and a slow breeze moved between us. around us. her fingers lingered on our separate skins, tugging at the seams.       


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  1. Melissa Bounty permalink

    Thissssssss is so beautiful. You are changing as a writer. This is lovely, lyrical nonfiction that could easily be in a published book of essays. I love the ideas and the images, and the writing is so clear and true also.

    • thanks so much melissa! since you’re one of my favorite writers of all time, that really means a lot…

  2. Amanda permalink

    This floored me. How lucky am I to know you, your scientist husband, and your shining tiny daughter?

  3. Kyle permalink

    Wow – you’re absolutely amazing. Your writing is absolutely amazing.

    • Kyle permalink

      P.S. I’m so glad to see that you stuck with it.

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