from a prompt by Elizabeth Treadwell
I can honestly say that in my 43rd year, I came alive. This is not a metaphor. In this, my 43rd year on this earth, I lived whereas before I hid inside my skin like an interloper. I was haunted by ghosts, relatives from past generations, taking up in my bones, like a perfume I inhaled constantly but couldn’t place. Scent from the bones is a powerful companion. Always eyeing me, lifting up their noses to the scent of time tangling with objects, knowing they should set me free. But I held them there.
I emerged from the subway at 6:46 pm that Sunday that I started to live. It was the beginning of a new month, August, and it was just starting to rain. I lifted my head and looked upwards, to the trees overhanging the sidewalk, through leaves to a pleated graying sky, grays and whites gathering together. That beautiful smell of rain when it first begins hit my nostrils and I breathed it in. This was when I knew I was alive, a living soul, a human being that was taking up space and time at just this particular moment in history. The sensation of being was that distinct, that I was me, finally unburdened of the past, of the brutality of the olden days, years in which I hadn’t been in this body, living, but felt through ancestral osmosis and the passing on of generations’ secrets in the blood. This blood wisdom, these gifts of their stories, the stories of my grandparents and great-grandparents, were like fireflies in the blood, gas lamps that would flicker on and off, their light trembling in the glass, light inside me that would keep me up at night.
“my sister loves me.”
“I slept last night.”
“She died there.”
I can hear people’s thoughts.
No, I am not.
I can’t quite prepare or penetrate
thought that I have
it is too singing
I am not more open than this
or anyone else’s mind-fountain.
Find a past-train;forced cavern train wreck
non-being string of worlds, like oceans,
like fever, that connect this train wreck to others—
pull open history’s patents—
right, ye, no, but you were talking about lost boats
and ledgers and doubts and fantasies of escape
that don’t end up at the bottom of people’s
drawers or in stew-pots or verdurous
We are enclosed in atomnal-beings
of lesser known species:
Look in the Guide to American Family Life
and you’ll see!
Photos of kitchen tables set with planks;
We are not caged.
We have a thought.
We have a choice.
In how this will end.
We sit with pink pollies on our heads like magic machines divinating. Get our nails done. Prove our mettle.
It isn’t enough to inherit people’s thoughts.
It isn’t enough to decorate kindly with heirlooms.
It isn’t enough to read and know people’s souls.
My grandmother taught me that the only thing that matters is doing what needs to be done. She lost her entire family, one day, the letters from Poland just stopped. Her husband, my grandfather, was sick for the last twenty years of his life, always in bed, the ambulance a regular fixture outside the house, with its flashing lights and the silence that fell over everything.
My mother taught me this too. You just get up and do what you have to do. At first, I resisted, believing that life is so much more than a list of pale tasks that you do and then you just have more to do, so how is this living? But now, I have learned that this really is all there is. And there is such beauty in it, magnificence. What I remember the most vividly from my grandmother’s house is her horribly weak Nescafe instant coffee, her perfectly organized refrigerator, her walk-in, tiny little bathroom that was the size of an outhouse, her narrow paved yard with the strip of garden in front, her tiny porch that she sat on in a chair pulled outside from the dining room, her cheesecake, her smile when she picked us up from the airport, when she still was well enough to come to the airport. Her love is so strong, so permanent, even after her death 17 years ago, it sustains me and strengthens me and makes me know things about myself. I have inherited her strength, her survival instinct, her life force after life took everything from her that she had known, her building skills, building a family, a country, a life after death after death after death.
Because of her one decision, her one action, all of us exist.