Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Summer of Flying

Snow again. It sends my mind skittering from here, like dozens of waterbugs on the glassy surface of the pond in the woods. But it doesn't take long to find refuge. Mother reminded me at Christmas.

"Remember the summer you spent flying off the M.'s wellhouse?"

Another of my schemes. I took something my brother said -- about physics, about flying, about lift -- and mixed in my own harebrained ideas. My special brand of mental alchemy.

"You cannot be serious," my brother, the future engineer, would say. "Mother, you have to make her stop," was another of his requests. Mother would check to make sure I wasn't about to seriously harm myself or others, then let it go.

So I gathered my materials, enthusiasm bordering on hysteria, which drew a small crowd of followers. These included the believers, the bored and the skeptics. The last generally consisted of the neighbor boys, who enjoyed watching me fall on my face. My experiments frequently failed. But they always entertained.

It was summer and Mrs. M. watched my sister and me while my parents worked in town. No one was hauled off to camp or activities. The high school boys started two-a-day football practice at some point. And they got themselves to and from the field pretty much on their own.

Which left the rest of us to entertain ourselves. All day long. All summer. Three long, beautiful months.

So the first morning of the flying I was ready. I had kites and makeshift harnesses made of belts and ropes. I had money for helium balloons to be filled at the store across the highway. We needed lots of helium balloons. I had my long black satin cape and a myriad of other capes. I had cardboard boxes and tools for the building of aircraft. The materials, loaded into a red wagon and a wheelbarrow, were hauled to the M's with the help of my loyal assistant, my little sister.

I had barely slept. We were going to fly.

The M. sisters were already waiting for us at the big picture window. J., the oldest, S., M. and P.

We got the helium balloons and went to work at the sloping wellhouse. It was the tallest one in the neighborhood, almost five feet at the highest point. We climbed up, dragging our equipment. We were beginning to draw a crowd.

I don't remember everything. I know I was hoping for a windy day for my first attempts. We wrapped ourselves in harnesses, hooked kites to them and helium balloons. I could feel the slight tug of the kite against my weight. I held out my arms. I ran as fast as I could and jumped off the wellhouse.

Of course, I did not fly. But this did not discourage me. Not in the least.

I kept it up. We all did. J., the oldest of the M. girls, helped in between loads of housework and cooking and otherwise helping her mother. She wasn't really ready to grow up.

We went to work on wings, using all kinds of materials. We built aircraft using cardboard boxes and pillows for seats and tried to fly off the shortest point of the the wellhouse. Ouch. Not for long.

We added fake wings to the harnesses, Icarus-like. We interviewed each other and the "witnesses" with the seriousness of rocket scientists. We wrote down responses. Did you feel that? Did you feel any lift at all? Did anyone SEE anything? Just a little bit, you had to feel SOMETHING!

We were sure if we tinkered here and there, added this and that, jumped higher, ran faster, we would find the magic formula that would lift us into the sky. Into the wind. Up, up and away.

And our notion was not so off the wall if you think about what was going on around us at that time. Not for children growing up in a magic time and place. Yes, we were going through nuclear alert drills at school due to the Cold War -- watch for a flash of white light and get under your desk. But we weren't told to actually slide under those desks, like some. Our drills were verbal. Sort of wink-wink drills.

Because we had faith that such a thing would never happen. We also had a secret weapon.

Just to the south of us, in federal installations where many of our relatives reported five days a week, the work was being done to send man to the moon. Not only that, we had Werner von Braun, who had been responsible for some of the most feared German weapons before he surrendered at the end of World War II and came to Alabama to help lead the U.S. space race.

From time to time, we felt the earth move under us. "It's the big rockets," we were told. "They're testing them." So, we knew we were safe. The earth was moving. We were going to the moon. I mean, why couldn't we fly off the wellhouse?

So we tried. Over the course of days and on and off over weeks that summer. We just kept trying.

We never did fly, of course. At least not in a physical sense. But our hearts soared, up and out, over grass dew-tinted an emerald green, into wide open blue skies.

The sun's fire loosened our fluid young muscles. Air cleaned by miles of old forest curled into our lungs, sending blood pounding in our veins. Wind blew through our long soft hair as we stretched our arms high and grasped with small hands for clouds as white as the cotton bursting from the fields around us.

Over and over we jumped, throwing ourselves into radiance -- the sweet arms of a midsummer day in the deepest part of the South. Days we thought would never end, could never end. Drunk with it.

Other children gathered near the wellhouse to watch our whimsical quest. Then later, grownups too. They stood, watching, but not really seeing. Because their eyes had gone soft, remembering what could be seen only in memory -- their own long-gone childhoods.

So now, that wellhouse exists only in memory, too. We're all scattered to the winds. And J. has gone on ahead, without us, off somewhere with Cyn.

I'm going to try to catch a sign of them this summer, when I visit Alabama. When the crickets and Katydids are in full throat and the night sky is blazing with stars. That's when those days feel so close I can stretch arms into the darkness and almost pull them back to me.

I'll find an old wellhouse or another icon to sit on. Maybe I'll wear my black cape, not the satin one, that's long gone. But of course I have a black cape. I've always had one. I might have an opportunity to fly. Or something. And I want to be ready.

So, in the summer I'll look into the sky and recite the old directions. Tell them we'll all be along soon. Because I know where my friends went. And I know how to get there, when the time is right. We talked about it. You just follow some simple directions.

It's easy.

Listen closely. Remember?

All you have to do is hold up your arms, you way we used to do, take off running and fly. Up and away, into the sky. From there, just take the "second star to the right, and straight on 'till morning."

Hold on tight.

Much love, Glimmer

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Running In The Night

I was a sleepwalker. It's a family affliction. At least one in every generation.

We are selective, though. We don't always walk in the night. We pick and choose. The truth is I always have believed the places where we don't rest through the night in one spot are haunted in some way.

I have settled down, at least. I can't remember the last time I woke up in the pitch, holding my breath, knowing that once again I was not where I was supposed to be. Holding perfectly still, listening for just one clue, hearing only the decimating clanging of my own heart. Straining to see the smallest shimmer of light. Shaking with cold even in the heat, holding tight against the panic. Where am I? Where is this wall my hands are tracing?

I think, I hope, those days are long over.

We have certain characteristics, the night restless. My sister, when she was taken for several years, mainly talked, frantic, upset about something drastic that had gone wrong or was about to go bad. Her husband would question her about her fears, which made her furious. In her sleep.

One night when he was in his early 20s, Uncle H. tried to climb from the second floor window onto the roof of the porch of the farmhouse, but his mother caught him. She screamed for my father and his brother to help her. They ran to the hallway and this tiny woman had her oldest by the ankle, holding on for his dear life.

I roamed. My father found me one night sitting on the carport, legs crossed, silent and still, looking out into the rural South night. I had unlocked the front door, opened the storm, and walked around the house, through the grass and onto the flat concrete. Where I perched. And waited. For what? He woke up and had a notion and went into the living room, finding the door open. He knew something was amiss. Generational memory.

From then on, relatives were on alert. My favorite aunt had her husband build what he laughingly called "an idiot gate" for the stairs leading to the basement. He insisted it was for my grandmother, not me. I don't remember ever sleep walking in that house, although he said he heard me one night, as a middle schooler, shouting from my bed and went to see about the commotion. I was sitting up, my hand raised in the air: "I voted for you Mr. Kennedy, I voted for you!" A reference to our doomed president, John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a couple of years earlier.

When I was grown, my brother told me he got up early and went into the garage one day. The dog slapped her tail on the concrete floor in greeting. Odd, he thought, Daisy stayed prone on the ground in a corner, lying next to a doll, instead of running over to say hello. He walked over to check on the dog. He was startled. The "doll" was his daughter, 3, holding tightly to Daisy. The little girl was fast asleep.

He picked her up and she started to cry. She said she woke up in the garage, and couldn't get back in, the door was locked. I asked my brother, "What in the world happened?" And he said, "You're asking me that? You know what happened." And, I said, "Oh yeah. I'm sorry."

She's a physician now, married to her longtime prince charming, a Navy helicopter pilot, who keeps her grounded at night. But, at least one in every generation.

I seemed to have been the longest walker, duration-wise. Then I married JO, a light sleeper. When I moved at night, his arm would clamp down like automatic prison bars. If I needed to go to the "ladies," for instance, I had to argue my way out of the vise, prove I was awake somehow. In the early years, he was the sleepwalking police.

After puberty, my son became the sleepwalker in the house. An athlete, one night he ran in his sleep, swiftly from his bedroom, down the stairs, to the back door and out. In my sleep I heard him, somehow, the mother in me overruling my sleeping self, moving silently from the bed, fast and light on my feet, down the stairs I followed, calling his name before I was fully awake.

"Stop. Stop! Right now, you need to stop this second and turn around and come back in the house."

Finally, he stopped. "What?" "Come in, you're asleep." I took his arm. His sleepwalking self is ephemeral and smaller, somehow, almost as though he could slip through my hands into the ether unless I hold on tightly. He's there and he's not. Like some of the molecules making up this boy now towering over me are somewhere else.

So he's easy to guide once I have my hand on his arm, once he hears my voice. He does not resist. "Okay," he says, moving back into the direction I lead him. Then awake, he's fully there, all molecules present, dense, like me.

He has settled down too, lately. But the sleepwalking reappears when we visit his Iowa grandmother. She lives in a tiny cottage on the grounds of a huge old assisted living facility, where we stay. This is a wonderful service provided for the families of the people who live in these units. Rooms for guests are provided free of charge.

But my son tries to leave the room in his sleep all night. So I can't allow him to stay in a room alone. One of us, my husband or I, have to sleep in one of the twin beds to keep him in the room, keep him from roaming the halls.

Because an hour or so after lights out, it starts. He argues, gets up and rushes for the door, fast. Other times he'll slip quietly from the bed and sneak, trying to get out before I can wake up. He's urgent, upset, and he argues. All in his sleep. He is desperate to get out of the room, out of the building. This has happened everytime we have stayed there since he went into puberty.

The last time we were there, I was fed up after multiple escape attempts. Finally I said to this sleeping boy, "Okay, what are you going to do if I let you leave this room and the building? In the middle of the night in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere Iowa? How are you going to get out of here, out of Iowa, get back home?" Or words to this effect.

Quietly, calmly, in the dark winter night of the Midwest, he told me matter-of-factly, "Sarah will help me."

"Go to bed," I said. And he did. We don't know a Sarah, or we haven't since fifth grade, five years ago. This huge old, gothic nursing home/assisted living facility is full of ghosts. That's what I think.

Because at my mother's house, D. sleeps peacefully, all night long, not a peep from him. And always has. Mother built this house a year after my father died. No one else has lived there.

So many questions. No real answers. I used to bring up the sleepwalking to doctors. Who have no answers, no response, no solution. So I don't talk about it anymore. I have read and read. No real answers there either. Contradictory information. We generally grow out of it anyway. Eventually.

At least one in every generation. Calm and collected in the daytime, happy, well-adjusted. Yet desperate in the deep, dark night. Trying to escape a nightmare we don't remember, recognize or understand in the light of day. Which would be very upsetting except for the stories about the generations of us affected by this. We've heard them as long as any of us can remember.

At least one in every generation. Restless in the night. Running from something never seen and rarely remembered.

Friday, January 8, 2010

We Did It, Cyn

We did it, Cyn. Girl we did it.

I felt you. I couldn't have watched a second of that game without you "there" somehow. Tide nerves. All my talk back when about not being interested in football, about the Crimson Tide. That was blither. You knew.

Cyn called that (Longhorn) bull from hundreds of miles away. That's the thing about keeping friends through the decades. They know your crap.

She always knew when I was thinking about going to the floorboards. You know, the way the Mafia went to the mattresses during times of conflict? When we were little, we slipped keys out of purses and crawled into the family cars, onto the floorboards, to listen to the game on the radio and pray for the Crimson Tide to pull out just one more victory, for us and for the Bear.

I was thinking about doing that on Thursday night, despite the freezing weather, about the time I called that baby Longhorn QB "a little A..-hole" in front of my teenage son. The same baby quarterback I'd worried about earlier when he went in to replace the regular quarterback. "Don't hurt him," I told the mountain-sized Alabama defensemen through the TV screen.

We needed that victory more than Texas. Texas has the Cowboys. Texas has the legends, the romance, the ranches. We used to visit family friends near Denton, Texas, with a ranch that could be viewed only by riding for a long time in a truck. They had peacocks. So I have two beautiful silk shawls with peacocks on them. I slide one over my bare arms and think of Texas. Of big skies, ranches, cowboys and those peacocks.

Paul "Bear" Bryant's Crimson Tide was just about the only positive news coming out of the state during the bad times, the 1960s, as Gov. George Wallace helmed the ugly fight against civil rights. The days of riots and fire hoses, bombings and white hoods. Unspeakable things, people hanging from tree limbs, ropes tied around their necks, horses charging praying men and women asking to be treated like human beings.

And then on Thursday night, our team brought it. Texas suffered a terrible injury early on and that wasn't fair. But still, those teams battled full out. Nobody phoned it in. Nobody sat on the ball to run out the clock in the last minutes, preserving a tie and stealing, in the eyes of the faithful, Alabama's deserved third national championship in a row. (If I must write it, this references the 1967 game against, shudder, Notre Dame).

Cyn wanted it so very badly, this win. So much so that our friend J., an Auburn graduate, sacrificed and pulled for Alabama for two years to make Cyn happy. And the Tide brought it to us, they brought it home. Even though I'm sure the cynical think she wasn't really "here" to see it.

But she's been around, somehow, still. Hovering near the veil, the membrane, whatever it is that separates us from the next place. I've been relaying her stories here, of course. And then last month, my husband found the ornament in the attic, tied with Crimson Tide ribbon. It showed up after being missing for years.

I posted the picture at the top. A few years after I married JO, she made that ornament and mailed it to him. She thought it was time to tell about the "secret clause" that had been inserted into the marriage vows. And which he had solemnly sworn to uphold, 'til death do us part and the like.

Although he was a proud son of the great state of Iowa, marriage to a woman with crimson red blood in her veins comes with a price. And that is sworn allegiance, for a lifetime, to the Tide. Above and beyond all others.

JO liked the idea, actually. An athletic man, he would rather do than watch. But he was happy for an excuse to "marry into a winning football team," as he put it. "Let's face it, the Hawkeyes suck." Well, not always. But he took to the team and converted our son last year, a rabid Washington Redskins fan who previously had no time for college ball. And now JO is working on his brother in Chicago and they're planning a pilgrimage next fall to see the Tide play in Alabama. Tailgating and all.

The ornament has a joke on it -- Cyn wrote "Louise" on the glass bulb, a nickname I gave her when we were little. I don't know why, we thought it was funny. She nicknamed my mother Mildred in response. Louise stuck. Even her mother called her Louise.

So, after Thursday's 37-21 whipping, I can hear "Louise" calling it that now, I think she can safely go on ahead. It's okay. Her work is done here.

She can move away, climb if she needs to, like we did with these mimosa trees in my yard so many times. We spent hours there, escaping from the hot summer sun, planning our futures, making fun of boys. We had no intention of marrying, ever. And then we both did. Twice.

I know a couple of guides who can accompany her if need be. She didn't like being alone, really. Her dad. And of course, mine. The strongest man I've ever known. He was particularly good at leading expeditions in trying circumstances.

I don't have proof. But I know her strong, vibrant, brave spirit is glowing just beyond the veil. And she'll be larking soon, where she's going. And what a treat "others" have in store.

I kept thinking of this after she passed, something I read, by Victor Hugo. It sums up what I think about the afterlife. Not think, feel. And somehow, I know it in my bones, in my blood.

"A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon, and someone says, 'she is gone.'
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her...
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone says 'she is gone,' there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, 'there she comes!'...

And that is dying."

I can't see Cyn anymore, but I can hear her. Can you? Listen. It's Cyn, or maybe she's going by Louise these days. She's shouting. She's running, a feisty blue-eyed girl, blonde hair flying, growing smaller in my mind's eye, but she's shouting at the top of now-strong lungs, "37-21, 37-21, 37-21!!!!!!!!"

And they are shouting. Cheering. They've been waiting for the likes of her. And they're glad. They're shouting too, "There she comes!"

We love you, Cyn. J. and I and so many people, even those who got to know you by reading about you here. And we will never, ever forget you.


Monday, January 4, 2010

A Bird Flew On My Head Too

I've been blogging about a year now. And I could not have imagined then that I would have posted in this way, digging through old boxes, flipping through yellowed journal pages and photo albums. Reaching far back into time, retrieving lost places, words, lives.

I certainly never expected to lose Cyn, for instance. And the comments and emails that followed my posts about that infuse me with wonder, still. The solace, knowing and care helped me make sense of my childhood friend's death, something I had been simply unable to accept with any sort of equanimity.

Since I started writing here, I've changed in ways I'm just now starting to comprehend. And friends I had before I started this journey are people I know even better now. I told things about myself they had not known. And that, in turn, spurred them to revelation.

And now there are new friends, people I know through their blogs. And sometimes I'm surprised to remember we've not met in person. SB and Mel, Syd, now Danielle, who posts from so far away.

And Ms. Moon. One of those people I "knew" from the moment I read her first post. She's why I posted tonight in this vein. She has a post in her blog about a bird that landed on her head.
( she said "... where IS the camera when you need it."

Which of course made me remember the picture I posted above and I told her about it. And said "come on over to my blog and I'll show you."

So, I was playing in my cousin's yard when a bird flew onto MY head. And just stayed. And stayed. And stayed. And my cousin ran into the house and found a camera. And ran back out and the bird was still there. So she snapped a picture. And the picture you see is a copy of the picture, who knows where the negative went.

I remember getting bored with the bird eventually and jumping around and causing it to fly away. My mother told me the bird landed there because I wouldn't allow her to properly brush my thick mop of curly hair "so it always looks like a bird's nest." She warned me that I would be subject to frequent bird head landings if I didn't brush my hair more.

But the most interesting thing about that picture, to me, is that my sister, who hated having her photo taken, stood there in peace. She generally would scream and yell and throw herself on the ground and kick and hold her breath and turn red. Sometimes she appeared in pictures that way, in a fury, but often she wasn't in them at all.

Once she said, when we were grown, that she didn't understand why there were so many pictures of our brother and me and so few of her. I looked at Mother for a significant few seconds. Then my mouth flew open. Then we burst out laughing. My sister really didn't remember her ways.

But she obviously was so taken with the wonder of the bird on my head that she stood for the picture and even smiled a little bit.

So, this kind of posting symbiosis happens all the time with Ms. Moon. She says something and I'll remember what happened to me that was just like that. And then somebody else will say something and I'll remember the thing in my life that was just like that too. And off we go.

My realization about that and the community we are forming around the words we write and read and comment on has been growing for a while. But it really didn't register fully until tonight.

Because I think we all are looking for similar things. The thing that makes us stop for a minute and be amazed. And remember the time when, yes, we too hosted birds on our heads, or something like them. Or at least when we got to be there for the wonder of it all.

As I said in the very beginning up top in the title of this blog and have said, not as a command but a gentle invitation since I was 18. Astonish me. And you all do, every single one of you.