A Heart the Size of Your Fist

Excerpt from Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie
Workplay Publishing, 2018
pp. 174-175

 

I knew that letters were going to come but wasn’t prepared for what happened when I found one lying in my campus mail box. I flashed hot, then cold, then nauseous, and I had to go somewhere to read it—somewhere that is not home. No one must look at me.

Across campus on the other side of the railroad tracks that run behind the theatre, there is a tree I sometimes climbed. It’s a scruffy old pine with branches that are naked near the trunk—a hiding place I discovered last spring before I met Tom, when the guy I’d been in love with all year started going out with somebody who wasn’t me.

I rode my bike to my tree with the letter in my pocket and climbed up to the seat where I mourned that other heartbreak.

Don’t cry. Whatever you do, don’t cry.

I didn’t want to go home with red eyes and snot on my shirt.

Don’t cry.

The problem wasn’t my housemates. It was Tom I was hiding from. Obviously, at our house you could cry if you wanted and you didn’t owe anybody an explanation. But Tom would expect one. One I didn’t have. When he said he loved me, I said it back. And I meant it. I did.

 

I didn’t cry.

I read the letter, and read the letter, and read the letter. I held it to my face. I pressed it to my arms, to my cheek, to my heart. All I could do was think about breathing. All he asked was for me to come back, but I couldn’t move from that tree.

 

Can you love two people? If you love two people, is one fake and one real? Which one? Or are they both lies?

Can you fracture into a thousand pieces on the inside, and outside no one will know? Can you die and still appear alive? Can you live without understanding anything?

What is happening to me? Why can I not let go? Why does it matter more than air? How will I live my life?

Can you ever be alright again, ever, after you are absolutely broken? How can so much pain fit into a heart the size of your fist?

 

It was like the day in Los Rios that I reached from the shower for my towel and was stung on my pinky finger by the scorpion hiding there. I stared in dumb disbelief at my hand, as a blinding pain surged through my tiny finger and exploded into the entire room. It charged the air around my body like electric and shook the walls of concrete. All the while, my smallest finger looked exactly the same.

Un Corazón del Tamaño del Puño

Extraco de Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie
Workplay Publishing, 2018
pp. 174-175

 

Yo sabía que las cartas iban a llegar, pero no estaba preparada para lo que sucedió cuando encontré la primera en mi buzón en el campus universitario. Sentí calor, luego frío, luego náuseas, y tenía que ir a algún lugar para leerla, algún lugar que no fuera mi casa. Nadie debía mirarme.

Al otro lado de la universidad, al otro lado de las vías del ferrocarril que corren detrás del teatro, hay un árbol que yo a veces subía. Es un pino viejo desaliñado con ramas desnudas cerca del tronco, un escondite que descubrí la primavera pasada antes de conocer a Tom, cuando el muchacho del que yo estaba enamoradísima comenzó a salir con alguien que no era yo.

Me fui en la bicicleta hasta aquel árbol con la carta en el bolsillo, y subí al asiento donde lloré esa otra angustia.

No llorar, me dije. Pase lo que pase, no llorar.

Yo no quería ir a casa con los ojos rojos y mocos en la camisa.

No llorar.

El problema no eran mis compañeras de casa. Me estaba escondiendo de mi novio Tom. Obviamente en la casa donde vivía con las chicas, podrías llorar si querías sin deberle una explicación a nadie. Pero Tom me pediría una explicación. Uno que no tenía. Cuando Tom me decía que me amaba, se lo decía también yo. Y lo decía en serio. Era la verdad.

 

No lloré.

Leí la carta, y leí la carta, y leí la carta. Me la apreté a la cara. La presioné contra mis brazos, contra mi mejilla, contra mi corazón. Lo único que yo podía hacer era concentrarme en respirar. Lo único que pidió él que me había escrito la carta era de volver, pero no podía moverme del árbol.

 

¿Puedes amar a dos personas? Si amas a dos personas, ¿uno es falso y el otro es verdadero? ¿Cuál es cuál? ¿O son ambas mentiras?

¿Puedes fracturarte en mil pedazos por dentro sin que nadie lo nota por fuera? ¿Puedes morir y seguir vivo? ¿Puedes vivir sin entender nada?

¿Qué me está pasando? ¿Por qué no puedo dejarlo ir? ¿Por qué importa más que el aire? ¿Cómo viviré mi vida?

¿Es posible volver estar entero después de que estés completamente roto? ¿Cómo puede caber tanto dolor dentro de un corazón del tamaño del puño?

 

Era como el día en Los Ríos cuando, después de bañarme, tomé mi toalla y  un escorpión allí escondido me picó en el dedo meñique. Me quedé estupefacta mirando la mano, mientras un dolor cegador surgió a través de mi dedo meñique y explotó en toda la habitación. El dolor era tan grande que cargó el aire alrededor de mi cuerpo con electricidad y sacudió las paredes de concreto. Pero todo el tiempo, mi dedo meñique se veía exactamente igual.

 

How to Be Okay When You’re Not

I thought you might like a suggestion about how to be okay when you’re not. Because it happens to all of us and it’s good to have a plan.

This is mine:

I go to the beach.  Of course.  Because I can.  But you don’t need a beach to do this.  I sit in the sand and curl up into a little ball, like a seated fetal position. That’s the position I take when I’m really bad. When I’m kind of okay, I might sit cross legged. If I’m good, just feel like I need a huddle with all of my selves, I might sort of lie back on my elbows. It doesn’t matter.

I reach my finger out and trace a circle around me–all the way around–in the sand. It could be a big circle or a little circle—it doesn’t matter. The less okay I am, the smaller I make the circle, like a tighter hug.

I don’t know where I got this from, but it’s been with me for a long time, and I am pretty sure I didn’t make it up. If I did, it’s one of those things that can’t I be the first one to have invented.

This is how to be okay whether or not you are.

The important thing is to close the circle. You may not believe this until you try it, but you can feel the circle close. Something happens. I swear. No, I am not insane. Try it. If you can’t get to the beach, sit on your living room floor and draw an invisible circle. Sit in the driveway and draw a circle with chalk. You’ll see what I mean.

I tell myself that everything that is me is inside the circle. Definitions are important when you’re not okay. Basic definitions. Inside the circle: Diana. Outside the circle: not-Diana. Having something you can be completely sure of is a fabulous place to start when you’re not really okay. And it rocks when you are.

I tell myself that inside the circle, everything is alright. There is enough air. The sand is holding me up. Nothing hurts. My heart is beating just the way it’s supposed to. My lungs are doing a great job of breathing. Everything essential is just fine. I tell myself everything I absolutely need is inside the circle with me. Intestines, for example.

And everything/everybody that is not-me must stay out while the circle is closed. When I’m especially not-okay, I write things in the sand outside the circle. The first letters of names, usually. People, living or not, who, no matter how much I love them, are not me. Only I am allowed inside the circle. I have to be in here alone to be okay, and you have to stay out. Sometimes I review a list of things and people who are not me, mentally telling them they have to stay out right now, setting them on the other side of the line.

It becomes easier and easier to breathe.

I explain to myself that inside the circle, everything is alright. Nothing is missing. Here are my two hands, each with 10 fingers. I have plenty of teeth and enough hair. My legs take me everywhere I need to go. If I am hungry, it is by choice.  Outside the circle, everything can be as wrong as it is, but inside the circle, everything is accounted for, working, in place. It is the only spot in the universe where everything is alright.

I just sit there. Sometimes I close my eyes. Sometimes, if I’m not having a good day, I might cry a little. I don’t usually, but it’s not impossible. So if you walk by on the beach and happen to see me, don’t worry. It’s just salt water. And don’t talk to me. I can’t talk when I’m in the circle. I mean, I don’t want to. That’s not generally a problem either because I think there’s something about the circle that makes you invisible to most people. I’m not kidding. You’ll see what I mean when you try it.

Then when I feel a little better–or the tide is coming in, or my back starts to hurt, or the mosquitoes are biting me, or I can tell I’ve had enough sun, or I’m thinking about how my cats are hungry—I reach out with my hands and open the circle. I make a door in it.

And the rest of the world comes rushing in. But it’s alright. Because on some very basic level, I have remembered that I am still here and there are at least some ways in which I am okay. And that, as I said, is a fabulous place to start.

Try it. It works.

Watch the Horizon (A Picture of Time)

I go out surfing in the morning. The ocean is warm and crystal clear–so clear I can see the ripples in the sand two or three meters below my feet as I sit on my board. Waiting. All I do is wait. I wait and wait and wait. I had no idea you could wait so long and still have so much time left. To wait.

The sun climbs. Sets of waves come. When I’m surfing I’m thinking about surfing. That’s all. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color that means the next set it coming. No more, no less. Most of surfing is waiting. For waves. For the right wave. For the right moment to paddle and stand. At least when I’m surfing, I know what I’m waiting for. Maybe that’s why it’s so much of a relief. Sometimes I surf well, sometimes I don’t. Sooner or later I’m thinking about breakfast.

I ride back to the shore and lay on the sand. Above me in the blue are clouds. I think about water. So much water. In me, around me, above me. I think about Pio and how he filled up with water. I think about how ashes are what’s left of a person when all of the water is gone. I wish it would rain on me right now and the water would be him. The same molecules. I supposed it’s not impossible.

Everything aches. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

Eight months have gone by. Compared to the whole rest of my life, it’s nothing. It’s already been an eternity. I wait and wait and wait. As if, if I wait long enough… What? He will come back? I don’t think so. He’ll send me some kind of sign? For what? I’ll die too? Well there’s hardly any debating that. But is that what I’m waiting for? I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out what I’m waiting for. It’s taking such a long time.

I look at pictures of us and we have the same eyes. We have the same hair. I look at us and now I see why some said we looked like siblings. At the hospital in the last days, Pio’s roommate thought he was my father.

Time is not obeying the rules. Or maybe I’m finally learning to understand it. It doesn’t just go, it stands still, thick as giant waves of salt water. A friend tells me I seem to be moving forward. I say I don’t know about that, but thanks. I say thanks because I can tell it was a compliment. I don’t want to move forward. I want to move backward and I can’t. I don’t want to do anything. So I wait. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m moving any direction. It’s the same day over and over and over. I wait for a different day, but every day when I wake up, it’s the same one. So I wait.

Waiting is hard work. When you don’t know how long you will have to do it. How hard it will rain, how much the wind will blow. When you don’t know what you are waiting for. But it’s the only thing that seems possible, so you do it.

I don’t know what “grief” means, how it’s different than just being sad. What it looks like. How you do it. I don’t know what “healing” means either, how it’s different than “feeling better.” I don’t want to feel better. Except when I’m surfing. It doesn’t go away, but you learn to live with it, another friend says. Wise words. I don’t want it to go away. I want to live with it. If my sadness goes away from me, there will be nothing left of me. I will be water vapor like Pio. Clouds and ashes.

I sleep deeply. On cool or rainy nights, the cats cry to be let under the mosquito net with me. We have the whole bed. I eat. Don’t worry about that. Then the morning comes and it’s the same day again. I don’t mean to say that I am bored or depressed. I don’t think I am either one. I’m drawing you a picture of time. Eight months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. It’s the same as 10 years. Is ten years a long time? Not really. Eight months is much longer. There’s no use asking how long I have to wait. Waiting is just waiting. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color.

    Pio and a friend waiting for waves on a flat day in 2009.

Tree Poem Week– #1: El Mango

If you’re not familiar with the trees of the tropical dry forest, let me introduce you to some of my friends.

Company of Mangos

I cannot live one more day without
the company of mango trees.
How am I supposed to breathe
without their green certainty
exhaled into the world?
There is no other way
to survive.
Who else will hear my prayers and
whisper them to heaven?
Their roots pushing down
show me where to
put my feet.
Their parakeets remind me when to
stop sleeping.

50 Different Words for Children

Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?

Cheers!

. . . . .

The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.

I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it.  Heads or tails.

But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do.  Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.

So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.

I need one.

You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)

The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.

I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.

Fail.

I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.

I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.

Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will.  I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.

When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother.  I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.

And, dear English Language, please evolve.

 

italia