There Is No Why

© 2012 Whitney Reed

© 2012 Whitney Reed

Saturday morning, I made a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits with my own six-year-old. Just the two of us. She sang in her room just beyond the kitchen as I cried into the bowl of broken egg guts and cursed the bits of shell that fell in. I believe everybody was hit more than once, the words of the Chief Medical Examiner have been ringing in my ears. And because I can’t encounter any piece of news without taking it on myself, injecting it into my own heart, I could only imagine her little overalls, her hands, her sweet brave forehead, her perched on a bathroom sink by a teacher who barricaded her class into the bathroom while gunshots fired in the next room, across the hall, who knows where.

I’ve been so overcome, I took her to the aquarium today. Because, really, there’s nothing more peaceful than an aquarium. It’s otherworldly. Creatures floating in water all around, and people, swarms of people, sharing moments of laughter and wonder behind a sheet of glass. It was raining when we left. Who would know? On the way home, Ruthie asked me, “What’s it like to be a grown-up?” And I thought, THIS. This is what it’s like to be a grown up. It has something to do with knowledge, and loss, and love, and what to do with all of that, but I didn’t tell her this of course. I told her it meant you could eat ice cream for breakfast if you wanted to.

I remember when Ruthie was first born, our first outing. She was maybe 3 weeks old. I don’t know, maybe a month. I can’t even remember where we went, but there were other babies there with their own mothers, some of them crying. And I remember I could feel their cries in my gut. I physically reacted to them–looking to my own Ruthie’s peaceful face with panicked confusion. But you don’t LOOK like you’re crying. And this is what I feel like we are all doing about Newtown–we are owning their pain, their loss, because it feels like it is OUR loss. And it is unimaginable. That is one of the most painful, most beautiful things about us humans: It’s primal, our connection to one another.

We can talk about gun control, we can talk about how we should provide more resources to the mentally ill, how we should call our representatives, and how we should pray more. And, you know, I’m not saying those things aren’t important. But the truth is that bad things happen for no good reason. All of these articles about the shooter and his mother… and WHY. We’re all asking why. Why are we asking why? Because if we can understand it, then maybe we can control it. And, sure, there are things we could do, measures we could take, but the truth is that bad things do happen for no good reason. And this is what makes us hug our babies tighter and kiss their hairlines, breathing deep, thankful and sad at the same time.

I was a teacher for seven years and I can’t imagine what I would say to my students tomorrow morning if I had to face them. I’ve been a mother for just as long and, thankfully, I haven’t had to talk about it to my own little girl. It’s been a silent, very grown up kind of suffering these past few days. But if I had to explain it to anyone, I’d fall back on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, which is really a good policy in any given situation, because I like his focus. He says:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Holding someone’s hand is always a great place to start. Or tell the people you love that you love them. Sing the hero’s song. Cry a little. Send love. Good, human, hearty love. Pay attention to all the awesome shit that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe turn your phone off and admire the tower your six-year-old made out of 52 Jenga blocks straight up. Shore those fragments against the ruin, T.S. Eliot style. Or maybe just wash her favorite pair of overalls every night this week so she can wear them every day. I know in this house, we’ll be eating ice cream for breakfast tomorrow morning. With fruit, of course. It’ll be a few more days before I can bear another broken egg.

Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do

I am right smack in the middle of my thirtieth year. Which is to say I’m 29. Which is to say my legs look different, somehow, around the knees. Which is to say I paint my nails bold colors and wear sensible shoes. Which is to say I’ve made some decisions.

I began teaching when I was 22. I was pregnant. I needed a job. My husband at the time was cutting grass. We needed health insurance that would not consider pregnancy a “pre-existing condition.” I was an emergency hire and thankful.

Cut to eight years later. I’ve been writing off and on throughout my teaching career. What brought me to teaching was the writing, the stories, the humanity. I am no hero–I’ve never had any grand notions of sacrificing myself for students who need saving. And yet. There are times when what we do within these four cinder-block walls drives a child to put words on a page that move me to tears. Visceral. Language you can smell, language you can walk around inside of.

I’ve always been driven by story. Always. When I was a little girl, I lived in my grandmother’s stories. She told beautiful stories about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, born so small you could put a tea cup over their heads, slept side-by-side with a heated brick between them, tucked into my great-grandmother’s dresser drawer in the dead of a Tennessee winter. I listened to sermons for the stories that started them. I watched my father tell stories with his hands, loud-laughing at his own words to patients, to relatives, to the dinner table, who laughed along with him. My whole life.

In many ways, quitting teaching and starting a whole new career feels a lot like getting divorced. It’s a loss, but there’s a sense of rightness about it. There’s things I’ll miss, sure. My colleagues, my students, people. I’ll miss the people. It’s hard to miss any institution.

There was this moment. Right after my ex-husband moved out. When I found myself at home alone on, say, a Tuesday. And it was so peaceful. I vacuumed. The sun was pouring through the leaves beyond my windows. Choices: a cup of coffee, a load of laundry, a phone call.

In moments like this, I can do with my life what writers do with words to a page: world building, shaping a story, making & learning characters. In order to do this, you have to know what you want. It should come as no surprise that what I want is a life full of people and stories. All kinds of people. All kinds of stories. I want a life full.

Already I’ve been surprised by the places we’ve found stories in our new work. There’s so much beauty in people. In truth. I’ve fallen in love with everything local. I’ve fallen in love with hands that make things, with people who stop living one dream to pursue another, truer one. My favorite stories are the ones where people become successful doing something you never dreamed a person could be successful at. The videos we’ve made in my new life’s work, Room Eleven Media, tell these kinds of stories.

This, my thirtieth year, is the year of jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down. It’s a year of risk, a year of choice.

I have ten weeks left of teaching. A balancing act. I’m finding myself loving my students so much. I’m loving my colleagues for the coffee mugs they drink from, for their words of encouragement, for their voices coming through my wall, “You can do this. You can. Try. Come on.”

Quiet Teeth

© 2011 David Parker

I discovered my own teeth in my mother’s jewelry box when I was seven. I kept it a secret, not wanting to ask why she had them because I didn’t want to hear her speak the words to me: I am the Tooth Fairy. As if words make things true.

I remember visiting my dad’s dental office in the weeks that followed–my brother and I would run through the hall donning face masks, popping gloves at each other. In the lab there was a wall full of tiny drawers that held hundreds of mouths cast in white and yellow. Impressions. So many teeth. And it seemed almost impossible that the world could contain all of the teeth that had ever fallen out to make room for the teeth living in peoples’ mouths. I could think only of my own quiet teeth tucked away in a drawer among my mother’s large and loudly colored earrings of the early nineties. Standing before that wall of teeth, I was overwhelmed by how many trips the tooth fairy didn’t make.

Curious, though, is that I don’t have a single memory attached to losing any teeth. I can remember the way they felt against my tongue when they were loose, I can remember the holes they left behind, but I cannot remember losing a tooth. I know the Tooth Fairy visited me, but I can’t pin down a specific memory of it. So the Tooth Fairy didn’t become important to me, really, until it became an un-truth.

I don’t know if it began the day I made that discovery in my mother’s jewelry box, or maybe I discovered the teeth because of something inside of me, but it is true that for a long time, I’ve been looking everywhere–sifting through my sent mail, digging in the glove compartment, checking my coat pockets, opening drawers long-closed, picking up water glasses and searching through them from the bottom. Where is the un-truth? Or, when did what was true–so true–become un-true?

Last night, Ruthie lost her tooth at dinner and ate it. So we drew the Tooth Fairy a map of where in her belly it might be, and, after she’d fallen asleep, I stepped inside this un-truth as I deposited two dollars under her pillow. She was disappointed the fairy got away without leaving a trail of fairy dust behind. I was relieved that there were no teeth to hide.

The Amber Moment

© 2011 David Parker

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” [Kurt Vonnegut]

I’ve discovered that I am most present with what is not here. I am the kind of person who longs for. Who savors. Who stockpiles hotel keys, t-shirts left behind. Who, as a child, licked the bowl, the spoon, the bottom of the just-cooled skillet my grandmother used to make her chocolate icing. Who saves letters not for the words they contain but for the handwriting, for the hands that brushed the page.

I linger. I want everything, but especially this, to last. Preservation, proof, posterity: these are the things I write for.

I spent my teenage years and my early twenties fascinated by home videos and pictures of myself as a child. I seemed so quiet and so calm–not words I’d use to describe myself now. My favorite album was the one that contained images from the first weeks of my life–Mom in the hospital bed holding me with (strangely) a clown behind her, Dad with his socks pulled up balancing me on one arm (I was so small my head fit into the palm of his hand and he’d hold me out like you might hold a crystal ball), my granddaddy so young his hair was dark. Ruthie, too, is captivated by the video of her first days. We’re enthralled, I think, by the love we see our baby-selves receive. Now that I’m a parent, I know that as we grow, that love doesn’t diminish, but it does become less apparent as we become less dependent. And so maybe, what drives us back to those first days is a longing for something we’re not so sure about, a longing for what we miss.

Every time Ruthie leaves for the weekend, she comes home someone else. More precocious, taller with hair on her legs, smelling like grass and dirt, saying things like “Let’s just not talk about that” when we begin to disagree. She disagrees. Unafraid of worms, lizards, frogs, she fears apocalyptic things like earthquakes, floods, jellyfish in the bathtub. She tells secrets, has secrets, makes up stories for the books she can’t read yet. And every night I regret the words I failed to put on the page to preserve the person she was today, the questions she asked: Are we human?

And in 20 years, in a month, five days, tomorrow, I will miss this. Through my doorway, Ruthie strolls past eating cheese with her stuffed elephant. Lately, she has decided that it’s best to fall asleep holding hands with me. On the way to the grocery store the other day, she said she wished there was no gravity so we could float everywhere. I said I felt like floating takes too long–sometimes I want to go FAST. She thought for a moment and then decided, “Okay. I wish for gravity. But I also wish for wings.” And it occurred to me that wings are kind of a celebration of gravity–without gravity, flying isn’t special. The past and the present, living and writing, have the same kind of relationship to me–the one celebrating the other.

Spinning Yarn

© 2011 David Parker

Last night I had a dream that I was a ball of yarn spun out, connecting bright spots shining in a kind of tangled web. Until all that was left was me holding one end of the string. And you holding the other all wrapped up like prey. And between us all of the projects and dreams and people that were too shiny to say no to, that I loved too fiercely not to wrap myself up in. And all I did in this dream was stand there looking out across this messy shaking constellation with each point writhing, caught up like little cocoons, little coffins, suspended from me.

With this dream, the residual feeling was weakness. And tenacity. As the ball of yarn spent itself, I could feel the energy leaving, but I dared not let my end go because I knew it was all I had left. In the dream, I would die for letting go. So I just… held on. All of my focus directed to the point where my thumb and index finger pushed against each other to keep that string.

And I woke up today with a resolution to take myself back, gather myself up. It’s a slow process that begins with raw sugar in my coffee. I’ll unbind all of us–me and you and everything else–set us all spinning like slow-motion tops. Time feels thick, but I can re-wind this ball of yarn until it feels dense enough for me to fit into the palm of my hand, to toss into the air. By this afternoon, we’ll all be breathing better.