Monday, February 28, 2011

The Shadow Curriculum

Ladies and gents...for lack of time this last week and to avoid A's threats have a look-see at a personal essay.  Keep in mind this is a rough draft but it's going to be entered into the Eugene England Memorial Essay contest.  We'll see how things go...

The carpet is hard and my face is hot and I lick my lips, searching for the salty tears.  My back hurts and my hands hurt and my heart hurts and my fingers are stiff and callused and bleeding.  I turn my head, lashes brushing the nap in the rug; seeing stars and bright lights.  My eyes hurt too.  I close them but it doesn’t stop the dampness. 

My gusts of tired, wet breath ruffle the unbound pages that cover the floor near where I lie:  two hundred and twenty six poems:  Keats and Shelley and Neruda and Frost and Pearson and Bird; Stevenson and Shakespeare and both the Brownings.  Two hundred and twenty six poems in my petite print:  two hundred and twenty six poems; eighty seven ink illustrations; seventy eight pages; gold leaf and leather and coffee dye and silk thread and seventy hours.  Oh, you faithful monks.  How could you?  All your life?  But how could you not?  My breathing calms and yoga kicks in and I roll over and curl into Child’s Pose, my sticky face pressed to the ground next to my knees.  And I whisper a poem.  Number two hundred and twenty seven.  The last poem. 
“…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”  (Wordsworth)
I laugh into the wheaten carpet.

                The first thing I can remember is a yellow plastic running stroller and the old cemetery.  I was three and thought the crypts on the hill were a prison.  I made unconcerned uh-uh-uh-uh-uh noises under my breath until Mom told me to cut it out.  My red-headed Sister was there too.  She was asleep.  I remember the smell of Mom’s sweat and the soothing thrum of her long-running feet.  She was happy.  I was happy.  My Sister was asleep.  I looked out at everything; I hummed to myself.  That’s where it began:  when we were “…happy as the grass was green.” (Thomas)

                After that, I remember fifteen miles of plateau top trail and a yucca-pricked wrist and running most of the way.  I remember the rim of the cliff I stood upon, firm in the knowledge that I was brave and strong.  I was capable of anything.  I remember the marks of the places where the clear rain water falls and the land rising and the smell of rust.  Mom was proud and I looked at my Sister.  I was six.  She was four. 
“I was pirouette and flourish
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
When I didn’t know their names?” (Dove)
I carried four round pebbles in my pocket and I prayed:  “I thank thee, Father, for this day.”  And from then on, I meant it.

The next thing I remember is running wild rare down a red, red road by the red, red rock in my bare, brown Indian feet.  My breath came quick and my legs came quicker.  I was nine and the moon looked down and there was Mom and Aunt and Sister and Cousin and Me and we walked in the desert with the scorpion glow and we “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” (Whitman) The Three Sisters told us their legend of devotion; a story of corn and squash and beans.  They told us to “Sit.  Feast on your life.”  (Walcott)  That’s when I first thought:  “what is school to this?” and I scuffed my feet in the sand.

                I remember when I was twelve there was a storm, the biggest in a decade.  It tore up the pavement and flooded
Main Street
and washed small children down hills in the gutter.  I know because I tried it.  I felt the clouds coming.  I smelled the rain.  We ran out to meet it:  Mom and Sister and Dad and Brothers and I.  “’ I am cherry alive,’ the little girl sang,/ “Each morning I am something new:/ I am apple.  I am plum.” (Schwartz)  The world shook and we drank the rain.  I knew.  I knew.  I knew.

                At fifteen the quiet stole further in.  I remember the thump and roll and puffs of flour.  That flour; “…the flour on her fingers/ Was the sun and the rain/ And the earth.”  (Pearson)  I was full of books.  I held them in my hands and heard:  Mom making bread, Brothers in the yard, Cat at the window, and I read:  “I’m homeschooling again…math, English, etc…But I have other courses too.  Unofficial ones.  Like Principles of Swooning.  Life Under Rocks.  Beginner’s Whistling.  Elves.  We call it our shadow curriculum.” (Spinelli)  I read “…directions/ in the faces of poetry and fire.”  (Adonis)

                When eighteen came Mom and Sister and I walked in the night with twenty other girls.  We walked to a lonely hilltop, bereft of trees or roads.  The girls grumbled,
“But my mother insisted
on digging the earth
scratching with her fingers
believing water will appear.” (Shafiq) 
I had let my sorrow creep in.  I was afraid.  But we came and lay in the silent dirt and our own shamed thoughts fell away.  Hello, world.  Twenty three lay beneath the firmament and sang: 
“For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love, which from our birth
over and around us lies.”  (Hymn) 
The Pleiades and Orion’s Belt and Polaris and the two Ursas gleamed for us.  On the way back I led out and sang again:  surefooted, no light but the welcoming stars.

                After that I remember dusty legs and lavender oil on my shoulders.  Sister and I had run down half that mountain to the fire road and clambered onto the roof of the family car to wait for the rest to run out of the dusk.  We sat staring at the river of lights and the deepness beyond.  We sat, certain there’s “one who remembers the color of anyone’s eyes.” (Gurpinar)  We listened to the crickets making the music Youngest Brother once thought belonged to the stars. 
“We’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
than books
might mean)
we’re everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful times one.” (Cummings)
I was twenty one.

It is quiet again in my Child’s Pose.  The pages no longer move.  I tremble.  See into the life of things.  Groaning, I shakily rise up again.  One more poem.  Just one.  My tender hands scribe once more.  See into the life of things.  I know “the noun for standing in the mist by a haunted tree” and “the verb for I.” (Merwin) With a loop and a dot, there it is.

Finally finished, I slowly gather those pages, gently nest them back into their signatures:  three by three.  Tomorrow they will be sewn together and dressed in their finest clothes.  I lay back again, clutching them to me.  See into the life of things.  I made this book with my own two hands.  No, that’s not right.  It made me.  I merely gave it a body:  mine.  Two hundred and twenty seven poems.
“The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.” (Stevens)

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Very well done.
    I tend to like people who use words as playthings. I enjoyed pretty much every line of this.