But as challenges go, it was relatively okay for the first chapter. A lot of work, yes. Lots of stitching together, inserting, deleting, writing new material, actually getting clearer on memories of the time that I’d forgotten and writing those in, shifting focus, bringing in more background. It took a lot of time and energy but it was fairly pleasant.
Then I got to Chapter Two, and that was more like…well, a clusterfuck.
We go back to the outdoor school for dinner, then they drive us all to the beach for the evening. I hang out on a towel on the sand and watch a fiery, cloud-filled sunset with Jen and Christina, two writers who live in a dorm by the Lit House. The Lit House is a special building on campus for all the English majors to have meetings, workshops and readings. Most of our Sophie Kerr weekend events took place there.
“Are either of you taking the freshman creative writing class?” I ask.
“I am,“ says Christina. She has long straight dark blond hair, and wears a beanie. She’s small, one of those small people like my mother who carries a big voice.
“Cool,” I say, flexing my toes and watching a cloud fill with red like a pen burst inside it. “Me too.”
I am obsessed with the sea. This river isn’t that, but it stretches out for eons. I gaze at the horizon, misty and distant. My parents grew up in Connecticut and I was born in a small town right outside of New Haven, only a five-minute drive from the shore. Long Island Sound, I think, shaped me more than I can remember. I have vague blurry childhood pictures of being at the beach when I was little, walking down a woodsy road with a yellow line in the middle and thick trees on the sides, until we reach a little wooden shack with stalls where we could change. In other still photos I see Mom showing me how to listen for the ocean in a conch shell, talking about seahorses during a sunset, walking along the shore combing for smooth rocks, shells or colored glass. My life was colored with the scent of saltwater until just before I turned six.
We were eating McDonald’s food for lunch the day Dad told us he got transferred. I still remember the taste of the salty fries in my five-year-old mouth after he told me and Randy, we’re moving. I didn’t think I much cared. We traveled often enough, all over New England, to Santa’s Village in New Hampshire and other amusement parks in Massachusetts and Vermont. My dad used to be a policeman, and oftentimes he had to work nights, but it seemed like we always had time for vacations. Then Dad decided to join the FBI and had to go to a place called Quantico for sixteen whole weeks. That McDonald’s lunch—a special treat reserved for special occasions—was so soon after his return. We moved to Buffalo at the end of that January, while Mom was newly pregnant with June.
And it’s true what they say sometimes in books and movies and in that old song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” done originally by Joni Mitchell, you really don’t know what you’ve got until after it’s gone. There is no way to calculate how much something means to you, especially when it’s something you always see, something you live with every day, like a nearby ocean and a nearby Nana. Those things creep up on you, so invisible and insidious until they’re a part of you that you can’t live without.
So, for whatever reason, I’ve been feeling like putting some of my writing up, so here is a poem I wrote a few years ago, followed by the story of how it came to be.
I Am Not Your Touch Tank Sea Star
When I’m a sea star
I hold the sea’s mystery in my purple
Yet I live at the tips of my spines
Erected like walls to protect
My soft center from being hurt or feeling
The hurt I’ve already been.
As I scavenge along the bottom
For bull kelp and sea lettuce
I cling to any steady surface
With tube feel like a miser who knows
I don’t deserve the water
And I don’t let anyone touch me
Sometimes I’m a sea cucumber
Spikes only ward my demons off for show
I let them go tender
And as I lay exposed
My past creeps up behind me
Slithering inside my open sores
Carrying their torches of truth
I feel them settle in my gut
So I twist it around them, bunch it up
With a hurl I eviscerate my organs
And scramble to grow new insides
Once I was an octopus
Used eight arms to lift the top of the holding tank
Squeezed out, dropped to the floor and crawled
Through the crack under the door
Famished on the sand, inching forward
Telling myself I will not let them
Make me let myself die
If I can give me a little slack and a lot of love
I might make it
Back to the deeper seas I knew before captivity
Where they can’t coax me back
To put me in the big tank, captive
For their audience
I am free
On a blue moon I’m a blue dolphin
On waves with deeper frequency
Intelligence unfocused on rational thought
Feel no shame for stranding myself
To help a member of my pod in need
Sensed out with echolocation
Weathered harsh, howling storms
By surrendering to their windblown frenzy
I know the patterns of Earth’s turning
I have been to blue depths
Today I just want to be