Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reflections: re-reading short non-fiction from 2009.

Here is a short piece of non-fiction I wrote for a graduate seminar on creative nonfiction prose. The assignment was to describe conflict in one's life using whatever narrative technique we-- as writers-- desired. For me, conflict is never a linear experience: it is always riddled with twists and turns. Conflict, I have found, always has origins. And so, the following essay was written with that in mind: that nothing progresses from start to finish; that discovery is tinged with memories from our past.

I thought of posting this today because instead of logging more running miles, I instead did 2 hours of spinning intervals because my ankle-- the more "sensitive" one-- is sore again. As I sat on the spinning bike, staring into the placid waters of Tahoe, this essay came to mind. In part, I think, because I am no longer quite the woman who wrote it. I still admire its structure and the way it reveals the final conceit; yet, I don't agree with the conclusion I came to months ago about human nature under duress.

Since I've been able to maintain a semi-consistent amount of miles I see that human nature isn't as dark as I portray it here: it is many things. It is beauty as well as despair. The natural world reflects that, I think. In the forest where I live, I'm often struck by its stark beauty here: the tall trees which offer only glimpses of the sky, the gentle undergrowth that covers a still-dry ground creating an illusion of green, the small oases of water which offer reflections of the trees and sky above. And yet, here too is the domain of bear and bobcat. I saw one, a few days ago, eating a squirrel head-first from my bedroom window. I felt lucky to see the bobcat (an approximately 30-lb feline with stripped ears, a cropped tail and oversized paws) and yet its actions were brutal. It literally tore another animal apart. And so I think that's what I mean: the capacity to love is equally engrained within us as is the ability to hate-- or to feign indifference.

Or, more poignantly, I speak to my sister, finally, who is healthy and happy.

* * *


I live in what I call the periphery, which is a difficult place to be. More precisely, I live in the woods of the Sierra Nevada range, a place of silence and distance standing outside the Bay Area to its West and Reno to the East. At times, the place plays a pantomime of inner-city discordance, particularly during the summer months, but most times Tahoe City is without direction or center, a place so remote that even the wind can’t reach it, instead only brushing against the tree tops as a force to be heard, never felt. It’s odd to find myself here because I grew up in high desert, in a place with low-lying brush spread out over vistas allowing everything to be seen and understood. Or maybe it only seemed so—perhaps the various stages of human existence appear to us as landscape: as children when the world seems simple, we are desert-dwellers, looking out across wide vistas, life spread out as panorama. But adulthood beckons the clouds to obscure the sun’s light and we’re in a mist-covered grove surrounded by tall trees where we can only see a few feet around us and nothing is certain or tangible anymore. Either way, it seems I’ve dwelled in the periphery my entire life and now I’m beginning to wonder what that means.

To think I mount my bike which--on most days--takes me down Highway 89 to its junction with old Highway 40 in Truckee and up and over Donner Summit. I hear the clean click of my cycling shoe as it connects to the pedal and I transform from woman into a carbon-fiber machine made to efficiently cover distance. I lean over the handlebars and settle into a cadence. Each stroke is smooth: a pull up, slide down to a silent beat of 90 revolutions per minute. The forest is summer’s shades of green—aspens and evergreens line the paved path, resembling a highway in miniature.

Summer’s influx of tourists interrupt the silence: ahead, families obstruct the path with a trail of toddlers strung out like beads. Twenty-something couples stroll, arm-around-waist, with candy-colored hair and punctured faces while they pass retirees who totter along on rented bikes, a contraption they last rode--perhaps-- when Nixon held office. The real highway to my right is eternally gridlocked and stands still as the trees while exhaust coming from the idling cars warms the August afternoon air.

I have to pass through town before I can regain the path and do so, navigating through the midst of this sea of human bodies, talking to one another in chatter as loud as car engines. I glide by cars and pedestrians, ever-wary of the opening car door. I turn left at the only light in town, traversing Fanny Bridge to find, at last, the bike path.

The Truckee is polka-dotted with blue and yellow rafts with myriad limbs dangling from them, languidly dipping a finger, a toe or an arm into the shallow water. Empty cans of PBR clink together as the weight in a raft moves from forward to aft. Children laugh as they dawdle in swirling wading pools along the shore and then a definitive splash breaks the scene as a Labrador enters the water in pursuit of a twig thrown by a child wearing an orange life vest, standing waist-deep in the river. I glimpse a scene of two sisters, identical, dowsing one another with river water.

This landscape at once separates and unites me with my past. I have a little sister. When we were young, we acted like sisters do: I’d tickle her on the stomach with the tips of my fingers and she’d squeal and beg me to stop because she had to pee. Later, she’d poke me repeatedly on the shoulder and I’d tell her to knock it the heck off because I was doing homework and she was annoying. Or vice versa. The mundane nature of this memory makes my recalling it remarkable because we aren’t close anymore and we don’t speak. In fact, I can say with all certainly, we rarely think of one another. Plenty of siblings are like that. But it has something to do with peripheries and so, the memory tugs at my sleeve and I let it come to the forefront of my mind.

Even when she was two and I ten, I was in the periphery. Not literally, of course. I sat in the passenger seat and my sister behind me in the car as my mom navigated the highway, taking us to visit my grandmother in Southern California. My mom had tried every avenue but despite it all, the shrill cry began as we entered Inyo County and continued well past Bishop and Lone Pine until my sister could only manage dry gasps of air from her red face, a pitiful echo of her former screams. Food, water, and a walk in my mom’s arms around the shoulder of the highway for fresh air: nothing worked and the screams continued. Back on the road again, I asked:

“What should I do?”

“Just let her cry,” she responded. “You will only make it worse if you try to do anything at all.”

I almost stop pedaling when I wonder if that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.

But I keep on, and with another breath, I return my focus to the microcosm of a highway in front of me. I’d wanted it to be long and lonely, a place to stretch every revolution of the pedal like the footsteps of giants but instead it too, is packed. Packed with yet more families, walking and looking side to side, looking at each other, looking everywhere but where they are going; packed with teenagers hauling rafts onto their glistening wet backs, the girls wearing bikinis seemingly held together by a spider’s filament; packed with wide and long cruiser bikes, moving like long town cars gliding over disruptions in the pavement as though floating. I pass the cruiser bikes on the left, not giving them a glance, scanning the scene ahead of me. But I’m again distracted--my thoughts swirl through my mind as if carried by rapids, pulling me away from the scene before me.

Three years ago on an ordinary day like today, my sister was admitted to a mental hospital for what was later expressed by her as a last-ditch effort for attention which resulted in her consumption of an entire medicine cabinet’s worth of pills. I watched as wrinkles appeared under my mom’s eyes as she’d wring her hands and ask me “why?” Later, I sat in the brown waiting room, alone, until a nurse came and opened a door once visiting hours had arrived. I stood and walked eagerly to see her. But then, I’d find her father already there, sitting on the corner of her bed. I could tell they both had been crying and everything that needed to be said had been long before I’d arrived. I had the impression that I watched everything as though I looked at photographs taken of an event already transpired; I was a stranger not welcomed and certainly not needed.

There is a family on bikes blocking the right lane. The father has silver hair and a slight pouch tucked beneath a white polo shirt and cargo shorts. A toddler sits in a trailer attached to the rear of his bike and a girl who must be about nine or ten years old rides in front of him, her brown hair curling from beneath her pink bike helmet. I pass the man but am forced to tuck behind the girl because another family approaches in the left lane. They are still far ahead but I do not want to alarm the girl and so I decide to lag behind her, dropping my speed. Yet, the other family slows and the adults pass out of sight behind a curve in the road, leaving only a young boy in sight riding in our direction. He is younger than the girl in front of me and shorter—he’s perhaps seven years old—and his bike is bright red to match his helmet. He looks at the girl then me but seems to lose interest and chooses instead to watch the revolution of shadows across the spokes of his front tire. I blink and breathe again and in that finite measure of time, he’s veered into our lane and will collide with the girl and then, me.

I watch the improbable: a sharp snap sounds as the red and pink helmets collide and the rubber front tires of each bike send the girl and boy in opposite directions. I continue to pedal until I realize that I, too, must stop before I add to the pile of bikes and bodies. I tighten my grasp to squeeze the brakes and stop, trying to unclip my feet from the pedals so I can put my bike down, run to the girl and boy and ask them if they are all right. But this does not happen. My feet do not release and I skid to a halt on my right side in the gravel shoulder of the path. I only rest on the ground for an instant before kicking myself free and run, first to the girl, panting and I ask: “Are, you, O.K.?”

Seeing them both lying there, I want to help, to offer what I can. A familiar feeling surfaces, one I haven’t felt in years. MY sister told me the day I visited her in the hospital that they didn’t let her have anything in there—no underwear, no soap, no shampoo. Everyday items were touted as luxuries and the therapists said this was done to give the hopeless suicidal a goal: smile and you get to wash yourself. To me, it had seemed barbaric and so, I came offering to bring her lotion, shampoo and soap, claiming I had extras at my apartment though I really did not. Her room was a beige box with no window and bare walls, with a bed and a door to a private, sterilized white bathroom which all smelled mildly clinical. A desk with the sort of chair you see in waiting rooms sat in the corner opposite where I stood, in the door. She sat at the desk, her father, on the bed and they both looked at me and he said: “She doesn’t need that. You don’t need to bother.” I lingered, listening to them talk but could discern an interval into which I could insert a word. I don’t think they blamed me-- but I stood in my requisite spot, near the margins just above the liminal threshold into the hallway, observing but offering nothing. And so, after my long silence, I turned away, said goodbye and went home.

“Are you O.K?” I repeat to the girl who is now standing, rubbing her knee.

“Yes,” she replies in a steady voice that sounds years older than she looks, “I’m just in shock.”

“And you?” I ask, but the boy stands with tears running down his cheeks, soundless. I look to the right and the left, and see the approaching father on one side and a mother on the other. I remain as I said I would. I continue to ask, “Are you O.K.? Are you O.K.?” though I don’t know why, and the refrain repeats until the father arrives. He stands, rests his bike against a pine tree, and runs to where we all, by now, are standing. He kicks my fallen bike and pushes past me to his daughter, who tells him, “I am fine.”

The boy’s mother arrives and he stops crying. I glean, listening to their conversations, no one is bleeding, nothing is broken and all is well. I stand at the circumference of this human circle, these two families who now laugh at one another, at their alarm, faded. The boy has removed his helmet and the girl’s father ruffles his hair. No one acknowledges me, standing there, on the bike path.

And here, I realize the periphery is painful. It’s now, standing outside yet again, that I truly know what it feels like to be a passive observer-- it’s a version of powerlessness where you can watch, think and later recount what happened and yet, offer nothing despite needing to. It’s inhuman, this periphery, this space beyond human contact, where any spoken word or action is futile. And so, I back away, pick up my bike and ride on. I continue but on the road this time, my breath not coming smoothly but insistently. I do not check my speed nor do I hear the cars as they pass by me in the margins of the real highway. A long time passes before I am aware of a clicking sound which comes from the rear derailleur and a moist feeling on my right elbow and knee. I stop and realize that I am bleeding. The cars stir up a dusty wind as they breeze by, the dust stinging my eyes and skin. I turn then, hoping to make it back home with my crippled bike and my shoulder which has only now started to ache.

I wind my way back the way I came—a distance I could normally cover in thirty minutes but that seems to take the entire afternoon, perhaps days. My breath is ragged now—not from exertion, but the curious sensation I have that I am on the verge of hard crying. I make it as far as the harbor where my boyfriend works and he seems startled to see me. I can only manage: “I was in a sort of accident…on the path.” Steve steadies me and takes me to the break room where we pull gravel from my elbow and knee, opening the makeshift bloody beads that have formed on my skin. My bike is equally injured: we discover that the derailleur is shot and he walks me to his truck. He says he’ll drive me home. I insist I could walk but I’m sitting on the gray passenger seat before my mind can sort out how I got there.

And it’s in this blur of a summer afternoon that passes in the passenger window that I realize life would be much easier if I knew that man on the bike path hated me, or if there was a moment I could identify when my sister hated me, all those years ago. Hate, at least, requires attachment and the acknowledgement that the aversion one feels is certainly not love. Hate, in other words, is feeling. But indifference is a void, a vacuum into which one pours light, words and interaction that all, equally, sink into nothingness. I think back on those two children on the bike path—it was not the accident which left me so shaken. The image that kept returning to my mind was my bike lying on its side as the man’s foot collided with it. I know the feeling well: it is the coldness of a pine tree’s shadow when the only warmth the mountain feels is from the sun.

At home deep in a grove of pines, I know I could call my sister and see how she is. But, the image returns again and this time I flinch as though the man had kicked me and not my bike and then it seems as though there has not been a single noble person in the entire human race. If pushed far enough into this shadow land of peripheries, the outcast turned out will turn inward and become a coward, donning a mask of indifference to guard the fixed expression of fear and pain. And then, I’m ashamed to find that I am this, too. Despite objections to myself, do not pick up the phone and dial her number, but instead sit on the porch on the forest’s edge and listen to the silence of echoing human voices as I tell myself to close my eyes and sleep.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

Oh, I'm glad you decided to include this story on your site. I think it was your best one of the semester!