To move between the domestic and the otherworldly need not be some hero’s leap across some chasm, triumphant. We drifted back and forth, more gaze than choice. In this way, our tears translated to the pools of mermaid songs at bath time. Come, littles. Now the scalp, now the towels at our tails. Daylight done, lights out, out! The mystery had to do with its return in the morning, and we whispered, Tomorrow. Of the light and the pinecones, rabbits, and blue jays. They would. We would be there. We hoped tomorrow to put acorns in a pile, that the squirrels would see them and approve. That they would see us and know. We called our good nights to the moon. It was changing and we meant to see how. It pulled our gaze like tides, and we were out again.
A diptych of amusement park memories and plutonium.
This morning over coffee, I came across a mention that on this day in 1926, the Tilt-a-Whirl trademark was registered. This was my favorite ride, and I like to be exact about these sorts of things, so I did a quick search to verify, and learned that also on this day (in 1940), scientists at UC Berkley discovered plutonium.
I did not discover the Tilt-a-Whirl until I was about nine or ten. Before then, there were other favorites, and they were never the roller coasters, which induced a terror that seemed a bit too true-to-life. The Spider was among these. It had eight arms extending from a segmented hub, a spinning pod at the end of each arm. I sat in a pod and when the ride began, it spun while the arm moved up and down in its rotation. It was an enjoyable spin, dreamy and relaxing, inducing bubbly rushes on the faster parts, but rarely terror.
My first time on The Spider was during an annual family trip to Playland, and my father was waiting just beyond the gate. My mother had taken my younger sisters to Kiddie Land. The year before, we had all gone together on the Kiddie Coaster, my father and my younger sister and I all in the same car while my mom stood with my baby sister. Now I was alone in the shiny black pod. It was my first ride outside Kiddie Land.
Until that day, I had never looked at my standing father from such a height. How strange it was to be in the sky like that, suspended by metal arms encased in plastic. He looked far away in his white shorts and pastel t-shirt, steadfast with his tired smile. My sisters would have been moving between the carousel, the bumper cars, the gentle Kiddie Coaster, and the little train. I was suddenly alone on the dark side of the park in the shadow of the monster roller coaster. I don’t remember its name as I had no interest, ever, in being its passenger.
The ride started. There was no getting off. This was, after all, what I had wanted. I gripped the bar in front of me and shut my eyes and waited for it to end. I vowed not to not get into one of my thinking moods that would always confuse and worry the adults. I had, by then, heard more than enough concerned whispers about my episodes of seriousness. I didn’t have the words to explain the way I would suddenly feel gripped by some terrible momentum, but I was grateful that no one was pushing the roller coaster issue. I was supposed to be having a good time.
It was the mid-80s in suburban America. War, I was told, was over, and progress was a nonstop ride from here on out, and the cycles of history were ending, and it was up and up and up from here. One was expected to celebrate the good fortune of having arrived right in time for the happy ending to the march of progress. Pretty soon, they told us, we’d all be zipping around in flying cars. I wanted to believe, but there was this constant knot of tension aggravated by the vertigo of momentum. I had been listening and keeping watch, and there were more than a few things that didn’t add up.
Plutonium, by the way, has more uses than some would think, the government-sponsored Nuclear Regulatory Commission website announces (“Protecting People and the Environment”). It creates energy and powers space missions and even human hearts when needed. At the end of the page, almost as an afterthought, it is admitted that plutonium production is controversial. It can, the text acknowledges, be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The syntactic effect is that of an afterthought.
No one was allowed to talk about the discovery of plutonium when it happened on this day in 1940. The project was top secret, and it was going to be revealed in an act that would end not just the second great war but would, its champions announced, forestall future wars. It was the dawn of a new era, and we were in it.
My first ride on The Spider was a terrible ride. After, I would claim it was my favorite, at least until I discovered the Tilt-a-Whirl a few years later. There was no way to explain the terror of being suspended alone in mid-air without seeming ungrateful for the care that had gone into bringing me there. My father, a giant by all prior standards, suddenly looked small and ordinary––quaint, even.
It’s like this with disasters, isn’t it? The original terror always looks archaic in hindsight. It’s almost impossible to recollect it without shaking heads in disbelief at the idea that it was once possible to be so suddenly and irrevocably shocked, that there was––once upon a time––a time before the solid things were replaced with their pictures, when there were fortresses still left to crumble.
You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person.
One possibility, when it comes to telling what is commonly called one’s “own” story, is to take one’s own memory out entirely, and is to limit yourself to the favorite anecdotes of family members. A person can create childhood memories based entirely on the number of times a given story has been told.
Parents can be especially amusing sources of these tales. The time you had your mother, eight months pregnant with your sister, just up three flights to the third-floor apartment with the laundry, go back to the basement to retrieve your imaginary friend. Another time you were in hysterics because your father sat on that same friend.
How you cried when the street sweeping truck came by, the horrible beep-beep truck, you called it. And there was that redheaded boy, do you remember? He would push you down, take your shovel, walk away, and you would sit there, not wailing, just quietly sad.
And the gravy! How you loved it with croutons from a box. Your concerns over the new baby, over your mother getting up and down the stairs. Your favorite hiding place behind the couch. How you could speak nonstop or not at all.
Huh, I think, remembering by power of suggestion what it would never have occurred to me to know on my own. You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person. The fact that there were even specific moments to remember is what really gets me. I recall only a constant susurration of light and color, sound and touch. It lends credence to the idea that a person may have parallel simultaneous lives: the one they remembered, and the one I felt I was living. They have images, even pictures, and there I am, and it must have been me in that bowl haircut with those eyes looking back, holding the garden hose, but all I remember is the colors of light filtering through shallow water, and the way I would fly in my dreams. Palms and fingers in bright paint, and the hollow space among bushes in the back yard. How I would go in and wait there. The sense that I had of finding a secret, tiny room in an endless forever, and it was quiet all around, and safe except for the possibility of snakes and other monsters I had not seen except on TV and in books.
Funny, the pictures they show. This is what is, this is what was. They shaped me then, as they do still, these stills. But the image I had was constant, and I wasn’t in it because there was me watching, squinting sometimes, as I took in was the shifting light and colors on the surface of an ever-moving stream, wondering about the world just beneath it.
You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.
Here’s an idea: consider something you used to do often. Or be. Trace a line of relevance to the moment.
Once I was a runner. Once titled, there were days when I would put off beginning, and it would take me until late afternoon just to put on my shoes. Then there were also moments near sunset, and into twilight, when I could not bear to stop. I knew there was a risk of injury; I knew that these would come later, and they did, but in those extra dusk miles: five, ten, fifteen, I would feel the potential forevers in each stride, and all I wanted to do — all I had ever and would ever want to do, it seemed then as much as now — is keep reaching. The difference between running and walking is the liftoff. In a walk, one foot remains always on the ground. But in a run, there is this moment– and it gets shorter and shorter as age advances and pace slows — when neither touches. There was something about that moment, how quick it would come and go, that invited repetition, as if with enough practice, it was possible to leave entirely, and float somewhere just beyond gravity’s reach.
I am no longer a runner, just a lady who runs on days when this is scheduled––jogs, even, an observer might say. There’s nothing loaded about it, just exercise. But the reaching part, that doesn’t leave. I thought of this as we walked and ran among the streams and streams of other pilgrims, up the long hill, to see the big sky. How we waited for the telescope. Is it time? Is that it? What is that? The faces, bathed in dusk light, everyone looking, pointing. You could feel it, the way no one could help themselves, the way we were laid bare in our reaching wonder.
We looked and looked. It went on. Gravity holding us where we stood, tethering the moon in its orbit. There was Venus, and was that Mars or a satellite? It was our eyes we looked with, and of course whatever we could find for looking through. But it was something else doing the reaching, as it always was. She was now my height but once she had held her arms up and the fingertips of her widespread hands did not reach past my legs, singing out, “Up! Up!”
We didn’t think about squandering, then,
and it never once occurred to us to save.
Remember when we shot our breaths out of ourselves, laughing at the last loud fart? We couldn’t stop
And we sprayed gasping iridescent drops into the air like water from the spray nozzle of a garden hose, just for dancing.
We played chase like being hunted was a game, like capture was a cartoon scene, we fell down laughing. Wait, we said, I need to catch –– like it was slow feathers falling from the sky to be cupped in our open hands
––And remember, how we painted with it, too? We blew our canvasses across car windows, fingertips tracing: here a smile, now a cat, heart.
And sometimes it was smacked from us, as when we fell back off a ladder or a swing, but the trick to waiting was knowing the metaphor and trusting that if the next breath could be knocked out
like a ball from a basket, it could also come swishing back at the next run up the court, catching nothing but the nets of our wide-stretched throats.
We didn’t think about squandering, then, and it never once occurred to us to save any of what we spent so freely, those fortunes that we took for our inheritance. We had no way
of knowing, then, how easily they could go. Really, it takes only a certain amount of pressure, applied across a certain length of time, but how could we have begun to measure
what we had yet to grow the strength to apply?
We couldn’t, not when time was what we flew threw, roaring our laughs like lions until they ran out.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed. This is called the threshold, or liminal state.
The first version of this word I ever heard was called limbo, and according to the nuns this was where you got stuck if you skipped confession. Apparently, doing this was about as damning as failing to wear clean underwear, because you could get in a terrible accident at any time.
What’s it like? We all wanted to know. They said it wasn’t exactly eternal fire but it wasn’t clouds and angels, either. It was just forever. And who wants that when you are so close to a final release? They were not forthcoming with other details, so the rest was left to the imagination.
I turned the word over. Limbo. It called to mind the image of a doll version of a person floating in a watercolor atmosphere with limbs outstretched.
I thought about people running and then swimming toward higher ground when the floods came. And about the dream monsters chasing, the jolt in the stomach, shouting So close! I thought about my grandparents, how they would stand behind me in church before I was even old enough for Communion, the pillars of their bodies like trees, and me in the shade. I wanted to stay in that place forever, but I felt it coming, the shadowy force coming closer with every passing year — so close! –– and I dreaded arriving in the space of being severed from their shade and the quiet of being nowhere and no one, with no one asking, What now?
Then, years passed, and I felt far removed from this moment, but close enough that when I thought of it again, something flickered at the corners of my lips, in recognition of how there had been a time when it was possible to think of such an endless in-between as a threat for something that might happen, and not as what already was.
You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
BIG I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.
And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?
Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?
I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.
What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?
This is the end of the time when we rhyme. But wait! Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road.
A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?
LITTLE Remember how we used to play the guessing game?
Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.
From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!
At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.
Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!
BIG Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?” Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me: Laugh!
A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back.
There is a night, long after my bedtime in 1983, when the three kings take the stage. Soul is leading. For a moment, he is front and center, green jumpsuit and perfect hair, wanting company. The numbers dead from the Ethiopian drought have reached four million, and protestors are gathering at Greenham Common Air Force Base as Reagan’s army deploys missiles. It’s almost time to invade Grenada. It’s civil war in Zimbabwe, earthquake in New York, the birth of Mario Bros and Microsoft Word, some say the birth of the internet, and a new land speed record in the Black Rock Desert. I don’t understand what is happening.
The King of Soul calls on the rising King of Pop, younger and still darker than we knew him later, who leans in to be embraced by Mr. Dynamite, kissing his ear, his first words into the mic, I love you; I love you, then spin, shimmy, what is this? A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back. It’s the Embassy Bombing in Beirut, the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1941, the assassination of Aquino in the Philippines. Here comes Run DMC, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden; the age of the international superstar. Let’s dance, karma chameleon, I want to party like it’s 1999. It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; buckle up, it’s the law.
Next comes the King of Funk; Prince, where are you? Pointer finger extends a royal summons to the back of the room, stage left. The Artist arrives straddling the waist of the white-bearded muscle man who bears him on his back, whose image calls to mind Hell’s Angels; up goes His Royal Badness in a futuristic jumpsuit, gold lame details, heels. This king on the guitar, a prolonged erotic moment. Oh no, it’s not a jumpsuit, now the top half is coming off, now it’s the shirtless High Priest of Pop making love to the Mic stand, to the audience, thrusting himself into the space between the music and their rising cheers, then falling like a spent lover into the crowd. They are filling the prisons, building new warehouses for storage of the fathers and brothers and sons. There are bullet holes in the ceilings. The new warehouses are stacked five stories high; they can’t build them fast enough. The vans arrive in a constant stream; the machine needs bodies. The bodies are the fathers and the brothers, the uncles and the sons. Where are they now? They are Away.
This is the year I enter school – line up! Bells, the bells, the stone buildings, the weight of this ominous word, terrorist, its point to point to some being not quite human, grounds for extermination, but now, we were told was the age when the wars were done; now, the adults said, was a time of hard-earned peace. Of progress, the dawn of a new age! News of another car bomb punctuated news of mass extinctions, and even with the bombs erupting everywhere, even with the mass extinctions, and the adults looked ill with symptoms of battle fatigue that no one was allowed to discuss.
It is the year of the West Bank fainting epidemic, and epidemics of fainting elsewhere, especially at concerts; it was the heyday of new religion, and our stadiums became our new meccas; and Sally Ride is the first woman in Space, Ride, Sally, Ride! and Guion Bluford is the first black man in space, Say it Loud! Vanessa Williams the first black Miss America, and the King holiday is signed into law. The Zapatistas are rising; Thriller is released.
I am too young to be at the concert; too young to even know the names of the kings who take the stage. I find the footage later, among the artifacts of the hyperspace that was being assembled around us. I pour through the artifacts, looking for clues in the aftermath; it’s the same question in any aftermath, isn’t it? What happened? And what was there before? And, was there any sign, before it hit, what was happening?
I can’t help it, the way I keep returning to the moment when the second of the kings takes the stage, the way he says I love you like he’s someone just arriving, and I love you like he’s someone already getting ready to leave. I can’t help but think that if I had seen him then, I would have been moved with recognition. Even then, before I knew anything about anything except the speed of the way it feels to spin with your arms out wild, knowing you’re about to fall flat when the spinning gets too much; that’s what we did then, holding hands until we released them, falling flat and breathless on our backs, laughing in terror at the still-spinning sky.
Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.
There’s a moment, and it goes so quickly that it’s easy to miss, when you think you know who you are. The reason, looking back, was that you were not thinking about it at all. You simply were there, doing what you did in the manner that you did things. For example, drinking from a garden hose in your underwear, or writing a five-act musical for Rocky, the elementary school janitor, on the occasion of his retirement. Or showing up on the blacktop before the bell rang for the start of a third-grade day, after any break longer than two weeks, wearing an accent you had acquired on some imaginary voyage to a distant land. Here a brogue, now a drawl, now something approximating the outback.
Around the age of blood, this changes, and it is no longer considered sufficient to simply make things up as you go; one must have acquired something distant, something not already possessed. You’re not sure what it is, but you understand that the time has come to go out looking and stop pretending that you know what you need. The point, it seems, is to listen. Others know exactly what you need, especially men, who have no shortage of ideas as to what you ought to do. It will be decades before you learn to categorize such professions of wise-seeming advice into the file of “Men explain things to me” (Thank you Rebecca Solnit, Sheila Heti).
But it’s not just that. It’s in the way you look, like you’re practically begging the world to explain something to you.
Sometimes you stop, staring, and think, “Here is something.” You think this because you are wondering and because whatever you are looking at is indeed something. It’s enough anyway, to remind you back in the direction of something that you almost thought you knew. But it isn’t that, not exactly.
The nuns had a saying for missing things. “St Anthony, St. Anthony, come around,” they chanted, over the lost items. It gave the frantic seekers something to do while they looked.
Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.