Along the Cliffs of Moher

A poem   and photograph from my latest book,  Ireland, Place out of Time (2017).   Order your copy here.

A poem and photograph from my latest book, Ireland, Place out of Time (2017). Order your copy here.

Along the Cliffs of Moher

Rockface sheer and imposing, rises
from the sea, reminding us
nature makes no allowances

Not here along the Wild Atlantic Coast—
barely tamed, it provokes longing
both distant and deep

I step to the edge,
glance down
to the rocks and surge below

Some faint ancient song
of loss and regret rises
with the tides

 

Escape from Moving Madness

Avila Beach is one of my favorite writing haunts, a place my Santa Barbara writing buddies and I escape to twice a year, usually for a week of writing bliss. This month I could only come up for a couple of days since we're in the middle of a move (I've been awash in boxes--packing and unpacking--for two weeks), but I am grateful nonetheless for the little space it allowed me. Above and below are some photos I took as I walked the beach yesterday.

Remembering My Dad...

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

With my dad and my daughter, Kendall, just two weeks before he died in May 2000.

My dad’s birthday is today. He would have been 90 if cancer had not taken him. In my memoir, Face (see excerpts here), I write that I had a hard time bringing who he was, and what he meant to me, to the page. It was a struggle, and I still don’t feel I did it very successfully. 

Memory is a fluid thing. It moves and undulates and morphs with time. I knew him so well, knew that he loved jelly beans and golf, that his Catholic faith formed him and sustained him, that he loved my mother. That he loved me. That his love is perhaps the reason I was able to overcome the trauma I experienced throughout my childhood. But in the writing, I struggled to explain how very much he meant to me. Recounting the memories I have of him, it felt soon as if I were just reciting a long list, without really bringing him to life.

Perhaps my memory—my psyche—doesn’t want to go there. It’s too painful, just like all the hospitalizations and surgeries.  I couldn’t have determined which hospitalization happened on which date without the notes from my surgeon. Which time was I made to lie naked in a hospital crib under a large oxygen tent? Which time did I awake and believe I was somewhere other than the hospital, which frightened me to the point the nurses had to get permission to lift a corner of one of the bandages on my eyes so I could see? Which time(s) was I made to lie for hours, my arms strapped to the bed, as plasma dripped into my veins?

We strive to create a narrative of our lives that makes sense, and when events don’t make sense, or fall along the story line, we make things up. I am sure I am guilty of that. But the individual events I write about in my memoir are as concrete and vivid as if I were living them today. The memories just as jagged and piercing, just as white-hot with emotion, as if my insides were searing with grief.

I wonder sometimes how long trauma lingers. I spent many years stuffing it into a very deep place, thinking if I did it would no longer hurt me. How wrong I was. Excavating that past has been devastating. Also clarifying, opening—my chest feels cracked open; I am breathing again, but damn it’s painful.

How I miss my dad, and wish he could be here to see his daughter step into her life, finally, authentically. Terrifyingly.

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Three

This is Part three from Face, A Memoir, which I am serializing in posts on my blog. Here are Parts One and Two. The memoir is about my struggle to come to terms with a childhood trauma that haunted me well into middle life. It has taken me many years to write this, and I am revising it as I post pieces of it online. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

 

Part Three

July 6, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes: Patient—a five-year-old girl—presented in the emergency room on June 17 with severe lacerations and subdermal abrasions on the left side of the face and upper chest. Primary concern was stanching blood loss and saving the left eye. Emergency closure of facial wound required pulling together tissue from both sides of the cheek. Pressure bandages applied. Loss of upper left eyelid and portion of lower left lid required fashioning of tarsorrhaphy to protect the eye.

I wake and I can’t see. My face itches. My ears itch. I am desperate to scratch my ears. I can’t move my arms! Why can’t I move my arms?

My mom’s voice comes to me. Soothingly, I hear her say: “It’s okay, Marcia. It’s for your own good.”

 

Every day for five weeks she came to the hospital and sat by my bedside, waiting for me to wake, enduring my fearful tears when I did, watching the nurses give me shots and adjust my bandages, listening to my screams when the doctors changed the dressings. Did she retreat? Crawl into a cavernous place of grief – perhaps denial – to deal with the shock, the pain?

Mrs. Medema and several neighborhood girls took turns babysitting the other kids while she was at the hospital. At the end of the day, she’d go home to her three other children. I know friends and family members helped out. But what was it like for her to watch me cry, seeing me bloodied and bandaged, knowing I was terrified, knowing I suffered, knowing there was nothing she could do but try to soothe me? Then going home to three young children who also needed her attention. She was overwhelmed, emotionally and physically. And still she came and sat. Sat with her knitting, absently crossing needle over needle, moving the yarn from left to right, right to left. I see her deft hands, her pointer fingers crisscrossing each other with each stitch, her mouth a set line, her brow furrowed. The ball of yarn unfurling.

Over time, she shut down. Sat and patted my hand as they pulled stitches from my face, or placed another needle into my arm, or held me down for another change of dressings. Emotionally, she left. Pushed her feelings to a deep place so she could manage daily life. How could she not? But it didn’t start with me.

His name was Patrick, Ricky for short, their second-born. Cherie was two and Ricky eight months when my parents were invited to go away with another couple for a weekend of sailing. Their friends Barb and Harvey Nedeau offered to take care of the kids. When they dropped them off, my mom was fretting. She wanted Barb to make sure Cherie had her blankie at night, that Ricky got his bottle at five and again just before bed.

Barb reassured her.

That night, Barb set up a vaporizer near Ricky’s crib so he could breathe easier. Sometime in the middle of the night, he pulled the cord and the vaporizer over into the bed, scalding his body with boiling water. The Nedeaus raced Ricky to the hospital. My parents rushed home. Ricky died two days later.

 A year and a half later, my mom was expecting. It was winter and the streets were icy. My grandmother was driving with my mom and Cherie, heading downtown to shop. As she negotiated the slippery streets, my grandma noticed a large spider above her head on the visor. As she watched, it dropped down near her face. She swatted at it, and as she did the wheel turned to the right and the car left the road. As Cherie bounced in the back seat, the car ran up the guy wire of a telephone pole and overturned. Mom was thrown out of the car. Cherie and my grandma were unhurt, but Mom suffered skull fractures and ended up in the hospital for several weeks. The baby, Robert, was born several months later, but died within hours. Mom knew she would lose him, because she hemorrhaged through the rest of the pregnancy.

The boys are buried together in the Muskegon Catholic Cemetery.

 

Before I was released from the hospital on July 23, my mom and dad gathered Cherie and Chuck in the living room.

“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”

But I wasn’t.

(Part Four)

Poem—In the Parking Garage

In the Parking Garage

(After Philip Levine’s “The Two”)

 

She opened the door and got out of the car,

walked briskly around and toward the

parking structure stairs, certain they

would be late. But it didn't matter. He

was trailing behind, as usual. There

was little said between them, 

too little said for too many years,

too grief-stricken at the prospect 

of there no longer being a them.

 

What unsaid things have passed between them,

what unthought thoughts have gone unbidden,

what fears unexpressed, what sorrows suppressed

in the face of exposure, of distrust.

The distrust that destroyed them. She stopped

and waited for him to catch up. The parking

garage waited in silence, too quiet for 

comfort, too cold for a moment that might

allow them to stop and remember.

 

The years have passed without understanding,

without recognition, without the knowledge 

that would come with too high a price for either.

Now the parking garage is silent. They have left,

left behind, left in a lost time that neither

can quite grasp again, time they would both grasp desperately

if they could. 

 

Moving into the New Year

What a year 2015 has been, and 2016 promises to be another year of change and transition. In fact, we are literally moving into the New Year.

Rob sold his office building in Pasadena in November and is moving his office and shop (two rooms full of tools and construction equipment) up to Santa Barbara next week. At the same time, we are moving him out of a guesthouse in Santa Barbara to our place across town. And in mid-January, we will move him out of his apartment in Old Town Pasadena. We have been organizing and packing and planning for several weeks, and I’m grateful we at least got to get away to Mammoth (and a day of glorious skiing) for a few days over Christmas.

All of this moving is crazy-making hard work, and to be honest it has tested our young relationship at times. You learn a lot about your partner when under intense pressure. And we’ve certainly had enough stress the past few weeks to last several years. Thank goodness we also know how to laugh—at the circumstances and ourselves. Rob somehow always knows the exact thing to say to humor me out of a foul mood. And he is a fount of optimism most of the time.

But all this moving also makes me mindful of how much change and transition is still ahead of us. We have been looking for a house to buy, but meanwhile are renting a darling place by the beach in Summerland, a tiny burg just south of Santa Barbara. Tiny is the operative word here; our place is small. It’s been fine for the two of us, but when we add all of Rob’s things from two different residences we will be overflowing with stuff. My tendency is to get rid of most of it, but Rob is a bit of a packrat (in fact, I think he could fall into major hoarding if allowed). So another negotiation is necessary. For now, most will end up in storage. But that is not a long-term solution.

All of this has made me consider just what it means to be settled. I have been in a state of transition since August 2014, when I decided to move to Santa Fe. Most of my belongings went into storage. When I moved back to Santa Barbara a year ago to be with Rob, I remember how good it felt to unpack at least some of my boxes and settle into our new place. For the first time in months I had my own things around me—my furniture and kitchen items, my bedding and clothes, my desk and office supplies.

As we unpacked last January, I realized how many things I really didn’t need—or want. I have learned I can live without most of the things I thought were important to me. And I have come to understand how little I need to be happy. In fact, having less is a path to a kind of freedom, really, that I didn’t know one could feel. It’s a letting go that comes with an emotional bonus. Untethered, unfettered, unburdened.

So, a dichotomy at this New Year. As we pack and move and plan and organize, we also see the value in letting go and giving away. Which opens up our lives—and our hearts—for the intangible gifts of love, purpose and joy.

May you have a 2016 full of the intangible gifts of life. Let all the rest fall away.