Archive for the ‘Creative Nonfiction’ Category

She Seems So Mature…

In Creative Nonfiction on April 8, 2011 at 10:15 pm

My Mother’s Husband once told me, “seems is a very safe word.”  I was a teenager at the time, and therefore utterly incapable of reading between the lines.  Today, I’m sure that he intended to foster complexity in my thinking, and he did.  I am not sure if he is aware that my naive interpretation of his advice has been showing up in most of the papers I have written since.

Safety is the ultimate goal for a child.  And I do refer to my teenage-self as a child.  Of course, safety can mean twenty different things to twenty different people.  A seven year old might consider crossing the street to be a high-priority safety issue.  In my case, intellectual safety seemed important, even necessary.  According to Betty Friedan, in the Feminine Mystique, the mark of maturity is “doing the work you’re capable of.”  At age 15, I decided that, in order to do what I was capable of, I would require an all-female college.  My first and only choice was Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia.  I studied all the “firsts” and accomplishments achieved by their Alumnae as if I was going to be tested.  The University produces women who go on to literally climb the highest heights; Charlotte Fox- the first woman to reach the apex of Mt. Everest, class of “79.  I am still influenced by the fact that a majority of our women Senators graduated from single-sex universities.  Based on this type of information (the kind that leaves stars in one’s eyes) I concluded that Hollins would provide the environment that I thought was critical to my growth- an environment of safety.

In 2000, Hollins offered a program called “Hollins Summer” for high school junior and senior girls.  The program consisted of a two-week stay on campus; dormitories, classes and all the rest of the college experience.  I wanted it.  Six months and $700-earned-in-an-IHOP later, I got it.  I was aware of my family’s perceptions of my maturity level; I could tell they thought it was on the increase.  I believed it was, too.  I was certain that my name would one day share something in common with the likes of Ann Compton, Lee Smith and Annie Dillard:  The name of a Hollins Alumnus.

A lot happened between my return from Hollins that summer and graduation.  Another 10 years have passed since I graduated from high school.  My trip to Hollins that summer remains the only visit I’ve ever made to Virginia.  I have nothing in common with Annie Dillard, but her short story “Terwilliger Bunts One” is featured in an anthology that was required reading for a class I did not finish.  The story is new to me, found by chance.  It’s about Dillard’s Mother, an “unstoppable force” of verbal prowess and opposition to conformity, who adored “anyone who met her verbal challenges.”  This is the part where, in the past, I would have written something like “It seems that before Dillard experienced the nurturing environment of a single-sex university, she thrived in conditions of another kind; the intellectual anarchy created by her Mother.”  Instead I’ll say this: Because of my unrealized dream of attending Hollins, I know that the safety of what seems to be is worthless.  Only what is matters to our growth.  No special locations required.

As it happened, the experience I felt would be critical to my education, to my growth as an individual, turned out to be unnecessary.  Even the idea behind my desire to have that experience is no longer valid.  Safety is not the means by which maturation is bestowed.  It is earned in what seems to be the anarchy of our lives.  It grows in little waves each time we forsake safety to meet the challenges of risk and uncertainty.  We somehow, simultaneously, practice vulnerability and resilience.  What seems to be, usually is another.

Substituting “seems” for “is” was a habit of mine that I’m glad to be rid of, although it was a process necessary to my learning to think, write and speak with certainty.  It was a good trade.  One of the memories Dillard reminisces on in “Terwilliger…” concerns a particular verbal exchange between a cashier and her Mother, who got the last word in a very clever way.  Dillard writes, “It took me years to determine where the joke lay.”  Seeing this admission, I feel that perhaps I grew to have something in common with the likes of Annie Dillard after all.



The Death of the Hackberry Emporer

In Creative Nonfiction on February 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The car rounded the last corner.  She saw them outside.  At first she didn’t see the smallest.  Stop, one foot out then the other.  Two bright faces burst through the gray space that had settled outside.  Look at this! one said.  He was followed by the second who said nothing but kept eyes on the fragile third.

It sat perched on his index finger.  We’ve been this way for half an hour! he said.  We  took a picture!

A dull butterfly, dark little circles in the dirt move outward to black wingtips that someone never finished painting.  The dusty wings draw shut and show their colorless negative.

Do you want to hold him?


The thin jointed legs belied their power to latch securely.  It blew over, nearly horizontal, a sail whipping and rising and falling through heavy winds.  She held her hand steady though it did not need her to.  Million things to do.  Can’t sit here staring at a bug.  Should I touch its wings?  I’ve heard you shouldn’t.  I want to touch its wings.

Her finger shook.  It sat in perfect balance, in perfect calm, and she felt like a child on sugar as she tried to emulate that gentleness.  It did not fly away when she slid a finger across the underside of its wing.  She thought it would but it opened its wings instead.  Deliberate and slow.  Then closed them again and she said hello back.

Virginia Woolf once wrote about a moth, a “tiny bead of pure life,” that someone had decked “with down and feathers,” and “set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.”  She saw struggle with the eyes of a god, a Victorian god, and the vision left her without hope.  Her subject attempted escape from the thick glass that showed him the wide world, but never let him touch it.  He never succeeded.  In the end, she could do no more than commend him for “having righted himself” before death and laying “most decently and uncomplainingly composed” after.

Many years have passed.  The glass in Woolf’s room has 18 million cracks in it.  Women butt their heads against it, then flinch when the shards fall in their eyes.

She sat unwilling to move.  Chained to the unknown needs of the creature.  It continued opening and closing its wings for its audience.  A spellbound audience.  A microscopic face to read.  Her eyes squinted nearly shut trying to zoom in on it.  It rotated its position on her leg then looked up at her and she gazed into the eyes of a butterfly for the first time.  Doesn’t seem normal.  Something’s wrong with it.  Helplessness settled into the pit of her stomach.  Sit and watch.

The butterfly in question belongs to the species Asterocampa celtis, commonly known as the Hackberry Emperor.  Not a moth at all, though they do both fly by day and share the same drab sort of color scheme.  She once wrote a response to Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” and in that response she railed against the inequities of a world 100 years gone.  She once thought it very clever, very snarky of Woolf to call the moth “he,” when it so clearly represented the woes of “she.”

The Hackberry stayed.  An unusual thing, to spend so much time with a butterfly that one begins to wish for a hastened parting of ways.  The gray sky gave way to a black night.  There was no warmth.  A rectangular planter sat on the stoop next to the front door full of dirt and spilling dead and dried cilantro.  She told herself it would make a fine bed for any bug.  Guilt whispered to her.  She ignored it.

It will be gone from here tomorrow.  Nothing to keep it down.

A new day came.  Her head popped out of the house.  Ignoring it didn’t work.  It’s still here!  One finger stuck out.  Come back.

She thought about the fluttering legs Woolf wrote about, and recognized that death would play in this story, too.  It jumped urgently up and down.  Up off the denim.  Fall back.  Jump again.  Fall back.  Eventually the activity stopped and she built a bed of blades of grass and laid the creature back in the planter.  She abandoned it to its fate and for some time after avoided the area all together.

Many months have passed.  Sometimes she goes outside and digs through the dead leaves and dirt to see if she can find it.  She never does, because that would defeat the purpose, and because this lesson only gets harder with time.  She laughs at how clever Woolf was to call her troubles “he,” and disguise the fact that all along it was “me.”