Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Failure to Launch

I wasn’t sure I’d post this one. I wrote it the day after the poems I shared last week but held it back. Not that I haven’t written about this in past posts, but maybe precisely because I have written about this in past posts.

Sheltering-in-place has been sucking me dry. I keep trying to push myself back to the page, and I keep not getting there. I have been doing plenty of other things, but I miss my writing, miss finding my way through my thoughts on the page. I know it will come back, but I’m feeling it today.


Try and Try Again
Forty-one

The nurse held your hand.
She looked into your face and smiled.
“I’m saying the fertility prayer over you,” she said.
Her face was kind
was sad.
You had seen the waiting room.
Most people came here in pairs
not like you, alone.
She must have said her fertility prayer
for all of them.
And sometimes it must have worked.
Not for you.
You left as you’d arrived, alone.

I can feel your heart rise
then fall.
I can feel your anticipation,
the way you tried not to dream
and dreamed all the same.
And I can feel the crash and burn
the sting of it,
the finality.

It would have been easier, maybe,
to get a registered letter.
“No, you aren’t meant to be anyone’s mother.
As you were. Thank you.”
Easier than all those hopeful days,
Easier than all those tears.
Easier.

Still.
You accepted it.
It took two false starts
and three failures.
It took all the money you never had.
It took all of you.

Not anyone’s mother.
It can still make you cry,
but you have accepted it.
Because what else is there but acceptance?

You think about the nurse
her wedding ring hard and cold against your hand
her eyes sad
her smile sad, too.
Her fertility prayer
over you like a shawl,
slipping from your shoulders
to pool on the cold, tile floor.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

One picture … nearly a thousand words

I’m back. I’m sorry for disappearing when I live in the epicenter of the outbreak. I’m totally fine, still safely working at home.

I’ve written a couple of poems in this off-blog time. Most of them I think I’ll leave in my notebook. Last night I was busy, however, and I want to share. Last night, I was part of an hour-long writing group on Zoom. It was the everything’s-moved-online version of an ongoing writing workshop series that is run at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The facilitator was a woman I know from VONA, so that felt comfortable and made me confident that I’d enjoy myself.

I invited RedEmma to join me because I thought she’d like it and also because I’d had to cancel our writing date from last week.

We started with an image from The Outwin 2019 exhibit, a photo by Genevieve Gaignard called “Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred).” We were given some time and invited to write something using the image as inspiration. I’m not surprised that I was inspired by the photograph. It’s an interesting, lush, and beautiful piece. Its subjects are compelling. Being inspired by it almost seems like a given. I wasn’t expecting to be so inspired that I would write three poems, however. Three. Poems. Just like that. Three poems. All called “Foremother.” Here they are.


Foremother 1: Trailblazer

I see you
walking over that hill
with Abraham, Martin, and John.
What weight do they give you
what do you carry,
how long the road?
I want to tell you
don’t go.
Don’t take that path
stay.
Keep safe here
with me.
Stay.
I know you’re listening.
I know you know.
But I see you choosing,
see you walking up
over that hill.
The light in your face is clear
is bright, is warm.
I want to hold you back
turn you away from the light.
They need you
of course they need you.
But stay.
I need you more.

Yes, I am that selfish,
I am that grasping.
Yes, I would hold you back
for as long as I could.
As long as I could.

The hill will always be there.
The path will always be there.
But stay.
I need you more.

∞ ∞ ∞

Foremother 2: Recognition

When I travel back,
I stop short of you
always stop short of you.
Yours is the story I can never see
will never tell.
How far from you do I need to be
to let myself look behind that curtain
to finally learn the whole story?
My past is your future.
The two cannot meet
and yet —
the two have always met.
You are still here, in me.

I know the story ends badly.
How else to explain my fear
my refusal to open my eyes.
The story ends badly
but without that end
there would be no place for me,
no me,
no place.

If I could write to you
I wouldn’t ask
would never ask.
But I’d want to know.
And I’d want to hold out my hand
offer a path, a way, protection.
Anything you need.
Anything to guide you home.

∞ ∞ ∞

Foremother 3: Treasure

They would have made you bind your hair.
You would have missed the good oils,
the butters.
They would have made you bind your hair,
told you it was dirty,
was ugly,
was wrong.
They would have made you bind your hair,
wrap it in rags
and made you braid and adorn theirs.

Was it the first thing you freed
when your journey ended?
Was it the first thing you freed
after you stole yourself from bondage?
Was it the first thing you freed,
letting water flow through it,
oil smooth over it?

How often in all the years since
did you run fingers through it,
glide your palm from crown to nape?
How often
did you buy a ribbon you didn’t need
a frivolous comb
a paste-jeweled circlet?
How often
did you detangle your tresses in the sunshine,
aware of that warmth
and the play of red highlights through brown?

They would have made you bind your hair
so you shook it loose
shook it wild,
unbound
every morning
every evening
every day for the rest of your freedom
the rest of your life.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

That’s not how love works, redux.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …

Yes, almost half a month into epistolary poems. I haven’t reached that crossover point, the moment that happens a lot of the time in April when I suddenly realize I’m enjoying working with the form, even when I have so much still to learn and work through. I’m no longer feeling as if I’m in a pitched battle with the form, and that seems like for-real progress.


Unscarred, Not Unscathed
Twenty-five, power and control

I want to sit with you
on the train ride home after the first date.
Could I warn you,
convince you?
I want to say
stop, sweet girl.
That man will hurt you.
Not with his hands —
he will never strike you.
But you will be years recovering.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you
and tell you the sick you feel in your gut
isn’t a giddy tickle of new love.
That’s your fear response,
your body sensing a predator,
just as he scented prey
the first time you smiled at him.
I am still recovering.

I want to say
you deserve so much better
than his shaming, his belittling, his insults.
He is the story you’ll never tell anyone.
He is every cruel question,
every angry blame you’ll hurl at yourself.
I want to shield you
call out his lies.
I know you learn so much in these two years,
but your soft heart shouldn’t bear the cost.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you,
I want to say you are strong.
I know you will resist him,
won’t give over the total control he’ll demand,
you’ll stand and walk away when you finally see him.
And that will save your life.
I am still grateful.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

NOLA, Darling

The second trip I took with my mother was a tag-along trip. She was headed to New Orleans for a conference and invited me to share her hotel room. “I always get a double queen,” she explained, and said I should get a plane ticket and come on down. So I did. She was at work all day, but we had our nights to roam the city together, and it was pretty delightful. Because it was New Orleans and because it was my mother. And so …


Sense Memory
(or, Dreaming inside Her Dreams, 2)
Forty-eight, traveling with my mother

Is heat the secret, the magic key?
Those nights in New Orleans
unlocked new doors
slipped her back and back,
into her childhood
into memories you’d never heard before.

That first night, walking through the Quarter
searching for dinner
settling, heat-flattened
in a tiny, crowded spot.
She was tired, a little depleted
enjoying her meal but subdued.
Then she tried the bread pudding.
One taste —
her face opened.
She smiled, closed her eyes, smiled more deeply.
It wasn’t just good
it was memory.
It brought her mother to the table.
You watched her change,
leaned in as the stories began.

That night on the tram,
windows open to thicken the stifling air
both of you half conscious
the heat drawing you down, under.
Then the story began again —
her first visit to New Orleans as a child,
her aunt who lived in
working for a fancy family on the avenue.
Stories from behind the scrim,
the curtain she kept drawn over her past,
spilling one over the other,
what she knew, what she saw,
what she dreamed, what she lived.

And what you wouldn’t give
to take her back and back again
into her memories
into the stories you’d always wanted to hear.

Every night of that mid-summer trip,
both of you soft and wilted in the heat.
It let her guard slip,
let the girl of her come out
come quietly out and into your arms.
Your sweet mother,
a woman you’d never known playing behind her eyes.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020