One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

Gender Bender (for Danielle)

What if humans . . .
were synchronous hermaphrodites
like earthworms
who, when two mate,
both become impregnated?

Now, that’s equality!

Or the banana slug,
able to mate with itself alone?
Uniparental reproduction
is what it’s called.

As much fun as with a partner?
More?
Simpler, for sure—
certain of being in the mood.

What if humans . . .
were parthenogenic
like the rock lizard?
Some turkeys do it, too—
going it alone
reproducing without fertilization,
making maleness irrelevant
for species survival,
making maleness obsolete?

If men were extraneous,
would we still
keep them around
just for the fun of it?

What if humans . . .
were like the blanket octopus,
she a hundred times his size
and he, wanting to mate,
breaks off his penis
and gives it to her
for keeps?

The ultimate romantic gesture?

What if humans . . .
were like seahorses
where the male
is the one
who gives birth?

Would we have any reproductive laws?

What if humans . . .
were like anemonefish
practicing dominance hierarchy?
Where the largest female rules
and upon her death
the favored male
gendermorphs to take her place,

where all develop
first as male; then mature
to female.

How would social conventions change?

What if humans . . .
were bidirectional
like hawkfish
able to change gender
at will
and back again
and again?

What would we learn
when we’ve lived both sides?
Where would we hang
our biases?

What if?

(First published in Branches Literary Journal in a slightly different form, 2017)

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

The Gift that Wouldn’t Die

What do hair curlers, a canary funeral, and a burn pile have in common? They’re all connected to a childhood Christmas present.

My grandmother—my amazing, funny, creative, exuberant grandmother—sent a replica of an oak sugar bucket for Christmas when I was eight years old.

It was the same year a black cocker spaniel puppy quietly sat in a basket under the tree, waiting to be discovered and fussed over. But Blackie wasn’t the first thing I spotted. The sugar bucket was—a small wood-stave bucket, slightly smaller at the top than the bottom, held in place by two circular wooden bands, one near the bottom and one near the top. It had a wooden lid and a curved handle for carrying. To make it uniquely hers, Grandmother had added decorative touches with crayon.

As was typical, her designs didn’t match. On the lid, in all the primary colors, was a depiction of a female Mexican hat dancer, while red apples and green leaves ringed the bucket’s bands. A strange combination.

That was sixty-three years ago. As unlikely a gift as a wooden bucket is for an eight-year-old, I still have it. It’s traveled with me through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in all its stages. It’s traveled from South Carolina to Kentucky to North Carolina. It’s been with me through teen angst, first love, first heartbreak, college, marriage, motherhood, and empty nest. It has seen me through girly girlhood to feminist maturity. It’ was part of my greatest life adventure—moving to a strange place and hand-building our home.

My bucket played a role in the funeral of our canary, Gene, who died unexpectedly not long after that Christmas. I’d had no experience with human death at that time, but Gene’s was the second pet death in my life; it was hard on me. I gathered my brothers and neighbors in our backyard where we dug a small hole. I placed Gene in an aluminum-foil-lined shoe box, and we lowered him into the ground with a eulogy, a hymn, and tears. But I didn’t have a monument. So, to memorialize Gene’s life and death, I wrote the details—name, dates, and how beloved he was—on the underside of my bucket’s lid.

For the most part, my bucket was where I stored my hair curlers, curlers that changed over the years as hairstyles and curling techniques evolved. First, there were small-diameter metal rods with attached clips, rubberized on the closure end. Those were followed by spongy, pink, foam curlers with matching attached plastic clips. At some point, self-gripping velcro curlers filled my bucket, as did snap-ons.

When bouffant hairstyles became all the rage, my old curlers were replaced with large, brown, mesh cylinders, supported by wire spirals and held in place with bobby pins, which were in turn succeeded by similar mesh curlers that surrounded hard, stiff bristles to lock the hair in place. Plastic “pins” were stuck through the curlers to hold them in place. Those curlers were painful to sleep in, and if you didn’t curl and uncurl just right, those curlers grabbed your hair and wouldn’t let go. Even more painful.

The way we were–a typical late night dorm party

 

Probably the last curlers to make my bucket their home were the so-called magnetic curlers. They were made of hard plastic punched with holes for air circulation and came in various pastel shades and multiple sizes from half-inch to two or three inches in diameter. Those were the days of serious hair teasing, gels, and sprays. Again, bobby pins held the curlers to my head.

Primping for the prom

 

Then, electricity entered the world of home hair care. Heated hard plastic electric hair rollers with nubs to catch hair, steam curlers using a combination of hot water and salt to create some kind of molecular curling magic, and ultimately curling and flat irons took the place of loose curlers. A mish-mash of curlers sat unused in my bucket—just in case they needed to be called into service.

When a more natural look came into style, curlers of any sort were irrelevant to my life. My bucket no longer served a practical purpose. But it was a gift of love from a person dear to my heart, so I kept it, as I do so many things. It became part of our eclectic “decor,” if you will, wherever we lived.

A few years ago, the Gnome and I were on yet another of our simplifying kicks. (They come upon us every now and again, only to be replaced by some other collecting kick.) I decided the time had finally come to say goodbye to my sugar bucket. The rim of the lid was broken and the lid wouldn’t stay in place. The bucket’s bands kept slipping off, turning the whole thing into little more than a pile of sticks. I’d gotten tired of piecing it back together every time something bumped into it.

But it was a conflicted moment. I had to thrash out my mixed emotions with my husband, hoping he’d weigh in and give me justification for either keeping or throwing. He wisely left the decision entirely in my hands. I threw the bucket on our burn pile. Sixty years seemed plenty long enough to hold onto a childhood gift, regardless of its source.

Some time later, suffering from tosser’s remorse, I couldn’t take it anymore. Wracked with guilt, I had to check on my bucket. Even though it had sat through weeks of sun, rain, and snow, the bucket was somehow still intact, not much the worse for wear. I retrieved it.

The lid was too far gone for reincarnation so I bid a final farewell to Gene’s memorial. But the bucket is safely back inside, where it sits as a fine memorial of its own—a lidless monument to perseverance, to my ultimate inability to simplify, and to my inimitable grandmother.

The sugar bucket in tatters

Reclaimed sugar bucket

 

The Heart of Dixie

(Another in my Blowing on Embers series)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg. dixie egg

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. But it was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.