When I was about 8 years old, my father
wanted to take me on a trip to The Keys,
just me and him. I had never been on a
vacation that wasn’t to visit family. I was
excited. We drove down in his salt-rusted
car 6 hours south, windows cracked, chain smoking,
Rush Limbaugh blasting, I thought this was the
labor required for vacation so I sat silently.
We arrived at a peeling motel with people
gathered out front who seemed uncomfortable with
a child being among them. We rented one room
and the attendant brought in a cot for me. I was
devastated. I thought vacation meant an escape
but it was more of the same. I wept until he drove me
back without snorkeling or going to the beach.
You are still poor even if you go on vacation, I learned.
Young minds still notice broke-ness. To be poor meant
no reprieve. It was a constant current through all
experience, devastating but somehow grounding,
an identity I could stand on when everything else
There was a boy in sophomore year
of high school. I liked his long hair.
I liked his taste in soft femme music. I liked kissing
him and touching his soft, smooth face and imagining he was me
and I was him. That there was no real difference
between us, that no one would ever look down
our pants. I would sneak out and meet him
at some friend’s room or in some half-built house
on a street that gave out the expensive candy on Halloween.
We would kiss until dawn and then I would vomit.
As soon as the sun came out I would involuntarily purge.
Every time it would happen and only when I kissed him.
I wanted so bad to be him and when we stopped kissing, I had to
face my clothes that felt too tight and how I wanted to pass.
Not always, but sometimes and I wanted to taste like him.
The mangrove tree is not the Florida State Tree. If I believed in statehood, I would put in a petition. They are mostly comprised of a series of root systems. They grow in salt water and in fresh water but they thrive in brackish water where most plants cannot and most animals go insane. Their roots grow out in a series of complex designs, intermingling and intertwining in a way that makes it impossible to decipher one tree from another. Their roots create homes, much like coral reef for aquatic wildlife. When the storms hit, they become a natural sea wall, able to be completely submerged by wrathful sea and still survive. It is their dependence on their fellows that keep them alive. They are not boundaried with their care for one another and they are not ashamed of needing such care. I would balance and hop from one root to another along the inner coast of the swamplands. I was walking on water. As long as I trusted the mangroves to have another root somewhere ahead, I was safe.
Photo: Florida Memory Project Dale M McDonald Collection
A very loud family. The yelling and competition. Clumsy car rides from one side of town to the other for lessons. Dance, piano, singing. To perform to entertain. Our purpose. We were made to entertain to make happy to bring joy to help you forget your sorrow to make it better to be the fix the remedy the band aid. The three of us formed different shapes under that pressure. I learned to write. I learned to be very quiet and to stay very still and to watch every single thing and if I waited for the exact right time I could say just one thing and someone would listen. There was also little chance of being hit that way. Ballet was my favorite. In ballet there is only ever one person talking and sudden movements were planned.
In the fourth grade I wrote a speech about Thomas Jefferson
and looking back now I know I wrote that speech about that
particular person so that my father would think I was smart.
I wrote the speech for a competition and my father said I
was smarter than all the other children and looking back now
I know it would have been better if he had not just told me I
was smart but also told me I was kind and capable and strong
but he only told me I was smart and that being smarter was the
only way to be safe and so I really believed I was smarter. I got
third place in that competition and when I cried and asked
Ms. Walters why she sat me down and said you are such a good
writer but it was supposed to be a personal essay. First place wrote
about a holocaust survivor from her heritage and second place wrote
about her sister who had a learning difference. And that day I vowed
to never write my father’s essay ever again and I think he saw that.
He became a little sadder and came around a little less often.
When my father was dying, I read Flood Song by Sherwin Bitsui
to him while he laid in a coma at Stanford Medical Center.
The cafeteria is amazing there. Nothing like home.
I read him this book of poems
about an indigenous culture’s experience with rain
and I said to him, “I know you’d never choose this book but
now you have no choice and it’s the book I like.”
He liked those kinds of jokes if that’s really a joke. He liked
those kinds of moments when candor won over decency.
as they swarm luminous landmines like gnats / as thunder shakes
white sand from wet hair, / as police sirens trickle from water jars
onto squash blossoms, / as starlight, opened inside a darkened room, /
begins to tell its story from end to beginning again.
Renee Gladman wrote her Ravicka series and a whole universe arrived, not just Ravicka but the possibility of Ravicka, a world that was unreal and spindled and complicated and playful. Where underground was a civilization that only spoke in air puffs and libraries kept disappearing and the architecture of the sentences themselves were also the architecture of the city, where emotions were not gushing or loud but they were real and interior worlds were given as much space as walls and bridges. And then I got to meet Renee and I could not say all this to her because it was not language yet in my body but she asked me, “Why do you want me to read your poems?” and I was confounded because it did not occur to me that she would not see all this un-language I had not articulated. And so I spent the next two years drawing it and showing it, line by line, shape by shape, which was really the best possible thing for me because it demystified the process of making but still I felt the same opening of worlds. And then I moved to New York City and Renee’s drawings were on exhibit at Poet’s House and I saw this drawing and the whole thing happened all over again.
Image: PA 206 by Renee Gladman
The album Blonde by Frank Ocean is perfect. And if you listen to it from start to finish while standing in The Met, the contemporary wing and look deeply at Tomorrow Is Never by Kay Sage and if you are new to the city and you are very very sad but also very very determined to make a life you are proud of and excited to make then you will have a religious experience and you will write.
Excerpt from “In a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon,” by Sherwin Bitsui, from the collection Flood Song, used with the author’s permission.