First Episode: Stealing on a Sunday

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indulgence isn’t illness

I’ve never craved something so carnal—I didn’t think I could be the type—yet, there I was: stripped down and saturated in warm water, steering straight for sensual decadence. White bits of flesh hung out from under my fingernails as I lost my sense of self-censorship: dew drops dripping away. I felt like an eaglet without an ego. Visceral pleasure seeped into my every pore as I peeled open the sweet fruit and tore apart its sections as effortlessly as I leafed through waiting room readings, but with unrivaled covetousness. Pressure built to the point of ballooning every time I bit in, and then there was an upsurge of sensation. Sticky sweetness slid down me, out the corner of my pink, pruning lips, careening down my neck, against my chest. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against porcelain tiles, sinking even deeper into my sensuality. Hedonism. There’s no other word to describe it. Pure indulgence.

When I first read about eating oranges in the shower, I was taken by the grandiosity of language given to something so silent. An act that seemed so needless, so unendingly soft-spoken, becoming a beacon of bodily pleasure. There was nothing particularly absurd about snacking in the shower, but the publicity was enough to make me ache with curiosity. The piece detailing the pursuit was akin to an advertisement for hand crème produced with pearls. It was fried dough dipped in dark chocolate. It was taking time out of a dripping hourglass to do nothing but feel divine. There was an underhanded way of talking about it, about doing the thing: stepping into the shower with citrus fruit. What will they think of next? You wanted to laugh and shake your head and move on, live your life like you hadn’t ever heard about it. I tried to talk myself out of it. The writers were acting as if pleasure in wetness was some unexplored frontier, our only hope. Had the ever heard of eroticism?

But I caved, a creature of capitalistic comparison between the luxury of my life and that of others. I swooped the orange from its demure basket on the kitchen counter. I telescoped my hand into my sleeve, abashed at my suggestibility. Who was I to follow my every whim? You work hard to find comfort in life. It is the lesson traced into every line of our skin. At church, in school, standing on the scale: if I suffer I will one day savor success. Maybe that’s what mystified me: so little went into eating an orange in the shower, but it promised such pleasure. Who was I to seek undeserved gratification? I rolled the rubbery skin around in my ready hands, bare feet placed against the pristine floor. I released the handle, letting bitterly cold water run out before it swiftly steamed. Damp hair pressed snugly into my scalp and I could sense the smallest weight down on my eyelashes.

Breaking into the fruit gave way to the gates. Once you walk through the walls of our regulated reality, you are unhindered in a way that’s unsettling to a society so self-flagellating. We have all had to bear a sense of unworthiness through a streak of success. Tell me you’ve never asked yourself “Who am I to be rich in a world where there are poor” or “Who am I to be happy in a world at war?” I found myself that Friday afternoon asking, “Who am I to eat an orange in the shower?” There were warm sheets to be folded, and dishes to be done, and I was so devastatingly transfixed in experiencing a feeling I had never before found. So, I peeled my orange. And I ate it. And I felt no stickiness sliding down my arm; it was all wildly washed away. It tasted like triumph, like indisputable enjoyment. Every other bit of consciousness, every sense and sentence that couldn’t taste that fruit, dropped through the drain. And when I was done, the peel went to the floor, carelessness without consequence. The steam brought citrus scent up into the enclosed glass of my shower stall. All evidence of eating on my body vanished without a trace of guilt or greed. I had indulged without really defying any principle of the “deserving” or “undeserving.” And it felt deliriously good.

Most of my life, I’ve felt rather undeserving—of both the great and the grievous. I asked myself again, and again why things, both bad and brilliant, were happening to anyone, let alone to me. “Who am I?” I wondered. And I still wonder. Who am I to go to this school? I’m no stranger to the inequality of opportunity, to my own privilege in matriculating. Who am I to be happy? In a world wrecked with wrong, I feel guilt for any gladness or goodness. But any sadness is too ceremonious in age where others had it worse. Who am I to weep? Who am I to do anything?

I believe some people are programmed to be self-regulating, even when the world doesn’t require that of them. There are some people who simply can’t feel pleasure without first feeling pensive. Others give way to joy so effortlessly. They ask no question, “come in, come in,” they say. All young people are in that part of the population. I’m not sure when I began to fall into the first.

I’ve started to wonder if indulgence isn’t an illness, if gluttons maybe shouldn’t feel guilt. Who knows, hedonism could be healthy. I dried myself after that sweetest shower. I was dripping in divinity, but as I lost that wetness, I came back into myself: a self that had to fold laundry and scrub dishes and do homework. There is no wrong in returning. But, after being away, I don’t think there should be much ado about leaving either.

 

to be pulled upwards

Valentines day, 2014, I laid in a hospital bed, tracing the veins in my mom’s hand as we listened to the beeps and whirls and turns of all the machines that were holding my body up and together. Her breath was tinted with cinnamon candy. I’d never been sent so many flowers before. It felt suffocating and perfumey– sympathy smells much different from seduction.  Women in the community knit quilts for everyone who had to sleep in the hospital that month. Mine was stitched with yellow petals and I always take it on picnics.

Valentines day, 2015, Hunter showed up to my house early, with a box of donuts. We made waffles that day that were flooded by chocolate chips—an avalanche of chocolate chips—a downpour of chocolate chips. The first try we forgot to grease the iron, and were left with more-material-than-not clinging to the hot surface. We wrapped ourselves in white, soft sheets. Watched movies. Went to an art museum. Found somewhere to order fries. He gave me a projector that shone stars up onto my ceiling and a mug that cradled my earl grey and milk.

Valentines day, 2016, I dug my toes in the sand. The air was thicker than I could ever have imagined in Florida, and Lindsay was somehow even more beautiful, and more welcoming. We ordered expensive coffee drinks, soaked our feet in salty water. We biked to buy pizza.  We went to her math class and did so many things to look back on and smile. After so much time apart, it already felt unimaginable to be away from her side, to sleep alone ever again.

Valentines day, 2017, I’m submerged in bed with a different mug, brimming with earl grey and milk. When I think about this month, and this day, and this lifetime, I feel so willing to give up everything that I’ve ever wanted for one very large favor from the universe. I don’t know how this works. I don’t think I have a relationship of reciprocity with any higher power. I’ve learned that no one ever owes you anything—let alone the place that you live. All this being said, I’m asking that we forget it all and find away to make Miss Hannah Hale smile and stand up and speak again,

If we could help her up as she held her arms open,

If we could send our heartful’s of hopefulness,

All our lovingness and loveability,

Our sweetest serendipity.

If we could take the goodness she has given to us and make it into medicine,

If we could turn kindness into healing,

And kisses into kingdoms.

If we could just make her better this Valentines day.

In times of unbelievable sadness, I am still, somehow, blown off my feet and backwards by the prevailing pull of love. This Valentine’s day I’m unsure of who picked out Hannah’s heart, who put it between her ribcage, and made it work the way it does. I’m unsure how she smiles while sliding into surgery. I don’t see how things like this can unfold. But this love—this family—this community of people gathered around her bedside, watching with bated breath and silent sobs and pleading prayers—these people are heavy enough to crash through the Earth’s mantel, but this sweet pull from the love of a heart with a hole in it keeps them aloft, floating so their feet don’t even touch the ground. There is a lightness we get from being in love. To feel something so wholly good and unabashed helps us be brave when the very world that gave us this love threatens to take it away. This love makes me disbelieve my own despair, gives me an inkling of unfounded hope in even the darkest of circumstances that things won’t be as bad as I believe.

Sweet Hannah, I don’t know what to say. You are full of lessons and of love and you have filled our lives with light. You pull us up when our hearts feel heavy enough to hold us down. Happy Valentine’s Day, sweet girl.img_5421

moonlight

moonlight_movie_wideOn Friday I went to see the movie Moonlight with two people who I feel so affectionately towards. We curled our way down sets of stairs into the deepest part of Willard Strait Hall, where the smell of popcorn is so familiar and the reaching murals on the walls so humble. The man in front of me bought my ticket.

“I have a daughter your age,” he said.

I didn’t feel like anybody’s daughter while watching Moonlight. I didn’t feel like anybody at all. I’m guilty of getting itchy during movies– going to make phone calls in the middle, pouring everybody glasses of water. I love movies, but it’s hard to be still. However, when Moonlight ended, I uncurled my hands, unhinged my jaw, put my hair behind my ears; I became myself again. This movie didn’t feel like a plot—it felt like a life. The most incredible chicken wire you could imagine built the silhouette of the most piercing lifetime you could picture. I wasn’t caught up in the action. I was caught up in a person.

Told in three parts, Moonlight is the coming of age tale of a boy named Chiron, growing up gay and black and with a single mother in Miami. So many things made this movie too beautiful to blink during. The blue color imagery burned the back of my eyes, like finding an O in a page full of Q’s. The life of Chiron feels like a secret I’ve been sworn not to speak about. As I walked out of Willard Strait Hall, pressing my tingling fingers into mittens, I was thinking about silence. The moments of silence in Moonlight asphyxiated the audience. There was no synchronized gasp because there was no air left to grab at. The moments when the movie was all blue and no bang—no breathing—held me up against the murals by my neck. No one makes a movie silent by accident. The music cuts, and the set is still, and there is a boy named Chiron and a man with a daughter my age, and we are all existing in this instant of alike quietness.

Silence is stuck in my head like the songs you listen to in the summer. There are few moments of absolute absence in this life, so full of beating and being. I remember the silence of a cutout, incredulous laugh. Bad news too unbelievable to break. Silence while swimming in cool water. Switching the smoke detector off. Walking through blue doorframes. Slipping into sleep. Questions that go unanswered. What did I do wrong? Becoming myself again. Biting my tongue. Looking blue in the moonlight.

Silence tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a free ticket. Silence saw the reflection of itself in my eyes. Silence got trapped in between my shoulders, in the place where I have to write about it… I have to write about it right now. Chiron is something I can’t speak about, but because this life makes no sense at all, he won’t let me shut up about silence. I hope you see Moonlight, and I hope you read this and recognize me in all that hush. Being blue in the moonlight and thinking of you and being afraid to say it—afraid to break the silence—to break itself.

I grew up landlocked

Planted in a field of waving wheat

By the bowing heads of sunflowers

The sky is our infinity in the Midwest

It is our ocean,

Our basin,

Our plate tectonics.

Our sky is our everlasting–

Our proof of Gods

I could squint hard and see the ocean in my dreams

And it was always morning time,

And the sand was always warm,

And there were sunflowers lining the shores.

Seagulls stood like cornstalks, scarecrows.

The water was a fallen sky.

A new type of autumn

Clouds floated like jellyfish.

Airplanes learned how to be submarines.

If the sky were proof of God,

The oceans were proof of Heaven.

Somehow, still, I never expected to find death there.

The first time I saw the image of a Syrian toddler face down on the beach,

It felt like opening my eyes underwater.

The first time I saw a boy’s brown eyes blink beneath his brother’s blood,

The first time I saw an old man cry,

The first time I saw someone lose their daughter,

And then their mother,

And then their sister.

And then their city.

The first time I saw terror,

The first time I saw displacement,

The first time I saw refugees,

Was the first time I saw so many spines,

Bending away from the bad news.

I can’t say I don’t understand you.

The salt burns my eyes,

And I want to look away too.

My dreams of crystal sandcastles,

On bubbling beaches,

Are obscured with dead bodies,

And I try to make myself wake up.

And it’s always morning time.

And the sand is always warm.

And there are sunflowers lining my soul,

I stand like a cornstalk, a scarecrow.

And I hide my sifting spine,

And I will do my best to bring you to our beaches,

To welcome you into our home.

I will teach submarines to be airplanes.

I will stop dreaming of beaches,

And start dreaming of your safe arrival.

I will be your refuge–

The shore you will wash up on.

This country should be your sailboat.

I’m sorry we keep sending you away.

Our light towers don’t tell you the truth.

You’re wanted here.

I want you here.

sad camp

There are some stories I can’t tell.
They are too heavy.
There are too many.
They are not mine to give.

Last week I packed up some dusty tshirts and tennis shoes and headed out to the Adirondacks. I sat on a bus with thirty counselors and thirty campers. We were all there for free. Working for free, playing for free, for once in our lives, missing the rent and never having to collect it.

I am a story teller more than I am a writer, and I am a writer more than I am a person. Because of this, when things happen to me, it’s like I’m watching a sentence be crafted, melded, melted and started all over again. I am a story teller. I don’t understand people until I write them as characters– everything feels like a plot point, feels like turning the page.

I don’t believe people are born as writers or storytellers or lovers or givers. We grow into ourselves, our ways of getting by. When we’re small, we don’t really have a good way of getting the heaviness out of us. When important things happen, it can feel like they’re ricocheting around our ribs.

The camp I worked at this week was for children with families affected by cancer. Most of them didn’t have a way to talk about their heavy feet. They didn’t have a place to unfold and then crumple, a person to cry to, time enough to write their stories– they were too busy living them.

Camp is a place for writing stories, for letting go of some of the heavy.

Have you ever heard of muscle memory? It’s the way your body learns certain feelings. Everyone who has ever lived in a house with cancer has a lot of the same muscle memories. It’s strange to share a memory with a stranger. Like, two o’clock in the morning, driving to the emergency room, unsure if you should say goodnight or good morning. Like, praying to the God you’re afraid has forgotten all about you, asking for more time and asking for less suffering, trying to choose which one you’d pick if you couldn’t have both. Like, hospital food, and the way nurses look at you, and never feeling like a kid because you were born knowing more about dying than being alive. Like, crying in a public bathroom. Like, I know I’m supposed to be strong. Like, because I wasn’t dealt the worst deck I made a rule that I can’t be sad. I can’t ever cry. Like, when the cancer comes back and it wasn’t supposed to, and I don’t want to be scared again. Like, being four feet tall and eighty years wise. Like, I miss my mom so much. I miss my dad so much. I miss them both so much. Like, I’m sorry this is happening to you. I’m sorry this is happening to us. Hold my hand.

Before I left for camp I wrote down three questions to answer as soon as I knew how. I put them in an envelope. I asked myself,
Do you trust me?
Are you happy?
Do you feel sorry for me?

This week I brushed so much hair. I pulled it taught and tight and braided till my hands bled. I gave away food when I was hungry, gave up beds when I was tired, emptied my pockets when I already felt vacant. I cried hard. I cried loud. I cried in front of a lot of people. I told my secrets. I fell asleep in the grass, holding a hand that was far too small to have felt so much death. We were counting constellations. Her breath got heavy and slow. I ran a race. I put bug spray on my face. I didn’t hear from you. I made five new best friends. I learned five new ways to have your heart broken. I kissed the tops of heads. They told me they loved me back. I trust you, he said.

I don’t know what it’s like to be twelve years old and watch two parents die. I don’t know what it’s like to come home and find your dad in heaven. I don’t know what it’s like to know six types of cancer before you can memorize a telephone number. I don’t know what it’s like to be strong– really strong, not the oh-you’re-so-strong but the actual strength that builds roads out of cemeteries, lifts baby brothers over broken bridges, moves mountains when you don’t know what it means to be here. Of course you’re not happy. We don’t have to be happy. Hold my hand.

I could feel sorry for sad kids for the rest of forever. If I started right now, I wouldn’t run out of pity. I could apologize. I probably should apologize. You remind me of my brother, but he’s never had to carry a casket before. Being sorry for you doesn’t take away the heavy. So, I will tie your shoes. I will count the constellations. We are going to dance long after we should be asleep. I will hold you tight while you cry over a mosquito bite. I will hold you tighter when you cry over a tumor. I can’t feel sorry for you; I’d run out of space for all this love. Here, hold my hand.

I heard the most incredible stories this week that cut through me in a way that I never thought was possible. I usually want to give everything away. I want you to have my stories. I want to give you my life on a silver platter. I will romanticize it and erase all the grey, all the commercial breaks. I want to serve you. I want my stories to teach you. This week I learned that there are some stories I can’t share. But there are a few that I can.

Here are some things that I really, really need to tell you :

When it comes to roasting marshmallows, it’s always worth it to play the long game.

It’s not fair. They should be flying kites, not making appointments. I don’t understand. Why do some people have to grow old before they grow tall? Where does this wisdom come from? When will they get to act small?

People really need to stop making broad generalizations about how kids experience grief. They feel things as differently as adults do, and it’s preposterous to treat them like a single symptom.

At camp, we snuck into the kitchen. We stole so many snacks. I saw big smiles and fistfuls of chips, brownies. We’d already brushed our teeth.

I’m not the same.

We lost a sneaker in the creek.

There were two snakes in our cabin. We were screaming, but we were not scared.

I hate cancer. We all hate cancer, but we have this family. We have an extra family that we can find in the middle of the mountains. We will help each other feel less heavy. We love each other very much. There is magic at camp, and it helps us tell stories.