By Sean Griffin
It was the end of July when I moved into a railroad style apartment in Red Hook. The summer had come in the form of a clinging humidity that seemed to pull the sweat out of my pores. In the past half dozen years or so, I had moved around a lot. I mainly bounced around the boroughs. Living one year lease at a time, rent went up, I moved out. There was, however, a brief stint in Orlando, but it didn’t take. I had moved back to New York and got a job teaching English at a private school in Brooklyn. It was my first year back in New York, and after living a rather nomadic life, I wanted to settle some, make connections, and have what I imagined to be the ideal life of artistic pursuit of my writing.
I was determined to move without enlisting anyone’s help. This determination stemmed from my continual Catholic guilt, even though I had been clean for many years at this point, because if anyone helped me it would have been my parents. I wouldn’t have survived them helping, and every call with my mother after would be her casually mentioning that her shoulder was sore or that dad slept in because his back was bothering him all night. My dad would be far less subtle saying things like, remember how your poor mother and I moved you into your apartment, and proceed telling it as a tragic tale where I’d feel obligated to thank them again. I know this because they helped me move out and I still haven’t heard the end of it. Worse yet, I was afraid to ask friends for fear they wouldn’t show up. Especially given that they had missed a couple of my birthdays and tended towards cancelling last minute.
To move my queen-size knock-off memory foam mattress, I put it in a mattress bag, sealing it up with the exception of one corner, and in that small opening used a vacuum to pull the air out, flattening my bed until it looked like shriveled pastry dough. After sealing the corner of the bag, I rolled it up tight and tied it in three places to keep it from undoing.
With my mattress in its jelly roll shape, I was able to fit it into my hatchback with a couple gallons of paint, some paint rollers, all of my clothes in a duffel bag, and a couple boxes of books I hadn’t read yet. With the car packed, I drove down the BQE towards Red Hook. During the drive I could hear a hiss, not like a flat tire, but from inside the car. There either was a puncture or the mattress bag wasn’t airtight, and before I had gone ten minutes on the road the mattress had swollen significantly. Though it was still rolled up, it now took up the entire car.
I picked up my set of keys at the realtor’s office and drove over to the apartment on Nelson Street. The building was easy to spot since it was the only one with a mint green door. I could spot it from the highway across the street. It was mid-morning and I found a spot half a block from the building. When I opened the car door the sound of the BQE just overhead, the baritone honks of trucks, continuous sound of tires coasting on asphalt in their pale imitation of ocean waves, the occasional wheel going straight into a pothole with an alarming thud, rushed into the driver’s seat with me. On the corner was a repair yard that had piles of scrap anywhere they could stack it with a chain link fence going around it all. There was a pitbull behind the fence, his white fur so dirty probably from the emissions of the highway that he appeared gray. He stood with his muscular legs firm and just stared at me as I crossed the street. There was broken glass on the stoop that looked like ice in the summer. With several kicks from my rubber soles, I swept it aside.
The hallway was narrow with an apartment on the left and right sides. The stairs were slim too and the same mint color as the outside door. I’m built like a skyscraper, I just go straight up with no width, but my shoulders took up from the banister to the wall. Second floor and in my new apartment, the walls a fresh yellowish cream still had the thick dusty smell of paint without ventilation. I walked to the end of the apartment and forced open the windows, level with the raised highway across the street, letting in the noise. It took a couple trips, about a liter of sweat, and pushing the mattress length-wise up the stairs before the car was empty and the apartment was less so. I sent a message to an acquaintance who lived in Park Slope, Hey, I just moved to Red Hook.
I stood staring at the walls I intended to paint in an effort to pull the soil around me and plant my roots. My declaration of permanence. Granted, painting is always seen as a bad idea from a renter’s perspective because you have to paint the walls back to white, but I thought I knew better. I thought I would be in that apartment for years. This was also the first time I had a place completely to myself. In the past, I had always had roommates. Even growing up, I shared a room with my brother, and the opportunity to make a place mine was certainly a motivation. It was letting the past make decisions for me.
It was past dark when I finished the second coat and my t-shirt was a shade darker from another liter of sweat lost. I left all the supplies out, grabbed a book from one of the boxes, and walked out to let the apartment air. There was a crunch when I stepped out onto the stoop, and from the light inside I could see there was fresh broken glass. I pushed it over to the pile I swept aside earlier.
I walked past the place on the corner with the chain-link fence and dusty pitbull (saying, hi to him as I went), past the check cash place, tried to make the crosswalk under the highway, but got stuck on the concrete island between. Eventually, I made it over to Court St. in Carroll Gardens and found a bar that served food. The place was called Abilene, and it had found furniture hipster aesthetic. Chairs were mismatched or in need of repair, tables were made of reclaimed wood or were procured from the curb. One was an oak dining room table that looked like it at one point was the centerpiece for family meals in one of the brownstones in this neighborhood. Over in one corner was a stack of board games. Johnnie B. Goode was playing loud enough where chit chat fought to be louder. The people in the bar seemed to be kith either in style or in relation. Groups were seated or standing in human circles. Putting my hands together like I was either in prayer or about to dive, I pushed through the long beards, tattoos of obscure images that are sure to be conversation pieces anywhere else, but largely ignored, gauged ears and septum piercings, flannel and skinny jeans, high waisted shorts and tops tied behind necks, until I got to the bar.
Behind the bar was a woman with a rawboned face and a small turned up nose. She had full hair in tight ringlet curls and leaned over the bar waiting for me to order. A sandwich and a glass of Malbec. Standing upright, she wrote on a pad, tore off the page, and placed it on the end of the counter. As she moved from one side of the bar to the other the color of her ringlets changed from blonde to red to blue like her hair was kaleidoscopic. She returned with my glass of wine and was gone before I could say anything else. I dove back through the crowd and found a place to sit with a small table and my back against a wall. I sipped my wine and felt the acidic tart slide down to hit my empty stomach. The wine in the glass almost seemed black as it trembled on the table because I was jogging my right leg so hard. For some reason I thought I’d read and eat, something I usually do when I eat alone, but I couldn’t get past the first page. Something would distract me long enough, that any information I soaked in had evaporated. At one point, a woman in a casual black spaghetti strap dress came in and started her greeting of an elongated, “hey!” as she crossed the room to a group of people. She was talking as if she had trouble hearing her own voice. As if she too, was trying to prove she existed.
My phone buzzed with a reply, Cool. That neighborhood has great seafood. I left the phone on the table and stared at it. No offer to hang out or to meet up. It would have been simple to call someone, but at that moment what I wanted was for someone to reach out and show me they cared. I thought about trying to talk to someone around me, but all were involved with their own. Instead, my sandwich was brought out from the kitchen.
The next morning there would be cop cars driving up and down the block. The street intersecting mine, cordoned off. On my walk my dad would call.
“You know four people were shot on your corner?”
“Yeah, it was on the news. Don’t tell your mother.”
But that night, I had two more glasses of wine and chicken sandwich. I walked to my new apartment with my book tucked under my arm. No pitbull in the yard, he must have been asleep tucked away somewhere. The stoop sparkled in the street light from a new batch of glass and the door’s green seemed luminescent. Stepping through the glass, I wiped my feet on the front doormat and continued up the stairs.
I unwrapped the mattress and laid it in the middle of the floor. With effort and most my weight, I was able to close the windows and dull the sounds from the highway to a hum. Lying on the bed in the glow from the lights outside, I tried out several times the feeling that I was home.
Sean Griffin is an MFA student at Manhattanville College. He's an editor of the Manhattanville Review and Inkwell Magazine. He lives in New York with his three dogs. Sean has not previously been published.
* * *
By Margaret Ormrod
It was the 1950s and we were like other families, except for the secret we kept hidden from even our closest relatives. My father did not attend Mass.
He had a profound and abiding hatred of the Catholic Church, one we could not understand. Years of listening to him voice his harsh resentment towards it taught each of us not to ask questions. Every Sunday, I took note of my mother lying to our neighbors: “No, not with us at this one. Bill’s going to High Mass at noon.” High Mass. The holiest of Masses. It comprised of chanting, incense, choirs, sermons, and of course, the sacrament of Mass. It lasted for more than ninety minutes. My mother’s lie was a mortal sin and shame hung on my skinny shoulders like sackcloth.
We lived in a country where censorship by the Irish Catholic Church was absolute, and submission to its authority unconditional. Contraception was condemned by the Church. The Irish government, its servile legislative arm, bowed to its wishes by banning access to any form of prophylactic. As a result, families were impoverished, with too many children, and too few resources.
On Sunday mornings, we gathered at the church for Mass. We were shabbily dressed with threadbare coats that were whipped by the wind and soaked by the endless rain. During the ceremony, vapor slowly rose from our sodden clothes.
At a certain point ushers shuffled up the aisle, passing out collection plates along the pews. Despite our poverty, the Church made passive-aggressive demands for donations. They requested money from a nation barely able to feed its own children. To pass a collection plate without placing money on it stigmatized the entire family.
Each Sunday, our priest stood in the pulpit wearing vestments of deep, forest green and gilded embroidery. His face radiated nourishment and good health. He spoke of Ireland in devout and earnest terms.
“Our families, our nation, sets a fine example to the world because of our special devotion to the Holy Family, and because of our stellar attendance at Mass.”
Even as a child, I weeded out the hypocrisy in that statement. By not attending Mass on Sundays, we placed a mortal sin on our souls, one which condemned us to the eternal fires of Hell. There existed no other choice.
I felt suffocated by the rules and regulations of the Church. I shuddered at the thought of God. We were told that He was kind and loving, but I found no consolation in those words. I experienced neither; just threats of punishment and Hell.
My earliest memories of my father are littered with his outbursts, and with his endless rants against the Catholic Church. As much as I was terrified of God, my fear of Him was nothing compared to the dread I felt at an oncoming explosion from my father. As a consequence, my weight veered off the “normal” scale with alarming speed and regularity; there were times when a piece of clothing that fit the previous week now draped my bony frame. Between my parents, I sensed an uneasy truce about religion from day to day – one upon which my mother depended, and one which my father broke with alarming regularity.
I was seven years old when I fully understood that not only was my father a non-believer (and that was dreadful enough); his anger towards the Church was a bottomless pit of poison and rage. It was the week before my First Communion and my new dress was almost ready. Blizzard white, it sparkled with shining snowdrops and with silver threads sewn into the chiffon. At school, I practiced attending my First Confession, and receiving my First Communion. I chattered ceaselessly over dinner. As we stood up from the table, my father locked eyes with me.
“Is that all you can talk about?” My stomach cramped and I stood, frozen in place. I looked towards my mother for direction; she had already left the room with a stack of dishes.
My father’s face reddened; a purple vein rose in his forehead. Paralyzed, I waited for the ‘Next Thing’. There always was a ‘Next Thing’. My heart spiraled downwards towards the floor. Suddenly, he slammed his fist down onto the table. The remaining dishes bounced and the glasses toppled over. “SCHOOLBAGS! NOW! EVERYONE!”
The six of us almost knocked each other over trying to get to our bags. As we piled them at his feet, we looked up at him in horror. He hauled out our ‘Christian Doctrine’ books, ones from which we learned everything about our Catholic religion.
He began ripping them apart, rolling the pages into balls and flinging them into the fire.
“This! Is! What! I! Think! Of! Your! Fucking! Catholic! Church!”
He continued until they were all blazing in the fireplace. We were sobbing. My mother had returned and was enveloping us in her arms as she tried to prevent my father from going any further. She was powerless in the face of his anger and hostility, her six children crying hysterically around her.
My father was going to Hell. That I knew for certain. We were all going to Hell. God would never forgive us now.
When he finished, I sensed his fury dissipate. The electricity in the air fizzled out as my heartbeat slowed. From experience, I knew if we were very quiet, and if we all left the room and went upstairs, it was over. For that night, at least.
Each day, I wished my father dead. Late at night, I fantasized about a knock on the door; a police officer sent to report my father’s death. I shook when I thought of his anger, and I felt betrayed by my mother. I asked myself over and over: Why do we need to live like this? Why?
As I stumbled through my childhood and adolescence, his behavior negatively affected me, and it defined my entire world view as an adult. I became over-cautious, unable to trust people around me. A crippling anxiety was my daily companion; I startled at sudden, loud noises. A relentless insomnia left me exhausted and depressed.
As the 1990s and the following decade unfolded, the world learned of the unspeakable abuse of children at the hands of the Catholic clergy in Ireland during my father’s childhood, 1 and beyond. I spent much time thinking about my father. His mother, my grandmother, had related to me that as a seven-year-old in 1928, he served Mass and attended a school staffed by Christian Brothers. My understanding of his anger and of his bitterness grew from the realization that he, in all likelihood, had been one of the clergy’s victims. I finally understood the great torment he had suffered throughout his life. His anguish and his misery were borne not only by him, but by my entire family.
I have forgiven my father.
I will never forgive them.
Margaret Ormrod, at 66, is a latecomer to writing. "Dublin", a short memoir of her childhood in Ireland, was published in Pithead Chapel magazine in October 2015. It was subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and their Boxer puppy.
* * *
By Catherine Young
"Ooh," Björn answers my call from a phone booth in Leksand, a four-hour train ride from his home in Stockholm. "What time is it?" He speaks each word slowly and separately as he tries to think in English.
"It's 3 AM. I need help. I need to come to your friend’s Midsommar party after all. The Americans threw all of my things out of the dormitory room, and I got locked out. I can tell you everything later. The first train out is at seven…"
"O-kay," Björn answers. "No worries, then." He gives me directions for each train I will take, and finally a taxi. He will see me after he plays accordion for a Midsommar pole-raising late that afternoon, and then we’ll go to a celebration. Björn is the best kind of friend for an American in distress.
On the crowded train back from Leksand to Stockholm, I lean on my backpack and fiddle.
My dream of Sweden at Midsommar began the moment I set eyes on a postcard as a child – a painting of smiling and laughing children and adults wearing flower crowns clustered around a log house painted red with white trim. Fiddlers in long, dark, wool coats and yellow breeches leaned in toward a girl in summer dress and clogs fiddling back to them. Spelmänsstämma i Dalarna was the caption. I had no idea the words meant a folk musicians' gathering in Sweden – but I knew it's where I had to go.
The fiddlers in the postcard came to life when I first heard Swedish folk music performed in America at a summer festival, and when I first heard a haunting Swedish fiddle tune, I had to learn the polska dance that went with it – a couple dance that whirled around the room. I stayed up all night, begging to be taught.
I dreamed Midsommar in Dalarna, the area in Sweden where a meteorite hit the earth and pushed up mountains, and centuries-old red log houses glow against the green landscape. A place where, because of poverty and mining, change has been slow and old traditions kept intact. Where the devil-driven, strange-sounding tunes of two hundred years still reign.
Two years ago, when I played with a group of Swedish-American musicians, five fiddlers from the town of Leksand in Dalarna gave a workshop in America. They announced the planned workshop with them in Leksand at Midsommar, and I asked to go along. I was willing to do anything to put myself in the scene of my childhood postcard.
But nothing has turned out as planned.
The blur outside the windows of the speeding train reflects the vertigo I feel from over two days’ lack of sleep. Why, Why, Why, the train’s rhythm pounds, but I refuse to consider the question for which I have no answer. The hurt is bad enough.
In evening, Björn brings me to his friend's Midsommar party – a gathering of middle-aged people like him. A visiting American smiles a welcome to me and puts a flower crown on my head. We dance and sing outdoors around a garlanded pole, children and adults together, and then eat and talk beneath it in the long twilight. Everyone asks how I've come to be with them, and it's so hard to explain.
"OK," Björn says. "So you made reservations at the folk school and they were expecting you yesterday. I put you on the train at noon."
"And the train broke down. Over and over. I got to the school at dusk and it was empty except for the rector who waited for me and let me in. The American musicians were at the party with the Leksand musicians. They told me at the airport that the party was just for them. So I unpacked and took the mile walk to town – which was also empty."
"Yes. Everyone’s at parties."
"When I got back to my room, I found my things thrown out." I take a breath to steady my voice before continuing. "The group leaders waited in the lounge to tell me I had no right to be there because I hadn’t made a reservation."
"But you had."
"Yes, but after checking me in and before the Americans arrived, the rector left for the weekend. It was awful, Björn. I could have slept outdoors, but – oh I needed to get away from them. I walked to town and called you, and then I went to the train station."
"And do the Leksand fiddlers know what happened?"
"I don’t know. I should just get a flight home."
The American woman listens carefully, and then offers, "You have three weeks before the return flight. You're here in Sweden for a reason."
"I came for the music in Dalarna. Now I don't have a place there."
The woman takes my hand in hers." Her aquamarine eyes sparkle in the summer twilight. She shakes her head and smiles at me, then whispers, "The universe is trying to tell you something."
I sigh. I wonder: What language is the universe speaking?
Long past midnight Bjorn takes me down to the lakeshore. "In Viking times, the water was higher and all these small lakes were connected. Viking ships sailed right to where we are standing."
We take a path through the woods where we discover four nearly spent candles placed on a Viking rune stone, one each for the four directions. I feel lifted.
Björn and I walk the streets of the town in the long twilight. At 3 AM, the color comes back into the rosebushes. He asks, "What now? There's a fiddle workshop south of here. I can sign you up. You can stay in Stockholm until it begins."
"Help me phone a contact in Dalarna. Maybe I can make my way there and camp at the festivals."
"All right then," he says.
I ride toward the sun in a cherry red Volvo with Ragnvald at the wheel, and Bojan, his wife, shaking her gorgeous blonde curls. Her fiddle rests beside me on the back seat.
"The farmer, he does the hay the old way, and he needs help," Bojan tells me in lilting English as we race the wooded Dalarna countryside.
The midsummer light in Sweden has me completely turned around. "So, now which direction are we going?" I ask.
"North, mostly," Ragnvald answers. "Around this time of year the sun rises in the North, going up almost to the top of the sky, makes a circle, then sets in the North, going down for only about four hours."
Bojan draws the path of the sun in the air: a circle and then a line coming down – the path of a child's pretend halo.
"You have heard of Bingsjö?" Ragnvald asks me.
"Yes. The tunes from there are gorgeous – and so impossible to play! Why do you ask?"
"We are going to help with hay at Pekkosgården, the farm where the Bingsjöspelmänsstämma is held."
I catch my breath. It would be enough for me to simply work on a farm in Sweden. But Pekkosgården – the home of the fiddler and tradition bearer, Pekkos Gustav. The most famous farm in central Sweden: the site of the Bingsjö Festival – the largest fiddlers' gathering.
"In two weeks, 20,000 people will come to the farm. And the hay has to be put up today."
Ragnvald hands over a wooden rake, its tines small, hand-carved pegs. I rake as I see the others do, pulling the hay in swaths. Pekkos Gustav gestures to me and speaks to Bojan in dialect. She translates for me: No it has to be just right. Just right. The hay has to be combed – like hair all in a line. Otherwise it won't shed water. Moldy hay can start a barn fire.
I comb and comb the hay, watching Ragnvald and Bojan, to see if my swaths look like theirs. As we rake, carpenters set up a stage near us below the farmhouse.
After three hours of raking and lifting hay, I spread my raincoat on the ground and lie down. Pekkos Gustav comes over, leans on his rake and smiles at me, saying something I can understand. Så trött.
So very tired. Yes, I am.
We trudge uphill to the red log farmhouse for lunch. Inside, the house is traditional and picture-perfect. Green and red shelves line the white-washed walls of the Dalarna kitchen. The stove is wood-fired. Svea, the farmer’s wife, places bowls and knäckebröd, the Swedish hardtack, before us. ("No meat, right?" I whisper to Bojan. She shakes her head. "Pea soup for lunch.") I'm so hungry I finish one bowl and gladly accept more. Svea fills my bowl a third time.
Pekkos Gustav is trying to tell me something. He gestures towards the barn. Bojan translates: "The soup tastes so good because it has the farmer's own ham in it."
I swallow hard. I have been a vegetarian for fifteen years. There is no food other than pea soup with ham, and I’ve already eaten two bowls full. I smile. Tack för maten, I tell them. Thanks for the food.
After seven more hours of haying and two more meals of pea soup, I collapse on the ground to rest. The farmer tells me in dialect, It's hard work isn't it?
When the haying is done, Pekkos Gustav invites us up to the parlor to play tunes. He plays music out-of-tune to my ear – quarter tones, disorienting and dizzying. As I listen, I look at the white-stucco fireplace surrounded by murals of Rousseau-like trees and 18th-century costumed people painted when the farmhouse was new. My sense of present time dissolves into the music.
In two weeks' time, Bojan, Ragnvald, and I become inseparable. I rent a car, and I follow them to each stämma, camp beside them, and follow them home in between festivals. I dance with Ragnvald, play fiddle tunes with Bojan. I skinny dip with them in a river. I visit their relatives, and babysit Bojan's nephew. Rangvald teaches me a new Swedish word: lagom – just right. The days become lagom. I learn to stay low key in the daytime, dance and play just before midnight, and continue partying until dawn. Like a good Swede, I sleep from sunrise till noon, then eat and lounge until clocks tell us it's night and time to celebrate.
I return to Pekkosgården for the Bingsjöstämma, seasoned. Thousands of people now cover every inch of ground between the farm’s hay-covered racks. Their murmuring voices cloak the hillside. Here and there a shout of surprise rises like a flare of a Midsummer bonfire, but only for an instant. Clusters of fiddlers play around the farm buildings, while scheduled fiddlers perform all afternoon on the newly-built stage. Ragnvald, Bojan, and I sit close to it, on the ground.
"There they are," I point out the American musicians out to Ragnvald, "The ones who threw out my luggage." He nods.
The Americans arrive at the stage in a tight group. They are scheduled as guest fiddlers. Behind them, I see the five Leksand fiddlers in their traditional long, dark blue wool coats and yellow leather breeches – dressed as if they've stepped from a mural. They are readying to play on stage with the Americans. I feel unbearably sad. I turn away.
Ragnvald nudges me. Lars, the leader of the Leksand group, comes up to us; the other four are behind him. He reaches down to where I sit on the grass, and takes both my hands in his. He shakes both my hands, and says, "You are welcome here." He shakes my hands and makes sure that I look in his eyes – that I understand him.
"You are welcome here. Yes?" All of the Leksand fiddlers behind him nod in agreement. They depart, and I am bewildered.
"That was an apology, you see? They came to apologize," Ragnvald tells me. In an instant, the weeks melt, and I turn and collapse into Ragnvald's arms and weep, while Bojan rubs my back.
After the sun sets, the tourists leave, and the short, twilit night begins. Musicians cluster in intimate groups and disperse across the farm, each claiming their own performance spaces. In the log barn, the most famous regional musicians play in complete darkness punctuated only by the pale golden sky through the open doorway. Dancers swirl and fly around the room. I find a partner and join in. We rotate clockwise, as if each couple is a planet, and together we revolve counterclockwise in the room, as planets around an unknown sun. Many dancers are drunk. With a doorway leading to twilight at one end, and musicians opposite in the darkness, we dancers take our chances. We hit like bumper cars in some crazy arcade. Oof, oof, we hear around the room as we make contact. Still we fly, managing not to fall down, or to take out any musicians whose proximity we navigate by sound.
Later in the night, the crowd peters out, campers go to their tents nearby, and couples make their way to the surrounding woods. Dancers stop spinning, but the musicians keep playing, as if possessed. One threesome near the pig barn has a percussionist. Indian Dwali bells dangle from his Irish hand drum, sweetly sounding out the Swedish pulsing rhythm: Thump baBOOM chime.
I am sated from light and music, but chilled. Svea is selling food from the farmhouse kitchen window for a good profit. When I offer her my kronor for a cup of coffee, she smiles, and shakes her head. Ingenting. Nothing. As she speaks, someone translates. For you it is free. Is coffee all you want?
By three in the morning, colors again return. Many sit on the hillside, talking quietly. We are smiling at one another, intoxicated on sleepless joy.
At four, fiddlers coalesce outside the farmhouse. The rest of us cluster like bees surrounding the queen. Fiddle strings ring as scores of musicians tune their instruments. Voices rise. The Leksand fiddlers stand in the center, roaring drunk, shouting and hugging everyone. A tune begins, and moves from fiddle to fiddle like a flame catching from twig to twig to light a bonfire. Louder and louder, they play the sun up, and as the first rays return over the North edge of the world, the fiddlers shout. The short night is over. The sun rises straight up into the northern sky. We are all shouting and singing, and I am where I belong.
After having worked as a national park ranger, teacher, farmer, and mother, Catherine Young completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essays, poetry and children's fiction appear in Imagination & Place: Cartography, Hippocampus, Punctuate, Midwest Review, and Cricket, among others. You can listen to Catherine read this essay and others here.
* * *
By Tracy Youngblom
I've been using the word a lot these past weeks. It's research paper time, when students are choosing and narrowing topics, considering how to take a position, trying to divine what they really think. Often I suggest considering implications, the impact of one thing on another: fast food on childhood obesity, say, or standardized testing on teaching practices.
When I was a college student, I didn't have a good sense of the word. That's why, after having two wisdom teeth extracted one afternoon, I headed to my 8:00 a.m. Theology class the next morning, impervious to any impact the surgery could have on me. After several minutes in class, apparently I put my head down, then stood up suddenly in the aisle and fainted dead away, falling between two rows of desks. Miraculously, I didn't hit anything on the way down, just the floor that rose up to meet me. But one learns one's vocabulary and remembers it according to experience. The next year when I had my final two wisdom teeth out, I had the word and its meaning at my disposal. I was more cautious.
Impact, of course, means a lot of things: strong influence, forceful consequence, the violent interaction of troops in combat, the striking of one body against another.
Cars have bodies; we call fixing them after collisions body work. We go to body shops, and sometimes I have seen my sons run a palm against the fender of a newly-waxed car as tenderly as if it were a woman's hip.
In my son Elias's case, the bodies of the cars crashed into each other, resulting in a high-speed impact. Each vehicle was going around 70 miles per hour, give or take (though the driver who hit my son was drunk, which seems to add something. She was also going the wrong way down the Interstate, one senseless action impacting another). Witnesses said there was an explosion. The literal part of my brain is curious, hungry for precision: explosion as in sound, or debris? both? Must be both: powder from the air bags hung in the air for several minutes afterwards, I was told. Their physical bodies also suffered the force of the impact, the only bodies to survive. Both cars were totaled.
I find it impossible to visualize this impact, though I can record its basic details: blur of action, booming sound, bodies of the cars twisting and torqueing, or my son's body inside the car, thrown backward, forward, left arm bones, radius and ulna, cracking and breaking through his skin, lungs and liver sliced by the force of the seatbelt, facial bones breaking, shifting, the beautiful symmetry of his face askew. His face was swollen to the size of a watermelon when I first saw him at the hospital, but even that visual hasn't stayed with me, nor can I imagine the un-retouched version, the version that paramedics found when they approached the car: everywhere there must have been blood, glass, terror, disorientation.
I don't want to imagine it. Even without a clear picture, I feel a certain impact in my own body these months later, a sudden constrained horror that takes my breath or forces it out as a punch to the gut would, or stops me mid-step to release a shudder. It is heavy, this impact, not painful but forceful. Unpredictable.
The body absorbs and the body reacts. Somehow, Elias's body absorbed the impact without brain injury, without spinal cord injury. He was badly hurt, but we have him still, able to walk and drum, his personality intact. The facial swelling, however, was a reaction that created a blockage, prevented blood flow to his optic nerve, and left him blind.
In a few weeks, he will have an opportunity to read a victim impact statement in court when the drunk driver who collided with him hears her sentence. Is the statement more like absorption or reaction? He has absorbed a lot in the past eight months: drugs and fluids, oxygen, painful realizations, the constant love and surveillance of family and friends, prayers. His reactions have been consistently, impressively upbeat; he has had rare moments of distress, hopelessness--rare and short-lived. In court he'll talk about the impact of the accident on his life and potential teaching career, but he won't use the word victim. His mind will not absorb that meaning; he reacts strongly against it. In a recent interview, he vowed that he wouldn't let "the stupid decision" of one person "control my life." He refuses to grant her that power.
My hips ache more and more these days, my body's reaction to aging. The pain itself is not new, just a copy of the pain I experienced during pregnancy; waiting for each boy to enter the world, my hip joints expanded, creaked, groaned, left me sleepless many nights from a haunting discomfort.
I may be absorbing the ache of my child again--not the ache of his body growing, but his mind and spirit. The fighting and resisting and twisting of my own reactions, a sympathetic growth. We are growing, absorbing the impact of this experience together, learning the vocabulary of adjustment one word at a time.
Tracy Youngblom's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Wallace Stevens Journal, Cumberland River Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry East, Cortland Review, 2River View, and other places. She has published two books of poems and scattered prose pieces. She teaches English full-time at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.