Shrines and Mantras

You stand at the edge of the porch, leaning over the rail as you exhale a cloud of smoke into the thick Louisiana air. It hangs in suspended animation, clouding your view of the boggy bayou. A warm tear slips from the corner of your eye and cools as it carves a shallow canyon through your makeup like an unyielding river through sandstone.

Most days your job doesn’t get to you. You shut off that part of yourself that cares about anything—your family, your life, your beliefs. Those things don’t exist here. You have learned to check your humanity at the door.

But some days you come unprepared.

With the back of your hand, you dry your cheek before snuffing out the cigarette against the weather-beaten rail. Your boss spits your name like a curse word, reminding you that you’re on the clock. He tells you to cry on your own time. You’ve imagined a thousand scenarios where you tell him off and quit, but you don’t live in a world where you can afford to put your money where your mouth is, so you swallow your words and keep your cash.

The screen door screams as you pull it open and snap on a pair of rubber gloves. “Where do you want to me to start?” You stand before him with your hands defiantly on your hips, silently daring him to give you flak, but when faced with your steely gaze, he wilts like a cut flower beneath a heating vent. Cowards often do.

He promptly averts his eyes and scurries past. “You take the bedroom. I’ll get the bathroom and kitchen.”

Of course. He leaves you to scrub blood and haul linens soaked in bodily fluids while he disposes of takeout boxes and mops boot tracks. But when payday comes, his check will dwarf yours. Life isn’t fair. For some less than others, you think with guilt as you stare at the handmade suncatcher that hangs from the kitchen window, its tinfoil caming and multi-hued saran wrap twisting light into vibrant patterns across the formica countertop like a stain glass window over a pulpit.

With a box of trash bags under one arm, you awkwardly tote a bucket of cleaning supplies down the hall, setting it at your feet as you inhale a deep breath and push your respiratory mask into place. Once upon a time, you didn’t know to cover your face right away, but now all you smell is rot and decay in everything. Even when you sleep, bleach and blood seep into your dreams. The mask helps to put layers between you and death.

Peeling unicorn stickers chase each other across the door around a little girl’s name drawn in purple crayon. But rusty red fingerprints have carelessly smeared through the letters, destroying any bit of magic that may have once existed. For the briefest of moments, your hand hesitates on the knob as you turn it. The click is deafening.

The door slowly swings open and you sink your teeth into your tongue until the taste of blood fills your mouth. You brace for impact, knowing that this image will violently slam into your chest leaving its permanent impression. You look any way.

In many ways, it’s ordinary. Pink walls, delicate lace curtains, a doll house with tiny furniture. But innocence flinches, cowering in the corner as it seeks safety from an evil that permeates from the heart of the room. It’s a darkness so black that it snuffs out the light in a single defined moment.

A ruined comforter dotted with shiny stars and crescent moons lies wadded in a ball on a bed where no child will ever sleep again. A deep furrow forms between your brow and you beat back your heartache as you absorb the nightmare. Against your will, it becomes a part of you.

Porcelain faces with perfect curls and hand-tailored gowns encircle the room on a shelf high above. They watch from their perches like angels in a cloudless sky, their glass eyes gleaming with the knowledge of what they have seen. You often think how fortunate it is that, while each object holds a story, it can’t be told without a mouthpiece. You’re thinking that now as you try to avoid their gazes.

Pulling an oversized trash bag from the box, you throw yourself into your work, hoisting the cumbersome blood-encrusted blanket into the bag. Constant motion keeps you from focusing too long on any one aspect, stops you from collecting the pieces and forming a narrative. You’ll do that later while you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep as you stare blankly at the ceiling.

Next you remove the stained sheets, the pillow where she dreamt of her future, the tiny articles of clothing scattered across the shag rug. One by one, you collect items and place them into bags, hauling them to plastic barrels which act as a sarcophagus for traumatic memories. Tears gloss over your vision as you scrub the walls where small nails have gouged ravines through soft pink paint. It’s as if your fingers are touching hers. You stifle a sob and scrub harder.

After hours of effort, you lay the past to rest as the room leaves behind the little girl who once sat at the tiny table with her dolls, feeding them from plastic spoons while singing about her wonder of the stars.

But no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to leave her behind.

When you’re sure your boss isn’t looking, you pocket a small, porcelain unicorn, careful not to crush it as you carry your supplies back to the van and call it a day. The ride home is quiet. You don’t turn on the radio, preferring the chirp of cicadas as you drive down the long, dirt road toward your trailer. Years ago, you made a rule not to listen to music on days like these. Some of your favorite songs had been ruined because they danced too close to death.

You open your screen door, which squeals just like hers, and flick on the lamp. Kicking off your shoes, you head toward the bathroom and start the shower. Your clothing peels down your skin, and its as if your soul is being flayed—every day another layer. You can still feel her blood on your fingers, even though you wore gloves. Of course it’s all in your head, but as the scalding water pours over your body, you still scrub your skin raw.

In the dim light of your room, you stand motionless before your cluttered dresser, staring at the clusters of tiny knickknacks and baubles belonging to people you’ve never met—an homage to the lost. You reverently place the delicate unicorn next to the others and light a candle.

Your eyes meet your vulnerable and broken reflection above the flickering flame—a remnant of the person you used to be—and you promise yourself for the hundredth time that there is still good in the world.

You blow out the candle.

The Paper Crane Terrarium

I’ve forged myself a cage

Gilded gold, ornate design

It hangs beneath the emerald fronds

And sways in the night breeze

That forms over ebbing tides and lulling seas

I’ve fashioned a world for one

A life of paper,

folded, twisted into perfect cranes

They fly under the swollen moon as it sings its silver song

That falls over my sleeping form

From pale dusk to vibrant dawn

I soar when skies are calm

over turquoise dreams I have dreamt

with unclipped wings and a voice that sings

A song that I am free

The People Who Make Us

Two crows silhouette against a morning sky.

I once had a friend

Who was no friend at all

She came and she went as she pleased

 

Some days she was strength

Some days she was solace

Some days she was nothing to me

 

I once knew a girl

Who would burn down the world

Just to keep from feeling its pain

 

One minute she was smiling

The next she was crying

Like sunshine showing through rain

 

I once had a love

Who pretended to live

She said she and I were the same

 

Her words were all empty

Her heart was a hole

And she said that I was to blame

 

I once was someone

A mind with a voice

Words that flowed wild and free

 

I weathered and shattered

And none of it mattered

Because all of these people were me

Interim

I’m not here

And I’ll remind you that you’re not here, either.

We’re barely existing on our separate planes

 

I reiterate that you must keep your eyes on your own paper

That this test is a solitary effort.

I don’t think I can help you any more,

not that studying together ever seemed to make a difference.

You still fail each time

 

I start to wonder if I’m a bad teacher,

Or if you’re a bad student.

Then I tell myself a secret:

It doesn’t matter

because you aren’t real

And I’m not either.

 

I give myself an A+

And I let you continue to fail.

 

And it still doesn’t matter.

The Things That I Could Do

I could quarantine my heart

Close it up and seal the air

Keep your breath, your words, your life

From infiltrating my existence

 

And maybe it would shelter me

From pain and grief that alway comes

Like gusts of wind from the West

That batter me from inside out

 

Or maybe it would make life stagnant

stale and musty—hard to breathe

Like humid days beneath the sun

Impossible to carry on

 

I could choose to tune you out

Replace your voice with any sound

Replace your eyes with any eyes

Or so I try to tell myself

 

But in seclusion, would I find

A better way to live my life?

Would the days seem twice as bright?

I imagine only darker

 

I’d miss the words that fill the space

Between the breaths that fill my lungs

That burrow deep within my chest

Beneath the ache of loneliness

 

Lamenting loss of smiling lips

That rise for you like waxing moons

That light the darkness with their glow

I cannot let the phases go

 

And so I leave my heart adrift

Let the cards fall where they may

Accept that I have no control

Of feelings carved from memories

 

Perhaps I’ll splinter—fall apart

Or even burn beneath your gaze

But I would bear the sear of pain

Just to hear you say my name

I Dance and Clap for Everything

I live most of my life in a very animated way. When I talk, my whole face moves; my eyebrows dive up and down, my lips pull into an array of smirks, my hands fly wildly through the air. I’m nearly a cartoon character. To say I am passionate would be an understatement.

Some people have a few things that bring out that level of enthusiasm—a sports team, a band, a television show. But I’m that way about everything I love, from the fresh carved loaf of pumpernickel the waitress sets on the table to the bright red octopus clinging to the side of the tank at the aquarium. I never learned to rein in my excitement for anything in which I’ve ever been invested—be it music, food, or people. That’s part of the reason my mother loves picking out Christmas gifts for me each year; she says I love everything…and I do, from notebooks to patterned pajama pants.

Words are no exception. I am as passionate about them as I am about love (which is really saying something, because I am an utterly hopeless romantic). I take it seriously when I put them on a page, because they are me and I am them. The same applies to our conversations—those words mean just as much.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we convey thoughts and communicate with each other. We don’t talk face to face as often. Most of our interactions are short—clipped; they fit in to small boxes on small screens.

I don’t speak on the phone frequently, but there’s something in those conversations that doesn’t easily translate into a text or email—passion. When I am excited about a topic, the person on the other end of the line can hear it. They notice that my volume rises toward the end of the sentence, that I ramble, causing shortness of breath because I’ve forgotten to pause and expand my lungs. In person, they would see my eyes grow wide, lighting up like sparklers, observe that I’ve moved to the edge of my seat and can no longer sit still.

When we talk in text, I don’t know that all the blood rushes to your face while you speak of injustice. You don’t know that I do happy dances and beam from ear to ear when you tell me good news. I can’t hear your exclamations and you can’t see my reactions. Something about this makes me sad. So much is lost in our exchanges.

In a piece of literature, we can sell our passion. We have hundreds to thousands of words to say, this is important; this is everything. But in a text or DM, or even an email, passion is often lost to efficiency. Say it, and say it quickly. That doesn’t leave much room for embellishment, which goes hand in hand with enthusiasm.

When I write anything, I never want to lose that excitement that possesses me, that takes over everything that I am and says, These are the things that inspire me, move me, wake me up, keep me going. And I absolutely live to read the passion of others—true passion, not that sad excuse of a replica that people push, where the words say one thing, but the emotion is dull and lifeless like the glass eyes of a stuffed animal that hangs on the wall in a den.

So I guess what I’m saying is that—despite the limitations of our chosen methods of communication—be ecstatic about all of the things that breathe life into your lungs, and shove it into your words until each sentence is overflowing with your energy. Feed the world your passion, and we will devour it…because nothing is as intoxicating as spirit.

The Afterimage of Words

wallofwords

There are times when I see a scene on a screen or read a remarkable line from a chapter, and it’s as if I understand something greater than myself, greater than the world in which I live. Each instance gives me a unique perspective into a different time or place and allows me to be part of an experience that doesn’t exist within these four walls. 

They are moments where my heart swells & flutters, & my breath hitches excitedly in my chest. They are minutes, seconds, milliseconds of perfection where I comprehend that some things are too beautiful to be experienced any other way. Anything less would be a loss.

I repeat the captivating words to myself for hours on end—days, weeks, years—to keep the feeling in motion, circulating through my veins. I never want it to end, only to remain cyclical, cycling indefinitely through my thoughts like a remembered birthday or memorized face that haunts my dreams. For surely, words follow us like ghosts, shadowing our lives with the weight of their meaning, clinging to a significant person or place as they play on loop.

Each preserved passage is cataloged, becoming a pinpoint on my timeline, a detailed description of the moment I fell in love with an idea & kept it for my own. On command, I collect each one from my vault of memories, reliving how bitterly sad, how inspiring, how intriguing they were as they danced across my retinas and settled into my gaze, becoming the apple of my eye. 

And so, over time, and without my realization, I became a historian of beautiful thoughts, gathering words and images into a hope chest that would provide me with the tools I needed to navigate my life. These would be the images and ideas that reminded me of how small I am and how big I could be. 

We’re all collectors, retaining bits and pieces of an alluring existence, absorbing the world around us as we observe life through a limited lens. And someday, if we’re lucky, our words will be reverently tucked away in the hope chests of others.

The Other Me

I’m frustrated all the time. It never ends. There’s this stretching in my chest that feels like something longing to break free, and I don’t know if it’s sadness or anger. I know that scientifically speaking, heartache is in the mind, but a pain has settled in that fist-sized organ in the center of my core just the same.

Sometimes, I long to be rid of emotions altogether, to wake up feeling nothing and fall asleep feeling nothing. I imagine the in-between to be a void where no emotions go in, and no emotions come out. And in this pretend world, I’m never made to feel guilty for being hollow.

You see, the constant struggle for emotional equilibrium takes its toll. I don’t like who I become. When I pass mirrors, I raise my middle finger to my reflection. It’s an acknowledgment that I’ve turned into this pathetic asshole that even I can’t stand. She smirks back at me; it’s that sad smile—the pitying smile of someone who has been in your shoes. Disgusted, I quickly look away.

At night when I try to sleep, my mind runs through every scenario gone wrong, every mistake made. I’m reminded that words are both my savior and my enemy. When I’m whole, they add beauty; when I’m shattered, they become weapons. I conjure the disappointed faces of those I’ve let down—the people I’ve hurt; it serves as my punishment.

Each time I close my eyes, I suffer the irony that I’ve made my own bed, and can’t even sleep in it. I just stare into the dark, waiting for the light to return. My forehead creases, my brow pinched in worry. I place my fingers against the wrinkled skin and try to force the tension to subside, but it resists. My shoulders follow suit, remaining tightly coiled, my spine compressed under the pressure of depression.

As when I’m sick, I try to remember what it felt like before—before my chest ached, before my body tensed, before my mind became a film reel of all my greatest failings. But I can’t catch even the slightest glimpse. I’m blind to before.

In front of prying eyes, I learn to hide my feelings beneath a layer of indifference. And some days, I feel as if I can’t love at all. There’s this part of me that wonders if that’s good or bad. Is it okay to feel nothing? Was this always my natural progression? But this numbness is only ever a temporary reprieve, and soon the sorrow returns, looking to make up for lost time.

I let my paranoia drag me into a downward spiral while I push away the people that call themselves my friends. None of it is real, I tell myself. None of them are real. I pick fights when I fall apart, lashing out in every direction. Even as I shout at undeserving ears, I know what I’m doing is a mistake, but I can’t seem to stop. It’s as if I’m purging my pain, retching every ounce of heartache from my body. Only, when I’m through, my misery has multiplied tenfold.

What’s worse, is who would stay? Who would accept that this is what I am—that from time to time, I lose myself to this sadness that pulls me so far under that I question whether I’ll ever re-emerge? The answer is…only a fool.

I write this from that place, the one where I accept loneliness with open arms. The place where the people I love cannot find the version of me they recognize. I write this with hopeless tears and a dull pain that feels like a black hole sucking everything good straight through my chest into absolute nothingness.

I write this so you’ll remember that it won’t last forever. One day—in the not so distant future—I’ll be me again, and you’ll be you. And on that day, I hope you’ll forgive me for who I became when sadness found me.

What the Water Told Me

A solitary monolith on a beach of jagged stone, I stood still as the towering cliffs, mimicking their stability, imagining myself as capable of withstanding the storms that would lash my form. I was envious of their resolve; they would not fall. Staring blankly at the crashing white caps of a tumultuous sea that mimicked the chaos inside my mind, I questioned my choices—my identity. What was I if not a writer, if not a mother, if not every title that had ever been assigned to my name? Was my value in my accomplishments, or was I more than the sum of my parts—the division of my life’s tasks & achievements? What once seemed so obvious, now felt uncertain.

An unnamed sadness had fallen over my days. I could feel its weight on my shoulders, its influence in every thought. But I could not label it. My melancholy served no purpose; it simply was.

The bitter wind whipped through my hair, pulling loose strands across my face, and I closed my eyes and saw a world where I was everything and nothing all at once—a world where I was free to succeed or fail with no consequence. Like my sadness, I simply was.

It was in this unsuspecting moment of clarity that my world changed. The thunderous clap of violent waves beating against the hard planes of limestone slabs ceased as the ocean calmed and pulled away from land, taking with it my sorrow. For in the the brief  seconds where I existed for the sole purpose of carrying a heartbeat in my chest, I knew my true self beyond a doubt.

My words gave me breath. They were the push and pull that swayed my emotions, that gave my passion purpose and my curiosity a voice. Who was I without them but an empty shell of wasted ideas never formed on a silent tongue?

I was a writer.

Those I loved gave me solid footing on ever-shifting sand. They kept me still when I required  peace and propelled me forward when I needed change, all the while tethering me to their constant and unchanging love. Their existence amplified mine, making me something greater than I could ever have been on my own.

I was a mom. I was a wife. I was a friend.

I was everything

When I opened my eyes, and gazed out at the dark waters that slowly swayed back and forth, gently lulling my worries into a peaceful slumber, I felt my burden of identity lift. All of these things were a part of me, but none of them could define me on their own. With these titles or without these titles, I simply was.

 

A Strange Turn of Events

I’m a novel writer who isn’t writing novels. It’s a weird time for me.

I’ve recently discovered the world of short stories. When my mind said no to novels, it said yes to its shorter, more abrupt cousin. With open arms, it pulled the petit minx into a welcoming embrace and told her to take off her jacket and stay awhile.

It felt like something obtainable, something closer on the horizon than the never-ending journey to catch the elusive 100,000 word epic saga (or contemporary romance). To be honest, most days, when I see my manuscripts’ names written in blue fonts under small folders that unevenly dot my computer screen, I’m not even sure they truly exist. I’m afraid to click on them and find nothing—or worse…30,000 words of meaningless drivel.

But short stories, they’re the good-time girls winking and waving for you to come and play. They say, “Looking for a fun time? We’re not interested in a long-term relationship.” Sure, that makes short fiction sound smutty, but I love that it’s noncommittal. It promises immediate satisfaction, not drawn out courtship that turns into a resentful marriage.

During my brief hiatus from my manuscripts, however, they became jealous after catching me in flagranti with my new boo and began to vie for my attention once more. I remembered how much I loved to fall into their scenes and just stay there for hours—days at a time. How addictive it is to live and breathe my characters, thinking about their every desire and motivation. And just like that, my brain seemed to click into place, and novels were beautiful again.

By no means am I through with short fiction. It has permanently wormed its way into my heart. I used to think that anything less than a novel would be wasting an idea—something that could be further evolved into 300 pages that sat neatly between glossy, hard covers. I  have never been more wrong.

There are so many stories to be told that don’t require page after page of explanation and back story. In fact, they benefit from the reader being dropped unexpectedly into their midst. It’s as if you’re being told a secret and then sent away to ponder its meaning on your own. There are so many small moments that reveal colossal truths, and I want to know them all intimately.

So, while I am returning to my manuscripts, toting my suitcases full of notebooks brimming with messy outlines and in-depth character development, I am not the same writer walking across the threshold into the life I abandoned. Things have changed, and I want it all: short stories, flash fiction, poems, essays.

Novels will just have to make up the guest rooms…because we’re going to have company.

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