The toasted O escaped my early morning bowl abetted by a flood of milk from the carton in my sleepy hand. The feisty oat circle breached the gunwale, fled across the countertop like an errant spare tire, and found both misfortune and mortality by falling into the noxious abyss of our cat’s red plastic food bowl on the floor below. Had the runaway landed on the linoleum, I’d have considered a reprieve, but not now. Despite its heroics, this little loop’s breakout ended in ruin for both itself and me. I now faced the painful prospect of bending over to pluck the escapee from its tragic landing zone and, worst of all, trying to get back up again.
My getting-back-up problem first came to light years earlier in my OHSU neurologist’s cramped consultation space. I’d have gladly gone over the wall that day for a shot at freedom from the turn my life had taken. The good doctor pulled his prescription pad from the side pouch on his tidy white coat. He produced his pen like a sword from the pocket adjacent to his blue monogrammed surname with the MD suffix, stabbed its point into the pad, and paused. “I can write you a prescription for a wheelchair now if you would like.”
Everything I knew of measuring human might came up for review. The yardstick marked with stripes for strength, endurance, and stamina snapped. The ruler lines of speed, distance, height, and depth: useless. The scale calibrated to things seen and heard, touched and smelled: futile. Money, a tool too short. Fitbit, laughably pointless. Gone too were the sometimes-comforting standards of the mighty: status, rank, authority, and position.
When might, by any known measure, deserted me; when all the weights and measures failed; when all that’s visible turned in on itself, how then, shall might—my might—be measured? If restoring order to my cat’s bowl becomes my most mighty act today, what then?
Are there, I’ve wondered, other, more real measures of might? Perhaps they loiter nearby, unused, unacknowledged? Is might not an act at all, but something invisible instead? Is might a gift of serious delight, even when I can’t comfortably get back up? Is there might in the satisfaction of surprising gladness when nothing works, of contentment and rest when everything hurts? Is happiness leaking out from my insides, apart from all else, a matter of might? Is might more than the might of core and limb?
Is might a Cheerio I stoop down to pick up, smiling?
—Dave Kenagy, Salem (2016)
The Collection Plate
During my youth my parents would take me to see visiting preachers in what Neil Diamond called Traveling Salvation Shows. I was not interested, but at age 10 the choice was not mine. The result was that early in my life I became an observer of the human condition as a way of confronting my boredom.
One warm summer night I watched in awe as the traveling preacher wove his magic, and I was surprised as the adults filled collection plates for a total stranger. I tried to understand the spell cast by the middle-aged man.
After a service, my folks would talk with any or all adults until we were one of the last, or the last, to leave. I was always left to entertain myself. On this night I found myself alone with the preacher. I suspect the man felt no challenge from a ten-year-old.
In my naive, childlike way I asked the preacher what it was that made it work for him. Looking down at me he said, “Son, it is really simple. I paint a picture of Hell, give them the alternative and pass the collection plate.”
Since that day I have observed this scene played out hundreds of times. Iraq has WMDs, war will save us, pass the collection plate. Japanese Americans will sell us out, put them in camps, pass the collection plate. If we let South Vietnam fall America is the next domino, we need military intervention, pass the collection plate. Gays will destroy our military, kick them out, pass the collection plate.
The formula is simple and works for any leader at all levels of any culture. 1. Paint an enemy (fill in the blank) in terms that evoke the fear response of fight or flight. 2. Give a solution to alleviate the fear (another blank to fill). 3. Pass the collection plate (money and work to support the cause).
The challenge for us is to quiet the fear and separate real threats from contrived, self-serving fears. If we are not careful we will find, as Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”
—Larry Slessler, Medford (2012)
All Done with This
Interesting what sends the past bubbling up and burning. We’re at a soaking pool one evening, my then-husband and I, steeping like leaves of jasmine. A woman enters with a baby, less than two months under his little elastic waistband. My eyes gravitate toward the infant the way my eyes gravitate to all the wrinkly heads and unsteady necks of infants, the shattering beauty of their animalness and vulnerability. But I cannot stop staring at this baby. He looks exactly like my own baby at that age. Almond-shaped dark eyes and a thin pelt of brown hair. Olive skin. Heavily creased forehead and red lips.
My daughter is now a hilarious, warm-hearted twenty-something, tall and Romanesque as a statue, who—thank the Graces—turned out well. Yet given the chance, I would change almost everything about her infancy. Seeing the baby at the pool, I feel the crush of hunger to go back and fix things I can’t.
I was twenty-one when my daughter was born. At the time, I was three years into an abusive marriage I would not leave until she turned two. I’d been sickly in the years before her birth (my teen years, really), an overuser of antibiotics, and I suspect this precipitated her copious allergies and tendency toward illness—her woefully inadequate intestinal flora. In our daughter’s second year, her father built a fiberglass car body in the small garage attached to our house, and I suspect the cloud of toxic fumes sparked her learning disability. At the time, I thought myself powerless to stop it. But I wasn’t. These are the glaring failures. The failures that shine under her skin, their shelf life longer than her own.
As I exit the locker room after swimming, I see the mother standing outside with her baby. She fumbles with the waist buckle of her baby backpack and looks straight at me. “Can I get your help with this?” she asks.
I look in her eyes as I latch the buckle. “Your baby looks exactly like my daughter did,” I tell her. And just as the words cross my lips, I am buried in emotion.
“Really?” the mother asks. “How old is she?”
“Twenty-one.” I fight an onrush of tears.
“Wow, and where does she live?”
“Nearby, a couple hours from me.” I turn my head so she doesn’t see my eyes grow red and wet. I put my hand on the baby’s back.
“So you’re all done with this?” she asks, meaning childrearing, and I nod. “Well, I’m a little jealous,” she adds lightheartedly as I step away. This mother is my age, forty-something, and has decades until her nest empties.
“I’m jealous too,” I tell her, turning and smiling through the tears.
—Tricia Gates Brown, Nehalem (2014)
I’ve always known the basics: turn off the light, close the door, shut your mouth, and my favorite, you are a rusty sheep.
This is my favorite joke to tell. My cousins laugh, my teacher laughs, and the white students at my school, learning Arabic as a résumé booster and an excuse to spend the year abroad, laugh. I’m placed in a special class for what the school calls heritage learners, people who they don’t expect to have a problem making the sounds or understanding the way culture affects language and the other way around. This is a good fit—the other people in my course are both women. One, an Afghan, wants to read the Quran. She can read sentences on a native level, but when asked what they mean, she shrugs her shoulders and purses out her bottom lip.
The other, a white woman from the States, has a lot of Arab friends back home. Her pronunciation is awful at best, but she knows the phrases, like may God bless your hands, and peace be upon him, the things you say in between the things you say, and this gets her far. The people love this blonde-haired woman coming to their country and saying their words with her foreign tongue, and they don’t laugh at her, of course not; they tell her inty shatoora, you’re doing great.
At first I’m bitter, and then I’m jealous, but mostly sad, over how different it must be to be able to come to a country to learn a language to connect better with your friends at home and not the other way around, to come to a country and learn a language and have the people say that’s wonderful that you’re doing this instead of why haven’t you always known?
And the answer is always different, whatever explanation best suits the person questioning you and the life you have lived, before standing in front of them with a weird hybrid mouth, half-empty and half-full of tongue that does not know which direction to move.
—Sonia Ali Al-Zghoul, Portland (2016)
The fear comes from no specific place and for no specific reason. I may even be sleeping when my mind senses the chemical change occurring in my body—a change auguring a day of living on the edge of extinction with a wave of merciless terror that shouts over and over again, “You’re about to die soon. You’re about to die soon.”
But there is no soon, no time, no past or future, only a miserable present I live in from moment to miserable moment, longing for some kind of release. I just wait and survive so I can wait and survive once more, and once more, and ten times more. Let the fear pass through me, let me live through it, let me survive it just one more time, one more hour, one minute and, there, now—yes, now—maybe this will be the last one.
It isn’t. It is still morning, and the fear will continue all day, maybe into the night. Wave after wave of terror, heart palpitations, dissociation, fear, convinced I am dying. I’m on the edge of passing out of existence. By nightfall I am shattered, waiting for the clear, the all clear, the last wave. This one?
Now, please—yes, maybe—yes—yes—yes. My body tells me this is the last one, the last wave of terror. It’s over. I breathe normally.
But I know it will happen again, as it has happened ever since I was nine years old and the walls of my bedroom would begin to close on me, then recede. The glass of milk at breakfast seemed to be getting bigger, as if it were moving toward me. Everything else vanished from my vision. Nothing helped. I prayed. It did not help. Even God didn’t help.
I grew up wondering what was wrong with me or what I was doing wrong or eating wrong or praying wrong. I wondered for forty-five years, until a family doctor finally said, “It sounds like a panic attack to me. It won’t kill you.”
As I walked out of the doctor’s office into a soft rain, I wondered what the benefit is of being told it won’t kill me when I am certain that the next one will.
—Michael Coolen, Corvallis (2016)
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