December 10, 2017

writing down the bones

When I was 14, the student teacher in my English class handed me her battered paperback copy of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.  I read it under obligation and returned it quickly so that I wouldn't damage it.  It was already shabbily well-loved.  Afterwards, there were lengthy notes from her on my returned classwork, challenging me to write more, and more deeply.  I began sitting alone in a hallway at lunch, filling single-subject notebooks with bones, writing in the margins of the paper, the edges, the white space at the top, because Natalie said so.

Later, I took all of those notebooks, stored in a duffel bag in my closet, and threw them away, so that my mother would never have a chance to read them.  If I had them with me today, I expect I would find them full of expressed angst, my scrabbling ascent from depression to whatever sufficed as wholeness at the time, the contrast between my identity as a Christian and my scientific mind.  There would be hundreds of scrawled pages of my processing various infatuations with adult female role models, and of the inner conflict with my mother that served as the reason the notebooks now lie in a landfill.

I only had six weeks with Ms. Perry.  I've looked for her now and then over the years, but she was a grad student at the time, a hipster for the alternative lifestyle, an itinerant.  She often wore three clashing shades of green and she was tall and willowy and her hair was cut short.  She had our class write response pieces to Nanci Griffith songs that were nothing like what we were fed by pop radio.  She wrote "Ummago?" on the board and challenged our pronunciation of phrases later made famous by Jeff Foxworthy's humor.  She was a self-possessed foreigner in our Southern town and the inevitable target of my classmates' ridicule.  But for me, she was a pair of doors flung wide to reveal another world, one that contained travel and writing and music that resonated, northern culture and hand-knit sweaters and an absence of evangelical outlook, a zero give-a-shit factor about being herself at a time when I sat in the crucible of adolescent conformity.  

By now, her name has most likely changed, and she lives somewhere on Earth, which narrows it down.  The wing and the wheel have carried her away.  I have little chance of finding her and thanking her for what she gave me:  The folk music cassette tapes I promptly acquired and played at night in my dim-lit bedroom until they were worn out; the thirst that made me leave home in my beat-up Pontiac T-1000 and see Texas, Minnesota, New York; the exposure to forms of otherness that left me with a thousand dichotomies, choices about who I could become; and the first seeds of writing for its own sake.  I wish I could tell her all of these things, even now, at 40.  I doubt she is aware of the gifts she left in her wake.

Even now, at 40.  I'm no gardener.  I've killed a philodendron.  I just know th
at I'm taking those seeds out of their paper bag in its dark, cool corner and planting them this year.

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