I Shall Wear White Flannel Trousers, 17

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 3/24/2018

This was really complicated to write. It's hard for me to explain deep or transcendent experiences -- without sounding drippy or absurd. I hope I didn't come across as both in this case, haha. I myself tend to be wary of other people capitalizing on these exalted moments for dramatic effect or false intimacy, but I hope my intentions come through as good... Sarah

* * *

The next day, I remembered the flyer I found at the pizza place: the poetry reading in the woods, in Moguncoy. It was Sunday -- the day of the reading -- and Daniel had now been gone exactly a week. I grabbed the flyer out of my purse and checked the event time: 1 p.m. Still struggling to keep the edge of depression at bay, I threw on my jean jacket, selected a scarf that felt poetic and autumnal (a red cashmere, an extremely rich color) and pulled on my brown boots. I got into my car and drove to my old hometown; I parked in a small dirt lot, hedged with rambling bittersweet vines.

A group of people were already gathering. There was a plastic table set up under a chestnut tree, with apple cider and donuts. Some people were holding large stakes, like pikes, with plastic-coated pages of poetry stapled to the top. Another person handed me a piece of paper with the day's syllabus. I read it and realized the hike was going to take a couple hours, to my consternation. My eyes trailed down the paper, and I was further horrified by the heading that read, 3 p.m.: Sharing Words of Grief and Loss as a Group. My stomach churned, and I contemplated bailing before 3 p.m. The last thing I wanted was to become emotional, red and hot, under the trees with a lot of random strangers.

The hike began, and I took a pike from an elderly woman, who had oaky hands, blue-veined. I carried her poem for her, as the group progressed down the trail, which used to be an old railroad bed in the 1800's, for trains carrying coal through Moguncoy. The trail crunched underfoot, laced with remnants of sparkling black coal, covering our soles with soot. Along the trail, local artists had set up statues. Local poets, in collaboration, had written poems about each piece.

One artist's display was a bike chained to a slender beech tree, and the basket in front was filled with flowers, a wine bottle, and French bread. Another artist had bent willow branches and laced vines to create an archway, inviting hikers off the path and deeper into the forest. Someone else chained a suit of armor to a shagbark hickory tree, and it was tough and had a feminine shape. A Boston University professor wrote a poem about this piece called, "Armored Love". Open up, she said. Allow yourself to be loved. Then she drove her stake into the ground.

After that, we paused in front of graceful aspen trees, growing and fluttering in a space of sunlight. Strings were tied to each low-hanging branch, and clear-blown baubles and bits of colored glass were swaying at the ends of the strings. It was magical. They glinted and danced: sunflower yellow, poppy red, seagrass green. This display had not been claimed by any poet, so our group leader asked us to go around the circle and compose a collaborative poem.

"Hummingbird," one person contributed.

"Delight," said another.

Finished someone: "Little rainbows through my window, drinking my morning coffee, looking out into my garden."

I was too shy to offer my own poetry, because it did not feel perfect enough; still I was unlatching the door of my heart. This instinctively happens to me when I am in a wild place, but it was now being advanced by strangers sharing -- boldly, briskly -- from their untamed tongues. We walked a little farther, crossing a stone bridge that was built in the 1860's, and entered a cooler part of the forest, comprised of pines. "This final statue is not in its original state," our group leader warned us. Then her voice lowered. "It's actually a tragedy, what happened last night."

I imagined a fallen branch had smashed the artwork -- my brother lost the skin off his nose, when we were kids, this way. But we came around a bend and I saw that the statue was still standing. It was -- or had been -- an Aztec eagle, with its wings outspread and its head bent. It was the size of a man, its wingspan pointing to a hemlock tree on the left and a white pine on the right. It had been built of wire and plaster, and covered with glossy red feathers. But the feathers had been ripped out by someone from its breast, until all we could see was a bald white chest. Its face had been smashed in with a hammer; its jaw was crunched and its skull was crumpled. There was a gaping plaster hole in the left cheek. It still had one valiant right eye.

I stood back and studied the blood-colored eagle, tilting my head. Around me I heard people begin to murmur in response: no respect in youth these days; no, it's because they have nothing to do after school; we must approach this with forgiveness; but how infuriating; it's because Moguncoy has no art programs to cultivate appreciation; how sad, this wanton destruction. How sad. It had no point. What was the point?

It seemed people were stunned by the vandalism, but I was having a hard time entering their pathos deeply. The piece spanned kitsch and magnificence, I thought, as I imagined the work in its former wholeness. It was mainly grotesque now, with its plaster yellow beak hanging like a broken banana. My mind was alive with images of teenagers creeping through the night, encountering this Aztec guardian and being goaded by it. They didn't have sledgehammers -- they ended up using branches and rocks, in my imagination. They were egged on, for whatever reason, by the eagle's lifted chest, its beak as thick as a principal's nose. The widespread legs and wingspan did not look protective to me, but like an invitation to a fight. From my own semi-savage childhood, I could understand the barbaric appeal of tackling an adult-sized statue, an eagle-man in the forest -- the statue feeling so satisfying and solid in one's arms, hard and yet so silky -- to fiercely attack an actual, live nightmare, to beat something not-flesh. We certainly ripped off roof tiles and flooded barns and were destructive in our own way, and always (always) with self-validation. I wondered what validation these teenagers had given themselves. Maybe they weren't teenagers at all.

"Well, my friends, this is where we stop," said our leader, in a voice becoming as soft as magnolia petals. "I thought it was appropriate to conclude here, in a way to honor this broken work."

It was coming; I knew it. It was almost 3 p.m. I looked around me, and the parking lot was miles away. If I bolted, I would now be absurdly conspicuous.

The woman continued, "This beautiful eagle reminds me that we are all broken, even when we attempt to hold ourselves together with glue and plaster."

While she murmured on, I took a quick inventory of my feelings: though I wasn't craving a sylvan therapy session, I wasn't feeling panicked, either. The long walk had softened my limbs and opened some receptacle in me. I felt observant. Curious, even; reckless. I would stay.

"And so," concluded our leader, "we will all now silently think of our losses and griefs."

And then, somehow, it didn't matter whether I felt participatory or not. At that moment, my list of losses rose instantly to my consciousness. I let them fall into place, like the red feathers on the ground.

-- Being separated from Daniel: this was my first.

-- And, of course, my third brother's brain damage.

-- Almost losing two siblings to addictions.

-- Several failed suicide attempts by people close to me.

-- The death of my Nana Kitty, my maternal grandmother. (I remembered how she loved lilacs, especially when they were so thick and dewy in the spring.)

-- The alcoholism and depression prevalent in my family.

-- The estrangement from my first boyfriend. (As a boy and girl, we ran down this very trail, pretending there was a ghost train behind us. We scuttled across a nearby open field, crusted with snow. We climbed down underneath the bridge, shrieking with the slipperiness, and found a geocache between the damp mossy stones. After he was gone and years went by, I returned to the bridge and wrote our names inside the geocache capsule, on the damp slip of paper. Then I went home and wrote a book about us, giving us different names -- Jed and Aggie -- and placing us in a different era.)

-- The absence of my last beloved ex.

At that, I violently threw a cog in the gears of my mind and stopped the progression of my thoughts -- stopped them before loss became my skeletal frame. With a few mental tricks and flicks, I removed myself from my pain in a way that I had developed from childhood: I transitioned to analysis. Instead of feeling any more emotion, I opened my eyes and looked around at everyone else. I saw that our entire group was staring at their feet or had their eyes closed. I noticed a scarf of pale peach on a girl. There were Navajo earrings of raw turquoise on an older woman. Many people had their arms clasped behind their backs, their chests in an open stance. As my eyes completed the circle, I had the sense that these other humans were isolated in their own minds. They were entirely alone.

Then I felt a thrill of privacy. I knew that while these other people were inwardly counting out the stones of their sorrow, I myself was spying on them. I was outside, reading their faces. For a moment it gave me a sense of titillation and I relished it fully.

But the moment was short-lived. Presently a frantic sense of separation settled over my mind and, instead of excitement, I began to feel lonely. My long list of sorrows pivoted out from my periphery and into my central view. I began to recount them and felt the danger of becoming pinioned to my grief; I had a clawing desire to escape the woods. I glanced around wildly: now I was the only one with my eyes open. Still, I kept looking at everyone. And I thought:

Unity is a perdurable desire in a human being.

My eyes, like a bird, kept lighting on the peach scarf on the girl. Next to her a woman was wearing a coral necklace. I really did not want to be alone in that moment. I saw a saffron shirt. . . serge pants. The old woman's turquoise earrings. These people were in pieces in my eyes; were colored like the glass fragments. And I thought again:

Unity is forever one of my longings.

When I was a teenager and Catholic, I had looked for unity in the Eucharist. I had never been kissed or even held hands with a boy. I went to the church that was around the corner from us now, and knelt on red cushions and pushed, pressed, tried. Sometimes my soul flew up and smashed through the stained-glass windows. Sometimes I tasted the cardboard-like bread and tried not to think about my grocery list or how to get a stain out of nylons. Sometimes I was supple and inviting. What I really wanted, deep down, was to be close to Jesus, with his kind and calloused hands. And I believed that, as the wafer dissolved between my molars and under my tongue, God's cells were slipping into mine, and his divinity was reaching the innermost chamber of my heart, as if I were a nautilus. That place of deepest privacy. He is here, he is here, I would say to myself. This humble and gallant carpenter. He is looking at me. He loves me.

Then there came Daniel, with his silkweed and steel. I nestled into his downy soul, leaning against his ageless strength. When I lived at his house in Ireland, I read The Secret Garden, and copied down a quote that reminded me of him. In the scene, little Mary is doubting whether she should have told her friend Dickon about her Secret Garden. But Dickon understands her, the way he understands the feral creatures in the heather, and he reassures her by saying cryptically:

'If tha' was a missel thrush an' showed me where thy nest was, does tha' think I'd tell anyone? Not me,' he said. 'Tha' art as safe as a missel thrush.'

I took Daniel by the hand and showed him where my nest was, over and over. I led him through the grapey shadows of my heart, and pulled back my vines and showed him the shuddering things, the twisted twigs and sticks. And there, then, he would channel something God-like. I was his missel thrush.

And, later, I learned about unity from my boyfriend. After those first few dates, our hearts continued approaching each other. We became close, intimate, buttery. "Look at you sitting there," he said once, when I was on the bench in his kitchen. "You look so restful, peaceful, and lovely." He went over to me and pulled me onto his lap. He took my face in his hands and kissed me softly. "Every time I kiss you," he whispered, "I feel like I'm dipping into your pot of goodness." I laughed at that, but he was in earnest: the scientific young man falling into poetry. And when harder things surfaced, when I was curled up crying, because unearthed memories were causing my eyes to blacken with fear, he put his cheek against my wet face and stayed with me quietly while I cried. He was seeing the inner chamber, too. But more than that: I was living closer to the surface of my skin, coughing up globs of red -- loud cries that I didn't care if the other housemates upstairs heard. And it was right.

I mentally returned, then, coming back to the woods. But I let my list of losses assault me again, more and harder. I was no longer studying everyone else; I was too much inward. I had entered my humanity and was allowing myself to be as weak and wrecked as everyone else in this group, as everyone else in this life. Sorrow swam between my ribs; I felt pinching in every inch of body. Unhappiness crawled -- screwed itself to my knuckle bones.

"All right," said the airy leader, jarring me, "now let us share words of hope. Please share as you feel called to do so."

What. No.

We were supposed to talk now? We were bones; we had lost our lips. There was no hope anywhere; there was no way to feel better.

He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.

And I opened my eyes again --

-- peach scarf, saffron shirt, serge pants,

turquoise earrings --

-- and I found the balm in Gilead. Yes, I had known unity from the daffodil-pressure of my boyfriend's hand in mine. . . or from the taste of a wafer on my tongue, God's cells slipping into mine, becoming one with my being. . . but this was different. Any ecstasy I had ever experienced, kneeling on red cushions or being held by my ex: this moment eclipsed. It would not even call it holy, because I felt no floating sensation. It was dirty -- earthy. My feet were rooted, and the human beings around me looked so alive, and the trees flamed into the most real green ever.

Then an unseen hand took me by the navel, and pulled me forward mightily and I knew a oneness never accessible to me before. The other humans seemed not to vanish but still to become intangible, see-through. Around our group, I saw our heaviness like something physical. We were wrapped in a single blue mist. And underneath this sorrow I witnessed the barest bones of humanity. I suddenly knew: we were all blighted unconditionally on this journey. . . every single one of us, from our childhood into our nineties. Many of us were shattered many times over. The boundaries of our bodies dissolved in front of me, and I slipped into this mist and had the sensation that I had become everyone else and I disappeared into a glowing light. And then --

-- then I was lifted up on golden wings of joy, eclipsing a kiss and even the Eucharist. Unity through pain, among the cinnamon fern and maidenhair spleenwort.

I heard someone speak, and I touched ground again. My individuality and my earthly vision returned -- not patchily, but softly, fully. I heard birds. The speaker was a man, middle-aged, with tightly-curled gray hair. His chin was tipped back and his hands were clasped behind his back. He was wearing a baggy polo shirt, one I associated with golf courses. He said emotionally, "I knew that eagle was you, my brother," and he smiled peacefully. Eyes closed.

Then I looked around the circle again, and my vision was crystalline. I noticed the filigree setting on that Najavo earring. I thought about the factory worker's hands twining the threads on the peach scarf. I saw a hangnail on a clasped grandmotherly hand. I looked at individual people, and the sky did not open, but the sun filtered down in soft light, licking everyone's faces, and some people smiled. At that, I lifted my arm momentarily.

"I want to share --" I glanced around at the circle again -- "that I see everyone has experienced loss here, and yet look us. We're all standing on our feet." The sun edged in. "We're all still standing on our feet." And suddenly, tears washed into my eyes, stung me. My sockets hurt, and the sun blurred in my vision. My heart was expanding in my chest, lifting me up to the sky. The feeling was like bittersweet joy. I'd been hurt -- and I knew worse hurts would come. But I was going to survive, survive them all, because I was connected through this string from my navel into other's losses. Grief was spread about -- it belonged to all of us -- and that made it more bearable. The burdened lightened; the pain lessened. Yes, this shared sorrow -- it was the center of my joy.

* * *

The hike had finished. I wandered back to the parking lot through the forest, covering my soles with more coal dust -- contemplating, knowing I would keep these revelations in my heart. As I was musing, suddenly a blue jay flashed across my path. The blue startled me, and I suddenly thought about a particular superstitious practice in Ireland.

When Irish people see magpies -- the large black and white bird, with a spot of iridescent blue -- they believe that a single bird predicts sorrow, and a pair of birds signifies happiness. So people wave at them, to keep bad luck away or invite good luck in.

Then I broke into a smile, laughing to myself, because Daniel (always the rebel mystic) never waved: ever. He refused. And he once explained why, in a poem he sent to me.

Magpie oh magpie
I dare not look to you
For omen or fate.

What good luck already
To spy a glint of blue
In jet black feather.

Such fallacy they live
Seeing lone as piteous
And pair as pinnacle.

I shall not adorn
Foresight upon you
Or beseech a prophecy

But rewrite your lore
As soft reminder:
Through all comes good.

* * *

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