Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Valley of the Violets

In the summer months, my little sister and I spent most of our days outside.  At the farthest end of our backyard was little, tree-covered flood-bank that snaked along behind the houses.    In our yard, at the base of the flood-bank, there was a little wooden building, painted white with green trim.  It was an old bait house, but it hadn't been used as such for decades.  My sister and I could have used it as a playhouse, but for some reason, this did not occur to us.  Instead, we kept an old tire in there in which we made a nest of dry grass for a large smooth stone.  It was the house where we kept the dinosaur egg.

Behind the dinosaur egg house and up on top of the wooded flood-bank was a long trail. There were wonders up there that only my sister and I knew about.  There was, for instance, a tree in which a person, if they cared very little about dirt or insects, could hide.  You could also see the ocean if you stood in just the right place.  It was really just the grayish blue roof of a house seen through trees, but it was real enough for me.

On the other side of the flood-bank was the creek.  I still dream of that creek.  Behind our house and all along that wondrous wooded levee that accompanied it on its lazy trip through the village, it was buggy and surrounded by dense vegetation.  We could only walk along it easily in the dry summer or in the winter when the water and the ground around it were frozen and navigable.

Between the long, snaky hills built to hold the water back from the village, there was an entire world full of living things the grown-ups barely knew was there.  You could find deer and birds and rabbits.  Sometimes there would be a garter snake lying in the path.  We always tried to catch these because there is something very magical about a snake, but snakes, like fairies, are difficult to capture.  They are gone almost before they are seen.

There were plants there too.  I didn't know the names of them so my memory does not allow me to identify most of them.  There were raspberries in abundance and touch-me-nots and Virginia creeper, I'm sure.  But there were also the mean-grasses that cut at our legs and the dark, broad, and thin leaves of the tender plants that grow in damp places.  There were yellow and pink and white flowers but none of them stand out in mind like the Valley of the Violets.

I think my sister and I were the only people who ever saw it.  We were intrepid adventurers in shorts and tee-shirts, our arms covered in mosquito bites and our ankles smudged with creek mud.  There may have been other people who passed that way, but unless they had eyes to see, it was invisible to them.  Like my ocean, you had to be in just the right place to see it.  But more than that it wasn't the kind of place you could just walk to with only mundane intention or find without heart.  You had to make a journey.  It could only be reached by quest.  It was that special.  It was the kind of place that is not always there and if you turn your back on it, like the garter snake, it would disappear into the more prosaic reality of creek water and mosquitoes.

How my sister and I first found it, I cannot recall.  It was not in the territories we normally explored.  I imagine that we crossed over from our own backyard, through our neighbors' yard via the path on the top of the levee.  A street cut through the bank at the edge of our neighbor's yard and so there was an artificially steep climb down to the regular ground level.  You had to be careful about this.  A bit of a little sideways run down the hill with a few big, bouncing leaps at the bottom generally kept us on our feet.  Then we crossed the road which was, because of our age and immense fear of cars, a peril in itself.  It was a very little town and a very little street, but I was very careful to look both ways.  The creek passed under the road and the flood-bank, severed in the middle, picked up again on the other side.

On the other side was a chain link fence that extended all around the school fields and playground.   But the fence ended at the long hill by the creek and it was easy enough to slip around the edge of the fence.  There was a little elementary school, just for the primary school kids at one end of the field and sometimes we played there or road our bikes around the parking lot and sidewalks.  Very few children ever came back to the school grounds after school hours so it was almost as if the entire complex had been built for us.  In any case, we felt it was really an extension of our own backyard and were always resentful when we found other children there.

Nearer to the road and in the corner of the school yard there was a great cluster of trees that grew together to form what all of us kids thought of as a house.  The trunks and branches grew together to form windows and ledges and seats where we all loved to climb.  Of course, it was forbidden by the school teachers minding us during playground period, but that mattered little to my sister and me after school hours.  When all the other children went home, the entirety of the school yard was ours and the tree house with it.

From the tree house, there was another climb back up to the top of the long hill where it began again from where the road interrupted it.  There was a path at the top on the school side of the road too, but it was not as well-traveled as the side behind our house.  This made it feel far more dark and dangerous a path for us.  One had to brace oneself before venturing down that trail.  Eventually, the path would get narrower and narrower until it disappeared altogether.  I suppose that's why we decided to walk down the "Other side" of the path not toward the school yard but toward the creek.  There must have been a path, or something like a path leading down the side of the hill away from the school yard.  Maybe the bugs were bothering us or maybe it was the prickly plants at the top.  Perhaps a deer had passed that way or maybe it was a fairy trail.  Whatever our reasoning, we followed it down.

And then we were on the other side of the world.  The school yard, our neighbor's yard and our yard were all part of this side of reality.  It was the reality of casseroles and warm sweaters and homework and bedtimes.  It was a comfortable and predictable world full of watchful adults who only saw the roofs of houses and never saw oceans.  The flood-bank was a boundary world.  It too could be seen by parents and teachers.  It had well-worn paths, often walked by grown-up hikers and nature enthusiasts.  Then there was the creek beyond it.  This was more mysterious.  We were to be very careful around the creek and there was more danger there.  It was really too shallow for any mortal danger, but it was unpredictable in its own way with rocks and mud at the bottom that could not be seen and fish and crayfish and snakes.  And then, most mysteriously of all, there was the other side of the creek.  We almost never went there.  I cannot tell you why.  It looked very much like our side of the creek, but it wasn't somehow.  It was like walking through the looking glass.  We might dare to stand in the water with the minnows brushing past our bare legs and the cray fish hiding under rocks, but that was usually as far as we got.  That last barrier was mighty and it was there that we usually turned around to go home.

But not that day.  Trying to remember it now with my adult brain, I realize that it could not possibly be as I remember it.  It was just a little creek behind a earthen barrier to prevent flood damage to the village.  And I honestly can't exactly remember how we finally made it to the Valley of the Violets. There was the wood and the water and the mosquitoes and the trees.... and then, we were just there somehow.   It was as if we were venturing in one world and then stumbled into another.   You have to be not looking while you are looking or you will never find your way.  The moment you plan to find such a place, it will stay hidden.  Such places only unfold themselves to the unwary and the willing.

Over the creek, through some trees, quite ordinary.  And then a bit of dense brush and prickly hedges and the old wispy trees one finds growing beneath the bigger, sturdier species.  Duck down beneath branches, climb over roots, watch your step, mind the prickers, and the stick-tights, and look up to see.  And there it was.  A dark and quiet place removed from all the world.  Trees leaned over it protectively.  Bushes completely surrounded it.  There in the hollow of earth made by creek and wood, it rested just beyond reality.  And everywhere, everywhere, were violets.  The light filtering down through the trees revealed a carpet of purple so deep and rich and holy that I have never forgotten it.  We stood there together, my sister and me, and were just glad.  We were just glad in that solemn quiet way that only happens when you are too foot-weary to insist upon reality and settle instead for Truth.

We could have stayed and the whole world would have gone on without us and we would have gone on without the whole world.  We could have made a bed of the flowers and lay among their petals like the velvet of a king's robe.  Perhaps, if we waited for just a few more moments, we could have become a part of that magic.  But we knew that we could not.  Not really.  The mosquitoes reminded us or our hungry bellies, or the darkening sky that it was time to go home.  So we did.  And that was that.

I don't remember if we ever made our way back to the Valley of the Violets again.  If we did, it was not exactly the same as it was that first time and so it was edited out of the stories we told to each other.  For years and years, we have told each other the story, and it always begins "Do you remember?"  I could call my sister today and the two of us, middle-aged ladies now, would feel, albeit fleetingly, like little girls again.  For a moment we could be ducking beneath the pricker branches and over the meanest ribbon grass to a world of darkest green and richest purple fading to the palest lavender.

I always meant to go back.  I think part of me was left there and lives there still.  Part of me is always there living in the deepest part of that magic and content to wait in the dimming light just before our mother calls us home.  But that part of me I left behind and the wood itself are gone from my grasp now.  I am all grown up and the woods are gone now too.  Men came with big machines and cut into the long hill to flatten it out.  New grown-ups too young to remember the big flood decided they didn't need the levee anymore and that it might be better to put a discount store there instead.  So they brought in those big machines and dug up the creek and and hill and the snakes, and the prickers, and the razor grass, and the mosquitoes, and the violets and my memories too.  All gone.  Gone and replaced by a parking lot and a big, ugly discount store.  And then more years turned and the discount store went out of business and became a community center.  Which is good, I suppose, in its own way, but it isn't really.  Not really.  Because I remember.  My sister and I remember what was there and what it meant and how we learned how there are some places in the world where you can never ever stay but that will be with you forever.

An Exploration of Fear: Part 1: Courage, Performance, and Phobia

I'm not always sure how I would define courage, but I know that I am not a courageous person. One of my friends, a very practical and soulful woman, has a matter-of-fact way of responding to me whenever I say I could never be strong if faced with more adversity.  She has no time for such nonsense.  "You could, if you had to."  Perhaps she is right.  She certainly has a higher opinion of my abilities than I have.

I suppose one definition of courage is doing a thing that makes you afraid.    I'm afraid most of the time so that gives me many opportunities to be courageous.  I very rarely take them.  For instance, I do not drive although I have a driver's license.  I never wanted to drive.  Ever.  When I was a teenager and it was time for me to take the test, I hid the practice booklet in the dog's bed so I wouldn't find it, and then was actually able to block the hidden location from my memory for several weeks.  It took forever to find the darn book.  (Likewise, I have the ability to un-remember how much student loan debt I accumulated.) Sadly for me, the book was found, the test was taken and passed, and I began to drive to college when I was eighteen.  This independence lasted for one year, but after transferring to a four year school I all but stopped.  And then, after meeting my husband, I pretty much stopped entirely.

My family is very supportive of this.  On many occasions, especially when I have had a conference, performance, appointment, or other obligation, my husband has taken time off of work to ensure that I have a chauffeur.  (He was, in fact, a professional chauffeur at one point in his working life.)  My parents also drive me.  My mother takes my children and me to appointments and on outings.   My father drives me to and from work.  Since he and I work in the same building, this is not a hardship except that I must arrange my teaching schedule to coincide with his commuting schedule.  This means that our division chairperson also accommodates my phobia by ensuring that our course schedules won't conflict with our transportation pattern.

It is not merely the driving that terrifies me.  I do not like to be without my family.  I live with my grandmother, parents, husband, and children.  I work with my father and share an office with him.  In many ways, I am more like a nineteenth-century woman than a woman of today.  Always accompanied by a relative, I live a protected life.  My parents, my husband, and now even my children watch out for me and handle social interactions that upset me.   They make phone calls for me and accompany me when I need to interact with people who make me nervous (nearly everyone!)  They shield me.  I mean this both figuratively and literally.  I often walk slightly behind my husband and hold onto his arm or elbow when in public places.  He waits for cues from me to know whether or not I dare risk interaction with people outside the family.  If he sees me withdraw, he takes over.  I note my children often scan my face to see if I need help or am feeling overwhelmed.  It is impossible to articulate how much gratitude and shame I feel when they come to my rescue.

There are noteworthy exceptions to my usually anxious, socially-phobic behaviors.  For instance, when teaching, giving speeches, "working a crowd", or otherwise engaged in my work as a teacher or a performer, there would be no way anyone would guess how painfully introverted and anxious I am.  I will strut, pull faces, tell jokes, swear like a dockworker, tell stories, and play both fool and philosopher for an audience.  If I can do it in costume, all the better.  They do not need to know that my family drove me to the event and is waiting in the wings to collect me.  They do not need to know that I will return home full of conflicting feelings of glory and self-doubt, headaches, anxiety, and depression.  They don't know that it will take me several hours and perhaps even days to recover once the adrenaline rush subsides.

People say I am brave. They are wrong.  They think I am being brave when I perform or when I reveal my vulnerabilities to strangers in my writing.  But such things are not difficult for me.  Disclosure of vulnerability is performative rather than courageous.  I do not mean that it is false, but that it is incorporated in what I have always felt called to do.  The weaknesses that limit me and that make my life so very private and shielded "in real life" can be safely exposed during performance.  I do not know why this is the case.  Ask me to expose the tender-most part of myself before an audience, and I will do so.  You may call me brave, but that cost me very little.  Returning your phone call, on the other hand, took everything I've got.