Your World in a Bathtub: 2012

I like to do a little recap at the end of the calendar year. This year, I am paring it down to two stats: The day with most views and the post new in that the year authored by me with most views. This year they are 2 different posts.

I want to thank Essays on Childhood writer Jeremy Paden for the busiest day of the year, June 13th. The most popular post that day was This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 4). If you love good writing and powerful stories, you owe it to yourself to read Jeremy’s essay from the beginning.

Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub was my own 2012 post with the most views. I didn’t expect that, and yet I am moved to know it. That was an important piece for me.

Thank you for reading Esse Diem! I wish you a very happy New Year.

Elizabeth

The Angel of Lost Things | a poem by Jeremy Paden

Note: This poem by my friend Jeremy Paden is a beautiful , appropriate closing to this week’s essay postings about memory and loss. Thank you, JP.

The Angel of Lost Things

is not the saddest
of angels, there are times,
though, when it does
abandon all hope—

the misplaced letter,
the child who follows
the wrong pair of pants
in the holiday crowd,
the watch lost on the lawn,
taken off to play
football or Frisbee.

It knows where each
and every lost thing is
but it does not speak
these places. Instead
it keeps them close
to its heart, it worries
over them until found.

There are times,
like when an ailing
grandmother wraps
her opals and diamonds
in toilet paper taken
from a McDonald’s
restroom and in her
dementia she cannot
remember if the bundle
was left on the tray
or placed in her baggage,
when the angel knows
but cannot reach through
the haze to nudge
the faulty memory.

It understands
its sacred duty.
That all things lost
should be watched over,
that nothing—even
the books and photos
lost to fire, to mold,
the stuffed bears left
in leaf piles and taken
to landfills—are beyond
being found, recovered.

But there are times when
the levee breaks, the rivers
rise and the mud and silt
of five generations,
all the pain displaced
throughout centuries,
covers everything with loss.

Times when it would rather
be the angel of found things,
the angel that gathers
unto itself minds
and causes and children
and hearts and heirlooms,
the angel that mends
and heals and rejoices,
that leads the congregation
down the dusty road,
singing and dancing
before the altar found.

Jeremy Dae Paden is Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Transylvania University. He was born in Italy and raised in Central America and the Caribbean. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets. You can read some of his new poetry at Still: The Journal.

Poet photo credit, Jeremy Paden. Angel image credit, PhotoBucket.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 8)

VIII.

I cannot escape my Americanism. I’ve got that flat, American accent. American pragmatism and optimism inform how I approach the world. Though here I’m, “So, Where are you from? Certainly not from here.” Abroad, I was always gringo. Any disavowal of the nation that took in my immigrant ancestors from Scotland centuries ago, even though it then forced the children those ancestors had with southeastern tribes to uproot to Oklahoma, would be disingenuous. And even though, as the story goes, my father’s great-grandfather walked off the reservation as a teenager to become a West Texas cotton farmer, this was not a story we were told. Not, at least, until I was fifteen. Where you are from, West Texas, the Nation West, Puerto Rico, Scotland, southeastern Virginia, these places never really mattered.

What mattered was if you were on that train, heaven bound.

Despite my discomfort with the U.S., like a good American, something at the core of our national experiment attracts me. At the end of the 18th century, Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan land-owner and intellectual, traveled the original 13 states. How courts followed the rule of law, how the nation was structured around the small family farm, rather than the large plantation, amazed him. Neither rule of law nor small family farms existed in Spanish Colonial America, where large plantations were the norm and money and power bought you rights and privileges and placed you beyond the law. I think of de Miranda’s travels and think if only the cultivation of one’s garden were the national virtue, if rule of law was not a privilege principally afforded to the powerful, if all races, all creeds, all nations were always welcomed and given home.

After a life spent wandering from place to place in service of the church, my wife, kids, and I now live an hour from Cane Ridge, the very spot where our movement began. For four years we’ve called Kentucky home. I’ll always long for the Caribbean, always feel like moving after a year or two, always think the only real mountains in this world are the Sangre de Cristos.

But I’m happy to be here and know people who still cultivate the land for sustenance rather than profit.

I’m happy to eat vegetables grown here in this soil, on these rolling hills.

I pledge allegiance to the small country, to this earth that feeds me and to which I will return as dust.

Two years ago we planted asparagus root in our backyard. For two years, we’ve weeded and watered the plot, waiting for the root stock to establish itself. Anticipating that spring when we can harvest them.

Next year, when those first shoots appear and grow tall, we’ll have a feast.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 7)

VII.

My apprenticeship in learning to love this world has been long and slow. As animals, we all love the physical world, some with more suspicion than others. When this love becomes inordinate, excessive, the church calls it sin – avarice, lust, gluttony. Animal appetites that must be kept in check. Heaven has a way of doing this. Still, our bodies pull us.

I would love to be a gardener, to learn how to love and care for the land that feeds me, but I’m not. Moving as my family did left no time for gardening. A year and half in Nicaragua, before mother’s blindness, before the Contra began to kill foreign medical personnel; a year and half in Costa Rica, before my parents were caught in the middle of the UN and the Costa Rican government; a year and half of living in north Louisiana as my parents tried to get visas for Colombia, before deciding on the Dominican Republic. A year and a half leaves little time for a garden. And, when each of those year and halves are divided between three houses, there is no point even to try.

I’d seen gardens; eaten from them before. Neighbors in Rome, Georgia gave us tomatoes, okra, carrots grown in their backyards. The bungalow-style hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Nicaragua had a banana right outside our front door; our first house, a mango in the patio. In Santo Domingo, an avocado. But these were not gardens to be tended, cared for. Other people did that; or, as in the fruit, it was there for the taking.

My father standing, machete raised, in the acrid smoke of plastic, dead rodent, human feces, and weeds is my first memory of a garden. An alley, that had once been a park with trees and benches, ran the length of our first house in Santo Domingo. Out of desperation to control the rats, to keep the path clean, and to shame the drunks who used the alley as their voiding ground and the neighbors who dumped their trash in the weeds, Dad decided that part of his mission was bringing civility and order to the alleyway. As I remember it, the work of civilization, of slashing and burning, of debris removal, of purifying fire took the full year we lived in that house. But it wasn’t all fire and sweat. At some point plants were introduced: Spanish Sword and Purple Heart. We children were enlisted to tend the fire, to move the broken, discarded cinder blocks, to water the plants.

How we hated the work; after all, we’d be moving soon.

Though an introduction to something like a garden, it did little to teach love of land and place. It taught duty. It taught toil. It taught vigilance against weeds. I’m sure that had we stayed in Costa Rica, things would be different. I remember, still, the drive down from the mountains of San José to the eastern coastal jungle. We went to visit a young Honduran agronomist, also a missionary. It seemed he knew every plant, that he could walk out into the growth and chop down a young palm to harvest its heart, barely checking to see if it was the right kind of tree. Had we stayed in Costa Rica, we might’ve gotten to know Carlos and Roxana better, might’ve learned to care for land in a different way, and might’ve lived in a country with no historic connections to the U.S. No William Walkers. No multiple Marine invasions. No puppet dictators.

If there was something in our family that always called us back to this present, physical world, if there was something we celebrated, it was food, sensual, fragrant food.

Father loved the food of his childhood and mother didn’t simply oblige him, she lavished him with Bolognese from carrots, celery, garlic, and onions chopped and sautéed with ground beef, then stewed for hours in tomatoes, wine, and herbs. But it wasn’t all Italian all the time. Mother found a way into the cultures of those countries we moved through by learning to cook their food. She knows how to prepare green and ripe papaya, knows how four different countries turn avocado into dip, knows what to do with plantains depending on their ripeness.

The foods served at the family table are home, are comfort, are love and care. As a child, food is not something you think about. You instinctively accept it or reject it. I’m sure there were many meals beyond Omar’s hot dogs that we kids rejected. After all, mother worked hard to broaden our palate. What I remember, though, are not the struggles to get us to eat new food, but the hours spent learning how to make Nicaraguan tamales, the way she would ask questions of cooks, watch them to learn how they prepared foods like gallo pinto or picadillo. In our home, it was routine for lunch to include three, four, five extra guests – people who would appear at the door for a visit or consulta con el médico right as lunch was being served. If the fare were local, they would praise mom for her prowess. Otherwise, they would receive a culinary introduction to another country’s food. At the end of the meal, even the most tentative and shy of eaters would be won over.

Mom taught me to love saffron, cilantro, bread fruit. Taught me to cook, taught me only to barely ever follow a recipe, should instinct or lack of ingredients dictate otherwise. And she has passed on to me this love of food and cooking, this adventure into the world of the senses.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 6)

VI.

Home, if I had to choose one place, would be a tract of land, just north of Santa Fe on Highway 84. A few miles beyond Camel Rock runs the Pojoaque arroyo, soon after crossing the bridge, there on the left, on a hill, the adobe house. A long eastern wall of windows faces the Sangre de Cristo mountains; the western wall, the front porch, looks toward sandy barrancas that rise up five hundred feet above the spruce and sage brush. My grandparents lived in that house from the early eighties until my paternal grandfather’s death in 2000. We went there as often as we could. Maybe the landscape, so beautiful, so hard to live in, sank deep into our souls because its beauty, its harshness, are at once of this world and at the same time remind us that our time on earth is not for long.

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I lived there. Having changed my major three or four times, I had, just that spring, finally declared English. I was lost. I went there to help my grandparents, to be their handyman and gardener – though I am neither. I went there because I had nowhere else to go and needed family.

Santo Domingo, Rep Dom. I’m 19. Home on summer break. It’s the end of another medical mission tour.

I didn’t go to high school, nor did I home school in the traditional sense. Instead, halfway through the tenth grade, I began to work as my Dad’s personal assistant – patient triage, pharmacy, running national and international errands for him. When I wasn’t working for Dad, I translated for work groups. On the side, I was to have kept up with my studies, reading an old college history textbook, working through geometry on my own. Instead, I spent that time reading CandideMoby DickCatcher in the RyeHuck Finn and studying German. After two and half years of this, any inkling of self-discipline was gone. Any facility with math sloughed off. Though we should’ve known my dream of becoming a doctor, like my father, was but a dream, I marched confidently into chemistry and calculus and embryology. Further complicating things, the summer after my sophomore year I’d decided that I couldn’t be a missionary for the church of Christ in Latin America, I didn’t see the point of trying to get people to switch to my brand of toothpaste in the hopes that with it their pearlies would be pearlier.

That summer I read Whitman, played bocce and drank beer with my grandfather, sat on the front porch and had conversations with my grandmother, dug fence posts, watered his pear trees, built a retaining wall, linseed oiled the wood on the adobe house, drove up to Chaco canyon to tour the ruins. I worked the land every day: hoeing, weeding, watering the trees. Both my grandfather and I ignored the hard fact that his pear orchard was a chimera. They never produced fruit; and, now, they are not there. But it was a lesson in tending a plot of land, in living in a place with a contentious history, in learning how to be both of these United States and something other.

After all, the First Peoples and the Hispanic of the southwest have been working out their relationship to the larger nation for centuries.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 4)

IV.

Our family collected songs about heaven like some people collect teaspoons. They marked and measured moments in our lives, like the dirge we learned around the time Mom went blind in one eye.

The world you know as a child is the one given you. You move because your parents move. You are from here or from there because your parents tell you so. You grow up in a religious group and are told it began on Pentecost Sunday and you believe this to the point of arguing in fifth grade with Catholics about primacy of origin, utterly ignorant that Campbell and Stone were 19th century Americans and that your particular religious group was born in the hills of Kentucky. Children live and move about in a world presided over by adults. The lucky ones never have to call into question that world, get to bounce about enveloped in love, oblivious to most anything but their wants. We were lucky and parental love covered over many sins.

I remember aspects about Mom’s blindness. How the morning she woke up and couldn’t see we were in a mountain village, several hours north of Managua. Dad had been holding a health clinic. We’d been sleeping in our Volkswagen camper. I remember our leaving Nicaragua, the time spent in Houston, the parents going to see specialists, the miracle of Mom’s sight regained. I think I remember their having talked about it that morning. I’m rather sure we headed back to the capital early. They probably talked about it all the way home and then long into the night and for many nights. But I don’t remember. Maybe they kept this from us. Maybe a mother touched by blindness was, for us children, inconceivable. As a child it’s hard to see beyond your own needs and desires.

Who can remember what street we were on? Dad was driving the Volkswagen they bought anticipating van-fulls of Nicaraguan brethren and sistren. And there always were. We often fulfilled Christ’s injunction to let the soldier ride along. But on this morning or afternoon, it was only us. Dad was recounting a nurse flirting with him. Only more. Even at seven I knew that overt and blatant propositions were improper. But I wasn’t worried. Mom and Dad were in their golden years and talk flowed between them like light. They trusted each other, were faithful to each other, and could talk about anything. This I do remember; but I don’t the worry about Mom’s blindness.

And yet, that song. One more step, one more step in faith, forward brother, forward, our prize waits for us in heaven. Like I said, a funeral march, each measure dragging like a tired foot up a hill. And mother, eyes closed, singing, One more stepForward brotherThere’s a prize.