(This is the first half of a creative piece I wrote for my senior writing capstone.)
Placing her hand next to mine, my mother compares our skin.
This happens in various settings. Sometimes we are shooting through the wind on the freeway at seventy miles an hour in a state with land like I’ve never seen before. Other times we’re in a waiting room. Once, we were eating dinner, and she put down her fork. Commenting on the smoothness of my skin’s pigment, the way the veins under the film of cells over my knuckles are barely visible, she holds our ages right up against the light in the kitchen and wonders.
I have a dog. I still have a dog. This is strange because it’s been more than fifteen years since we brought her home, a bundle of downy fur, docile and vibrant. Now she wears a blue polyester diaper made for animals too old not to wet themselves. Half-blind, she ends up stuck between the side table and the wall in the living room, generally, and I have to drag her out, one hand clasped on each brittle rib, to help her confusion and set her out in the middle of the floor where she can’t run into walls. There is always a smell of urine and must hovering. She slips down five stairs before I’m there again, reaching for her splintery torso.
Before all of this, we were much younger. We would race around the garden in a great rush of spring. Everything would be flowering carelessly after a rainfall, and the tradition was to go to the top of the hill, and wait behind the wet soil, which was sunk in the violet garden patch. At the count of three, the puppy (for she was a puppy then) would sprint on all fours up the hill while I sprinted on my two down the hill all the way to the monkey bars on to which I catapulted myself in a rush of adrenaline. Together, we’d breathe in great gasps of heavy, wet air.
I watch today as, now, the dog walks in circles until she has to sit out of exhaustion.
This is the stuff of beauty that I crumple as paper and cast out with the trash.
I traveled to Seattle this last summer. My family checked into a hotel in a dinky town in the early stages of Montana, and the woman at the desk asked me if I was over sixteen. This determined which color key card I would receive. I was twenty-one. I remember thinking that a tumbleweed would blow across the hot, dirty street at any moment, and anyone could notice the stale, yellow smoke stains on this lady’s teeth. The cracked plastic clock on the wall ticked loudly, and two men with pants that can only be described as “britches” sauntered in. Generally, I am pegged as a youth because I have no wrinkles and the skin over my knuckles is apparently smooth enough. Also, my voice is young. This all was to be resented.
Sometimes I think I am growing younger.
Everything is about rewinding in the world. Instead of reverently taking up each thread and binding it in careful beauty to the rest of the textile, we, women especially, yank the strands out with fervor. Dousing everything in chemicals, plucking out sagacity, tucking things where they aren’t supposed to go. That or trying to sew it up too fast, rushing the process, missing the detailed design. Either way, it all fades and shreds with the pulling. I always wanted the opposite.
I told my family once that I wished for wrinkles. Just one or two, I said.
Are-you-kidding-me-you’re-crazy, they said, and went back to eating corn on the cob.
I sloshed my fork around in my potatoes and watched birds land on the ledge of the roof outside the window. Robins have a lifespan of one year. Age is not a blinking thought to a bird, and then I noticed how I was living. That evening, sitting on the porch while the atmosphere was unrolling into dusk and beams of stars, the quietness and the green was what held it all, cradled the thought. I was trying to peel off youth, or rather, scoop it out of myself, like an avocado. What is it that makes us shrink away from treasures we are given on earth?
Bob Dylan says, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.”
He also says, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.”
In the apartment building next to mine, there is a man who is busy being born. Every few days, I see him, shuffling down the sidewalk, winter or spring, his shoulders so stooped that his head comes straight out of his chest. There is no neck. A long, wolf-colored beard muddles down from his chin, and his hands are typically clasped behind his back. He looks old, rabbi-like, thoughtfully strolling.
The first time I noticed him, tottering methodically, thoughtfully, down the street, it was a whitish, cold day, and the trees looked lonely. In a tweed coat, he was unconcerned about the furiousness of the world. I hoped he wasn’t cold. Every other time I’ve seen him, he walks and walks, undaunted, the sun within his reach. The world has laid flat his shoulders, and still he uses his limbs to motor through the earth. With that attitude, he will hold the light. If my head came straight out from my chest, I wonder if this would change things.
There’s something of a child in all of us. Perhaps that is what feels so strange when one looks in the mirror between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. The outward casing is fading into something different, the adolescent is going somewhere – crawling into a place in the heart that is gold-plated, softened, something where revel has gathered, and this feels cumbersome. We mourn the nervous affair. Fearing the husk – but is it a husk? – we pack the old into beds and in buildings with colorless drywall and leave them there with the dripping of IVs and the beeping of monitors to wait for the gray to become grayer. My grandfather said that when he walked in malls for daily exercise, he felt as though he were invisible, less than a mannequin, a shadow moving around the perimeters. This is what we fear, more than being old, because being known is a great part of what we were made for. Without a heart staring back into your own heart, being young or old is fairly terrifying.
One day, we will look as our souls do.
(Part 2 coming soon.)