Category Archives: safety

Everything was safe and good: transitioning from childhood adulthood

I recently finished The Round House by Louise Erdich, which is the story of 13-year-old Joe who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in the late eighties whose mother is brutally attacked and changes everything he held to be true.  On a large scale, this book brought to light the inane politics and laws surrounding crimes  against Native Americans by non Native Americans, both on and off the reservation land.  And on a smaller, it shows how people move from being the protected and defended as children to wanting to be a protector and defender.

If you’ve been reading here lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about living with a sense of rootedness–so when life gets busy or difficult, I am able to remember deep truths about life–and this lens is informing my entire reading life and what stands out to me in a text, and this book is no different. There is a moment mid-story when Joe hears his parents come home and instead of his father sleeping in the guest room, as he had been doing on request since the attack, they both went into their shared room: “I heard them shut their door with that final small click that meant everything was safe and good (210).”

There are things as children that enable us to feel secure and be able to rest.  (I’ve written about it before here and here.)  Part of growing up is becoming aware that life is fragile and often uncontrollable.  I often miss the sweetness of being young and thinking that everything “was ok” once both my parents made it home from work and we were all safe in the house.  And yet, I’m convinced that there is still truth behind feeling safe: resting in the fact that I am not in control, seeing patterns in the natural world, and knowing there is something bigger beyond that holds us together as humans.  It’s a sense of safety that allows me to breathe deeply and not live in fear.

My school had our “Quality Review” last week and in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, life at work was tense and stressful–a constant balancing act of hearing about the politics of education and things I needed to check off my list to play the game and remembering to look at my students and see them as people and remembering why I love my job in the first place.  On the second morning of the review, it started to snow pretty heavily.  My stomach was still in the knots it curled into since September, so I decided to take a minute in each class and turn off the lights and direct my students’ eyes outside.  We sat in silence and watched the snow fall for a few moments and took deep breaths.  It was amazing.  And healing.

I am trying to cull my inner Mary Oliver (more on her poetry soon) and allow the both the tradition of family and rhythms of nature (yes, even here in the city) to remind me that there are seasons, there is beauty, and within each there is safety: here is the snow that comes every year.  It is cold, but it is beautiful.  Thinking I am “safe” it does not come quite as easily as it did when I was a child, but it is there, still.
In the story, in a moment when he needs it most he wears his father’s shirt to gather strength.  As an adult he wears his father’s ties.  He is able to draw strength from tradition and memory and pattern and move forward, even when safety can’t be defined as the click of a doorknob.  And this is what I am thinking on as I get ready to go home for Christmas: the strength I can draw on from the rhythms my family has created and the beauty and truth that lay hidden beneath.

Neil Gaiman’s "The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Safety & Conjuring a Fairy Ring

{Harper Collins}

When I was little my imagination ran wild–I have memories of playing pretend for hours: sometimes it was in the school I created in my family’s unfinished basement, sometimes it was playing Boxcar Children in the woods across the street, sometimes it was creating a sky-high circus in the tree in my best friend’s front yard.  In the daylight, the heroes and protagonists of these imaginary stories always won as if the sunlight could trump anything.  Of course, then, this imagination stretched past my bedtime, when my parents were gone and I was alone in my room, with only my books, blanket, and stuffed animals for protection from the bad guys who lurked in the periphery of my daytime musings.

For these, I made rules I could follow in order to remain safe.  I have no idea if this came out of my tendency to be a rule follower, albeit an adventurous one, as a child or if every child created boundaries of some kind.  My rule, though, that I reminded myself of every night was that the bad guys could only get me if my covers were on exactly half of me.  Exactly.  I knew about symmetry by then.  I knew there was very little chance my covers would ever line up vertically; I made my bed horizontally every morning and clutched my blankets way past my stomach when I curled up at night.  So whether it was pirates or ghosts that were drifting in and out of my pre-slumber worrying, I reminded myself that they couldn’t get me and fell asleep confidently.  I remember relying on this more when we had babysitters or when my dad was working nights.

I hadn’t thought of this in a while until I was reading Neil Gaiman’s newest book The Ocean at the End  last week.  (As a sidenote, I devoured it.  I read it while walking on the sidewalk.  I can’t wait to discuss it with my Southwest Ohio Ex Pat book club.  In other words: go buy and get lost in it!) The book is about a middle aged man who returns to his hometown and remembers when he was young and his family car was stolen and a man committed suicide inside of it down the street on a neighboring farm.  The nameless protagonist meets the wise-beyond-her-11-years Lettie who lives there and is pulled into a fantastical, terrifying adventure with her as a result.  There is a moment later in the story when Lettie has to go face one of the fantastical creatures and she leaves him at what she calls a fairy ring around a tree and tells him not to leave for anything: “You’re safe in the ring…whatever you see, whatever you hear, don’t leave it…nothing that wants to hurt you can cross it.”

The most fascinating part about this for me as a reader was that the protagonist believed her and as a variety of creatures and beings who look and sound like his family come up to try to coerce him out of the ring, he refuses to do it.  With each one, he pronounces to them the truth he believes: that Lettie told him to stay, that he trusts her, and that he wasn’t going anywhere.  And it works. The moment feels so childish, and like I said, reminded me of the logic I had as a small girl.  But maybe that is what it takes.

I started thinking about the different voices I hear in my mind sometimes, asking me to doubt myself and to doubt what I know to be true.  It’s amazing how much traction those voices can gain and how easy it is to believe them–and how they can lead me dangerously astray from the person I want to be.  So.  Today I am going to try to create my own fairy ring, my adult version of horizontal sheets.  I want to cast around me the truths I have come to believe and in moments of doubt dispel them–and then stand amazed and thankful when they slink back into the darkness and I can live wholeheartedly again.

Nostalgia as strength.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time.  It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie–in their relative youth and in their more middle age.  In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.

As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I’d have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand.  After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories.  Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.

The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha’s 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal.  The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written.  A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters.  This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.

The “What I’m Afraid Of” slide came after she had gone on the kind of long walk with her dad where the world seems incredibly far away.  This is what she is thinking as she walks back to their house.
page 299

My heart hurt in a way I can’t describe when I read this.  I remember having moments like this when I was little, but not having a way to express it: feeling, as a child that I would long for the moment I was standing in later as an adult, and feeling despair for the fact that it was impossible to hold on to it.  Alison’s voice as a character is different from the rest of the characters, possibly because she is youngest of all narrators, and possibly because what she imagines missing is so pure.  The other narrators, when they are older, miss the teenage and young adult years: the freedom and the hope of what it yet to come.  

“Mom’s Art” slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):

“She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they’re precious because they’re casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look.”


This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now “steals” objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life.  As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath.  I think it’s significant that Egan uses the word shellacs–it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.

I’ve found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately.  This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life.  Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life–and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.

… from The Hours by Michael Cunningham and suited for conversation, I think. I need to store them somewhere, though. and write about them someday, after I’ve talked to you. or, more reasons why story matters, because how else do you say it?

Clarissa wants, suddenly, to show her whole life to Louis. She wants to tumble it out onto the floor at Louis’ feet, all the vivid, pointless moments that can’t be told as stories. She wants to sit with Louis and sift through it. (page 132)

There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other. (page 98)

Still, there is this sense of missed opportunity. Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together.  Maybe it’s as simple as that. (page 97)

She has not spoken on his behalf but on Leonard’s, in much the way her own mother might have made light of a servant’s blunder during dinner, declaring for the sake of her husband and all others present that the shattered tureen portended nothing; that the circle of love and forbearance could not be broken; that all were safe. (page 74)

Bradford Pears

blooming, announcing
remind me of home
the one I can’t return to
Atchison Road
where spring was an artisan;
lending its hand
to suburban midwest.
Atchison Road
where I didn’t try to carry
the world on my back
because I didn’t know
much
beyond my yard my woods my neighbors

And sometimes
on cloudy spring days in the city
the colors seem to
pop
and my heart is grateful for this town–
how beauty is different and deep here.
and yet I long
for my house upon a little hill
and the times when i could always
breathe
deeply.