Tuesday, June 16, 2009

With dream comfort memory to spare

I envy writers who can summon the memory of every item in their childhood bedroom and the names of each child in their fourth grade class. My own memory is more like badly spliced 35 mm film stored in acid cardboard and run through X-Ray machines. Bumpy, faded, streaky, erased entirely in places.

I don’t recall dates or names with much clarity but my emotional and sensory selves have a kind of substitute for memory. I can’t tell you when I was married or divorced but I can recite most of “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because it seared my soul when I read it.

And there’s music. Offhand, I don’t know what year I lived in New York on the streets of the Village, one of thousands of runaway kids. But I can recall with perfect clarity that “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel was piping out of the speakers at an Orange Julius one night when I felt particularly lonely…. I can date times of my life by music. I was 17 then.

Forward on the rickety tape of memory to deep summer in Sudbury, Ontario. I am lounging happily in a downtown park with two musician friends. They mention Buffalo Springfield but somehow, I’ve missed that part of Neil Young’s career and have never heard “Cinnamon Girl.” Rick and Digger, who are sprawled on the grass, shift into sitting position and softly sing the entire song to me. Deeply emotional, vividly intimate to be sung to. That is my first Neil Young moment.

A year or so later, a Sunday in January - I am vulnerable, cocooned inside myself. I’m walking to karate practice, getting on with life pretty much on auto-pilot. The sky is a clear pale blue and the snow glitters with light. January steals my breath, freezes it in my lungs. . My steps, the only sound at all, crunch thunderously on the snow as I plod along.

The dojo sits alone at the top of a hill and on the other side of the road is an open field, with an equipment shack in the center. I am 50 feet from my destination when loudspeakers in the shack turn on and Neil Young’s voice floods into the cold stillness,

“There is a town in north Ontario/With dream comfort memory to spare, And in my mind/I still need a place to go/All my changes were there…”

Until the song plays to the last word and note, I stand transfixed, listening, looking up at the vast sky, heart pounding.

To this day, I cannot hear Neil Young’s “Helpless” without a chill running up my spine. And if I am in a public place, I try not to weep.

Total recall. But only of the parts of life that mattered most.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Phoenix

The girl with the turquoise hair and face jewelry squeezes into the seat beside me. She’s wearing black steel-toed boots and an over-sized camouflage raincoat.

“Sorry about the coat,” she says. She sniffs and wrinkles her nose.“I just got it and it smells funny. It’s a really good one though. Got a beak on the hood and everything.” It's pouring outside. I assure her that there's only a faint rubbery smell.

She has fine, perfect features and astonishing green eyes fringed with dark lashes.

The whole ride home, in a voice so soft and even I’m straining to hear, she talks to me.

Native father, white mother. The father gone, the mother a suicide only a year after she, the girl with green eyes, survived a fire that burned her out of her home. Life on the street, abuse, beatings, tragedy running back generations, “youth jail,” and finally, her love, her daughter, Amber. Baby’s daddy didn’t want her – didn’t want a kid with a part-white, part-native girl. The grandmother has her now but the girl goes to see her every chance she gets.

She’s in a program and going to school in September to become a counselor. And maybe after a while, she thinks, she’ll go for a degree in psychology. She wants to help people. “These,” she gestures at her lip and nose rings, come out.”

“Do you know about the Ark?” she asks next. I do.

“I want to start a place like that, only where kids can stay over. They don’t have money for that, the Ark.”

“The smell…” She’s sniffing the sleeve of her raincoat and rubbing her arm. “I’ll have to wash as soon as I get home. You’d think they’d make sure this stuff is clean. And it’s not my boots, either. I wash all the time. I take care of my skin – and I don’t drink or do drugs. I don’t know why I have these dark circles under my eyes.”

She asks how old I think she is.
I study her, glad for the chance to look directly at that stunning face and those lovely eyes.

“Twenty-three, twenty-four.”

“Thank you,” she says, “I’m twenty-seven and somebody guessed thirty-five. Thirty-five!

I smile. Oh. The tragedy. Thirty-five.

“You won’t look much different when you’re thirty-five.”

"I feel so old sometimes. Real old."

"You've had a tough life."

She switches topics and tells me about her mother. We jump from there to possible new colors for her hair. She comes back to the course she'll be taking at school and then tells me about the babies she couldn’t save from the fire and the little boy she did save. Her eyebrows burned off and her eyelashes and her lungs were burned for months. At first, she couldn’t remember much, but it’s coming back in bits and pieces now. “It was in Truro, six years ago. It was in all the papers. You might have seen it.”

She rubs at her wrist and arm. “See these?” She pulls up her sleeve. There are burn scars the size of dimes and quarters splattered along her wrist. “They go right up my arm…from the fire.”
The rest of the scars, the ones hiding behind the perfectly clear green eyes, go right into her bones, I figure. The tics and apologies are a song of sorrow and self-loathing.

I tell her, “You heal well. You have good skin. I’d never have noticed them if you hadn’t told me they were there.” She smiles a little.

“I don’t mean to sound….you know…all poor me.”

“Like I said, you've had a tough life, a lot of sadness.”

She sits up straight and smiles. “I’m strong for it, though,” she says.

She seems to know that I am genuinely listening and although I don’t know if some or all or none of it is true, I am not a stranger and it doesn’t matter.

When I get home I recall the quiet flow of her voice, how it’s a lullaby in which the wind always blows and down baby comes, cradle and all. A lullaby... and a litany that tells her she survived. She is some kind of wonder, by God, right there on the number twenty bus. A lovely, green-eyed Phoenix still not quite out of the fire, but trying. Trying.