This Is the Way We Wash the Clothes

FACT: I am fourteen years old. I already know more than my mother does. She doesn’t drive. She doesn’t work. My mother quit school after eighth grade and went to vocational school. Now she has kids in grade school, junior high, and high school, plus four more at home, three in diapers, cloth diapers. Every day she stays at home. She washes clothes in the wringer washer in the cellar.  During commercial breaks from Search for Tomorrow until One Life to Live many hours later, she takes out the last load, puts in another, and hangs clothes on the line.

Her coffee cup and saucer sit beside her on the couch arm rest. If we interrupt her while her stories are on, she sometimes says, “Leave me alone!” She sometimes says, “I just don’t feel ambitious today.”

FACT: We live up north, in the boonies, the sticks, further back in time than the town. I go to high school. My teachers say I will go to college. I am in choir. I am in debate. I wear micro-miniskirts. I have babysitting money. I do not watch soap operas.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm between wrist and elbow, white pudding-y streaks on the skin and a bumpy bone that pushes up. She kept it out of sight, close to her side for years. I never really noticed. She got her arm caught in a wringer. That was one of only two or three brief stories about her childhood. Her brother drowned a cat in a bucket of tar Grandpa was using to fix the roof. She got her head shaved and the kids at school pulled her scarf off and chased her home, yelling “Lice head! Lice head!”

My mother set her hair with bobby pins and used home permanents and powdered her face on Sunday when she wore her blue dress. My mother was pretty. Her voice when she sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” or lullabies, was low, and I realize now, beautiful.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Summer vacation. I am bored, ambitious, and superior, so I graciously do the laundry, sure I will do a better job than my mother. My sister, Grace, comes down the cellar steps to help. She is four or five with dark wispy hair, an age that admires teens. “I wish I had pimples like you,” she says.

At the bottom right of the wooden steps my father made is a barrel stove on a dirt floor; on the left is a concrete floor and a wringer washer. Behind the washer are cobwebby wooden shelves filled with jars that gleam in the dimness: twenty quarts of tomatoes, thirty quarts of sweet and sour beans, apple butter, pieplant, pickled beets, plum jam with white paraffin on the top, a few big jars of pickled herring. In the fall and winter, piles of pumpkins and squashes lie there too, and potatoes whose eyes grow a foot long, reaching out like white umbilical cords.

The wringer washer, a stout lady on four iron legs with a roller bar like crossed arms, is already groaning and sloshing, plugged into a temporary electrical outlet which screws into the light socket. The light bulb screws into the other end; when you pull a string to turn off the light, the washer suddenly stops.

FACT: I don’t remember every detail. Twin rinse tubsgalvanized tin on legs with rollersare filled with water from a hose attached to a spigot somewhere. My mother has already filled the tubs. We open the washer lid, the agitator stops, and we fish the laundry out of the washer. Grace feeds the clothes between the dough-colored rollers into the first rinse tub. I stand on the other side helping them through. We both like the squiSsSSSHHHH of water hissing through the white pockets of jeans and spraying in our faces.

FACT: The wringer strips the newness out of clothes. My favorite tee shirt will be rough and stretched out on the bottom, faded from the sun; it will never feel soft again. It makes me look different and I long for a dryer like my school friends have, the ones with piano lessons, who swim at the Y and have lots of shampoo and conditioner in their bathrooms.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

We wash all our clothes in the same cold washwater. First pillowcases, towels, sheets, and not-too-dirty things. Add more Fels Naptha from the shiny green box, then do underwear and t-shirts. Add more soap until the water is slippery and gray. Put in diapers. Last of all, Dad’s overalls stiff with concrete. There’s sand in the bottom of the washer. When all the clothes are washed and rinsed and wrung and hung on the clothesline outside, we’re still not done. We have to empty the washer and the two rinse tubs. Unhook the stiff black hose from the washer’s edge, fill a pail, and carry it up the outside stairs and all around the house, past the lilac bush, past the clothesline, across the driveway out to the garden; because there’s no drain in the cellar floor. That’s why we don’t change water for every load.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

Grace and I are probably doing towels. Suddenly Grace cries, “Help!”  Her fingers are stuck between the rollers.

“Pull!” I say. It seems obvious enough. How could it be hard to pull her fingers out?

“I am but they won’t come out.” She whimpers.

I am certain I can get them out. I reach over and pull hard. “Ouch!” They won’t come; pulling only stretches her skin. The most I can do is keep her hand from going further in. My confidence evaporates. What will we do? What will we do? Then I notice the flat white bar on top of the wringer arm with words on it like “Safety Release” or “Emergency Release,” It should have been obvious but it wasn’t. I slam it hard with the palm of my hand. Nothing happens. Dammit. I slam again and press down. Like magic, the rollers come apart, and Grace pulls her hand out. Her fingers are cold and red but nothing is broken.

“Thank God!” I hug Grace. “Someone invented that after people got their hands caught,” I tell her. I am SO grateful to whoever it was.

FACT: “The revolving rollers exert 800 pounds of pressure.” Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

FACT: The plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, was feeding some wash into the wringer… Her fingers became entangled in the wet clothes and were pulled into the wringer…, causing her to sustain injuries to her arm. The washer was equipped with a safety release mechanism. However, it was located to the right of the machine and the plaintiff, while she was able to reach it, was not able to exert enough pressure on it to release the wringer.

Grace and I take a minute to calm down, and then go back to doing laundry. The flattened clothes fold into the clothesbasket in layers like Christmas ribbon candy. Together we carry the bushel basket with the falling-out bottom up the concrete steps. The thin metal handles dig into our hands as we pass the lilac bushes, and dump the load under the clothesline pole my father made. We hang up the wash.

On the way back we stop in the living room and tell my mom what happened. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Didn’t you get your hand caught in a wringer when you were young?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I sure did,” she says and turns back to her soap operas.

Many years later, I ask her more.

FACT: My grandmother was a trailblazer. In the 1940s when only movie stars got divorced, she got divorced. Twice. She had eight kids and worked as a cook in a bar. My mother stayed home, watched her younger brothers and sisters, and did the chores.

Although I’ve asked my mother, I don’t have all the facts: She probably stood on a chair to feed the clothes through the wringer. She was all by herself when the rollers sucked her fingers in. She must have pulled; but the rollers pulled back, sucked in the hand, twisted the skin, swallowed her arm nearly to the elbow. She pulled till the skin came loose, twisted it around to the other side of her arm, tore it open to make those scars. She may have had the wits to try to pull the plug, to turn the machine off, but couldn’t reach that far. How do you fight the machine with only a girl’s strength? How do you pull back against a thing that never tires? The pressure, the tightness became unbearable until her bone cracked. She must have screamed, cried for help, with no one around but her younger brother and sisters. How long did she cry and scream before a neighbor heard her and came over? How did they get her arm out? With a crowbar? A claw hammer? Was there a release bar on that washer?

My mother says she went to the hospital and wore her arm in a sling, but how could a sling be enough when a bone is sticking up?

FACT: When this happened, my mother was six years old.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm, a dramatic striation like layers in onyx, and on the inside between wrist and elbow, a bump pushes the skin up. She showed me how she can’t spread her fingers out straight, something I never noticed. It was never a big deal. She got used to the damage, an echo of one day when a girl of six did the family wash.

FACT: My mother is not bitter.

FACT: My mother’s flawed arm lifted ten babies and carried fire logs and dishpans of water and bushel baskets of wet clothes up the cellar steps out to the clothesline.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Lita KurthLita Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop): work accepted or published in FjordsReviewReduxRaven ChroniclesMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceeliipsis…literature and artComposeTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewVermont Literary Review, and othersHer work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Phantom Language

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely

“I don’t remember anything that happened to me.” Michael lifts his hands to chest level as if he is about to catch something. He has beautiful hands that make neat stitches on a hem or trace in the air music’s rise and fall.

Now they feel the emptiness in front of him, searching its parameters, the borders of this forgetting.

“I don’t remember anything, really.” He looks up and to the left as if the memory hangs somewhere in his periphery.

“My time in jail is a blank time.”

His memory, attuned to the finest details, was one of the first things I noticed about him. We both volunteer in the food bank’s garden and, as we eased lettuce seedlings into the ground, he told me a story saturated with particulars: what everyone wore, how they sat, the type of wood the table was made from, how its grain aligned.

I had noticed a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as we weeded. It is a cross, lightly colored, mostly scar, the size of a silver dollar. When I asked about it, he continued to dig for a few moments. Then straightened up and faced me.

“I don’t usually tell people this, but I don’t want to lie to you. I got it in jail.”

I wait for the story, but the prison—its walls, its people, its colors—is blank.

What he remembers is this: Moby-Dick, An American Tragedy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Look Homeward, Angel­—paperbacks he read in the prison library. He can recite the first chapter of Moby-Dick from “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” shaping the sentences with his hands, marking commas with his index finger.

Shortly after leaving prison, he let two friends trying to break into the business tattoo the left side of his back with a saucer-sized black circle caught in a net of angular tendrils that reach over his left shoulder and down to his lower back, scooping around his waist. Nearly a decade and a half later, he chose a tattoo for his right side and hired an established professional to render the spectral cherry blossoms of Ando Hiroshige, with subtle browns and pinks, little blue sepals cup each blossom. The delicate branches mirror the crude tendrils, reaching toward the blank space over his spine.

 

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off, the ones which remind us of our precariousness, remind us our intellects won’t save us, remind us we are animal—the sudden crack of the ice, the rearward tilt of the ladder, the lunge of the dog’s teeth. Those times when our bodies, gripped by pain, become foreign to us, even antagonistic. When relating these stories language retreats and the body takes over narration. One rises from the chair, lifts the arms, or drags the collar down to show—there, there is where it broke.

I rise almost without realizing in the thin hospital gown and say, “I was like this.”

Say, “He had me like this.”

Then even those fragments break apart, separating from one another like petals as a blossom scatters in a strong wind, and the nurse takes me to the table so my body can continue telling. Telling with blood, with swab, telling with flinch, telling the needle, telling the stitch. The single stitch. The nurse’s hand on my shoulder telling me we can stop at any time.

 

Take almost any path you please

Browsing in a used bookstore, I found an ancient botany book, pages stiff with age, crenulated from water damage. The author, whose name was obliterated when someone tried to pull the title page from the cover, writes, “Poppies deflorate with such rapidity that their loss of identity is nearly instantaneous.”

 

Nothing will content them but the extremist

The injury resulting from violence is a particular species of injury, distinct from the broken ice, fallen ladder, startled dog. It is the result of force as defined by Simone Weil, “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3).

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off…

When violence is inflicted on the body, the body is evacuated of self; it becomes a vacant site upon which another acts, a blank where the aggressor inscribes their own narrative. Once I saw a photograph of a man who had been lynched and set on fire. His body slumps against the tree, a shell of ash, the ribs and sternum whittled down by heat, legs sprawl in front. He still wears black dress shoes and patterned socks. His head is gone; his name not recorded.

The photograph was in Without Sanctuary, an exhibit I saw at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As I stood in front of the photo of the decapitated body, I saw that we, the mostly white viewers, were reflected in the glass, our apparitions interspersed with those of the mob.

The photographs were presented with little historical context, as objects meant for our gaze, matted on dark gray paper, framed in silver.  This crowd of well-educated museum-goers was probably already aware that lynching occurred with astonishing frequency up through the 1960s, and continues, though sporadically, into the present. What new knowledge did these photographs bring us? Why had I come to the exhibit?

We learned nothing of the man in the photo. He remains evacuated, a space upon which our gaze rests. Like the mob, we look at this man as wholly body, a mute thing. Like the mob, we stand in the serenity of our belief that we were not the ones who did it; we are not the violent ones.

 

Sleeps his meadow

Though the act of representing violence arises from the laudable intention to expose abuses, it carries the risk of replicating Weil’s formula: to make our looking “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This particular critique of the image was raised after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos by a variety of critics and writers. In Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry,” the poet Philip Metres argues that the “mass media’s recirculation of visual images of naked and dominated Iraqi men completed the acts that Charles Graner and other United States military police had begun” (1596). Metres implies that torture requires spectatorship. The humiliation of the prisoners involved the threat the photographs would be seen. By looking at them, we help Graner make good on his threat.

Metres asserts that looking at such photographs amounts to participating in maintaining the structure that allows for, even encourages, these brutalities. He writes that the photos inspire “a psychic defense against identifying with the victims that imperial ideology requires to maintain hegemony of its beneficiaries-subjects” (1597).In other words, we guard discomfort by imagining what it is like to be the torturer instead of the tortured. In identifying with the perpetrator, our impulse is to seek justifications for their actions rather than retribution for the victim.

The Abu Ghraib photos lend themselves readily to this reading; victims’ faces are always obscured and the bodies arranged in abstract planes and shadows, while the aggressors look directly at the camera, engaging with the viewer. As Arthur C. Danto writes in The Nation, “When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.”

However, the danger of a photo objectifying its subject must surely be outweighed by the need to expose wrongdoing. Amnesty International reported incidences of torture at Abu Ghraib as early as July 2003. Only after the photos were shown during an April 28, 2004 episode of 60 Minutes II did the Army begin a serious investigation of prisoner abuse. How do we balance the need for information with the inherent danger contained in the images of tortured bodies? More importantly, why do we need these photos? Why does empathy require the image?

 

Should you ever be athirst

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved to go to Buhl’s Planetarium to watch the Foucault’s pendulum in the vaulted entryway. I would peer over the brass railing into the marble well and follow the path of the copper bob as it swung back and forth above a disk of green stone set in the floor. As my sisters scattered into the museum I would wait for the bob to tip over one of the silver pegs. If I went late in the day, I could watch the final peg fall.

After the assault, it took me a month to realize what had happened. I had a hundred ways to explain it away: a mishap, mistake, or miscommunication. In a strange echo of Metres’ theory, I sympathized with my attacker. I thought he didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe I gave him mixed signals. It was no big deal, he apologized. I bet he feels terrible. I arranged all my explanations like little silver pegs in a circle around me.

However, I experienced continuing health issues and needed to return to the doctor. Unable to face the examining room alone, I reached out to a friend. As I told her the version of events I had concocted to protect myself from feeling like a victim, I watched her face reveal horror. She put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “But you said no.” The final peg fell and rolled into some dark recess. I could barely catch my breath as the realization opened up a well of grief inside me.

Then I wanted to talk about it all the time, to whoever would listen. I was shocked by the insistence, my need to speak into the blank left by the attack, to assert myself against that X reducing me to a thing. To say, “I was raped” is to use “I” as a subject. To say, “I survived sexual assault” is to use “I” as a subject in an active sentence construction. To say, “Though I survived sexual assault, I am starting to feel less afraid” situates the subject in a grammatical construction that suggests time, suggests the subject exists prior to as well as after the verb in the dependent clause.

 

Will not suffice

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, fourteen detainees testified before a military tribunal. More than a hundred pages of this testimony were leaked to the New York Times. Without the photographs, would the voices of these men ever have been heard?

These photographs are valuable because they created a space for the subjects to tell their own stories. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that because torture produces little useful military intelligence, it is not a military tactic, but instead a tactic to destroy the personhood of the victim. It reduces the person to a “state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). To relate a story is an attempt to undo that process, to return to a state of language, to begin to reconstitute subjectivity through the act of speaking. To tell a story is to organize an event and our reactions to it into a meaningful, legible narrative. It is to interpret, an act that asserts our human-ness, and declares we are not a thing, we are a subject who speaks.

When I saw Metres present his own poetry based on the testimony of the ex-detainees at Indiana University, he said, “Their ability to tell their stories is a testament to survival.” Ability is the subject of the sentence, not story, suggesting it is simply the act of telling that testifies to survival, that survival is embedded in narrative, regardless of content. If a detainee chose to tell a different story—the birth of his daughter, graduating from university, learning how to bake bread—he would still be testifying to survival.

 

But here is an artist

Michael loves to tell stories. His photographic memory and affection for detail can make listening to his stories trying.

“The wood is oak,” he’ll begin. “It’s not overly finished, so you can see the grain and the spalting, which makes a black honeycomb pattern.”

At first, I would get distracted during his stories.

“No tablecloths, just these long wooden tables, you know maybe from here to about there. And the walls are made of a similar wood. Maybe a bit lighter. So you sit at this long table. One side is a continuous bench built into the wall and on the other side—well, they aren’t stools exactly because they have a little back, maybe three inches or so.”

Over time, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the way his stories invite me to settle in, allay the endless spinning in my mind through the lists of things I have to do. Then I can see how the level of detail is not self-indulgent; rather it is his attempt to allow me to participate in the experience, as if I was really there with him.

When we tell each other stories, we arrest time, we open a pocket of stillness for the listener; we invite them into another space with us, like welcoming them into our home or leading them to our favorite painting in a museum.

When we share stories, we stand in relation to one another as listener and teller, a relationship that creates continuity between each other.  The source of this continuity is, to borrow a phrase from Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, “the way each affirms the aliveness of the other” (89). In this relationship, “each ‘welcomes’ the other: each—to return to the word’s original meaning—‘comes into accordance with [the] other’s will’” (90). The root of accordance is Latin: cord, or heart. Literally, accord means to bring heart to heart. This does not suggest passive submission to another’s will, but an active agreement to come into harmony with the other.

In other words “to come into accordance with the other’s will” is to create a relationship of mutual consent.

Scarry argues that justice rests on the “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” borrowing a definition from John Rawls (93). In other words, the practice of justice begins with a decision to bring ourselves into accordance and acknowledge our mutual aliveness. This is analogous to the relationship between teller and listener of a story, which also requires a recognition of each other’s mutual aliveness. Moreover, storytelling requires a recognition of one’s ability to speak and the other’s ability to comprehend—both human activities. Therefore it is not merely a recognition of mutual aliveness but of mutual personhood. Because it creates this relationship of symmetry and mutual consent, storytelling can be an act of restoration after violence.

With violence there is no symmetry. One is forced to submit to another’s will. How is the balance of right relations restored? In cases in which the violence is intimate, the perpetrator known, the place your own house or even your own bed, legal action becomes treacherous. For many women the choice is between the silence left by brutality or speaking into another brutality, the brutality of questions that imply our complicity or guilt. But didn’t you invite him in? Were you not his lover? Hadn’t you said yes before?

And I am left with fantasies of crowbars, broken bottles, and most of all my fist so that I could actually feel the bone’s snap, so that he would know what it is like to be this close to someone, to be held in their arms as they break into your body, reduce it to a thing. And it occurs to me this is how it happens, this is how we have run amok in the thousands of gestures—large and small—where we fail to recognize the other’s aliveness.

 

It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life

I couldn’t watch the 60 Minutes II on Abu Ghraib. Instead I read a transcript of the show without the photos. Eventually they were unavoidable, the naked and hooded men, the pyramid of curled bodies, the soldier flashing thumbs-up over a corpse.

What was avoided, however, was the fact that there were forty-two female prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In a quick news search, I learned the brutality visited upon them was indeed photographed, and that Congress has seen these photos, but they have not been released to the public.

This is as far as I can go, because I can barely bring myself to think about those women. Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.  Though I intellectually recognize my experience is in no way equivalent to these women, the sentence there were women there aches in my body, in my joints that I wrenched against his weight. I flee into books and articles, philosophy and science, even the dictionary—for any word to say aloud to remind me I am human.

 

old hunks in that particular instance

Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.

Because rape is considered to be a great shame on a family, the lack of a full account of what happened to the women in that prison allows for continued terrorism against former detainees and their families. Accusations that women were raped in Abu Ghraib have become another weapon in Iraq’s ethnic conflict. Doctored photos of rivals’ wives and daughters in the center of a circle of American soldiers are dropped off on doorsteps, circulated on grainy flyers. My government’s refusal to conduct a full investigation of prisoner abuse leaves these women in limbo, makes them a blank upon which contradictory narratives about the American invasion are inscribed. One story claims the invasion led to their liberation, and the other claims it led to their subjugation.  And I stand, helpless, on the other side of the world.

Instead, I search the blurred faces of the mob in the lynching photo, looking for particulars, something to make one of those people recognizable. I want to ask them: How could you visit such violence on your neighbors? How can you reduce those who share your quality of aliveness or personhood to objects? But I also want to ask, how can we do this? How can we visit violence—if just by looking or even by looking away—on others? More importantly, what can we do now, with our voices and our bodies, to begin restoration, even if we know it will never be complete?

 

There is now your insular city

At first it seems the two male dancers are mirrors of the women, who stand slightly in front of them. They arabesque when the women arabesque, they jetté when the women jetté. Their movements so exacting they are mesmeric. Then the women draw their bodies upward on pointe, arms lifted—high and slender—to the ceiling as the men plié deeply, legs wide. The men shift their weight to the left leg, extending the right outward. The women grasp the outstretched leg for support as they lean, lifting their own leg skyward. Just at the moment when they can’t go any farther, where any more forward tilt would cause them to fall, they release their partner’s leg and cantilever forward into his arms.

We move in relation to one another’s bodies, stepping aside slightly so the other can pass, squaring ourselves on either side of a heavy object before lifting together, leaning our weight back into the belayer’s harness as the climber ascends. In dance bodies move in relation to one another in a way that is completely non-teleological; they are not trying to get anywhere, lift an object, or climb something. The goal is the relation between bodies; the relation between bodies is not a means to an end but the end itself.

What if in the negotiations of our private relationships, in the planning of our cities, and in our political lives we thought of our relations to one another not as teleology, but as choreography?

 

Wade knee deep in tigerlilies

We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories in this relationship of welcome, of mutual consent.

My grandmother had a great glass jar of smooth grey pebbles she collected on the various beaches she visited during her life, and she would take them out and let me hold them. That is how I think of these stories we tell each other, lifting each pebble out and passing it across the table. We take the same pebbles out each time, lining them up in a row.

This is the thing my mother said that hurt me.

This is the time I felt alone.

This is how my father left.

My need to announce my assault to the world vanished as quickly as it came and just as inexplicably, so I’ve told Michael very little about the actual assault. Instead, I tried out different pebbles.

 

The house I grew up in had decorative windows in the entryway that acted like prisms, scattering rainbows all over the dark carpet where I would lie on my back reading.

 

My father loved to make fresh pasta. He would crank yards and yards of spaghetti out of a pasta maker and drape them over two brooms balanced between the chairs. When I was small I loved to crawl under the chairs and imagine I lived in a pasta house.

 

When my mother and I were in Portugal we ate fresh figs every morning. We would wake up, go to the market and sit on the stone stairs of the cathedrals and alternate a bite of fig with a bite of cheese, watching the city wake up.

 

And, still unable to conjure that blank time, he hands me what pebbles he can.

 

I remember my father had all these fruit trees. When I would visit him in Florida, I could eat peaches directly off the trees and I would have to bend over so the juice wouldn’t spill all over me.

 

When my family lived in Tennessee, my brother and I found this enormous stone in the woods behind our house and that’s where we would play. We were out there for hours, days even. Whenever I think about Tennessee all I see is that stone.

 

The first night I bought my house, my friend came here—there was no electricity or anything—and we sat on this porch and split a bottle of champagne and planted that poplar tree.

 

two and two there floated into my inmost soul

The fall crops were done. Michael and I dug up a dozen turnips and the greens were too spare to make harvest worth it. Packing up the shed at the food bank’s garden for the last time, Michael said to me, “If you ever want to tell me what happened, you can.”

But I didn’t want to tell that story—a story of pain and devastation. Instead, I talked about writing and literature and photography, speech that held the grief at bay. I never told him the full story of what happened; the traumas that originally brought us together ultimately made being together impossible. However, over those months from sweet peas to collards, Michael and I told each other hundreds of stories, reminding me that what defines us is not a series of events, or an accumulation of traumas. In fact trying to pin down “what defines us” is an impossibility. We are—if we are lucky—like dancers, always in motion and in relation to one another.

 


 

Works Cited

“Accordance.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. <http://dictionary.oed.com>

Danton, Arthur C. “The Body in Pain.” The Nation. 26 November 2006. <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061127/danto>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.

Metres, Philip. “Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1596-1610.

————-. “The Writer in the World.” Artsweek Presentation. Neal Marshall Center, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 26 February, 2009

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985

————-. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or a Poem of Force. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1956.

Elizabeth HooverElizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with conceptual or research elements. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and The Los Angeles Review. Her essay “Phantom Language” was a finalist for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.  She is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.

The List

Toothpaste, toilet paper, hamburger, ketchup, buns. Five items make a Saturday morning grocery list. My wife rehearses the items with me, face-to-face, asking me to repeat the list. It’s the only way she knows I understand her. When she asks if I understand, I always nod my head. I double check my wallet for money, stuff the list in my left pocket, and head to the grocery store. Got it. Simple. Drive directly to the store, buy the items on the list, return home. Thirty minutes max. En route to the grocery store I stop at a coffee shop to relax a bit. I bump into a friend and we banter about the everyday stuff that coffee shops elicit, our families, current events, politics, and the recent trend in the price of gas. Two hours pass. As I finish my coffee time, I remember that I need to make a grocery store run.

At the grocery store, I wander the aisles and gaze at the shelves. I travel every aisle, up and down, sometimes twice. I’m looking for something, but I don’t know exactly what. The meat and seafood section is especially appealing. Live Maine lobster and silver-scaled tilapia swim in Plexiglas cold-water tanks. Their movement fascinates me. I finally decide on one pound of king crab legs and two half-pound t-bone steaks. The demo lady at the end of the aisle near the seafood is displaying a special cranberry horseradish sauce that she promises goes well with steaks. I gobble a sample on a cracker. “Wow, that’s really good,” I say. She smiles. I can’t imagine that we don’t have this at home. I add two jars to the cart.

In the bakery, I am overwhelmed by the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. I gently lay two loaves of French bread in the child seat of the cart, up high and out of danger from being crushed. I add four éclairs just for effect. As I think about dessert, I sense the need to get some other items, but I can’t remember what they are. I am unaware of the discussion with my wife about the grocery store list. Whatever information was conveyed in the now “nonexistent” grocery discussion has vanished, so of course I am not concerned that I don’t remember it. I only know I am in a grocery store. I know how I got there, and that I need to buy food. The list in my pocket does not even register in my mind. I have no agenda, no plan, no list—just this compulsion: buy food.

Following the general notion that I should buy food, I roam the store. Pickles. I need pickles. Barbecue sauce would be good. And cake mix. I add three milk chocolate, three French vanilla, and three lemon—all on sale. I think how my wife will be so happy that I am smart enough to look for things on sale. Bright orange placards announce a temporary price reduction on cake frosting. I add six cans of various flavors then rush over to the dairy department and throw in three blocks of cream cheese because I always use cream cheese in my frosting recipe. Near the cream cheese aisle is the yogurt aisle. I don’t ever recall seeing so many interesting combinations of fruit and yogurt. Ten cups for eight dollars. A steal. I arrange them artfully next to the French bread. The bread reminds me that a nice cabernet would go well with the t-bones. Off to the wine section I go.

I spend a full half hour gawking at the artistry of the wine labels. I finally decide on an Argentinean blend, on sale and with a nice colorful label. The wine reminds me that an aged cheese would be good. I head to the cheese display. Same treatment as with the wine. I spend thirty-some minutes eyeing the cheeses. In the cart goes camembert, a wedge of Canadian Black Diamond cheddar, and a new cranberry goat cheese spread. Cheese needs crackers. I add two boxes of gourmet crackers.

I continue my shopping spree until my cart is about half full. I sense that I didn’t need all that I decided to get, but I really don’t know what, if anything, I was supposed to get. So, I add just a few more small items, jelly beans, tangerines (my wife likes them because they peel so easily), a few candy bars, and a quart of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

At the checkout counter, the cashier asks if I found everything okay. “Yep,” I say. “Gonna have surf and turf tonight.” She says how fun and that it looks like I’m planning a party. “Just the two of us,” I respond. She smiles. The tally is well over a $100. I swipe my credit card and the bagger loads the cart. Off to the parking lot I go; seven plastic bags hold dinner.

I get home about noon. My wife is making lunch. I am so excited as I bring the groceries in and plunk them on the kitchen counter. “I got you some jelly beans,” I announce with a smile.

“Oh no,” she begins. “What’s all this? What happened to the list?”

“What list?” I reply. She moans and shakes her head, then reminds me of our grocery conversation earlier that day, of the list she made, of the folded slip of paper in my pocket. I tell her that I didn’t remember any list. She asks if I checked my pockets. “Five things, that’s all you had to get.” She’s a bit upset with me.

I pull the list from my pocket. “Oops,” I say. I feel badly, but have no remorse.

 

I make lists for everything: medication, medical appointments, errands, writing, reading, free time, and family time. I make lists for cooking and cleaning, for yard work and housework. Banking and taxes are on a list. Handling money is tricky without a list. Sometimes I lose checks to deposit because they are not on a list. If something that needs to be done is not on a list, it usually does not get done at all.

Spontaneous events in my life create a greater emotional impact and tend to override my planned events. Colors of seafood, movement of fish, and the art of wine labels can evoke a stimulating diversion from the dull and inanimate world of lists. Interactions and objects that stimulate my senses usually alter my direction of thought and break my focus. I literally become “listless” when under the influence of sensory details—something of a sensory attack.

My therapists say that stroke injured the executive functioning part of my brain, so that higher ordered thinking processes, such as sequencing and prioritizing, problem solving and multi-tasking, do not operate as they should. Add deficits in attention processing with disruptions of short-term memory, and the milieu in which I try to order my thoughts becomes a world of constant distractibility and hesitation. I second-guess myself in almost everything. Was I really supposed to buy pickles? Am I really supposed to be going to a doctor appointment? I rehearse lists constantly—verbally, silently. When my wife goes over a list, sometimes I don’t understand her complicated verbal instructions. I usually just nod and say yes to avoid looking stupid. Then later, I always wonder what I said yes to.

The making of lists helps me accomplish basic everyday tasks. They help me focus and maintain intentionality in everything I do. At the top of one of my earliest lists, my first therapist wrote in bold letters, Kiss Wife. No list—no action. In the first year after my stroke, I often felt like I was living in a never-ending labyrinth of confusing choices that overwhelmed my ability to discern the important from the unimportant. A crisis of the seemingly urgent or the impact of sensory details could derail an ordered thought or detailed plan within seconds. I felt trapped in a cartoon strip where five or six frames told a story, but I could never make the connections between frames, and I could never completely understand the point or get the joke.

The entire business of list making has to do with engaging my brain to sort through, analyze, and prioritize all of my potential actions. It’s a sort of fake executive functioning, a paper brain. My executive brain functions by trickery. It relies on external prompts to organize information and make decisions. And, with enough external prodding, I am able to evaluate choices and information through the new paradigm of a stroke survivor. Trained as an emergency medicine physician, I used complex medical algorithms and treatment protocols to solve clinical problems. As an army medical officer, I shifted those protocols to war scenarios. Both of those roles demanded an ability to quickly sort through layers of complexity. Now, my protocols focus on getting though the day: shopping, appointments, reading, cooking, and scheduled routine tasks. I try to minimize complexity and distractions. Lists, my therapists remind me, are really my friends.

 

I hate lists. I hate them like I hate the kind of friends who never call unless they need help moving furniture. They also remind me of litmus paper that turns red for positive or blue for negative. My lists are litmus paper; and they always turn red for brain damage. They nag that my abilities as a doctor and a soldier have been effaced by a stroke and that I’m incapable of thinking with just the pure cognitive and imaginative power of my brain. Lists fill me with desire for things not on the list. I want my brain back—I want a fast, spontaneous, fully capable brain.

More than anything else, lists remind me that I need a list. And that reminder can piss me off. When that happens, I usually write hard and fast. I tense my shoulders and jaw. My breathing turns shallow and choppy. Sometimes I scribble unintelligible words, a cipher for the things I am unable to do on my own. If I’m really in a rebellious mood, I will crumple a list and toss it in the trash. Occasionally, I tear a list into pieces and throw it in the street—a sort of therapeutic littering.

I often relegate lists to my pocket or leave them on the kitchen counter, isolated, unattended and impotent, unable to insult my intelligence. Then I move and think independently, passionately, adrift without care or caution. And I love it and I hate it. I love it because I feel unencumbered and spontaneous. I hate it because I so easily lose my focus in the common distractions of another ordinary day. I go back and forth. I know I can’t do that forever—that I have to move forward, so I relent and make another list, and then yet another. I fill them with simple things that must be done just to move through the day. I fill them with complex things I think are important to me. And I do them hard, the simple and the complex—like a doctor at war. I keep moving forward. I persist. I survive.

On some really good days, I don’t need a list at all—and I phone my kids and I kiss my wife. They remind me that love doesn’t need a list. And in those moments, my mind crosses from the world of checkbox items to a world where ideas flow outside the lines like the crayon art of a child at play. When that happens, I rejoice in the spontaneity of my life. And I laugh—God, how I laugh.

Jon KerstetterJon Kerstetter, MD, completed three combat tours of duty in Iraq as an army combat physician and flight surgeon. He obtained his MD degree from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, MN. He also holds an MS in business from the University of Utah and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ashland University. He resides with his wife in Iowa City, IA. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Riverteeth, Emrys Journal, and The Examined Life Journal.