“Be bold and courageous.” God
She’d learned to be silent over 50 years ago. In her mind’s eye, Horatio, in her mind’s eye. She could easily slip back into that young girl’s body—it was still her body after all. Hands—feet—knees—eyes—they were the same eyes, knees, feet and hands of the girl. Changed. Age spots. The crepe-like skin she could pull loose from the top of her hands and it would stay balanced there indefinitely. The feet that ached at the toe knuckles. The knees—can’t even talk about the knees. She refused to watch beautiful 50-somethings on television in their minis and non-saggy bare legs. When did that little flap of skin begin its descent from her thighs to her knees? Kathleen often wished for a can of WD-40 that had an injection needle attached so she could plunge it into her kneecaps to keep them from squeaking and whining whenever she climbed stairs at work. Her eyes had changed the most. Once a brilliant blue, now they shimmered with myopia unable to focus on things near or far. She didn’t want to see too far though. Life had taught her that much. It had also taught her to be silent.
Age four. Christmas Eve at her grandparent’s house. She viewed the chaos from behind a pink armchair. Her grandmother had loved pink. Pink pillows, rose-tinted curtains and even strawberry pink flamingos in both front and back yards. Pink had made her happy. She’d been buried lying on baby pink satin in her best tulip-tree pink suit. But 50 years ago, grandma had been Kathleen’s age. What a thought. Time flip-flopping life around like that.
Her daddy’s family was crazy. Looney even. And they scared her four-year-old self so she hid behind the pink chair and watched with non-myopic bright blue eyes wide open. She could see herself and hear her heartbeat quicken as if she was that small Kathleen again. She hovered over time watching herself, marveling at the innocence and the heart-breaking fear. White blond hair cut short, a sturdy brown body poised to run, or roller skate, or climb a mimosa tree, or hide in the woods silently waiting. How funny. Kathleen could see and hear her small self breathing in and out and could read her own mind in memory. “Disappear…disappear…disappear.” She remembered so clearly how quiet she stayed hoping to remain invisible and not be drawn into the family Christmas chaos and noise and teasing that wrapped her in shame and awkwardness. Silence became her Harry Potter cloak of invisibility.
It worked, too. Silence made her invisible all through school. Teachers never saw her. They always looked surprised when she silently handed in her completed SRA tests. Those were her favorites. She remembered the boxes full of stories filed according to difficulty. Yellow was easy. Purple was hard. She read all the yellows and all the in-betweens and all the purples. Kathleen had never dared think she was exceptional and neither had her teachers. They saw a tall, sturdy, plain white-headed girl with blue glasses and a red tartan plaid skirt with a giant gold safety-pin that wasn’t authentically Scottish but felt like it was…she pretended.
Recess was hell. It was harder to feel safe when she was surrounded by cement and loud kids chasing each other. They never chased her. They didn’t see her. She played hopscotch alone with a piece of chalk that was kept in a bucket by the school door. Sometimes another invisible child would drift over and they would play their silent game together. Occasionally they would giggle. Looking back through time, Kathleen shuddered. Why didn’t she just yell and play and run and giggle without fear? It must be coded in my DNA she thought. I have an oversized silence gene. Or fear gene. Silence and fear seemed to go hand-in-hand.
The only time she had felt somewhat superior was when the Bookmobile came to the school. Silent words on a page offered her more than spoken words. They promised her dreams of unknown places and people and creatures. Spoken words were usually harsh, judgmental, demanding—bullying the experts called it now. Even her baby sister knew how to compel her to silence. Teachers classified her as “overly-sensitive” and her daddy said she was “high-strung” which always made her think of a tightrope walker. She could picture herself in a spangled costume with fishnet tights and soft kid slippers balancing carefully on the wire trying to get to the other side but never arriving. Instead she had to stay balanced and not fall. Looking back, Kathleen wished she had just let herself fall and been done with it. It didn’t matter—the falling. No death or smashed bones… just failure. And failure never killed you. It might lead to angry words and harsh words and disappointing words but words didn’t destroy unless you gave them power. She had never learned how to remove herself from their power. Instead they lashed her back and forth slowly reducing her to silence. Words tipped the balance and revealed her nakedness.
“Today I have made you an iron pillar, a bronze wall.” God
Some mystics take vows of silence. The word “mystic” fascinated Kathleen. From a Protestant background, Kathleen had known very little about the so-called mystics of church history, but the idea of them…the radical passion of them intrigued her. Sometimes she tried to imagine that kind of silence, especially when she was in a room full of high school seniors watching them struggle and strain over each sentence of their essays. The silence was heavy with intent and frustration. She could imagine it feeling the same way with sacred silence. No lightness like the silence between couples relaxed and engaged in a silly movie on the television, but rather the intensity of knowing that the singular God of the universe who spoke you into being was aware that you were being silent in order to hear Him whisper in his infamous still small voice. A sacred silence engaging every thought as if in telepathic communication with Him. The Great I Am. The mystery of the mystic, she called it.
Sometimes she grappled with it and practiced the idea when she was hiking along the Rio Grande gorge. She’d turn her iPod off and listen to the air. To the sound of the water moving around the rocks below. The whiskery sound of branches being moved by small animals. The footfall of ants. In those rare moments when no sign of humanity existed around her, she felt like God was speaking. Peace. Peace. Peace. The silence heightened her awareness of Him. Once she even built an altar of stones. Hikers do that. You find little cairns all along well-traveled trails as a marker that you have traversed these trails and you join with the throng of others who did the same. But Kathleen fashioned hers as an altar. She dedicated it to God and to His silence. It’s still there and she adds a stone whenever she passes. It’s been knocked down a few times in the 11 years of its existence, but the altar stands and she places a rock and says a prayer whenever she passes.
She hiked more in her 40s than she does now in her 50s. She should do it more. “I should do it more often now,” Kathleen says out loud. She did it before mostly to avoid her husband. She’d leave his dinner prepared and then she’d take the children with her to the gorge where they walked and played in the pinion trees and sagebrush with their dog, Moby. They let their dad and her husband arrive from work to an empty house. He would settle down better that way. No noise from the kids—no cruel words just to injure her and what he considered her menial job as a teacher in a Native American charter school. Alexander was an engineer and was very precise about words and what words he would use to impale her each evening. They were heavy and hard words that slapped and punched her. She reeled from them and found herself on the floor several times. She was so busy acting as a shield for her children that she found herself taking blows constantly. Her silence in the face of his anger made him angrier…made his words more cutting. Biting. Nibbling bits out of her flesh until she was pockmarked like a smallpox survivor from the 18th century. And then she noticed her children’s reactions to the barrage of word weapons and her weak attempts to parry his thrusts with shields of silence and tears and she realized they were missing bits of their flesh, too. Noticed too that they jumped and startled easily when words were spoken in a deep voice. No iron pillar or bronze wall protected her from the onslaught. Each word was a direct hit until she threw down her shield and silently—without ever talking to anyone—filed for a divorce. She needed a fort to protect her kids. She needed troops that could back her up and provide the love words that punctured hearts crave. Thankfully, Alexander left the high desert of New Mexico for the greener pastures of California leaving Kathleen alone with her two children and Moby and her family and the friends she had at the school that understood her silence and loved her anyway. The Native Americans understood silence and they understood suffering. They embraced her and her children and brought them gifts—beaded friendship bracelets that linked them together in their silence and suffering.
During that time God became more silent then ever. Kathleen shut herself away unless her children needed her. She performed for the school and for her family and for her children, but at night when she’d sit on the porch and stare out across the dark, silent desert to the mountains beyond she would sigh deeply and wonder about the big things. Life and death. Prayers answered and unanswered. Failures. Love. It seemed that life had run hysterically around her for 54 years trying to get her attention, but she had turned a deaf ear and silent tongue to its demands. “What do I do now?” she asked God out loud. The question echoed to the stars and came back a shadow of itself.
“If you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes
you think you can race against horses?” God
There was another time…an earlier time when Kathleen stayed silent. A haunting and confusing time. She had detached herself from it and cut it away as though it had never belonged to her. She had lobotomized the memory and exorcised the demon, but sometimes it returned as a remnant frayed around the edges. She was thirteen maybe fourteen, but not fifteen or sweet sixteen. Each increment of years prepares a girl for what is to come. Thirteen or fourteen isn’t a time of preparedness; it’s a time of preparation. Thirteen in the 1970s in a small town in New Mexico was very different than 13 in 2011 in a small town in New Mexico. She allowed a picture of herself to emerge. This time a less awkward, more shapely version. Long, golden-red hair that curled cautiously on her shoulders as if scared to be too flamboyant.
Boys noticed her. They noticed her shapeliness. The curve of her hips and the tightness of her brown calves. They noticed the bright blue eyes and the full lips. They stared and whispered, but never spoke. Her silence created a carapace impossible to pry open. Not even a whistle elicited a smile. The boys gave up, but not the men. Or the man. It was a man. She remembered the shame though she hadn’t understood it at the time. It was her shame…her quietness that caused it. She needed to be loud. She needed to create a ruckus and punch the walls and scratch the faces of the boys who sniggered knowingly while she remained unknowing. He was her teacher. He went to her church. He was popular with the students because he was easy and playful and never serious. Sometimes when he was teaching, he would call up one of the pretty girls to stand beside him while he lectured. It was an honor to be chosen. It meant you weren’t ugly. It meant you were seen at a time when it was so important to be seen and not invisible anymore.
One day he called Kathleen to the front to stand beside him. The boys sniggered. She stood with his hand inside the small of her back. While he talked she remained perfectly still and quiet only noticing his hand as it moved lower to the band of her skirt. It slipped inside so slowly like a snake that could flatten itself out to hug the curves of her hips. They were baby curves. They weren’t womanly curves. They were virgin curves and not for old man’s hands to explore. She stood still blushing—knowing there was wrong in this but not knowing why it felt so precarious. She was balancing on the tightrope. Did the boys in her class know how their teacher’s hand crept up the inside of her blouse to her naked back? Did they know he was inching his way up to the strap of her size 30 “A” bra from the Sears junior department? The girls knew. This is what the pretty girls knew and they let him call them up every day.
Kathleen stayed silent the first time, but she pulled back the second time. She pulled away and she looked at him and then looked down. She said, “Don’t.” And the boys laughed uncomfortably as if they had been in collusion with the old man. She doesn’t remember walking to her seat. She doesn’t remember the rest of the year. She just remembers that moment and then nothing. That class ceased to exist for her. She made her “A” and walked away and never said a word and never looked at him at school or at church. She stayed silent but wanted to scream.
Thirty years ago…forty years ago. The perverse old man was dead now. And finally Kathleen understood the sniggers and the manipulation and invasion. She understood and hated herself for not screaming and for not telling someone something. But she also knew that they would never have heard her. They would never have believed her. He was an icon at the junior high. He helped coach the football team. He was a deacon with her daddy. His wife taught her speech class. Now, so many years later Kathleen fumed and fussed. She pulled at her hair and whispered huskily to God the ubiquitous “Why?” that everyone everywhere asks him whenever something devastating happens in his or her life.
The gentle stirring of the wind and the snores of her sleeping dog lulled Kathleen into softness. The stirring of the wind and soft cries of her dog awakened a
stirring within her and she found herself moaning for lost pleasure. She closed her eyes to shut out the desire. She needed to cut out that part of her that was “woman” but it remained a hollow space carved out with time and neglect. She stared at the blooming cactus standing in the periphery of her porch light. She thought about blooming. She remembered the woman who had been wooed by words and poetry into disaster. Now she rejected those words. She distrusted them. Silky, soothing words ran off of her without soaking into the pores of her skin. Instead they landed at her feet and she stepped over them without pause. There had been no silky, soothing words for many years and Kathleen hated her weakness and desire for them now. She had been alone for many years.
Her silence and God’s silence pervaded the desert that surrounded her home. Like the mystics, Kathleen tried to send her thoughts towards heaven and connect to God, but gravity seemed to force her thoughts back down. The hole in the ozone wasn’t big enough for her tiny silence to permeate. She reached down and petted Moby. He smiled his dog smile and wagged his tail and then fell back asleep.
“I spoke up, I’ll go. Send me!” Jeremiah to God.
That perversity happened many years ago. Even the memory once so vivid had slipped to that unnamed place in her brain where memories slip and stay forgotten until a smell or sound or place awakens the sleeping silent moment. It had come out of hiding because of a small, sturdy but shapely young woman/girl with deep brown eyes, sienna skin and black hair. Now Kathleen’s silence would be criminal. She had to make noise. Lots of noise. And she knew it had to happen tomorrow. She wished she had that companion with whom she could talk and volley ideas back and forth. She looked at her cell phone and willed her parents back to life. But Kathleen’s parents were dead and with them went the comfortable silence and the comfortable laughter and the gentle acceptance it had taken 30 years to obtain. She put the cell phone back in her sweater’s pocket. “Come on, Moby. It’s time for bed.” He stood and stretched then pattered behind her. The screen door shut out the dark blue desert. The heavy wooden door closed firmly and the brass lock was twisted into place.
Kathleen is assistant principal at the Native American charter school now, but is retiring at the end of the school year. It is March and the sun still shines on the desert and gleams on the snow-topped mountains full of skiers and snowboarders. She would rather be on her snowshoes, Moby running along side her crunching on top of the deep whiteness, but she is at work. Her office is full of color and art and light. Reds, blues, yellows, browns all bounce freely around the lighted area casting warmth in an office that houses all sorts of catastrophe and tragedy. Children suffer so much more now, she thought. Native American children continue to suffer so much more. She sighs thinking about what is to come. Naomi—the young, sturdy woman/child was coming in with her mother. They were going to talk about the hard things that Naomi had shared with Kathleen yesterday. They had brought back the stream of memories Kathleen had buried and forgotten.
Yesterday Naomi had walked into her office. Her fear smelled of vinegar—sour and pungent. She stood in her faded jeans and soft green sweater, her black hair loosely tied back. Her brown eyes tidal pools of innocent pain. She spoke softly. Kathleen had to tell her to sit down and lean closer and speak up without fear. Naomi sat and spoke. There is a man. He is a teacher. He…they laugh…the boys…they know what he does. His careless hands that brush our breasts or bottoms. His coffee breath that pours words into our ears that instruct but defile. The way he leans into the closet when a girl goes in to retrieve the chemicals for an experiment. It isn’t right. It isn’t right.
Kathleen looked carefully at the young woman/child with her virgin curves and brown eyes already tired with knowledge. The knowing shouldn’t happen to these children.
Now she waits for Naomi and her mother. She feels the noise rise within her. She hears the echo of God’s thunder and his judgment and his anger. “Now,” God says. “Now, Kathleen. Make some noise.”
Taos pictures by ME!
Bookmobile photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/montereypubliclibrary/446892037/”>montereypubliclibrary</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>