NAVIGATION BEFORE TECHNOLOGY
Tucked between small mountain ranges, you’ll descend like a bird of carrion to my childhood home. Redwood Valley is a blink of an eye, easy to navigate. A right at the house with a red barn off of E. School Street, where on dewy mornings children stand at the stop sign, wait—wait—waiting for the bus, you will find Pinecrest Drive.
The house I grew up in is on the left. Down the road a bit. Before asphalt disappears into dirt, just before a copse of Redwood trees. If you reach a steep hill of dirt and gravel where I once fell and cut my lip because my bike forgot how to brake, you’ve gone too far. Go back.
As you pull into the gravel drive, please note it is not the first house on the right. Alta lived (lives?) there. If you see a small Native American woman who used to train wolves and caught rain water in abalone shells to water her plants, please give her my regards.
My house is the larger ranch style just past hers. Maybe, too, you will come the same epiphany I came to at the age of six as your feet crunch rock on the path to the door, “Oh! Now I get it! The lights are on but nobody’s home!”
I was always struck as a child when I came across books with flowers or clovers pressed between the pages. Something once living, dried, now, an image. Was this not the purpose of ink on page? Pressing words to paper?
One image: Where the irises grew, I learned of beauty in gentle folds; feminine and bearded. Bulb plants the color of fresh bruises, resilient and still blooming. If you gently pull back the flesh of a petal and let it catch the light, just so, an intricate network of veins is exposed. The spiky green leaves, the cartilage backbone of each stem, do not bend in the wind or under the weight of the bloom, they quiver gracefully for their one to three weeks of unabashed flowering. With little to no tending, they will bloom again.
What do you call the bowl of a tree where the branches take off from the trunk? The basin at the divergence, the catcher of rain, fallen leaves, and debris? Rot pot. Decaying stew. Organic. Childhood.
Search results: Unable to find image.
The absence of. I feel like my life has taken up this mantra. I feel an unremembering. No recollecting. The collection is a scattering. Flash in the pan. Fools gold. Triggers; bang! Bang!
I remember a fence of wood and squared wire. Imposing. Insurmountable. But there seems to be more questions than memories. Scientists say black holes follow all the laws of physics, including gravity—especially gravity—that everything becomes so dense hurtling toward this one point, not even light can escape. My thoughts are following physics, and I am helpless in the pull.
Another image: My mother’s hands seemed slender, elegant, otherworldly, juxtaposed to the soft doughy flesh of the rest of her. Her hands took on a life of their own, little birds chopping vegetables, cool hand to fevered forehead, fluttering monarchs of maternalism. Almond shaped fingernails and a bulb shaped callus from years of meticulous grocery lists and budgeting. Duality. These hands closed latches, brandished a fire poker, locked the bathroom door for two days. These hands said, “KEEP OUT!” in their futile quest to keep it all in.
When I was in college I read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I became obsessed with Wemmick. Wemmick was a colleague of Pip, the main character, but to me, Wemmick was the meat and potatoes. I thought about him constantly, wrote an essay entitled “On Wemmick and Human Battlements,” and walked around town looking for houses that had the facade of a castle tower; there are three houses in the town where I now live that I found in my obsession. He permeated my consciousness, slipped into my dreams. I felt a kindred spirit in Wemmick. A man who lived in the heart of a dirty and bustling city, separated by a moat and drawbridge. A home, shielding a cozy domestic bliss behind physical battlements. There was a work-Wemmick and a home-Wemmick. Each domain was compartmentalized. Separate. Safe.
I started imagining people walking around like their own castles, some with cannons, others with algae-thick moats 10 feet wide, a few with crumbling mortar. I felt a bit like the last castle—rocks askew, ready to fall apart.
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Crows are known to have episodic-like memory. They have to add “like” to the end of episodic, because there is currently no way of knowing whether a crow’s form of remembering is accompanied by conscious recollection, which is a key component in human episodic memory. Episodic memory is the who, what, when, and where of memory. Autobiographical. A collection of personal experiences that occurred at a certain time and place. Data.
Input: early childhood memory
Pages fell like snow, almost lazily, to the ground. A too-soft juxtaposition to books being ripped from their spines. Whiskey. Another flying book. Thud. Paper, gently drifting to meet the living room floor. Funny, that my dad built the shelf the books were coming from. Stained the wood. Something he created with his hands. These same hands were also capable of undoing, ripping the threads that bind, tearing things apart. I kept my eyes on the paper, tried to find beauty in the rage. My mom kept pushing the books back on the shelf. She never looked so much like a bookend.
When we moved out of my childhood home we had to wash the walls. Blank canvasses, lighter patches of paint, now hung where pictures once had. Squares and rectangles of wall surrounded by layers of nicotine. Where Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want had resided over the dining room table, the serene image of a family being served a bountiful Thanksgiving meal, nicotine had exercised creative license—precise, hard lines containing a hollow space. Ten years of nicotine wrung out in the Pine Sol and warm water, staining my thirteen year old fingers, erasing histories.
My parents had hired a man to clean up the yard, tame the jubilant growth of the plants, take down the squared and wired fence on the left corner of the property. At what point do cages need not be physical? I watched him, first, remove the chicken wire, a later add-on to keep things in, that slightly tilted in at the top of the fence. Then he methodically began removing staples from the posts and rolling up the heavy squared wire of the enclosure. Next he unhinged the latched gate. Lastly, he pulled the posts from the ground. He made it look effortless. Funny, that that space still stands in my mind, just as tall and sturdy as the day it was built, despite me seeing it torn down.
More and more, with the building and removal of physical barriers and walls, psychologists are grappling with how these structures have impacted the human psyche. Since the seventies, a decade after the Berlin Wall went up, psychologists have been theorizing about the effects of physically imposed isolation. “Mauerkrankheit” translates to “wall sickness,” describing the malaise that accompanied living with the Berlin Wall. This term was coined after the fall of the Berlin Wall when mental health specialists saw a rise in despondency of those who lived near or within the confines of the barrier. Gritta Heinrich, who lived up against the Berlin Wall in Klein-Glienicke said, “It was this real feeling of narrowness.” Despite the wall being torn down 30 years ago, many people who live in East and West Germany still experience “Die Mauer im Kopf,” or “the wall in the head.” In Israel and Palestine, where The Separation Wall still exists, they have only just begun studying the psychological implications of the barrier. The barrier that separates Pakistan from India is called “The Line of Control,” a double-row of fencing and concertina wire, electrified and motion sensored. The small area of land between the double fence is covered with thousands of landmines. As with Israel and Palestine, surveys and studies have only just begun to measure the psychological ramifications of these partitions. All studies show an increased number of individuals with distress, anxiety, and feelings of displacement. Each fence, line, barrier, wall, enclosure—keeping things in, keeping things out; signifying other.
What does this say of the parent/child relationship? If boundaries are drawn for “protection,” does intent outweigh consequence?
As I am writing this my father is having open heart surgery. I feel a suffocation of fear. Fear that he may die, heart exposed, chest open on the operating table. Fear that I am exposing him with each stroke of my pen as I attempt to fill in cavities. I can imagine my mom, chain smoking and watching the clouds like a furtive dream, waiting for the call, “Everything went well. Everything is going to be okay.” I feel distressed. Displaced somewhere between anxiety and anger. Anger at he who built the cage. Anger at her who put us in it. Anxious that they’ll both die with unspoken answers on their tongues.
I want to know the shape of my time in that enclosure. Need to know the shape that has forced itself into every relationship I have ever had. Dividing. Drawing lines. Was it for a summer? A handful of days? Over the course of a few years? I ask my sisters; we are united in our unremembering. Like a bookmark pressed between the long unread pages of our youth, it leaves an indelible image of where part of ourselves left off and picked up another text.
I remember the playhouse. A one room wooden wonder my dad built with his hands. A-frame, shingled roof, exterior of white with yellow trim. Two windows for natural light. A counter on the wall without a window, fitted with a metal sink. No running water. How many times did I sweep that plywood floor? A door frame without a door, always open, beckoning, “Come on in!”
I called my sister and asked, “Which came first—the cage or the dog?” I could feel the distance through the phone as she shoveled buried memories. When she hit something hard she asked in turn, “Wasn’t our playhouse in there?”
I pulled out a shoebox of photos, scattered memories on the floor, in search of an image. A four year old me in front a swing-set. In the corner of the frame, our white and yellow playhouse inside the fence. Just as my dad had built the playhouse for us with loving hands, he had also built the cage for us, the cage my mother had locked us in on inattentive days.
Six feet of separation. A few hundred square feet of lawn. Playhouse in the corner. At the far side of the fence is where the irises grew. Through my wire latticed lense I looked out at wild flowers. Laburnum. Rhododendron. Ivy that draped in heavy vines off the massive oak. Before the chicken wire was added to the top, my sisters would climb out. I couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I felt that the cage was there for a reason. That I belonged in it.
I sometimes wonder what my mother did while we were locked away. Did she imagine us safe while she walked the narrow corridors of her memory? Did she crave the isolation she physically imposed on us, her three daughters? I remember a quiet, but ever present, hysteria closed around our childhood. The 60 Minutes clock always ticking; another child abduction, strangers luring kids to cars with candy, Polly Klaas kidnapped from her home in Petaluma, her strangled body found in a shallow grave 30 minutes from our home. While keeping these things out, they were keeping us in. Intent versus consequence.
Black hole: My sisters and I named that enclosure “The Kid Kennel.” An attempt to deflect pain, or any real depth of feeling, with humor. On the cusp, perpetually at the event horizon. But it is pulling me in. Dense. Denser still. No light memories can escape.
I have been smoothing the edges of this memory for years. Wearing the shape of the cage in my mind down to a more pocket-friendly size. A shape I can understand. Can carry with me, without consuming me. My favorite image of my sisters and I is this: A photo of the three of us. A day I don’t remember. Overcast at the beach. Grey waters bleeding into sky. A sea of infinite horizons. We are facing the waves, the three of us, ready to jump. Together. On the cusp. At the precipice of something.
Angela Youngblood lives and writes in a small northern California town. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from CSU Chico. Her prose has recently been published in Entropy. Amateur plant enthusiast, but not-as-vigilant-a-plant-caretaker-as-she-would-like-to-be, she tries to nourish things to grow. She sporadically posts on her nebulous blog youngofblood.wordpress.com.