Encrypted Happiness: or, What I Lost on Martha’s Vineyard

I lost a roll of film once on Martha’s Vineyard. I had spent all week capturing little pink cottages, and ice cream carts, and sea birds, and cliff faces, and ocean breaks, and cotton-candy sunsets – and, of course, all of us holding on to each other in the tide, smiling wide in tank tops and beach hats and sunglasses – enthralled to be so far, far away from home.

When it was time to go, to leave this enchanted place named all those years ago for a British explorer’s baby girl – I panicked. I could not find the roll. I thought I had placed the long, looped disc on the dresser.

‘Help me pull this out from the wall!’ I yelled to my sister. It was heavy, an old-fashioned wardrobe with a large, beveled mirror that ogled at you even after you left the room. My parents were busy: tidily clearing the cottage, efficiently packing the many suitcases into the car like puzzle pieces, checking every last nook and cranny for their own possessions.

How could I have lost something so valuable? I thought about it falling out of my pocket and into the street, the narrow, black-knobbed body being kicked underfoot by tourists as they milled about seeking lighthouse ornaments and island delicacies. What if a stranger found it? Would they be curious enough to pay to develop the pictures? Would they try to find me? What would I do if I found someone else’s film roll? I thought about it falling into a gutter, buried forever in rain and mud and eventually snow.

I closed my eyes and willed as hard as I could to know it, its dimensions, where it was hiding. Why couldn’t we just know these things? What had happened to our fellowship with concrete objects? I heard the ocean crashing outside, and I thought about the roll being tossed about in its white waves. I saw it dropping miles and miles through the blue-green-black to the very bottom. Maybe it would get caught up in a current and be pushed and pushed along until it found its way back to the mainland. Maybe it would even arrive ahead of us and our seagull-covered ferry.

My dad was shaking his head in disbelief that I could lose something so important. ‘At least you didn’t lose the camera,’ he said as he loaded the last bag into the car. Was that supposed to make me feel better? It was a Kodak 110 — a long, slim, rectangular model that fit nicely in my hands, in my back pocket. The film was easy to load, and there was a long, black string attached for carrying and swinging as you walked. It was my favorite birthday gift. But what good was it without the pictures it had snapped up? It was just an empty, plastic, black shell.

‘We can’t leave!’ I shrieked. At least, I was shrieking on the inside. Outwardly, it was barely a whisper, with a tiny cry attached. ‘I can’t leave without it.’ I pictured the little roll bobbing away on the sea, out onto the horizon and of sight.

I was convinced that all of the best moments of my life – of our lives — had happened on that roll, and that I desperately needed it in a way I had never needed anything before. I had been in charge of those magical memories, a guardian of those keepsake hours spent together — away from the TV, away from the exhaustion of work and school, away from the rattling radiators and runny noses and leaky roof and snowy weight of winter.

I stood in that vacant cottage and listened to the echo of the sea through the open windows and smelled the salt as it settled onto the hardwood floors and furniture. It was an emptiness I had never felt. I tried not to hear my heart beating faster and faster as my dad started the engine.

Years later, even after losing so many more things — concrete and abstract — I am still convinced that everything I ever needed to know and understand and remember was on that lost roll: secrets of childhood, hidden messages, encrypted happiness.

singing down the sun

it is hardest to write

a poem for your

 

self; instead of sending it

out, off into the universe,

 

this one drills down,

directly in:

 

straight through

the sin and lore

 

and shimmer

of deflection

 

to the very

core.

 

how can we be capable of

such great heights and

 

such despicable

depths?

 

we keep making plans,

making plans,

 

pretending we will never

fall across the threshold.

 

if you wait long enough

in a still, small room;

 

if you can out-pace

the race of your fear;

 

you can hear

its call:

 

spirit narrating

from beyond,

 

embodying

all –

 

telling you to look

to the sparrow, to the

 

love-numbered hairs

on its regal head,

 

ward of boundless wonder

flying without worry

 

just above our

milling austerity;

 

singing down

the sun.

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the opposite of trauma

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on this pilgrimage, i take direction from

an old blind woman:

 

she knows the bones of the city

from the times before it was a city.

 

we climb and watch the clouds

accumulate, swirl across the

sky face like a sensate clock,

 

bear witness

with our bodies

as they open in wordless

 

prayer: motion, rhythm,

breath — the things men run from.

 

we come home and place slips

of spiral paper into bead boxes:

 

let go of the worry chain.

 

call forth the abundance

of our human inheritance.

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holding on for life

they call these stretches

episodes,

as if they only last a brief spell,

and wrap themselves up tight

at a definitive end:

into a meaningful

conclusion.

 

really it’s just hell getting through

each hour,

and then,

more confusion.

and you really don’t want any one watching.

but often you need some one watching

to help pull you out the other side.

 

believing that coordinates can lead you

to the center

of the universe

is saying you know the way to the edges,

to the end of the world.

there is no end; therefore, there is no center.

it’s just spinning and falling and flying and holding on for life.

brief blink

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you are getting better at this:

moving these murmurs through time;

 

listening beyond the trickle of life-blood

to the more ever-lasting.

 

how else do you manage the fear?

 

it is going to end someday, this leg

of the path, these moments you have known,

 

these glorious-rugged breaths;

 

the clock coming to a slow stop

inside this gentle chest.

 

for a brief blink, you will take it all with you;

then you will begin the next forgetting:

 

the forging that allows you to keep existing

until you come face-to-face with the god-frame

 

from which you were sprung.

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our house divided

inside this body are seasons:

orange, brown, white, black, green, pink.

they oscillate in the wind; they keep

trying to tell me who i am.

 

i am a book of years wrapped in

ribbons of non-time; i am matter and

anti-matter dancing along a loop of infinity.

we still do not know what lies at the core.

 

each month i unwrap one year;

every few days is a new moon,

waxing and waning with terror and beauty,

hunger and spirit, numbness and nothing.

 

no one can tell me who i am.

i must move this spectrum through space,

cutting closer to the center:

galvanized by love, rage, curiosity, grace.

 

if you have ever sustained anyone of any age,

you know the cycles we take: trays, cups, utensils, bottles,

napkins, needles piled up all over the house—pills counted

and swallowed, like stuffing wishing coins into a cuckoo clock.

 

we perch and hang onto the edges until we can

no longer fight the urge to lie down, to face

our house divided, to be horizontal like the rolling hills,

waving and watching from a great depth-distance.

paso por paso (or, instructions for the puzzle of life)

Puzzle 1

Clear a large space.

Establish boundaries (cat optional).

Start with the sharp edges and work inward.

Take it one step at a time; build frameworks where possible.

Follow your first impulses/impressions.

Smile between the furrows. (This is supposed to be fun.)

Others will be inspired by you and will sometimes want to sit with you and your endeavors. Savor the companionship.

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Simultaneously work on random patches and patterns. They will gradually begin to make sense and fit in.

When you’re in the midst of the mess, go make a sandwich.

Consult the big picture often.

Study each detail: the shape, shadow, grain, texture, color, depth (cat teeth marks).

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Vary your attention regularly between the big picture and the small details.

Try many things, and be willing to make many mistakes. You will come frustratingly close many times, and be wrong.

Admit the mistakes. Be willing to work backward to undo them.

You will be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task. Become comfortable with a certain level of chaos.

You can’t keep putting everything away in its neat, tidy place. Sometimes you have to lay it all out on the table for all to see, for you to face.

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Have faith that you will find everything you need.

If you do not find everything you need, have faith that you will be able to improvise.

Sometimes you have to stop looking for something in order to find it.

Deeply study the empty places to determine how they need to be filled.

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Each new day will bring renewed perspective, light, focus, and energy.

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Turn your thinking on its head. Keep rearranging.

Revel in the satisfaction of the right fit, of each small piece clicking into place.

Drink lots of coffee.

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Welcome help along the way; others bring unique perspectives and often see things we’ve missed right in front of our eyes.

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Develop a love of quiet simplicity.

Be prepared to spend many hours alone.

Accept that you’re going to hit a wall sometimes. Find a way over, under, around, or through – or wait it out. Walls (we) have a way of shifting.

Breathe and be present. Feel each piece in your hand and dwell with it.

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Embrace the paradoxes. Find humor in them.

Everything is an experience. Everything is a writing opportunity.

If you’re stuck in one area, move to another. There are endless areas in need of attention.

Do the work consistently, and sit back and enjoy the transformation.

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Take the time to celebrate the triumphs.

Then, be willing to let go, dismantle every piece, and start again.