Making Our Own Days (excerpt from The Littoral)
***This is a rare occasion, wherein this excerpt from The Littoral (‘the book’) will be available on this site until it is sent away to be published, or is published elsewhere. It is my distinct pleasure, therefore, to offer it to you now.
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Making Our Own Days, My Own Summer (or another way of saying, The Time of the Place)
Our way of measuring time was intimately related to place. As each place had a topography, so did many of our days, depending on what we did, how we felt and where we were. There were mountain days, bridge days, river days, lake days, house days, beach days. The rest ended up being mostly school days, but once in a while we’d turn a school day into a mountain, river or a lake day. Creating the present through ritual re-enactments of the past. Observing the time of the place; neither too slow, nor too fast. The speed determining what we would see, where we would end up and how long we would be there.
After a while we began to bring in more and more of our own stuff, as long as it didn’t interfere with what was already there. While by comparison, our peers were going through the usual teen dramas whose outcome was determined less by their own choices or experiences than those of their peers and their peer’s peers and whatever was beyond that wasn’t anything they wanted to know or think about, like staring at the finger instead of where the finger is pointing. Culture was still a part of our lives, but we could come and go as we pleased. See it from both sides, projecting our minds onto it rather than it projecting itself onto us.
B started this tradition the year she went into high school, when she and some friends left for recess and didn’t come back. B was struck by the power and significance of this act. Not because of the rebellion involved, but the possibility. She realized that for the first time she was making an autonomous choice. Releasing the power of those hours that would otherwise have been spent working for someone else. Not that she did it very often, but when she did, she made the most of it. One of the few choices she was able to make for herself. The reason why everyone had to be in the same place doing the same things wasn’t because they learned better that way. People had been put into classes, learning the same things over and over for centuries, it didn’t improve the species, it didn’t empower the individual, what it did was make people easier to put into boxes. B initiated me in the same way, so by the time Grace got there she already had two older siblings in relatively good standing to make the transition a smooth one.
We leave school after first class in order to make it home around the same time we normally would if we had taken the bus. Sticking to back roads, hiding in plain sight until we caught up with the railway. Torn up ties leaving a narrow ‘road’ skirting the lower banks of the lake. It was common to find artifacts; a rusty spike, a tie still in situ, closer to town we’d sometimes find coloured glass lying on the surface of newly cleared lots from the days when it was a dump.
The river is deep, even now. Rusty iron girders and a web of old growth creosote beams, rotted and weakened by the vibrations of trains, are all that remains of the bridge.
“Is it safe to cross?” asks Grace.
“Just stay close to the railing and you’ll be fine,” I say.
“Do you do this often?” she asks.
“Yeah, you can jump in the middle, where the river’s deep.”
“Of course, wanna give it a try?”
Generally immune to danger and particularly unreceptive to cautionary advice, Grace hugs the rail with her right arm, while hazarding furtive glances between the boards. Although the sight terrifies her, she keeps looking down as if some secret were being revealed that would appeal to any thirteen-year-old’s curiosity. Last week Mother held a puberty rite, marking not only her first teen year, but also her first menarche. The ceremony carried out informally in the backyard with Ruth as the priestess and B as the old crone. We had had our own celebrations of course, in moderate reverence of age and abuse of alcohol, but it was the public one, overtly recognized by the adults, that made the difference. In order to be effective, a ritual must be observed by everyone in the community, she’d said. How could a child be welcomed into the company of adults, to command and show respect without a formal ritual acknowledging them as such? How could they feel ingratiated? There would be no closet adolescent-adults in our family.
The rites were accompanied by a new name, a formal designation to indicate the shift. We already had our names for life and a revolving roster of nicknames, now we would be given official ‘titles’; Lady Rose Grace, Lord Augustus (Juniper) Elk, Lady Beatrice Sage. Mother described the stages of one’s maturation as proceeding in cycles. Every seven years (beginning at birth) the body goes through a transformation wherein all its cells are replaced—gradually, not all at once. Afterwards the person begins a new cycle based on the amassed achievements, failures and experiences of the last. The cells becoming storehouses for these experiences so one is able to recall them almost on command, a kind of time travel, existing as long as the memories are there. At eight it was climbing through the mountains with a compass and a knife, at 12 it was jumping off a bridge, at 16 it was Wet Betty… with one thing in common linking all those places and ages together like destinations on a daydream trip advancing and receding on the way somewhere else. Another place, but nowhere in particular, places like ages stabilized by that which they are made, one is a name and one is a number, names and numbers rearranged. Eleven, the age I first became aware of the power and significance of number as both a symbol as well as a temporal marker. A vision of me standing at the edge of a forest clearing on top of a mountain somewhere, a figurative out ‘of the woods’ of childhood glow eleven has been and will be waiting… The parallel 1’s standing like alders, one hand on either trunk one, me, one, one and one are eleven. Looking across a deep valley to a city in the distance; the real world, contrived out of an older person’s grand vision and scope and greed and experience and beyond it, the too-old, cold, gray, white-capped peaks shrouded in the misty beard of an old, o-old man looking back at his life’s triumphs and mistakes, through it all to the child he used to be and somewhere, sometime, still is. I hadn’t yet started my descent, but soon would. Down into the valley of golden grain and berries, seeds; things for dinner, smaller animals that I might catch and eat. Then at the edge of that, another forest with less food, where I might become prey to something bigger on my way to town where things would be better, but still not quite right, onto the next one and so on.
Although there was no shame in performing the ritual, Mother suggested we keep it quiet so as not to attract attention. The others, she explained, wouldn’t understand. We were used to her unconventional ways of doing things and wouldn’t have said anything about it anyway; we didn’t need another excuse for the kids to treat us differently. What do you say when they ask, are you a Jew, a hippie, a gypsy? The touch of a sensitive, like a language with no one on which to practice it, eventually loses its command, forgets it’s there. Surprised every so often when it shows up in a telepathic thought, premonition, communion within the home of the forest; in conversation with a dryad, nymph or gnome now don’t tell anyone I told you. I won’t. Those with whom we could speak about it were few, inclusive; a contingent of friendly neighborhood potheads, hippies and members of Mother’s colloquial ‘garden group’, a local offshoot of the larger SSPP (Shamanic Synergy: Partnership of Plants).
While Mother was out with the Sisters, showing them paths and plants, I was inducted into the world of men through the rites of hunting, fishing and shooting guns. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I was allowed to shoot a gun, my own, a .22 with pine stock and lever action, graduated into higher calibers. A fanfare fusillade coming of age: 30-30, 32, 30–06, 38, 8-guage shotgun, 10-guage shotgun, 12 gauge, exploded through the generations in the hands of my ancestors. The .32 German luger held by my grandfather during WWII, with elegant bone handle, flat black, burnished to a high shine on top of the steel; the antique .45 Smith and Wesson my father kept locked in his strongbox and fired only to keep in working order. Then came the big guns; the biggest, 45-70 ‘elephant gun’ much like the 12 gauge, but with bigger ‘shells’. Not the word they used, but more technically accurate. My father behind me with the butt in the crook of his shoulder, the only thing I touch being the trigger and the forestock. The recoil sending a shudder through us both, followed by the deep sustained thud of artillery, ordinance, breaking the sound barrier, what I imagined a gun might sound like if blown through an elephant’s trunk. The bullet as an allegory for my life—my soul—shot into the unknown, beyond the target, leaving the rifle—the body—behind, as in a trance. The eyes both focused and unfocused, the mind disengaged, meets the target and its destiny. From the time I pulled the trigger—shot the seed—‘til it hit the target, sending out “waves and ripples that would change things forever.” If I was on the right side and only “killed enough to eat” good things would happen, he said. “No matter what. Kill only for meat.” It resonated. It still does.
Grace was the last of us to take the plunge. No longer a child in a tiny microcosm, but a recipient of the entire phenomenological world. Those whom she had thought of as unapproachable were now her equals, born with the same limitations of sight and foresight, just a little farther ahead on their path. One day she would be at a similar place and the girl she is now will be the woman she is to become.
The revelation is elating to her, feeling fairy-wings of courage sprout up on her back, but when we reach the middle of the bridge, she hesitates, clinging to the rail.
“You could probably do it Grace. It’s the same height as the high diving board at the park.”
“Yeah, c’mon Pest,” B, needling.
“Uhh, I feel a little dizzy.”
“Go on B, show her what a real woman’s made of.”
“Hmmm,” betraying her own fear. “Not today. Let’s just go down and have a swim.”
“Oh, alright,” I say, stepping back from the railing onto a soft spot. The wood around me sinks and splinters away. I fall, grabbing a girder on the way down. The debris hitting the water with a two second delay.
Grace lets out a shrill of alarm and clamors for safety, one hand trembling on the rail, the other clasping B’s shoulder. B kneels beside the hole, gazing down at me, “August are you ok?”
“Huh. Yeah, I guess.”
Grace squats for balance. A silent stream of tears trickling down her face.
“What are you going to do?” B asks, with an unintentional squelch in her voice.
“I’m just gonna let myself fall.”
“But what about us?”
“You can try to cross or you can jump. Either way you’re gonna end up in the water.”
Grace’s cries heighten in volume and pitch.
“I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. You ready?” I let go. It feels good to let go and the reward feels even better. I sink for a few seconds and propel myself back up, breaching with a deep breath. Grace and B peer through the gap, their hair swinging away from their bodies.
“Whoo hoo,” I shout. “That was great. What are you waiting for?”
They’re discussing something. Grace shakes her head. An emphatic no and leans away from the gap. They rise and disappear for a moment before coming back into view, B holding Grace’s hand. B jumps first. Grace pinches her nose and waits until the last second before jumping. Both fall at the same rate. B lets go and swings away from Grace, surfacing almost immediately. Grace rises a second later, sputtering, eyes shut tight, still pinching her nose.
“How was that?” I ask.
“Scary,” she says.
“In a good way?”
She breathes in short exhilarated gasps, “Yeah.”
We languish on the banks between swims. Allowing sufficient time to pass between dismissal of classes and our usual after school activities, which in the summer always included swimming. Careful not to leave any tracks in or out, clearing our consciences before starting home, a peripheral range that Mother was somehow able to monitor so we could never sneak up on her. Her uncanny ability to track our activities had always caught us off guard. I hadn’t lied to her successfully since second grade and it’s as easy for her to tell now as it was then. She always seemed ready, waiting, upon our arrival, with a pointed question like have you ever heard a cow hootin’ like an owl down by the bay… down by the bay, where the watermelons grow, back to my home I dare not go, for if I do my mother will say… Have you ever gotten caught, smoking some pot?
The road narrows to a trail before coming out in a vacant lot a few blocks from the house, arriving just in time for Grace’s curfew. I have cuts on my hands. A few scratches embedded with slivers.
Mother cries exultant, “You’ve been at the bridge haven’t you.”
She isn’t upset. Instead, in a way that even she can’t fully comprehend, endorses it, as a rite of passage letting nature show us its subtle ways of punishment.
 Tool. ‘Jimmy’. Ænema, Zoo Entertainment, 1996. Compact Disc.