A Basket of Clams

“The primary organs of the immune system [is] the thymus, a soft, pinkish-gray triangular gland above our heart. (It resembles a thyme leaf, hence its name.). It is one of the few organs that grows smaller after puberty, the point at which many of our immune cells have been made….

“When our adaptive immune cells meet their first antigen, or bit of foreign matter, they go through structural and chemical changes. Imprinted by that antigen– as if via a kiss… the naive immune cell becomes an enemy specific to it.”

As I tore apart my dining room, the laptop played a man looking for Genghis Khan’s tomb and King Arthur’s anything. I pulled up the rug, a hand-me-down from my dad, and dust and cat fur blew up and around. Months ago, my dear sweet cat Tybalt had claimed a box and some of my mittens, and I’d let him keep his fort all winter. When school ended, my brutal cleanse began. It all had to go. “I’m sorry, son,” I said.

Hours later, he sat on the exact spot, where there was now bare floor. I knew how hard he had worked to imbue everything there with his own comforting, beautiful scent. But it was spring? In a way?

I stress paint. I use a brush instead of a roller just to work harder, more. I paint a glossy white in my kitchen, over a dull white. I paint glossy white in my hall. I don’t change my clothes, then I turn t-shirts and pants into only-at-home t-shirts and pants.

The floor is dripped. Stage two is on my knees rubbing in circles with a damp rag. Step three is picking circular drips, now dried elastic and cheerful like stickers. If I use a dropcloth (trust me), I’ll step in a paint drip or puddle and then track white everywhere.

I scrub the stove and oven. Pre-covid, I think I cleaned my stove and oven twice. I further mourn for those who never have time to satisfyingly clean up their own messes, and grieve for those who could but think such work is meaningless.

The immune system is educated and inspired by mess, and possibly needs enough to do, not too little, not too much. The immune system is possibly not best understood as a system, but components that do affiliated jobs.

The laptop dies, its cries for juice unanswered. I address the edges of the maps on my walls. Some have come unaffixed. I don’t have three or four maps up, I have a hundred in a patchwork on all four walls. I realize I have painter’s tape, and that the color of it could make a nice blue border. So I started making skinnier and fatter borders and my wall looked a little less like a disturbed person had gone crazy with maps and scotch tape, which is actually what happened. Taping Mongolia to France and a Canadian campsite to Venice. The New Orleans streetcar route to Ohio. It’s making sense.

A trash bag swallows a litter box and I shake. I sort purse stuff, bag stuff, books never read, books being read, books given up on. I sweep again and again, fur, crumbs, schmutz.

I combine trash. I combine recycling. I take it out, and remark to my neighbor that it is humid. I am feral and uncombed but making order.

The immune system is perhaps broken down by living with so many new, flashy chemicals that the United States government has no interest in getting to know better.

The immune system perhaps is too easily convinced that there is danger all around.

I put on “Carousel.” How had I never seen it? It’s pretty terrible but true. Dumb people do dumb things because human choices are limited, and then they die. It makes little sense to me. If “South Pacific” is good coffee, “Carousel” is a caffeine headache and trouble spelling. I experience “If I Loved You,” which though it changed and moved theater, I don’t buy. The man playing Billy reminds me of Emile, Emile by opera singer who made me sob in public. Emile wanted Nelly, Nelly was into him but scared. Emile had already tried once and suspected life might be terrible. Then he lived and it wasn’t, so much. For a while. All the other soldiers, though. It was a bad war. Life has been more “Carousel” than “South Pacific,” which means I am oddly comforted by it, and annoyed with it, as well. Where “South Pacific” was sad and whole, “Carousel” is cramped. I believe Emile and Nelly love each other. I believe Billy has an angry bull of a brain. I believe Julie Jordan lies to herself for something to do.

I’m not sure if I think (anymore) that Emile can make World War II a story with a catharsis, or that Julie Jordan could be anyone else. Some people in “South Pacific” have money and leisure time and energy, even if it’s used to make war. People in “Carousel” have few choices, stuck in New England in 1873.

Grant is president. The Comstock Laws are enacted, Levis and barbed wire are invented, the Women’s Christian Temperance League is founded, Coors begins brewing in Colorado, Central Park is completed. The Panic of 1873 has led to what was called, at the time, the Great Depression. Later it would, obviously, lose this title to another Depression that was Great-er.

No one is sure if the gold standard (or lack of it), or the Second Industrial Revolution caused the Panic of 1873, or if it was even important at all. I couldn’t live with the certainty of knowing what now means now, and I struggle to be continually creating a meaning for what is happening. As humans, we must. I think? I crave knowing what people in 20 years will think of 2020. I want to know that people will make a sense of it that won’t hurt me more than these years have already hurt me.

Developed expertise in flinching for expected pain in hard times: side effects? Hunger to live just as one has, not worse, rather than imagining bigger or healthier or happier? “When,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote, “had I last yearned for something other than simply feeling better?”

When might I? Days of getting up, measuring the coffee, sitting on the porch, hearing a neighbor speak Spanish to ease my weariness of American English, already setting in. And my nature as an animal leads me. Animals move toward health even when they think they don’t want to.

Image: detail of “A Basket of Clams” by Winslow Homer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1873.

Quotes from The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke, Riverhead Books, 2022.

Shape

I need to be corrected distantly, to know my door from the wall, and closely, to know my own hands, and the whiteness of the price tag paper from the ink of the $7.95, which is too much to pay for paint, lo though the shop is cool like a cave and slaves were chained in the basement, I taste dust past spoilage.

It’s $35, which I just pay, because a year ago I left my groceries on the conveyer belt’s west end and lied that I would call my bank Four years ago I thought about buying gallons of juice or not, bearing four pounds upstairs, and over time, juice pulled my hand out of my elbow, and I was off to physical therapy, extreme cold and sonogram waves and spiderman tape pulling my joint apart.

I miss Brooklyn like home but my inherited couch, idle roommate cracking a yawn, my darling cat, none are any longer within reach, and the reach doesn’t matter because if they were closer they can’t be grasped.

Corrections for distantly and price are toric: curves, multipled, to change views.

MATH

The Euler characteristic is the space a shape needs, no matter how it is pulled, tweaked, nudged, dyed, snipped, disappointed, enraged, rehydrated, disenfranchised, unsung, completed, gaslit, broken out, broken in or misinformed. No matter how it masturbates, overeats, loses consciousness, bleeds, forgets, or yells, “And another thing!”

Topology is what is no matter what you do to it: angry, intimacy-shy, self-preserving, free with shrugs and reluctant to promise, wary of texture, amenable to black dresses and yellow paint and ceramic surfaces and immersion in water and shoulder locks.

A donut and a coffee cup are identical, topologically. Not thinking about use, or ingredients, tints, questions, answers.

A one liquids into the other, geometrically.

ENGLISH

I am selecting “Safari” and typing “nyt” mouse I am, for a treat.

I am going to get more pencils, crouching next to you who put your head down, “are you tired or sad?” words we learned, slapping cards with names on a desk for attendance, “not here,” student volunteers, “good, good, good,” I say, “nice snake.” Bathroom passes, entire life bathroom passes, sign like a doctor at bottom, date, look up at time (mostly kids aren’t telling time in English via clock with hands), the micromoment I locate your name in my head, you are…. “Miss!” “Miss!” “Miss!”

I am what people who voted Republican have done.

I am never actually believed I’d turn 50 with student loans, in the file, “no, really, America wouldn’t.”

I am I don’t what I think I am I’m not.

In the hammock, unborn, hanging a curve to the earth, on rickety porch planks, expecting to fall, someday, baby.

I am what used to work.

I am must needs be schoolteacher, saving the souls of your childrens and knowing you can treat me any way. Any way. Free shrugs. Tears are lucky. Just let me forget things, evaluate that I gave a shit all the time.

A century of students in and out my room, one shows photos with a gun it looks like he can barely bear, and he is six foot five. Mothers in hospitals who will never get visits from their daughters who cry on the desks in my room.

And I live with rocks in my shoes: they should never have come, it is ill, it is wrong, live in garbage, live with poisons, live under guns, live without knowing to read, without roofs that keep rain out, find a job after they stop hiring you at the factories, factories for young women, fast, pretty, ten fingers. There is no better, live under a few rich masters who drive drugs through your home like waves of cattle with blades for feet and knife ears and poison spit.

MATH

Topology does not include when you pass through yourself. Or open holes. Or fill holes.

ENGLISH

I allow myself, sit next to the girl holding the crimped tube, and she holds my hand, I can have this thing. Finished with her sister’s hand, she has mine.

Her hands and nails are blunt. Both our faces are covered, I still wear a mask, every day, all day, I just do, nowhere else, but school with them.

She holds my left hand, and I am still. I nod at kids, get a book, get headphones for listening, and I sit real still. It feels so good to sit. Home, it takes an hour or two for my legs and feet to return.

Circles, dots, then double arched petals on the center of my hand, back. Half lowers under my nails, short and ragged, three dots toward the main flower.

The Muslim kids leave to pray during Ramadan. When Ramadan ends, they are to stay in class. Sometimes they take the corner and go to the floor.

The folded tube is flat. The substance makes black trails.

I never say anything. Hello how are you bienvenidos yo no say; caliente frio school tomorrow, snake, sneak, snack. They like to call out the wrong answers when we review, humor hard to reach without words, but snakes don’t have six legs, caterpillars eat chihuahuas.

She shows me a flat tube. Design complete or is it gone? Two weeks. That night the top, the black, flakes off and the stain is left.

Image: A Bejeweled Maiden with a Parakeet, ca. 1670-1700, India, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unbearably On The Nose But True Symbol Story

I raised these butterflies, if by “raised” you mean paid for them, and carried them processionally around the arc of desks in my classroom, so each student could see them.

See? Mariposa. Mariposa. (For the Spanish speakers.)

Then I had seven painted lady butterflies in a cylindrical mesh cage.

Honestly I was surprised they became butterflies, too. My expectations are at a low ebb.

It hit me like a ton of bricks that the butterflies wanted to fly.

Oh damnit, I thought. I have to let them. I have to free them.

My classroom windows open to the length of a Crayola marker, which we use to keep them propped. Almost all my books are paperback, I realized.

I unzipped the butterfly habitat and set it next to the open window. I was going to have an emotional experience. My last class of the day had been so excitable I gave up on reading Romeo & Juliet and handed out random books. They quieted and got to work. I didn’t need to get angry. They just weren’t in the right space to read that day, and I was tired. I recalibrated. Romeo & Juliet would go on.

I sat with the butterflies. The air was cool. It didn’t seem like California out there. It wasn’t.

I sat and looked at them. Through the mesh, their beauty could get lost.

Finally one walked to toward the window.

As nothing happened, the bravest butterfly sat there with the wind ruffling his wings.

And sat there and sat there.

I lay my head on my arms on the windowsill and watched.

It felt so good to do nothing.

I had begun afraid of losing them, feeling the classic signals of loss, wanting to grab, keep.

Six of them stayed put, and one of them thought about leaving. They’d been mailed, jostled, stared at, transformed, broken out, and settled quietly in a still home.

Finally the one jumped out there like a kamikaze pilot and went flip flopping on his way. There are no trees or buildings for a ways, so I could see him go, go, go. He started small, right by my nose, and then got tinier and tinier.

The next day, a student wanted to “let them go.” We watched and watched. A student blew on them. They stayed and stayed until just one more jumped.

There were four left. I took them home for the weekend.

When I got home, I put them on the porch, thinking it would be nice for them to get some fresh air and sun.

Then I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 9 the next morning. (This is how your public school teachers are. Sleeping 14 hours.)

With a start, I realized I had heard big wind in the night, and I ran out to see if my butterflies were frozen or blown away.

They were in their habitat. And still.

I took them into my bathroom. They warmed. They started stretching their antennae around.

This morning I unzipped them, set them next to the flowers I planted. These are flowers. Check them out. I left them there, unzipped.

Maybe they will go? I wouldn’t?

Veracruz

Maundy Thursday, I felt an urge to run. It was not my panic urge to run, which is chemical, biological. It reminded me of the people in the book I just read about exorcisms. The people who flinch when you set a crucifix on the nape of their neck. I just felt, not here, I don’t want to be here.

I don’t believe in demons, exorcisms, or any of it, but I don’t know if they believe in me.

The service is also my favorite. Foot washing, always delightfully awkward, especially among Episcopalians, and the biggest communion of the year, and the stripping of the altar.

Pandemic years, I stripped my mantle and washed it, the way they wash the altar. I once washed the feet of my cats. They weren’t happy about it.

This year I went into Maundy Thursday crushed. There’s no way out of this school year but through. There’s no way out of the pandemic. Just through.

I was just explaining “through” to my students, when we wrote, “Butterflies go through metamorphosis.”

I spent $40 on caterpillars who will turn into butterflies. I’m trying to spend less on shit for my kids, but then is $40 worth getting to show them the caterpillars every day? Especially the first time? When they realize what I’m saying about butterflies (mariposa) as they look into the plastic container that would usually hold marinara for breadsticks?

It’s a lovely look in their eyes. Oh!

The caterpillars arrived tiny, and they are now three times as big. They arrived living in a mound of caterpillar food that has quickly eroded with their eating and eating.

Last week, I sat with a student who was suicidal and cutting. And I led my students out of our classroom so the police and their dog could search our belongings. This week, a student at a nearby middle school was stabbed and killed by another kid. One of my students has a sister who goes there. “I was nervous at first,” he said. “But then I heard it was a boy.”

“So how are you doing?”

“Things happen everywhere, all the time,” he said.

Which describes how I felt. I think I’m on about a two-day delay as far as processing trauma. It wasn’t until I was at Maundy Thursday that I saw a stabbing in my mind, and I thought, oh, my God, his teachers. His teachers. His teachers.

Now, at my school, all the bathrooms are locked, except one set that is guarded all day.

I told myself I could leave if I wanted to, but I stayed at church. The crowd was smaller than I remember. Of course, I haven’t been to church for the holidays in years. Foot washers were also a smaller minority than usual. Another woman walked up to the front at the same time as I did, so we washed each other’s. She wet a towel to gently rub mine, so I did the same for her, figuring that was what she was comfortable with. She forgot to dry mine, so I just traded places with her, and knelt on the wooden floor of the cathedral, and made wet prints. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s been a long time.”

I bought this book, Enrique’s Journey, about a kid who travels from Honduras to the U.S. I wasn’t sure I could actually read it. I know, intellectually, that my students have suffered. They wouldn’t try to get here if they hadn’t suffered, if their families hadn’t suffered a great deal. But to read specifics?

Sonia Nazario does a wonderful job telling the story. I was engaged and intrigued and amazed.

This is the part that haunts me: “people in the Mexican state of Veracruz care for the migrants who come through: “the towns of Encinar, Fortin de las Flores, Cuichapa, and Presidio are particularly known for their kindness…. Here, in rural areas, 30 percent of children… eat so little that their growth is stunted.”

Still, these people “have watched and worried as their own children struggled to reach the United States. They know it is harder still for the Central Americans to make it.”

People of Velasquez Nazario describes:

Priest Ignacio Villanueva houses and protects migrants in the church. He argues with the police who have tried to come in and arrest them.

Leonardo Santiago Flores tosses oranges, watermelon, and pineapples to migrants on the trains.

Maria Luisa Mora Martin, who is over 100 years old, sends her daughter with torillas, beans, and salsa to give to migrants.

Raquel Flores Lamora gets up every night to toss food and clothing to migrants. Sometimes the clothing is from her children who have immigrated to California.

Gladys Gonzalez Hernandez takes crackers, water bottles, and pastries to give to migrants. She’s six. Her dad takes her because he wants her to “grow up right.”

Esparanza Roman Gonzalez, and her children Jesus and Magdalena bring bread, tortillas, and lemonade to the train.

Priest Salamon Lemus Lemus houses up to 600 migrants in the church where he works. Church members have organized to protest police treatment of migrants.

Luis Hernandez Osorio picks up donations, deals with the police, and recruits new donors.

Alfonso Pena Valencia guards the church and the migrants every night.

Maria del Carmen Ortega Garcia has had 17 migrants stay at her home.

Francisca Aguirre Juarez has hosted 80.

Baltasar Breniz Avila told the police that a migrant was his cousin from the country.

When police beat and incarcerated 15 migrants, including a pregnant woman, residents of El Campesino El Mirador took rocks and sticks to city hall. Eight police officers were fired.

Today at Good Friday services, the priest spoke about how Jesus had to blah blah blah and how we don’t pray like we blah blah blah and I thought it nonsense. The Jesus I imagine (spiritually and historically) wouldn’t say anything to people who are crushed. He would just stay.

I thought through every painful memory of the last year, and felt the crush of it. It’s less than some people’s, and more than other’s, maybe, I don’t know. I just know it’s heavy. And that to sit with it, together, is good, even if some of the talk sounds wrong to me. Kissing the cross is not wrong. Singing “Were you there” is right. The cello solo is so right I always choke.

Image: Hacha in the Shape of Bound Hands, 4th-7th century, Veracruz, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Random House, 2006. The portions I reference referring to Veracruz are pages 104-119.