Today is the anniversary of my children’s father (my first husband, Wayne) who died in a plane crash over 10 years ago. It still gives me shivers to read this.
Blunt Force Impact
The top of my bedroom dresser is buried again. Outside, the sky is brittle blue, and there is snow on the ground. On my dresser top are stray socks, bits of paper, stones, jewelry, a dead telephone, a newspaper clipping, and things I can’t yet see. Deciding it’s a good day to clear it, I empty tissue paper out of a shoe box to begin with one thing empty.
This sudden need to clear my dresser top is a distraction. I just reserved a motel room at the top of Rimrock Highway, a place to retreat to in order to finish the final paper of my master’s program. I asked for room number nine on the second floor near the rocky slate wall rising above Rapid Creek. In my mind, I see the room–have been there three or four times already. It smells of dust, old carpet, and too sweet deodorizer, but it has no phone and it’s cheap. Except for the creek running below the rock wall, there’s nothing to distract me. The position paper is on “belonging.” Ironic, I think, to retreat from my husband, my son, and my eight-year-old granddaughter to write about belonging. Sometimes we step away in order to see more closely.
On my dresser top is a boarding pass from Luthansa Air. Last October we flew to Germany to interview Bert, a man with a deep soul who’s written a book on the hidden orders of love. He spent a lifetime studying the high cost of belonging. Americans are restless, he said, because we seek our ancestors. We landed in Frankfurt and took a train to Kufstein, Austria where I felt strangely at home, familiar with the bits of lace on the edge of table runners, the red and yellow salt and pepper shakers, and the paper doily beneath my coffee cup. My grandmother’s family once lived near here. I didn’t know them.
On my dresser top is a single small, tan pebble with a light streak running through it. It looks like the tip of a finger. It came from the concentration camp outside of Dachau, probably hauled in with a load of rough gravel to keep the mud and memory from seeping up. Atop my jewelry box is the small yellow booklet on Edith Stein, the Carmelite Nun who died at Dachau. The nuns have surrounded Dachau.
Belonging. It holds the submerged energy that fuels wars, splits families, turns one against another, and gives the illusion of innocence when guilt is the only reality. I sort the stray socks on my dresser top that have lost their mates, separating his from mine, seeking the lost ones. Beneath the socks is a small leather box from India or Guatemala purchased in a third world store to support the workers from other nations. Beside the leather box is another stone, this one from Vermont, gathered on a silent walk during a seminar on structural thinking following the trip to Germany.
Where do we belong? Does human behavior link to long ancestral lines, hidden forces operating within the larger family of origin? Or are we subject, in a chilly way, only to formal structures dictating action, emotion, and experience? I resent being asked to choose a position, to select one camp and abandon all others. What is the cost of this choosing? It became the subject of a deeper inquiry.
The lone socks on my dresser are mated once again; blue to blue, beige to beige, paired for life, or until they separate once again. I pick up a sand dollar on my dresser top. This pretty bit is from Orange County, California. The sand dollar, along with several stones, rest on my dresser top by intention. I like stones and shells. This particular sand dollar had a twin, one I found before the gulls plucked its center out. It was the first perfectly intact sand dollar I’d ever found on all the beaches I have walked. I broke it in pieces packing it for my granddaughter to take to show and tell. The one on my dresser is the less than perfect one.
Belongingness sounds like too-simple a topic for a position paper. I narrow the topic from belonging to “conscious belonging”. Conscious belonging is about gaining the freedom of self to not just blindly belong but to pick, choose, finger the cities of the self like the stuff on my dresser to determine what deserves care and attention, and what to discard. Blind belonging is belonging because we fear not belonging. It’s the go along game; choose a camp, take a position, and then fight to the death for that bit of ground.
There is a book by Rilke on my dresser top. Poor, brilliant Rilke. His mother lost a baby daughter and later named her son Rainer Marie after the dead daughter. Bert, the German, would see Rilke caught in the tangle of his mother’s grief, bravely bearing it for her, leaving only the legacy of his poetry behind. Belongingness. Inclusion. Exclusion.
Bert says the only group we cannot choose is the family. To that, we simply belong, forever. It stands alone among all other groups and holds even beyond death.
When we defend a position we give up variety for belonging, loosing out on a vivid, wide-awake life. When we defend a position, we become blind to all others. We lose fluidity, flexibility, our right to change. We lose our hearts.
On my dresser top are movies stubs from Manhattan downtown. They say Bowling, short for Bowling for Columbine. There is a theme running through the things on my dresser top. Or perhaps I only imagine the theme because of the paper. The shootings at Columbine School are about belongingness—or not. Inclusion. Exclusion.
Suddenly, I see what else was on my dresser top. Two photos. Just remembering them slips me suddenly back into early September.
The first photo is a long, horizontal picture of my 17-year-old daughter, Lisa, at the wheel of her car. Her smile is big. She has a fabulous smile. Her left arm is extended straight out the window, her wrists circled with two blue bands of uncertain material. “With attitude” the arm says. Behind her in the image is a giant, cloud layered sky.
The second photo also has sky but bare of clouds this time. A steel power line structure takes the center of the photo like a giant. And on the earth below, tattered, scattered, and burned is a single engine Cessna belonging to my first husband, the father of my three children. Lisa’s dad. It’s a newspaper clipping that reads “Local Men Dead After Air Crash Near I94 in Central North Dakota.
The two pictures are incongruent with one another and with the things on my dresser top. When I called Lisa in the middle of the night to tell her that her father was dead, she screamed. As she screamed, her sister came in the door of her apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska and they screamed together. I could hardly breath, listening to them scream, with me an impossible nine hours away, and my son still soundly asleep in his bed in the sunroom. Rilke writes,
Finally, using both my eyes
I close my face,
And when it lies with its weight in my hand
It looks almost like rest.
That’s so they won’t think I have nowhere
To Lay my head.
Love. The hidden orders. Belonging. Or not. The social scientist, Kurt Lewin said it is not belonging but our own uncertainty of belonging that makes us vulnerable. I buried those two pictures sitting on my dresser top in favor of stones and sand dollars, my mind’s gentle effort to shield me from this memory, of my children crying, and their blade-sharp question. Do you think he loved us? Really?
Blunt force impact. I will despise those words forever.
My children went with their uncle to the site of the crash and threw carnations of all colors gathered from memorial mourners over the site. Then they dirtied their hands with soot and soil, digging like archeologists in search of any sign of him. My eldest filmed the scene, ending with my 17-year-old son washing a chunk of metal that looked like a crude sculpture of cumulus nimbus clouds. A piece of engine melted from form…to formless. His back is to the camera, he squats, dipping the metal in a stock pond on a piece of prairie outside of Bismark, North Dakota. In front of him, an incredible sunset swallows his hurt.
Suddenly, I understand why my dresser top got so piled up these past two months. Where to put all the things it contains–how to assimilate, integrate, how to fit each item into the greater soul of my own life? I can’t file and tuck these things away and I can’t get rid of them either. Again I think about the position paper, and of the tasteless motel room waiting for me at the top of Rimrock where I’ll go and sit cross-legged on a blue bedspread for the next twenty-four hours and write about belonging, or not; about conscious belonging, or not. And in the meantime, my dresser top will pile up again, and again, and again.
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