Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lithopedion Sing-Song: Nursery Rhymes for a Stone Baby

Mother Goose
"Wednesday's child is full of woe"

Far back on the top shelf of my childhood closet, buried under rolled-up sweaters and bags of shoelaces, lay a dusty blue cardboard box. It sat there for years on end, barely ever moved or acknowledged. I knew never to touch the box, but occasionally my mother would reach in, lower it down, and lift off the lid. We would peel back the layers of tissue paper and there, nestled in her billowy veils, was a doll.

She was a Madame Alexander Sleeping Beauty doll. She had long blond hair that curled at the ends, open-and-close eyes, and a beautiful gown made of lace and blue satin. Her face was round and cherubic like a child's and her body too was straight and unformed. I sometimes wished to lift her out and make her eyes wink and flash, but we never touched her. She simply lay there, year after year, her real eyelashes sealing the lids shut.

I thought of her only rarely, when I pulled down a blanket or reached for a pair of shoes. Truth is, I never cared much for dolls. I loved stuffed animals. I kept a huge pile of them, every animal imaginable, jumbled precariously in the corner of my bedroom. I made up stories for each one and I was sure to circulate them through the pile regularly so that each had equal time at the top. None of them should have their feelings hurt, I decided, from spending too much time pent up in darkness.

It was during the stuffed animal years that I had my first experiences with passionate friendship. Passionate friendships are remarkable relationships that grow when two people come to hold each other in such high regard, and learn to trust each other so deeply, that they open up whole previously unshared vistas of their personhood. In many cases the two share a level of maturity and self-awareness that serve to strengthen their bond. Just as frequently, one friend may find his or her skills or innate abilities outstrip the other's, yet the two are drawn toward the same goal. They may both strive to become more competent, reliable, brave, or compassionate, and their shared focus unites them just as concretely as two friends on equal footing.

Passionate friendships between two people who are not equally adept carry their risks, however. One friend may find herself drawn to the role of counselor while the other claims his place as learner. The more skilled friend, though refreshed by her companion's enthusiasm and appreciative of her friend's promise, may find herself elevated to a level of idolatry that she is ill-equipped to handle. The learner may develop such a reverence for the counselor that the counselor's words, expressions, and even mere presence take on a disproportionate weight. She is hard-pressed to honor the responsibility when the learner delivers up total control over his self-image and peace of mind to the counselor, relying on her observations and favor to inform his sense of worth.

However, my early forays into such deep connection contained nothing so dire. My friends and I imagined; we collected acorns on the playground and created Germinatia, a civilization of acorns bent on defeating the evil Squirrellians. We named the flowers and encouraged them to grow; when they faded and turned to seed, we thanked them and held funerals. Sometimes we would stop and look at each other, realizing that an entire hour had passed while we ran in circles around a tree. It hadn't seemed like a tree at the time; at first it was a mighty tyrant, then an ice queen, then the king of the mouse army come to protect us. Only we seemed to see the spirits that imbued everything around us, but if we were ridiculed or avoided for our flights of fancy, we never noticed.

But soon the pleasures of the playground had dimmed. Recess was a thing of the past, replaced with homeroom, and our entertainments changed too. For the first time I found myself fulfilling each of the three roles of the passionate friend. With younger children I was still the captain of imaginary exploits, telling stories, singing songs, and leading them through freshly created worlds. I kept my babysitting charges up way past their bedtimes, directing slave escapes and fairy dances and Viking raids throughout the house, only to dash them into bed once we heard their parents return.

I had a few friends my own age. They were and are extraordinary people, with hungry minds, gifted in all sorts of ways I could barely comprehend: an artist, a spiritual leader, a keen observer, a quick-witted humorist. Each one whetted the mind and excited the spirit. The hours we spent challenging each other's capacity to dream, wonder, or amuse are precious memories.

I loved my friends. But equally powerful was the esteem of older people.

I was never a favorite with adults. As a baby I was too serious. "Why does she never smile?" people asked after my mother's simpering and happy babble failed to elicit my own toothless grin. The little girl watching silently in the corner was best avoided; better to swoop and whirl and find some joy with these giddy laughing children.

Occasionally a soft-hearted soul would join me. "Don't be shy," she would prod. "It's okay to join the fun."

They were kind but they misunderstood.

I wasn't shy.

I was watching.

But if like me you prefer to receive confidence rather than share it, if you like to watch faces and hear others' stories without feeling compelled to drown them out with your own voice, if you are simply quiet and not shy, then you found as I did that your singular restraint made others uncomfortable.

If, however, like me you were blessed at every stage of your youth with one special guide, if you found at every crossroads a single guardian by whom you were especially shepherded, then you know what a peculiarly brilliant ray of sunshine the favor of one person can become.

So I entered young adulthood happy and fulfilled. I wondered at times if I would ever have the courage to accomplish all I wanted to achieve. I wondered what grand adventures were in store for me. But I knew great things awaited. I was whole.

Change came, however, and came abruptly.

Very quickly, several of my friends were struck with serious blows. Their difficulties would have been disturbing alone, but each one seemed to spring from their friendship with me. They faltered. They lost the regard of their friends and neighbors. They suffered, and their suffering wounded me.

I felt I had misguided them. I should have been more disciplined, not so free. I should not have opened my nether self to so many eyes.

I resolved to banish the nether self, the part of me that I kept hidden from all but a few. With its enchantments and spinning, singing barefoot in the woods, it pulled animals from the trees and onward into captivity, even death. The dreamer, the innocent, the prophetess. I saw a contagion spreading.

"Jack and Jill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after."

So I killed it.

Forget Mother Goose - she's full of shit. So hoity-toity. Say what you mean, I tell her. Not all this precious flowery bullcrap, acorns and mouse kings.

Oh, stop staring. I didn't really kill anyone. Harder to kill a part of yourself that you might think. Drown it, beat it, ignore it all you want. You are still you.

I did the next best thing. I locked it up. I walled up the thing, the festerer. I had to. We all might have died.

Look, it's like in medicine. There's this phenomenon where a fetus grows outside the uterus and then dies in the mother's adbomen. It can't get out. But it's dead. It starts to rot. The mother's blood surrounds the baby's body in calcium. It makes a hard little shell to hold the baby and keep the decomposing tissue from infecting the mother. They call it a lithopedion, that's Greek for "stone baby." It's true. I saw it on Discovery Health.

In our case, the baby wasn't dead. Just bad. A little liar, full of words and daydreams. Not safe for human consumption.

So I sealed her shut. I smacked the last brick in with mortar from my own hands. It sounds cruel but it wasn't. I saved us. And I took over the business of living.

I can see you don't like me very much right now. That's okay. Before I go, though, I should ask you: Who do you think has been writing this blog? Who do you think makes you laugh, who writes so ruthlessly of other people's faults, who mocks them in their weakness?

Yeah, so I'm mean. I own that. But I'm funny. And I can get us through anything.

I plotted our course through college and into the working world. And we avoided the words I despised: "extraordinary," "remarkable," "astounding." We passed through without recognition. We stirred no disappointed hopes, inspired no misplaced faith. We were safe in the world and the world was safe from us.

The Lioness
"Lion, with enduring heart, suffer the unendurable
None of mankind that does wrong shall fail to pay the penalty."
-Herodotus, "The Histories," 5.56.

Safety. A small word for small minds.

Untethered, the lioness prowls the hallways. She loves. She fights. She extinguishes the darkness. Fear, most hated prey. Fear sheds its scales and turns to ash before her.

They worked. Mother Goose liked the work, caring for children. Jill studied their afflictions. And the stone baby slept.

But the lioness smelled injustice. She smelled wrong. And in her smelter she hammered her scimitar and scythe.

The workers stink of fear. Why are they so mistreated? Why so abused? Why the same dull faces day after day, bludgeoned by the same inescapable woes? She saw them bowed beneath the weight of an oppression they could not resist.

Look here at this man, not even the strength for anger, not even frustration, only tears.

The feral beast leapt within. The nostrils blazed. Hair on end. Blood on fire.

Only fire in the blood will make her speak:

(to the bosses) How can you excuse your infamy?

(to the workers) We are not afraid. We are not even angry. We are right, and our righteousness protects us.

And she succeeded. By her strength that some call madness she succeeded, and the people shed their fear and followed, and laid claim to their own voice.

They built their union, and the man's tears dried, but the lioness had blood on her teeth and wanted more.

She wanted the man.

Your wrists I grasp in my circlets of fire. Your haunches I pin between my thighs. Your oasis shimmers across the savannah; I stop to drink from your fountain. My head dips low into the deep waters.

The lioness's thirsts were quenched, and she was silent once more.

The Stone Baby
"Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait."
- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

You are all tender, all you young
wild shoots of grass, tender and warm
in your riotous soils.
My lawn is a carpet of breathing;
your long bendings filter the night.

My hands are craters; they claim nothing.
When you were little birds I nested you
in the palms of my hands
and your beaks were thin and breathless as paper boats.
I myself set you adrift in the water.

My own toes like pebbles salted the water,
the arc of my ankle, its dolphin-flash upstream.
When your soldier's songs promised death,
I opened my hymnal. I saw the pain of my toes dipped
too often in the outcroppings of men.

But death did not come; no atonement
but a tomb, I hang from the branches, a cobweb, an after-sigh,
One-footed, scoured, with my mouthless mouth,
in my bottomless shelterings,
heavy, in all my rootless ripening,
I wait for you.

"A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth."
Revelations 12:1-2

My voices are mine; they are all me. I lay claim to my self, my single self, with all its warring and contradictions. Like Walt Whitman, I too contain multitudes.

But my searching is not for me alone.

I will be your friend. Each of my “I”s will serve you. You will be nurtured, you will be protected, you will not be misled. And if in the course of your days you find need of a harbor, a safe haven free of judgment, I will understand, and I will give you refuge.

No longer do I drag my wounded sisters behind me.
I do not betray myself.
I do not betray God.

I live in service to a self greater than my own, to the eternal, the beyond within me, the always and forever,

forever and ever,



Larry said...

Wow - I need to read it a few more times but all I can really say is WOW! You have such a facility with bringing feeling to the surface where we can all feel. At the same time I want to see more of whats under the surface and I am content to wait until you decide to share that too.

Crittergal said...

Thanks! That was just the response I was hoping for!

"more of what's under the surface" . . . hmm, not sure that's possible - this one had me rocking in the fetal position underneath my desk. :-) But we'll try.

Glad you liked it!