On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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We lived on a cattle and sheep ranch. At seven, I was allowed to ride one small bay mare; by the time I was ten, I’d about gotten the hang of it. One day Grandpa mentioned casually that he planned on riding through the cows next Saturday. Would I like to come along?
The excitement of waiting through the next couple of days was unbearable. At 5 on Saturday morning, I sprang out of bed, wide awake, and abruptly sat back down. Today, of all possible days, I was sick. I had a sore throat and that feverish, shivery feeling. Why today? Why couldn’t I miss Sunday Mass instead, or Tuesday’s arithmetic test?
I imagined myself sitting in the dark dining room, dialing my grandparents’ number, telling Grandpa I couldn’t come. He would be calm, matter-of-fact. “That’s all right, sweetie pie. Go to bed, get yourself well. Some other time.” But what if there was no other time?
I said nothing to my dad about how I felt as we rode in the pickup to my grandparents’ house. To the east, behind the round tops of the hills, the sky was beginning to lighten. The air was damp, very cold. Grandpa had caught my mare and tied her to the barn door beside his own. Quickly I saddled up, put on the bridle. “Did you have yourself a good breakfast?” he asked, as he swung up into the saddle. “Yeah, Grandpa,” I said, although I hadn’t swallowed a bite. We rode out of the barnyard, across the valley and past the shearing barn, up into the hills where we kept the cows during the winter calving season. The day was overcast, the grass under the horses’ hooves squeaky-wet.
Grandpa pointed out things he thought I should know: names of grasses, the stiff way a cow walked or held her head. We rode up and down the hills watching cows, counting calves, and fiddling with water troughs and spring boxes. I did not dwell on the coldness of my hands, the burning heat of my face. Later on, I would let myself be sick.
Later on came pretty soon. At 10, I managed to swallow about half the roast beef sandwich Grandpa handed me, but by noon my throat felt like someone had gone over it with sandpaper. I started thinking I should just tell him, and maybe we’d go back. But I dreaded the idea of making him quit before we were done.
My misery increased. I’ll just hang on till we get to the top of that next hill, I thought, but then I’d chicken out, putting it off till the next one, and the one after that. Eventually, in this manner, I made it home without telling him. I stumbled into the kitchen, where Mama was preparing dinner. She took one look at me and clapped a hand to my forehead. “Good night!” she said. “What have you done to yourself? Go on and get to bed. I’ll bring you a warm drink in just a minute.”
Never have I felt so keenly the comfort of clean sheets, warm wool blankets, a soft pillow. Mama watched as I painfully sipped a cup of steaming chicken bouillon. “And it was worth every minute, I suppose?” she said. I gave her a broad, guiltless grin, and nodded. Then I handed her the empty cup and scrunched down under the covers, abandoning myself at last to the feverish dreams I’d been holding at bay all day long.
Charles and his friends, all City College students, were older and more sophisticated than I. One candlelit, smoke-filled evening, I blurted out that a hot bath was the best thing in the world; the smiles that went from one bohemian to the next confirmed my innocence and naiveté. There was something better out there that I hadn’t discovered yet.
Twenty-four years later, I know there are many things better than a hot bath, but few as comforting. Meditation, for instance, has opened a door through which, on occasion, I can feel the presence of God. But let me soak in a hot bath, and I am borne instantly and effortlessly to a place of deep peace.
Yonkers, New York
Central heat and two martinis might save your ass as you drag it in from blizzards ’n’ bludgeonings, but our comforts have crept into dominance as objects of worship and reasons to live. It’s a lousy trade. Meringue’s a nice treat, but I wouldn’t try to make a stand on it, or have to sustain myself with it.
I tried slaying my discontent with material comforts, and I wasn’t impressed — dull warmth, anesthetized smiles, no pain. Now I work and live outdoors for long periods at a stretch. Sometimes I get so beat down, a hot bath and warm bed feel like God incarnate. But if I wallow for long, then peek out the window at the driving rains and howling winds (let’s get dramatic), I want to curl up and never move again.
Sure, I like my pain and despair soothed at times. But it seems such a shallow distraction to try to dwell in that place.
As I approach my seventieth birthday, I find I have many comforts in my life.
Sitting at the window in the morning, I watch the doves in the trees awaken as it becomes daylight. They exude such peace and tranquility that it touches me on the other side of the window.
My physical comforts include my home, my beautiful plants, and my down quilt, so lovely to snuggle into on a cold night; my books and magazines, which open for me a window to the world; my dependable car when home becomes too confining; my physical abilities that allow me to move in any direction; the walks in the woods of the Berkshire Mountains.
My husband of forty-five years is a comfort. Our marriage at times seemed unworkable and on the verge of a breakdown. We still have our differences, but now we know we can depend on each other.
It is also a comfort to know that my children and their mates are engaged in work that is contributing to the healing of the planet.
I feel blessed, although many of these comforts were hard-won and required much effort. The hardest to achieve, however, was my realization of the presence of God, which is now my greatest comfort.
I’m on a snaky and long line for subway tokens, and this US topic is a comfort — otherwise I would have to watch the coat of the woman in front of me, which is such fuzzy wool it looks out of focus.
Now on the platform, a man yells into a phone, “I don’t know the name of the store, but there is a store! Am I gonna have to wait all day?” How to comfort him?
Today has been a day of comfort for me. I took a half-hour bath, and thought of the next books I want to read, in order: An Oral Biography of Harry Truman, Labor Economics, My Religion by Helen Keller, New York: City of Cities. In hot water, I imagined the day when I’d read all my books and was free.
I need to skim the Guinness Book of World Records again, I thought. Last time I got stuck in the World’s Longest Kiss.
A Subway Train
New York City
For many years I’ve lived high in the Rocky Mountains. I know the nightly ritual of snuggling into a frozen sleeping bag, feeling my moist, warm breath seep down, oh-so-gradually, while thinking up tunes to shiver by, and then slowly relaxing to sleep; the daily rituals of thawing out my frozen contact lenses, going outside in my wool long johns to pee, breathing in the crackling air. (“Feels a little nippy,” I say to myself, and find out later it was forty below.)
True comfort for me is sleeping out in my manger on a bed of sweet-smelling fresh hay. I sleep out there year-round, except on the most blizzardy nights. There’s something compelling about the freshness and magnetism of the open air.
This past spring I was awakened one morning at 4:30 by a magnificent squawking song marking the triumphant return of the barn swallows. I decided right then that I didn’t want such loud-mouthed roommates, and I covered up the nest they had built the summer before. The next morning I slept late, enjoying my quiet. It was a misty, drizzly day. I wondered where the swallows were. Had they found another barn? I began to feel a little guilty. Were they safe and dry? When I finally poked my head out of my sleeping bag, I looked up and saw them on the rafters above me — the two of them huddled close together, looking forlornly out at the rain. Now many birds are sweet, but barn swallows are among the sweetest — especially when they’re quiet. I was overjoyed to see them. I uncovered the nest to invite them to move in. Their morning song (with the quirky little finish that sounds like “Amen!”) became a source of joy to me — even at 4:30 in the morning. And when their babies were hatched, I felt like the great-aunt of our communal nest.
My comforts here in the mountains are endless. I get an indescribable feeling of well-being from hearing the rustling of the aspen leaves in the fall, the hooting of an owl, the cry of a coyote, or even the scurrying of mice and chipmunks at night through the manger — sometimes right over my sleeping bag. I love — usually — the rituals of chopping wood and hauling water, and sitting close to the fire with a bowl of soup, while outside all is white, deep, still. I love the whistling bark of the marmots. I always pick up my head and look around to see who’s coming when I hear that whistle, just as they do, and I whistle to them when I see a dog or coyote approaching. The bark of the marmots carries for me all the associations of family ties and belonging.
I suppose some things aren’t too comfortable in the usual sense. Sometimes I have to walk three miles through a blizzard to get home, and sometimes all my water jugs crack when it’s too cold. Lately a mountain lion has been attacking dogs in my vicinity; neighbors are being advised to keep their pets inside at night — but I sleep outside myself! Like my marmot, chipmunk, rabbit, and mouse friends, I have felt the throbbing fear of “being prey.” While I don’t particularly relish the thought of being a lion’s midnight snack, I do appreciate feeling intimately connected with the food chain, the web of life. Comfort is subjective.
The first comfort is the right woman’s body drawing out my own. No other comforts are possible if this first comfort isn’t present: an intelligent, emotional woman who is mine, who responds to all my moods effortlessly, without weariness.
The second comfort is the woman I can never have, who is elusive and carefree of my pains, indifferent to all my little-boy needs, who could take me or leave me depending on how I behave. This is the woman who inspires my poetry, who keeps me awake nights with visions of the impossible, who sends me to war to prove my courage, who teaches me again and again to risk or despair, live or despair.
The third comfort is the sure knowledge of death, and thus the release from all contradictions.
The fourth comfort is the possibility, according to all the looks of things, that I’ll be born again in raw, wet innocence.
Petersburg, West Virginia
The day after I turned fourteen was a crisp, sunny Saturday in late November. Basketball practice was at 11, and I was late. Partly because of that, but mostly because I was still a tomboy adventurer, I chose a shortcut.
My hometown in upstate New York slopes up the banks of the Hudson and crests at what we used to call the Giant’s Crewcut. Recent construction work had cut through the hill that was the Giant’s head, and basketball practice was a straight shot across the construction site. But there had been heavy rains the week before, and my shortcut, it turned out, was slathered with yellow slimy mud that would certainly ruin my penny loafers. With hardly a moment’s consideration, I turned toward some gray, gravelly-looking dirt up the side of the hill. With a burst of speed that made me feel deliciously like a deer, I sprinted up the ravaged hillside. Halfway up the incline, I had the sickening realization, as my momentum slowed, that although the top inch of dirt was fairly dry, the ground underneath was soaked with a week’s rain. Pausing in disbelief, I found myself suddenly up to my ankles, up to my knees, up to my hips in the cold, wet, gray earth, sucking me into her bosom. My body heaved itself up on a wave of pure adrenalin and scrambled like a spooked lizard up, up, onto the firm topsoil above.
The mud had exacted my shoes and gray cable-knit knee socks as a sacrifice. I headed home barefoot in a haze of shock and mortification, covered with slime from the waist down. Some workmen I passed gave me a spare pair of construction boots, size 11 or so, for the cold, wet walk home. So there I was, not only turning into a woman against my will and better judgement, but parading through town the day after my birthday in huge men’s boots.
I slunk up the back steps, hoping against all hopes to avoid my nine other family members, but my mother came out, looked at me aghast, and snapped, “What happened to you?”
“Oh, Mommy!” My tears of terror and shame finally burst through. I wanted to throw my arms around her; I wanted her to hold me, to take the shame away, to make it OK. She said, instead, “Oh, go clean yourself up.” I cleaned myself up, body, clothes, and feelings; I pretended not to hear the many jokes during the next few weeks about my lack of common sense.
Thirty years later, on the verge of finally embracing my feminine side, I don’t wonder that I resisted becoming a woman, for my mother knew little of the soft aspects of her own femininity. Receiving comfort is still inextricably tied up for me with shame and distrust. I struggle, in my own mothering, to find a balance between comforting too much (my determination to break the family pattern) and not comforting enough (my compulsive repetition of the pattern). The moments when I can respond to my children’s pain with an open heart, without acting as if it were my own to feel or fix, are precious jewels — and a source of great comfort.
El Cerrito, California
During the past five years, I have been confronting my shadowy past of childhood abuse. For a long time I would wake at 4 in the morning, the wind or rain rattling the window, and I felt sure someone was breaking in. I would hear a voice calling me harshly, or sometimes sweetly; or there would be a knock at the door and my bed would rattle. Sometimes it was my cat trying to get out, but more often it was a ghostly memory of my father following me into my bedroom, taking off his belt, swinging indiscriminate blows that hit every part of my body. Reliving these memories, I would spend hours, even days, curled under the covers, shutting out the world. Our regular double bed seemed too small, and I would push my husband away, not trusting his love, his touch. Often I would go to another bed in the house to sleep. I would dream of sadistic attackers, dark streets, innocent animals running from danger.
Over time, with a loving therapist and a willingness to face the pain, I started to trust again — my body, my sexuality, my need to receive love.
In our room are altars with special objects: a bird’s nest with two malachite eggs, a gold feather, a seashell, a candle. There are drawings on the walls of strong women. I colored one woman’s body bright red. Musical instruments line the walls — a drum, rattles, a dulcimer, bells. I practice tai chi each night before I go to bed and each morning when I rise. Once, a kick brought back the memory of being kicked in the side by my father. More often, the moves seem to fill our room with a veil, a thin but strong protective layer, warding away any threatening invaders.
What is more sacred than a child’s body? What should be safer than a child’s bed where she goes to rest? I am learning to value that space in my home.
My husband and I bought a new king-sized bed. It is wide and luxurious. In it I have the freedom to cuddle or make love with my husband, or to take all the room I need for myself.
In my early childhood, my home was a joyful, comforting place, and music filled the rooms and seeped into the corners and hallways. My mother played the piano by ear. She would sing songs from the Forties and Fifties, and I would sing along. She rocked me to sleep singing about a “lonely little robin in a tree by my door” — a robin who had lost a love who would never return. Not all her songs were sad; in fact, most were happy. Later I would try hard to remember them, as if the remembrance would bring some peace from that earlier time.
My father was a stonecutter. He was a quiet, shy man who chose as his bride a woman who loved movies, fantasies, music, and dancing. She collected pictures of movie stars, lovingly placing them in scrapbooks.
When I was seven, our lives changed drastically. My father had been saved in a revival meeting three years earlier and now felt the call of God to preach. (In those days, in rural Georgia at least, a man could go into the ministry without college training, as long as he was ordained within the church and believed beyond doubt that he had been called by God.)
The music we sang suddenly changed to gospel songs, as our lives became centered around the Church and God and Jesus. I loved these songs as much as any others. They allowed the expression of sadness, remorse, happiness — even something close to ecstasy at times. The harmonies were beautiful. We sang loudly in small country churches, so loudly that I, as a child, thought we could be heard for miles, clear into the city. My mother played the piano at church and began her duties as a minister’s wife — duties she would come to resent.
I grew up trying to be as sinless as possible, always feeling a sense of failure. I didn’t know at the time that one could not reach perfection at such an early age. I learned to give my family the smiles and sweetness they wanted from me. But at school — there were several new schools along God’s way — I found I never really did fit in with others. (I would later learn that my drive for perfection distanced me from them.) I played alone a great deal. The cemetery was my playground, as was the church. I would stand in the pulpit and sing for hours. I felt strong and confident there, and as close as I could then get to peace and acceptance.
At nine, I got a stereo for Christmas, along with two Jim Reeves albums, a Gospel Greats album, and a Firestone Christmas album. This stereo changed my life. Now I could listen to music all day long. Music was gentle with me; it accepted me without pressure or expectation. Music allowed me to sing words that I could not voice in real life; it allowed me a way of expressing all the emotions that were not tolerated in my world of black and white, good and bad, the sinners and the saved.
As an adolescent, I closed my door and sang and danced to the Top Forty. My parents hated my love for music during this part of my life. Looking back, I think some bit of grace must have prevented them from taking this comfort away from me. I believe that music kept me alive.
Now, having been through much pain, joy, and change, I am still uncertain of my life and its meaning; I still want answers and wisdom. Music remains my companion, my savior, my comfort. I cannot imagine life without the ability to sing out the content of my soul or without hearing the melodies, the harmonies, the beauty of music.
I found in myself a lost child, whose need for comfort was unceasing and insatiable. For her, nothing was ever enough. I tried to approach her in many ways. I tried ignoring and threatening and bullying and blaming, and those clearly did not work. Her already enormous need for comfort just intensified under attack. I also tried listening to, soothing, and holding her, and asking others to hold her. I tried physical comfort, pleasure, and entertainment, but eventually I would reach a saturation point — I could not watch another movie, or eat any more chocolate, or have sex one more time. The child still ached.
At last, I have found one thing that comforts her completely — but it costs a lot. It requires attention and intention and patience. At the same time, it is so simple and obvious that it has become a cliché for many: it is the Zen practice of taking refuge in the moment. It seems my child’s ache is about something missed in the past or hoped for in the future. If I give her “now,” she finally has everything — all that really exists, all that it is possible to have, and all of me. She is naturally innocent; given a rose petal or a candle flame or a breath, given only that and that completely, she is totally absorbed, safe, comforted. My work, my challenge, is to give her as many of those moments as I can, as many strung together one after the other as possible. Her need, for all these years, has been very real, and only what is real can fill it.
Albuqerque, New Mexico