Wishes Really Are Bones
My twin soul, Debbie, who lives in Arizona, sent me a musing recently. We do this, she and I, over the space of many states, even sometimes with months in between correspondence. We are both writers, both coming out of an intense personal trauma, both on the fresher side of a battering storm, both feeling strange and stark and changed. She wrote of the pain brought forth by the simple expression of herself, the self that has not, in fact, been destroyed. I know this pain. Ecstatic pain at discovering the self you’ve always known. The self that still laughs, releasing a sound so familiar and sweet that it surprises you for how intact it is. How same and safe and sane. Gods, do I know, girl. There is glory in this pain. In the smell of soil. In the weight of a babe. In the mirror. It will brush you clean.
I call Debbie my twin because we have shared a lot of kindred experience, and what has seemed like kindred feelings over the past year. Every so often, when we write one another, the thread from Debbie’s pinky to mine, clear across the desert and the wide Mississippi, the fields of corn stubble and rye, and the Smoky Mountains, that thread which usually sits silent and present, a sinewy fact, begins to tremble. It trembles as if with music.
I feel like this is a feat. Why? Because these are hard, ethereal trappings over which to connect. During the recent holidays, I read some of the Diary of Frida Kahlo. In the introduction, there is an essay by Carlos Fuentes, about Kahlo’s life, her gift, and the diary itself. A particular passage struck me, and I took a photo of it, for safekeeping. Fuentes writes:
Is pain something you cannot share?
Even more, is pain something that can be said at all?
It is indescribable, wrote Virginia Woolf. You can know all the thoughts of Hamlet, but you cannot truly describe a headache. For pain destroys language. Pain, writes Elaine Scarry, resists becoming an object of language. In a famous passage, Nietzsche says he has decided to call his pain “Dog.” It is equally faithful, unobtrusive and shameless, equally fun to be with…
I love every word of this. As I revisit it today, and revel in all my nodding at Debbie’s letter, I relish the fact that you could replace the word “pain” with any specifically consuming human emotion, even “love,” and have an equally honest musing on the human experience.
This is precisely why I write. While it is true that there are feelings we cannot fully communicate, feelings that words, and even memories cannot hold, we can paint around them. We can set the mood. We do strikingly well, I believe. I am grateful for it. Grateful for Debbie. Grateful, aye, even for the pain. What strengthens the feeling of being able to share these unshareables are the unique experiences we’ve each had on our own. So that even when we are states apart, or not inside the same trauma, we can do this talking as if it does justice to our living.
What Debbie and I are talking about currently, and trying to describe, is the pain of healing. I call it itchy pain. It’s a good smart, the pain of possibility. It is frightening and exhilarating, and I am beginning to love it as it loves me, (the Dog.) Debbie wrote about her future, the one she cannot know but that she imagines. A house she may one day own. She thinks she’ll paint it periwinkle. I too, think about this constantly. What are the possibilities, now? What will life look like when it does not feel in transition? It’s a question that can haunt you or warm you, guide you or gut you, depending on the day. It’s a question draped all over with itchy pain.
I even have an itchy pain shrine in my windowsill, in an attempt to describe all of this to myself. It is full of artifacts that came out of moments when I felt such a wide-open hope that it nearly suffocated me. The shrine contains: a vial with the broken chrysalis from a butterfly I raised, a hex nut I found on a boat dock in July, a penny I picked up in a cabin the country, and the end of a pipe which my friend Joel sawed off and gave to me, at his home in Kentucky. There is mica my son found in the river. Then there are two wishbones. One from a chicken, and one from a duck. Being a woman in the food world, I come across many wishbones, but I saved these two a while back, for no particular reason. I have stories around all these artifacts from the past year that move me, except for the wishbones. I mean, I have a slight obsession with bones anyway, but for some time, I really have had no idea why these two are there.
But as I compose this, a man is sleeping beside me. I am looking out the window, at the foggy, rain-tinged morning, and his hand is on my thigh. I decided I would write about it because I wanted to record the way that it felt. I wanted to put words to every single micron in the topography of his fingerprints. I wanted barometric words for the pressure of his skin against mine. I wanted declarations of accurate, bare moisture. I wanted different readings for the skin on my leg as it differed under each of his separate digits. I wanted to describe his fingernails, half moons and round coins, and the gentle thrill of this sleepy, unconscious contact. But I cannot do it justice, as it is fraught with itchy pain, and so I just ache, beautifully, with sparse, happy, and silent stings at the unbelievable wonder of this touch. It surprises me.
For several months now, I have had a quotation from the poet Alice Walker on my refrigerator: Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. This sleeping person next to me has surprised me in nearly every way since entering my life. So much so that I consider him brilliantly sneaky, even though nothing has been withheld, or designed. Even though he is the opposite of a mischievous person. The first time I found myself in his arms, I felt so much itchy pain that I thought I might faint. It hurt to be treated wonderfully. It hurt that I almost would not let myself have it. It hurt to discover that in the course of the past year, I have very nearly convinced myself that being treated well was undeserved by me.
I don’t know how long this man will be in my life, but for the rest of my life, he will be the one to have given me a gift I can never repay. He will be the one who did not flinch at all these little bandages, who began gently scratching away the dead and the grief. Proving forgotten beliefs. Disproving fresh and searing fears. So, right now, right here, this touch is almost too much. I did not ask for this. I would not even have wished for this in a thousand new moons. I don’t know if the world has ever held a woman more grateful.
And in this moment, I know what the wishbones are. After all, why dig out the symbolic collarbone of a chicken, and instead of customarily breaking it, set it aside for looking upon indefinitely? They are the itchy pain artifacts of the wishes I can’t yet make. So much is in store, big and small, like Debbie’s periwinkle house, or the simple smell of onions frying, smelling how they always smell. Like this sweet man beside me, the things you truly want have not yet been revealed to you. As pain is a loyal dog, wishes really are bones. Whole bones you wouldn’t dream of breaking. No. You cannot describe pain, you cannot ever perfectly remember touch, and you cannot ask for the best things.