Saturday, August 23, 2008

Damaged anyway

This is a familiar feeling: the first morning back in town after another cross-country excursion, less awake than I should be at this hour, the drone of bugs in the trees louder--the leaves closer, the air thicker--than I'd remembered. Mindy Smith is singing, in those clear, almost shrill tones of hers, about how she needs a hurricane to straighten out this place, but I'm not really looking for devastation and renewal right now, unless it's the kind of sudden shift that takes place in the song just before this one, on 2004's One Moment More, where the "little things that seem to be getting me today" suddenly become the "little things that seem to be saving me today." Things get to me all the time, but this also means that I am gotten by these things, and to be gotten proves, linguistically at least, that I'm made and unmade partly in relation to what's around me. And this is, possibly, how to be gotten and to be saved are of a piece: the fractures that open up when I'm annoyed, say, or hitting my head against the same old walls--or having it jostled by the woman behind me on the plane yesterday who was keeping, I swear, her entire life's possessions in the grubby seatback pocket--can, if I don't get in the way, heal into something slightly new. I was shocked to find, as I walked to my car late last night, that the world I was returning to, a world I'm deeply ambivalent about, felt as if it could save me a little. As if it had been trying, and I'd been--chalk it up to narcissism, the ease of resentment, habit--steadily saying no. And it took a few weeks away, lots of highways and airports, to make the fractures momentarily visible and, like these slender trees, a little closer than before.

I've just finished reading Sara Miles' account of her sacramental experience of distributing food to the poor in San Francisco, Take This Bread. I bought it at Women and Children First, an exceptional bookstore in Andersonville, on the north side of Chicago, and took it with me on my trip out west. The book contains several scenes in which annoyance shifts into gratitude, when the narrator looks out at the occasionally psychotic or more ordinarily damaged folks around her, and before she knows it she's not, momentarily at least, pissed off anymore but instead, or in addition, blessed by these strange lives that surround hers. Those scenes also echo this passage from one of Dorianne Laux's poems, "It Must Have Been Summer" (in her latest collection, Facts About the Moon), where the speaker talks about the afternoons when, as a child, a teenaged girl would invite her to suck at her breast: "She meant me no harm, her long hair / sweeping my sun-bruised face, / and all of us damaged anyway." In each of these cases--Mindy Smith's hurricane, Sara Miles' church full of the poor, Dorianne Laux's suburban living room--damaged is what we are "anyway" but also what allows us to be remade. Or, in other words, as much as it makes me cringe to write it, to be saved.