The Inconvenient Body

I am still surprised by details of living, by things that never cross your mind to question until you find yourself facing it.  The things I want to call administrative, though that isn’t really the right term for it.  How, in a goodbye, there is never the swelling moment of music, the fade to black.  How you can find yourself sitting on the floor with your sister, shocked at the amount of ashes your father became. The weight of them. The ridiculous polka-dot box you have in front of you to send him home to your house across the country because, while it’s legal to fly with someone, it’s illegal to fly with their remains.

Let me backtrack. Life is full of moments that are ridiculous.  After my dad’s memorial my sister and I had a box and had to do something with the substance that used to be my dad. I’m not trying to be cold in this—the body laid out that memorial wasn’t my father—it was just what was left behind.  No smile, no gesture, no laughter.  But you still have to do something with it, and so he was cremated. I remember when we scattered my grandmother’s ashes, so it shouldn’t have surprised me just how much substance there was.  My dad was a large man, and even through sickness he was still tall, even if he’d lost a lot of weight.  We opened the box; the funeral home had put ash in bags for us, but even so, there was more than we knew what to do with. We thought, ok, we don’t want urns, but maybe we can find nice wooden boxes, like something my dad would have made. Maybe there’s something nice at a place to buy tea—a nice wooden box that’s not meant for a body but feels more true to our father.

We found ourselves at the Short Hills mall, walking into Tevanna, looking at the shelves in despair. Everything nice was so small, and everything large was made of china and, well, looked like an urn.  A guy came up to us to see if he could help, and stutteringly we explained that we were looking for something like a tea container, but larger. “Well, how much tea are you keeping?” And, instead of doing the kind thing, where we kept to our story, we spilled out that, in fact, we were looking for something to put ashes into, because our dad had just died, and we thought maybe…

The guy blinked, and then rolled with it. He laughed to join in with our awkward stumbling laughter and looked down at the box in his hand. “Yeah, this is pretty small.” He looked around the store and pointed at a shelf with elaborate white china with blue willow type patterns dancing across their shape. “I’m sure you saw those but… too urn-like, right?” We nodded.  He checked a few more places, but kept returning with things too small or made of too much delicate china. “Maybe try Williams Sonoma? Kitchen N Things?”

We walked out and stood for a moment.  My dad liked cooking—Williams Sonoma was a frequent stop on our holiday shopping lists.  Perhaps it’s fitting that we walked from kitchen store to kitchen store, looking for one last present for him, settling on double walled stainless steel container from Crate & Barrel and a story that involved less detail to the hapless staff trying to assist two grieving and laughing sisters.

Would my dad have been upset? I don’t think so. I think he would have laughed and retold the story in his quiet way, sitting a little back from the crowd at a family party.  There are lately so many things I would have liked to ask him, there are so many stories I want to share.  I still find myself wanting those cinematic stops—his body lifting lightly in the wind off of Rainier when we scatter him.  In all actuality I suspect that when I eventually reach the summit the wind will tear him from me.  I know that I won’t be able to bring the whole container of ashes—each ounce matters and I think he’d rather I take water than a coffee container.  I’ll get back to my apartment after all is said and done and there most of him will be, still waiting on my book shelf.  I’ll be tired and sore.  It might be my first attempt, it might be a later attempt—weather cares little for what your plans are, what ceremony is intended.

There are no nice bows to wrap things up, there are no good endings.  He died years ago now, and still I am angry that I can’t tell him about the first 5.12 I climbed in the gym, about the multi-pitches I did in Mexico. I can’t call him from Oregon this Thanksgiving or send him pictures of my friends, our hands chalky, our skin sunburnt. I’m angry I can’t talk to him about when he met my mom, I can’t tell him shyly about a man I like or tell him, after it’s all gone to hell, about how I’m still trying to figure my life out.  I don’t know if my friends know what the silver container on my shelf is, but it’s my dad.  Because bodies suck and his betrayed him and now, because his gave out, I have to be stronger than I was then. And I am, I’m getting there.

Vantage, WA

AWP and Finding my Footing

AWP in Seattle. Oh boy.

I now understand the glazed expression of fear that crossed my friends’ faces as I excitedly talked about AWP coming to Seattle. Have you ever been…? Of course not.  Travel is expensive, registration is expensive, and vacation was nill.  But this year, my city! How wonderful!

Except. Sort of.

I suspect it’s very different to go to a different city, to stay in a hotel crammed full of writers and to stumble around an unknown city and brush into people equally jet-lagged and out of place.  My city means– I know where my bed is, and it is oh so close. I want to say that AWP was frustrating because of this– my desire to crawl into my own place, but that’s kind of a lie.  Especially because I crashed with a friend two of the nights of the conference.  I think, really, it’s that– I don’t belong at AWP anymore.  A few years ago, I’d have come to the conference ravenous, devouring panels and readings with equal vigor.  I’m hungry these days, but for other things. I found myself dozing off in one panel, my mind working through a boulder problem instead of catching onto metaphor. I found the ache in my body from walking around the city in low heels frustrating.  I thought I better not have a blister, it will make my climbing shoes hurt.

This would make sense if I were some strong crusher– someone who doesn’t get spit off of V2 boulder problems, who isn’t afraid to lead 5.10s.  I’m not an amazing climber. And yet. I’m hungry for it.

There were wonderful moments during the conference, of course.  One of my favorite moments I recorded on video– my friend Nicelle reading on the boat as a troupe of runners came in.  Of course I helped organize an off-site reading that took place on a boat, the perfect venue to serve as both water and poetry support for a run my friend organized.  A reading in a conference room isn’t enough for me? Apparently not.  I’ll try to embed the link of me reading on the boat.  The piece is old, the venue strange, the audience small.  

Glass Slipper Off-site reading from Alexis Vergalla on Vimeo.

I caught up with a friend that I met in Mexico yesterday, and again today, and in talking to him I felt more at home than I did among the MFA crowd.  When did this slip happen? I feel more inspired to organize climbing adventures and to throw into a Women’s Climbing Group than to organize readings. Partly it’s that I’m out of touch– I don’t know the names of writers and I spend so long on my computer that by the time I tumble home I want to be moving.  Still, other people juggle jobs and writing– why can’t I? Because I don’t want to. I want to move, I want to play with lights and photography, I want to wake up early to hit the road and experience something with my body. 

I will never forget Chris Abani asking me to put my hands out, place his palms on mine upturned and ask– what is your first thought. You’re touching me. He said, you think with your body first. It’s why I was unhappy in California, it’s perhaps why I’m happy in this beautiful city of rain and sun.  It’s why I make bad decision around men, it’s why my current photography series circles around my own form.  It’s why I’m going to stop writing this now, change into a climbing top and leggings and meet my friends at the gym. I’m not amazing, at anything, and I have so much further to go before I can attempt any big wall anything, before I crush a bouldering problem that’s mildly difficult, before I can lead routes I want to climb.  But I’m hungry for it in a way that words no longer fill.

 

A snowflake showed me how to live

A long time ago, in a child’s hand, I wrote that in 2010 I would be in Seattle.  Funny to find it’s come true.  Other things haven’t, (according to the same paper, I was going to be married, with 3 kids, and a veterinarian, because I love animals and animals love me).

In Seattle I have teetered between many things.  I desperately love this city, but I find the people difficult to connect to.  I feel at home and at the same time so far away.  I often feel as though I am tumbling through 25, holding a job without depth, writing less than I wanted to, and drifting aimlessly among people I barely know who barely know me.

Then something happens, and things get re-evaluated.

So much of my poetry concerns body, but with an absolute void where mine ought to be.  My poems circle around self, define self through others.  I often feel I need to be touched to be reassured I am alive.  For a time, I felt I was disappearing here- where I thought my definitions were solid suddenly vanished and I was left drifting and uncertain and veering towards depressed.  I took dance classes, I kept taking walks, I wrote, but until today I hadn’t realized how completely I’ve come out of that period.

Thanks to a snowflake.  (Of course, a symbol– but being part of my life doesn’t mean you are part of the internet. So I stick to the symbol.)  What dance classes couldn’t do I’ve learned with other help- how to inhabit my own body.  New Year’s Eve found me dancing wildly in sequins to the African drumbeats pulsing in our living room, surrounded by new friends and old, family chosen and blood.

This isn’t to say I won’t have a difficult time with some things that are edging on my horizon.  But today, for the first time in a long while, I felt a deep peace that was dependent on no one but myself.

So here I am, 2010, in Seattle.  A city I fall in love with again and again, and heart open, my body my own. Here I am dancing in a living room, dancing on a rooftop, dancing on the mucked floor of a cheap bar, my head tilted to the way I sway.  Even if someone is watching. Even if no one is watching.