originally commissioned by the Getty Museum for a private performance in conjunction with their 2015 Turner exhibition.
The morning comes as it does so often––wrapped in bunches of pale yellow velvet clutched to the sky’s still breast, and with a tired train of blue fabric trailing behind.
A pitcher of syrup sits at the breakfast table. I am in Johnson Vermont, living for the month of April with 40 other artists. I learn that it takes 30-50 gallons of sap for 1 gallon of Vermont maple syrup. I pour it into my bowl of oatmeal, and add milk and brown sugar. Sweet oatmeal makes me think of my father. The milk poured in, of you.
How the small can of evaporated milk sat in the fridge of our childhood until cold mornings, when you would whip the porridge with the wooden spoon and then pour the cream in. On the colder mornings, you told us to stay warm under the blankets while you laid our clothes for the day over the heater.
It is a cold morning today, when Jenn, Stacia, Katie and I drive thirty minutes to the neighboring town of Stowe for second breakfast. We eat pancakes with raspberries and drink real coffee. The fields are blanketed by both late winter and early spring. A conversation between ice and grass, snow and mud. The earth, like it always has, is in the place of figuring shit out.
We pass a house where in the driveway someone has sculpted a 50 ft tall obelisk out of the snow. It rises from the ground like frozen thunder, moving between ice white and foam blue. We stop and take pictures. I share them online, with the outside world.The water of that world is far from here. The sea, its storms, and all the creatures lurking under its surface. We return from second breakfast just in time for lunch.
As I grab a plate and a chair at a large table with my fellow residents, someone smiles and it looks like the smile of a girl in Oregon I once loved. She curls a ribbon through my head. My heart is a harp played by sunlight.
Over lunch I joke with Sallah,, telling her it takes 80 gallons of maple sap for 1 gallon of Vermont sweatpants. Sallah jokes back: It takes 19 Vermont green beans to make 1 apple tree. Sallah has seven girls and one son. She sets fire to clay figures and reminds me of you.
The April that I am nine, you and me we go to the same park where 24 years later my wife and I are wed. You help me put the worm on the hook in the same way your uncles showed you. You show me how to cast the line and wait not for the first tug but the repeated pull from below. I catch two catfish and bring them home. We put them in the fridge. They swim in the bucket, the belly of one is split open and his entrails circle out as he swims. Dead animals we eat, or put back into the earth. Dying animals I do not know what to do with. So I close the refrigerator door and leave them in the cold dark to swim on their own. Eventually they die anyway.
Under the dining hall here, flows a river. The river here is largely ice. But every day it breaks bits of its frozen body into pieces, sending tiny icebergs south. It is too obvious a metaphor to hold up to the light. But the beauty of this world and the metaphor, is that neither truly exists in the other. It all just is. In winter, the water freezes. In spring, it is kissed by the sun.I tell myself again: My heart is a harp. Played loud. By the quiet sunlight.
I think of my wife.
Leaving me.To empty a house of our belongings on my own and driving to Goodwill the clothes she left behind. Leaving me to sink under reddening waves. There are large fish at the bottom of the dark water. The monsters here, they know my name. I have been here before. Because of this I am trying to fight for the surface. But I am scared. So I stay at the bottom, unsure whether to rise or die or kill. Here at the bottom I watch the ice form above me.
Mother. The summer night I return home to Oregon from Texas, my heart felt like something out of a movie––walking down the street to get a slice of pizza, and calling you just to tell you I met a girl. And how I ain’t never done that before––calling you to tell you this. Have almost always been afraid of what color my heart was, what songs it might sing in the key of another’s name,and who might hear that music.But for the first time in life, all of me moved without fear, all of me starlight unafraid, all of me beholding my brightness on a platter offering itself up into whatever future the universe was laying out for me.When we marry two years later, it is a hundred feet from where my father asked you to marry him.
The summer morning after we are married is the quietest my breast has ever known. I am the leaves in May. It is Sunday and no one on the street but me and my new bride. We walk out our room on Magazine street, hearts wet with one another, and buy a toothbrush and toothpaste at the corner gas station. We stand over a sewage drain in front of the most expensive restaurant in town and take turns brushing our teeth together for the first time as wife and husband.
The autumn night she decides she isn't ever coming back home, my body is a piano with no strings, attempting to wail but only making splinters. I eat barbecue with my closest friends and cry in their arms. I stare at a wedding present hanging on the wall, take our dog for a walk, and think about driving to the gulf, what my body might taste like in its mouth. The morning that comes is the first of many bright and dangerous ones.
The autumn morning I call from a hotel room to tell you that I am scared I will kill myself on one of these days is a fire in my head. But I am trying to unlearn the fish in the fridge. To pull out the creatures in me I would rather bury in the dark. To not be afraid of who sees my colors or hears my music, no matter what shade or what note they may be coming from. So I say out loud to you that death is an ocean, and I am not wading into it, but I can see it from where I stand, can taste its salt in the air, and I am scared of how close the sound of it crashes. How quickly fear returns to the place that birthed it.
You tell me how long ago, before any of us were born, before you had met my father, when you were younger than me, you were in the same place. How lost and forgotten in the world you came to be––swallowed by the big fish, cut out of the monster's belly, you floated to the top, fought your way back to dry land, stepped out of the water, and sat feeling the sun in the sky, clutching the bunches of your soft and tender self to your feathering breast, how close you came to letting the tired train of life trail its way out of you.
Before dinner, for fifteen minutes I paint my heart smooth. I lay beautiful colors next to beautiful colors, in a manner of how the sky and the sea speak to one another, with no measurement of lines, and try to remember a year is not a year. It is only the seasons repeating their passage into one another. Tomorrow will be snow. And then rain. And then sun, unbuttoning the river’s winter coat. By this week's end the river will be completely unfrozen. The water will crest off the rocks like a great dance. This is not a metaphor. This is what happens.
After dinner, eleven of us gather downstairs in the lounge with popcorn and watch a movie from our childhood.I can hear someone walking hard across the heavens in heavy boots.The water some mornings, is warm and light on my ankles. Some mornings it is red and up to my neck. But sitting sitting in it right now, I know it is nice to be human in the company of other humans while laughing. There are not many nicer things than this.
After the movie I lay under my sheets with the lights out. The wind blows so strong, that the windows rattle like a roof. I feel the whole earth shake like a ship. Such a deep low creaking outside this little but still room. Its stillness is a prayer walking up the stairs. It sounds like the inside of a lighthouse, without the sea.
Much like this stillness, I came through you in the late night. Touched my first morning against your chest. All the beasts in the streets brightly burning the clouds with their orange flanks. We are moving beneath their beautiful bellies, not yet swimming inside them. So many creatures of the deep purposing themselves to swallow so many of us. whole or in pieces, as we so often, quietly are taken. I am scared, but I am more scared of being quiet, so I tell myself that they also are maybe scared. Maybe even, not even monsters, just fish. So until I can sit with you beside the southern waters, take this Mother, as I too promise to take it: the sun birthing itself above us like it did then, as it does every morning––clutching bunches of pale yellow velvet to its still breast.Let us watch the fish come to the surface to nibble at the day, just the same as us. Let us learn when to pull them up. When to pull the hook out. When to let them go.