My Little Animists

Supposedly I teach writing, but sometimes it turns out I teach philosophy and astronomy and people-are-not-for-hitting, which is actually a fairly profound subject in and of itself and should be required for every political nominee. This is what happens: you sit down to teach some kids a Latin word root or something, and the world pours in. Language is so intertwined with life.

I teach them the word root anima — breathe, soul, life.  Like animal, you know? That’s easy, but inanimate — what does that even mean? Is a rock inanimate? They don’t think so, and neither do I. This makes us all some kind of proto-animists, though I don’t tell them this directly because some of them have other religions or no-religions. What about a thing on the internet, they want to know — is that an inanimate object? I don’t know. A table is, they are pretty sure. But a peach? The universe? And what about the time before 1560, when English got the word inanimate: did people have another word for it, or did they not even think about the world that way?

Speaking of the universe, what if it’s actually a multiverse? Did you ever think, they want to know, about how electrons circle their nucleus just like planets circle their sun? And black holes: why are scientists scared of them? All of those people that fell in them, they probably just went through a portal.

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Just Like Waylon Jennings

Whenever I hear the word amoeba, I think of my friend Caitlin.  Also chainsaw, Argentina, co-housing, lacrosse, red bandannas, Twisp, and it’s bedtime for bonzos. Caitlin and I have been friends for about half our lives, and if you can’t tell already, she’s awesome.  She makes running relay races with chainsaws look easy, and if you’ve got a large body — I mean carcass — that you need to dispose of, she’s your woman.

Caitlin and I met on account of the fact we are both Alligator Cowgirls.  In other words, we worked our butts off with the rest of the awesomefaces at Ekone Ranch Summer Camp.  We bucked hay, wrangled children, jumped horses bareback, got Ekone tans that washed off back home, did something on the way to doing something else, and slept out under the stars and the UFO’s.

Caitlin’s house, circa 2006. The guys are long gone, but the Alligator Cowgirls are going strong.

In 1998, I took a weekly ballroom dance class with Caitlin and her Vashon Island friends.  After class, I would sleep over in the house her mom had bought from the fire department for a dollar and moved to the co-housing community. Every class they played the same song, and we danced the same dance, sometimes with real boys.  Hey, the song began, I ain’t no amoeba! Then the instruments came in, we positioned our hands in dance position (push, push! communicate!) and stumbled over each other’s feet. Are you ready for a thing called loooove?

Well, speaking of, I just watched Caitlin get hitched this weekend.  She married into a long-time farm family in the Skagit. Her husband Tom grows blackberries. On purpose. He’s a smart guy and a hard worker. They got married in a Catholic church, with both a Catholic priest and a Buddhist priest presiding. Beforehand, Caitlin’s nephew roamed the pews giving handkerchiefs to likely criers.  That kid has a good frequent cryer scanner — I ended up with two hankies.

Afterwards, people poured into the reception hall for a salmon dinner.  People just kept pouring and pouring.  They had to go get more chairs.  About 160 people had RSVP’ed, and about 250 showed.  Luckily, Cook Chris from Ekone had headed up dinner, Alligator Cowgirls assisting, and there was plenty.

There were toasts from grandfathers and children. There was line dancing.  There was homemade wine. Caitlin’s hankie-dispensing nephew dominated the dance floor, until he fell asleep under the coat rack in his cowboy boots. Later on, I ended up at the bar listening to fellow Alligator Cowgirl Sykie talking to one of Caitlin’s old college logger sports team mates, who calls Caitlin “Hippie.”  That’s the thing about Hippie — she can just bring everybody together. Hippies, rednecks, Catholic farmers, Alligator Cowgirls, all loving the same thing: Caitlin and Tom.  Which makes her, we realized, just like Waylon Jennings.

Grandma on a Wingding

1984

I want to tell you about my Grandma Hall. She lived in Salt Lake City in a house that smelled like cigarettes even after she traded smoking for an oxygen machine named R2D2.  She had swinging saloon doors to her kitchen and amber glass ashtrays, and her back porch was roofed with yellow corrugated plastic that sent yellow light into the summer of her kitchen.  It was always summer there — did I always visit in summer? Maybe it just never rained. My grandma got her cereal boxes down from a high cupboard with a barbecue skewer. Each box was poked with small holes.  She froze peaches and strawberries from the summer and served them with breakfast.  When she was older, I felt I always ate too much; her meals were so tiny.  I kept a stash of cookies in my car and snuck out for them in between.

She drank Bud Light in a coozie with a straw.

Her hallway, dark wood and wallpaper, was all photos of grandchildren in the 1980’s — my boy cousins in striped shirts holding soccer balls, me in smocked dresses, a foreign little child to the self that stood in my grandma’s hallway looking as if to know.

Once, my Grandma Hall sent my sister and me a tape of her reading stories — Chicken Little, The Little Red Hen.  She liked her stories with morals, or maybe she just had 1950’s Golden Books to choose from.  She was baking cookies, she said on the tape.  She kept interrupting herself to take them out of the oven.  For some reason, Dolly Parton’s voice reminds me of my grandma’s.

These are the kinds of things my grandma told me, calcified now into story:

(While my sister — who is six inches taller than Grandma — tried to squeeze into her old skirts.) Back in my day, you were nothing if you didn’t have a waist.

(While I sat on the steps of my college co-op house that was named after a Grateful Dead song.) Just don’t marry a deadhead.  Whatever you do, just don’t fall for a chauvinist deadhead.

(When, after she had complimented my friend Caroline on her baking job, I mentioned I had also wanted that job.) You wouldn’t have lasted two weeks in that job; you’d’ve been bored stiff.  It’s Chinese Coolie labor.

It was hard at times to tell compliment from jab.  Yet she would stand on her porch and wave and wave when I drove away.

By then, leaving the house was hard for her. I could find her, that last decade, by following her oxygen tube from R2D2 down the hallway to her nose, being mindful not to stand on the tube and suffocate my grandmother remotely. She was, before and still, a beautiful woman.  She was the Peach Queen of Box Elder County and was runner-up Miss Utah the year Miss Utah was Miss America.  She had, the story went, a less sexy talent.  Hers was a theatrical monologue.  No shortage of brains or vinegar.   

My grandma divorced my grandpa some time in the ’70’s, but she stayed in their house and she stayed in her anger.  My uncle made a rule she couldn’t complain about anything that had happened more than forty years ago, but her stories were still bitter and her present stayed inside the walls of the past.  Her life, when I think of it, was made of rusts and browns and grays.

Once, I had a kind of vision of her as a girl and everything was yellow.  She was in a field full of sunflowers and she was happy. In real life, my grandma seemed happiest in August.  She was happy then because of William Shakespeare and the Shakespeare festival she went to every year.  I called her right afterwards last year, called her from the sidewalk at Sewanee, in the only spot besides the cemetery on that Tennessee mountain where my phone found its satellite.  She hardly said thing about the past, and the conversation hung on a thin thread of optimism.  I’ve bought my ticket for next year, she told me.

She made it to the festival one last time this summer, though in between she broke her hip and began needing round the clock care.  I called her again this September, this time from Paris.  We talked for half an hour, and it was like talking to a different woman.  I don’t know if there was medicine involved or if was a brief mood, but I don’t care — she was happy.  Not escaping or placated, but happy.  She was, she said, living in the moment and it felt like a fairy tale. I was tearing up, I was so glad.

“You tell your mom and dad that Grandma’s on a wingding, and lovin’ every minute of it!”

After I hung up, I leaned out the window into the Paris night — the neighbors moving in their windows, someone’s conversation in a language I did not know — and I was filled up. Thankful. Alive.  A couple of weeks later, they moved my grandma to hospice.  When I called her again, I couldn’t really hear her, and a couple of days later, she stopped being able to talk on the phone.  She died last Sunday.

Grandma, I hope for you that death is a permanent wingding.