Elizabeth River Blue Raga
“When I was a young poet I was full of fear like a real rat in a corner.”
It’s a hot and sticky place with a river that divides two cities. It’s a humid place with late-blooming azaleas and your hair frizzes even more. You feel like a freak. You cannot see yourself in all of your messy beauty, hair sticking up, fuzzy and kinky, long before gel and soon you are off to straightening and using coke cans to pull the curls out. It works for less than twenty-four hours. You are ashamed of your hair and it is just another way that you feel separate in a white world. I want you to know that not too far in the future, you will love your hair and your looks, although you will be easily thrown off center for a while. Still, let’s just say that you will grow into yourself – your unusual name, your hair that makes both white and black men spit at you. Let’s just say that your hair and your oddly white skin are factors that ignite your fiery passion and you embark on a path of deep connection to the disenfranchised, disrespected and feared. You understand symbolism and metaphor at an early age.
You yearn for something that you cannot name and you take long walks all the way to City Park where the water is dying and the cinnamon colored swings are rusting and you sit by the road and talk to Nannie, our Cherokee grandmother, the one you loved more than anyone in your world. You imagine her serving you tea and devil’s food cake without icing, just the way you like it, and you beg Jesus to bring her back. You promise your soul and later, when you look back, you think it was taken, there by the tombstone under the shaking weeping willow.
This yearning will make up a big part of your inner life, but in just a few years you will be stranded in London with about $ 20 to your name. Your lover will have dumped you and left you alone in another part of the world. In your fear and confusion, you will start walking on this unexpectedly sunny day. You walk and walk and find your way into a tiny bookshop where you are alone for quite a long time except for the soft-spoken Indian man who runs the shop and eventually comes over to you and says gently, “I think I know what you are looking for,” and hands you a copy of the Bhagavad Gita – and not just any copy, but the volume translated by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, the most beautifully poetic version that you will ever encounter. You hand over most of your money with reverence because you get a wide intuitive hit from this book in your hand and you know that he is right. You will manage to keep this book with you the rest of your life, or, at least until you get to my age. Eventually you discover the source of all that yearning and it helps you with your depression and anxiety more than any psychotropic drug ever could.
You are about to walk into the arms of a lover who is also an abuser, older than your mother, but you won’t be able to recognize the deception and for a long time will think you are in love. Some day, you will know the difference.
This is the year you will leave home for good. You are so eager to run away that you will forget your sisters and brother for a while and it will eat at you. You don’t yet understand that you are not their mother and your guilt at leaving them behind will run like a river of molten lava through your psyche. You will be shocked one day to find that they don’t remember your care, the way you hid them inside the closet, wrapped your thin fingers lovingly over their mouths to keep them safe. This makes your breath come in shallow, bumpy gulps; you talk in your sleep and your recurring dream of being stranded three thousand miles away in the muggy streets of Portsmouth takes over again.
In the soft shades of evening, you will draw your nightmares and write your stories with a number two pencil—the planes flying over, dropping bombs right there in Alexander Park—carefully erasing the lines and words that don’t belong and when your mother and mine comes in to look, both in awe and fear, you will just say, this is what I want to do, Mama. Our mother will always be proud of you.
I want you to know that you will not kill yourself or your stepfather. You will not save your mother or your siblings. It will take a long time, but you will eventually realize that it wasn’t your job to save anyone. But yourself.
In just a few months you will see yourself in a dream standing next to Robert Frost who is in a wheelchair. You have long, straight blond hair and your image is reflected a thousand times as though you are seeing yourself in a hall of mirrors. One day a therapist will tell you that this is your crippled poet self, seeking to heal, to walk. Somewhere around fifty, Michael Ondaatje will enter your dream, in the long, white coat of a doctor and he will take you seriously and try to heal you. You will find and lose your writing a hundred times, and each time you embrace it, your skin will thicken.
Things that come from the earth and sea—amethyst and peridot, citrine and quartz—will bring you long nights of beading and writing, beading and writing, your own rhythm of language and offering. Your cats will walk the length of your body before settling there and you will soften into sleep together, your own kind of peace and belonging.
As a matter of fact, you will be served by all of the things that now seem to tear you down and frighten you. And when your full spirituality finally blossoms, it will carry you.
You will finally know that you are not too heavy for this world.