SAMPLES

Rice Fields

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"Oh my threshed and winnowed one..."
--Isaiah 21:10

The rice harvesting season began during my last week in Bali. Each day from the yoga shala, I'd watch the women make their way into the yellowing field. With slow, heavy movements, they'd strike the gathered stalks against the rice collector, the rattle of loosening grains marking the rhythm of their work.

I’d spent nearly a month in that field, practicing the asanas, mudras, and meditations meant to strengthen and restore my weary body and soul. Still, I had insomnia, and my back ached the entire time I was there. During mealtime conversations, a single phrase would continually betray my lingering loneliness and confusion: "I don't know why I'm here."

Of course, none of the strangers around me had the answer.

One day, I tried to capture the majestic movements of the rice workers on camera. But as the shutter began to click, one of the women glanced up at me, with a quiet, questioning look, and a profound irony came into relief: Here I was, trying to "find" myself, on an island I couldn't even point to on a map. Why had I thought I required anything more than a mirror?

Three years later, I can't quite make sense of that time I spent in Bali. I only know that the island was gracious with me, allowing me to gaze at its ripened landscape, to be rocked by its gentle rhythms, to be comforted by the unwavering presence of its people; to find answers in the silence between the blows.

 
Scars

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I’ve had a thick scar on my left inner thigh since I was four years old, when I cut myself on the sharp plastic edge of a broken riding toy. Seconds before the blood, I was a cowgirl, high on adventure and possibility, ready to jump from a tree branch onto the runaway steed beneath me.

Funny how reality flips itself on its head, turning us from heroes into victims in the blink of an eye. We take a job, and quit the next day; we give our heart to a stranger, only to feel it break into a million pieces; we move away, and end up missing the ones we love most.

As adults, we try to make sense of these times, when things don’t go our way. Blame, self-doubt, and regret sprout out of our need for answers. We look for the moral behind the story, the matrix beneath the madness.

As a four year old, I only knew that it was fun being Calamity Jane for an afternoon. That sometimes when you play you get hurt; but most often, you don’t. And that one day soon, the wound would heal, and I’d be able to show my friends the cool scar on my leg that proved I was a hero.

Skinny Love

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Come on skinny love just last the year--
Pour a little salt we were never here.

 --"Skinny Love," by Bon Iver

 

 Ten minutes before the crash, I threw a tent and yoga mat in the backseat, and a pack of cigarettes in the front, and hit “start” on an old lover’s playlist.

The highway would eventually lead to a field nine hours south, where other mothers and daughters lay in sleeping bags; where a brown-skinned woman would teach us new ways of looking at the moon. I’d return, smelling of crushed spices and roots, a new and improved version of myself. This is what I hoped for, at least, when the yellow garbage truck pulled out in front of me.

A funny thing happens when you go from 50 mph to 0. Time loses its grip. Seconds splay out before you like drunk buffoons. And meaningless questions splinter your reality: How am I going to pitch my tent now before dark? Is my bottle of Makers still in the back seat? Am I going to die? Am I already dead? And finally, how is the other driver going to fix this mess?

The sanitation workers approached me like I was a ticking time bomb, asking ridiculously if I was “okay.” A police officer took photos of the wreck on my phone that would later make me gasp. I remember the paramedic stopping me as I tried to climb out the window. “Ma’am,” he said, “I can’t let you do that. I’ve gotta come get you out of there.”

What I wanted more than anything was a hug.

Sometimes I picture a holographic me ascending from my body, reaching back in through the smashed cab of the truck, and lifting me out. I whisper tenderly in my own ear, “You’re okay. I will sit with you by your hospital bed; and later, I will take you to dinner and read you poems from my back pocket; I'll hang your curtain rods for you and pay your bills; I'll stare into your soul for minutes at a time and call you smart, and sexy, and ‘goddess.'"

As women, we settle for "skinny" all the time, starving ourselves of our own love, looking for someone else to show us our constellations, to rescue us from the wreck.

Boxes

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Once or twice a year a package would arrive at a post office box on East 54th Street, requiring a long subway ride and a small key to retrieve it. Back home in Queens, my sister and I would divvy up all the treasures inside: marzipan logs, "cat paws" of salty licorice, silk nightgowns, and pretty ruffled dresses. There would be a letter too, written on thin sheets on paper, relating the happy news of a new brother or sister, or a family trip to Spain, signed always "Baba."

One year I received an extra special gift: a red velvet case that held a matching-colored book. A Qur'an, my mother explained. For years, she kept it high on a bookshelf, treating it more like a volatile weapon than the holy text it was. From time to time I'd climb on a chair to retrieve the case, lifting its golden latch to finger through the gilded pages of Arabic script, imagining myself a heroine unlocking the clues to some great mystery.

In college, I'd learn just enough Arabic to read some passages out loud, even though I still could never decipher their meaning. Then, in my senior year, I received a letter from my father that was different from all the ones I'd read growing up. It was filled with honest and serious language; words like Suffering; Loss; Destiny; and Kidnap that told the sad story behind my father's sweet gifts. I understood for the first time the meaning of his long silence, which until then I'd mistaken for neglect. Like his own God (Allah), he'd chosen to be generous in his love, holding space for my sister and me to grow where Fate had landed us one dark December long ago, when two little girls disappeared into the night.

Light and Dark Do Not Deter Me

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I will stare at the sun for minutes at a time,
hold perfectly still as it stings the back of my brain.
Let it burn a hole through my center,
and I will call it my heart

I will swallow the earth’s bitterest roots,
bury myself alive under its black truths
to emerge like a Christ from the tarpit,
all the stronger for the sludge

It’s the shadows that threaten,
the halting echo of desire,
the stillness that unsettles,
the fatal inbetween

Here I writhe within death’s hold;
a newborn child,
a bug on a pin

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©2020 Salwa Emerson. All Rights Reserved.

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