....How close does the dragon's spume have to come? How wide does the crack in heaven have to split? —If You Knew, Ellen Bass
Since I was very small, I have been drawn to smooth stones and to stars.
Once I stood in front of my grade school classroom and announced that I wanted to study stars, even though my math was atrocious. What captivated me about them was not their brightness, but my understanding of the laws of light: that it had taken millions of years for it to travel through space to my eyes. What had it witnessed. What had it seen. On the day the Nazis marched into my great grandmother’s Ukrainian village, did it know? Did it see Lincoln’s assassination, and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama? Did it see the last dinosaur gasp its final breath? These were questions of existence— not science— and they left me unmoored.
So instead of looking up, I began to look down, and pick up the stones around my feet. These, I could touch: the smooth and the round, flattened by time. I could hold centuries in my hand as I went about my business on the school bus, in the school yard, in my bed. I often fell asleep gripping them, and I would awaken the next morning with their chill on my cheek. They stabilized me; they regulated my breathing. They reminded me of impermanence, and that nothing stays. Not bullying, not physical violence, not my mother’s rages, not the Brylcreemed boys’ school teacher in my Queens apartment building who had taken a shine to me. In moments of prepubescent despair, when my brain and body cleaved in two and I needed to be grounded like a hot wire, stones were my tether to the Earth, and the knowledge that nothing stays the same. Ever.
This is of the Earth, and Earth is time, and time will pass.
This will pass. This will pass.
There is a bowl of stones on my bedside table, so that when I reach out in the night, it’s them that I find, and not my phone. There’s a bowl of stones on my writing desk in my office, and one on the bookcase where I keep volumes of poetry. Because I still need the tether, and the knowledge that nothing— not my mother’s early-stage dementia and mental illness, not the long-haul Covid I’ve lived with for two years, not the news, not my past as a survivor— stays the same; everything gets metabolized through the passage of time. And of course, the passage of time implies forward movement. Progression. No one ever talks about it going in reverse. Regression. But the law of movement is that it happens in both directions. Although we choose not to recognize this fact— Arthur C. Clarke made a career of scaring his readers witless with time travel— it happens all around us: look at Iran in 1979. Look at voter suppression in Georgia. Regression happens in the blink of an eye.
In 1974, when I was 11 years old, I began to bleed.
It would have been early for any girl. But my mother had started early, and instead of inheriting her metabolism or her height, I inherited this particular genetic trait: that given the right conditions, I could carry a child while still a child. I could become a mother. At 11. And the right conditions did exist, every Monday and Wednesday afternoon for years, when I was being tutored in the math I was atrocious at, by the Brylcreemed boys’ school teacher who lived downstairs on the sixth floor. I easily could have been the girl who showed up at school— fifth grade— looking a little heavier with every passing month until, at the end of the school year, I spontaneously disappeared. It was little more than luck that this didn’t happen to me. That at 11, I somehow, miraculously, did not become pregnant by the Brylcreemed boys’ school teacher who lived downstairs. If this happens to an 11-year-old girl today— and it will— she will be forced to carry the fetus; she will be forced to become a mother, or she will be incarcerated.
If this happens to an 11-year-old girl today— and it will— she will be forced to carry the fetus; she will be forced to become a mother, or she will be incarcerated.
What will tether this young girl to the Earth? What stones and stars will assure her that time passes, that nothing stays, that everything around her is impermanent? That monsters eventually are destroyed? That the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice? What will tether her to the knowledge that, for however long it takes, women will take up the fight to stop the regression of rights that have caused her, the survivor of sexual abuse, or incest, or rape, to have to become a mother when she should be in a schoolyard playing tag?
What tiny stones will cool her cheek in the night, and assure her that things will change, things will pass, that time does not stand still, that the universe will protect her, and honor her autonomy over her own body, and keep her safe?
This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.