|Alas, poor cactus. I knew him well.|
Was there ever a more dad thing to say? Yes, he’s got my chemo-compromised immune system in mind, but if parents could have their way, their children would never suffer. Of course, that means they would never exist. One of the writers at the event said: “2012 was a hard year for me. I lost my job. I lost a really close friend. When I think about my life, it’s like this—” She made a roller coaster motion with her hand. “But then there’s poetry—” She made a straight line. “It’s this constant.”
Yes. Not just poetry, but yes. Writing. I’m so alert to the dangers of romanticizing the artistic life that I sometimes forget its power. Then I get in a room full of writers—vets or amateurs or in between—and I respond to something that kicks my ass just a little bit, and I am redeemed all over again.
One of Sunday’s prompts was: You are the ghost that haunts the first house you lived in. What message do you have to deliver to the child-you? How do you deliver it?
When I was a kid, and very interested in ghosts, my parents told me that our block had been a cactus nursery before it became a housing tract. For better or worse, the only souls likely to haunt our house were those of plants. So here’s what I wrote.
What I want to tell you is: Life is prickly. I know it’s easy to forget, here on this cul de sac, among the olive trees and toppled bicycles. My spines lay beneath the dirt on the turnaround island. You and the other children gather eucalyptus pods, make tiny utopian villages, keep watch for the neighborhood curmudgeon, who thinks he owns this place. He does not. No more than I do, no more than you.
You yelp, a ruby of blood appears on your fingertip. You frown as if something is amiss; as if this is the anomaly, not the wide lawns, not the electrical wires your father campaigned to have buried beneath the sidewalk. They crackle there, lightning in dirt. They electrify my fellow ancients, the wooden skeletons of cacti, skulls of mice.
An adult is summoned, reassurances murmured: It’s okay. It’s not your fault. This block used to be a cactus farm.
If I could open my succulent mouth, I would say: It’s not okay. The murmuring adult is haunted, was haunted before she moved here. Her DNA looks like a cactus skeleton and will not hold the cancer at bay. Neither will yours.
There is a spray that kills microorganisms. There is a bandage the color of sand. These things separate inside and outside, and when the fog rolls in at night, no one will believe there is such a thing as desert. No one will know that my spines have spines, that they are already in your blood, navigating your dark veins like a river.