Today the rain is relentless and so cold here that I’ve turned on the heat though it’s finally spring. The house finches have retreated deep into the opaque arborvitae outside my window.
I’m looking at my dog. She is burrowed into her blanket, sunk into the depression she’s made in the thick chair cushion. She knows this moment.
Unlike me, I don’t believe she’s thinking about how long this day ahead in the house of rain will be. I don’t think she’s wondering where she will go tomorrow or next summer or how she will feed herself, where she will live.
She naps and wakes and follows me room to room while I straighten the house, then naps some more. This is not to say that I should be like her—no ambition but to fill my stomach and wag my tail at strangers—but I envy her freedom from memories of cold, her ability not to ruminate over the ruins from which her tiny, abandoned, newborn self was rescued, in a garbage dump in the slums outside of San Juan.
Sometimes, the 10-second brain of my little Chihuahua is a gift I envy greatly. As my dear friend, the poet Jane Kenyon once said, sometimes the sound of the dog’s breathing is the only thing keeping me alive. The other thing that keeps me alive is language.
I came to language again, after early childhood, because at nine or 10 years old, I found the ruins of a foundation in the woods behind my house.
I set to work creating a rude fort, making a cave of some brush, using the broken bricks of the long-gone cellar to form crooked pathways through the dense kudzu. I could be alone there.
I came to language because I found a wilted, sodden, coverless book in the rubbish near the fort. It was hefty, many pages still intact—about 500 or more, written solely in verse, an elevated verse from a time decidedly pre-suburban-1960s-New-Jersey.
I had no idea what the book was about but I read it aloud to the dense mayapple and sassafras leaves, the crows and bluejays, because I loved the way it sounded and I loved the title at the top of the right-hand pages:
The Lady of the Lake.
Lilting, tongue-to-the-roof alliteratives, sighing soft-A’s, lines filled with inscrutable battles, leaping stags, hunts, kings, prisons, and castles.
Though Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem had long gone out of fashion by the mid-1900s, I knew nothing of that. I only cared about reading the words aloud, how they made me feel. Lifted, clandestine, somehow important.
I had come to language as a tiny child through the forced memorization of hundreds of chapters of the King James Bible, a task I never minded and even enjoyed, and whose passages still run through my mind almost daily, all those thee’s and thou’s, sometimes fully intact, sometimes only in pieces of phrases, especially at night when trying to sleep, my mind searching for companionship, maybe solace.
And then, pre-adolescent and estranged from the only family I knew, I came to language again in my solitude—in a fortress of my own making with a mysterious book of my own discovery.
I was the child of parents who diligently fed and clothed me, educated me, churched me, and who made me as culturally literate as they could afford, but who also raged at me regularly, out of a need, I presume, to take their own childhood disappointments out on someone who could not fight back. When I finally learned to fight back, verbally, which I did with ferocity by the time I was nine or 10, I took on the role of family scapegoat; the physical repercussions became as frequent as the almost daily verbal and emotional onslaughts.
I was given a nickname—two, in fact—by my parents that to this day I can’t recall without a vague but persistent nausea. My given name is Laurie Hope; they called me, alternately, Hopeless or Helpless, as if it were the most common thing in the world, as if they were calling me Ann or Mary. Not the worst names, but names have enormous power and these were two I unconsciously learned to live up to, struggling throughout the rest of my life with major depression and a severe, difficult-to-overcome sense of victimhood.
By pre-adolescence, I was a bewildered, terrified outcast—often shunned for weeks at a time. Even my sisters understood that to speak to me or treat me well when one or both of my parents were enraged—a type of rage that was as likely to take the form of icy and annihilating silence toward me as obvious anger and physical abuse—was to put their own favor in my parents’ eyes in great jeopardy.
On my ninth birthday, for instance, no one said good morning to me when I appeared for breakfast; no one said “Happy Birthday” to me when I came home from school. When I spoke, I was met with complete silence, as if the entire family’s eardrums had been secretly blasted by dynamite.
When it became clear at dinner that there would be no cake, no candles, nor a present, nor mention at all of my birthday, my most vocal sister bellowed, “Why aren’t we having a birthday for Laurie?” to which she received a cold glare from my mother, a shrug from my father, and then a command to leave the table.
I fled to language—reading it alone in the woods, in my secret fort. Writing it. Of coming to language for healing, decades later I would name my departure from grief a “bright exit” and end my first book with reference to that exit:
There’s a feeling
a sureness of slide
your foot slipping into a sandal
your hand reaching a rock waterside
your grief taken up, palmed and warm
changed from harm
to this necessary
held arrangement of form.
What strikes me now, as an adult well past the age when these childhood incidents should matter is that, at the time, though I grieved horribly and found myself waiting unreasonably each day that summer for the injustice to be made up to me, I nevertheless felt unsurprised by the treatment I’d received.
I reacted with scrupulous passivity. I didn’t mention to my parents that they skipped my birthday and why might they have done that?
None of my three sisters would have put up with my parents shunning them. But I felt embarrassed and somewhat horrified by my sisters’ various displays of entitlement; my sense of pride and my sense of abject fault were always strangely conflated.
It’s sadly baffling that as a child I never brought the subject up. I never found out what my pre-birthday crime had been and, occasionally, when I feel especially injured by life, I think of the excavated feeling in my stomach I carried with me all that long-ago summer—I can still feel it acutely if I allow myself the indulgence.
I’ve survived stage-four cancer, divorce after decades of marriage, and extreme betrayal by people I’ve deeply loved—but none of these traumas feel as painful as my childhood injustices seemed to me at the time.
I suppose it’s a facile truism. We can’t fathom the damage unkindness to a child creates. Nor the universal, overcoming resilience a loveless child can muster. I spent many hours the summer I turned nine with my battered Lady of the Lake. The lines lulled me, soothed my loneliness.
I couldn’t know at the time they were steeping my brain and the rhythms of my body in a rinse of language that gave me, years later, a love of lyric intensity and a narrative place on the page, in the poetry I would come to write, where I could achieve some form of safety.
Laurie Zimmerman is the author of the poetry collection Bright Exit (Quercus Review Press, 2014). A chapbook of her poems, Hidden Branches, was published in 1984 by Carmarthen Oak Press. She has taught English for 27 years at Proctor Academy, Andover, NH.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.