I found this lightening postcard in a place called the Sidewalk Café, in a very small town in eastern Oregon. My friend Elle and I drove out with our dogs to see the Painted Hills—hills, buttes, plateaus striped crimson, deep orange, seafoam green. I don’t really understand it, and this time around (I’ve been here once before) I’ve stopped trying to bend my mind to its science, noticing the changes in light: midday flatlight like so many illuminated fingerprint smudges, the morning’s blue gasp behind some dogwood blooms, a fan of sunset rays over the west hills, the folds of rock and color and texture and biome folding into each other like a body informing my body, reminding it that I can just chill for a minute.
Last night I dreamed about a party in a treehouse. Jenny K— was there. A dance class troupe of girls, we were to partner up, and experiment with sex. I don’t remember whom I partnered with, but I wanted Jenny. A lime-green sweatshirt, a buzzed head. She was already with someone else. I wasn’t queer enough. Leaving the treehouse, a guy asked me for directions for how to get downtown. The sky swelled, a bruised blue around us, as I gave him the directions, but he stared at his map while I spoke, and said something as though he had figured it out himself, left. I guess in both scenarios I felt pretty impotent, powerless.
You first told me about your love of lightening storms when I had collapsed after months of travelling with no destination or return place in mind, landing on an island off the coast of Croatia. My exhaustion and readiness to talk to you rode in on intensely lonely evenings staring out over the stern sapphire of the Adriatic Sea and posting a lot of sunset pix on Instagram. An ex-boyfriend was the first to tell me about this body of water, how he had grown up visiting with his father, and learned to dive there. His father abused him in various ways, but he did teach him how to dive, which became both his livelihood and escape from his father’s design. A month had passed for me in Croatia, and evening lightening storms were frequent—electrons still spastic after sunset and having their last diurnal tantrums. I remember lying on the floor of the apartment, at the top of a stone building with lemon trees in the yard, the window open and the sky turning violet as the yellow-white light bolted across it. I asked: why did you leave? How did it feel? Did you regret it? Did you hurt my mother? Did you think of me? What kind of impact do you imagine that had on me? Then, you told me how you never knew your father, how he left you when you were my age when you left me. You grew up trying to take care of your mother, and it was the last thing you would want—to abandon, to cause the same pain that defined you so sharply that you were doomed to repeat it. I guess this is one way the cycle of unresolved trauma works. Though I had been afraid to open the door to these questions, your answers gave me leverage for empathy, ancestral perspective, catharsis. Maybe I won’t be as blind to repeat what’s been repeated to me and before me. Those first few nights, you would say: that’s enough for today, this is hard, and we would hang up.
I named my first dog lightening. She was jet black, and the first night we had her, there was a big storm. You were long gone by then. I lay with my mom, the sky convulsing out the window above the bed. I love lightening like impulse and adventure. Like, pierce my face the day I desire it, pack a bag and leave the country, dive deep into a strange sea, trust that I’ll figure out some savings later, later. I get all this from you, who left to work on boats and travel. I leave my mother, like you, again, for a life she doesn’t understand, but who knows if I would have survived without her stability, if my love for lightening could express itself without the solid ground she offered.
It is comforting and like a human magic to know there’s a blood connection for my lightening love. I’ll never forget what you told me about your dad: that guy who left you to be a poet and diver on Oahu, island of his and your birth, as I sat on that Croatian island, diving in my third season and decades into writing, poetry mostly—callings no one in my known family had also followed—and I was calling you, forgiving you, taking you back, taking us back, even if only for some talks, a couple of visits, with whatever time we have left in this life to create the narrative rather than live under it. After most of my young life fighting to preserve aspects of myself—my desire to live in faraway places, learn new languages, write, be queer, resist any hegemonic structures’ instruction when possible—suddenly this lightening in me made more sense on a material level.
I wouldn’t change the order of these events, and what didn’t happen with you. This gave me struggle to build strength against—to fight for and know who I am, and to believe in finding spirit-family in the world. My queer families, writing and art families, activist families, travel families. Your absence gave me a huge expanse of mystery and wonder to write into, along with a chance to work on forgiveness and commitment—two themes I may need a few more years or lifetimes to consider. This letter has no way of ending, but I wanted to say something today about the lightening, as I’m about to leave this café and step out into some spring hail.
I love you.
Featured Image Credit: Milena Lah (1930-2003)
Sara Sutter lives in Portland, Oregon. She teaches writing, literature, and language classes online and in various schools. Sara’s poetry, essays, and reviews appear in Fence Magazine, The Hollins Critic, The Awl; her chapbooks include O to Be a Dragon (Finishing Line Press 2016) and Sirenomelia (Poor Claudia 2013). She is currently at work on a collection of essays about trauma, transformation, and voice. Find more at: sarasutterpoetry.com