Month: August 2022

The Crossing

Image of Gulf of Mexico/Gasparilla Island July 2022 by author

The Crossing

For some weeks, I would lie alone in the quiet night, imagining what it would be to take all my walls down. So long they had been up, so tall, broad and strong. Brutal and jagged, as thick as the Berlin Wall. I’d seen a piece of the wall, put up in the center of the Chapman campus like a hideous sculpture. It’s not far from Adam Smith’s bronze head.

Students pass by this monument every day and don’t know what the ugly sculpture is, just as they do not know Adam Smith. It’s a tall hunk of dirty white concrete topped with twisted rebar, splattered with graffiti, some written in foreign tongues, most written in no language save agony.

As Temple Grandin sees her life as a series of doors that she opens and walks through, so too have I seen my life as a series of bridges. One crossed with a path to follow, and then another, and another, and another.

And this bridge, the highest, like looking down from the Golden Gate Bridge to the chill gray water below. The drop is some 270 feet, 27 storeys. Of the 2,000 people who’ve jumped off the bridge since it was built, only 33 have survived, and of those, only a handful have recovered from their injuries.

One of the survivors said, “the second my hands and feet left the rail I realized I had made a mistake, I realized how much I needed to live, or didn’t want to die.”

For me, it is not to jump off the bridge, it is to cross it without falling.

And I am so afraid.

Once when I was young, my grandmother was in a rare contemplative mood and wished to tell me of the days before my mother died. She often spoke of driving to Los Angeles from Redlands each day to see her. Well now I know such trips; when I was young I could not imagine them. But I was eager for any word about my mother.

Nana said she went in one day to find my mother out of bed and lying on the floor beside the window, unable to stand.

I immediately saw her, slim, pale arms and legs tangled, fingers reaching for the sunlight.

“I was dreaming, mother,” she said. “I dreamt I saw the most beautiful color, and I was trying to reach it. But I fell.”

I asked what the color was, though I already knew. I had dreamt of this color my entire life.

Before I could really write, I wrote about it. I told all of our stories mixed into one. Nana pointed out the old copper pot on the patio, and its patina. That was the color. It was, it is, the color of time.

These newborn eyes, the color of old copper pots which have been left in the sun. The color of a nugget of turquoise taken straight from the earth, of the sea off Laguna at sunset, of what you are moving toward, of what will be as well as what was. Your eyes. Your child’s eyes. Your mother’s eyes. Shot with time’s arrow, melted, forged into a pot.

To say that this is my favorite color is to say that I like to breathe air. It is as much a part of me as my blood, the muscles in my legs, my fingers.

I think often of the choice my mother made. I would have made the same choice. Rather than grasp for a few more miserable sick months, just let go. Give my life to my baby.

That baby was me.

I did make the same choice as was given to me and would make it ten thousand times over. But I had no real risk to my life, and instead it was the baby’s life that was taken. In terms of his eyes, they were blue. So blue.

Grief is like biting into a crab apple, over and over. Regret is a bittersweet orange bad at the heart. Loneliness the comfort of a rotten, threadbare sheet.

And how I have loved such things. My daily bread and meat. They have the comfortable familiarity of Poe lifting Virginia’s dusty white bones from her grave, gathering the bone and mold and death in a mad embrace.

And ahead, I see the color of time.

Yet I remain fearful to leave these things behind. Reluctant to cross the bridge and step into the clear blue sky. I do not wish to fall. But around me, the bridge is crumbling. The walls are cracked.

I must cross now; I have no real choice.

If I stay on the bridge, I will surely fall, and if I go back, behind the walls, I will die.

For some weeks I have been feeling the world around me more than I feel myself. First, while swimming, I felt the water about my body more than I did myself, and for the first time, swam with it. I went fast. Then walking with Gambit, his eager body pulling forth, I felt the world about my face and arms and hands, the warm sun on my cheeks.

Dancing on the patio after Jay Lake died, I said a prayer for his soul and felt the world about my hands, and I let it lift them, then felt it holding my muscles as I danced to the music of the air. The wind rushed through the trees. A bird sang, and then took flight.

Then came a bear, his black eyes flashing. A buck chasing a doe through the forest. A doe and her fawn eating calmly, no fear at all.

The sun on a high mountain rock, above the world and all its cares.

Gently, the sun touches my face, my shoulders, my back, my belly, my breasts. I am as God made me.

I already know that I will never truly live if I do not cross these steps. If I do not take his hand, if I do not truly kiss his lips, feel his blood rushing, feel his heart beating, feel his love through his hands. If I do not let this thing happen, if I do not let him feel me –

I will be ashes, clay, dust, mold, bones in a grave.

And like all things we think to be so difficult at first, the doing is as easy as slipping into warm water.

I slip from my skin into his, and he into mine.

We are the buck and the doe. We are one under the crystal blue sky. The sun is like fire; our shadows meet. My breasts reach up to meet his hungry lips.

We are as beautiful as the buck and doe. The forest is alive, and so are we. This savage black image, raw as hell, naked on the flat gray rock, is who we are.

I have crossed the great divide and have not fallen; he fell a short way, but got up again.

Yes, I have been afraid. I have shivered alone in the cold night.

But now I am warm and unafraid.

And on my finger, because we are people, and people make such things and do such things to remind themselves of eternal truth, things of which the buck and doe and bear have no need, for they never forget how to live, I wear a stone that is, improbably, impossibly, inevitably — the perfect, exact color of time.

Uhura is Brightening Another Galaxy

Like so many other people, I was saddened to hear that Nichelle Nichols, one of the most positive, beloved actors I can think of, had died.

I’ve already written about how I had the privilege and honor of visiting for a short time with three “Ladies of Star Trek,” including my childhood idol and role model, Nichelle Nichols/“Lt. Uhura” from the original Star Trek series.

Idols and role models aren’t always the same thing. For a time when I was in elementary school, I would come home from school and watch Star Trek before heading to softball practice, doing yard chores, or pretending I was a wilderness explorer. Most people would have said I was a tomboy, but I liked my Barbie dolls a lot — when I wasn’t operating on them to see how their legs worked.

I’m sitting here, tears streaming down my cheeks remembering how I would model my posture gracefully after Uhura’s motions.

How I wanted beautiful nails like hers. Shining brown eyes, a soft yet strong voice, beautiful hair.

I wanted to be confident, sophisticated, strong, and wise: like Uhura.

I just loved her so much.

It never crossed my 10-year-old mind that I wasn’t supposed to idolize Nichelle Nichols and Uhura this way because she was Black.

And I was Caucasian.

Years later, I read how Nichelle had wanted to quit Star Trek to pursue other performing opportunities, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told her that her role was too important, and that she needed to continue. She agreed, and Lt. Uhura went on to be a role model for countless others.

I’ve written before about how when many noted women die, their obituaries refer primarily to their external appearance or their marital status. In Nichelle’s case, she was such an elegant and flawless performer, and her influence was so great, that most of her obituaries are more respectful, in-depth, and detailed.

But they still focus only on her status, similar to Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball, as the first Black American to take a leading role in an endeavor formerly restricted only to “white” Americans. Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek was the first leading role in a U.S. television series for a Black American woman. Also at this time, Bill Cosby was on TV in his own show, after starring in I Spy. 

When I was young, the almost all-white television experience of the 1950s and early 1960s was changing. Today, the official reports and obituaries about Nichelle emphasize her historic role.

But the thing is, Nichelle was a gifted performer, not just on television, but also theater, as a dancer and singer.

Because she was Black and breaking these barriers, Nichelle got so much more attention than others. The picture above also shows the basketweave blonde hair of Grace Whitney, Yeoman Janice Rand on the original Star Trek. This young blonde woman also starred in a few episodes, but I didn’t idolize her. She was just like many other blonde actresses of the day— I was even the flower girl in Susan Anton’s wedding. I had seen and been around more than a few blonde, blue-eyed female entertainers.

It’s true: just because she was Black, Nichelle Nichols drew attention.

But the inner spirit of Nichelle Nichols — her wonderful heart and soul — gave her performances their unique, spellbinding quality and kept everyone’s attention.

There is a great difficulty on the part of more privileged people to understand what it is that others who are less-privileged experience and feel.

Yes, I think I am a little bit fortunate in that it’s not as difficult for me to put myself in others’ shoes as it seems to be for so many others.

See, I’m a writer. I didn’t like this statement above when I first saw it. The statement implies that it was impossible for a Black woman to star on a network TV show, or for women in general to be part of the space program. None of those things were ever impossible: racist people were just blocking people from participating.

But now when I see it again? I guess I do find the statement acceptable, if not fully reflective of who Nichelle really was. Nichelle Nichols was so much more than just the first Black American woman to star in a national television show. She was so much more than a woman who spoke with young people and inspired them to join the U.S. space program.

That long-ago day when I had one of my only decent book signings and the “Ladies of Star Trek” were sitting nearby —

Nichelle is the one who saw me sitting alone with no people coming for autographs, and stood and gestured for me to come over and talk with them. If she hadn’t, I would never had experienced those treasured moments with her, Grace Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand), and Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi).

I only spent a few minutes with them but I could feel her life force, and it was an entirely beautiful one.

That life force came across in all of her roles, not just as Uhura on Star Trek.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural admiration, not appropriation.

As an adult, I can understand how Nichelle felt when she wanted to move on from Star Trek for her own career, and how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to continue — and she agreed. At the time, as a child, I didn’t have the context to understand why Uhura’s role was so important, and why he would have made that request.

As a selfish young child, I would just have wanted my favorite actress to continue to play my favorite part on one of my favorite shows.

And, I watched Star Trek reruns, like countless millions of others. It wasn’t just the original Star Trek show airing at night, which my cousins were old enough to stay up to watch, but I wasn’t.

I think Nichelle Nichols influenced millions of other young women (and men) not as a figurehead or a ground-breaker but because of how unique and beautiful an individual she was.

Poised, elegant, strong, wise, beautiful, resourceful, self-confident.

Who wouldn’t want to grow up to be someone like that?

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