The following fragments were written on December 9, 2018. I have no idea what they might become.
Where Elysian Fields Avenue meets Highway 59 is a house that has haunted my dreams since I was a teenager.
It is the last one standing, so to speak, a house that reflects the long gone “Sunny South,” a neighborhood bulldozed by the unavoidable change that progress requires.
It is a traumatized house. But it is stubborn in its tenacity. It is tired, but it has somehow endured. It has been mistreated. It has been resented. It has been abandoned and neglected. It has carried generations of pain. Secrets. Disappointment. Heartbreak. Fear. Other people’s problems. Yet it stands, despite looking as though it just wants to collapse.
This morning, I stopped by my great-grandfather’s house to harvest leaves for mashkiki, but I wasn’t prepared for what I’d discover:
Ed had died eighteen years ago. I was there at the foot of his hospital bed right before he slipped away, as he reached up toward the ceiling for the hand of some invisible presence that no one else in the room could see. I’ll never forget it, how I cried, not entirely out of sadness, but in part due to my complete awe of the uncanny and its beauty.
Today, when I stood in front of the bare bones of Ed’s old house, I was propelled back to the same feeling I felt at his death bed—that I had unknowingly stumbled into some liminal space where the veil between what I knew, and what I didn’t, was incredibly thin.
Mashkiki means medicine, literally defined by some ancient ancestor as “the strength of the earth,” and for the next four days I planned to bathe in it, drink it, and burn it to exorcize my past and all the pasts I’d inherited.
I came to know the gifts of Eastern Red Cedar (also known as Juniper) a year ago as any true medicine person does, through intuition—that still, quiet voice within that whispers what’s sacred.
When I drove into the last driveway on Elysian Fields Avenue, what I saw took my breath away.
I knew the house was being remodeled—my aunt and uncle had recently purchased it from the child and grandchildren who’d inherited its meager worth—but its gutted frame was still a shock to my soul.
Most of the windows had been removed, and later I found them stacked on top of each other in a commercial dumpster that dominated the front yard.
I got out of the car and approached the house very slowly, tip-toeing on the rain-soaked soil to each windowless cut-out, peering inside to marvel at the emptiness of something I’d only ever known to be full.
The house had always felt small, claustrophobic even, but then, seeing the vastness of its hidden design and the illusions of space removed, I realized how big it really was.
Ed had built this house with his own hands, and when I looked up to behold the rafters of the exposed roof, for the first time his creation felt somewhat holy.
It was unusual to feel afraid to go inside.
The house looked foreign and I feared that I’d appear a trespasser to some passerby, but I was able to put this newfound trepidation aside and climb through the hole in the bedroom where I used to sleep.
Light sockets hung wildly from wires, everywhere. There were no walls, just wood beams supporting the roof, and the entire house could be seen right from where I stood. It had completely been hollowed out, save the tub and toilet where the bathroom used to be; the sink and cabinets where the kitchen once was; my sister’s upright Wurlitzer wrapped in plastic and duct tape in the ex-dining room; a perfect pile of trash and leaves sculpturally juxtaposed next to an antique Singer sewing machine ; a dejected portion of the bathroom’s vanity; and what looked to be the first layer of wallpaper to ever have graced the walls.
Not only had my grandmother and my mother been raised in this house, but from age thirteen to eighteen, so had I.
In 1998, my childhood home on Pocono Street was foreclosed on, and my mother and I had to move in with my great-grandfather. At that time, Ed was in his nineties, and my great-grandmother had died from Parkinson’s disease a few years prior.
Going in, we looked at it as a temporary move. But my mother would go on to live in the house for almost 20 years, moving out just last year, having let it deteriorate to unlivable conditions.
My mother and I coped with homelessness differently. She hoarded. I remained untethered.
For her, it began with piles of mail and notebooks filled with manic Bible-related insights. It became clothes, shoes, books, and boxes. Broken TVs never repaired or replaced, but stacked on top of each other. And ’til this very day, there is a storage unit filled with the outdated and damaged belongings that once filled our old house.
For me, it began with a restlessness that left me feeling ever unsatisfied. Unsafe. And it has kept me constantly on the move from city to city, apartment to apartment, bed to bed, looking for somewhere I wouldn’t want to leave.
In my entire adult life, I’ve rarely owned more than what could fit into a suitcase, or even a backpack, at times. And when I have owned more than a vagabond’s lot, it was with little to no attachment, and I was always prepared to leave and let go without hesitation.
Who were the first absent parents, unwanted children, emotionally abused and poverty-stricken in my bloodline?
I’ll never know exactly where our ancient grief began, or when its cohorts abandonment and neglect came along for the ride, but they’re all still very present and stronger than ever, it seems.
We all deal with the family curse in our own ways. I mostly try to resolve it while asleep.
I used to have recurring dreams of either being in my childhood home or in my great-grandfather’s house when strangers would break in, or they’d stand outside the front door trying to convince me to let them in.
I didn’t cry or anything, but it was one of those moments when maybe someone would. I realized that this house, that had once mirrored my psyche in the dream state, now did so in waking life.
When I took photos of the house today, I felt seen.
I felt less alone, less scared, less worried, even if only momentarily so, and I felt supported by something unseen that has helped me discover what I didn’t realize I was even looking for: real peace—the kind that can only be found in uncertainty and the unknown.
My life has become unlivable.
Today I was encouraged to allow the last few dregs of my person to painlessly fall away. But there’s still that nagging question of what will resurrect in its place? I don’t know. But this house wants to encompass new things. And I do too.
It is a law of nature that death precedes rebirth. So here we are, both slouching towards the end of us.
In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields are a plane of existence in the after-life reserved for the souls of the most heroic and virtuous individuals.
Excuse my boldness, but I believe that I may soon count myself as one among them.