The Shunned Woman’s Dictionary
Pause v. I must be terribly important, I think, to have ruptured something sacred. That’s the most flattering explanation I can give myself. It might be the only one I can live with. The day he shut me out, I ached for explanations. My brain rehashed everything, even the lonesome thought that what we had was sacred at all. Silence and confusion will do this to a person, but I trust language will save me from loss. Language is always on duty. It’s a painstaking fidelity.
Recollection n. I waited for him by the neighborhood church. This was where we met for our weekly walks. He lived in a rose-colored bungalow six blocks south of me. We were college friends. I loved him for his smarts and sense of humor. His moods excited me. I’d lose myself in his inconsistencies. He thought he had a “bad brain”, but I didn’t see it that way. I loved listening to him. He fed that open ear inside of me.
He was different that day, but I didn’t want to see it. He didn’t meet my gaze. His silence made me antsy. I babbled as we walked. Then he stopped and told me we could no longer be friends. I laughed. His words were senseless, a playground brutality. I saw he was serious, and I entered a primal confusion. I felt a blow to the chest and a belly-up desire to please. I willed my lips to find the right words, but there were none.
He left me on the sidewalk a few blocks from the church. I stood before houses I’d passed many times but did not recognize. I walked back to my apartment and tried to calm myself down. He’ll struggle with connection for all his life, I thought with a morose satisfaction, every encounter a blurred reflection of his last. I got no sleep that night.
Reason n./v. Weeks later I reason he isn’t worth losing my job or my friends or even the morning rituals that make me feel at home in my body. But his roots are under my skin.
Streng Meidung n. When I was a child, my dad and I visited an Amish community in Maine. We watched men in felt hats cut ice from a pond with their chainsaws. The ice dripped braids of water as the horse and buggy hauled them away. Dad shook his head and whistled in wonder. I shook my head and tried to whistle too. A faint sound left me and skimmed across the flat snowfields.
The Market was lit with propane lights. Damp wood hissed in the stove. An Amish man and his daughter ran the store. He showed us a beautiful case clock, a handmade coffin on display. “From the cradle to the grave,” was his motto. I got chills. His daughter stared at me with a mirror’s impersonal assessment. She sat in a rocking chair with a doll in her lap. Her buckled feet hovered over the floor. Her gaze, flat and calm, lit my restlessness into being. I told Dad I wanted to leave. He pasted a smile over my rudeness and asked the man if anything was for sale.
He bought me a doll. She was dressed like the girl in the store. She wore a bonnet and clothes fastened with hooks and eyes. She straddled a wax apple. On the ride home, I asked Dad why she had no face. He said the Amish believe only god can create man in his image. I said I liked the Amish but wouldn’t want to live like them for more than a day or two. He laughed and said that would be tricky. That’s when he told me about the shunning.
I stared at my doll while he explained. I dug my nails into the muslin. I wanted to give her a face even if it wasn’t pretty. I thought about Amish men and women playing their part and still getting the silent treatment. I imagined the shunned praying in a patch of moonlight, forbidden to leave and forbidden to stay. I wondered if that was a place I would ever know.
My doll wasn’t a real girl, but I felt sorry for her. The muslin rose beneath my fingers, and my efforts disappeared.
Expectations n. We expect our romances to burn out eventually. We don’t expect our friendships to curl away from the flame. Memories of fathers and faceless dolls don’t heal me. They don’t explain what’s wrong with me either. All I want is to buy my old friend a cup of coffee, to pinpoint where things went wrong. Instead, I hunker into myself like the longest stretch of winter.
The Phoenix n. One day I’m ready to create new worlds. I take a part-time job as a camp counselor. I reconnect with skills I thought lost. I teach children yoga and about energy blockages. I show them how to shoot arrows and row their boats as if the world were burning down. I’m a natural. My friend once said I wasn’t afraid of my gifts. That gilded me.
At night I visit the lake. I curl up on a floating dock and hear the loons sing. I feel wild and unyielding, as if I’d torn through a still life, the bowls of fruit still spinning. The moon spills over the water, and I drink its light out of my hand. I declare rising from the ashes my favorite pastime.
One step forward, two steps back (idiom). I’m not okay with this. I miss him. Summer is over, and my body is a foreign muscle. At camp, I pushed myself until the past fell away. I thought that would help. Now, when I look in the mirror I see a dead beauty. There are golds and waves, but the light in my eyes is gone. The self in this body has lost her fluency. She’s like a high note that shatters glass.
Sehnsucht n. One morning I visit the park. I lean against an oak and toss bread crumbs into the pond. The shadows of leaves stripe the floating houses. The ducks nibble on the bread. They flap their wings and keep going. That’s when I see him. He crosses the balcony bridge, his eyes on his phone. He looks up and sees me below. His stare passes through me. I close my eyes and when I open them, he’s gone. Nothing but strangers on the bridge.
Pine combs tumble from the branches. They hit the ground like hard raindrops. In college, my friend once called late at night and told me he no longer wanted to live. I came over and let him sob into my lap. He said he felt closer to me than anyone he knew. I didn’t tell him he should get help. I didn’t mention that most of the time I don’t care to live either.
I long for that closeness again. Maybe it’s not with him or anyone I know. I take a deep breath, and there’s this sensation I haven’t had in a long time. It’s a yearning I can’t explain. It fills me like spring water, and for once I feel at home. I am happy and confused and marooned in the present. I think of shunning, and the space it carves between madness and heartache. For a moment, I’m afraid this is all I’ll ever know. Then there’s that god-shaped feeling, and I realize there’s nothing else I want in this world.