For my contribution to the column this month, I am including a lyric essay I wrote recently. I’m printing it here because it explores how having a parent with a psychotic illness infused a sense of strangeness and also a peculiar kind of beauty into my understanding of the whole world.
Strange Things I Have Encountered
The pattern I saw as a small child when I closed my eyes: concentric ovals in purple, red, and electric blue, with the oval rings vibrating around a few dots in the center, which vibrated too.
The sound of my mother sitting on a sofa in our quiet house late in the evening, rhythmically grinding her teeth.
A halibut’s migrating eye after it has worked its way around to the other side of its head, where it is not quite aligned with the rest of the face.
The ash that fell from the sky and coated Anchorage in gray dust, a few days after Mount St. Augustine erupted. It was as quiet as winter, but it made you feel uncomfortable and bleak when you looked outside.
The map of the world that my brother hung upside down on his bedroom wall. “There’s no up or down in space,” he said.
The note I found on my mother’s desk, written by an administrator for the British Royal Family, thanking her for her letter but assuring her that she was not the Duchess of Kent.
Once I caught a high fever and spent a day talking to the walls, which bowed outward from the corners of the room.
A lichen-covered human skull lying in a weathered coffin on an expanse of tundra. It had been pushed up out of the frozen ground.
The balls of aluminum foil that my mother wadded onto the ends of our television antennae, to protect us from radiation. That she would decide that foil could solve the problem, but not, say, rubber or Styrofoam.
A spider called a scorpion eater.
A young woman in Morocco with a tattoo on her face in the design of her tribe. When I asked her, with gestures, how it had been done, she pulled a safety pin out of a drawer and held it up.
The fancy plate of Asian glass noodles that my brother ordered at a restaurant in Hawaii. When it came, my mother said it looked like worms and wouldn’t let him eat it. They argued about it for ten minutes before she made the waiter take the noodles back.
The crowd watching a parade that you are in. As you walk along, it feels like they’re the parade.
A homeless man in Santa Fe who had a rat he had trained to lie on top of a cat, which calmly curled up on top of a dog. They would remain that way for hours. The man said he was spreading the message of world peace.
For a while my mother wore bandannas over her face, bandit-style, every time she was in the kitchen. The practice evolved to include a second bandanna over her forehead, so only her eyes were visible through the gap in the fabric.
That some questions in this world come with answers, and some do not.
Discovering that when your heart breaks there is an actual physical pain in your chest that feels precisely like that. And all this time nobody told you that this is where the saying comes from.
The bullet I found one morning, the metal all crumpled and unrecognizable, after it burst through my roommate’s window and then the sheetrock wall of my closet while we slept, to land on the floor beside my head.
My dog, stuck in a tree.
The miniature rubber bands my mother stretched across her teeth for a few months, as homemade orthodontic appliances. She refused to go to a dentist. I winced somewhere inside every time she smiled.
The glowing end of a cigarette thrown from the window of a car in front of you at night, and the orange light bounces on the pavement a few times.
When a forest fire fills the air with smoke, and the sun glows large and red and quivers like the end of the world.
The swath of scar tissue the size of my hand on my boyfriend’s shoulder. I have never looked at it closely, because it is too painful to take in all the details of such an injury to someone I love.
The months when my mother didn’t seem to eat anything at all except cheddar cheese and green onions. She would stand in the kitchen over a cutting board and take a bite of one, then the other.
The sheer volume of unanswered questions we carry with us always.
When a man said to me, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and I saw that he was lying, and I realized that nobody ever says that unless they know exactly what you’re talking about.
In winter when the coldest air sinks to the bottom of the valley, so that on extremely cold days it is much warmer partway up the mountainsides than down where the houses are.
The time I got angry at my mother for buying ice cream while I was trying to diet, and I put the carton in the sink and turned on the hot water over it. And as my mother reached to turn off the faucet she said, “Don’t be strange.”
A ring of fungus that invaded my forearm for a while. When I imagined all the microscopic threads growing and eating into my skin, I felt violated and frantic.
That songbirds pull their feathers out, leaving bare spots around the neck and shoulders, when they are constantly afraid.
An elderly woman on a Manhattan sidewalk eating raw pork. She looked at me with unfamiliar eyes and a slab of meat hanging from her mouth, and I knew she was not sane, and I thought of my mother.
When a sharp object presses into you but doesn’t cut you, and your skin bulges around it and forms a crease at the point of contact.
Eclipses of my mind, which happen in times of extreme stress. I am walking and then I am falling. But I’m not falling. I have gone black for a fraction of a second, and in that time I lost my sense of my position in space. Then I become afraid that at any moment I will pass out and fall.
My mother asked me, “Do you ever hear people calling out to you, but you can’t tell who it is?” I was young—maybe twelve.
“What do you mean?” I asked her. “Like when somebody kicks a rock and it sounds like a voice?” I knew I was reaching. I did not say, “The voices you hear aren’t real.” I had a feeling that by the force of my will I could bend this moment into something else. “Like the wind blows,” I continued, “and it sounds like your name?”
“No,” she said softly. “No not like that.”
Standing very close to the edge of the high cliffs at Canyon de Chelly. You are perfectly safe, but death is one step away. It is strange that some people find this terrifying while others are not scared by it at all.
A runaway horse cantering through traffic on Cathedral Parkway, with three police cars and two mounted riders chasing after it. The riders were both women with long dreadlocks that left wave-shaped memory traces on the air when they passed. It was beautiful and incomprehensible and then it was gone.