Honorable Mention: Response to Amy Hempel
Response to Amy Hempel
Response to Amy Hempel, who wrote in Reasons to Live: “My heart, I thought it stopped. So I got in my car, and I headed for God.”
I ended up in Maine. Didn’t find God there, but I could hear him. The ocean is so loud in Maine ’cause the beaches are all rocks. I would’ve ended up different if I had grown up here. I read once that snakes grow only as big as their cage. I wonder what I would’ve been like, if I grew up out here reckless, ‘stead of in a city where the houses sit on top of each other like soda cans. Everything is bigger in Maine. The trees, the cliffs, the sky like a crocodile jaw that won’t stop opening, stars glinting like teeth. I swear you have to believe me, they got more sky up here than we do down South. But the loneliness in Maine—the loneliness in Maine is the biggest thing of all.
I thought I’d breathe better up North but I forgot about the lumber mills churning out paper. You’d think cut-down trees would smell kind of like cut grass, but instead they smell like something’s dying. It makes you feel all unsettled, like you realize the trees can feel it.
So I started talking to ’em, cause I knew I’d feel real lousy if I could smell my loved ones dying like that, slow and painful-like without any regard for their life, ’cause now it’s a paycheck. I’d go up to the oak tree at the park and sit and just ask how his day was going, and if he likes the winter or if it’s hard to hold up so much water. People would sometimes look at me crazy, but I’d tell them my heart had stopped and they’d leave me alone. That’s how you know it’s different up here too. Back home, you say your heart stopped and they’d take you to their house and feed you, ’cause it doesn’t matter how hard things get, food and love is what we got. But they didn’t say nothing, just pulled their kids away by their hands, and I’d talk to the trees and sit patient in case they were trying to talk back. And sometimes I’d sing to them off-key, or dance with them kinda slow, but I couldn’t move around a lot, on account of my heart. I knew it really was stopped this time ’cause I used to be able to hear it, like a violin, like dark chocolate, just that smooth velvet texture of sound. But now sometimes I’ll hear it stutter stop, like a printer jam. And just like a printer it never worked right to begin with. Started breaking right out the box.
I read once that nervous systems evolved twice, separately. That we got ours, but also there are comb jellies, the oldest animals alive, with nervous systems older than sponges. Sometimes that makes me calm down ’bout all this heart business, ’cause maybe if I talk to the comb jellies they can tell me how they did it. I need rewiring. I was studying electricity for a long time ’cause I wanted to learn how. I thought that was what was wrong with me, at first. That all the whose-its and whats-its and little parts just didn’t pass the spark back and forth right. But then I met Jay and I knew something different was wrong, ’cause I loved her and I shouldn’t have, and it had nothing to do with the mechanics; it had to do with the inside. It’s been wrong my whole life, I always felt like someone could pull my nerves straight down my hands if they tried. When I was a kid I tried to explain it to any adult that would listen to me. That my nerves were too close to the surface. They said it was anxiety, but it’s not anxiety. I know anxiety, and it’s like a hum. This is like a bracing. I can feel all my nerves and they’re just bundled like tree trunks, praying not to be lumberjacked down. Praying I could fix it before the wrong person got their hands on me. But they were. And she did.
Xochi Cartland is a latina and queer poet, seamstress, and transformative justice practitioner originally from Silver Spring, Maryland. They have since relocated to Auburn, Maine, where they have deepened their love of trees and learned to bake pretzels.