Earth and Ether: A Memoir
“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou. Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”
When I was four I discovered a magical land under my deck. I would trace secret codes onto the wooden panels and jump and boom I was underground, charmed by the subterranean train conductors singing Southern folk songs, and rabbits too.
The land was unpredictable, for it’s also where I found the “oh my” monsters – green blobs resembling the Grinch that chased me yelling “Oh My!” with their gaping, drooling mouths. They disguised themselves as animals and farmers and aliens and pounced to eat me once underground without witnesses.
After these encounters, I’d look for my parents, but just as I resolved to do so, my house became an obstacle course of rocks and rivers and no boats.
The worst was when my parents were giants, and not the big friendly kind. They used my bed as a table, drinking magic potions, telling grown-up jokes.
The most horrid was the horned gremlin, my mother, but the more I ran away from her the more I ran into her.
Thus began my transition from tunneling to flying, from land to sky, from monsters that lurked under my bed to those that towered above my head.
I’ve spent my life losing and regaining teeth.
And cats. Mine have died more than nine times, but each time they’re alive again my heart skips a beat.
I have encountered the supernatural; I have been the supernatural. I’ve lived long past my own death. Mary Poppins flew me up to heaven on her umbrella, and I’m still trying to figure out if I’m writing from a cloud or if I have returned to the deep earth I discovered as a child.
When I talk to animals, they are fluent in English — some well versed in philosophy.
“Those who believe in free will have no way to reconcile purpose and destiny,” the tortoise said.
I’ve had a penis on and off for many years but never notice when it materializes and disappears.
As my aunt drove me downtown, she explained that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius had destroyed most of Rhode Island and it had to be rebuilt, but this one area was preserved from ancient times. The buildings looked like limestone.
Every time I have a new boyfriend, my father dies. But they all shape-shift so habitually I’ve stopped recognizing who is who or which brain goes with which body.
I flew to a height so magnificent that when I looked down I saw a live map.
I’ve also been a nudist on and off.
When I was ten I got stuck in a clock, thinking 60 seconds had passed after one revolution – only to realize I was on the minute hand. My parents showed disconcerting signs of aging, and I became a teenager overnight.
My mom made no pretenses about preferring her pet rabbit to me.
My exams get progressively harder; the last required painting and sculpting famous masterpieces without even a photograph for reference.
The rabbit fancied Shakespeare, and the grocery store lacked variety.
It wasn’t until my twenties that I learned how to fly. It wasn’t freeing like you would expect. Flapping my arms strenuously to stay off the ground, I was always flying away from something scary. The motion was like swimming the breaststroke, trying to stay at the water’s surface. I’d rise above the heads of my attackers and sink.
The ship landed in southern California.
I can only read stories in my head. When I look down at a page, it’s impossibly blurry.
I looked around and tears came to my eyes.
I narrowly escaped a sexual exhibitionist in my bathtub. Except we were in an antique shop, and then he was a little kid and I a babysitter, and then I was walking him on a leash, and then he was a toy poodle.
The trees! The sky! The redwood forest! The enchanted zoo!
I exist on and off.
This was not a city; it was a prophecy.
Every toilet I encounter is in public, but if I really have to go I still use it.
Sometimes there is no me or I, just musical mosaics or an entanglement of strings yelling, “it’s falling apart!” or an image of a girl with my brother’s face.
I headed home with flying skis on my feet and sadness in my heart.
Sometimes there’s an “I,” but sometimes it’s a Hindu goddess and sometimes it’s a hero who saved a bunch of puppies from my office’s basement and sometimes it’s a piece of fruit about to get eaten.
Why do we reduce these to one letter?
I met Benjamin Beatrice Fish Freak when I had stones stuck in my knees.
There’s an ice cream shop on the beach by my house that never carries the flavor I want. I keep going back expecting that eventually it will.
To this day, I have never eaten ice cream.
And then there were the moments in between, between the east coast and other lands and seas, but I don’t remember them mostly, and if I tried to relate them to you they probably wouldn’t make sense.
Once upon a time, when bananas were berries and oxen were amphibians, watermelons overflowed the ocean.