How Old is This Elephant?

elephantsThis morning, I left the house for a run at 8:06am. I’d checked the time on the stove before heading outside into the rain, leaving my phone for once at home. I ran up the hill to the center of town, then a bit around Amherst College.

Somewhere right around the campus green, I had such a vivid memory of these words: Сколько лет этому слону? That’s Russian for “How old is this elephant?”

The memory wasn’t only of the words themselves, though. It was tied to a moment in the fall of 1990; I’d have been a senior in high school. In addition to this being my fourth year of studying Russian, I was by then taking Spanish classes at Amherst College. I was the youngest of three and the only daughter still living at home, though my middle sister had graduated and gone on to Hampshire College, where our mom was on the dance faculty at the time, so we saw each other here and there — more so than I saw our oldest sister, who’d moved to Southern California.

In the memory, I was walking from the high school over to Amherst College for my Spanish class. I passed by The Black Sheep, a deli and cafe on Main Street, and bumped into my sister there. I’d been practicing the Russian dative case in my head. (Something that was — is still — fun for me. Weird but true.) One phrase in particular was on repeat in my head. I bet you can guess what it was.

That day, the one I remembered out of the blue this morning, I was 16 and high on fall colors and Russian grammar and unattainable crushes and the prospect of finishing high school soon. I was a smoker and a straight-A student. Elephants everywhere. I was probably a good 10-15 pounds underweight by then; that summer would be a low point when it came to swallowing myself whole and the implosion that is bulimia.

A year later, I’d start to emerge; at 18, I’d transfer to Barnard, declare my Russian Studies major, quit smoking (for the first but not even close to the last time), and — this part might be important — proceed to ignore the whole herd of old elephants in the room. Or maybe I started to learn how to coexist with them.

This morning as I ran through that campus — all five feet, one inch, 110 pounds, and 42 years of me — I remembered walking there as a teenager who lost and found myself in foreign languages.

“Hello!” I’d said to my sister at the Black Sheep, feeling grown-up about traipsing to my college class alone in the middle of the school day. I was probably showing off a little for her and her college friends. “How old is this elephant?” I asked, in English first, and then with exaggerated intonation in Russian, just as we’d learned it in class. She laughed and we said hi and then bye and off I went and off she went and that was that. I doubt she remembers this minor encounter.

Why did this question resound in my head this morning, as I ran through that elite swath of green? I wonder. Wondering is one of the reasons I write. Running, too, helps me clear my head, especially when it’s stampeded by elephants. Old, old, ancient elephants. Old as the hills, the grass, the seeds.

I smoked my first cigarette at 13. My brain literally grew up around nicotine; nearly 30 years later, I’m not smoking, but some days still more than others, it’s as if I have to manually peel the clinging ivy of addiction from my sticky brain.

How old is this elephant?

I ran and remembered that moment — me at 16 and my sister at 20 — with a flash of compassion for us both and a mind’s eye glimpse of us today:  sisters still, mothers now, three out of four of our own kids the ages we were then, when…. and so it goes. The generations of elephants lumber and grow. I want to say I’m doing my best, but even that feels too easy somehow, too pithy.

Here’s what it comes to: I miss smoking, and I struggle with the choice not to, almost every day. Not when I’m running — then I feel strong and free and so very glad — but for sure when I’m writing. (Or grabbing a latte in the middle of a busy day. Or irritated for no good reason. Or overwhelmed. Talk about rewiring.) I could light up again in a heartbeat and it wouldn’t be smart — not nearly as smart as conjugating Russian verbs and practicing case endings I learned oh so long ago and barely remember today.

I close my eyes and imagine sitting on a pile of colorful cushions with golden tassels. I open them again and find that I’m right here, writing about memory and elephants, sitting with reality and with how hard it can be, sometimes, to do the right thing. And then doing it anyway.

7 thoughts on “How Old is This Elephant?

  1. daniel says:

    I ran and remembered that moment — me at 16 and my sister at 20 — with a flash of compassion for us both and a mind’s eye glimpse of us today: sisters still, mothers now, three out of four of our own kids the ages we were then, when…. and so it goes.”—–this is pretty wonderful—time passes—maybe that’s why we have to remember (even to dream at night) so we can still be those people we “left behind”. Do elephants have good memories?…..then the wonderful line: “”sitting with reality and how hard it can be to do the right thing.”…….where id was there shall ego be (with the help of the conscience and the wish to remain in the community of the living (and loving),,,,,

    Liked by 1 person

    • daniel says:

      there is something special to this line: “sitting with reality and with how hard it can be, sometimes, to do the right thing”—your writing and, especially your poetry, seems to always stay with the present (what’s happening or did happen) then tell the story in concrete terms…..I think it is what draws me to both your poetry and your writing—it’s, in it’s own way—how some poets say I don’t want anything extra in my poem (all the extra fat cut out)—well, if you stay with what is (or was) that is just exactly a way of doing just that…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dana says:

    Oh that last line, and really all of it. The elephants and memory, the sliding doors of time. I can’t imagine living in the geography of my past, I’m nostalgic to a fault (if there is such a thing) and wonder if it would feel too heavy, every corner, every landmark, cloaked in memories. Or maybe the integration would be healthy, maybe it would lead to beautiful insightful words such as these.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tara Borin says:

    Your words are so beautiful, Jena. And they really resonate with me, especially “sitting with reality and how hard it can be…” This is a truth I’m struggling with lately. But the more I just do it, just sit with reality…well, I won’t say it gets easier, exactly…the more rooted I become.

    Liked by 1 person


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