Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.

“We Have This One Life”

Today, Mani and I had our very first meetings as English conversation tutors at the public library. The woman I was paired with is a grad student from China, here working towards her Ph.D. at UMass. She is in her late 20s, with a wide-open smile and sunny personality. Her English is choppy but not terrible; at one point early on, I asked her what year she was born, and she immediately started telling me that yes, she did have a boyfriend, but they broke up next year. Wait, make that last year.

We had a good laugh when I returned to the original question, and I could tell within minutes that we were going to get along famously — an expression I’d have to be sure to write down and explain if I said it to her.

There were several times throughout our hour together that required such a slowing down; one of the gifts of speaking with someone whose first language is different from your own is just this — suddenly you notice your own speech. How quickly you speak, for example. How often you say “like” or use idioms that a newcomer to your language might now know.

When I suggested we try meeting at Starbucks next week, she asked which kind of coffee drink I prefer. I said sometimes I get a caramel macchiato, since I have a sweet tooth. “Sweet tooth?” she asked. Ah! I pointed to my tooth, ad explained that this means I like sweets. “Me too!” she said.

This was just one of many moments of connection during our introductory meeting. We also talked about sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and ants, babies and bellies, middle names and nicknames. We talked about first words — “mama” is common in China, too, she told me.

While telling her about my family, I had to explain “coming out of the closet,” which was fun. I asked her what happens in China, when someone is gay. It would be a secret, she told me. And then, looking at me across the little table, she said: “I think we have this one life, and…” she trailed off, searching for the words. “Love is not only for man and woman, but also man and man, woman and woman.” I smiled at her. “Love is love,” I said. “Yes!” she nodded in agreement. Then I learned that her name is just one letter away from the Chinese word for “pig,” adding a word to my teeny-tiny Chinese vocabulary.

And so our new relationship begins, an hour on Wednesdays, for her to practice speaking English, and for me to practice slowing down.

The Roar Sessions: Leticia Hernández-Linares

Guerra
by Leticia Hernández-Linares

Salvador Map

Our skin and hair legitimized only by war,
the professor of history explains.

Suddenly I am content rich, boasting validated facts,
dates, and legitimate battles. War as identity–

my expertise, despite my inexperience.
I embody what so many survived,

the only marker despite my distance.
You are the troubled little country

with possible concrete, and civility, to the south.
Born foreign–––to live nationless. If you

are not a refugee, you do not get a box, certainly
not of us. Growing up a body wrapped in two

languages, without singular origin, I often let
the curve and angle of other’s questions

knock me off balance. Steady on the third rail
that no one owns, no one overpowers,

my acrobatic prowess proposes to
surpass cartographic limitation.

“Wars of nations are fought to change maps.
But wars of poverty are fought to map change.”
-Muhammad Ali

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Leticia HernandezLeticia Hernández-Linares is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and author of Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl (Tía Chucha Press, 2015). Widely published, her work has appeared in newspapers, literary journals, and anthologies, some of which include: U.S. Latino Literature Today, Street Art San Francisco, Pilgrimage, and Crab Orchard Review.  She has performed her poemsongs throughout the country and in El Salvador.  A three-time San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist Awardee, she lives, works, and writes in the Mission District, San Francisco—20 years strong.

Visit her website: joinleticia.com
Follow her on Twitter: @joinleticia

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The Roar Sessions is an ongoing series featuring weekly guest posts by woman of diverse backgrounds and voices. Read them all