By Harmony Button
Begin with a definition: we know where to go.
We become thoughtfully troubled that despite being called “The Dictionary,” there is not only one, but in fact, many, many different dictionaries. Like a child discovers that the authority of one parent does not always completely coincide with the authority of the other, so we find that The Dictionary offers a deceiving sense of unity.
We compare our parents. Merriam’s spine is cracked and tired, and her pages drag. We find the uncles online — Oxford & Cambridge — but they aren’t as popular as good ol’ daddy D-dot-com.
I introduce a source the students soon name “Ed” because the O is silent, like in Oedipus!
No, says another, his name is Owen. Maybe there’s another Owen in his class, so he just goes by Owie D.
I am secretly delighted. I make a note to self: in my free time, I should create a fake profile on some social media network under the name of Owie D, and only post smart and snarky etymological comments.
In my free time, I should drink less coffee, take more trail runs, sleep at least eight hours every night. In my free time, I should read books and write poems and make my own veggie soup bouillon. This is the myth of adulthood: there’s such a thing as time you get for free. There is always a price, always a something you are not doing, instead.
Next level: I suggest that, like his Dino colleagues, a Thesaurus is, at most, an approximation of the truth. The Saurus embodies the complex idea that synonyms are, at best, a convenient scientific convention, like rounding up to the nearest tenth in math. ‘Happy’ is not ‘joyful;’ ‘sadness’, not ‘despair.’ A snake does not a viper make. Like palaeontologists, lexicographers must admit that there is a speculative aspect to their life’s work.
How much of our self-story is made up of memory-myth and reconstructed past? I used to keep a journal, thinking that I’d use it as a reference manual, in case I needed to fact-check my future self’s impressions of the past. I was also deeply suspicious of someone else discovering these journals, so my most precious thoughts I wrote on leaves, carving the letters with my thumbnail in their fleshy green. When I had painstakingly composed a word or two or three, I’d let the leaf go in the wind, watching it flutter ground-wards from where I was perched, high as I could climb, on some supple branch.
This is where I first realized: heart is just earth with the h in the front.
And my world was never quite the same.
If denotation is the viper oil, connotation is the salesman and his floppy hat. Take his overcoat. Invite the scoundrel in and listen, carefully. Today, the man is hawking handfuls of good dirt, guaranteed to preserve earthiness and memories of now (a better time), even as we gaze, enrapt, at its mulch and potency.
To be grounded: having common sense, practical values, a good head on your shoulders. Alternatively, “being grounded” is a punishment wherein certain liberties are restricted. Planes can also be grounded, for repairs. This image pleases me: a grounded teen, grasped around the ankles by her parents, as if the headiness of youth had taken hold and lifted upwards, dragging the unsuspecting adolescent off her feet and towards the ether, leaving her parents no choice but to grab her by the heels and pull back earthward.
To be “down to earth” means to be sensible, genuine, and undistracted by the intoxicating promise of superficial things — but someone “earthbound” is small minded and materialistic, lacking in imagination. “Earthbound” is plodding and prosaic, but “head in the clouds” is too dreamy, too unmoored. Where are we to optimally exist? It seems there is no sacred ground where humans can balance between the creative and the practical, the clear and yet lyric. The only space for wisdom left to us is in the process of falling: airhead to gutter-mouth, ether to earth.
I let the leaves drop, one by one, like casting lucky coins into a wishing well.
Let me bring things down to earth: remember that game, Boggle? It’s composed of twenty-five small dice, each with a variety of letters on each side. You shake the dice and settle them into a 5 by 5 grid, flip a timer, and see how many words you can compose of letters arranged on adjacent dice. Quickly, you pick up the patterns: if you find “eat,” then chances are that you have “tea” and “ate” as well. If Scrabble is for journalists and spelling bee winners, Boggle is the game of poets, neologists and cheats. After staring into the mouth of almost-words for an extended time, even the best players can become convinced that “taren” is a word, as is “neart” and “arnt.”
Confession: I was kind of afraid to go to college. I started out excited by the idea of it, but then I realized that, like me, college might look better on paper than in reality. I came out of the winter College-Admissions bracket as one of those lucky applicants who was not only Going To College Somewhere ( = winning!), but who had multiple choices as to where I could go (= superwin!). I got to take time off school to visit a bunch of really awesome institutions all over the country. I was told, time and time again, how very lucky I was to have such good options. My parents had been saving money to send me to college since before I was born. I had generous scholarship options. Everything was coming up roses.
So why wasn’t I happy?
Earth is a heart with the h at the end instead of on its sleeve, up front. Our hearts, big meaty animals they are, start us running, the breath of hot life huffed into a beating, blood-pumping organism. hhhhh… we breathe, into the fire. Ashes to ashes, we look to the earth to ease our burning, to welcome back our cooling limbs. Sometimes, the fleshy h of heart is just too hot, too big and brimming with significance to bear. In these moments, let us place our ear to the ground, to hear the softened “thhh” of wind and mud, lake and stone, timelessness and hope and good, good earth.
The first college I visited, I got sick on the plane and never fully recovered. The campus, the classes, and the entire weekend was a blur of putting up a good front while I chomped more Tums. My pants were too tight and all wrong, so clearly Jordache-cheap instead of thrifty-cool. My face was someone else’s, and she wore it poorly. My words came out all oatmeal and gawk. Everyone was nice, because they knew I wasn’t staying long.
I have a story that I’ve told myself so many times I no longer know if it is true or not. It has to do with the fireplace in my parents’ house, and a face I dreamt I saw there. The face was made of spirals — eyes and mouth — and if I got too close to the cold hearth, the face would loom up from the void and suck me into darkness.
For the next year, I avoided the living room at all costs after dark, skittering past the fireplace and bolting out the other side of the room like a startled calf. My parents were used to such odd behavior. There had also been a period of time in which I became convinced that a skeleton who lived in the upstairs toilet would crawl up the pipes and grab me if I didn’t leap off the bathroom tile and onto the safe-zone of the hallway carpet before the toilet finished flushing. There was also a texture-sensitive zombie who did nothing but stand by my bedroom door at night because he couldn’t cross from carpet on to wood.
I had a rich imagination.
But then, years later, I read something about the Mound Builders of Ireland, and how they worshipped an earth goddess. Her image appears in tombs built under dolloped mounds of earth that dot the landscape. She was the goddess of the hearth, worshipped at the center of the home: the fireplace.
And then, there was her picture. Her eyes and mouth were spirals.
I felt a sting of recognition, as if I had discovered her myself.
I was convinced that I had dreamed the image of the Mound Builder’s goddess before she had even been discovered by scientists of my generation. Perhaps I was psychic. Perhaps I was born of Druid blood and felt, at heart, as if I’d always known her. Perhaps I called back the distant memory of a dream and made it fit the image I had seen in National Geographic.
My mother took one look at the picture and told me it looked nothing like the face I used to draw. She told me that the face I used to be afraid of was from a picture book — Uncle Wiggly’s Bedtime Stories — and I hadn’t dreamed it at all.
Hearth: what happens when the heat of heart meets earth and lights a flame: two h’s, front and back — the redheaded sister of H20.
Years later, as an adult, I tried to look up the National Geographic article about the Mound Builders and their goddess of the hearth. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched the internet for any image of this goddess, to no avail.
A friend told me that it wasn’t an article — it was a story that our English teacher told us, in class one day. In her version of the story, the goddess had no face, and her belly was a spiral, signifying her fertility.
I couldn’t find this image, either.
I ruled out the next college when my host, in an attempt to be accommodating, offered me a sippy cup filled to the brim with sweet Peach Schnapps and told me all about how much she liked to party, where she liked to party, how she’d partied too hard the night before so she was taking it easy tonight — hence, the 16oz of sweet, sweet noxious Schnapps — but how she was totally willing to make sure I didn’t sleep with any ugly boys if I wanted to party it up myself.
I was a nerdy semi-athlete. It was the first time I had ever heard “to party” as a verb. If this was taking it easy, I wanting nothing to do with the hardcore conjugation of “to party.” Not like this. Not here. And not with anybody, ugly or otherwise. I missed my friends, the ones who thought that living large was making quesadillas at midnight and blowing off the second half of the math homework.
A week later, I crossed a big name institution off my list after my well-intentioned hostess dragged me to a midnight showing of Porn Bloopers in the hopes that it might give me a better sense of how awesome college life could be. She might as well have shown me Kitten-Killer Bloopers and expected me to laugh.
In retrospect, I think it was more bloopers and less porn, but I knew, in that instant, that pornography lives in the loneliest corner of the human heart, and so I felt that loneliness slick up around me, a mucus of awkward and unknown that made it impossible for me to feel like anyone in this college world could be my friend, or like anywhere in this whole world could be my home.
I was running out of colleges.
One had too much facial hair and like, said like dude too much.
One wore only black and talked too much smack all the time. You had to lock up all your stuff whenever you went anywhere so people didn’t steal it or sabotage your notes if you were smart so you stopped screwing up the curve.
One tour guide told stories about how so many people commit suicide because college is so intense, but how, if you make it, you’ll be set up for life because you can always say you went to this place and that means something, out in the world — the cold, cold world where all the normal humans were trapped inside their petty little minds, living their meaningless little lives.
That was me. I was just normal. I was a silly, hopeless, homeless little girl.
Earth Day: it was one of the those gorgeous spring days when college quads spawn frisbee games and students bust out their first flip-flops of the season. I wasn’t even supposed to be visiting. The college wasn’t hosting prospective students that weekend, but my mother, becoming increasingly distressed by my decreasingly less sarcastic suggestion that I should skip college and become a professional potter — after all, it was the act of centering and throwing, glazing and firing good clay that gave me the material for my college application essay, as well as my first home of the heart — had hooked me up with the friend of a son of a librarian who worked at her school. I had ruled out all the other colleges — this was my last chance. I was not optimistic.
When my parents dropped me off, I felt like the unpopular kid at the party: the birthday kid’s mom had made her invite me, my mother had made me come, and neither I nor the birthday girl wanted me to be there. God, is there anything worse than being an ungrateful, socially awkward wretch, and knowing it? If only I could be one of those obliviously weird kids who don’t seem to give a damn what anybody thinks, or one of those uber-spoiled children who resent their privilege in every form. If only I wasn’t so very aware of what my parents had given up in order to offer me these opportunities. If only there wasn’t something in my gut that kept rebelling in the face of impeding adulthood, that mourned the loss of innocence and its familiar hidey-holes and dug-outs.
Since birth, I have eschewed shoes. My best childhood memories — the ones that I hold on to, rehearse, idealize and morph into Norman Rockwell images in my mind — are ones in which I am barefoot. Even my favorite sports are practiced shoeless, as if shoes represent a shell of the self that can be left behind — on the dock when you grab hold of the oar handle and strap your feet directly to the bones of the boat you’re about to row; by the door when you enter the yoga studio.
I was premature at birth, a tiny tiny nugget of a child born into the dead of a NY winter. My mother tells stories of even the smallest knitted footwear falling off as she carried me, and how she would send my toddler brother to play “bloodhound” and unearth the booties from the snowbanks.
As a teenager, I would let the dog out in the snow, hopping from one foot to the other in the pre-dawn light, barefoot against the cold.
Even today, I have to make a habit of washing my feet before bedtime, even if it is just a perfunctory scrub at the blackened callouses that become permanent in summertime, like tire treads ground into my thick skin. In the winter, I wander, hobbit-like, around the house in long-johns, wearing legwarmers and a wool hat before I’ll resign myself to socks.
It was a sign from the universe: the students were all barefoot.
They played frisbee without shoes. They ran back in the buildings — still barefoot. This is the difference between an institution and a home: a home is a place where your feet are not unwelcome, where there’s no “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign tattooed into the brains of all employees. A home is a place where even when you know there’s been some broken glass, you trust yourself to clean it up and keep on walking barefoot, regardless. A home is where you track the mud upstairs and down, where carpets might be gross but they are your gross, so you lay your face on them and tell your friends, I’m happy. I’m so happy.
A citizen of the earth is a different than one of the world, the earth being much more lush and squishy than the world, much more watery and full of animals. Lovers of the earth go barefoot because they like to feel connected, as if love, like lightning, cannot travel up through rubber soles. When our world was young, it was the Earth; it’s worldliness descended with our disillusions, our compulsion to name things: “beautiful” and “tragic,” happy-sadness and our joy-despair. The Earth acknowledges that she is one of many, many worlds inside her and our minds; the Earth knows she’s our world, but she’s still pleased when we kick off our shoes, when we call her by name.
I knew that I was being irrational, that I shouldn’t make life-changing decisions based on a particular color of clothing, style of facial hair, quirk of speech or lack of footwear.
I knew that it was silly, and that plenty of colleges would probably let their students wander barefoot through the green, green grass. But as the night went on and we went to an unoffensive little acoustic guitar event outside where nobody crowded me and everybody ate ice cream from a giant cooler of Ben & Jerry’s that had somehow magically appeared in the middle of the quad, I began to feel the panic in my tight little ungrateful squint of a heart begin to settle into something that looked close enough to ease for me to find myself — could it be? — happy. I split a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk with a girl named Lex, and nobody offered me Peach Schnapps. We went back to the dorms at midnight, and even though it was past my normal bedtime, I didn’t feel like sleeping, so we busted out the Boggle.
This is what they did for fun. This was fun. I knew how to play Boggle. I loved Boggle. I looked into the five-by-five eyeball of opportunity and I saw it all: Tea-eat-ate-heat-ear-tear-earth-heart-hearth-rare-ream-mere-here-hemp-hope-home…
Any moment you are in the moment is a kind of faith, a kind of hope, a kind of home.
We conclude: words are portals, pockets that are bigger on the inside than the out. We dip our hands in them, feel around, pull up something rich and still covered in dirt. Where do stories hide? In the pocket of your mouth, the bog and bayou of the earth and word.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy ofAmerican Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.