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Good Letters

On some summer nights, it seems the world is brighter, more visible in a quiet way, as if the dusk was created for your pleasure. On some summer nights, it seems you can see through the false dome of sky to what lies beyond, air glimmering just for you.

There’s a vertiginous sense that the heavens are just about to fall, that strange unproven sense of doom we mistake for true prescience. It’s a symptom of a heart attack too—sense of impending doom—caused by a bit of agitated electricity hitchhiking from damaged unhearing tissue to a nerve that will translate its message in the language of emotion and spurred survival.

Or is doom the electrical wave of a migraine washing the shores before finding its well-traveled path, the ram’s horn arc from eye to nape, hot flicker at the jawbone and eye?

A friend and I once stood on a darkened street in summer, commiserating about how we’d find a way to bleed ourselves after menopause, apply leeches, submit to the blood donation center’s pipe-like needles. We’d just need to see it, feel it go, leaving ourselves diminished and cleansed, we both said.

I walked home two miles in the dark, realizing that every night I’d been missing the heated perfume of night-blooming trees, their narrow white cups awaiting bats and moths.

Throughout the summer, I put jasmine on my wrists to help with sleep, to remind me that outside the world never stops.

One evening walking through the alleys after class, I’m struck by the beauty and wrongness of the dusk—wrong because it’s foreign, because I can feel the absence of Lake Superior’s east wind as the day cools. The Saint Paul alleys stretch for miles, and, unhindered by buildings or tree canopy, they serve as a telescope to the sunset, to Venus like a cigarette hole in a darkening blanket.

I grew up in the woods by the lake, and my father taught me the following generosities: how bad things happen as easily and as unreasonably as good, that God is a scientist and a silence and an unexpected encounter, that a tactical knife can be used to perform minor outpatient surgeries on myself, that strangers and friends alike should be invited in for a pork chop, that leaving someone alone can be a kindness greater than love, that everything—people, ants, mice, ticks—needs a home.

What kind, how many, did her heart stop? I ask my sister, after learning my mom’s back in the hospital after taking a handful of pills. The antipsychotics can stop a heart in the right dose. A heart, I say, forever clinical. My heart.

She’s chosen to receive electroconvulsive therapy, and I recall rolling my eyes at people calling it electrocution when condemning its use in “conversion therapy,” as if something couldn’t be heinous on its own without a touch of medically inaccurate drama. Forever clinical. I suppose the borders between electrocution and medicine grow blurry when it’s someone you love.

I grew up in the woods by the lake, and my mother taught me the following generosities: how to scream-pray without stopping when someone was hurting, that God is an artist and a loudness and occasionally unendurable, that the worst part of our contemptuous humanity will arise when we encounter something soft and scared, that we must always meet the urge to extinguish a fearful thing with an aggressive hospitality.

We lend ourselves all the time—extend our identities past the bounds of our skin and into other beings and objects alike. A wooden crutch can become a leg, writes comic artist Scott McCloud. We trespass and transfer and barter; we leave bacterial and electrical wakes wherever we move.

I asked God the other night: Do you think the teenage me who prayed at you all the time to heal her mom and the now-me who almost never prays are the same?

Sometimes now I go to the doctor for things I know I could do with a tactical knife. Sometimes I fear living away from home and family will make me unrecognizable.

Summer nights are for hospitality, for a body that is incessantly crawled on and receptive to so much burgeoning life. Gone is the cold romance of winter, the birch bark smell of home that brings the ancestors around. Here in the city, the summer dark is heady, alive and cruel with dogwood and screamed fox sex and the snapped spines of squirrels.

I worry my mom will be hurt or changed. Choosing seizures and the slowed heart of anesthesia, pressure cuff round the ankle to ensure reaction to the current, seems barbaric. Though it is a sound, reasonable medical procedure that has helped many. I try not to throw up. I try to take heart, but I never know how much of my heart is mine.

I don’t know how to look at people and see the truth of them, all the things they can’t say.

I can’t stop thinking about the electricity, about my mom’s brain, which is my brain also, but I probably just look like someone eating an egg sandwich at the farmer’s market. I think of my grandma, my mom, and I having the same dreams on the same night when I was younger.

My grandma and my mom were infuriatingly the same about religion: neither caring that much about life because their true home was elsewhere.

I grew up in the woods by the lake, and that’s my home, and I’ll yell no with my last breath, not that the good Lord’s ever balked at a challenge. I just want him to remember me and know that I’ll fight for what I love.

For now, I’m walking in the city dark or lying here without a prayer, all that ache I’d just as soon dig out of my belly signaling like a doomed heart into the endless summer sky.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Natalie Vestin

Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

Above image by Ben Seidelman, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

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