Essays, Features, Poems

Michelle Peñaloza: “Notes from the Field”


Notes from the Field

I wore holes through two pairs of sneakers and had to resole one pair of boots.

four city parks / a bench outside Uwajimaya / Benaroya Hall

Over the course of a year, I asked people in Seattle to take me on walks from the Richard Hugo House to places in the city where they’d had their hearts broken. I walked with friends, friends of friends, and strangers, who became friends, who found out about the project through word of mouth.

Everyone who walked with me volunteered; all of them were ready to talk, ready to return to the beginning and tell their stories.

Madrona / Eastlake / Ballard / Downtown / Queen Anne / the ID

Call my beginning a wound. Or say it another way: a poet once asked me, “What hurt you into poetry?”

the circumference of Lake Washington / one play field / four apartments

My father died in a car crash when I was sixteen. I’ve tried to heal the wound of losing him in innumerable ways: devotion to the idea of a heavenly father; devotion to the attention of men I sought to fill his absence; devotion to the imagining and reimagining of him, the recreation of him in my poems. At the very least, at an age earlier than most, I learned what not to say to someone feeling that kind of pain. Don’t say you understand. Don’t say everything is going to be okay. Do not ever say that things happen for a reason. Say nothing. Listen.

the Sorrento Hotel / two hospitals / one 7-11 / one cathedral

The verb walk comes from the Old English, wealcan, meaning “roll” or “toss” and also from “wander” of Germanic origin, related to “wind” and “wend.”

To travel by foot is to surrender. To the motion of your body alone. To the world happening around you. You walk alone without agenda, counting the number of crows between electric poles. At this pace, you can pinpoint the bit of sidewalk outside the bar where you threw up on your best friend in the last hours of your 21st birthday. You succumb to the butter and sugar of your favorite bakery, as you first pass it, double back, and then emerge with two almond croissants.

Walking in a pair is a different kind of surrender. There is no particular lead or follow, but like dance partners, each person’s slight shifts signal without words: this side of the street; let’s catch this light; wait; faster; slower.

And what happens to words when walking with someone? Walking changes the quality of conversation. Your bodies have something to do: the distance you traverse together, the observations you make, fill any silence, and yet—silence becomes more acceptable. Even comfortable. Walking side by side for miles, your breath and stride fall in time together. Your heart works in tandem with the other heart walking beside you.

West Seattle / Highlands of Renton / Puget Sound / Phinney Ridge / Belltown

A couple of years ago, I would walk every morning along a river path, crying. I was alone, walking, trying to parse my reasons for staying with this man, staying in this life. I’d return to the house, look at all the things that were his, and imagine what it would be like without him there. I remove you from this house: your red bicycle, your sneakers by the door, your razor, your hairs in the sink, your jar of steel-cut oats. I spent so much time fixating on a life in that house without him, it only occurred to me later: I had to remove myself. I could remove myself.

I found a way to walk away. I learned how to live after leaving.

one ferry / two parking lots / two houses / one zoo

The heart breaks and bears its wounds in any number of ways.

We name our trauma in clichés. After all, what is the term “heartbreak” if not a cliché? The poor heart: ripped out, stomped on, crushed, torn in half, broken into a million pieces. With pain, push comes to shove. With betrayal, wolves are found in sheep’s clothing. We are blindsided, completely floored, and stunned silent. We look into our hearts and know things. We know, we just know.

And yet, even as the language of naming is commonplace, our stories are both singular and universal. Universally, singular. The plate becomes altar; the jelly donut, a father. Sometimes, the bed is an ocean, the zoo, a beginning, that tree- lined street, this corner—the whole world.

Or else there is a voice or globe or star or chestnut taken from a wooden box that is the heart, that is light dancing upon hands, along the fingertips, kissing palms; light that shines across docks, flickers in diners, changing from red to yellow to green.

Beacon Hill / First Hill / Capitol Hill

In total, I walked 119.92 miles with 22 people—people who’d lost children and mothers and fathers and lovers, who’d been traumatized by the hate of others, who’d been cheated on and lied to, who’d cheated and lied, who’d been fearful and brave. Whose hearts had broken, and begun, perhaps, to become whole again.

Michelle Peñaloza is the author of two chapbooks: landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press) and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts). Her poetry can be found in Asian American Literary Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Pleiades and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Artist Trust, Hugo House, and Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Michelle lives in Seattle.

This piece opens Michelle Peñaloza’s landscape/heartbreak.

photo credit: 20/365 – My Heart Will Lead Me To You (license)