Crucible year

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 20, 2013

Here’s a theory (I made it up):

The theory is that every person has a crucible year, a year during which certain key elements come together and alchemize from the soft-ish stuff of undigested life into a brand new compound, a hard bright crystalline nugget through which all of life is then filtered. Once you’ve got your nugget from your crucible year, it’s yours. You can bury it, try to break it with a hammer, toss it deep into the neighbor’s yard, or swallow it whole.

Or: you can hold it up to your eyeball every once in a while and examine why you are who you are. While doing this, the recommendation is to go easy on yourself. Maybe view your startling trajectory as you would a comet or a baby learning to crawl — with your mouth slightly open and your gaze long. Maybe blink slowly and try not to judge for a second or two.

My sister’s crucible year is 25. Mine is 15, 1973 — the year of Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Sonny and Cher, The Exorcist, Jesus Christ Superstar, Dark Side of the Moon, Let’s Get It On, leotards, bellbottoms, Farrah Fawcett flips, wide neckties, crop tops, and halters. I have reason to believe I am going crazy. I tell my mother this sometimes after school, fresh off the hour-long bus ride back from Holy Names Academy, the cross-topped dome perched upon Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

Though the carpool commute to school takes only ten minutes, coming home on the city bus requires a transfer downtown, a long wait near the original Nordstrom’s store where the Scientology people and Moonies vie for my attention. Every day I am solicited for the free personality test, which requires my parents’ signature. Every day the Moonies sidle up, beautiful and earnest, asking if I would like to come to a potluck and learn about a better life.

And every day I see the crazy dude with the sandwich board standing in his spot uttering his phrase: “The air is moving; it may be alive.” He’s not crazy for believing what is most likely true. He’s crazy for thinking he’s crazy, which I believe is my same problem, as a matter of fact, only I don’t appear to be crazy because I’m not sandwiched between two planks of wood, my version of which might, at this prime moment in my life, express something rich with dignity and grace like “Space is a vacuum because the earth sucks.” Fifteen is hard on me. Not all crucible years are hard.

On the second half of the ride, the bus goes south through Chinatown and up Jackson, cresting at 34th Street where Lake Washington and Mount Rainier become visible. I know every stop on the route, nearly every building, every church. I dream of being Asian as we pass Uwajimaya, the giant Japanese grocery store I love, partly because all my Asian friends seem solid in a way I’m not and never will be. Before headphones and smartphones, there is nothing to do but stare out a bus window, alone with the things that bore deeply into the particulate of a roiling adolescent brain, the crucible ingredients overlaid on this landscape like breadcrumbs on a path.

What are little girls made of? If you are this one in her crucible year: a dusting of sugar, but more of spice; the tendency to be a wallflower; a runaway imagination and a Motown soundtrack; acne on cheeks as well as the normal trouble spots; a father who won’t let her be on any athletic team; a piano regimen administered by a formidable nun-composer; shameless pining for a neighborhood redhead with a low voice; and a belief that love from others is based not on who she is but what she does. There is no craziness here except craziness itself. And maybe that last thing on the list.

My mother, who sees me through this lens of doing not being, assures me I’m not going crazy. I just think too much, she says, critical of the very faculty the family prizes above all others.  At this point, she generally whips out the National Observer (a weekly newspaper published by the Down Jones Co. in the 70s) and flips to the crossword puzzle, famously well done and still remembered by cruciverbalists today.

And there in the primal fire of my crucible year, as the nugget hardens into a light-sucking and light-emitting lens, we fill in squares together, one answer at a time, until every last one is done, a tiny grid, signifying everything, signifying nothing.

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