The strange thing isn’t the mud—it’s the formal pose, her neutral, detached expression in this obviously abnormal situation. Her composure is the anomaly, and I have to admit I admire her strength, her ability to transcend the situation, her power over physical discomfort. If I ponder the idea of her long enough I can almost forget about the mud, until I look at the image again and then the central conflict of the photograph pulls me back in, makes me uncomfortable—the tension between my expectations of what a portrait should look like and the messy reality of this photo at odds with each other, as stark as the dark mud, her damp hair and white hoody. Her eyes open wide, unflinching.
And yet flinching is what this woman did most of the time: flinched at her boyfriend’s moods, flinched at the judgment of a community that expected everything and nothing from its members. They were trying to live well at a hot- springs resort in a small valley, where it rained almost every day in the winter. The dampness seeped into everything. So, one day, when the rains became Biblical, the river crested the walls of the bathhouse; when the waters receded, a foot of mud covered the walkway, filled the claw foot tubs.
She pitched in, like everyone else—wielding a shovel, grunting at the weight of the mud. Her boyfriend took out his camera. To show her team spirit, her upbeat attitude, she smeared the muck across her face, though they found out later it contained poison ivy. She dared not smile or the mask would crack. It’s the only photo where she looks the photographer straight in the face without grinning a self-conscious, lopsided smile. The earth highlighted her eyes, made of her a figure that simply exists in the world without apology.
Did you ever really see her in person? The woman in her sequined leotard leading the bedazzled horse into the ring? Did you hear the muffled roar of spectators, smell popcorn and dirt and elephants, feel the dusty light spear in through gaps in the tent flaps?
Probably not, but you feel as though you perched ringside as this woman stepped toe-first along the perimeter, one arm unfurled in a gesture that said, look here, prepare to be amazed! At first she simply vaulted in one smooth motion onto the horse’s bare back, rode the creature into a loping gallop, then, quick as a blink, stood up and balanced on the horse’s spine. Smiling, always smiling, the ta da! of her arms and the crowd roaring in approval. She cartwheeled into a handstand and then dismounted, running alongside the horse, both of them barely breaking a sweat.
At home you balanced on anything you could find: the sidewalk curb, tiptoeing one foot in front of the other, swaying first to one side then another, or the retaining wall of the eucalyptus bed, or even the back of the couch. You pretended to defy the laws of gravity. You reflected the light of many suns. Your skirt billowed in the wind of your flight.
Did you ever think to be afraid? The time you climbed over the crib railing and down the hall to your parents, dragging your leg braces behind you. Scrambling up the bookcase or the oxidized poles of that second-hand swing set just because you could. Your tricycle became a vehicle for daring—perched on your bare feet or careening around the corner on one wheel.
Years later, when your life tilted off-balance, you climbed the chalky limestone cliffs high above Lake Travis and gripped the edges with your toes before plunging into the lake far below—only to climb up and jump again, no crowd roaring in approval, no horses, or popcorn, or elephants. But the water did sparkle like sequins, like flint.
We loved school. We loved being with each other. We loved the chalkboard, the eraser, the scent of dust rising from old books. When we were young, we loved our pencil cases: the way everything aligned there, each sharpened point facing in the same direction. It zipped closed easily, opened easily, was clear enough to see what was what. Everything a person could need fit inside that pouch. We loved naptime. We loved the sound of other bodies near ours, breathing, all of us pointing in the same direction.
We loved snack. And lunch. And modeling clay. We watched the older kids on the playground: kids who pretended disdain, who called us babies and flounced away. We were babies, but felt so big, every day something new within our grasp: letters, numbers, maps, history. All of it lay waiting in cupboards, innate within the chalkboard, waiting to be revealed.
The most important lessons weren’t from maps or books or parent-teacher conferences, or even from every kid’s favorite subjects: lunch and recess. We learned our limits, how to push ourselves, how to find interests, then articulate them, then stick to them, and ourselves, when you find out they aren’t “cool.” How to bounce back—like when I started a new school in sixth grade and sat alone for two whole weeks with no one even coming over to say hi because everyone thought I was a student teacher. Or when I chose to hang out in Mrs. Collier’s room during lunch, the two of us eating in silence while reading together. It never bothered me because I grew up knowing the importance of an education, my family story one of escape from poverty and subsistence farming only because of school, my Grandma Ruth’s first job as a teacher in a one-room, sod schoolhouse her ticket out, the world within her grasp.