The problem is that the form of a sonnet is clear and exact.
Fourteen lines, plus a strict rhyme scheme, plus iambic pentameter, equals sonnet. Life doesn’t tell you the form. Life says figure it out.
I’d run up the stairs to my room, take the box off the bookshelf and put the cassette in the stereo. Sigh in frustration. I needed to rewind if I wanted to listen to the chapter from the beginning. I’d pour out my Legos while the cassette whirred and clicked. “Hello, I’m Madeleine L’Engle and I’m going to be reading A Wrinkle in Time to you.” I’d lay on my scratchy green carpet and build castles for my Harry Potter Legos while the author read to me. Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg, “Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: you’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
The problem is that the form of a sonnet is clear and exact. Fourteen lines, plus a strict rhyme scheme, plus iambic pentameter, equals sonnet. Life doesn’t tell you the form. Life says figure it out.
Auntie Susan has The Gift. I think my family calls it that because saying “witchcraft” would be too risqué. Mom called her sister every time she lost something. I’d be sitting at the kitchen table. The phone was bright orange with an extra-long cord. She’d say, “I can’t find the book I was reading.” She’d listen to the answer and then go pick up the book from wherever my aunt said it was. Auntie Susan could make things happen. When I was little she told me that I have a witch’s toe. I told her mom says I have monkey toes. They’re long and thin and the second toe is longer than the first. Auntie Susan said that long second toe was the mark of a witch. She showed me her foot was the same.
My parents have the most romantic love story. My grandfathers were both in the Navy and both families settled on the same beach. Gamma looked at Grandma Terry one day as my parents were playing in the sand and said, “My son’s going to marry your little girl someday.” To which Grandma Terry said, “Over my dead body.” Or so the story goes. They grew up together and got married when they were twenty-three. I’m twenty-two.
Grandpa Johnnie had the gift too, in a way. He was really good at finding glasses. He once found the glasses Grandpa Curt lost when he tipped the sunfish. Three tides later. He yelled from the beach as Grandpa Curt walked out into the water. “A little to the left. No further out. Bend down.” Sunglasses found.
I nearly lost my glasses jumping off a dock last week. They were on my face when I jumped and gone when my head came up out of the water. I assumed they were gone forever but a minute later I felt them on my foot and got them back. My mom says it was Grandpa Johnnie looking out for me.
The second time I ever cried at a movie I was fourteen. The Gay Straight Alliance at my high school was doing a movie marathon. My friends had mostly left to do homework, but I was engrossed in But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s the story of two teenage girls who fall in love at straight camp. As I watched the cheerleader stand on the front porch of the camp, pom-poms in one hand, suitcase in the other, I felt the form of the sonnet crashing down around me. I was wrapped up in a blue blanket my mom knit for me. When the movie finally came to its happy ending I felt fat tears rolling down my cheeks.
When I was seventeen I read two books about mental hospitals the week before my best friend was committed to McLean. I read another one when I was twenty-one in the days before driving my girlfriend to Grinnell Regional. Both nights, when laying in my dorm room bed in the blue blanket, and when sitting in the hallway of the hospital while my girlfriend told the nurse her plan, I felt the same. The same specific guilt. I had read the future and failed to act. I twirled my hair. I stared at the wall. I promised myself I would listen to my friends and to my own small voice. I would write down my bad dreams. I looked at my toes.
I was eleven when I reached the peak of my Greek mythology phase. I made an altar in my closet. I filled it with rocks, ribbons, shells, and potions of soapy water and glitter. It was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of maidens and the moon. I would go to my altar to write in my leather-bound journal. It was there I decided I had a crush on a boy. I felt Artemis’ disappointment that day. Or maybe it was my own.
My mom has the gift. When she sets a timer on her phone she moves to turn it off a second before it dings. She’d say it’s just practice.
I’ve tried to keep listening. To keep practicing.
In a poet’s apartment we’re on the bed next to each other, them turning the pages, reading silently together. My heart leaps and I listen.
On the terrace an artist complains about a negative tarot reading. I look at my own cards and listen.
Sitting in a restaurant that only serves dishes containing avocado an old song says, “Call your girlfriend, it’s time you had the talk,” and I listen.
The first time a writing professor told me poets could break the form of the sonnet I was offended. I’m a rule follower, and I was offended for Mrs. Whatsit and Madeleine L’Engle. But I’ve figured something out. A sonnet doesn’t have to follow even its own rules. Life doesn’t either.