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Blackbirds, hollow-core doors, and other gifts

Essay by Aaron Abeyta

Rural Life – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

This letter was originally presented by Abeyta at the 2006 Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison on November 11th.

Dear George,

Outside my window there are a few blackbirds perched in the dead branches of a Russian Olive. Presumably these birds, the approximate size of a human heart, are willing to tough out the Antonito winter. Later, when the snow falls, they will line the icy edge of the river, their black bodies set against the white. I’ve always been intrigued by these birds, wondering why they don’t fly south like every other sane creature capable of migrating.

For now, everything here is brown. The grass died long ago, the leaves prior to that. My neighbor’s roof is literally swaying in the wind, the loose tin flapping like the broken wing of a rusted bird. East of here, behind Sargents, an old and abandoned grocery store, there are millions of pieces of glass catching the November sun. Later, when it warms up a bit, the winos will venture onto the street and make their way to one of the liquor stores. Purchase in hand, they will sit street-side, to the south of the old grocery store and they will drink their fortified liquor and when the last drop has left this world and entered their body, a world onto itself, they will take that bottle and leave it among its broken predecessors. Later, a car, a kid, or someone who is bored in a way that can only be brought on by poverty will break that bottle and the pieces of it will find their way into the kaleidoscope of broken glass.

Main street. Abandoned buildings. Roadside planters where no flower has grown in recent memory. Eight hundred people, give or take. Two liquor stores. Two full-time bars and two others that will serve alcohol on special occasions. This is where I live. Perhaps it goes without saying, it is beautiful here.

Social capital. Honestly, I almost laughed when I heard that was the topic for this year’s Headwaters. You’d think in a place as poor as Antonito that all we’d have left us is social capital. I’m not sure.

Here is how you can know a house. A hollow core door splintering and without paint, a yard filled with appliances, a car up on blocks, a woodpile of scrap lumber, front steps made of that very same lumber, windows with missing screens or screens ratted with holes and repaired with clear tape, a construction project left unfinished, the particle board curling up like paper put to flame, a fence made of wooden pallets, a sprinkler attempting the impossible, to keep alive a patch of grass. That grass, that hollow door, may all of it stand for hope.

At first I thought I’d begin a discussion on social capital by writing about a culture and language that are centuries old, or by revisiting the stories of elders whose lives are woven with myth and history, or perhaps I could write about the murals that bloom color onto walls and into our streets. Like I said, it’s beautiful here. All of these would be social capital, I suppose.

INSIDE THE HIGH SCHOOL there is a mural. We are the Antonito Trojans. The muralist painted the battle between Hector and Achilles. I believe in symbolism. Perhaps the body of my town was long ago tied to the back of a chariot and dragged away. Did the muralist know that over 100 kids would leave this school and go up the road to a “better” school where they will, for the most part, be rendered invisible? Every morning I pass the long line of cars at the district line as they wait for the bus. I want to stop and ask them which of the children that have left Antonito schools, which of the kids that have gone to this “better” school have made a beautiful and lasting mark in the world? Perhaps there are one or two. I cannot think of any. Can you leave the community where your ancestors dreamt you into existence and go 14 miles up the road where you’ve never lived and come away with anything that even remotely resembles social capital? Dear and beaten Hector tied to the back of every car that waits for that traitor of a yellow bus.

I am not a negative person. I love the world. Like Whitman, I believe that the human soul is always beautiful and that every soul is beautiful. Social capital. The optimistic soul as social capital. Perhaps. No. Today this cannot be.

HERE I AM, nearly halfway into this letter, and all I can come up with is this. Sometimes there is something greater than love, some wispy thing like pollen on a breeze that outweighs even the privilege of money. That thing? What heavy wood, full of pitch, stokes the burning within us and keeps us, even through our long winters, warm and in life? Resentment. Such a negative word you might say. Here, today, as I paint my own mural of sorts, I argue that sometimes you must find beauty where no one has sought to look.

I live in a beautiful place surrounded by three rivers, all of which empty their names into the Rio Grande. West of here the San Juans, east and north the Sangre de Cristos. Deep canyons of spruce, pine and aspen, million dollar homes built on the land that used to be ours. One person was even vain enough to have the logs for his home shipped here from Germany. Apparently this is somewhat of a feat. We should be in awe of his wealth, of his home he no longer likes and now wants to sell for $600,000. I resent this man, his wealth, the others like him.

My neighbor to the east has a roof that wants to fly away. My neighbor to the north has yard sales where he sells his furniture and, on one occasion, a single tire complete with rim. What invisible thing might lead a person to sell one lonesome tire? I love that tire and the dim hope it represents.

People send their kids to other schools. I resent them too. People quit on their community. For them, because I think survival is not quitting, I offer my resentment. Resentment as social capital. Yes. Today, we are made rich by just such a gift.

Let me explain the gift of resentment. In the absence of money, of employment opportunities, of culture and language effaced by assimilation and poverty, in this void there is room for little else. For me resentment is something synonymous with the aforementioned survival. Many might equate it with anger, and while that has its place, anger is, too often, destructive. Anger is the fire burning out of control. Resentment is the slow work of erosion, an erosion that cuts away at the pain of memory and loss. Resentment is water frozen in stone, the lick of wind that bends trees in supplication, the glacier whose blue heart cuts the world into being. Resentment is the long and arduous work that shapes people into something more beautiful. Because I resent the people who send their children to other schools I will carve my school into something better. I will not, in a fit of anger, burn away my school for another because the grass will come up, temporarily, greener. In short, wealth, like anger, is transitory, fleeting, brief, ephemeral. Things like language, culture and history, even these things, all of them beautiful, can be disappeared. I argue that if you resent these losses you will not let your town, your children, your culture, your language, your beauty disappear.

TO ME SOCIAL CAPITAL is something that replenishes itself, a deep well that does not recede. My town is beautiful. In some ways my town is the fallen Hector. My town, most of it, is poor. My town and its people are those birds that do not leave as winter approaches.

These birds perch themselves on the razors of ice that hover just above the river and perhaps they resent the cold and snow, resent too the short and bleak days, the other birds that flew away. What could there possibly be for those heart-sized birds to eat, how do they keep, what gift sustains them through a January night? It can only be one thing, the unspendable gift their body holds, the drum thump of the heart that is survival, and is therefore a gift.

Aaron Abeyta, poet, teacher, faculty member at Adams State College, and a regular contributor to both the Headwaters Conference in Gunnison and the Sparrows Poetry Festival in Salida, hails from Antonito. His novel, Rise, Do not be Afraid, is scheduled for publication in March.