Ways to Misspell Obsidian
Ana Maria Caballero
Once, I had a friend who was probably a boyfriend, except we were so young—so young it meant nothing, so young it meant everything—that swift age between toddler and child. I’d go with him to his farm outside Bogotá on weekends. Entire weekends spent together. The memory of my pipi is different from your pipi is a memory lived with him, many times, in the tub. His name was Juan Carlos, once.
At his farm, large farm dogs knocked me over. Now, I am afraid of dogs. I lie and say only big dogs scare me, but, really, I don’t know how to read dogs of any size. Their tight bark speaks a language that is immediately menacing. And I do not know how to physically harm, how to defend. Because of Juan, because of his dogs, all dogs are urban menace I, as adult, identify.
Because of large farm dogs I am afraid of all dogs.
Because of one horse I am afraid of all horses.
Turbulence on a plane is instant, if deadly. Other fears, such as maternal, such as skeletal, such as vehicular, remain fathomless—word that, at once, means incalculable, as in too vast in size to process, and, also, incalculable, as in too complex in content to gauge, to compute.
Juan Carlos killed himself by jumping off a balcony ten years ago, around the time a horse almost threw me off its back as I circled Parque Simón Bolívar in honor of the beauty queen of Bogotá.
This writing a sieving of selfsame parts. Tonight. Is tomorrow. Is past. Is a single selfsame moment of sitting to write. Once once.
Horse fear and dog fear can be healed via ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a mixture of herbs prepared by indigenous Amazon tribes. The ceremony is the meditation is the hallucination, guided by an ayahuasca guide. The first part is the vomiting. The second is the fear; you face what you fear in excelsis. If you do not overcome you stay afraid for the entire duration of the ceremony, up to twelve hours of a very bad trip.
If you overcome in ceremony you overcome beyond. Ayahuasca is said to look for you when it is time for you to overcome. Ayahuasca is searching for me. Following me home from Perú, finding me flat on a table in Miami Beach, entering my inbox with a price and a date for a summer session an hour by train from Grand Central Station. Though I have yet to meet it, ayahuasca slithers toward, obsidian-like.
I will learn to read yelp of dog, neck tension of horse. Read so I may understand.
There are many ways not to spell “obsidian”: obssydian, obssydyan, obbssydian, obsydyan.
But of all these I have a favorite, obssydian. The two s’s—like obsession, like glass. The y because it dips, un-innocent triangle slip, separator of ornate front of word from its operative back.
In terms of children, fear is different. Fear of sudden; not of child: not fear of muscle neck tension tight bit leash yelp. Fear of it is night and I am tucked into bed with son, reading what is obsidian aloud to this son, a boy, who, I can tell, will wield elements I cannot.
Fear of no-longer-so-young child who puts nail polish remover in his mouth. Once. Just once is enough.
The moment of the nail polish remover in the mouth. The instant I take the boy’s baby sister to the crib. It is time for sleep, and the baby sister, she keeps reaching for our book of crystals, annoying the boy brother, annoying the mother, who also wants to sit in bed and read about rocks that are glass to her son.
I take the baby sister to her crib. I say a prayer, I do how I should, one hand on head, another on heart, return to boy, covered by vomit in bed. The adventure of the no-longer-infantile-mind. My son is six. Past era of outlet appeal. Of detergent misplaced in spice kitchen drawer. Absolute unforeseeable risk, nail polish remover by bed. In shower boy vomits more. Then he is fine and unable to give me any, at all, reason why.
I do not have ayahuasca, no solution to the problem of other, of self, who is myself, who cannot help but love this other.
No solution to the problem of fear of loss of child. So I live with that by not living with that. Fear I unfeel.
O, walk in the morning. O, drive. When I arrive, my husband says hello. Ten years ago, upon that horse, before Juan Carlos jumped, afraid of dogs, my husband said no. Oh no.
No, no. He said hello. Ha.
O, ha ha. Ha.
Onyx is not obsidian. It is different in the way it is formed. Obsidian is volcanic, magmatic, molten lava, liquid rock turned sleek and black when cooled fast by air or water. There is no crystalline structure, no predictable, repetitive pattern within its reflective depth. Onyx results from slow compressed mineral earth, cavernous crystal. Repetitive replication of precise molecular form.
Onyx is not obsidian, only, not identifiably so.
My husband will not do ayahuasca. Me first. When I do it though, I will ask him to watch the children. And he will watch the children. This counts for a lot and will count for more.
Of my husband, I have no known fears. None of betrayal. Nonsensical death. I must focus-think of him missing to be afraid of him missing. He is not a spontaneous external panic trigger device.
When I do think of him in order to be afraid of him gone, what I am afraid of is this: him not standing in the morning like he does when it’s my turn to take the boy child to his school. A standing stance of so long. So different, I realize in my thinking, from good-bye. From see you later. From come back. So long. Us together for so long.
But when I speak of fear and family all of it is obvious, commonplace. It is not the salesman in my driveway standing there watching me get out of the car watching waiting for my car door to shut and lock before approaching me with a smile that is a demand and no one is around. A fear fascinating as transactional buy.
When what I fear is this: the writing down. The capturing, the taking, of time from within the passing of time to write down. The slippage slipped. My slip. But also, the not writing down.
The salesman and his gimmick. The check I wrote then canceled. My gimmick of his gimmick. Online the scam made evident. Find a fearful woman-girl.
I will never fall for it again. Never, not once.
Of all the witches I consult, one is my main witch. She taught me to stay away from obsidian by teaching me how it does. I will tell you:
The dark parts of obsidian are external because they claim from what’s outside. Material that imbibes whatever darkness is without. What is evil will condense. The ugly comes without but via rock is brought within. Do not buy obsidian to try out. It will take years to master for the stone seeks to trick, to convince that the evil generates within, when what is bad is sucked, reduced into rock.
A rock cold and quiet as glass.
I ask this witch about ayahuasca. She says ayahuasca is you/me. She says my you can meet myself on ayahuasca’s plane. Without taking it, she says. But take it. Because you are you.
At the crystal shop, not long after the nail polish vomit in bed, my son selects a snowflake obsidian medallion with golden bird etched upon. It is a good crystal shop. Every stone in a neat bucket with small square pieces of cut paper with explanations as to the properties of each rock.
Balances mind, body and spirit.
Obsidian draws hidden imbalances to the surface and releases them.
Good detoxification stone.
From Judy Hall’s The Crystal Bible:
Obsidian is molten lava that cooled so quickly it had no time to crystallize. Obsidian is a stone without boundaries or limitations. As a result, it works extremely fast and with great power. Its truth-enhancing, reflective qualities are merciless in exposing flaws, weaknesses, and blockages. Nothing can be hidden from Obsidian. Pointing out how to ameliorate all destructive and disempowering conditions, Obsidian impels us to grow and lends solid support while we do so.
This is the book I read to my son on the nail polish remover night. I believe with disbelief that the two are unrelated.
Juan Carlos’s sister sent me an email a few months ago. December 2018 marks ten years since his death. She hosted a memorial, which I was unable to attend. So, I sent her a poem about her brother. A poem I wrote when dreams of him had become vivid enough to turn fathomable, a word, which, unlike its opposite, means one thing.
Her email to me, more beautiful than poem. I present it, translated, below:
Your words make me go back to those moments. Those moments I never lived, because I was not with Juancho, because you were. Those spaces that I imagine but cannot remember because I was not there, but you were, with Juancho. Even though I wasn’t there, I was, because you wrote those words. You made me relive what I never lived, and I am infinitely grateful because they are moments of gold, those moments I have when I can be back beside Juancho.
I imagine his pride, at having you in his car. I see his pride, with his girl and his car. I also see and remember the pain of the funeral. Although I was there it’s as if I had never been. My head, my heart and my body were too small to register what was going on. Thank you for taking me there as well. Because today, ten years later, I can be certain that that explosive and fulminating pain regenerates and transforms, and it transforms into love, compassion, celebration and joy. The only things I remember about that day are that there were many people, that I struggled to say hello, and that someone said they liked my red sneakers (the only part of my dress that was not black). I think that is all I could process. Today I am grateful because I can process it well, together with Juancho’s life, together with that abrupt ending and that terrible goodbye. And you have helped me with your words, that not many dare to write or say. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you infinitely.
Glass is actually what obsidian is. Crystal is what it is not. Factually.
I think, lately, of Joan Didion because of just having read her essay The White Album, the essay being a self-referential form, I think.
Self-referential forms, such as graffiti, encourage rather than dissuade the attention of the viewer toward their implicit maker. The maker fossilized within the piece produced, at once separate and inseparable from the paint on wall, from the word on paper.
To write down a sequence of texts based on an “I” results in self-referential formation. The world of the body and the world of the mind brought together on page to make sense, each to/of each.
For example: there is no vivid thought of fear without the experience of fear. This is something I think/write from reading so much. Onyx culled from the hardened cave of rock.
I try again: there is no vivid experience of fear without vomit of boy on bed. This is something I think/write from living. But fear of boy with vomit on bed has now become text. I can feel it by reading it. Book fear thought lived.
Experience of fear felt via boy made equal to the thought of fear gained via book. Am I wrong. Or, is it my thoughts that are wrong. Am I glass. Or crystal in form.
It turns out Judy Hall’s The Crystal Bible is part of a series of other “Bibles.” Titles in the collection include The Dream Bible and The Yoga Bible. A Biblical, as in godly, reference to render the esoteric dogmatic, as in earthly. O, God, presented as Oh, god.
Learning this makes me consider the book a lesser vessel. Instantly, as in at once.
When I close my eyes and try to look past my eyelids, I encounter God. I am not trying to be deep by saying this. I also encounter angels. I say hello. Like this: “Hi, God. Hi, Angels. Thank you for this day. Keep my children safe. My husband. I am happy to be alive. Help me stay alive.” It is not poetic. It is simple. Very actual. As in actually happens. Actual hidden within factual. If factual then, at once, actual. Factually, I pray.
My son has no fear, no interest, no concern for dogs. He tells me he wants a cat. But I do not think this means he wants cat. Because I have lived longer than my son, I understand it is possible to want the idea of a thing and not want the thing at all. My son wants the idea of wanting cat. He does not want cat. As his mother, it is my job to teach him this difference.
Before I had child, I did not want the idea of wanting child. This did not mean I did not want child. But I did not know the difference. I only knew dog/horse fear. Animal that does not utter words fear. I did not know boy in bed sleeping all mine fear. I did not know how to feed a living thing.
Carrot in hand in front of horse’s mouth not my carrot, not my hand.
Didion writes: “confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”
She writes this, but not in “The White Album.” She writes it in The Year of Magical Thinking. A book I sent to my former college roommate whose son died in his sleep on St Patrick’s Day. Of all days, at once.
I do not think to mention ayahuasca to my friend.
My son’s favorite book is 1,111 Questions About Science. It is a book published by National Geographic, which matters because its content needs to be believable for me to understand.
After a rotating picture book, we will read a few questions each night. One page is titled Fearless Explorers Who Pushed the Boundaries. Isaac Newton catalogued alongside Leif Erikson and Martin Luther King, Jr. Them three the fearless explorers. We’ve read this section several, or is it just some, nights in a row. The question of their importance calculated as an extension of boundaries. My son wants to know if I was alive when Martin Luther King became dead. These are the words he uses to ask these words. O, God.
The questions that the question book causes my son to ask are hard:
1. Who discovered America?
2. What is physics?
3. What is racism?
Questions which, in my son’s physical mind, become:
1. What is America?
2. What is gravity?
3. What is black?
4. What is white?
I have a book that tells me what the colors I see when I close my eyelids mean. Lately, I see red. My book tells me red means exhaustion. It means overwork. As in an engine light on in a car. As in something is about to burn.
My book tells me how to fix exhaustion by changing the color I see. The color I want to begin seeing in closed eyelids depends on what I want to concretely change when I open eyelids. I feel certain I must start with exhaustion itself. I must first reverse the absence of energy.
For such a simple request, my book provides a simple solution. All I have to do is imagine green, the color of health. I see red, but I must imagine green. Even though I see red, I pretend to myself I see green. The book uses pretend. It does not use lie. The book says will. It does not say contrive.
I pretend my closed eyelid color is green. It takes me a while, this meditation as will, unexhaustion as code, change as invent. But I believe I see it, see the green. Believe as in think, but also as in trust. I can no longer tell the difference between red and green in black eyelid dark, not identifiably so.
The best way I have to communicate with my friend who lost a son is by book. I send her what I really like. But, carefully. I was fearful of sending The Year of Magical Thinking because it’s so sad. And she’s already so sad. I a fearful explorer.
But she liked it, and I’ve sent more. She tells me that she is every parent’s worst fear. That interacting with the moms at her son’s school is hard, the moms she only tangentially knows. I want to be a good friend. I want it all to be truthfully about her. Not about me wanting to be a good friend and about how afraid I am of not. It is difficult to be good. Beyond all words is always her son, who is not. Who was once. Who is not.
After we finish reading late one night, my son asks me to look up Newton’s three laws of motion. Maybe because he wants to put off bedtime, but also because he asks these types of things as a result of reading the question book. Reading in bed to him the most precious extended temporary moment of my life so I do what he says.
1. A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force.
2. The force acting on an object is equal to the mass of that object times its acceleration.
3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Except, when I think of sad things in front of a mirror, my face does not change.
In Austin, at a restaurant, an artist-couple talk about the occult fad in town. I am silent. Am I fad. A witch fad. Oh. O, I do not mention the man who read my tarot in the back of a Mexican restaurant earlier that day. The lemon he sliced or why. We talk now of children. They have none. They have read Alice Munro. Alice Munro informs their views on children, on having none. There is a quote spoken from I don’t know what story about how eventually children grow up and simply become other people.
It is this I fear: the writing down. The giving of iPad to child because of the constant writing down. I do not mention my children as other people to the other people of this town.
The last time I saw Juan Carlos, Juancho, was at the airport in Bogotá. He sitting down; I standing up. As adults in airports we do not speak. We reveal position, destination, frequency of air transportation. Goodbye, safe travels, let’s catch up, say hi to your family, to your sister, I have not seen in so long. The body in flight. The landing. The height. Ten stories, stories not as in tellings, but as in levels of building pierced, at once. So quickly, so unidentifiably so.
I cannot un-be at his funeral. Not now ten years later. This is because all past is equidistant from present. Ten years the same as twenty as none when past. Us adults at airport the same as us toddlers in tub relative to the moment in which I recall to remember. Us together for so long.
My parents did not read to me. They did not have to. As soon as I learned how to read, I read. It was like I had to. Reality conveyed in book form. Memories in terms of books read. Future as list of future books. Compelling certainty that all that reading would build up to something other, to a thing of more, an object, external from myself.
What I know from all the reading is writing builds because of no one to tell things to. Not one to whom to tell. External from my/self.
Myself as mother: a woman reader of books to child. Reader, not giver—not crystal, but glass.
An equal and opposite reaction to vomit in bed after nail polish remover in child is this piece of physical text.
I am sorry.
I am not.
I am afraid of what it takes me to fathom things lost.
Ana Maria Caballero was born in Miami in 1981 but spent most of her childhood in Bogotá, Colombia. She is currently seeking an MFA in Poetry at Florida International University, where she was runner-up for the Academy of American Poets Prize. In 2003, she graduated with a magna cum laude B.A. in Romance Studies from Harvard University. Her collection Entre domingo y domingo (From Sunday to Sunday) won Colombia’s 2014 José Manuel Arango National Poetry Prize. Finishing Line Press published Mid-life, her first chapbook, in 2016. Her work has appeared in journals such as Tupelo Quarterly, CutBank, Red Savina Review, and Jai-Alai Magazine. A complete list of her published work can be found at anamariacaballero.com.