Farmers, of course, follow the moon. They time their harvest by her cycle, planting crops in the direction of moonrise. The coming rain nourishes the seeds before the sun can warm them sturdy. The Farmer’s Almanac shares this information like a holy blueprint. By the start of winter, you could find the Almanac squeezed in next to the local newspaper at the grocery store in my small town. My fingers would skim the edges of each page, numbing the tips.
For those of us who weren’t farmers, harvest invoked a different routine, a melodious predictability for our senses: tractor engines whirring, the vast silence of lush crops reclining across acres, and the distracting pungency of fertilizer. Round, young noses scrunched into knots as autumn dried these crops into bright oranges and wrinkly yellows.
We’ve seen the farmer lick his finger and raise it to the sky. Would it dry immediately or remain wet within the perspiring air? The predictions were always the same. Before growing full, the moon must create her storm.
“You know it’s going to rain by the look of the trees! See how the edges curl up to the sky?”
I can see my father’s face. It replaced the sun in my sightline. Leaves crown his head, the white undersides are visible, edges suctioned towards the moisture canopy. A storm is coming. Babies fall from the same sky as the rain, so are the leaves predicting the rain, or is my father?
“Where did I come from?”
My father says that when I was born, everyone was asking about the glow in my eyes. Such fertility— hunger for space and freedom— also required a certain maintenance.
"Hold On. We’re not ready for you yet, Cardwell.”
Dr. Heiney pressed three fingers on my head at around 7:10pm. By 9:45, the full moon was at its most visible point. My mother had chosen “Nikki,” a fine name, however, palm to cheek, my grandmother disapproved. With only hours after the birthing surgery, Grandma Brown jokingly responded to my father, “Archie, is she still on the medication?”
I didn’t have a name for several days.
When my moon came, I didn’t tend to her. First brown, then maroon rouge. My flannel nightgown held her stains for three months. It happened too fast. Ashy, elementary knees had been wandering around in the endless and mysterious fields. Now that I was bleeding, I walked along the edges of things, pretending to inspect the corn, leaving late mud traces on my mother’s mauve carpet.
My relationship to the moon became distracted by a metropolitan approach to precipitation. City folk surrendered to the rain-- their clothes, bags, briefcases would soak through, wading from block to block. Strangers would nod at other strangers from doorways, waiting for a chance to run again. Broken umbrellas would flap their tarped wings in garbage cans. Crowded bookstores would grow overcrowded by wet bodies and smeared glasses. Lake-sized puddles would nestle deep into street corners—their dirty and deceptive mud color mimicking the funky concrete of the street. Often, you would see an impatient pedestrian trudging above their ankles as they waited for the traffic light to change. Days prior, sometimes hours, voices would whisper, “Do you see the moon?”
The subway is a roaring calamity. Keen straphangers gnash their teeth when their train unexpectedly switches lines, a howling choreography, a commuter’s rain dance.
A funny shift occurred when urban dwellers started to rely on smartphones to alert them to an incoming storm. The faux blues and yellows would buzz with reminders to wear water resistant shoes or force an umbrella into a tote bag. Weather reports should always be accompanied by the moon phase, a system which the Farmer’s Almanac had down to a science. But now, even the Farmer’s Almanac has an app.
If the weather is a cycle, led by the moon, how can we align our bodies with the change in temperature? Her phases? The swollen discomfort in my breasts brought me to the window—pace reduced, ready to observe the disoriented heathen tugging at life every six weeks. She is watching, too, hefty and golden—daring us to ignore her. I cannot. I pattern my blood by moonrise. I follow the farmers following the moon. The predictions were always the same. Before growing full, the moon must create her storm.
Several days after the first full moon of the summer, I started my first adult swimming lesson. I never learned how to swim. My lessons were cut short as a child, so I grew up fearful of the deep end. I have always loved to warm my body with the water, up to my neck. Bouncing, but never floating. The lessons were a prescriptive decision- a combination of facing the unknown with a little bit of the known. The YMCA in my hometown was in an old and renovated office building. The pool was most likely the size of five New York apartments gutted to inject five chlorinated feet. I remember my mother in her tie-dye swimsuit, rounded belly decorated with the zigzags of a body invaded twice by her daughters.
My orange swim cap made me look like a scoop of sherbet atop brown sugar cone skin. The Modell’s cashier said, “you'll need goggles” but I felt that I was running too late to grab them. I made it, though; smiling confidence into the eyes of my new classmates. Everyone stood in a row-- hunched and cowering. One woman was shivering. The pink and red swim caps fit tightly on each head. There were ten of us women and only one man. Everyone’s suits were colorful beach attire—palm trees, slanting brand names, abstract flowers— ready for summer vacations. I tugged less at my low cut black toggle swimsuit with a crisscross neckline. Everyone but me had goggles.
These lessons were a graduate school completion gift, like a medal or a skill more substantial that my artistic pursuit. My shadow told me that I must not look that different from my memory of my mother’s tie-dye; thin arms, tiny chicken legs, and a wide torso, drawn in at the waist. I hadn’t expected to inherit her shape. Memory contains only patches of her. I am unable to predict how she would have aged. Did the moon affect her as well? The holes in my memory are filled with death’s nearness. Not only the end, when my heart stops and there’s no more rain. But the need to walk more slowly, to sit down, to say “good night.” “I feel old,” is a foolish thing that I routinely allow to burden me. It seems that I want to grow old. That growing older could somehow surpass death, and bring me closer to remembering her. The moon.
The artificial brightness of the water matched the transient scent of the pool—every pool smells this way. That and the missing goggles was interrupting the mental picture I had fabricated for my first lesson. The smell, in fact, called up more summer memories: itchy sand in my crotch, choking on pool water, and white girls with green hair. My feet slapped the linoleum as I wandered around for an empty spot between women. I slid in next to the shivering woman, whose purple ruffle skirt flanked her hips. My eyes fixed disappointedly on a young man with the clipboard. It occurred to me then that it was important that my instructor was woman, almost as important as my gynecologist being a woman.
Our actual instructor arrived, and the young man walked toward the lifeguard stand. Her outdoor clothes were quickly removed and she tucked her waist-length, loose, brunette waves into her pearly staff swim cap. She was my petite height, Latina, kind yet cerebral with her explanations.
“No knees! Kick with your hips!”
She reminded me of a Cuban woman who lived next door to me freshman year in college, named after an African country. She instructed us to get into the water and I was shocked at the timidity of the tender toes around me. Sheer terror blushed all of our faces— whole and unruly. We began with bubbles. Breathe through your nose. My instincts from those brief lessons returned to me. One by one the instructor came by to inspect our progress. She told me,
"Oh you breathe from both sides. I can't do that. It's hard. But what it means is, you are actually more balanced."
My laughter echoed. “Balanced” isn’t a word I would use for myself. I began to wonder if I could practice this balance.
It was shocking how much of a phenomenon it had been to others when they realized I couldn’t swim. I’d been ashamed, in that everyone is talking about book you haven’t read, but are too ashamed to admit that “no, you don’t know if Mara returns from Africa” way. They would say,
“But you won’t drown, right?”
Slowly, with eye contact, I would repeat, “I can’t swim.”
Which meant, No. I’m not the kind of girl that you could throw in and expect to flail about and survive.
And there were other women like me.
The only man in the class was of the nervous sort; his cap kept sliding to the top of his head like a too-small stocking.
My belly was growing, filling up. “I’m bleeding,” I told myself, confident with my tampon and prediction. I placed my hands on the edges of the pool.
Bubbles cascaded along my body, tickling my shoulders and ears. As familiar as the fear, so was the feeling of the water. All the skin around me was brown and puckering. There was a shift in energy, and eventually some of the others joined me in the brevity and shock of taking care of one’s body. Healing. The women, the mothers, the single, the students. I concocted stories; writing my feminist Farmer’s Almanac. One of the women was a mother whose kids were in summer school. And the woman shivering next to me, was in hesitant preparation for her honeymoon in Maui. I wanted to introduce myself, to find out their actual stories, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready yet.
When class ended, we scurried into the locker room, dripping and avoiding one another. It was pleasant to be naked with other bodies. Soft and similar. Smooth, rippling. Hairy, shaved. Scarred and swollen. I went straight towards the bathroom stall and began to peel off my swimsuit, like shedding a layer of temporary skin. I gathered the plump, brown donut shape of my belly button into my palm, and grazed the tiny black hairs sprinkling all around. The sound of my spine was like an old door as I hinged over between my legs. The gold necklace that held my mother’s wedding band rested on the roll of toilet paper when I discovered: no blood. Wasn’t I timed by the moon?
Swimmers were milling around, avoiding eye contact, placing one leg into their underwear at a time. I followed their lead and prepared to leave. The wooden bench was cold, adhering to my thighs. With three fingers, I smeared a heaping mound of shea butter evenly throughout my swollen moon crevices and pressed the pain away.
The electric tea kettle boils blue. It is made of glass and is encircled by an artificial “ocean” color at its base. It is the kind of blue you will find in fish tanks or lighting the carpet walkways of an aquarium. The light doesn’t color the water; it only gives the illusion of blue. This is not the color of the pool. This is not the color of the rain.
Evenings, I will wait for the water to boil, in a vainglorious challenge called “water watching.” This will not make the water boil faster; it is a brief meditation with a two-minute expiration.
The water will boil. Bubbles will build and pop. Steam will press out, spitting condensation onto baby and wedding photos on our refrigerator. It is a body. Glass and rotund. Reliable. It became a body because I stared at it. I’ve come to rely on this, the glass body, the routine, as I’ve come to rely on pouring the water over three drops of oregano oil in my favorite pea green ceramic mug before going to bed. Oregano oil is “intended to eliminate toxins and support proper digestion,” the Farmer’s Almanac app says. The pungent sting of the oregano on my lips is the placebo; the blue boil and the green mug are comforting routine. The older that I become, a later bedtime wanes. Stillness waxes potent when my toes curl inside layers of blankets. There is a steadiness to my arms, a circular motion forward and back, balancing me on either side. I could be in the water again, even if the there is no water. I could be balanced. I could be full.
Erica Cardwell is a professor of English and Literature at the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence (’16). Erica has taught art and writing workshops at schools and universities across the country, such as: Barnard College, UC Berkeley, the New School, Emma Willard School for Girls, and her alma mater, Marymount Manhattan College. Her essays and reviews have appeared and are forthcoming for Hyperallergic, The Feminist Wire, Bitch Media, Rewire, The Believer, and Green Mountain Review. Erica is a board member of Radical Teacher Journal.