J is for June 21, the summer solstice, the day the summer sun lingers longest in the sky and bonfires burn on beaches, the day my father was born upstairs in a farmhouse near a bay called Keweenaw, which is an Ojibway word meaning portage, the carrying of a boat or its cargo between two navigable waters.
J is for Jim, the boy the girl across the street married, the sort of boy I might have chosen, or who would have chosen me, had I stayed — afraid of cities, afraid of travel, afraid of people who don’t look like him, resentful that his small town is shrinking and stores are boarded up, searching for someone to blame.
J is for jumping, the day after high school graduation, out of bed, into the car, onto an airplane, and then flying — out of the village, out of the Upper Peninsula, out of the Midwest — to a place in upstate New York where people asked for “soda” instead of “pop” as I stood by their rolled-down car windows in flip-flops and shorts holding pad and pencil.
J is for jo, pronounced YO, which means “already” in Finnish.
J is for jacket, made of soft brown buckskin, from the deer my father shot one November and had made into a fringed coat for my mother, who looked tall and regal as she tied the sash belt around her waist.
J is for jeans, torn at the knee, frayed at the cuffs, patched at the butt with a scrap of gingham cut in the shape of a hand with a raised middle finger, which I wore as I walked through the college dining hall.
J is for juvenile.
J is for the Jeep I rode in while hitchhiking from a backwoods bar to the main highway on a warm summer night, a hippy teen wearing my mother’s now fashionable buckskin jacket, and forgetting it in the back as I hopped out, giggling to get to the next party, the next thrill, and the Jeep sped away.
J is for jinx.
J is for jeering from the car driving by in 1968, the passenger side window cranked down, screams of “Nigger lover!” at my college boyfriend and me as we marched with the crowd of civil rights protestors.
J is for justice, awakening (still awakening).
J is for Jesuit, the kind priest who led the psychotherapy workshop in graduate school, in which I confessed to a roomful of twenty-something strangers that I had been molested when I was four years old by an uncle — one by marriage but not by blood, I was quick to point out, a differentiation that seemed to matter then, but no longer helps.
J is for the jack, bouncing in the cargo hold of the rusted four-wheel-drive vehicle I drove on bumpy two-rut roads through peninsular woods, car radio signal fading, to reach the pine-lined shore made of slanted gray rocks, and looked out toward the uninhabited island spiked with trees rising a quarter-mile offshore, a longed-for sanctuary at the end of the earth.
J is for Joan Baez, who sang to me of diamonds and rust.
J is for jerk, the name of my ex-husband in the years prior to and immediately following the divorce, until I decided that men, perhaps (just maybe), were human beings, too (it’s possible), and I released (some of, a little of) my anger and self-righteousness, until, that is, I took them all back.
J is for jealousy.
J is for the jig is up, which is what I thought when I opened the credit card statement and saw my ex’s gasoline charge at the gas station near his lover’s home.
J is for jilted.
J is for joining, for sitting on folding chairs, listening to other women, writing down everything they said, and then doing it — creating a business out of thin air to support myself and my two small children.
J is for Jordan, my one and only son, who became my second daughter, and then became my only daughter, when the first daughter turned away.
J is for Jay, who, early in our relationship, responded to my saying, as I stood at his kitchen sink with my back to him, that I was very angry with him, not by one-upping me with “Oh, yea? Well, you make me angry” (as my brothers would have done), but by freezing in place, folding his hands in front of him, and saying, with sorrow and certainty, “Tell me more.”
J is for jackpot.
J is for Julia, Jordan’s online nom de guerre, as she explored what it might mean to be transgender.
J is for Joyce, my husband’s dead wife, whose ghost sometimes walks in the attic above our bedroom, where, on the first night I stayed over, four months after she died, I pulled open a vanity drawer in search of toothpaste and found instead her yellow tumbled wigs.
J is for a jury of my peers.
J is for japonica, the glossy shrub in my raised bed, which every fall sets next year’s beady flower buds, as if refusing to wait for a spring that may never come.
J is for Jew by choice, walking naked out of the mikvah, Hebrew prayers printed on tile walls, after immersing and emerging three times, chanting the Sh’ma, washing away what was and welcoming what was to come.
J is for Jesus, whom I left behind, hanging alone, half-clothed, on his sturdy cross in the warm light of the cool silent Lutheran church.
J is for judgment.
J is for jokes, for pet names and teasing, laughter at midnight, a shared pillow, the comfort of catchphrases known only to us.
J is for juutalainen, pronounced YOO-tah-ly-nen, which is what my Finnish grandparents would call me, without malice but with surprise, if they were alive today and saw the chai necklace hanging between my breasts.
J is for jeopardy, for feeling curiously unbalanced, and a doctor’s voice on the phone saying, There’s something in there, but it’s benign — a nickel-sized shadow on the MRI, deep inside the brain, cleaved to the nerve in one of the ears I use to hear Mahler’s Fifth, birds chirping, a whistling teapot, Coltrane, my husband’s murmured lovings.
J is for the juniper in my city patio, under whose branches a rabbit creates a shallow nest and births four bunnies huddled silently behind a screen made of her plucked grey fur, pushed aside when she enters to feed them (is it always enough?) only at dawn and at dusk (is she ever too late?).
J is for the journey to the surgical suite, riding a wheeled bed down empty hallways, past counters and monitors and striped curtains on metal rings, into a dazzling room where masked figures in white fuss with tubing and wires, their backs to me (will no one look at me?), then nine hours of numb silence (my husband pacing the waiting room) as they probe through a trapdoor in my skull.
J is for joy, for being half-deaf but still singing, because water doesn’t feel bruised, it just flows around islands, lifts driftwood onto shores, and suspends on its surface waxy lily pads whose blossoms open to the sky.
J is for jubilation, as Jordan and her wife stood hand-in-hand in long white gowns on a Malibu mountaintop.
J is for justifying, for mistakes remembered and brushed away, for sitting instead of rising, regrets stacked like cold pancakes, sipping shot glasses of truth when a whole bottle would drown you.
J is for jetty, a structure of stones and piles, a long arm projecting into the stillness of Lake Superior, whose grey-blue sheen reflects the clouds, an arm to protect the harbor, deflect the current, reaching out, curving around, as if trying to embrace the shore.
J is for jetsam, cargo purposely tossed overboard.