Poetry and paramecia

THE day the microscope arrived, I focused on a drop of water from my turtle's dish and yelled ``Wow.'' Beneath the lens a tardigrade, or water bear, lumbered by on eight legs like a mutant grizzly. Each time I breathed out, a crowd of living teacups, called vorticellas, coiled their stems into tight springs. Nearby, a rotifer swept supper into its mouth with a whirling disk of tiny hairs. I was the giant in control, safe from the risks of being 13 years old.

Already the tallest and the shyest girl in eighth grade, I'd longed for a way to escape. The answer had come with the fall Sears, Roebuck catalog. Using money earned picking raspberries, I'd ordered myself a microscope.

Eager to claim new small worlds after a week of turtle water, I began to prowl our house for promising fluids. Nothing was too sacred or foul for exploration: water from my mother's birthday bouquet, even blood from my sister's baseball-bumped nose.

Every night after school I retreated to my bedroom laboratory, played ``Fingal's Cave'' on the record player, and watched amoebas engulf unsuspecting paramecia. No longer did I have to deal with short boys with alarming tufts of hair on their chins, or girlfriends who spent their afternoons drinking green rivers at the Dutch Cup Caf'e. I read biological supply house catalogs like other girls read romances, fantasizing about petri dishes, slide covers, and Chinese liver flukes bottled in formaldehyde. In the microscopic world, even reproduction was often safely asexual. Paramecia divided in two. Hydras grew buds.

My life changed one day when I was reading a book on diatoms in the library. James Krengel, the shyest (and smartest) boy in eighth grade, came up behind me and asked, ``Have you ever looked through a microscope?''

``Wow!'' I thought to myself. It was then I began to reenter the world of people and love and sadness.

In eighth grade there was a teacher shortage, so we endured a series of substitutes. None of them taught science. James and I rebelled. Unknown to our teachers, we hid in the tiny school library where we read all the science books and wrote secret papers on Sputnik and stag beetles. And one day, as we knelt to dip water from a stagnant pond, he looked at me and took hold of my hand.

That summer my mother gave me a collection of Theodore Roethke's poetry. At first I was drawn to the ``slug soft stems'' and ``ground bones'' of his greenhouse poems. Then, as I went on to share secrets with my girlfriends at slumber parties and ride the Ferris wheel with James at the state fair, my leg against his in the rickety seat, I grew to love Roethke's ``shadow white as stone'' and song ``within a flame.''

Now that I am grown, groups of children ring my old oak table for science workshops. Together we make spore prints, experiment with aerodynamics. When I am alone, poetry comes out of me like dreams. I write of the sorrows and songs within myself, shaping them from sunken alders, wishing rocks, and the flash of black beetles burrowing away from my hands.

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