dammit Wittgenstein

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein

SO….dammit. Again this needs a very quick writing while I can hang onto it and it’s likely to be chaotic because the whole point of it is that, and dammit this is about losing story but how do I tell that in a linear story? [This post more fully articulates what I was working my way toward in yesterday’s chat.]

Breathe.

About three months after we met

When Marc and I first met, he used to say that Wittgenstein line to me when I’d be thick in the midst of storytelling, and I’d pause to ask him what he thought. He’d say that line and it used to piss me off SO MUCH. Before I met him, I gave a glancing acknowledgement to this line — loved Wittgenstein, didn’t much care for this point but just shrugged and moved on. But oh how he loved it. I used to get so frustrated, because I thought, then where does that leave you?  And in fact that’s Wittgenstein’s point. Still, I wanted to talk, I wanted to tell my stories, and tell my stories I did. Oh how I have told my stories. I’ve told them endlessly. I’ve written them endlessly on this and earlier blogs. If we know each other in real live person you’ve heard them — not endlessly, I hope, but you’ve heard them more than once. I told my stories over, and over, and over. I’m not sure why, exactly; it wasn’t that I wanted people to tell me it was wrong, all the things that happened to me, because I knew that already. And the only person whose acknowledgement mattered, my mother, would never, ever say it. My father is dead and can never say it, and never did during his life. My stepfather did extend a small apology. But it’s her acknowledgement that mattered, and that was never going to come, and the acknowledgement by therapists and people who love me wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve never been sure why I told those stories over and over, but I did. I have.

And at the same time, I’ve also thought and written a lot about our “little stories,” and about chunking, and about the complexity and difficulty of plucking out the story, and the value of shifting frames, etc etc etc etc. I understood all this intellectually. I’ve always been good at the cerebral part.

And neuroscience has shown us that with each retrieval of a memory, it shifts. The purest, most “true” memory is the one that isn’t ever recalled.

And psychological linguistic analysis has shown us that people who recover from trauma tell their stories differently each time, and those who fail to recover from it tell it in a fixed, unchanging way. Just as I have done. You’ve probably had a strange feeling of having heard me tell a story exactly the same way. The same exact sentences and emphases.

And so now. I finally, finally arrive at the point.

This three-dimensional, moving insight I’ve had about my dad — that does seem to be extending to my mother — necessarily extends outward to my stories! How can I tell any of them any more? How can I insist on the certainty of them any more? Not the certainty of whether they happened, but the certainty that that is in fact the story. And setting aside the telling of them to others, how can I even tell them to myself any more?

My mind tilts and the floor is moving, like the deck of a ship on open ocean. What can I say? I had a complicated and difficult childhood. Yeah, I can say that, and that’s that. I survived a complicated and difficult childhood. I adored my grandfather, Big Daddy. I married young and had three kids young. Mister Rogers is my hero. My father died of suicide when I was 23. I started college at 36, when my first husband and I divorced, and I finished a PhD at 45. My first granddaughter died, and I have three grandchildren who call me Pete, as Big Daddy did, and they make me so so happy. My son has estranged himself from my family for years and that’s the hardest thing I have to bear. My daughters mean everything to me. After living together for seven years in Manhattan, my husband and I lived apart for five years and now we have a home together in the mountains, where I am very happy. We have traveled together so happily and seen so much of the world, and learned that we love Vietnam and Laos and Southeast Asia. I’ve been so happy in my life. I’ve attempted suicide twice, quite seriously. I want to live to see great-grandchildren if I am lucky enough to pull that off. I’m very happy. I’m complex. I’m intelligent. I make things. I read. It’s snowing right now. It’s almost Christmas, 2017.

I don’t know what else I can say, any more. It leaves me with just this string of sentences about how I got to this very moment — a singular set, like everyone else’s, but not more than that. Simple sentences, subject-verb. No insight words, no because, or since. I can’t even elaborate on any one of those sentences, they’re tiny spots inside a moving whorl. Now I can only really look at this moment, right now. I can think about what the future might hold. To look backwards is to see the universe. To see so much is to know so little.

And it’s not simply about the ‘stories,’ the events of my life. It’s the interpretation of me within them. Even the one I told yesterday, that “I’m not good at persisting,” well how can that be true? In some ways I give up quickly but I have also persisted for 47 years to figure all this out — there is no “story” there. Or rather, there are too many things happening to say any one thing. To say “I persist” is as false as saying “I do not persist.” Must I qualify and expand everything I say, now? Must every statement be preceded by “Sometimes….”? I guess so.

Our first trip together, to Vietnam. This photo was taken in Ho Chi Minh City. We’d known each other 6 months.

And so I suppose I’ll be a big person and tell Marc he was right all along. Lucky for me he isn’t a gloater, and the best is that he is not one of those “told you so” people because I really hate “told you so” people.  I know one person who has been “told you so”-ing me about one thing for five damn years. NOT FUN, don’t do that. But Marc doesn’t do that, and he was right all along, and so maybe that will be one of my Christmas gifts to him. I wonder if he’ll think even that can’t be said. Probably, knowing him.

And so, to today. It’s Christmas Eve Eve.  <3

life can be such a wonder

One thing they often say in AA is, “Don’t give up before the miracle.” Easy to see the relevance for addicts, scooting so painfully through minutes and hours and days, but of course it’s true for everyone — and I’m so guilty of giving up too quickly. It’s one of my most problematic struggles; I hit a roadblock and throw up my hands, and some particular roadblocks are especially hard for me. I deeply admire those who persist, who keep coming back and trying again — gosh, I admire that so much. I can readily call to mind two friends whose persistence is a source of inspiration for me.

Waiting for the miracle requires patience, obviously, but I also think you have to be able to let be what is, without rushing to force it into where you want to be. I do think that’s one of the secrets of life, and of course I think you’ll only eventually get there if you keep at it. It’s not going to happen all on its own. (Although dang it, sometimes it does, and so maybe I don’t know anything after all. 🙂 )

So here’s the wonder, for me. The miracle. This thing with my dad. This thing with old deep wounds — deep, like a puncture, so they produce an ache instead of a wince. This thing with time. This thing with process. Yesterday I was doing some house cleaning, dancing and feeling so happy with the solstice, enjoying the very bright sunshine while we had it, and my playlist shuffled over to “Christmas Time is Here,” from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The vocal version, the one that has, for 47 years, punched me so hard in the heart that I couldn’t not cry. I couldn’t not remember, and feel all those old puncture wounds so deep in my heart. I mean really, who breaks up the family on Christmas Eve MOTHER. Seriously.

I believe this was taken a couple of weeks before my mother left my father — we seem about the right ages. And HOW DECEIVING looks can be. We look like well cared-for children, happy kids. I had no idea what was coming, but my life was already sad and awful then…and I just didn’t know that it would get so, so, so much worse. I remember that dress, my mother made them for my sister and me, red velvet. We wore them with white tights and black shoes. And my brother’s shirt was blue velvet, with a blue and green collar. We were sitting on the coffee table with our legs extended out in front of us, and my brother Sam stood behind us. What we didn’t know, then. Grateful for that. I rescued this photo from a dumpster — Mother called me to say that she’d dumped everything that had me in it and there weren’t many photos, but this was recoverable.

And so I paused in my sweeping, and stood there, listening, and it was OK. I smiled. It’s OK now. I remember without the ache. Now I remember, and it’s OK. It makes me feel tender but not hurt.

OK, you might say, for God’s sake it was 47 years ago for heaven’s sake — and so you don’t understand how deep a puncture wound can be, when it’s made at just the right moment in a young girl’s heart.

One of my first Christmases — I was around 2 years old, and apparently very excited about my watch (what??), a pinwheel, a harmonica, a doll, and a pack of gum. Hell, most of that would make me happy today. I still make that face when I’m given a gift, but I no longer wear the Cromwell haircut.

Thank GOD for time and process. At my age, I hadn’t really thought I could fully heal those old wounds. I’ve been at it such a long time. So much trying, always with hope even if it was small. It’s such a wonder to be able to approach these things that have always hurt, and not feel hurt any more. Such a wonder. Such a wonder to feel real peace — not tentative peace, not partial peace, not an idea that I might one day feel peace, but real peace. The peace of letting it be, the peace of letting be what was.

I believe with all my heart Faulkner’s great line about the past: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” I believe that. But what I learned is that even if it’s not dead, even if it’s still present, it can be OK. It doesn’t have to keep hurting . . . what a wonder! What a wonder. Grief can find its place and be OK, really OK. Still there but really OK. One of the puzzle pieces, that’s all – maybe the black piece there at the edge, or even in the middle, but just a piece connected to all the others. Pain can find its place and not hurt any more, even if it’s still in the puzzle. Just, wow. What a wonder.

And now, to shift the word wonder, I wonder if I can use this learning to help me do something with my mother — I’ve never tried to deal with her because she’s been too mysterious to me, but maybe I don’t even have to. Maybe all that I said in my post on December 20 can apply to her, too. Maybe I can just let her be, too. Maybe that was a huge enough insight to allow me that gift.

I wonder. And I wonder.  WOW.

I’m 59. Fifty-nine years old.

No matter how old I get — or maybe it’s just true the older I get — I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people are unwilling to say their real age. (Or why they dye their hair to hide grays, for that matter, though dyeing your hair for a cool color really is loads of fun.) FOR ME, every day that I get to keep living is a wonder.

I’m 59 today: thirteen years older than my dad ever got to be; decades older than I ever imagined I’d see, since I never thought I would make it out of my teens alive; decades of life I got to live despite a couple of suicide attempts (thank God for guns that misfire and for other saviors); and today celebrating in a place I never could have imagined even if I’d tried.

Last year on my birthday, I thought we’d have our first female president a couple of days later so I was filled with excitement and hope for that. And then two days later — while I was still celebrating my birthday fortnight — the world crashed and burned around me and this past year has been its own kind of hell, that all of us around the world know, and we in this country are suffering through. It ruined my birthday joy last year, although that was certainly the least significant aspect of it that one could possibly imagine. It has been a brutal year. I’ve gained 22 pounds from stress eating, even though I’ve been essentially hiding in the mountains for the last few months and I have not watched anything on television since the election because there doesn’t seem to be any program that doesn’t include clips of him speaking.

SO, to happier perspectives. I’m 59 today. I have three glorious, glorious grandchildren, and my daughters are the light of my life. My son is still hiding from us all, and it hurts as much today as it did from the beginning, but he is alive and so there remains hope. My husband and I are enjoying our lives together, in this way we’ve fashioned that works so well for us both. I live in this glorious place — never would’ve imagined such a thing! — with my beloved creeks and bench, and mountains and forests all around, and beautiful solitude. I can also live in Manhattan whenever I wish or need, with my beloved Riverside Park just right over there, and people and buildings all around, and beautiful noise.

My mind still works, and as long as this sleep remedy works, my mind is working a little better every day, I feel the sharpness starting to be visible in the distance, at least. My body still works, and if I can just re-establish my yoga practice it will return to its strength and flexibility that it had before the election. My health is fantastic, not just in terms of the absence of illness, but in the robustness of life. I’m extremely lucky, and I thank whatever combination of genes and good fortune for it, and promise to try to help keep that going. I want to be around a very long time, until I’m just a dusty little bag of bones that hardly makes an indentation in the bed, where I hope to die peacefully in my sleep….decades from now. (I’m now only 5’8″!!!! I was 5’11” so this is startling, but I guess I’m on the path to the dusty little bag of bones. 😉 )

The state of my inner life is perhaps the best it has ever been. Getting older really does do wonders for you — at least, it has for me. It’s kind of hard to parse this, since the trauma of this Republican nightmare is an ongoing source of stress and awfulness for me, but if I pause and let that sit off to the side (as if you can do such a thing), I am more at peace with myself than I’ve been yet in my life. I’m at peace with my dad, I got to ‘thank’ my darling Big Daddy for what he gave me, I’m comfortable with my physical self, I can accept the good things I recognize about myself, and the bad things about me feel less stabby and hateful. Maybe this is an aging kind of laziness; when I become aware of my weaknesses and my flaws, I just kind of shrug — ah, well, maybe next time. And it’s hard to figure out why I’ve spent my life trying to act like I’m not an intelligent and serious person, but I have and I don’t feel the need to do that any more.

In my last year of life, we traveled to Indonesia, and we bought this house. We drove the 16′ truck from Austin to Heaventree, and I started an entirely new way of living. I visited my wonderful Marnie-family in Chicago three times (once in March, once in July en route to Heaventree with my car, and once in October), and I went back to Austin to see my marvelous Katie-family once in October. I had countless drinks and dinners with friends who keep my life filled with laughter and connection and our shared hearts. Lynn came to Heaventree, our very first visitor. I read a bunch of great books (the best being Her Body and Other Parts, by Carmen Maria Machado; Antigonick, by Anne Carson, Human Acts, by Han Kang; and House of Names, by Colm Toibin). For the very first time in our lives together, Marc and I didn’t take a fall vacation and I grieve that a little bit, but we bought the house and sank a lot of money into it so that’s the balance.

Here is my year in people-pictures, and seeing each one makes my heart swell to nine times its size. I’m not even going to try to put them in chronological order, and they don’t represent everyone I was lucky enough to see, but scanning through them shows me how very lucky I’ve been. (hover over a photo to see its caption, or you can click to see them as a slideshow if you’re interested.)

I also started doing my little daily “creekside chats” on Facebook and that has been an unexpected joy and growth experience for me. I’ve become so much easier with myself, as a result. I feel differently about my mouth, as a result, and those decades of shame seem to have crumbled and fallen away into dust. I have the deep feeling of having started my day with people I love, seeing your faces and saying good morning, and sharing my view of the world around me.

Thank you for your friendship, your comments, your presence here and in my larger life. Thank you for your well wishes, and for your care. Thank you for the various kinds of help you’ve given me over the last year, and most especially for the way you share your lives with me, however that may be. You definitely help make my life the full joy that it is.

So here’s to 59! May I gather myself together and lose the dreaded T-weight that signifies my trauma. May I continue to have good health, and may my children and grandchildren do the same. May you stay healthy and happy, and in my life. May I read good books. May I relish my solitude at Heaventree, and my noisy happiness in Manhattan. Happy birthday to me.

(And looking ahead to my next birthday, I put in my gift wish list now, so you can prepare. I turn 60 ON ELECTION DAY, the mid-term elections. I just want one thing, and for once I’ll ask everyone for a gift. Just vote blue. Just vote blue and that’s all the gift I need.) (Think about it, I’ll ask again a couple of days before the date.) <3

We just ARE who we ARE

When I was younger, I thought we made ourselves into who we are, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that we come into the world exactly who we are, and the world does what it will do to us — but who we are was there from the beginning. And so I peer intently into my grandchildrens’ eyes…..Oliver, there from the start, exactly who he is. Ilan, there he is, I will know him always. Lucy, our delight and laughing glory, present from the get-go. And funny little mannerisms, I notice those too — physical examples of the same inner self that’s present. (And for that matter, my own children are who they’ve always been. It’s the most remarkable thing to realize. They were always there, right from the beginning, and I didn’t quite realize this yet.)

And I have always been who I am. Of course. I could be nothing else. I didn’t choose these things, we don’t choose these things, they just are. We just are. I’ve been reading Anne Carson every morning (Plainwater, at the moment, lingering with my morning coffee), and as she is trained as a classicist, there are references to Sokrates [her spelling], and Sappho, and in other works, Autobiography of Red, Herakles and Geryon. I have to regularly read The Odyssey, and I cannot wait to read An Odyssey. If you want to talk about Dante, I have a fondness for the John Ciardi translation, since it was the first one I read when Katie was a baby, but the newer translation by the Hollanders is so remarkable it’s my favorite.

When I was eight years old (-ish), I saw a commercial on television for a set of records that I wanted SO BADLY. I wanted to claw out my thigh muscles, I wanted them so badly. So I begged my dad to order them for me, with a promise to pay him back out of my allowance — which I did, and it took me a couple of years. When they arrived in the mail I was beside myself with excitement. I ran downstairs to my bedroom and played them on my junkie little record player (not a Fisher Price, but not much more than that) and 51 years later I still remember how that music made me feel. How huge. How outside-of-language. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know anything about it except how it made me feel.

Somehow, I have NO idea how, I still have the set.

Looks pretty good for 51 years old!
the selections

When I look at the records themselves, I see that I had clear favorites: Beethoven’s Symphony in C; Swan Lake; Peer Gynt (which I would go on to introduce my children to, with a fun game); Die Fledermaus (which I would go on to play in orchestra, on my flute, such a fun little part to play). Those tracks are worn down, and I can close my eyes and remember exactly how they made me feel. I was eight, I didn’t have any understanding of them AT ALL, didn’t know what they were, didn’t know the composers (or that there were “composers”), but they made me feel something big that I couldn’t put in words, and I needed them. I needed them badly enough to endure the cost.

My mother hated me for it, and told me over and over that I was just pretending to like it. That I was just “being that way,” which was so confusing to me because I had no idea what way I was “being” except for myself . . . but it was clearly shameful, and showing off, and acting as if I was something I wasn’t. My love of books was also a shameful thing, and among other reasons she shamed me for it, one terrible thing was that I chose reading over being with her and what pathetic priorities I had. So I became as tiny as I could. I hid my books and crawled underneath my bed with them, pulling myself as far back into the corner as I could, tucking pillows along the edge so I’d have warning if she came into my room so I could hide the book before she found me. Every year I won the school award for having read the most books, and I burned with the shame of that, and was grateful that she never came to the school for those ceremonies. I waited until she left the house to listen to my records, and I felt so much shame. Why did I need such shameful things?

She did her job very well, because it’s something I still, to this day, have to resist. The tug is very small at this point, but it’s always there. When I want to share my love of the kind of books I love, for example, I flinch a little bit at her shaming of me. And then, since I’m fifty-fucking-eight years old and have done a lot of work, of course I talk about them anyway. I don’t care, or judge you, if you don’t like Sophocles and Antigone and Homer. I don’t care if you’ve never read Dante, or Melville. I don’t care if you don’t have favorite passages of poetry, if you don’t have an impulse to name your home after a little phrase from a book by James Joyce. I don’t care! YOU BE YOU!! I just have to be me, too.

I was mindful of this when my kids were little, and tried to encourage whatever they were interested in, but this is a privilege of being a grandmother: I’m that much further down the road with it and now I stare into them and HAVE to encourage them to be exactly who they are, whoever that will be. I want to help them more than anything else in this world. They will be who they are, and that’s the most important thing in this whole world to me. I need them to be exactly who they are. They need to be exactly who they are. It’s not like I’ll be fighting their moms and dads — my kids are absolutely wonderful parents, encouraging their children — and whoo boy do they have an ally in their Pete. The kids are very little right now, all under the age of four, but when they start needing to be themselves more loudly, they’re going to find me grinning at them, begging them to come out and play.

Lucky me. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

is it always just Groundhog Day?

So many crossing, parallel lines, so many coming-back-tos, it can be dizzying once you start noticing them. When I left New York in November, 2012, after a couple of weeks in Austin I had to fly back to NYC to pack up my books and ship them to Austin. I was sorry to leave my cozy new place that was still in pupa form, really, not fully created, not fully settled, not all the way mine yet, to return to a painful place that I had painfully left.

The emotion isn’t the same, at all, but I’ve been here a couple of weeks and today I fly back to Austin to retrieve my car — and I’m sorry to leave my cozy new place that is still in pupa form, really, not fully created, not fully settled, not all the way mine yet. The only difference is that I didn’t painfully leave Austin, except for the pain of parting.

And most disappointing, I’m only going to be in Austin for one full day (with a night on either side) and I won’t have a spare moment to see any of my beloveds except for Katie and family….so grateful to see them of course, and to spend as many hours with them, with Lucy and Oliver, as I possibly can. I am sorry I won’t get to see friends, and I will hold space the next time I come to Austin for a get-together. Since I just made the 2000-mile trip, making it again is just kind of mind-numbing, so I’m taking a different route for two reasons: first, to take a different route because for heaven’s sake; and second, to make a pit stop in Chicago to see Marnie and family, which will allow me to soak up a little Ilan and break the trip in half. All in all I will be gone a week, arriving late on Monday night back at Heaventree.

I’m sad to leave this beautiful place so quickly, and I’m so looking forward to hugging and kissing and soaking up babies, and to seeing my daughters and their husbands, and to spending one night with my dear Dixie, and to seeing a different part of the country — up and over to the right, instead of across to the right and then up. But then, when I finally make it back home, all my stuff will be in one place. Whatever I want, it will be available. There’s still some stuff at the apartment in the city, my big Nikon camera and a bunch of baking gear, but Marc will bring that or I’ll fetch it at an upcoming trip. My stepdaughter is coming to the city at the end of July so I’ll drive down for that weekend.

But y’all. Home. Quiet, beautiful home. Since I learned I would be moving here, I started following as many Catskills-related Instagram and FB pages as I could find, and yesterday a caption on an IG photo talked about how lucky the person feels to live in such a beautiful place — still, after all these years — even though it isn’t always an easy place to live. And it isn’t, I can tell already, for all kinds of reasons. I don’t even yet know what winter is going to be like, and I feel all Game of Thrones-ish about it (Winter is coming!!!!). I mean, if you do a Google Image search for ‘winter in the Catskills, you get shots like this, and I somehow think it’s gonna be harder than this great picture suggests:

oh sure, snowshoeing is going to be lots of fun!

So today is fly day, and I remember that other fly day when my heart was crushed and my bones felt too heavy to keep moving, and I’m so grateful that today my heart is light and my bones are eager to fly, even though I will miss my sweet home.

* * *

A couple of PS points:

  • Thank you for your extraordinary kindnesses to me in response to my last post. I wasn’t expecting it, for some reason, even though I know you are always so kind and generous to me. Maybe the “Lori who?” made me feel so small and invisible that I had forgotten that others know me. I don’t know. Anyway. Thank you for all the love and beautiful words (that I insist mean much more about who you are than who I am), and for the big-hearted and very wise advice I got. I’m OK. It’s not echoing in my heart any more. xoxoxox
  • SO! You know how I’ve talked about bears up here, but I hadn’t seen one yet.  There is a house at the tail end of the private road I’m on, and we were invited to a picnic there on Saturday, something they organize every year. It was nice to meet them (excellent politics one and all, including some old red diaper baby connections). At the moment they are just here on weekends, but in a year or so they’ll be moving here permanently. They have a webcam on their house and they frequently catch wildlife on it, including this great shot of “the local big fella”:
a couple of weeks ago, right before we moved in! COME BACK, BIG FELLA!

I won’t be posting anywhere until I get back to Heaventree, but I’ll be around FB and IG once in a while, probably with pictures of grandbabies and daughters, knowing me. You know. 🙂

xo

the limit of my courage

When we moved away from that little house on Whiteway, it was into a house that my father designed and built, and my mother decorated. It was 1968 and the house was the very height of modern: split-level, sunken living room upstairs, kitchen with black slate floors and countertops and fire engine red appliances (where did she find a fire engine red refrigerator, I have no idea), her giant bathroom with two full mirrored walls lined with Hollywood lights and a custom-built bathtub paved with small hexagonal charcoal tiles, and black vinyl wallpaper with giant white polka dots. The front door was red, and the siding on the front of the house was charcoal gray. It sounds kind of lurid, now, but boy was it stylish then. My dad’s specialty was lighting, and we had this really tremendous chandelier-type fixture hanging in the split-level stairway, a kind of spiral of lights, although about a month after we moved in he shattered the globes in a furniture-throwing rage, so the bare bulbs just hung in the space the rest of the time we lived there, jagged remnants of the globes still in place like ugly fangs.

The house was giant, it was stylish, and I think my mother felt like she had finally arrived. She was 28 years old, ambitious, smart, and savvy, and she steadily traded up and up and up and up: a tiny starter home in Austin, a nicer one, a nicer one, and then a custom built home.

Back when we moved out to Westlake Hills, a now super wealthy area in southwest Austin, it was wild. There were some nice homes, but there were also tiny little houses that were falling down. There were well-off and well-educated upper middle class people, but there were also very ignorant and uneducated lower-class people. The school district was good, and the location was sure to become what it actually did become, but we got out there in the early days of it, when there was so much empty, wild land. My parents built their house at #16 Sugar Shack, a street name that always makes people laugh. I wish I knew who named it; the other streets around are Rollingwood, Ridgewood, Yaupon, Redbud Trail, etc., but we were on Sugar Shack. Somehow I imagine that delighted my mother.

It’s for sale now, $1,345,000 — price reduced by $55,000 — which means it’s also on Zillow. The blurb about it says it was stripped to the studs for a remodel, and BOY is that right. If you blindfolded me and dropped me inside the house, I would never know I lived there (though I wonder if the violence still lives in the air like particulates, and only I could feel its echoes). Rooms are all in new places, spaces have been reapportioned and I can’t get a sense of what I’m looking at. The kitchen is in the wrong place. There is now a wall of windows overlooking the canyon. It’s gorgeous.

The front of the house, which is still recognizable to me, and I like the new siding and door much better.

When I look at this picture, I remember my dad hauling large rocks up the driveway to landscape the yard, which was kept wild and natural.

Here he is, when the house was newly built, standing in the same driveway. I guess back then you worked outside in dress slacks and no shirt. I have his posture.

But you can see how wild it was, how undeveloped. The only homes on Sugar Shack were ours and the one next door, which belonged to two men who lived together and who were so fancy, with feathers and scarves, and who were — vaguely, and mysteriously — “in the theater.”

When I look at that house from the outside, here’s what I see. I see my mother’s pink Oldsmobile flying backwards down the driveway running over all the new kittens, and I hear them screaming. When I look at that house from the outside, I know the walls inside were full of holes punched into the drywall, either by my father’s fists or by furniture thrown.

the new deck — ours didn’t have stairs going down. The big window downstairs on the left was my bedroom, and it was completely darkened by the large deck. The narrow window was our bathroom, and the window on the right was my sister’s room.

When I look at this picture of the new back of the house, I recall the large deck we had that hung out into space, and my father standing on it, shimmering with rage and alcohol, hurling Cleo and Claudine, our cats, off into the canyon. I remember hoping they would die this time, and if they didn’t, that they would not come back, please don’t come back. They did come back, and I never understood why. I remember feeling jealous of them, they had a chance to get away and yet they kept coming back so that was utterly confusing.

When I look at this picture, and at my old bedroom window, I remember the night I saw one of the neighborhood boys standing there in the dark, looking into my room, staring at me. It was terrifying. A couple of months earlier he had come home from school to find his father hanging in their living room, and he was never ever right again. A few years later he tried to kill himself by throwing himself into Town Lake, off a bridge, but I think he survived that attempt. He lived at the corner of Hatley and Riley, and I drove by his house yesterday — which felt so tainted after his father hung himself — and saw that they’d torn down that old house and built a new one. It was one of the older, falling down homes even back then.

Gosh the kitchen does not belong there. That used to be the sunken living room. But the stairwell is the same — even though there are no holes in the walls — and they kept the idea of a long spiral light fixture, which is probably all anyone would do there. It’s so light, now, white walls, no heavy bloody colors, wood floors instead of shag carpeting. More windows. But all I can see are no holes in the walls.

When I look at those stairs, my heart starts pounding. My bedroom was right at the foot of the stairs, on the lower level, and how many times did I sit in my room, shaking so hard, watching those stairs as he came thundering down them. How many times did my sister and I clutch each other downstairs hoping so hard that the Longhorns would win the football game, because if they didn’t it was going to be so very bad for us.

This used to be Melissa’s and my own living room.

This is one of the few spaces in the remodeled house that I recognize; they kept the same fireplace, and those small windows are the same. We had pink and orange bead curtains hanging in front of them, and the fireplace was painted purple, I think — or maybe we had a purple couch and the fireplace was painted white. I can’t remember. I look at this space and remember “choreographing” a little dance to the Baja Marimba Band’s song “Coming in the Back Door,” which involved nothing more than tiptoeing around the coffee table with our shoulders up to our ears and our arms at our sides, hands turned out, going around and around and around, until the fast part came on and then it was jazz hand running, then back to the tiptoeing. I loved the song and the dance because it felt like giant joy erupting suddenly out of the quiet, and the joy of it filled me up to bursting. I remember doing the little dance for our mother, desperately wanting her approval, and I remember the look of disgust on her face. When we finished, she stood up without a word and went upstairs. I remember feeling like I must be poison.

this used to be my bedroom — it tickles me that they have maps on the wall

But of course when this room was mine, it looked very different. The walls were all painted black and the ceiling had a very ugly wallpaper of black, brown, and mustard wavy stripes. The window had a burlap pull shade. Mother decorated it and said it was what I would want, because it looked like a library. (WHAT??) I’m glad the room looks so different, because I don’t want to remember what happened in that space. My father knocked out my front tooth in that room, and that was definitely not the worst thing that happened there. How many hours I spent hiding in that closet. How fast the furniture flew around in that room. I hear the whizzing of his belt buckle past my ear as he’d whip it at me. I flinch, still, remembering the exploding shattering of glass when the belt buckle connected with a light fixture hanging in the corner, thick frosted glass flying everywhere.

This house — even the way it looked back then, with its gloomy charcoal siding and its red door — is the reason I look at beautiful homes with neverending suspicion. I always wonder if there’s a little girl inside, hiding under her bed and hoping this time they won’t find her. I always wonder if the walls are filled with holes. I always imagine that nothing inside matches the way it looks on the outside, in part because Mother told us that everyone was just like us, that everyone looked one way on the outside but the inside was exactly like us. That I shouldn’t be fooled by friends from happy families, they were just like us, stupid girl what an idiot to think otherwise.

That picture was taken at a party on a houseboat the summer we moved into the house. That’s my mother with the black hair and sunglasses, and my father holding the flag up — both of them so mod, so stylish, and so filled with hate for each other. My father was equally filled with hatred for himself. He didn’t hate us children, but we bore the brunt of all the hate he felt for himself, and all the hate he absorbed from my mother and from his mother. My beautiful, stylish mother hated that she was stuck with children, and with my father. She wanted more. She hated us for keeping her from having it.

When I see smiling, happy people having fun — like my parents seemed to be having on that houseboat party — I wonder what they are like at home. I imagine the stark difference, because I have been on the belt- and fist-end of that stark difference. I have been on the vicious cruel end of that difference. Less than two years after we built this house and moved in, my mother left my father (on Christmas Eve!) and my parents divorced. This house was the end of it all, though I didn’t have any way of imagining just how much worse my life was going to be.

So I had enough courage to get out of the car and walk slightly up the driveway to take a picture of the house. I used the Zillow picture instead, because it’s brighter and clearer, but I had enough courage to do that because the house looks SO different.

What I didn’t have enough courage to do, though, was to walk down Sugar Shack toward the house, as I used to do every day when the school bus dropped me off. I could’ve done that on Whiteway, even though I was always scared in that house. But I hit a brick wall of my courage on Sugar Shack, and sat in the car shaking and crying at the very idea of walking that old walk. Whatever remains of that girl I was on Sugar Shack, she is still utterly terrified.

A psychopath doesn’t start off telling you, “I know everything you think all the time, and I know everything you do when you are away from me.” They don’t start off telling you that — that’s clearly insane. But by the time they do tell you that, it’s not insane any more. By the time we lived in this house, on Sugar Shack, Mother told us that and I believed her. My father’s violence had ratcheted up by the time we lived here and nothing was safe. No one was safe. No moment was safe, any moment could suddenly shift into a nightmare. Sleeping wasn’t safe. Quiet wasn’t safe. Laughing wasn’t safe. Eating wasn’t safe. Watching a movie late at night with my father wasn’t safe. I was never, ever safe.

It’s OK. I didn’t have to take that walk yesterday. I can put my arms around myself now in a way I wish someone had done to that shivering, terrified girl with broken teeth and bloody gashed cheeks and broken bones and the small red cave of her entered and torn. I sent the Zillow link to Marc, who wrote me back saying, “wow, and so expensive.  I like our new house better.” I DO TOO. I love my new home. The walls will never have holes in them. The light fixtures will be, at worst, dusty. Fear won’t hide in dark spaces, and animals won’t be hurled off the deck. Beautiful food will be made in the kitchen. Laughing will be safe, sleeping will be safe. I will be safe. Except, maybe, from ticks.

16 Sugar Shack Dr, West Lake Hills, TX 78746.

soundtracks and road trips

My doctoral robes, 2003

The first time I left Texas for New York was April 2003. I had a job in Rochester, New York, with my new PhD. I’d fly back to defend my dissertation, a necessary formality, but I was finished. Graduate school was behind me, and a professional job waited for me in a place I’d never imagined. My first real professional job. I was 44 at the time, Katie was in college at the University of Texas, Marnie was at Smith College, and Will was living with his dad. I left on a really beautiful spring morning, very early, and how filled I was with hope and excitement. I had done this very hard thing, earned a doctorate, unfathomable, and everything waited for me. I’d made a CD full of songs I really loved, and as I headed up IH-35, and at the exact moment I drove past the apartment complex where my beloved Katie lived, Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” came on. I started laugh-sobbing.

I remember such intense feelings, in two irreconcilable directions, one pulling me to stop, to stay, and the other urging me forward: almost unbearable pain at driving away and leaving my Katie behind, there in her little apartment and without me in town, and almost unbearable joy. NEW YORK. Never mind that it was Rochester; little old me, from where I was from, I had a PhD and I was moving to New York.

I think I pulled my cheek muscles on that long road trip from grinning. My favorite Spice Girls song came up and I started laughing almost hysterically. I think I called one of the girls, laughing like a maniac. I remember laughing out loud again and again, just out of the audacity of my life. My car had a bumper sticker “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” which I didn’t really think about, until I crossed into Ohio and more than once was threatened by a scary guy in a pick-up with a gun rack, trying to run me off the road, and red-faced screaming as he shook his fist at me. I should’ve thought about it, since upon crossing into that state the highways were lined with flags, and they hung on every overpass. (What? I wondered. This is the north, they aren’t ignorant here!)

Riverside Park, MY park. You can have Central, I’ll take Riverside

Flash forward 14 years, and here I am about to make almost the same trip, from Austin to Big Indian instead of Rochester. This time, I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side, the most unimaginable thing ever ever ever. This time, I’m not leaving my beloved Katie alone in a small apartment; I’m leaving her behind with her husband and two precious children in their own sweet home. She is a wonderful, solid, loving mama and wife. This time, she heads a family. This time, when I listen to “New York State of Mind,” I have intimate knowledge of the things he references — the Hudson River Line, the NYT, the Daily News, Chinatown where Marc buys good food for us and where we eat at Nha Trang II (not I, II is better), Riverside, my beloved, beloved Riverside. It’s not just a song anymore. This time, a whole new ‘everything’ waits for me, urging me forward.

And so my mind turns toward the soundtrack for my upcoming road trip. Of course Spice Girls will be on it, and Donna Summer, and Light & Day, and some John Prine and some Nina Simone, and KC & the Sunshine Band OF COURSE, and local goodies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Schneider, but I think the song I’ll play as I’m pulling the truck away from the house will be an old Texas song, since I’ve been busy touching the old version of Texas I used to know, that used to exist. The old Texas dirt that my very bones are made of. The old Texas swing that pushes my blood along through my veins. I think I’ll pull out of town to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It will be after midnight, so I will indeed see the big, bright stars in the sky, deep in the heart of Texas.

That high wailed a-ha! that he does is SO FAMILIAR. It’s as familiar as the grim old hymns we sang at the Loving Highway Church of Christ. Might need some Patsy Cline too, now that I think about it. And a whole bunch of bluegrass. And some yodeling, just for fun. It’s a 27+ hour drive, after all, so I can load up as many of the songs that have played on the soundtrack of my years as my phone will hold.

Now and then I want to get a map and just draw a line of my 82 moves, and see what it looks like, a God’s eye view of me moving around on the face of the earth. Sometimes when I’m driving on a long road trip, I kind of imagine that, I imagine God watching me toodling along on the face of his earth (so funny for me to be talking this way, I don’t even really believe it but still I kind of do), knowing that I feel grateful and happy.

xo