my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

abecedarian

What are the things from your childhood that brought you such great delight, and that still bring you that same kind and degree of delight? And not just in a nostalgic way, like a sweet memory—ah, I really used to love playing with Lincoln Logs and TinkerToys (I did)—but the same delight now? Mine, quite reliably, are

  • pillbugs
  • trilobytes
  • dinosaur eggs
  • the ABCs

The whole pillbug thing is obvious, given where you’re reading this. I just love them so much, and I do sincerely have this little pretending that I’m their queen, but only [still] in the most benevolent way. People always send me news stories they read about pillbugs. 🙂

trilobyteAnd trilobytes! They deserve that exclamation point! It’s not shown on the cover, but that book actually has an exclamation point after the word trilobyte in the title. (If you want to read it but don’t want to spring for the book, here’s the full text, for free.) Trilobytes are cool, man. So cool. And I don’t know why, but my copy, received as a gift the year the book published, spells the word correctly, with a y, and does have the exclamation point. Hmmm.

eggsDinosaur eggs, my dearest, fondest, most intense dream for myself when I was five was to grow up to be a paleontologist and discover dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. Oh how I longed to do that. I think a big cache had been found in those years and it just dazzled me. The idea that dinosaurs came out of eggs was just so mind-blowing, and I longed to whisper away the sand to see the long curve of one of those eggs. Also: Mongolia? I want to go there so so badly. Ugh. Still do, probably never will get to go.

And it’s not that I like to sing the ABC song, nor is it an appreciation for the alphabet because it makes words and I love words and sentences and paragraphs and books oh books(!), it’s a thrill about the letters themselves, how they evolved, how they came to be, how we use them, how we change them, the way these little squiggles get bent along the way. When I was a kid we had a set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, just like these:

wb

I read every word of every entry in every volume, beginning at A and ending in Z. Examined every chart — and they were clever, like the one that showed cotton production rates in cotton states used a little cartoon boll, one boll represented however many tons or bales or whatever the unit of measurement, so I’d count the bolls for each state and multiply and just have such fun with that. Cow heads for beef production. (Clearly the ones I remember most easily related to Texas.) I studied every picture, read every footnote, every reference citation. Beginning to end, repeat. In between I’d read the dictionary, a never-ending source of joy, a rabbit hole I’d love to get lost in.

But the reason the World Book is relevant here is that each volume opened with an entry about the letter itself. There were drawings of the various ways the letter had been written, by such mysterious people as the Phoenicians and the Sumarians and the Romans and the Greeks, the way each group changed it, how it was pronounced and from what it was derived. Although I loved almost all the entries in the whole encyclopedia (but not the one with the lamprey, I still remember hating that one), it was the ones about the letters of the alphabet that made me feel so excited I almost couldn’t hold it. Literally. I felt filled with electricity and wonder. Phoenicians! They were sea-going people, wow, Phoenicians. Their version of the letter reflected their culture, wow. All that excitement is filling my body just writing these words, it is so compressed in my chest I feel like maybe I need to get up and run in a little circle for a bit.

I follow The House that Lars Built on Instagram, always so inspirational, and it turns out that she does a book club! (Follow here, it’s amazing.) The last book they read was Drew Barrymore’s memoir, and when she announced the next one…. ALPHABETICAL! A book about the alphabet!! It’s a whole book, an expanded version exactly of those little entries in the World Book. Obviously I had to get it. It’s so rare that I buy a physical book, but come on. The alphabet.

abcHow every letter tells a story, the subtitle. I’m just in the A so far, but it’s been thrilling. I meet my old friends the Phoenicians. There is a luxury of time and space, so the information about the letters is much more involved, and he is as twitterpated by the alphabet as I am, so he writes with such wonder about this system we have created.

Want to know about A?

‘A’ starts its life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern ‘A’ upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox’s head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of that letter’s original name, ‘ox,’ or ‘aleph’ in the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a ‘K’. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern ‘A’ with the point on the left-hand side. The ancient Greeks called it ‘alpha’ and reversed it, with the point on the right-hand side, probably because, eventually, they decided to write from left to right. Between around 750 BCE and 500 BCE the Greeks rotated it to what we would think of as its upright position. The Romans added the serifs which you can see on inscriptions like Trajan’s Column in Rome.

I wish there were more drawings, I’d like to see that A on its side, first to the left then to the right (the World Book showed all the variations), but that’s OK. His own delight in the material is happy-making.

And of course he speaks more broadly about these issues. I loved this line: “It seems odd to think that the reason why I say a ‘j’ sound and that there is a letter for that sound is because, nearly a thousand years ago, in the wars between the tribal warlords of northern Europe, a French-speaking group got the upper hand in the part of the world where I happen to live.”

I don’t know why my tiny-girl delight still lives in me so purely at the age of 57, but isn’t that a gift? You probably don’t have this thing with the alphabet, but I’m sure you have your own things like this. Of course as always I’d love to hear about them. I think these things, especially, are tremendous gifts to us, and they tell us something about each other. I can also see that my childhood delights are indicators of the grown-up I would someday become. Add in donuts and I am complete. 🙂

exotica

While I am mute and trying to recover from the atomic bomb that hit me, I thought I’d pull a post or two from my previous blog, Thrums. This one was from this day, 2012:

When I was younger, I was always envious of nearly everyone else — it seemed like other people had interesting heritage (not me), interesting cultures (not me), or interesting places of origin (not me). I felt like the antithesis of exotic: a plain old white girl from Texas, mutt heritage, store brand white bread and store brand bologna. With Miracle Whip. I remember lying in the front yard watching planes fly overhead and just wishing, with all my heart, to be on any one of them, going wherever they were going; wherever they were going would be better than where I was.

But every place is exotic to someone from another place; it’s just hard to see one’s own exotic context, because kind of by definition exotic means otherness. When you’re the default – a plain old white girl – very little feels otherly. Some time in my last decade, I realized that I may not be Moroccan (pick your exotic other of exotic choice), but I do actually have an interesting heritage that’s exotic to other people. Meet Molly.

molly lisle ribble, my great-great grandmother

Her name was Molly, but of course she was just known as Mrs. Sam Ribble. This photo accompanied her obituary, and you notice how she seems to be wearing a nightgown? I’ll get to that.

Molly was one of Young County’s oldest pioneer citizens, according to her obituary in the Graham Leader. She was the daughter of a pioneer family, born June 9, 1866 in Nebraska. She married Sam Ribble when she was 16, in a small church in Gooseneck, just outside Graham. They rented land for several years before Sam bought 160 acres of school land, and acquired 160 more that he traded for a wagon and horse and a six-shooter. They built a log cabin on the land — the lumber came by wagon train. When she died, she was survived by 4 daughters, 4 sons, 23 grandchildren, 39 great grandchildren, and 13 great great grandchildren.

So here’s the funny thing about the nightgown. Sam always wanted to have a baby in the house (as you see, they had 8 kids — actually, she had 11 but 3 died). I don’t think Molly was as keen on always having a baby in the house, but I also don’t think she had much say-so. The last baby, Etheline, had down’s syndrome (that’s how I’m referring to it; the family always just called her a mongoloid). So Molly delivered Etheline, handed her to Sam, and said “there you go, now you’ll always have a baby in the house. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”

Molly stayed in bed for 50 years. She was just fine, perfect health (she lived to be 94, after all), I think she was just making a point and boy she stuck with it. She’d sit up if a visitor would take her picture — “a polaroid,” as she’d say — but otherwise she couldn’t be bothered. If any little thing happened to fluster her, she’d pat her chest over her heart, in a kind of circle, and say “get me an aspereen I’m having a heart attack.” She never did have a heart attack, of course, and she finally just died in her sleep of being 94 years old.

My great-aunt on my maternal grandfather’s side shot her husband as he was crawling through the kitchen window to kill her. My other great-aunt’s husband went to the store for smokes and never came home. I have a relative named Homer who was a hermit who lived in a hollow near the river outside of town (one of Molly’s sons); he’d be spotted now and then, skulking around the edges of town.

The Last Picture Show, Midnight Cowboy, those versions of old Texas are my old Texas. Unlike my kids, I spent a lot of time in very rural parts of the state. In the summers, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy in Graham, they’d send me out to Bunger for a few days, to stay with Mom’s sister Mazie and her husband Ben. Bunger was just outside Graham, and comprised ~20 people, all kin. I’d ride out on horses with Ben early in the mornings to collect the livestock; we’d turn the calves in to their mamas before we’d milk them — by hand — and then we’d carry the pail of milk into the house. Mazie would strain it, and that’d be our milk. Once Mazie and I were in the kitchen and we heard a shotgun go off in the living room; Mazie hollered at Ben, asking him what happened, and he said a copperhead was in the living room and he just killed it. I always felt so bad for Uncle Ben because he had to ride out and check on these rusty old things that went up and down, old-looking machines. When I grew up I realized I didn’t have to feel so bad for him — they were pump jacks. Old Uncle Ben had oil. Now and then Uncle Ben would teach me how to shoot a rifle. I was 6.

That’s all pretty exotic. 🙂

just real tired

hillbillyI’ve been reading J. D. Vance’s excellent book Hillbilly Elegy, in part because it’s supposed to provide a window into the angry, poor white Trump voter. Another reason I wanted to read it is because I suspected it would feel very familiar to me, and it does. The immediate and easy violence; the shouting rage and broken doors, windows, dishes, faces; the threats of murder that aren’t always just a threat; the ‘with us or against us’ mindset — yeah, it’s all just so very familiar.

And coming squarely on the heels of my re-encounter with my past, and my fear, now, that things are going to explode in that old violence and some or all of my childhood family are going to get caught in it, I just feel so tired. (I seem to have a knack for reading exactly the wrong book at exactly the wrong time — A Little Life when I was suicidally depressed, and Hillbilly Elegy when I’m dealing with this stuff. Hmm.)

When I was first involved with Jerry, who I would later marry in 1979, he was once complaining about his junker of a car. It needed work, and it would still be a junker. Without even thinking about it I said, “I can get someone to steal it for you and set it on fire.” I didn’t look up because, you know, this is just how things are done! Perfectly ordinary, every day, the clear solution to his simple problem. I did look up when he remained silent, and I saw that he was pale, and his eyes were big and he was licking dry lips, swallowing hard. Huh? Why? What was wrong with him? Later he told me that my remarks had scared him — what if I got tired of him, what would I have done to him? (I didn’t tell him the answer that would’ve been obvious to me.)

But his response was an eye-opener for me. Huh. What’s that about — he seems to be horrified. And that began my re-education, at the age of 20. I remember being so bewildered, and having to ask him tentatively what would be a normal response to this thing or that, for a very long time. Years.

My long-lost family member who just contacted me has not been re-educated, and in fact he has more than 50 years of that life under his belt, all with this kind of framework and reinforced by years in prison. And I’m so tired. Because it feels like no matter how far I go, no matter how far away I run, no matter how much I change myself and my life, no matter how many years I put between us, this family I came from is going to win in some way. I’ve completely forgotten how to live watching over my shoulder, taking a big breath before leaving the house and dashing to the safety of the next place, watching parked cars with suspicion, scanning all perimeters and all people, and fearing that it won’t matter because it’ll come from the person or place I least expect it. I used to know how to live like that, to the point that it was just second nature. I forgot that, and I’ve forgotten how to tolerate the constant fear.

I also no longer live among people who understand any of this, so people respond to me with bewilderment, with a version of “buck up!” or with a side glance that says they believe I’m being overly dramatic, crazy paranoid. They don’t know, and so I feel all alone with it. I never lived in a hillbilly holler, but I did live among people who all knew the rules, as insane and unstable and explosive as they were, and that’s at least something. Now I live among straight people, and as I have always felt, I feel the outsider standing in a bleak world, looking in the windows of Technicolor rooms of calm, sane people doing ordinary things.

And it’s exhausting, it really is.

36 questions, #s 10-12

Here we go again! If you’re just coming to this and wonder what it’s about, this link collects all the answers and the post at the very bottom also explains the origin of the questions. It’s fun thinking of my own answers to the questions, but what I really loved about the previous posts were your answers! I don’t care if you’re too shy to put them in a comment; some people emailed me or sent Facebook PMs. Whatever! Now, to the next three questions:

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

not me, but it could be
not me, but it could be

I’ve thought about this for almost 40 years, so this isn’t an off-the-cuff answer. I wouldn’t change anything at all (although I wouldn’t want to live through it again). I certainly wouldn’t give myself an ordinary happy childhood, though if you had one, good on ya! Truly! Mine is part of me and the ground I came from, and I’m happy with where and who I am. The only thing I’d add is that I wish I could have known I would make it through and it would all be OK. I was never sure I’d survive, and plenty of bleak nights I hoped I wouldn’t, because it was too terrible and I didn’t think I could keep going. But if I’d known I’d come through and have a marvelous life, and it wouldn’t destroy me in any way, that tiny bit of knowledge tucked away would have been nice.

Of course there is a possibility that knowing that would have changed it all in some important way, and then I wouldn’t have ended up exactly where I am. I guess there’s a possibility I might have ended up some place even more marvelous, but I’m perfectly happy with who I am and where I find myself so I’d take that chance, just to relieve a bit of my suffering in my childhood.

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

Art Aron, the psychologist whose lab is responsible for the research and these questions.
Art Aron, the psychologist whose lab is responsible for the research and these questions.

Yeah, I’ll skip that here. These questions were designed as part of lab research with complete strangers to see if intimacy and closeness could be created. Though it would be very interesting to analyze the stories people told each other in the lab, and then compare the linguistic analysis to the resulting intimacy scores. And to explore whether there are predictive patterns of closeness in the interaction of the two stories. I wonder if people feel closer to those whose stories are largely like their own — happy childhoods like happy childhoods — or if they’re drawn to difference. There are a couple of questions like this in the 36-question set, and I thought about just cutting them out and shortening the list, but I decided to stick with what they had, and just ignore these.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

scaredLet’s assume we’re not talking about superhero stuff, just ordinary human qualities or abilities. That’s much more interesting — to me, anyway. To be honest, I had to think about this a long time and then it hit me: I’d like to be bolder and have much less fear — I am seeing ‘bolder’ in that way, about fear specifically. When I first started therapy in NYC, I told my therapist that my main goal was to stop being terrified all the time, and that did happen but I’m still an awfully fearful person. I don’t think I’m abnormally fearful in terms of trying new things, or being paranoid, but I am extremely fearful in conversation with others if I have to express something less than good about the other person. Because of this I avoid conflict and then whaddya know, it becomes bigger and scarier and I get myself in trouble — and I’m even more fearful. I’d like to be able to simply say, “Hey, I need to tell you something. When you … I …” AAGH, just writing that feels scary! Too often it doesn’t go well, the person becomes defensive and I just abandon myself. But just a few days ago I had one of those conversations and, while it was painful, it went SO well and I hope I can remember that. Of course I trust the person I was talking to more than anyone in the world, and that helped, but it’s just something I wish I could do without such shutting-me-down fear.

The good thing about answering this question in terms of human possibility means that I can always gain this ability if I keep at it — unlike flying or invisibility. 🙂

And now your turn!

If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂

one mystery solved!

It’s not often you get to solve a decades-long mystery if your name isn’t Nancy Drew and there’s not an Old Clock or a Hidden Staircase nearby. The mystery related to music from my teenage years — The Eagles, Elton John, Linda Rondstadt, Chicago, various disco songs, Loggins & Messina, John Denver. When I hear any of that music my heart soars and I feel SO happy. So, big deal? Big news from the Department of DUH.

But the mystery is that my teenage years were pure hell. I didn’t have a home. Terrible things were happening to me. Truly terrible. So why would the music that is cellularly associated with that period make me feel happy? Weird, right? It’s not like the music was playing while my chums and I rode in her convertible to the Friday night football game to meet Ned and the boys. Not like that at all. This has puzzled me for decades, it really has.

There’s a good-sized box of old albums of mine, including one album I saved up to buy when I was 10. It was a collection of classical music, and it was advertised on television. So I saved and saved and saved and saved and got my dad to buy it for me. Mother ridiculed and belittled me for it and accused me of just wanting to be different, but I really did love the music. I still have that album. It’s 47 years old. When I was in high school, I remember storing the records in my locker during the school year, and in the summer I’d hide them wherever I worked, since I didn’t have a place to live. For a short period I had a car to live in, so I kept them in the floorboard, alongside a chess set my dad bought me in Mexico when I was little. Those were my worldly belongings, along with some clothes. Somewhere along the way I lost the chess set. I didn’t get to listen to my records through my teenage years, no stereo, but of course the songs were playing everywhere so I heard them.

not this bad, but not a whole lot better
not this bad, but not a whole lot better

I haven’t had a turntable in . . . no idea. No idea how long it’s been. My daughter Katie is our family’s repository of all things family, and she’s been storing the box for me for longer than I can imagine. She asked if I wanted my records, now that I have space of my own, and I said yes, and spent a lot of time looking through them, remembering. And then I bought a really cheap stereo with a turntable. Really, it’s just a step up from a Fisher Price record player. It has a built-in CASSETTE PLAYER and an AM radio. It seemed to come from somewhere in China. I don’t care; for me, it wasn’t about having a high-class listening experience — after all, the records are ancient and have been through a lot. For me it was just about listening to my records a couple more times.

just a few -- I have a LOT of Eagles
just a few — I have a LOT of Eagles

So I pulled out Hotel California, one of my very favorite old albums. We used to listen to music so differently, remember? We’d start at the beginning and listen to a whole side, and then the other. Songs in order, and in whole. We used to read the liner notes. So I set up my little stereo on a low table in my yoga room and spread out some albums all around me, and placed the needle at the beginning of Side A. Scratch scratch MUSIC! And then it hit me.

Even in those hard years, I was me. There was me in there, and somehow, I have no idea how, I felt joy. I felt my joy, the way I do. I was the person who gets really excited about things, notices things, feels happiness with small things. There was me in there, dreaming of someday. Dreaming of having a place to live, dreaming of finishing high school and making my way to Austin where I would finally begin life and get away from my family completely. I was in there, living in my head, dancing inside. The things were happening to me, and around me, and too much of my time was spent trying to get through to the next day, but *I* was not that. I was still 14, 15, 16, 17, loving those songs just like everyone else, even though my life wasn’t like everyone else’s. I’ve always been here as me.

this exactly -- except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.
this exactly — except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.

In October 1976, I’d made my escape plan (I had an old car at the time, a ’62 Nash Rambler, dusty pale green). Don’t laugh — I was going to drive from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, find a convent and bang on the door and ask them for sanctuary. That was really my plan. I didn’t have plans beyond that, and I had no idea where a convent might be, but San Antonio is full of Catholics so I figured I’d find one. For some unknown-to-me-now reason I decided to tell the guidance counselor at school that I was moving the next day and I told her what my stepfather did to me as an explanation for my move. Guidance counselors weren’t trained very well back then, so she called my mother. Later that day Mother had me picked up and placed in a mental hospital and then no one could ever believe me again. “You know, Lori is crazy, you can’t believe a word she says,” eye roll.

Back then the stay was 3 months, which I didn’t mind, frankly. A warm bed, a hot shower, three meals, pretty good. I have a lot of stories from that time. I spent my 17th birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s there. She took me out for a day on Thanksgiving and took me to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — you can’t make this shit up! If I read that in a client’s novel I’d cross it out and say “COME ON.” But I remember what I wore, how it felt to be there. ANYWAY. So while I was in there, my stepfather took my car and sold it. On the day I was released, I remember this so so well, I walked out the front door of the hospital to nothing. I had nowhere to go. No car. Nobody. The clothes on my back, and a few in a paper sack, but no coat. (Luckily, my records were still in my locker, and thank heavens for that.) There was snow on the ground, as there is in far north Texas in January, on the plains. I was standing there trying to figure out what to do, and then a car drove past with the radio playing so loud I could hear the song: New Kid in Town. The Eagles. And I smiled. I smiled because I loved the song, I loved the Eagles, and I kind of felt like a new kid in town after three months of a bed and regular meals. I walked down the steps, down the walkway to the street, and turned right. I don’t remember where I went or where I found to sleep that night, but I remember that moment, and that song, and I remember smiling — me, it was about me, not my circumstance.

This is such an extraordinary bit of understanding for me, because it’s about so much more than the music. It’s about getting whacked in the head with the realization that I WAS THERE ALL ALONG, even then. It was always me inside, I was not my circumstance. Lori Dawn was in there, singing and dancing and dreaming. I never realized that until now, as strange as that sounds.

I always did want to be Nancy Drew, and I was always so jealous of the way mysteries always seemed to happen around her, and never around me. But I guess this one did. To me this isn’t a sad post, a sad story at all! This is a joyous one, a gift to myself. A 57 years old gift of light.

it’s all so poignant, you know?

Take the 20,000-foot perspective. Take God’s view. Take the view from the end of it all, looking back. Look at all the things we are trying so hard to do, the things we are worrying ourselves sick about, the various dramas playing out in friends’ and loved ones’ lives (or our own), the things we clutch to ourselves so desperately, the ways we make things so hard for ourselves, and we’re just here for such a tiny, short time. Our lives are a quick flash of light in an enormous, perhaps never-ending universe of galaxies and solar systems and black holes and dark matter and columns of gas, and surely we’re not the only ones but we’re the only ones we know and it all seems like the whole thing, so big, so tremendous, so important. And it is, of course, because it’s our whole everything.

He took my from Graham to Tyler, to show me to his mother. He was 19. He named me Dawn.
He took me from Graham to Tyler to show me to his mother. He was 19 and didn’t know how to hold a baby, clearly. He named me Dawn.

Yesterday my dear, dear friend Nancy wrote me, out of the blue, about my name. Lori Dawn. She thought Lori was a name given to a sweet girl, a good girl, and Dawn surely signified a hope for a promising future, and my parents gave me those names, even in their tragic and devastating whorls of misery. “Maybe it’s possible that even damaged people can love even if it isn’t as much as it should be,” she wrote me. And of course we’re all damaged people, to some degree, and we love, even if it isn’t as much as it should be. My mother chose my first name, bowing to pressure from her mother named Lorene — she convinced her that Lori was short for Lorene, and thank you for that Mother. My father chose my middle name, and I have always seen that choice as a part of his sentimental, romantic nature. He was just a kid, 19, heart-wounded but not impossibly ruined yet. I think my name did represent that for him, exactly: a hope for a promising future. A child of his own.

my first birthday. My Uncle Donald on the left, and my dad holding me.
My first birthday, in Big Daddy’s kitchen. Uncle Donald on the left, and my dad holding me.

I do think my poor old dad loved me as much as he possibly could. And I think it was a lot. He was so desperate to be loved, and I imagine he imagined that finally there would be someone who loved him when I was born. Finally. Someone would love him. Dawn.

THAT makes me cry, and makes his suicide letter even more painful. He said he just couldn’t take me abandoning him one more time, he couldn’t bear it. And the next sentence was vicious. His story, as violent and explosive and terrible as it was, holds a whole lot of poignancy and for me, sorrow for him.

a year before his death -- that's him, second from the left, in the blue shirt.
A year before his death — that’s him, second from the left, in the blue shirt. I have his hands.

For decades his suicide letter blaming me felt like a gravestone weighing me down, an impossible burden of blame. But in his relentlessly drunken mind, in his rage and despair, it was really about losing that hope of someone finally loving him enough. My poor dad, his life a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. A very, very brief life, only 43 years, a spark initiated in this world with all the great potential we arrive with, and then a terrible, sad, hard life with one person after another who sought his destruction — including him. I did love him, with all the heart of a little girl no matter what he did, and it’s unfair to say that I abandoned him but I can think about his small, brutal life and see what he saw.

People get through this life with whatever kind of coping skills they have; some people can’t do it and drink or take drugs and some people turn into monsters and some people become small and afraid and some people become bitter and some people have peopled their lives and so they put sparkle and some happiness into the world, and everyone is trying so hard with whatever they have to deal with and whatever tools they have to use.

And sometimes that hard road gets turned into something else — sometimes something beautiful and extraordinary, sometimes something moving and redemptive to the person and to others, and sometimes into something raucous and distracting and glorious. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats have this amazing song called “Son of a Bitch,” and if you just focus on the lyrics it’s about a horror — detox, bugs crawling all over me, if I can’t get clean I’m gonna drink my life away. Having known my fair share of hard-core alcoholics, there is not one thing raucous and distracting and glorious about that. Not one damn thing. But Rateliff turned that experience into this amazing song:

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Because it’s all just about getting through, you know? We get through terrible things — addiction, loneliness, cancer, chronic illness, loss, emotional illness, incredible grief — and we just keep going, don’t we? We do terrible things, on purpose sometimes and not at all on purpose other times. We make mistakes, big and small. We flail. We hurt each other. We try so hard. We transform our darkness, if we are lucky, into something beautiful, or something meaningful, or something that lifts people out of their seats, or something that helps a little girl hiding under a bed just keep going one more day.

The whole human arc is just about the most poignant thing in the whole world. Every single person you encounter is situated in their grand story, and every story has loss and struggle and impossibility and glory, and there is that person you know, doing his or her best, hoping it’ll be OK, hoping not to fuck up today, hoping today is different, hoping tomorrow will get here. Every single person, even that one. Hoping the new baby comes and it’s all OK. Hoping the treatment works. Hoping the job holds, or a new job comes. Despair at 2am, sleepless hours staring at the ceiling worrying about money. Hoping the prodigal son comes home. Looking forward to what’s on the schedule tomorrow, this week, next month, so bravely and maybe blindly just expecting that it will all happen. And usually it does, and we sparkle and flash and connect and feel joy and love and connection and we feel seen and known and so we feel anchored in our stories, in our lives.

Just for today — really, just for today — try hard to remember this when you look at the people you encounter. Even if you know them very well, there are hidden parts you don’t know about, worries and secrets behind brave fronts they’re putting on . . . for you, maybe. Just for today, see if you can take that perspective, or maybe just for an hour. They’re doing the very best they can. I am doing the very best I can. Sometimes it’s not enough, sometimes it’s crappy, sometimes it’s all fucked up, but sometimes it’s glorious.

xoxoxoxoxo

Big Daddy

I have not had a chance to walk much since I got home, for a variety of reasons, so last night I grabbed my chance. It wasn’t as hot as it has been — a cool 88 degrees at 7pm — and I got a crazy wild hair to walk to the grocery store 1.5 miles away. Big deal, a 3-mile round trip, that’s nothing, but the main street I’d walk on is a giant hill . . . down down down down, then up up up up (the equivalent of 4 floors, apparently!). Even when I drive it, I have to really push the gas to get up the hill. Nancy bought “cotton candy grapes” and I thought I’d walk over there and get some, and maybe eat them on the walk home.

But I got there and remembered that there’s a snow cone stand in the parking lot (“shaved ice” they call it, but it’s a snow cone. Come on.). I stopped and stood there, under a tree, and closed my eyes. It was so easy to feel the warm evening air on my skin and remember standing under a cottonwood tree in the back yard of 201 Colorado Ave. in Graham, Texas, Big Daddy’s house when I was a little girl. After supper on those soft summer evenings he’d sit in the back yard and I’d run around in circles, “Big Daddy, Big Daddy, watch me! Watch me, Big Daddy!”

this is what they look like
this is what they look like

He’d glance at me once in a while, grunt, spit his chewing tobacco, and get back to watching his ugly little dog Tammy get attacked by scissor tailed flycatchers. He’d laugh so hard when they’d dive bomb her and nip at her back. I was always so jealous of Tammy, who also got to ride in the front seat of the Green Lizard, Big Daddy’s car, when we’d go to town.

But Big Daddy made sure I got a little treat every single day. We didn’t have an ice cream truck that came through the neighborhoods; we had the snow cone man. I don’t remember now what song that little truck played, but I do remember that I could hear it when it was several streets away. I could hear the tiniest little sound of it, and I’d jump off the couch and run to the short bookcase in the corner. Big Daddy kept a big glass jar on top of that bookcase filled with dimes. Lots and lots of shiny little dimes, just for my snow cones. I’d have to stand on my tiptoes to reach up high enough to get my hand down inside the jar. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to get two snow cones at a time, it was just so dazzling that I could get one every single day. Red, always red. Cherry. Never blue (which was coconut, I think, which was just bizarre), and definitely never orange or green. Yuck. I was tempted by a rainbow snow cone, but I always asked for cherry. So I’d pluck a dime out of the jar and run out the front door, down the little steps of the porch, and down the sidewalk to the front curb. I never waited long enough to find shoes, so I’d dance around on the sidewalk to keep my feet from burning while I waited.

Thanks to Google Maps, this is Big Daddys house. It was yellow when I was a girl, and at the curb, on either side of the sidewalk, were tall juniper bushes which were usually filled with bagworms, so creepy. That house was a glorious mansion to me.
Thanks to Google Maps, this is Big Daddy’s house. It was yellow when I was a girl, and at the curb, on either side of the mailbox, were tall juniper bushes which were usually filled with bagworms, so creepy. That house was a glorious mansion to me.

snowconeWhen I opened my eyes in the grocery store parking lot, I was smiling and my heart felt so so young. I remembered how it felt to be the apple of someone’s eye. So I walked over to the snow cone stand and ordered myself a cherry snow cone. The ones I got as a kid came in a white paper cone, and this was served in a styrofoam cup — not as good. The sticky, sugary juice didn’t run down my hands, I didn’t have to hold it away from me and lean over to eat it to keep it from dripping out the bottom onto my clothes. But mainly it wasn’t as good because I didn’t buy it with one of Big Daddy’s shiny dimes.

I didn’t walk straight home, partly because I was still eating my snow cone, and partly because 3 miles wasn’t a long enough walk. And it was such a nice evening, too. So I crossed the busy street back to my neighborhood, and resumed my ordinary walk. And I realized something so strange and funny. Generally speaking, I walk in a giant loop through my neighborhood. I take some mitochondrial back-and-forths inside the loop, but generally speaking it’s a loop.

walk

I used to walk in a counter-clockwise circuit, and it never occurred to me to do it any other way. I didn’t really like walking, it wasn’t fun, it was something I did for my health. I listened to podcasts while I was doing it, but it was a chore. And then a couple of weeks ago I decided to turn left out of my driveway instead of right, to go clockwise in other words, and WOW! Everything about it changed. I love walking, every day I love walking, and I think about it during the day. I will sacrifice other things, if I’m short on time, to take that walk. That clockwise walk. I walk the same route every day, more or less, and you’d think it’s incredibly boring to do that, but I love it every day. On the days I can’t walk, I feel like I missed something wonderful.

Clockwise felt so right. Counterclockwise felt wrong in every way. Isn’t that bizarre?

Life is so, so, so funny. So funny. Endlessly funny. When I was walking and realized this, I had to stop and sit on the curb and laugh. My tongue was red from the snow cone. I’m however old I am — 56? 57? How old am I now? Do I turn 57 this year? I can’t keep that straight — anyway, I’m that old and I had a bright red tongue and I was sick to my stomach from eating that snow cone and I knew better but I did it anyway and it’s summer and Big Daddy has been dead for 44 years and I still think about him all the time, and people who know me often mention him to me (and Mister Rogers, my real father), and the world turns counter-clockwise as viewed from the North Pole and walking that way feels so wrong it makes me uncomfortable.

Theres my Big Daddy at a picnic in Firemans Park, in Graham, the year before he died.
There’s my Big Daddy at a picnic in Fireman’s Park, in Graham, the year before he died.

citrus

Today’s word prompt is ‘citrus’ and although it seems like an obvious word — especially for summer — it stumped me. I don’t drink orange juice, I slice lemons for water, and keep limes around to squeeze on as many things as possible. But meh, how ordinary. I finally got an idea for a photo I’ll instagram in a while, but in thinking about it I realized I do in fact have a story about citrus.

bag o' oranges
bag o’ oranges

When I was a teenager and had no home, for a short period I had a job at a factory — Wichita Clutch — and so I had a bit of money. For a couple of weeks I got a room at the YWCA, so nice to have a bed and a shower. I quickly couldn’t spend my money that way, but while I still had a little money I tried my best to take care of myself and buy food that would help keep me alive. In Wichita Falls, in the far north plains of Texas, winters are harsh, brutal, frozen. Back then (this would’ve been 1975-1976) we didn’t have any produce you wanted at any time of the year. So the grocery store did have oranges, but they were not very good. I could buy a small bag of oranges, and they were mostly very small and green. I remember eating those very bad oranges, bitter, and hating them so much but I had to eat them, I’d spent my precious little amount of money on them. (Why I thought oranges were the most important thing to eat, I have no idea. Maybe I remembered reading about sailors getting scurvy, or something.)

One freezing night when I was huddled in a tight little ball behind a dumpster, eating my sad, hard oranges, I summoned Scarlet O’Hara and all but shook my tiny fist at the sky and said aloud, “I will never eat oranges again.” (I didn’t say “As God is my witness,” but it was definitely in the spirit of my comments.)

And so I haven’t. It’s a promise I have kept to myself for FORTY YEARS. If you look at my history of diets abandoned, works abandoned, etc., you see I haven’t traditionally been good at keeping promises made to myself, but for some reason this one I have kept. When I’m offered an orange, I always say, “No thanks, I don’t eat oranges” and leave it at that. On occasion I’ll drink a small glass of orange juice — it isn’t that I don’t like orange! — but for some reason it feels deeply important to honor that little girl’s promise. I imagine I will keep that promise until the day I die.

Here’s my Instagram photo for the August Break 2015 project, #augustbreak2015:

I love this vintage juice carafe. I had one just like it on my table 40 years ago, and I think my grandmother had one too. It always makes me think of summer, whatever is in it.
I love this vintage juice carafe. I had one just like it on my table 40 years ago, and I think my grandmother had one too. It always makes me think of summer, whatever is in it.

the German explanation

from the 1960s, when I would have been reading it
from the 1960s, when I would have been reading it

When I was a little kid in Austin, my parents were friends with another couple named Ronnie and Doodie. (I have no idea what Doodie’s real name was, it’s all anyone called her.) They lived on Shoal Creek Boulevard, a lovely winding street that backed up against the creek itself. I used to think Shoal Creek Blvd was the longest street in the whole world. I loved going to their house because on the screened-in porch in the back was a giant cabinet filled with Highlights magazine, what seemed like an endless supply. OH how I loved Goofus and Gallant, and finding what was wrong in the picture, and reading the articles. When we’d go to their house I’d run straight to the porch and I never had any idea what the rest of the people were doing.

Ronnie and Doodie’s house was super, super, super neat. Like laboratory neat. I remember walking to the bathroom once and seeing their bedroom — the bed was made so tight you could probably bounce a quarter off it. Somehow I learned that they slept with their heads at the foot of the bed (even though it was made up correctly). When I asked why they did that, this was the explanation:

“Because they are German.”

beer PLUS head at the foot of the bed, I guess
beer PLUS head at the foot of the bed, I guess

WHAT??? Seriously? But it gave me the idea that if German, then head at the foot of the bed. When I met other Germans much later in my life I think I just assumed that they must sleep that way. And my dad’s paternal line came to the US from Germany, from the Bavarian region, so I don’t know if he just went along with my mother’s explanation because it was easy, or what. Who comes up with an explanation like that!

I can’t remember if they had any daughters, but they did have a son named Barnes who was the same age as my little brother, Sam. One summer afternoon we were there and I was on the porch reading Highlights and Doodie and Mother started looking for the little boys, who must have been about 4. Eventually they found them down in the creek with their shorts and underwear off, sitting in the water so the little fish could nibble at their little boy bits.  And boy did they get in trouble. Which I observed from the porch, with an orange-covered issue of Highlights in my hand. I decided the boys were Goofuses, and I, a noble Gallant.

If you know the sleeping habits of a German or two, I’d sure like to hear the truth on this subject.

It’s fly day for me, off to New York! Ciao, you bellas you. xo

alky-hol

Even though I often seem straight-laced (I think), I’m really not. Of course I’m a big old cusser, so maybe that helps knock the edges off that idea. It’s just that I do not do/drink/whatever many of the things that other people do. I have nothing against them as long as they don’t end up hurting me or my loved ones. But your life is your life and you get to do whatever you want! I don’t care and I don’t judge.

liquorOne line in the sand I have for myself is that I will not be drinking liquor. Vodka, gin, bourbon, rum, whiskey, nope not me, ever. And tequila too, which I was reminded about after having a margarita on Sunday after helping a friend move. We were eating and celebrating at Chuy’s. (If you don’t know how to pronounce it, we say CHEW-ies.) I like the salt and tang and cold of the margarita, and wish I could have the exact same thing but without the tequila. So once in a blue moon, maybe once every other year or so I’ll have a margarita, as I did on Sunday, but it never goes happily. I once went to lunch in New York with my friend Craig, and we both had margaritas. Theirs were extremely strong (to me at least, weakling that I am), and when we were walking back to work I was hit by such a fast and complete WHAM of depression that I kept wanting to step in front of a bus. Craig had to hold my arm the whole way back to keep me on the sidewalk (I was not intoxicated, just tequila-ed).

I had a margarita once that left me feeling like my spinal cord was slamming back and forth against my vertebral column. Every single time they leave me with ringing ears. This past Sunday, I was left feeling blue and with ringing ears, and I fell asleep as soon as I got home and slept for nearly three hours, wasting a perfectly wonderful Sunday afternoon. My occasional flirtation with margaritas, weak or otherwise, is over. I am breaking up with you, margaritas.

I’ve never been able even to be near or around other liquors, and when someone reeking of alcohol steps into a subway car that I’m in, I move as far away as I can. I cannot tolerate the smell. For years the smell put me in such an agitated state with pounding heart and sweating palms and a terrified feeling of needing to escape. The smell flashed me back to my childhood, when that smell never ended well for me. It never ended well. The generations of people behind me on my father’s patrilineal line were alcoholic, most ending with violent suicide. I know there are other kinds of alcoholics, but my specific experience left me with such a horrible connection to that smell so it’s not something I can ever bear. You go ahead! (Unless you are an alcoholic and want to stop, or are in recovery, in which case I will support you.)

if you ever run across this, TRY IT!
if you ever run across this, TRY IT!

Beer and wine are somehow different, I guess because my father never drank those (“why would anyone bother with that?” he’d ask as he poured a giant glass of straight vodka, the drink of hard-core alcoholics everywhere). When we travel around the world I enjoy trying the local beers, and have found some wonderful ones. My very favorite beer anywhere, anytime, is BeerLao, The Beer of Wholehearted People. It says that on the bottle, and it’s such a wonderful beer. Everywhere I go I check if they have it and they never do. Luckily it appears we’re going to Bali and Laos in the fall, and I plan to have my fill of BeerLao, along with those beautiful wholehearted people.

Anyway. Long roundabout way of saying that I’m not being a jerk about it, it’s just my own thing for myself. If we’re out and you order a cocktail, if it has a strong smell I might lean away or change seats if we’re in a big group, but now you know why. Don’t judge me, I’m definitely not judging you. 🙂

cursive

Every other Wednesday morning my friend Marian, who lives in NJ, meets me on Skype for a writing session. I’ve mentioned this before — one of us brings writing prompts and the other brings a piece of writing to read. The writing prompts are usually single words (Marian has brought such words as sageperformanceblessing) and we do free-writing. Usually we do three words and then read our little pieces to each other.

I have a hard time coming up with good prompts, but I started reading Natalie Goldberg’s book titled Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and she includes a whole bunch of prompts designed specifically for people interested in writing memoir. They’re designed to pull up stories and memories, and they’re so pointed that they’re great to work with. I’ve been bringing them when it’s my turn to provide prompts. They’re quite different from the single-word prompts, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. (And I recommend the book too!)

Yesterday we met and it was my turn to provide prompts, and when I was reading one of my pieces to Marian it occurred to me that they would make potentially good blog posts! I have a “memoir” category, so I’ll put them there. Since many of you are very roughly my age, perhaps some of my memories will overlap with yours and bring them back to your minds too. With pleasure, I hope…..  so here is one of the pieces I wrote yesterday. The prompt was learning to write cursive:

We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?
We had learned how to print in our Big Chief tablets too. Did you have these?

Third grade at Lucy B. Read Elementary School, Mrs. Worley, Big Chief tablets with grainy paper and faint blue and red lines for guides. The paper is so thin it doesn’t stand up to erasing, so our mistakes are visible to everyone. It is so porous it wicks ink, so we are required to stick with our No. 2 yellow pencils. If the pencils are too sharp, the point can tear the paper so we blunt them before the writing lessons. The paper is so dry it leaves my hands feeling like they’d been dusted with powder, the only part of the daily cursive lesson I do not like.

The third grade teachers use the Palmer Method. I love learning to write in cursive, the rules and exact guide lines offering a chance for order. My loops touch but never go over the lines, ever. She says to place two fingers on the paper after a period so we know where to begin the next sentence. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. I want to write more interesting sentences.

“When holding your pencil, hold your hand so a small orange could roll inside it. Your pencil should be pointing over your shoulder.” My hand cramps when I try to write with the pencil that way, so I secretly relax, taking the correct position only when Mrs. Worley walks past my desk. One day Mrs. Worley brings a tangerine to class and tries to roll it under some kids’ hands, but our hands are too small even for the littlest tangerine to fit. I imagine how I will expand my hand as much as possible if she comes to my desk, so the fruit will roll under my palm and please my teacher. I sit up straighter during the imagining, thrilled by the possibility of her praise.

palmer drillsAn obedient girl, I dutifully perform the drill exercises, using my whole arm to draw giant loops, like a tightly compressed Slinky. Then the continuous curve up to a point and back down to a loop, up to a point, down to a loop. I want to get to the exciting part, learning how to form those beautiful letters, but I fill page after page with the drill exercises so I will be able to write even more beautifully.

“To properly write the capital I and J, you must begin just below the bottom line before swooping up, or it won’t work.” Even today I begin the capital I and J lower than the imaginary line. Mrs. Worley has a fancy chalk holder that holds three pieces of chalk at once, spaced evenly. She drags it across the board so she has the same kind of guidelines we have, and then she illustrates the starting point by writing several Is and then several Js. I grip my pencil tightly and try to imitate her letters.

palmer method

I want the capital A and B to be more beautiful. Why is the capital Q a 2? Why are there two ways to write a lower case and a lower case t? Making the capital X requires care — writing the right-hand side makes me nervous because sometimes I don’t exactly connect the two halves. My friend Toby Hines teaches me a trick: write the part with the loops on both ends and then just write the slash. Uncomfortable with cheating, I stick with the way we are taught to make the capital X and still do it that way today, though it still makes me a little anxious. And today I have an attorney whose last name begins with an X, many opportunities to finally make the middles touch.

My favorite letter is the capital L, not because it is the first letter of my name but because it is swoopy and free-feeling. Loop, slide, loop curl. I fill whole pages with capital Ls, sometimes allowing them to go beyond the lines, to be bigger than the constraints, more beautiful and curving. I am secretly happy that such a beautiful letter begins my name, and feel bad for my friends Alice and Barbara, whose names start with such boring letters. I try to imagine a way to make the A and B more loopy and beautiful but I cannot think of anything.

The kids who write with their left hand get a special lesson and have to slant the pad of paper the opposite way on their desks. After the lesson, the sides of their palms are black and shiny from being dragged across their writing, and their letters are smudgier. I am secretly happy to be right-handed. I smile as I look at the day’s exercises, proud of the precision and perfection of my letters, clean and crisp and looking just like Mrs. Worley’s. I am a perfect mimic, and feel exceptional because of it.

* * * * *

It’s funny how much I remembered when I started writing — and I remembered a lot more, which I’ll keep writing for myself. Third grade came back to me in full, the sounds and smells, the feeling in my bones, the pride at being good at something at a time when I needed that so desperately. If it had occurred to me to try to remember learning to write in cursive (which it wouldn’t have), I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, I remember that.” But free-writing — just hearing the prompt and beginning to write, and then writing without stopping — allows the memory to unfold, like one of those pop-up cards.

I’ll bet you remember learning how to write in cursive. Maybe you learned with great excitement because it was “grown-up” writing, no more little kid printing. Maybe you learned a different method. Maybe you were dyslexic and the process was so painful. Maybe no matter how hard you tried you couldn’t write like the teacher, so you decided it was stupid to write like that. Maybe like me, you lived in complete chaos, and the precision of touching those lines in just the right way gave you a bit of refuge in order. I’d love to hear about your memories too.

Thursday, the week is flying by! I hope it’s a good one and spring is really and finally landing, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, after our unusually bitter winter. xo

swanky

My parents built a home in Westlake Hills back in 1969 and it was gorgeous, until they destroyed it. My dad designed it and my mother decorated it. Split-level, girls’ bedrooms and bathrooms downstairs with our own living room; a sewing room and a laundry room. Upstairs, sunken living room, dining room, kitchen with fire engine red appliances and a deck hanging over the wild canyon, my brother’s bedroom, my mother’s giant bathroom with black vinyl wallpaper with huge white polka dots, my parents’ bedroom, and my dad’s tiny little bathroom. It was truly beautiful for the first month or so.

In every room there was an intercom, and the base unit was upstairs. My dad played music through the house; if you didn’t like the music, you could just turn off your own speaker in your bedroom. But I always liked the music he played — Dusty Springfield, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. My mother much preferred the Beatles and the Stones and Elvis, so when she took over the music I usually turned off my speaker. When he tucked me in at night, I’d whisper to my dad, “Please play the pretty music,” and he’d smile at me and go tuck in my sister. The next thing I knew, Dusty Springfield would be singing softly in my bedroom.

caftan
caftans, like this — snug around the ribs and flowy everywhere else.

I remember SO clearly my daydreamed imaginary adult life. I would be swanky. I would waft through my house wearing caftans. (Very specific, my imagining. Caftans were really the essence of my imagined adult life.) I would live in a mostly glass house, like Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut, which I’d never heard of or seen at that time. Music would always be in the air, I would entertain gracefully, floating from person to person and laughing with ease and beauty.

Outside, the pool — elegant and understated, but turquoise and inviting. Inside, spare, clean. Unbroken walls, furniture unsmashed. Light fixtures whole, not shattered. A quiet home with newspapers and books and green plants, lovely quiet breakfasts in the sun.

And always while wearing a caftan. Maybe it’s time to get one. Happy Tuesday, y’all. It’s my birthday eve. xo

the one-note samba

beltIn the dark of an early summer morning, I walk my neighborhood. Two miles, 45 minutes. There are so few streetlights, I see brilliant starlight overhead, Orion’s Belt, a piece of the moon spilling light on the black street between the trees, making the shadows even darker. Rounding the corner, I see three deer, alert but unmoving, standing in the yard of a mid-century modern home. Although it’s 6am, surely late enough for people to be awake and getting ready for work, the houses I pass are uniformly dark.

The houses are beautiful and stylish, built in the 1960s. The yards are neat and trimmed, landscaped for Texas drought. The trees are established and large, live oaks mostly, with their twisted shapes. In the dark they look like women dancing with outreaching arms. Most of the homes are beautifully cared-for, but there is an occasional house that’s neglected, the yard a mess, a sagging porch.

nightAnd yet as I walk through the neighborhood, just slightly afraid in the deep dark, all the homes look ominous to me. What happens inside those rooms? When that front door is closed, is there a frightened child upstairs? Are the lights kept off, even when it gets dark?

I am the inverse observer. Most people assume that families are happy in those beautiful houses and are inevitably shocked to learn otherwise. They see the trim landscaping, the perfectly ordinary scenes visible through the open-curtained windows; they wave at their neighbor, make small talk at the mailboxes; they register the years passing with the changing decorations of autumn, Christmas, Fourth of July. Just like us, they probably think.

Me, I assume the opposite, and am inevitably shocked to learn otherwise. My mind’s ear hears the pleading, the shouting, the noise in the silence. My spirit feels the fear crouched in the upstairs bedroom, waiting. I flinch as I walk past, waiting with her for the punch to land, for the kick to connect. As it happens, I lived in another house on my street 36 years ago. Just down the block. I knew it when I rented my current place, wondered at the mystery of how things work out. It’s one of those broken-down houses in the otherwise beautiful neighborhood. It was a neat and trim-looking house when I lived there, and no one would ever have suspected the kinds of things that happened behind the doors. I wonder now if it wears that shape because of what happened inside. 

I have one story to tell. No matter where it begins, I always end it there, in that house and in all the ones that came before. “I will find a random photo and use it as a prompt to find my way into a different story,” I decide with firm optimism. But the picture that pulls me in is a little girl with filthy fingernails and terror in her wide open eyes. That is a story I can tell. Those are nuances I can draw on for color in a scene, the smells and sensations are at my fingertips, in my body for reference. I open a large book of landscape photographs, planning to use one as a setting, but once people enter my scene there is fear in the wide-open vastness, a need for a hiding place and none to be found.

There are so many other stories I can tell with genuine knowledge and experience, stories of happy families, stories of triumph, stories of courage, stories of deep joy found in ordinary moments, but they are not the ones that come to me when I write. My writing friend suggests that this story needs to be told, and then I will be able to tell others. I really hope so.

the revelation of tiny dreams

For the first time in a long time, I got out for my walk early this morning. One thing that makes it enjoyable (one of the few things, especially this hot and muggy time of year) is that I get to listen to podcasts. This morning I was listening to an episode of This American Life (“Show Me The Way”) which was about people in our lives who are guides for us in some way. The first story was about a guy whose lawyer was having an affair with his wife — betrayal by a guide, etc. — and so I thought the stories would be that kind of story, betrayals of some kind.

But the second story was about a boy who was a big fan of Piers Anthony. The now-grown man was telling the story, and it was heartbreakingly familiar. A divorce. His mother’s remarriage to a man who was cruel to the boy, and his mother did not intervene. He was lonely, had not a single friend. Lived in his books (Piers Anthony and Stephen King, mostly, but primarily Anthony). Quit caring about everything, failed 10th grade. Apparently Piers Anthony wrote lengthy, rambling author’s notes in his books talking about the mundane ordinary aspects of his own life. It was those author’s notes that grabbed the boy more than anything else, so he slowly came up with a plan to leave his home in Buffalo and go to Piers Anthony’s home in Florida. He went to the bank and withdrew the money he’d been saving for years from his jobs (matched by his mother, with the intention of being college money) — about $1200, if I remember correctly. He walked to the airport, took him 8 hours because he didn’t really know where it was, bought an airplane ticket and dropped a postcard in the mail to his mom so she wouldn’t worry, and flew to Florida. When he arrived, he hired a cab and realized that he was doing it, he was on his own, and he had that envelope of cash. So what would any teenage boy do for a little treat? He asked the cab driver to stop at an art supply store and he was kind of drunk on that — he could buy anything, any art supply he wanted. He didn’t know exactly where Anthony lived, but he’d done some detective work in the books and thought he was at least in the right town.

The interviewer asked him what he wanted, what he thought would happen. I’d already been crying by the paucity of the boy’s life and what dazzled him, but then came the answer:

I thought he would offer me shelter. I thought I’d live with him, I’d get up in the mornings and make breakfast for the family. We’d do chores around the house. We’d have dinner together.

homeThen I really started crying, walking on the street. Such a tiny, tiny, impossibly tiny dream. The boy hoped he would be given shelter, that’s all. He hoped to have a family he could serve and work with. That’s all. Art supplies, whatever he wanted.

I know that feeling, and you know I do if you’ve read my blog for very long. My runaway plan when I was in 10th grade was to make my way to San Antonio where I would find a convent and bang on the door begging for sanctuary. When I was 10 I ached, wishing that Cher was my mother (shhhh….) because I thought she might like me, she might be nice to me once in a while. In my imaginings, we sat and talked to each other. That was my big dream. A safe place to live, and a mother who liked me.

Last week I wrote about a series of very tiny dreams I had, each filled with color. I told Marc about them and he felt almost unbearably sad when he heard them. I’d been struck by the vivid color in them, but what struck him was the smallness of them. And how thrilled I was by them — riding a red bike, a tiny little wish. (Of course, it was in Paris, not too shabby. Still.) I take his point, and it’s easy to look at my life and realize how incredibly small my dreams have always been — which is surprising, because I’ve had this enormous, adventure-filled, accomplished life. I’ve traveled all over the world, I earned a PhD, I raised three gorgeous children, I’ve lived in New York City and worked on Madison Avenue, how dazzling is that? I never dreamed any of it, I didn’t even know how. I didn’t have any of that in my head, in my frame, none of it ever entered my mind. It all kind of happened to me and when the opportunities came up I grabbed after them, but I didn’t dream any of them. My dream was for sanctuary and a mother who liked me — and both of those things seemed like pie in the sky fantasy dreams. No way I could ever get them.

Here’s to bigger dreams, wilder dreams, because you already have shelter and love. I wish no child had to have such tiny wild fantasies. And happy Monday y’all.

excavations

When I was a very little kid — maybe around the time I became Queen of the Pillbugs, I can’t remember exactly — I told my mother I wanted to become a paleontologist when I grew up. My dream was exquisitely specific: I wanted to discover nests of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. You know how kids are. My favorites were the giants, but I had a soft spot too for the Stegosaurus, which looked to me like a daffodil, and trilobytes (this is a pretty good book), at least in part because they reminded me of my pillbug subjects.

Even all these years later, I maintain my little dream, tucked in the corner of my heart, to become an egg-finding paleontologist. I’ve come to realize that visiting Mongolia as a regular old tourist is difficult and I may have to just harbor that dream as a little mummified egg of its own.

But I thought about this last night when I was opening the last of my boxes, which finally arrived. When you live in a far-too-tiny place, like I did in Manhattan, everything gets crammed and wedged into whatever little niche you can find. A little bag of things tucked into that space at the very back of the top shelf in the back closet. This and that forced into little openings here and there. More or less. 🙂  So in addition to my books, all my other little things were tossed into the boxes, things I haven’t seen in at least 6 or 7 years.

There was Big Daddy’s hard hat, and the cat doorstop that was in his house, things I knew I had. There was the little wooden ship model my dad made as a sick little boy. Knew I had that one. But there too were my kids’ baby blankets and infant toys. And photos I only remembered in dreams, pictures I thought were long-lost. Various special prints I’d had and simply had no space to hang them, including this magnificent Far Aint print Marnie made, inspired by me, actually.

I have my collection of Marnie’s art across her entire life — you know, mothers — and all the little cards and precious things my children made for me. Christmas ornaments they made. Books they wrote. Gifts they’ve given me, all saved and tucked away unseen for so many years I thought they’d been lost.

And then there are the small mementos of my trips. Usually we just took photographs and lots of them, and I bought a pair of earrings from each place. But I have my little reed boat I bought on Lake Titicaca, the same shape as those cool boats. An indigo-dyed pillow cover from a teeny little woman in Sapa, in the hills of northern Vietnam.  A piece of gorgeous cloth from Myanmar. Little things like that. And my two Tibetan singing bowls, large and small, and a paired set of vases I bought in 1999, thought long-lost. Two more horny toads, a medium-sized one and a very small brass one.

Nothing is put away yet, of course, but they’re around me and my place feels like home now. Nothing is worth any money, except for the new things I’ve just bought, but those little precious things matter more than everything else in my place, and I slept like a baby last night. I’m history-less, in a way, but these small precious objects are the missing touchstones, which I experience in such a literal way. I hold Will’s blue and green baby shoes and close my eyes, and Will is in my arms, squirming to get down on the ground. I hold the little pair of undies that Mama G embroidered for Katie, and I remember trying to get them on over Katie’s diaper for a trip to San Antonio to see Mama G. I thumb through the photographs and feel all those years that have passed through me, and that left themselves in my cell memory.

meeses x 3

When I was in kindergarten, the story goes that we had a little mouse problem, so my dad set traps. A few days later, while we had company visiting, my little sister (age ~3) ran into the living room and said, breathlessly, “We caught a mouse in our mouse crap!

Another mouse story. Again when I was 4 or 5, my mother was entertaining friends — trying to be fancy, I gather — and my dad sent me in to tell them a nursery rhyme he’d just taught me: Hickory dickory dock / the mouse ran up the clock / the clock struck one / and the mouse shit. My mother was not amused, not one little bit.​ 

And a final mouse story, though this one’s more a rat story. My husband was walking through the living room earlier this week and something caught his eye: a gigantic HOLE chewed through the wall, near the floor. Maybe 4 or 5″ across. Big old hole. There was all the chewed-through wallboard, scattered on the floor. Well, we live on the ground floor of a 100+ year old building in NYC, rodents are part of the deal. We had a tiny little mouse infestation several years ago (by which I mean an infestation of tiny little mice), and occasionally a mouse (or rat) dies in the ceiling, between floors, and WHOO BOY is that gross to live with. But this, this totally freaked us out.​ That was a big-ass hole. So he set a couple of traps, and the next morning, giant dead rat with bashed-in head, back in the office. I retreated immediately to sex role behavior and told him how bad I felt that he was going to have to get rid of it. 

And thus ends — I sincerely hope — my mouse and rat tales. This is our last weekend before our trip, so we’ll be busy gathering things, assembling, finalizing. My husband will pack. We’ll plan our food, the electronics, all that exciting stuff. This time next week we’ll be dazed and confused in nighttime Rangoon (which I prefer to say instead of Yangon, the current spelling). So exciting! I hope your weekend has something exciting to look forward to….happy Saturday, y’all.​

Blondie

​Oilmen are a peculiar lot. In Graham, plenty of hardworking men worked in the oilfields; my grandfather was a roughneck, and I wish I could ask him about it now, what his job was, what he thought about it all. Like so many others, Big Daddy had very little education (3rd grade, I think) and went to the oilfields out of necessity. Most were like Big Daddy, quiet men of few words with big hard hands.

But​ some of the oilfield men were characters. Mostly this took the form of drunks who haunted the domino halls and were rowdy on Saturday nights, but there was this one guy named Charles Hipp who was something else, entirely. That’s his lion in the back of his car, with his grandkids. 

Charlie and his lion were the cover story in a 1955 issue of Life Magazine:  “Living Room Lion – Blondie, A Docile 200-Pound Texan, Becomes A Member of the Family” (check out this page, and at the bottom there’s a link to even more photographs from Life).  That lion went everywhere with them in their station wagon, even boating with them on Possum Kingdom Lake and sharing their bathtub. He’d bought Blondie from the zoo in Dallas back in 1953, when she was just 12 weeks old. None of us thought anything about seeing the lion around town. “Oh, there’s Blondie.”

Unfortunately, Charlie had a jaguar too, and one day it mauled his grandson pretty badly so Charlie got rid of all his animals except for Blondie. When I knew his grandson, the terrible scars on his disfigured face were frightening, and Bubba was always kind of odd after that, living with those scars.​ One school year he had a little crush on me and was chasing me so I ran into the girls’ bathroom. He followed me and was so carried away with adrenalin, I guess, that he pushed me hard and I went through the window. For decades I had a little nub of glass under the skin by the knuckle on my left middle finger, but I just checked and it’s finally gone. Poor little Bubba.

at the YWCA

I lie on the small hard bed, wearing my thin coat over my blue jeans and gauzy top. My feet are so cold; winter in Wichita Falls is bitter black and icy and I don’t have proper clothing. The thin chenille bedspread isn’t thick enough to cushion the rustle of the plastic covering over the mattress, but I’ve gotten so used to it, I hardly notice it any more. The thick smell of PineSol in the tiled hallway coats the roof of my mouth – even after all this time, I’m still not used to it or the headache it always gives me. In the corner of my small room, my other school outfit is draped over a wooden drying rack. Each of the rooms has one of these racks; mine is wobbly but it works. i hope that shirt is dry by tomorrow morning, otherwise I’ll have to wear this top for the third day in a row. I’ve got to find another pair of shoes.

It’s only 7:30, but it’s curfew time so I’m in for the night. My homework is finished, and I don’t have any food or company. I’m not tired enough for sleep, so I turn on my record player – Elton John, the Blue Moves album, the soundtrack to my life right now. My theme song, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. My chest constricts and my stomach hurts, every time I listen to it. What’ve I got to do to make you love me, what’ve I got to do to make you care. Sorry seems to be the hardest word. I don’t know how to keep breathing, I don’t want to keep breathing. I close my eyes and once again will my heart to stop. I’ve been trying that little trick for more than 10 years, but it never works, I don’t know why I keep trying. Habit, maybe. It’s so melodramatic, that song, and so is my feeling. I know it, I know it’s just me being ridiculous, stupid, making a big deal like I always do. What’ve I got to do to make you love me, I’m sad so sad, I’m sorry, so sorry. Sorry is such an easy word, he got that wrong. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please.

The other women who live on my floor are much older than me – mostly in their 30s I think, but a couple are in their 50s. But I don’t know for sure, we don’t really talk to each other. I don’t even know anyone’s name. They all look cold and tired. We pass each other going in and out of the bathroom and we all look like we’ve been crying. I don’t even wonder about them very much, except to wonder when that one will finish in the bathroom so I can have it. The YWCA isn’t luxurious, but it’s institutionally clean and that counts for something.

​Bedtime comes and I sleep, in short moments — too short to dream, too short to relax, too short to make the night pass quickly. Finally, finally, it is time to get up. My other shirt is dry, so I dress and make my bed, military corners for the inspection, and straighten my room. I’ll be at school when my room is inspected, so I can’t take a chance and be careless: either my room is clean and proper, and I can stay, or it is not, and I am back on the street. I probably have enough money to stay here for a month if I am careful, so I gather my books, check my room once more, and head to school. I am a sophomore in high school.