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.

terror magnification

magnifySo here’s the deal. You know what you’re going to do today, right? You’ve got the day planned out, mostly, and you’ve got a calendar with appointments for the week, maybe for the month. You’ve got those plans with friends over the weekend, and then the kids are coming home next month. You need to run to the mall, and there are big plans for the holidays this year.

And you’re just living your life, not hurting a soul! You’re a good person, you try to help when you can, people count on you, there would be a hole in the world if something happened to you. Maybe a giant hole, maybe a bigger hole than you even imagine.

So you take care! You look both ways before you cross the street, you try to eat well [enough] and get [enough] exercise. You avoid dangerous places, you keep an eye on your surroundings. You don’t go to the bad side of town alone at night, you avoid dangerous places in the world when you plan a vacation. You make sure your loved ones know that you love them. Now, though — and it was true before yesterday but the Boston bombings bring it back to our foreminds — we know there is no way to avoid dangerous places, because any place is a dangerous place. That’s the nature of terror, to make every place, every moment, potentially dangerous. We’re having to live with it though people around the world have lived with it every day for decades. Decades. Ordinary people, ordinary moms and kids, dads, students, young people, old people, markets and coffee shops, people just going about their business. Sheer horror.

I’m thinking not about the horror of the deaths and destruction, the lost legs and arms, the damage that might never be repaired, but I am thinking about living in a world where this happens. What is it we fear? Death, obviously. Being so wounded that we’re never the same again, that our lives have to change. Never knowing what to expect, never being able to just live without fear, never being able to live as if it’s all under our control. Living in an unfair world.

But aren’t those things already true? They are. It’s all true, even if there were no terrorists. However you want to organize it, life/the universe/whatever is kind of a terrorist. You can just be walking along and BAM! your brain explodes in a stroke and if you are lucky enough to survive, your whole life can be changed entirely — internal terrorism. You can just be walking along and a car can careen out of control and plow into a crowd on the sidewalk, maybe you die, maybe you are paralyzed, maybe you survive and your children die. Unfair, death, destruction, damage, unexpected, fear, no control. Unfair. Really, really unfair. If you think about the worst thing that has ever happened to you, it was probably unfair. Gracie’s death — unfair!! The things that were done to me as an innocent little child — unfair!! Really, really, really unfair. My friend’s major stroke, entirely unfair. Death, loss, unexpected, fear now in the wake, no control, unfair.

Terrorism adds the variable of intent, which somehow, to our minds, makes it all worse, makes the unfairness worse, makes the death and damage worse, makes the expectedness worse, makes the fear worse. But why? Why does it? Why should it? I think it just gives us a person or entity we can hope to punish, to exact revenge, and that gives us the illusion that the world is fair and that there is some control to be had. But we know this: the world is not fair, it rarely is (and when it is, it’s really just an accident), and there is only so much control to be had (and probably not as much as we like to think).

Terrorism magnifies the fact of ordinary life, bringing potential death and destruction to the forefront of our minds in a potent way. But what can you do to protect yourself? Look both ways. Avoid obviously dangerous places. Eat well and exercise. Keep loved ones close. Be sure the people you love know that you love them because you never know what might happen and this may be your chance.

So: I am grateful for you, I am grateful for my life, and I love you and it and every last bit of it, even a world in which this kind of thing can happen. Here’s an utterly gorgeous poem called “I Say Yes to All of It”:

everything that was broken yesterday
remains that way today

i have fixed what i can and the rest
is the life i have chosen

or sunk into
shoulder high

and i’ve yet to flail my hands

i am still
and silent

i was listening for something
for the longest time

and then i forgot how to speak

this isn’t mud i wallow in
but rather
the exquisite change pain of life

i no longer wait to be rescued

there are stars
or rain on my face

or blinding blue skies

crows chatter on the line
i used to talk through

there is a bluebird just now
warbling a love song

there is earth pressed tight
against my heart

winter ate me whole
and spring will spit me back out

this clay will all turn to dust
and my feet are already


not all those who wander are lost…

…but sometimes they are. Apologies if you already read this on facebook yesterday, but I had such a terrifying experience, it rattled me and has stayed with me. Remember that terrible scene in On Golden Pond when Henry Fonda goes out to pick strawberries in the woods around his cabin, and gets so lost and disoriented he is terrified? I saw that movie when it came out in 1981, when I was a 22-year-old baby, and didn’t yet have the experience with Alzheimer’s that our family would get years later when dear sweet Kiki, my darling father-in-law, and his dear precious sister Oopie, suffered so terribly from it. But even without that personal experience, the movie was so good at showing the terror of that experience, of finding yourself somewhere that makes absolutely no sense, even though it did, once. Maybe even 5 minutes ago it made sense, but it certainly made sense in life, before.

Well, I do not have Alzheimer’s, and probably won’t—not a soul in my family, on either side, ever got Alzheimer’s Disease. (Although most of the men killed themselves in their 40s so perhaps they would’ve and we just don’t know.) My mind works reasonably well, and while I’m increasingly finding myself unable to find that perfect, just-right word I’m searching for, it’s nothing to worry about. I can tell my mind doesn’t work as electric-blue-fast as it used to, but I’m ok with that; the trade-offs of other things I’ve gotten with aging more than make up for it.

But yesterday I had a terrifying experience and I felt like poor old Norman, wandering in the woods around Golden Pond. I had to run to Target and World Market, two stores I’ve been to a great many times as I’ve been setting up my new house. In fact, they’re the places I’ve been to more than anywhere else — more than the grocery store and to Katie’s house, even. They’re pretty close to my house, too, on the nearby highways. Things got off to a rocky start when I got in my car and the Bluetooth had mysteriously quit working with my phone. It’d been fine the night before, and nothing had changed; I sat for 15 minutes trying to figure it out and never could. (But luckily I had my phone—I’d walked out without it, and went back thankfully.) So finally I just left, couldn’t keep fiddling with the Bluetooth all day, needed to get going. And I didn’t even need to program the route to Target into my phone . . . no way! I know how to get there, no worries. So off I went, a bit Nyquil-hungover and stuffy, but good. Going to get the last things I need for the guest room, hallelujah. Here I go, happy me, just need some lamp shades and curtains and an umbrella, since big rain storms are coming. Happy day, oh happy me, off I go in my zippy little car, singing to myself.

But then Target wasn’t where I thought it would be, and I didn’t recognize anything. Suddenly I was on the wrong highway, I think, and nothing was right. Nothing at all seemed familiar, and I couldn’t imagine where Target was, and I couldn’t even see it in my mind, what my Target looked like, what the parking lot was like, the surroundings. Nothing. I pulled off as soon as I could, to breathe and get hold of myself, and then programmed it into my phone. The route back made absolutely no sense; when the directions were to turn left, I’d have sworn I should be turning right. And vice versa. Nothing made sense, I had no idea where the GPS was taking me, and nothing ever looked familiar. I felt like crying, and I was having a hard time breathing, and even here, the next day, typing this makes me cry. I made it to Target and kind of wobbled in and did my shopping, feeling frightened and unsteady. I programmed the route for World Market and continued to feel utterly confused, with no idea where GPS was taking me, and feeling disoriented. I felt like I’d never been to any of these places, nothing was right.

Friends on facebook and in email hastened to assure me — the Nyquil doesn’t help, you have a cold, you’ve had too many big things happening at once, this kind of thing happened to me too, I know, I know, you’ll be OK, sending a hug. I take comfort from all of them, and I take comfort from my ability to write and read sentences that I haven’t had a stroke or something, and I feel the truth of being tossed around by life lately, so my feet aren’t all the way on the ground yet.

When I was young, we went through a period of living on the run, and some years we moved a lot in a short period of time. I remember being in the backseat of the car, heading home from the grocery store, and not being able to imagine what the driveway was going to look like because there had been too many driveways in too short a time. What I saw in my mind’s eye was a slideshow of driveways, and I couldn’t pick out the new one. Another time when I was 12, I’d climbed a tree while wearing a mauve-colored doubleknit pantsuit. (shhhh… was 1971). Even though I was just a few feet off the ground, I became utterly terrified that I couldn’t get down; sure, partly I was afraid I’d snag my pantsuit, but it was a much bigger thing than that. That little experience of being stranded in the tree, my feet off the ground, stood in for all the tectonic things that were happening, all the terrors that left me so afraid my feet would never again be on the ground. 

I do imagine that what happened to me yesterday was much more about being disoriented in a deep way right now, trying to find the floor with my feet and not knowing for sure exactly which floor they’re heading for. Today, this morning in fact, I’m off to a strength training class for women, at the nearby YMCA (which I will be programming into my phone), and I look forward to the way that will help me feel grounded. Solid, weighted, feet on the floor, strong. Not yet, those things + me, but I’m on the way. And then tonight, poetry group meets at my house! So here’s to a better day, in every way.

good thing of the day: lots of rain coming for droughty old us! And working my body and mind today, how lucky I am.