My father's euphemism for lying when I was a little girl was "telling stories," and since I started telling stories when I was three years old and taught myself how to read, I always felt a certain discomfort for sharing my imagination or even my truth. Add to that my father's penchant for telling me that my reality wasn't real ("I never hit you!"), and, well, things can get a bit murky up in the old noggin sometimes. By the time I was 4, I decided that I could create, but I should never lie. The grown ups around me caught on fairly quickly that I was the weak link whenever any mischief happened. All of my cousins knew to get me out of the room fairly quickly whenever there was a fact finding expedition underway because I would spill every single baked bean from the can. Not because I wanted to get my cousins in trouble, mind you. After all, most of the terrible ideas that caused the most destruction were mine, but because I had learned that telling lies was akin to succumbing to a world that made no sense at all. The odd thing is that many of my stories about myself sound like fiction even when they are not. And now that I am a big girl writer with a compromised memory, I find that knowing and expressing the truth about myself are more important than ever.
My father's family has a memory malady that takes their past bit by bit and wipes it clean. It started with my grandmother, Eleanor. From what I understand, she was a distant woman, sensitive and overwhelmed by a house full of children she couldn't handle. So, one day, she converted to a new religion and decided to leave most of her family behind in the name of God and sadness and ruin. She chose some of her children to take with her, and others to leave behind, left to wonder why they weren't good enough to warrant her love. My father was one of the ones left behind to wait and wonder. Eventually, she returned. She returned, but the threat of abandonment was always there, and the children competed with one another for space, for food, for approval, and most of all, for her love. They grew up brittle and , though they loved each other very much in their own way, they distrusted it. Because it could walk out the door at any minute. Because you had to be something never clearly defined to earn it. The world, in their home and out of it, had a brutality to it that you had to learn to master and make your own.
I don't know all of the stories that filled the days between my grandmother's return to her family and my entering the world, but I lived through some of the consequences of her choices. By the time I knew my grandmother, she was someone else entirely. She was "off" in a way that we had no language for. She was drifting, ephemeral, living in a world where reality and memory had fled long ago. She used to carry a baby doll in her arms and coo and sing and sigh to it. Her voice was high and lilting with a slight quaver. My Aunt Ma, who had no children of her own, cared for her, fed her, bullied her, and loved her. Grandma Eleanor rarely saw me, but when she did, it was magical. She was the person who let me know that I could be whatever I wanted to. She told me stories about the past that she remembered, about a mother who had never wanted her. We played dolls together sometimes, kissing their plastic cheeks and sometimes kissing each others'. And since "dementia" wasn't a word I knew, her retreat into her mind, into her past, and into her imagination seemed magical to me. I wanted to believe in a world of my own making so fervently that it became real.
When Daddy went off to war and Mommy was sick with my baby sister and the walls crawled with cockroaches and Mommy cried every night because she was afraid of the bad people outside of our apartment and sometimes there was not enough food and the laundry was in the basement where it was dark and scary and the stinky men with the bottles in paper bags always said mean things to Mommy that made her flinch whenever we went to the store; when all of that happened, I tried so hard to imagine, to believe my life away. It never worked. And later, when Daddy came back from war and we moved to Texas and he saw enemies that weren't there and we had to hide behind furniture whenever helicopters flew overhead and he started hitting Mommy and then me; later, I tried harder and felt like a complete and utter failure when belief in the impossible did not allow me to fly like Mary Poppins or my faith in God did not protect me from the hands of grown men.
Now, though, as my father's mind is slowly unravelling and he becomes like Grandma -- younger, more like an infant, more fragile every day, I understand that sometimes a curse can be a blessing. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to be cherished and wanted, you are not. And sometimes, no matter how hard you believe in miracles, they do not come true. But mostly, I understand the importance of truth and stories. And because I understand how the parts make a whole, I I do not squander my life with hate.
Stranger Than Fiction
For some people, high school is a defining moment in their lives. The selves that they discover during those 4 short years become the selves that they return to time and again when they have to construct a mental image of themselves. I get it. I do. High school is the time that we are first significantly ranked as social objects. It's a time when we figure out what love and sex are. It's a time when we establish identities that we fool ourselves into believing are real. For me, though, high school was, in a strange way, illusory. Looking back on those days feels like recalling a story that happened to someone else.
I was fairly clueless when it came to issues to do with love and attraction. Unlike my other friends, I wasn't really attracted to anyone at all unless I knew them first, and even then, there really didn't seem to be a clear pattern to my attractions. The history of sexual abuse and the lack of friends didn't help much either. I was a map where all the boundaries had been erased, and I constantly found myself getting lost. I had a tendency to fall into messes.
During my sophomore year of high school, we got a brand new Russian teacher. He was young, barely older than us, with curly hair, bright eyes, pretty pink lips, and roses in his cheeks. It was Catholic school, and sexual repression and illicit desire scented the air, something subtle, something animal, something on the fringes of perception. That was the year that my best friend, R, came out of the closet and developed an obsession for all things Russian, including our teacher.
Languages were easy for me to learn when I was younger because, for some reason, by brain interprets the same word in different languages as synonyms. Even now, the word that comes out of my mouth is not always guaranteed to be in the language that everyone around me is speaking or, if I do speak English, my accent might morph into something new. I loved learning Russian. It was the first time that I learned a language from the ground up, alphabet attached. D, our teacher, loved our passion. For him. For trying something new. For Russian. We used to walk down to the river all holding hands or linking arms like a strange 6-limbed beast. I was happy to hug or hold or love, but, in spite of my past, I knew nothing about sex. Eventually, D and R became strange to me, eyes full of a heat I couldn't understand, gazes lingering in ways that excluded me, hands touching in an uncomfortable way. When they finally told me, explained their newly coupled selves, I thought nothing askance about it. It didn't last long. D was shy and quiet and desperately in love. R, on the other hand, was bold, fast, outrageous, and eager for a quick fling only. R left us both behind.
D and I started spending a lot of time together. He made me mushroom soup, borchst, and pumpernickel bread. We spent hours lounging on the bed or drinking tea at the table in his tiny apartment talking about our favorite Russian authors and listening to Tears for Fears. The seasons had changed, and I was always too cold to walk too far beside the river or in the forest, but he let me wedge my hands up into the sleeves of his baggy sweater when I needed to get warm. We were happy. We were friends. Or something.
One day, though, everything changed. D never hurt me, but he did scare me. He and I had fallen into a routine where every day after school, I would go to his apartment and we would eat and talk. The sparkle had returned to his eyes, and we no longer spent hours lamenting about how hard it was to stay alive. We were laying on his bed going over some Russian verbs, faces arching close as flowers, when he kissed me. Kissed me and then rolled on top of me. I was shocked. But he got off of me when I said so and then took me home.
D and I stopped talking for a while, and then his life fell apart. Somehow, someone found out about D and R, and that was the end. He was sacked, and he went away. R and I chatted on occasion, but it was never the same. He left for Russia right after graduation, and I only saw him once more. I didn't recognize the beer guzzling bro who had come back.
They're gone now, both of them, disappeared into lives that are no longer connected to mine. And I have never had borscht or pumpernickel bread taste so good again.
This song, of course, was inspired by all the thoughts that won't leave me alone.
Not my song, but one I wish I'd written.
I read a book today that included a character with PTSD which made me feel . . .things. Not that feeling is bad. Even when you are re-experiencing being locked away (seriously, why do so many people lock kids inside of dark places?), it is still good to know that you are not the only one.
I rarely meet other people like me. People who have been crumpled and stretched out so many times that there are rips in the fabric, and the original writing on the pages has been smeared too badly to read. Perhaps it's because we don't make friends all that easily. Sometimes, even when I amidst a crowd of friends, I feel like I am wearing whiteface in the middle of a KKK cross burning. One slip of the tongue, and the pain will begin.
Or maybe we are simply too good at hiding. The night my aunt's neighbor touched me and made me touch him, kiss him at the barbeque, I ran and hid so far under the bed that I was invisible. I remember how the dust bunnies scampered with my slow inhale and exhale. I remember trying to breathe around the tight itch in my lungs, trying not to sneeze so he couldn't find me again. It took hours for the adults to discover my refuge, and when they dragged me out, I told what happened. This man, the one at the barbeque, had never said "don't tell," so I told. And Daddy was so angry. At me. Daddy said I was "telling stories" because I wanted attention. Daddy said it never happened. Daddy said I should apologize to the man because I was a liar. Daddy said it could never have happened as I said it did because he had been there. He had been there and he would always protect me, so any lack of vigilance, any molestation had to be my fault or my fantasy. Daddy said. And I believed him. And I got better at hiding.
Or maybe we simply have all lost our voices. I do that sometimes. I become unable to speak. I can't talk or tell which is, perhaps, for the best. On the worst days, I can't even be enough of a human to type words on a page. It may well be the legacy left by my across the street neighbor who, when I was 5 used, to press his meaty hand to my mouth, smooshing my nose into my face until I could barely breathe. He liked silence. While he touched me. And after, when the tears fell. He touched his daughter too, Cindy to my Cynthia. I didn't know the word "nonverbal" back then, but she couldn't talk. She just made noises that people ignored. They called her "retard" and hated it when she screamed. I know he touched her until her breasts came in, and then they were gone. Or maybe it was me or my family. I don't know. I have too many holes in my memory to reconstruct things. I just remember that one day it stopped. Of course, my breasts developed when I was 7, so maybe that explains the end of my friendship with Cindy.
Or maybe, and this is the worst one, it is because there are so few of us left.
I was 7, not yet 8, when I first started thinking about killing myself. I read almost every book in our school library and trust me when I say to you that there were no manuals for that sort of thing nor were adults generally keen to instruct you in the ways of self-extinction. I was almost 9 when I made my first serious attempt. By this time, my family and I had moved to Germany, and we were living in an isolated house on the side of a mountain. We were safer there because daddy was rarely home, but when he was there, we all had to be very careful. No sudden or loud noises. No laughing. No chewing too loudly. No eating everything on your plate, and no leaving food behind. Try to be good. Try to be invisible. Invisible is good. I was the bad one, the one who caused the fights. I couldn't seem to stop singing, or talking, or laughing. I was curious about too many things and talked back too much. I was odd. Too grown up.
One day, I found a book under my parents' bed called "The Joy of Sex." It seemed a funny place for a book, so I retrieved it, and my sister and I spent hours looking at the funny pictures. Then, daddy came home. He somehow noticed that we had the book, and the yelling started. Mommy tried to protect us, but she wasn't supposed to talk back. That was against the rules. You were supposed to let them hurt you, but she pushed us behind her. He hit her, like he had done a thousand times before, only this time there was blood. She made us all run upstairs to the bedroom, their bedroom, which still had a lock. We got up the stairs moments before him, and huddled together in the middle of the bed while my father pounded like the big bad wolf demanding to be let in. We thought he would get tired and then leave to find whiskey or women somewhere, but, for some reason, this time was different. He kicked the door so hard that he splintered the wood and came in. Mommy had her whole body curled around us, but I knew that I had to do something. So, I disentangled, got up, stood there, in front of the door, between my father and my dear ones. I stood there, silent, watching, waiting. Waiting for him to kill me. Knowing that I would do anything to protect my mother and my sister. He just stared at me, eyes keliedoscoping with madness, anger, and hatred. I waited. And then, all of a sudden, he bellowed at me that I had made him break the door, and that we were going to have to pay to replace it. Then he was gone. Mama fell asleep cuddling the baby, and I went off to my book to find another book to read. I remember feeling ashamed of myself for causing such a ruckus. I remember thinking that it would be best for all parties if I simply didn't exist anymore.
It was some days later when I worked out a way to die. The house that we were renting was at least 800 years old, younger than our town, but only by 100 years or so. Parts of it looked like an old barn, and one of those parts, my favorite place to disappear and hide, was our attic. It must have once been a place where people lived because the space was tall enough for me to stand up in in places. I loved the rough, damp stone of the walls, but my favorite part of the room was the beams that criss crossed the ceiling leaving v shaped nooks where they approached the wall. I liked to hide books there or things I found on my expeditions -- a clump of wool from a sheep, flowers that wilted and faded, birds' nest, and even a bit of rope left behind by the farmer who pastured his cows in our meadow. I had been choked before (by hands, not rope), and one day, either I read it or figured it out, I realized that I could tie the rope around the beams and, if I put the rope around my neck just right, I could jump and make myself die.
So, after school a few days after the door breaking, I kissed my mum and my sister and went up to the attic and took the rope in my hands. It was an old musty rope, smelling slightly of animal sweat and vegetable rot. I was too short to reach the rafter by myself, but we had boxes stored in the attic, and I stacked them so that I could climb up. Tying the knot was difficult too, but after a bit of practice, I tied a good and sturdy one. I pulled the rope up and over my head, pressing my body low against the rough wood of the rafter, and then I simply rolled/slid off to the side. The pain was blinding, and I wasn't conscious for long. My fingers had a mind of their own, tugging at the rope, fingernails breaking, my body at war with my plan for peace. And then it was dark.
I don't know how much time passed between the dark and the grey when I finally opened my eyes, but my eyes did open, and I was still there. Much of the time after that is hazy for me. I remember wearing turtle necks to hide the welts on my neck. I remember feeling wrong in my body like I did after someone touched me. I remember feeling as though something in my throat was broken and being unable to talk. I remember no one noticing my silence. I remember feeling like a failure because I was still alive.
So, these are the film reels on repeat that leave us with shaking hands. These are the kinds of memories which leave us incapable of sharing and mingling. And those voices from the past, some of which we have incorporated into our own psyches, the ones that tell us how the world works, the ones that make us doubt that our own stories are real, those voices sing us our lullabies as we try to fall asleep.
You're the beginning of the end of me
I come from a long line of women with rhythm in their hips, juju at their fingertips, and enigma on their lips. Women who are sometimes afraid but still face the vengeful storm. We do not bite our tongues. In spite of our best efforts, even the most quiet, the most tactful the most gentle among us is known to speak truth freely. Because of these women, I have never doubted my agency even when my power was constrained by my gender, my race, my poverty, my body. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that these women could walk into a room and turn every head because of the beauty of their spirits; in spite of the fact that their laughter made you feel warmer than the sun; in spite of the fact that their delicate strong hands could heal any wound and handle any labor -- they were frequently weak when it came to love.
It would seem that there should be no downside to hope and resilience. When we, the women of my family, love, it is a primeval, vast, grinding thing. It is a beast we feed with our souls. It is a hope we sustain with our blood. Unfortunately, when we love the wrong someone, someone who is not strong enough to withstand the hurricane that is we, someone who lacks the acuity of vision to see the form within the chaos, someone whose spine is not limber enough to adjust to the infinite shifts of our moods, our creativity; when we love unwisely, we become unwell and are too strong to let go.
Most of us see the writing on the wall yet still wait until it's way too late to read it. So, we have to work to give up a little sooner, to be a bit less steadfast, to know when to cut and run, to be strong enough to be weak.
But there's something about love, something magical, that makes us want to dive deeply. When your body resounds like an instrument in your person's hands, when your heart beats to the rhythm of every love song you hear, when you are transformed into moan and sigh and gurgle just from catching a glimpse of your love's smile, well, it's hard to defend against that.
Defense Against the Dart Art
It's official. Google is old enough to drink today. And that got me thinking. About my kids who never knew a time without Google or computers in general. About how changed the world is. About how when illness stole my mother's voice, telephones were still attached to walls with long spiral cords holding their parts together. About payphones, and rusty playground equipment, and neighborhood cops, and walking places without adults because you could, and being forced to sit in the back of the classroom with the other brown kids.
When I was a kid, none of us were special. None of my friends believed the sun rose and fell just for them. No one expected to have 5 let alone 15 minutes of fame. You've heard us named before. The Latchkey Generation -- the ones who went home to empty houses and frozen dinners; the ones who learned that there's certainty and sometimes safety in being alone and taking care of yourself. Generation X -- the cipher generation, the unknown quantity who learned that no matter what someone calls us, it doesn't change who we are. No matter whether or not those who come before us see us, we're still here. The Middle Kid Creeps -- the ones who never got Big Government's attention because we were never showy, neither perfect or messed up enough to count, always flying in beneath the radar. We were the self-proclaimed losers and slackers and unworthy who took it on the chin and kept coming back for more. We were the sardonic grinners, the quixotic heroes, the persistent pains who understood the long game, the ones who still know how to bide our time.
Some of us are approaching middle age, and some of us are already there so, logically, if fairness was a thing, it should mean that the truly elderly should be passing the torch. Yup. You may not have noticed, but we're still here. In the race. In the thick of things. We're still here with our quirky ideas, our passion for the underdog, and our self-deprecating humor. We're still here. And we have kids that we nurture without smothering. And we have ideas about saving the planet. And we are passionate about social issues even when we are on opposite sides of the fence. We're here, and we're oddball adults. We understand the ones who came before us who continue to suppress us with their hunger for power, and we understand those who come after us who will eclipse us with their narcissism and greed. No need to be peppery; we get you and we don't resent you. Not really. It would just be kind of cool if you guys refrained from breaking the planet so that our kids could maybe not die in a high school shooting or maybe have oceans that could sustain life. Just a suggestion. It would also be cool if, you know, you would not undo hundreds of years of social progress either through active hatred or passive acquiescence.
Of course, it's hard to define a generation or to paint one broadly with only one stroke. We are, after all, a group of individuals as contradictory as that may seem. Nevertheless, since hitting my 50s, I have found that my comfort in my own skin has led me to be rather fond of the group that I am lumped together with. We speak in jingles and comic book heroes all the while trying to save the world and sell the disenfranchised hope for the future. We speak geek and have sharp tongues all the while wrapping our hurts in dark cloth humor. And even though we are not waiting for our closeups, each of our lives has a soundtrack which includes music for the lonely, the quirky, the resilient, the invisible revolutionaries that we are.
Tip of My Tongue
A couple of years ago, I was out on an errand for our 4-H club, delivering lollipop thank you bouquets to strangers when I happened upon a part of Laramie that I had no idea existed. My past experiences with trailer parks and rural poor areas filled with white people have generally not been good. I used to work as an outreach counselor to teach literacy to women from those areas, and let's just say that the people living in those places had a lot invested in letting me know that, despite the difference in our class status, they were better than me because of the color of my skin. In addition, I was the "do-gooder" interloper driving a wedge between husbands and wives, parents and children, abusers and victims by challenging generations with the belief that they could make their lives better by breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I was always by myself and, while there was never any real violence, sometime things got tense. So, when I found this neighborhood of trailers and hodgepodge houses with yards full of rusty trucks and farm equipment, my body responded. My hands shook, my heart beat faster, my mouth felt dry, but I had the kids in the car, and I didn't want to teach them to fear and judge based on experiences they never had. I played it cool, voice laden with false cheer, music turned to low. The girl thought it was all some fun adventure, but the boy didn't quite buy my charade. He nodded, once, succinctly, and stared out the car window murmuring about guns. You see, he too is familiar with the South and rural areas. We drove in circles for a while over the dusty, gravelly, lanes, trying to find some indication of name or number to help us find the person we were looking for. When I finally found my destination, I hissed (gently) at the kids to stay in the car, picked my way through the tall grass and weeds pushing through the concrete driveway, and tried to decide which one of the many doors was the front one. I knocked on the one in the middle. It took a while, or at least it seemed like it did, for anyone to open the door. I was just about to leave when a man peered out of the third door. Besides him being white and older than me, I have no recollection whatsoever about what he looked like, but he was friendly. We chatted at cross purposes, his version of 4-H (animals, ranching, and markets) radically different from my own (science, technology, art). The kids, always happy to meet a new kind person, jumped out of the car and chased the dogs barking at us and weaving through our legs. I handed him his bouquet of sweets. He stared at it awkwardly while I muttered thanks for his support of 4-H, and the conversation dwindled and stilled. On our way out, away from this pocket of reality and back towards our home, I noticed that all of the piled up rusty cars, trucks and machine parts were quite pretty in their own way. Like hedges delineating boundaries, marking transitions between past and future.
Rust Truck Hedges