We were one of the first families to settle in our small neighborhood in El Paso. It was so new that the neighbors had yet to wage the war with nature to produce lush lawns, and mountains of fertilizer and manure adorned every house's driveway as the new residents tried to make the soil something it was not intended to be. At that time, the desert was near enough to walk to, and I spent hours away from home watching snakes and scorpions and playing in the metal remains of automobiles and building supplies. It was hot and peaceful, and no one ever came looking for me there. I liked to read in the ruins, and I learned respect for the other creatures who took refuge in the shade, predators who left you alone if you left them alone. I was more comfortable with rattlesnakes than people. My father had been stationed in El Paso, and he was working on his master's degree in mathematics after returning home from Vietnam. I remember my father as being mostly angry, my mother as sad, and my sister as happy and mischievous. We didn't do much together as a family, but once in a while we would go to Juarez or travel to nearby states. My mother was good at making friends who loved her dearly, and they always wanted her to come and visit.
My memories aren't always clear, but I remember lots of visits to places full of brown skinned people who did not look like me. I remember tortillas and fry bread and rich stew. I remember laughter and the pungent smell of alcohol. I remember beautiful jewelry and tapestries and almost naked babies. My mother was so beautiful. She drew people in like a bonfire on a cold night, head cocked to one side, eyes dancing, laughter bubbling from the core of her.
I can't remember why, but one trip we saw a man painting a beautiful picture on the ground with sand. There was a light breeze, and even before the sand connected with the ground below, some of it was caught by the wind and swept away. I was not one to talk to other people, particularly when I was surrounded by a crowd. So, I stood there at the edge of the circle, watching the man work, watching him create something new, being torn in two by how ephemeral his creation was. It scared me in ways that I had no ability to articulate. I waited in the silence until the crowd thinned, and the man nodded to me. I stumbled forward in spite of myself, and he poured a bit of copper sand into the palm of my hand. It was cool and gritty and ran through my fingers no matter how hard I tried to keep it all in one place. I thought he would be angry at me for wasting his sand, but he just smiled at me and asked me if I wanted to ask him anything. I whispered, "Won't you be sad if it gets messed up?" He just smiled. "Everything ends. It doesn't have to last forever to mean something beautiful."
I don't know how many years have passed since my mother died. I only know that she started to die more than 20 years ago, we changed who we were to one another, and then she was gone. By the time she died, she had been sick for more than 10 years. When they told us she had days left, she continued on this earth for more than 3 more months. I longed for her to continue on this earth with me. I longed for the realness of her, for her presence. And even when she was no longer with me, and even some days now, I still long to wrap her up in my arms, look into her lovely brown eyes and see her soul. Even when I knew it was time to let go, even when I understood that her release from suffering needed to outweigh my own selfish mother hunger, I wanted her here. I suppose I thought that all of the beauty that she encapsulated would disappear like grains of sand on the wind with her death, but finally I think I am beginning to understand what the artist was trying to show me all those years ago.
We took road trip the year that my son graduated from high school, and it was full of art and music, and family, and laughter, and tears, and life. One of our stops was to the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. It was unbearably hot that day, the kind of heat where even with the air conditioner on full blast, you still feel like you're in an oven. The kind of heat that punches you in the belly and pushes your face down in the dust. The kids were just as hot and hangry, and we were all out of bottles of water, still I was determined to see something new, something beautiful. We couldn't really see the cars from the side of the road, just ugly fields and balding sky. My wonderful husband, who is always goal-directed and certain when there's a mission at hand, too the lead, walking sure-footed towards the cars while little Lady satellited around him. Sir Talks A Lot and I ambled along more slowly, taking in the teenage douchebags painting penises on every surface. He was the first to pick up a stray paint can. He made a swoosh in green. Lady picked up the next can -- hers fire engine red. Soon, we were all making our marks. And the joy, the beauty, was in that particular moment, knowing that we were a part of something communal, feeling connected to the history of the place, and understanding that the impermanence was exactly what made the experience special.
I think the hardest part of living with PTSD is dealing with all of the gods and monsters. I don't mean the ones from my past, but the voices, the people who haunt my dreams and infect my waking moments. I am a strong, capable woman, but sometimes someone will hurt me or yell at me or abuse their authority, and I'm right back in my bedroom from when I was 6, backed against a wall, waiting for the next blow to fall. It would be easier if I could rationalize it all away, but the boogey man is tricky. He doesn't just wait for you in the dark, he inhabits you, curls around your heart, squeezes your lungs, and twines himself through your bowels.
Last year, maybe two years ago, a person I considered to be a friend exploded at me and my daughter. It was terrifying. And, as much as I wanted to be an adult about the situation., I wasn't. I'm still not. I had bad dreams for weeks, and the person became magnified in my mind as a monster -- no fangs and claws, but more like danger personified. When I finally saw him again, I was shocked by how normal he looked and how innocuous he seemed, but I couldn't let it go. I could see the anger roiling beneath his skin, and I kept waiting for him to shift and become the monster he had been the day he lost his temper. The worst part of the whole thing was poor little Lady Chatterly. She was terrified too, but we kept going back to his lair for lessons. I thought I was being a responsible parent, respecting her autonomy, giving her the option to choose to continue to stay or go. She would tell me that she hated going to lessons, but when we would get there to break it off with him, she allowed herself to be manipulated over and over again into staying with him. She would put on a bright smile and be a good soldier. She would babble and try to be charming so that the monster would know that she was a good girl. She was becoming me.
I have taught my daughter many things -- that she needs to stand up for herself, that she is intelligent and beautiful, that she is capable and resourceful, and that she is cherished and loved. I never anticipated or comprehended that I was also teaching her how to permit herself to be abused. It terrifies me how easy it is to fall into that trap. Awareness of time is not my forté, but I think it's been at least 6 months since we've even set foot in the building, and I can't determine whether or not I am giving my daughter permission to avoid a den of lions or if I am just teaching her that lions are too fearsome for her to confront even with me by her side.
As I have mentioned more than a few times, I was abused a lot. I can handle the dreams, the flashbacks, the memories, the complicated relationships, but it's hard to deal with the infiltration of me.
I read the novel 1984 when I was 7 years old, shortly before my first mental break and my first contemplation of suicide. I was miserable at home and school and had just learned that religion was a fraud and feared that God might be too, and then I discovered dystopias. These wonderful literary works helped me realize that, perhaps, the world was pain, but I was not the cause of it. At the time, I imagined that no matter what else happened, no matter how many times I was beaten or locked up or touched against my will, there was something inside me that was my own. I believed that there had to be something, a soul or psyche, that was inviolable, safe from corruption, safe from control. And then I read 1984. When Winston loved Big Brother at the end, it broke something in me.
I mention this only because, now that I am an adult, I realize that I have a version of my own beloved Big Brother: I have the voices, the scorn, and the hatred of every abuser inside my head to keep me company. My gods and monsters whispering their hate in a voice that is inflected to sound like my own.
I've never been afraid of an honest question. I don't mean blades disguised as questions or words used as hammers to bash you down. I mean earnest, open, wondering questions. It's one of the many things I love about children. Until, of course, they become corrupted by hatred and fear. Children who see my hair want to touch it, wrap it in their tiny hands and give a good tug or two. Children marvel at how much it feels like rope, scratchy and thick and usually not like any hair they could conceive of before. Children like my soft, large belly. They like the way it jiggles when I laugh. The smallest ones like to butt their heads into it like tiny goats, and my own children liked using it as a pillows. Sometimes children ask me why it is so large, but it is not malice or meanness that drives the question, simply wonder.
My family moved to Germany when I was seven and my sister was four. For many of the people in the small village where we lived, we were the first brown skinned people that they had met. We had just moved from the base to a house in Kyllburg, and we hadn't had the chance to meet anyone except for our landlady's granddaughter. The movers had arrived, and, as in any small town, the arrival of newcomers was a spectacle. My mother's smile had stretched itself thin with the tension caused by having to manage the movers while greeting the curious onlookers, and my sister and I, clearly, weren't helping. So, the two of us were sent outside to wander the streets. In a happy bit of coincidence, our new friend, Corrina, was on her way home from school and was surrounded by her friends. We spoke no german at the time, and they spoke little english, but as children do, we (mostly my sister) began playing. I suppose our new friends must have liked us because eventually, when it was almost time for us to go inside for our meals, they began to try to convey something to us rather urgently. We finally figured out that they wanted us to sneak into one of their homes so that we could take a bath. I was quite confused since no child ever really wanted to take a bath and, besides the bit of running we had done, none of us were not at the level of filth that it took for our adults to make us bathe. Baths in Germany were not simple. They required filling the tub with cold water from the tap and then adding kettle upon kettle of hot water. It was an ordeal, and everyone took turns in the water until it was gray. So my sister and I were shocked that someone would suggest such a horrible thing. Finally, through a combination of hand gestures and Corinna's broken english, we figured out that the kids believed that we had either drawn on or painted ourselves because we were both brown. Once we explained that the brown was the natural color of our skin, our confused friends just accepted it and moved on.
This is, hands down, my favorite memory about race. Our new friends were worried that our difference was something dangerous, but once they realized that our color was as natural as theirs, there was no drama, no fear, no hatred.
I am the mother of two amazing queerlets, and while the world has changed quite a bit sine my younger years, I still hate how much I have to worry about their well-being simply because they do not fit into someone else's vision of "normal." I grew up, but I never lost that willingness to ask questions and accept the answers with tolerance, humor, and acceptance. I really can't understand what it is about becoming an adult that makes minds shut and makes hearts smaller. Other people have tried to explain it to me -- how life makes you hurt and then you don't trust other people -- but my experience is that life makes you heart and then you realize you need to be more gentle with other people.
Sleep is not a friend of mine. I've tried on many occasions to make it my bestie, but it's just not happening. When it's not an inability to breathe or deal with the fact that I've eaten food, its my wretched brain. So, this song is about that.
We all have paths where we've walked in circles so many times, we've dug ourselves a lovely rut. Sometimes we are just wandering, thinking of all of the chores we have to do, or remembering all of the people we think we've let down, or dreaming of a new life somewhere far far away and find that we have, unaware, fallen into the old familiar road to nowhere. Sometimes, we think we're on a brand new path. We set off, bright and early, with the sun painting oranges, yellows and pinks on the horizon, the birds chirping merrily like an unseen Greek chorus prophesying new beginnings, the path festooned with daffodils and spring lilies, and we're so entranced by the infinite possibilities of the new day that we don't notice the landscape changing until we're right back in that wretched rut.
The first time I saw blinders on a horse was when I was a little girl in Germany. I noticed that the horses that pulled carts up and down the mountain roads alongside automobiles often wore these strange squares on their faces. Not over their eyes, but next to them, so I reasoned that they couldn't be glasses or goggles. I puzzled and puzzled over the use for such a thing. Finally, I decided to ask my Oma about it. She explained to me that blinders help to convince a horse that the only correct direction to go is straight ahead and, without distractions, you could get a horse to ignore everything around it. It would just keep moving in whatever direction you pointed its head.
The song, "Recidivistic," happened after a conversation about the criminal "justice" system. I was talking to some friends about whether or not it was possible for incarceration to ever lead to true rehabilitation. Recidivism came up, and I started to think about those horses with blinders and our own tendencies, blinders or not, to follow well worn paths. I have no cure, but I know that I struggle with my own tendency to repeat my past mistakes and to worry to the point of immobility, when I walk the world without blinders, about the dangers that seem to surround me.
Nevertheless, in spite of the potential for disaster, here I go again setting off in a new direction.
Confronting your own mortality seems an easy enough task. In any case, it should be for me. I've spent almost as much time wanting to die as dying from various maladies. Nevertheless, I am finding that having an expiration date, a real, potential nevermore is somehow different from theory or weariness. I have spent the last two weeks struggling with my body, struggling with speaking, struggling to human like other people, and it seems to me that I might run out of time before I make it far enough down my path to have a good place to exit.
Age 58 seems to be a portentous time in my family -- a time when our bodies succumb to some catastrophic event or malady. When I was 48, I thought that I should get a move on, get things written, get things accomplished. Instead, I spent my time focused on other people, trying to build communities, trying to heal wounds and build bonds, trying to be a light (such as it is) in darkness, and trying to help the next generation find their place. It sounds like hubris, and perhaps it is, but when sunset comes, my hope is that the darkness that follows contains hope like points of stars. In any case, I will be 53 in December, and looking back at my small attempts to influence the world, and looking forward at the possibility that I may only have 5 years left, I have been feeling a bit lost at sea. So, I am looking for some kind of constellation to guide me to some new vision, some new version of myself. But there is no grand scheme or plan. There is no certainty one way or another.
So, Trevor and I will simply have to walk hand in hand, step by step, day by day until the music box wears down and all that remains is the tinny, thin memory of a distantly familiar song.
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