I’ve heard there’s a way to live that is without pressure, or obligation. A way to avoid the mundane requirements of life; electric bill, rolling trash bins to the curb, changing batteries in the smoke alarms. I’m not real clear about how one achieves that no-pressure life without ending up under a bridge somewhere. I do feel pretty certain that there’s a way to find balance along the nothing/everything continuum.
I was watching Hoarders the other day. In fact I was watching Hoarders back to back. I was sort of hoarding the Hoarders series. I keep thinking about those people and wondering, what was their trigger? What was the last straw that caused that interior designer to pile her historic home so full of crap that she ended up living in the driveway, in her dilapidated van with her dogs? That when the cleanup people were climbing over the piles inside the home, she was cheerily bragging on it being her design studio? In her mind and eyes, there was no problem.
She literally hoarded herself out of her home. She crowded herself out of her life with stuff. And though she declared the high value of it all, much of it was … nothing but garbage.
Another woman’s home was over run with cottage cheese cartons, rubber bands – which she had huge piles of, and wouldn’t let the cleanup people touch – plastic bags. Anything. Everything. It appears that too much everything flips over and you get nothing.
I’m thinking balance. It’s a great term, most of us use it, and most of us think that, in some way, we have some sort of balance in our lives.
Those hoarders think they have balance too. Like the woman whose house was so filled with crap she was living in the makeshift aviary with her cats. She couldn’t live in her house. She cried. She didn’t want to let anything go, but at the same time knew she had a problem.
Not sure why I’m writing about this. What I’m sure of is, I need to hire a couple of teenagers to help me clean out my garage.
You never know when that last straw’s gonna show up.
If three year olds can be gang members, I was one. We had a pack of kids in our neighborhood on North Marion Street. Each morning, as early as any parent would allow, a youngster drifted out the front door of his little clapboard house, and stood in the yard wearing nothing but a pair of rumpled camp shorts. Maybe he’d wander the length of the driveway, bend down, pick up a rock, survey the street for signs of life, and head back to sit on his porch stoop. And wait.
Almost immediately, sets of young eyes threw quick glances out picture windows. Front doors opened, and small, tan feet ran or skipped or sauntered to assemble where the child was planted.
Thinking back, it gives new meaning to “the gang’s all here.” But we were. The men in our gang wore shorts; the women, bloomers. We were brown as biscuits, the soles of our feet well seasoned from weeks of running around bare.
We played all day, moving in a raggedy clump from one yard to another. Bill’s dad had left the hosepipe hooked up on the front spigot, so we all ran over because Shorty and Margo were thirsty. Mitchell and Bobby turned the handle, and the water spurted out. It went quickly from hot as fire to so clear and cold that suddenly we were all thirsty. Everybody got a chance. About eight or ten three year olds bending over spouting water, slurping it down their throats and bellies, all of us clamoring for more.
I don’t remember every name from back then, but I remember that water. It started in Lake Spavinaw, and came pouring out of that front yard hose icy and sweet, flavored with a touch of rubber hose and a dash of brass metal. We all loved it, and kept drinking until Bill’s mother came out on the porch to shake the dustmop and caught us.
“You kids turn that water off and go play!” she hollered. She gave us the hard eye till Bill went over and cranked the handle. By that time we were soaked, but we didn’t care. In fact, we liked it. It was 90 degrees in the Oklahoma shade, which there wasn’t much of.
Our gang lasted till we all started school, then life its own self took over and we drifted into our separate worlds. But if anyone ever asks me about gang membership, I can tell them, quite honestly, that I was a gang member very early on. And I’m proud of it.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought me here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
Birthdays are interesting benchmarks. They roll around on the same date, year after year. As a kid, I generally looked forward to them. It meant “something” would happen; in the earliest years there were celebrations with cake.
Birthday number one was The Event. As the first-and-at-that-point-only child, family gathered round. Photographer Wilmot Dahlem was summoned.
I was put in the highchair, a cake was placed in front of me. I reached for the single candle and literally remember being told, “Nono, don’t touch that.” So, I did what any thinking one-year-old would do: I picked it up with my mouth.
Wilmot documented the moment
The next Birthday I remember is number three. I had a baby brother by then. That’s also the year I found Mama’s scissors when I was supposed to be taking a nap; I cut half my long hair off. Mama documented that one. The expression on that lady’s face tells the story.
My grandmother (Nanny) crocheted me a dress, with hat and purse for my Birthday that year. Wilmot took pictures of me in my dress.The short curls peaking out from under the crocheted hat … made my Mama cry.
As I got older and the number of siblings grew, it became more of a day when — eventually — all eyes glanced at me at some point during the day with, “Hey. It’s your Birthday.” Yes, I knew. I was “waiting for sixteen.” Then, “waiting for eighteen.”
When you’re a kid, waiting and pining to be older seems to be part of the M.O. But there’s a point; a moment. There’s a place in the sequential order of annual things when a body feels the urge to say, “I’ve had quite enough. Let’s stop this now; can we?” Well, no, comes the answer. Not really. Time, and tides, are gonna roll on. The only known way of stopping is leaving. And that’s generally not what one is thinking when it crosses the mind, on some advanced Birthday, to say, “Check please.”
I had such a Birthday yesterday. I felt full ready to call for the check … until a guy at the grocery store started chatting with me. I was standing in the aisle with the motor oil, and reached for the 5 W30 ‘high mileage’. The young man (and I say young because, at this point in my life, isn’t everyon else?) asked me a question about my car. I did a little fake laugh and told him my car needs the OCV replaced. That stopped him for a second; a woman who knows what an oil control valve is … rare bird. Then he complimented me on my sweater. Oy. I could see where this was going; I felt my face flush. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But I knew he had to have been born some year after my children. Holy crap. Nope. Moving on.
I grabbed the jug of oil, mumbled “Have a good night,” and went to self check out. I spied him heading toward the produce section, and was able to get a good look at him. Damnation; he was tall, a bit swarthy, he must work out. He was eye candy-ish … in a much-too-young-for-me-but-god-help-us-all-look-at-you sort of way.
I paid for my oil, walked out to my car, got in, and sat there for a minute. Just breathing. I considered how old I ‘am’ compared to how old I ‘feel’ … and pulled out of the parking lot thinking maybe, just maybe, I don’t need the check after all.
I am a vocal coach. I just read that sentence, and it sounds a little strange to me. Coach vocal. Voice. Coach voice. The definitions of “coach” are all over the place, from a “four wheeled, horse drawn carriage,” to coach as: “developing a person’s skills and knowledge so that their job performance improves, hopefully leading to the achievement of organizational objectives.”
Voice is defined as: “the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.”
I’m sure Miriam or Webster or whoever it was that determined those definitions … I’m sure they were a sharp couple of guys. I mean, they know the definitions of EVERYthing, and actually put it in a book called a dictionary. But neither one of these guys has shown up to observe what happens when an individual is standing in front of me, aching to sing, but scared shitless to do it.
“I need you to sing something.”
“You mean, NOW?”
“Yes. Now. You can sing the alphabet, you can sing Happy Birthday, I really don’t care. I just need to hear your voice.”
And so it begins. Without exception, every . one . can . sing. I didn’t say everyone is a singing star, but singing is as natural a part of us as breathing. Yet so many tend to be paralyzed at the thought of letting their sound out for the world – or, for that matter, themselves – to hear.
Singing, “being of music,” is natural for us all; we speak the language of angels. So the fear is of speaking in the angel tongue. There resides in many a sense of unworthiness (untrue), of not measuring up (the big lie), born of a lifetime of people telling them they can’t do it well enough, and to stop (defamatorily inaccurate) . So I guess, woven into this work I do, is the psychology of gently leading people back to their own truth, and creating a space where they – when they’re ready – will step into it.
The body is a reed instrument. As with any reed instrument, playing it requires breath.
I tell every student that at the moment they popped out of their mama, with that first breath they gulped in Spirit; they have been doing it every moment ever since. Ironically, when they first start working with me, people often find it difficult to breathe. They become “breathless.” So we work on the process of permissions … to breathe (doing it already), to have a voice (has always been there), to raise that voice, to speak in tongue … angel tongue … the native language of the universe.
I just think Miriam and, for that matter, Webster, should sit in on a couple of my students’ sessions. I think they’d be surprised. Maybe they’d even sing.
I see a giraffe. Big quiet eyes. Ears just so. Soft little horns. I can’t see his long neck. I know it’s there, beyond the card.
His neck that stretches high into the trees, so he can nibble on the tippy toppest leaves.
He’s a likeable giraffe. Loveable, even. But it’s hard to know that. His head is so very high up, one can barely look into his eyes to see his personality.
And it’s quite difficult to kiss a giraffe. The process goes thus:
You stand by the tree trunk, look up into the leaves, and you shout, very loudly,
“Mr. giraffe, I would so love to kiss you.” You hope he hears you. His head is buried up there in the tree, and you hear munching. You shout again, louder:
“Mr. Giraffe, I would really very much love to kiss you.” Still, no response. Munch munch. Try again. In fact, this time, try a slight English accent:
“Hiya, Mr. giraffe. Seems I’ve a kiss here wif your name on it. What say you, good sir?” You wait. He eats. You sigh. You walk away from the tree, to the sidewalk. You don’t see one sly eyeball peak at you through tree leaves.
You stand on the sidewalk, looking at the giraffe … you study his spindly legs, his switching tail, his long, long neck. You suck in as much air as you can hold, and you shout out. the loudest of your louds one last time. Oh, and the English accent has become quite thick:
“Mr. giraffe, is a bloke allowed to plant a kiss on your jaw at any point in time?” After waiting for what seems like forever but was really about a minute and a half, you shout, “Crikey!” as you turn and walk across the street. This, you decide, will never work.
“Uh. Excuse me.” You turn, and look. The giraffe is looking right at you. “Were you talking to me?”
“I … I would very much love to kiss you.” You’re on the opposite side of the street by now, but you start walking back toward the giraffe when he bellows,
“STOP!” You stop. “Back up!” You step backwards and onto the opposing sidewalk. “Wait.” You stand and stare. You wait.
The giraffe himself backs up, away from the tree. He swivels his head around on top of his neck. Then, ever so slowly, his neck bends down. Down. Down. He brings his neck down till it stretches across that street and he is face to face with you. You can feel his soft giraffe breath.
He leans toward your ear and whispers,
“You may kiss me now.”
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
“Those chairs are upsy down.” His shrill young voice echoed across the water, hovered in the air, trailed the heron down river.
I opened one eye to try and locate him. His red hat bobbed in the tall grass and disappeared. I sighed and settled back against the Adirondack.
“Whatever,” I murmured to no one. The sun was hot and high, the locust buzz was steady. I felt a bead of sweat let go and travel slowly down the center, between my bosoms. My fingernail played with the peeling paint on the arm of the chair.
“UPSY!” he crowed. I raised my head, squinted both eyes open.
“YOU! You’re upsydown!” Oh, for god’s sake. I settled back.
“Jasper, STOP. I’m tryin’ to relax.”
“Well, you’re relaxin’ but…” he trailed off. I heard him laugh, then saw him jump in the water, watched him stream across like an alligator, right before the chomp and roll. Just as I started to shut my eyes, his head popped up near my feet, gasping for air.
“You’re upsy down!” I raised my head and looked at him, then noticed something floating down stream.
“There goes your hat.”
He let out a shriek and started paddling madly toward it. He caught up to it, wrestled it for show, poured out the water, and slapped it on his head. I closed my eyes, and listened to the splashing rhythm as he slowly made his way back to shore.
He climbed out, dripping, and slopped his way up to me.
“Did you know?”
“That you’re upsy down.”
I sat upright and stared at him.
“For god’s sake, Jasper, what in hell are you talkin’ about?”
He shrugged his tan shoulders, turned and walked over to the water’s edge. He peered at his reflection.
“Well,” he said, “from here you can’t tell. But from over there,” he pointed a bony finger to the far shore. “Everything is upsy down.”
He looked back at me and grinned.
“In the water.”
photo credit: http://www.catherineandersonstudio.com
We called them bread heels. The ends on loaves of bread. Once a loaf was opened, it was each user’s responsibility to keep the end slapped up against the next slice inside the plastic bag, so the remainder would stay fresh.
When there were no slices left, the two heels took on a life of their own, and a sort of bread heel caste system was born.
Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my daddy would slather two heels with Miracle Whip, and make a sandwich with slices of raw potato and purple onion. This was the working class life of bread heels.
Then there were the heels that were lined up on a baking sheet, covered with cheese product, and slid under the broiler just long enough for the yellow stuff to char around the edges. Middle class bread heels lived through fire in a gas oven to become the cheesy toast served with potato soup on a Friday night.
Other times they were thrown into the skillet with the broken handle that lived in the oven. The ones that piled up in that skillet got hard as a rock. When there were enough of them, my mother clamped the food grinder to the kitchen table, and ground the petrified heels down to a powder.
She took that bread heel flour, mixed it with eggs and vanilla, buttermilk, molasses, spices, raisins, poured it into a cake pan, and baked it in the oven. This was bread crumb pudding; dark, dense and moist, it was just about the best thing you’d ever want to put in your mouth.
It’s been said that bread heels the world over have talked amongst themselves, and considered with reverence the fact that the heels of breadcrumb pudding had indeed lived the upper crust life of bread heels everywhere.