The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
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.
The messages we’re given in childhood are powerful. Until we get out into the world on our own, they define our reality. They define our normal. They tell us what’s expected of us, and what value we have. And behind those front doors, each family has its own brand of ‘normal’.
I was raised in a house where there was one right way to do everything. Often I discovered there was a right way after I’d done something the wrong way. Mattered not if I accomplished my goal. If I didn’t do it the right way, I got it wrong. And that “right” way could change without warning; I learned that early on. So, go ahead, knock yourself out. But don’t count on anything except maybe being blindsided by a new rule, a new way of you failing again.
This is a piece of the legacy inherited by a child of alcoholics. Eventually, once we’ve reached adulthood and if we’re aware enough and brave enough to launch the quest for self discovery, we catch a glimpse of how life is defined outside the hazed cocoon in which we grew up; the only “normal” we’ve ever known. So there’s an overriding sense of betrayal, or having been lied to about ‘what’s going on out there’, ‘how I fit in the world,’ or even ‘who I am’. And, at its center, ‘what love feels like’.
That’s not to say that drinkers are evil. They’re not. I truly believe that very person, in one way or another, is ‘trying to find their way’. But some people get so off track; are so myopic as to what they’re doing and the damage caused by it, that they’re pretty much a walking (or stumbling) wrecking ball.
I’ll admit there are certainly things ingrained in me from my childhood that I treasure. I have a very well calibrated moral compass. I’m not an angel by any stretch, but when I’ve veered off course, I know it.
This comes from a Spiritually driven center that was awakened in me very early on. I clung to it, and was convinced that ‘if I’m good enough’ good things will, ultimately, happen. There’s probably a piece of me that still believes it.
In Seminary we studied addiction. It was pointed out to us that addicts are “headed the wrong way down the right road.” They crave a different feeling, a different perspective. But they’ve employed chemical shortcuts to get there, which always end in failure. Because in order to keep the feelings gained from drugs or alcohol, you have to stay drugged or drunk. The process is deeply and heartbreakingly flawed. Those same good feelings are authentically available. But like all things of true value, we gotta do the deliberate, serious (and personal) work to ‘get there from here’.
And something else I learned in Seminary, is that there are quite possibly as many ways to do something as there are people to do it. Not right or wrong, based on approach. When I heard that it was not like a light went on in my head; it was more like a bomb went off.
For decades I held back on doing so many things, big and small, for fear I would do them wrong. It was earth changing when, after finally trying something, and doing it my way, there was no one there to tell me how wrong I was.
Maybe I was never really wrong, after all.
I got the news back today, and it was good. Bloodwork was off so they needed more tests. The liver. I’ve had issues in the past with my liver. Not of an alcoholic nature; I’m not a drinker. But other things that can plague such an organ, they were plaguing mine. So, bloodwork.
And the result is that — while things need watching — all is well.
I shared the good report with a dear friend and said “That’s a load off.” She said she was relieved because she knew I was concerned. But the funny thing is, I never was really concerned. It just weighed heavy. It occurs to me that not many people have that experience. And even fewer people are aware of the difference.
The weight of things can bear down on the joyfilled. And I am one of those.
Through the years there were life experiences that had my spirit bent nearly double. Moments when I found it difficult to breathe; moments when my joyful self wanted to forget how. When I ached to be done with it; climb out the window of this life and in the window of the next. To be honest, there’ve been times when, due to health or surgery, I faced a decision: stay, or go; I chose, each time, to stay.
The redemption that lives in the small moments is what saved me, restored me, brought me back. That is always what keeps me here.
So the blood test, in the grand scheme of things, is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. A little window into one aspect of what’s going on with me. The rest finds its place somewhere in the personal, panoramic pages of my own ‘Lonesome Dove’ story.
I’ll live my life, in all its chaotic splendor, across my own prairie … until I don’t. But life, its own self, will go on. And that’s a weight I’m glad to carry.
There was a period, not sure how long, during my growing up when I remember being blessed. I’m not talking about blessings abounding, though looking back I’m able to see that some did. I’m talking about the ritual of Good Night.
After pajamas on, teeth brushed, I was summoned to stand before my mother. She rested her hands, softened and smelling of Jergens lotion and tobacco, on my head.
“I bless you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” she droned. Her breath carried the DNA of Brown Derby beer.
There were no kisses. No hugs. Just a blessing.
Then one night, after the blessing, I posed a timid question.
“Aren’t we supposed to kiss and hug, or something?”
“You got a blessing. Go to bed.”
So I guess, when thinking about “being blessed,” this memory peaks up to remind me that those blessings did happen.
Regardless of what she’d been smoking, or drinking, the blessing was its own thing. A spiritual lifeline thrown to a little girl by a mother who knew no other way to tell her she was loved.
Every night, for as long as it lasted, I grabbed that line and held on for dear life.
That lifeline became a lifeboat, one that has carried me from stark childhood to rocky marriage to the open sea of tender possibilities. I know now that sometimes a brokenhearted love lies hidden in the coldest blessing, aching to be thrown a line of its own.