Thursday, June 05, 2014

A Memorial Day Post, A Little After The Fact

A few years ago, at a Fourth of July party, a friend brought along photocopies of the  Declaration of Independence for us to read aloud.  There was beer involved so I might not have taken it very seriously.  My friend did, though.  There wasn’t an ounce of cynicism in his voice as he read a paragraph and passed the paper along.  We really did take turns (between giggles) reading it aloud.  Some wiseass might have been piping the Battle Hymn of the Republic through his pursed lips. Someone else might have been saluting an invisible flag.  It might have been me.

We were young and dumb, but we had this vague notion that this was somehow a proper thing to do on July 4th. We wanted to acknowledge those who’d fought for our independence, and to really examine the words that launched the movement in the first place.  How long had it been since any of us had actually read any of our country’s founding documents, anyway? 

It’s definitely not something I would have initiated, but I was happy to go along with it.   I am not a flag-waving American.  I find our national history (as I find most histories of colonization) a mixed bag of horror and galling nerve.  I find our world history even more mind-boggling.  Reading any sort of original doctrine (I’m looking at you, “Holy Bible”) that has since been even a little bit compromised is both heartbreaking and confounding.

When our friends invited us over for Memorial Day this year, I made the requisite potluck item and settled in for a good meal and some pretty standard conversation.  I thought back to that July 4th and smiled.  My friends and I are older now, not given to half-assed attempts at interpreting doctrine while under the influence of booze.  Friends had been posting pictures of relatives in uniform all day on Facebook.  It was all very serious and mindful stuff now. 

I had a grandfather who was in the war.  He was born in Poland and half fought, half-fled his way to London, where he eventually married after the war and emigrated to the U.S.  Till the day he died, he wore pressed slacks, black socks, and a button down shirt.  In the summer, he might have slipped brown orthopedic looking sandals over those black socks.  He spoke several languages. He was European through and through.  He was from another place and time altogether.

In school, we were taught about the geography, the ideology, and the horror of the war.  We were taught a deep and lasting respect for the dead.  I watched endless PBS specials about the secret units and bomb squads.  I picked up Mein Kampf when I was fifteen years old to try to understand more about the man who was behind it all.  I read Hiroshima that same year and shook as I turned the pages.  From grammar school on, we seemed to read a canon of literature produced exclusively by men who had returned from war and subsequently entombed their feelings in the pages of their manuscripts: Hemingway, Vonnegut, Salinger.  I ate it, dreamt it, and swam in it.  The war was alive all around me as a child.  My greatest fear: that there would be a third World War in my lifetime.  Though he never talked about it, my grandfather’s connection to the war- torn parts of Europe were always with him, and therefore always with me. 


At Christmastime last year, I went to the craft fair in my neighborhood to pick up some gifts.  I made my customary stop at Ex Libris Anonymous’s booth to re-up my journal stash.  I’ve used Ex Libris’s journals almost exclusively for several years now.  They’re based out of Portland, OR, and they take out-of-print books, chop out their innards and use their covers to bind new, acid free paper into spiral notebooks.  They are lovely, and come in a variety of shapes.  I always buy the smaller ones so I can travel easily with them.  I picked up a few to last me till next Christmas.  The one I was most excited about was small and beautiful.  It had a canvas cover printed with a cool graphic that reminded me of pine trees.  It smelled, deliciously, like an old book.

Now, Ex Libris usually tucks a few pages of the old book in with the new paper.  It’s a neat feature.  You’re scribbling along, you turn the page, and all of a sudden, the quality and texture of the paper changes, and now you’re looking down onto the yellowed pages of a book that’s older than you are.  Trippy.  Usually, I scan a few lines, and continue on with my writing.  Out of context, the lines from that old book don’t really do anything for me.  Plus, so much of it is either stuffy old English or technical writing, so it’s not compelling.  This book, though, was different.  I read ALL the pages tucked in and I couldn’t stop.  I learned that, first, the book had been written by a woman.  Second, I discovered the book was about the war.  Those few pages were gripping, even out of context.  So I did something I never do with these journals: I looked up the original book and reserved it at the library.

A week or so later, I had it in my hands: a book published in 1946 by the American journalist Agnes Newton Keith who had been rounded up in Borneo, along with her infant son and British civil servant husband, and placed in an internment camp run by the Japanese during their occupation of Malaysia.  The book was Three Came Home.

Keith had to hide the notes she took during her three and a half years of internment.  Had she been found out, she would have been put to death.  She stuffed her notes into her son’s teddy bear, into the false bottom of a tiny wooden stool, and into tins that she buried beneath her barracks. She had three years of notes by the time she and her son and husband, all nearly dead of malnutrition and disease, were freed.  Australian forces liberated the camp in 1946. 

 I’ve only ever read (aside from snippets of Ann Frank’s diary) one other personal account of the war from a woman’s perspective: A Woman in Berlin mysteriously showed up one day at an office I was working in at the time.  It was also written by a journalist, a woman who wrote her notes on old newsprint with a pencil stub by candlelight and hid them until after the war. 

I devoured Keith’s book, even though it was hard to take.  I had to put it down from time to time the same way I had to put down Hiroshima when I was a teenager.  As a journalist, Keith tried to remain as objective as she could, and she related her experience with blunt force honesty.  There are some dated references to groups of people and cultures that simply would not fly in today’s world, but the overall message of the book is one of non-judgment.  She makes the claim throughout the book that men are not evil; it is war that makes men evil.  Even as she is nearly starved to death, beaten, and intimidated with news of brutality in the men’s camp (husbands were separated from their wives and children), she maintains the hope that each side, Japanese and American, will see each other’s humanity.  She looks forward to eventual friendship between the warring nations.  Her son’s survival and her fighting spirit sustain her over those three and a half gruesome years. 

The things both these women had to live through are almost beyond my capacity to take them in.  There are days when I feel like I have that same fighting spirit coursing through my veins. And there are others when I feel like I wouldn't have what it took to rock my sick child through the night in filthy barracks, fevered from malaria, with nothing but weak tea and boiled, inedible weeds sustaining my failing, bruised body.  To read about it in a book is one thing.  To live it, to shut out everything and simply grit your teeth to live another day- that is something else entirely.


During our Memorial Day dinner, a friend told us he’d just come across the letters of his grandfather to his grandmother during the war.  The grandfather wrote his wife and four-year-old son every day.  He included drawing with his letters.  He made the war a knowable, map-able place for his child without exposing him to the terror of it.  The whole story of it- his injuries, the tragedies that befell him after he came home, the way his family’s history was permanently altered- it was almost as unthinkable as Keith’s story.  To have, as another friend at the table said, “his wife keep safe this piece of him while he fought”… and then to come home and lose it all… it was unreal, to say the least.   

The thing that always astounds me about stories like these is the human will to keep going.  There were no grand gestures in my family’s history, or anyone else’s I know, around this will, but it happened.  That mandate to carry on occurs between those big moments in life, it seems.  It happens in the smallest decisions: to plant a garden, to apply to school, or to stand in that line for five more minutes.  Eventually all those moments add up to something much bigger, a move to America, say, or the decision to get married, or have a baby.  To us, in retrospect, they look like long term plans to survive, but to the people living those lives, they were just ordinary short term choices, made during extraordinary times. 

Seated at that table, I flashed through all the wars since WWII, and all the national crises we have endured as a nation, and I thought about our current generation coming up with what social critics call a sense of entitlement.  I thought about the injuries the soldiers who fought in WWII sustained and the life-saving drugs unavailable to them…. and I thought: my God, no wonder that generation thought every generation after them was a bunch of wimps.  Talk about “human will”.  Geez.

We clinked glasses in honor of our grandparents and I was overcome with ambiguity and gratitude because the whole of war is a muddied thing, and as a human being, I have a hard time being thankful that innocent lives were ended so that other lives were saved.  After the toasts, I had this phrase stuck in my head: the endurance of the human spirit.  All of us approaching our forties and beyond were sitting at this table enjoying a home-made meal, each of us comfortable and secure, because of that endurance.  None of us had to worry about bombs going off in our own cities or where our next meals were coming from because of that extraordinary spirit.  Soldiers or not, all my ancestors deserve my gratitude.  I am here, alive and well, trying to improve the world in my own small way, because of them. 

Did our founding fathers consider themselves just a blip on a continuum of human spirits?  Just ordinary people doing what the times called for? Like our grandparents? Like Agnes Newton Keith? Like my friend’s family members?  Or did they imagine themselves something more when they wrote those famous words? 

It always blows my mind: that life goes on.  Our grandparents’ lives went on.  The lives of everyone went on after that war.  Our grandparents’ generation found their separate peace and they made new lives for themselves.  They carried on, did unremarkable things- bought groceries and voted and mowed their lawns and brought their children to school- because what, really, was there to do but carry on?  Carrying on is what we are built to do, after all.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Advice From My Younger Self

This piece won’t finish itself.   I was going to let it languish in the bottom of the “Things To Finish Later” folder on my laptop.
But then there were these signs that came my way, little bitty signs from the Universe that said: it’s okay to put this out into the world without a pretty ending.  That endlessness is in the air right now, the Universe said.  It’s the season of non-resolution.

Little bitty sign number one was this:  I saw a friend perform at Seattle’s A Guide To Visitors, a storytelling event similar to the Moth.  My friend is a masterful storyteller.   He delivered his whole story with such emotion that he actually got choked up during parts (so did the rest of us in the audience).  Afterward, he revealed to me and a few others that his ending was only 99% of what he wanted it to be. That 1% of extra oomph was missing. And yet he went through with it, carried the story to the end, and stepped off the stage to much applause.  That’s fucking brave, I thought, walking away gracefully from maybe not your best work.  This gave me a little push back to my desk.

Little bitty sign number two was from another writer friend.  She sent out an email with links to her storytelling blog and she just full-on admitted that, nope, she didn’t really have an ending to either piece she’d written, and would anyone like to write them for her?  Huh.  Seek help from your community.  That hadn’t occurred to me.

Little bitty sign number three came from writer friend Tina, whose blog you should read because she is amazing and holy cow, can she write.  Her latest post was about seeking.  And that’s where I’ve been lately, too:  trying to get the naval-gazing gum off from the bottom of my shoes, so to speak, and move into a space where I can look behind me and make sense of where I’ve been.

I haven’t had much luck.

This  piece has been a roadblock, something I just want to step around,  because, ew, it stinks and I don’t want to get any of it on my shoes.   I also want to finish it because I have a thing about finishing things.  Terrible books, awful TV series… I just can’t put them down.  It’s the darker side of my compulsive nature (wait, is there a lighter side?  Ooo!  Is it the side that collects yogurt cups for the coming Apocalypse when we’ll all have to grow our own vegetable starts from seeds on our windowsills in dairy tubs?  Is it? Is it?)

I very painfully tried to extract some larger message from my writing, and after all this, I’m still not sure it’s the right one.   It’s something, though.  Maybe the theme to this piece is It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense To Be Out In The World.  Or maybe this is a going-back-to-square-one practice piece awkwardly placed between two very polished pieces on the blog.  Writers have that, right?  Awkwardly placed flops?  Like glossy celebrity gossip magazines wedged between two compendiums on quantum physics?  In any case, I feel like once I get this thing out of the way, I can move on to bigger, better things. So I’m putting it out there, warts and all.

Here goes.

A writer friend invited me to an event where she, along with other writers, was to read from her 8th grade journal.  I entertained the thought of going for 2.2 seconds and then thought: Meh. 

I thought:  I’ve seen that act before.  Lemme guess: you have a crush on a boy.  He doesn’t notice you.  You make elaborate plans to dress a certain way or say a certain thing to get him to notice you, but when the day comes, you break out in cold sores, or zits, or you trip over your own two awkward 13 year old feet and you go flying into the cafeteria line. Am I close?  

Was I making all sorts of really dismissive judgments about the share-worthy quality of people’s writing?  Yes.  Was I, by turning down the offer, defeating the purpose of the intended goal of the night, which was to be nothing more than honest and brave?  Yes, again.  My inner critic sometimes leaves the confines of its own dark hidey-hole and starts getting nasty with the locals.  Sorry, locals.

There was also this: I’d heard these sorts of stories before, and what I wanted in my writing life at the time of my friend’s invitation was something new and shiny, some mind-bending bit of writing that launched me forward into a new way of seeing the world.  I don’t know what that would have looked like.  But I had this idea that I wanted it to rip me to emotional shreds and then put me back together in a more ambitious, inspired-to-write way.  In any event, I didn’t think bits from very old journals were going to do the trick.

I think it’s because I have a Tony Soprano aversion to rehashing too much of the past.  Writers, though, seem to love revisiting their gangly wallflower former selves.  It’s like we just want to shout from the rooftops that things have improved.  Look how far we’ve come! we seem to be saying.  Look how cool I am now!  I found a boy to marry!  And a boss to hire me!  I’m thin now, and my face has cleared up, and people like me! And here is the proof, in my hands, that I was a nobody before all this!  From nobody to moderately successful human being in less than two decades!  What triumph! What achievement! What dedication to a prescription benzoyl peroxide regimen! 

But I’m not particularly drawn in by the whole “I used to be a nerd and now I’m not” thing.  The nerds have won, everyone.  That news is, like, twenty years old by now.  And EVERYONE has an awkward phase, so what’s the value, really, in reliving painful memories?  My inner Tony just wants to punch a tabletop and point in your face and tell you that some shit just ain’t worth repeatin’, you knowwhatimean?

But, wait.  I knew there was some grander purpose to these events.  It was supposed to be cathartic, right? All that rehashing?  Like, if we all took out our dirty laundry at once, we’d all have to see it and realize EVERYone has it.  And doesn’t it feel great to not feel alone?  Isn’t that the single most healing thing on earth?  To see yourself in a stranger’s eyes?  Doesn’t that sort of thing solve world conflicts and win Nobel Peace Prizes and stuff?

To do this, though, to expose one’s self like that to the rest of the world, that takes a certain amount of willingness, bravery, and chutzpah.   None of which I had been able to summon about THAT particular part of my life.  Wanna know about my intestinal problems?  My fainting spells?  That time I worked for that one jerk for eight years?  No sweat.  Want me to talk about feeling ugly AND feeling neglected AND feeling confused when I was thirteen?  That will take some doing.

See, I feel like there’s this pretty substantial prerequisite to this sharing business.  I figure that in order to put myself out there, I first have to have experienced something akin to triumph over those awkward years. The way I saw it, I needed to be able to look back at myself and gently Buddha-laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.  Because, the theory goes, on the other side of shame is this incredible freedom, this thing that gives you the kind of bravery required to read about that crappy other time in front of a listening audience. 

But that triumphant feeling has been hard to come by, honestly.

What comes up for me when I think back to those 13-year-old times is this deep, deep sadness.  And here’s why the triumph has been so elusive: Some of that sadness still follows me around.  It has a tendency to show up to parties and weddings and stuff and make me feel like it will never go away. In other words, it’s not something from my past; it’s something still in my present.  I can’t crow about having overcome it because, well, it’s still here in varying forms.  Would that they made a salicylic acid for this feeling, I would have bought it by the barrelful.

Instead of feeling sympathy for my awkward, lovelorn 13 year old self, when I think about her, I get angry.  Then the anger turns to jealousy.  I am jealous that other 13 year old lives revolved solely around which oversized pair of earrings they might wear to impress that kid at school, or braces, or the school dance.  And I feel jealous because I have no memory of these things being awkward or over the top for myself.  No, the memory I have of that time in my life is that it was difficult in a much more esoteric way.  

Sure, I was “struggling” with which boy I liked (there were a whopping 12 to choose from in my tiny grammar school) and how short a skirt could be before it was considered risqué, but I was also wondering things like: Is God real?  Will there be another World War?  How will my family survive a nuclear attack?  What if Ethiopia starves to death?  Why can’t we do anything to stem the tide of violent crimes in New York?  How will I pay for college?  Will my parents die of nicotine-related diseases?  When (not how) will I know I have cancer?  Does not being able to solve for “x” make me stupid, dyslexic, or just better suited for the literary arts? Is the central theme to Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” that each generation is doomed to misunderstand the one that precedes it, and how will I be able to turn this information into resume-worthiness if/when I get a job as a librarian/news reporter?   

When I think back to my 8th grade journals, I come up with one word: overwhelm.  I distinctly remember writing the word “depression” over and over again in my bubble-shaped penmanship.  I don’t remember any of the stuff in between, whether I was writing about boys or schoolwork or the upcoming oral presentation for history class.  But I do remember using that word, depression, even though I had only the most vague idea of what it meant, to describe my emotional state. I often wrote that I was in a bad mood, but didn’t know why. I used it because I had no other word for what I was feeling. 

So that’s what I was thinking about when my friend invited me to watch her read from her journal.  I couldn’t bear another bubbly story about an overeager pre-teen.  Not when I was seething about how “easy” everyone else’s life seemed. 

But then, because lots of things in my life were falling under deeper scrutiny at the time, I got to wondering: was my life REALLY as hard as I was “remembering”?  Was I perhaps conflating that period of my life with ANTOHER equally challenging time?  Was thirteen REALLY that sad?

I still HAVE all my journals- something like 25 years’ worth- in  boxes in my basement, so I figured I would actually SEE if what I was remembering was what I actually wrote. 

I went down to the basement and smugly looked up from my piles of “stuff” like a victorious raccoon and proclaimed to no one in particular that my mild hoarding tendencies sometimes came in handy.  Then I poured myself some tea and proceeded to read.

So. What did they reveal? That only a very small chunk of what was in those journals was as “hard” as I remembered it.  In fact, a good chunk of it was downright funny.  I would have even- drumroll, please- read some of it aloud in front of an audience. 

There WERE some confusing, dark times for sure, moods I couldn’t explain, deep deep sadnesses I fell into for days, weeks.  It seemed I only went to those journals when I was in those moods, so they feature prominently.  I don’t want to dismiss them as typical teenage moodiness because there was an edge, an endlessness to them that I WISH I had been able to talk about when I was young.  Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt so odd-man-out, so apart from my peppy high school brethren for whom life seemed an endless string of soccer games and major parts in school plays. 

There is also this: memory is the faultiest wiring there is, and yes, some of this could have possibly been VERY typical teenage stuff.   But there was also a much darker backdrop to this whole period of my life: my parents’ marriage was dissolving under the cloud of adultery, and alcoholism and drug abuse were slowly revealing themselves as intractable parts of our family dynamic.  Is it any wonder I was wondering about nuclear holocaust and famine in Africa?  I was dealing with my own private hell and the world’s issues seemed more in keeping with my own, than, say, what to wear to the semi-formal dance.

There were also these bright ribbons of optimism woven in to that sad writing.  When I was able to put my head above that dark water, I experienced my own potential, and it was glorious to behold, even as a 13 year old.

Despite the circumstances, in just twenty pages or so, my 8th grade journal revealed that I was more typical than not in a lot of ways.

First the mortifying things:

-the most romantic Valentine’s Day I ever experienced was the one where not one but two boys sang “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” over the phone to me (I think a part of me just shriveled up and died of embarrassment).
-the most scandalous thing to my young mind was that one of my female classmates had kissed TWO different boys on ONE day. (my God, I was SO unprepared for the late 1990s).
-I firmly believed my mother and I would never see eye to eye on ANYTHING.  My complaints are so average, they’re reminiscent of something you’d see on a Disney show put on for “young adults”.

And now the prescient things:

- I understood something about the power of positive thinking even though that was not an overt theme in our house and I have no memory of ever being taught that in school.  I write: “whatever you think you can do, you can.  Whatever you think you can’t do, you won’t.”  I have NO idea how that little piece of Zen Buddhist wisdom made it into my tiny little brain, but there you have it.  Eckart Fucking Tolle in jellyshoes and rubber bracelets.
-I write constantly about a friend, a boy who I realized much later was actually trying to flirt with me. I find his schtick irritating and his jokes dumb.  I call him “sarcastic” in my journal, oblivious to the fact that I myself am sarcastic right back.  The boy is constantly tearing people apart to get my attention.  I surmise that he is “insecure” and that’s why he picks on people.  Though I can’t stand him at first, we somehow forge a strained and strange friendship over the next few years. Fast forward: We each move away from our hometown, go to college, start our adult lives, and we maintain a thin but strong tie for the next 20 years. We are still good friends to this day.  He lives abroad, and regularly shares pictures with me of his infant son and calls me “Auntie”.
-I am involved in a rollover car accident at age 13 and I describe it in great detail.  I figure I have been knocked unconscious during the rollover.  I find myself upside down in a car in the middle of an intersection, with the other car rammed into a front porch nearby.  My best friend’s mom, who was always a nervous woman, had been driving. My best friend yanks her stunned mother from the car and I am moved by her quick thinking and super human strength.  I write, “Hopefully this bruise on my head is the only reminder I’ll ever have that I faced death”. I will suffer with neck issues, on and off, for the rest of my life.  Every chiropractor I will ever seen from then on, well up into my thirties, will ask me if I’ve ever had neck trauma and I will always be dismissive of the idea that something that happened to me at 13 would have a lasting  impact on my body like that.   

I even get a little Annie Dillard in the middle there.  I say: “When I write, I feel as if I am talking to someone.  I kind of get absorbed in what I’m writing and most of the time. I feel a little better (afterward).  I’m not sure if I want to actually be a writer still.  I gets hard to put your thoughts on paper and sometimes what you want to say isn’t exactly what you write”.

I also am a certifiable drama queen at times.  “Hiking on” was 1990 New Jersey slang for “making fun” of someone.  Every generation has idiot-speak for some cultural phenomenon.  Ours was “hiking on”. And I used it QUITE a bit in those journals. 

My mother was just on the descent into a 20 year battle with alcohol, but there was a tiny window there where she was telling me some good stuff, and though it pissed me off, and though we fought constantly, I saw the glimmer of something resembling concern for me.  She was treading that shimmering line between wanting to protect her daughter and not wanting to crush her spirit.  I know she had lived under the oppressive thumb of immigrant parents with traditional values, so her rulebook on how to deal with a child who wanted to dye her hair and listen to heavy metal had yet to be written.  She was operating without a guide.  She was doing the best she could. 

There’s a bit in there where I was FURIOUS with her, because her behavior seemed to me “unpredictable and erratic”.  Of course, I’d probably locked the other five members of my family out of our single bathroom in a huff so I could write the bit, so it’s questionable as to who is being more “erratic”.  Between the hormones and the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, my mother and I were both at a loss for how to express ourselves constructively.  We must have seemed like two equally unstable mental patients going at it over who got to control the channel on the TV in the common room.

I mention a fight in one of the entries.  My mother has forbid me to go to a party because the kid’s parents won’t be home.  I am under the impression she thinks we will be doing “something bad”, so I ask her (angrily, of course) what SHE did when she was my age and went to parties.  My mom answers with the banal “eat and listen to music”.  I scream back with “that’s ALL we were going to do, too!”.  And that is no exaggeration.  We might have played video games, but there was definitely no booze and no making out at those informal Catholic School gatherings.  Hormones or no, we knew to keep our hands to our sides. My god, were we a YOUNG set of thirteen year olds.  In re-reading it now, I understand my mother probably thought I was asking permission to go to a booze-fueled orgy. Y’know. We’re just gonna sit around, maybe listen to some music.  Whatever.  And, like, maybe get a pizza.   

Oh, Mom.  If only you could have known then that I was ACTUALLY asking permission to go eat and listen to music, that your daughter was too scared, too tomboyish, and too guilted by a Catholic upbringing to even know that booze could have been purchased or that sex was available to anyone under the age of 45.

There is this theme of constantly falling short in those journals.  Like, I know I have potential, but there seems to be something in the way. Maybe I was echoing the sentiment of all my teachers, who were watching a smart little kid morph into a lumpy, angry, foofy-haired recluse who listened to angry foofy-haired men play guitar all day.  My mother tells me that the teachers told her that the girl I was hanging around with was a bad influence.  All these years later, I get it.  They could see something I could not.  And they were just trying to extract me before I went down with her.  That friend eventually found her way into the world of heroin.  Our last interaction was about a year into high school when, unannounced, she showed up to my house, the bruised insides of her elbows smeared with foundation, asking me for money because she needed to “replace a vase she’d broken at a friend’s party”.  My friend was not the party going type.  I squinted at her, at her combat boots over her slashed fishnets, at her shifty eyes, her emaciated frame, and I told her I didn’t have any money. 

And there, somewhere in between thirteen and fourteen years old,  I am suddenly aware that my parents and I have things in common.  On the dizzying precipice of adulthood, I see the faintest glimpses of myself in them.  This comes to me when I mention, finally, after wanting to keep this very radical idea to myself, that I want to learn to play the drums.  My mother responds that she, too, wanted to play the drums when she was my age.  My head explodes with this revelation. We are one.  I feel a rare five second bit of camaraderie with her.

There’s also this unbelievable bit: We’d read an excerpt from the Diary of Anne Frank.  Anne runs to her father when she is afraid.  Incredulous, I ask the teacher why a girl would run to her father instead of her mother.  My teacher says very matter of factly (in immigrant-heavy New Jersey, in Catholic School) that all girls are closer to their fathers than their mothers.  I write “this came as a shock to me.  Now I realize how much my mother and I fight and how, even though I’m forever being reprimanded and lectured, my father and I are probably very close.  For instance, if I ever told him that I wanted to play the drums, I don’t think he would condemn me like I know my mother would”. 


There was this meme going around a few years ago, this thing where you wrote a letter to your 20 year old self and you dispensed advice and told her to buck up and that things would get better.  I never partook because, honestly, the only thing I could manage at the time was: don’t drink so much, kid.  After a little thought, I might have added: You understand nothing about the world, and the Universe has just handed you a license to get a job, drink, and have irresponsible sex with strangers.  Good luck out there.  You’ll have no idea what you’re doing for the next ten years.  Call me when you’re thirty and we’ll talk about getting a handle on who you really are.

Now that I’ve re-read my journals, I want to write a letter to my 12 year old self instead of my 20 year old self. I want to tell her to hold on to that tiny hopeful thread.  I want to tell her that people are mostly kind and honest and you should believe them when they say they love you.   

You know what? It’s not my current self that should be writing to my 20 year old self OR my 12 year old self.  My 12 year old self should be writing to my 20 year old self. HEY!  She would say. Forget all the self help books you are about to read.  Put your checkbook away.  That therapist isn’t going to help you as much as this little nugget: whatever you think you can do, you CAN do.

Or maybe the letter would go like this:

Dear 20 Year Old Lolo,
I am referring you to 12 year old Lolo, who is very wise indeed and has much to say on your getting in the way of your own success.  I, late-thirties-something Lolo, on the other hand, have nothing to offer you but an uncomfortable grimace and the half promise that you’ll eventually figure some shit out.  You know what?  I can’t even give you that. You think you’re invincible, and that everyone is dumber than you.  That will get you through some rough times (like when that meth-addled boss of yours will fire you and you’ll realize, after you’ve cried about it, that it’s HIS loss, not yours).  That invincibility will be your lineage, your heirloom; it’s that, plus a whole lot of smarts, that got your ancestors through war and famine and transcontinental boatrides to new lands.  So, lean on it.  Take advantage, if you can, without making anyone wrong in the process, okay?  All any of us knows is what we’ve been willing to learn.  Here’s the one thing I do know: your highs are really high and your lows are really low.  So, when you hit those lows, and there will be a few, crack open that floral print journal and look back there at that bit about not letting anything stop you.  Have a good laugh about letting Guns N Roses design the soundtrack to your lovelife.  See that some situations in life don’t resolve themselves, maybe, ever.  Some things do.  Some things clean up real fast and you can clap the dust from your hands and call it a day.  But some things stick around.  Don’t let that stop you from hitting “publish” on a half-finished piece.

Let’s all of us, 20 year old Lolo, and 37 year old Lolo, let’s all listen to 12 year old LoLo.  She has dreams.  She thinks learning to play the drums is not a waste of time.  She thinks a positive mental attitude is the key to getting shit done.  She recognizes glimpses of herself in the enemy.  She knows that a boy’s dark humor comes from a place of pain and she identifies with that pain and she learns to heal from it.  She doesn’t understand where this sudden onset of sadness and anger comes from, but she knows it is a foreign object in her body.  And she wants it gone.  Listen to her.   She has questionable taste in music and hairstyles, but she’s one helluva philosopher.  There are shiny glints of light around any darkness.  You just have to catch those rays when you can and hold on to them.  It’s all you really can do in this life.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Panama! Part 2

Those of you who know me know I don't like small dogs.  I'm not subsumed by a baby-talking alter ego when I see their bulging eyes and stubby legs.  Instead I'm compelled to ask myself big, esoteric questions, like, How far I can punt this thing? Why can't this thing carry its own weight in whiskey barrels or picnic baskets?  

Dogs have always occurred to me as Man's Best Helpers, so the itty bitty ones that bark and fit into handbags seem like a gross abomination of the species.  They seem to be made only for behaving obnoxiously and making their face hair wet with saliva.  I hate them.  It's probably because like repels like and our similar anxieties meet in the middle like two magnet ends trying to go at it.  Anyway, you should know all this because even I was surprised at how I responded to this little ball of fuzz:

I absolutely fell in love with him.  I can't explain it.  If you had told me months ago that I would love a Pomeranian, I would have punched you in the face for even suggesting such a thing.  And yet, there I was, covered in sweat and allowing a small hairy thing to rub against my bug-bitten legs.  He wasn't as barky as other dogs- so he had that going for him.  And he was genuinely cuddly without being cloying. He only sometimes came out to greet us when we came up the stairs.  He played fetch with a stuffed mouse for a short while, and then he stalked off like a nuclear physicist insulted by our pedestrian requests to know what pee-pee was made of.  He could take us or leave us, and that was refreshing to see in a small dog.  Would I be anthropomorphizing too much to say I thought he was moody?  Or brilliant?   I rather like the idea that maybe he wouldn't come when he was called because he was sulking under the bed, writing in his diary, bemoaning how utterly alone he was in the world because his parents had brought him to this godforsaken place where no one understood him.  It didn't feel like such a stretch.  And since there was a time in my life when I was also sequestered away in a bedroom ignoring the calls of my family and scribbling about my sad, what-does-it-all-mean-anyway life, I related.  It was like I was meeting the sixteen year old dog-version of myself.

So I loved him, and I gave him a dumb nickname.  And I couldn't wait to see him at the end of every day. Lions aren't my totem animal or anything, but he also looked like something that might guard an ancient Chinese temple, and that gave me pause.  Maybe he WAS an ancient Chinese dog, a reincarnated one.  And he was mind controlling me.  How else do I explain that I fell in love with Lauren and Ryan's tiny dog?  I don't know.  Finney-Finn, you had me at "meh".

Here are some entries from my journal:

DECEMBER 16th, Monday

Boat ride to Red Frog.  Doing the tourist thing. There are children in our boat in the middle of the day.  I wonder why they aren't in school.  I understand school to be part of a larger system, one in which there might be something to do after schooling is completed.  It requires hopes and dreams and a bigger national vision.  What is the vision for these children?  Will they ever know life outside this island?  Certainly they taste it in the sight of these tourists.  But what would schooling do for them if they were to stay here?  The fact that I am even thinking this way says a lot about what I think my version of right and proper is.  On the walk down to the ocean, the word "Puritan" pops into my head in regard to myself.  How stringently I view the world- everyone needing to be formally educated and at work at something useful and productive between the hours of 9 and 5.  Who am I to know what useful really is?  

Two young boys, maybe 8 or 9 years old, in soccer shirts and board shorts, walk around us on the beach.  One has a red tree frog cupped between his hands while the other boy idly kicks a beat-up soccer ball close by.  The first kneels down by our friend's blanket and opens up his palms.  Our friend oohs and ahs and I giggle as the frog jumps out of his hands and onto her batiked beach blanket.  Our friend startles a little and I laugh harder.  The boy retrieves the frog calmly, simply, like it isn't even alive.  "Photo?" he asks in accented English.  Our friend pulls out her camera and takes a picture.  She puts her camera into the main pocket of her bag and then from a side pocket, she pulls a moist, wrinkled dollar and hands it to the boy.  He pockets it and stands up.  He catches up to his friend. His back is to me but from the way his friend is trying to hide his smile, I can tell what they are talking about.  They skip over me and walk over to the girl on the other side of the beach and the ritutal starts again.

DECEMBER 17th, Tuesday

Today we hiked up the Hill to the organic farm and coffee plantation.  The coffee was rich and strong and we drank it with fresh, fresh coconut milk.  It did nothing to lighten the coffee, but it added just a hint of sweetness.  The mud still isn't out from between our toes, a light orange clay that squished amongst the vegetation, slick to the touch.

Yoga this morning set my body abuzz.  Made me realize I need to do it a lot more often.  Soon as we get stateside, I am signing up for more.  My hips and quads are unbelievably tight.  How long have I been walking around and exercising with quads this tight?

Sitting here watching the waves roll in is highly therapeutic.  Almost makes better the fact that my skin burns with mosquito bites.  Strange to see the hawks I associate with desert/high altitude nesting in nearby palm trees.  The sun has set and now starts the tree frog chorus.  The roar of the waves drowns out all else.  We move in slow motion here.  I feel quiet tonight- maybe the yoga helped.  And yet, I want to be that high energy girl, excited and alive.  This island has me wrapped up in gauze, has me moving through honey. I am thick and slow.

I wonder what the brown skinned construction worker is thinking as he stares at me, as we stare at each other, really.  Am I vain enough to think he's actually looking at me?  Is he looking past me?  We both study each other for that fraction of a second, but for that fraction, the whole history of the world passes through our eyes.  

There's a "Crazy Dave" in every one of these ex-pat hideaways, it feels like.  Always some guy who's been doing it the longest, who came twenty years before anyone else did, who came to get away, but stayed for the cheap rum.  Always in a tank top, always looking a little far away in the eyes, always using his bar or his house as a place to sing his own renditions of popular songs, in some mismatched get-up like funny sunglasses or a wig.  And always there is a crowd of white people.  The different cultures on this island mix well enough, I suppose, but it's pretty clear where preferences lie. 

Not that I was really thinking about ANY of that last night as I kicked and jumped up and down and skanked (as best I could in sandals) to the music at Crazy Dave's.  I had a thought while dancing (or maybe it was the beer doing the thinking for me): music is the equalizer.  I came of age in a time where women in the scene were just as welcome as the men.  That may have been because we were all blinded by the same pain and singing about it similarly so none of us saw the finer details of our features.  But no one excluded me from the mosh pits.  In fact, it was the one place chivalry was still alive.  Grown men used their bodies to barricade me from the more thrashy among us.  A dozen pairs of strangers' hands supported another stranger's body overhead to give him the experience of flying, or maybe being carted away to his own funeral.  Hard to say.  
OLZ sang Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".  I have never identified with that song.  It was not my anthem.  My generation was not forecasting we would survive.  We already had (thanks, of course, to the ladies of Gaynor's time).  What was my generation forecasting?  We weren't.  We were practicing being in the moment.  We were flirting with violence and death in those mosh pits.  We were raging against a machine.  We had survived, but for what?  We we asking ourselves this more and more, using each other as punching bags and the ropes all at once.  

DECEMBER 20th, Friday

Outside the Firefly, food is charged at a premium, and there is so little variety.  I'm beginning to think of rum as a either a condiment (there at the top of the food pyramid, "Eat these foods sparingly") or a side dish.  It is everywhere. It tastes watered down to me.  It goes down smoothly, evaporates off the tongue quickly.  The decision to drink it is an economic one- it's cheaper than water. When alcohol becomes about economics, no one wins.

There is a man here from our corner of the earth who will be starting a brewery on the island, and is married to a Panamanian woman (the smiling, giggling type, a roly poly good housewife/good chef type who neither understands nor needs her husband's constant shower of compliments couched in good natured ribbing).  He offers us a taste of the mediocre white bread he's come into town for, a moist and sweet airy white bread.  Nothing special, and most importantly, nothing you couldn't find up north. He seemed the type to take comfort in that sort of thing, soft white bread that gave way under your pinch, and a woman who smiled at him no matter how bad the joke.  He told us about a restaurant, an Argentine place.  He told us they had vegetables, real vegetables, and in a brief moment of solidarity, we all swooned and sighed longingly for the sweet taste of broccoli.

Always we attract the ones that claim they "talk too much".  But always they are full of the best stories.  Always they hold the most wisdom.  Ricardo's first wife died in an airplane crash.  There is something about the Caribbean.  Nothing is ever as it seems.  Do I believe him?  Or is this one more tale like the price of the water taxi?  Some days it is three dollars, others it is five.  All things shift and change here.  Nothing is fixed.  There is no point in having things be stationary.  The world here demands that you bend, flex, accept that sometimes four days of storms will crowd out sunny skies.