Category Archives: Age 0 to 9

Thinking of You, Grandpa

The other day I was aware all day that were he still alive, it would have been my maternal grandfather’s birthday. One of the gifts I gave my mother was the knowledge that a shitty dad can still be a good grandpa. To commemorate his birthday, I’d like to remember some things I associate with him.

fireflies in a Mason jar
being sent around the backyard to gather fallen twigs under the hickory trees as he got the grill started
the hydrangea bush that grew pressed against the shady side of the house
the rabbit that sometimes hid under there
possum stories
the way he imitated the baying of his hunting dogs when he told possum stories
his tomato garden
being sent down into the garden to pick sprigs of mint for the adults’ mint juleps
the banded woolly bears that liked the mint plants
his posture (very straight)
the funny grunts and humming that covered up his Tourette-like vocal ticks
how he always fell asleep on the sofa after supper
Hee Haw on television
and Lawrence Welk
little colored wooden golf tees
wiffle balls for practicing driving in the backyard
being taught to hit one of those little plastic balls
tomatoes lined up on the window sill…all varying stages of green to pink to red
the smell of the inside of his sedan; it smelled like a car that was never driven with the windows down
and like cigar smoke

Grace in Small Things – 288

  • Being up and on the cushion at dawn.
  • The message that came to me while I sat there:  “just because you can’t see the sun doesn’t mean it’s not still there.”
  • Going right away before I had time to get anxious to fill out a volunteer application at the organization that answered my email of earlier this week.
  • Helping Sylvain shovel his driveway and put wiper fluid in his van.
  • Making snow ice cream! While I was helping Sylvain’s dad eat some, he got to laughing at my stories of making snow ice cream as a child. My mom says it’s safe to eat snow so long as it’s a good long snow and you skim from the top. I told him that the first three inches of snow cleans the sky, and you’re safe to eat the fourth inch.

Truth or Fiction Game – Answers

I experimented with many illicit substances as a teenager.  TRUE. Nothing very interesting to tell here except that I did a bit more than merely experiment with weed. I was rather fond of it for a while there. I never did anything with a needle, and I did not enjoy my one or two tastes of coke. Nasty stuff. My mother’s many admonitions that dropping acid would make me think I could fly off a building did not stop me from trying it, but did make me cautious about size of dosage. Congratulations, Mom. My absinthe parties were a lot of fun, complete with home-distilled absinthe made with real wormwood (not the legal version without wormwood).

I have chewed coca leaves purchased on the streets of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. TRUE. That was in the mid to late eighties. My Spanish prof (turned common law husband) was a member of Partners of the Americas. He brought me along as his assistant and together we presented a workshop to Bolivian English teachers on the language teaching method Total Physical Response (TPR). Along the streets, especially in the market district, you could see women in their traditional dress sitting on blankets that they had spread out in the shade of a building. They laid out the little bundles and bowls of what they had for sale. A few of them had coca leaves up for offer, and I wanted to try using them the same way the Bolivian pickers use them to ward off fatigue and cold. So I bought a bunch, assembled a small wad and stuffed it in my cheek. I don’t remember the effects, if any, and only vaguely remember not liking the taste.

The largest age gap between me and someone I dated was forty years. TRUE. I have blogged about Dr. Jones once or twice. He is the one whom I accompanied to Bolivia, and he is the one to whom we were all indebted for the authentic absinthe. He and I were an item for about seven years and lived together for four or five of those years. It was a lovely time in my life, and we remain friends. He now lives with a lady friend his own age.

When I was 15, I was caught by a priest playing naked Frisbee on the grounds of a seminary. TRUE. I was quite the little exhibitionist when I was a teenager. Plus I was completely taken with the 60s and everything to do with the era of peace, love and free anything. I memorized all the lyrics to the rock musical HAIR and imagined myself getting nude in the mud at Woodstock. Since getting naked was no big deal to me, I loved any dare to do so. My little friends and I would throw toga parties and I would run around with a bed sheet draped over ONE shoulder.

Close to my house in the Heights in Little Rock was the headquarters of the Catholic Diocese. It was housed in a group of ancient buildings that had once hosted seminarians. The gates of the mysteriously beautiful brick, ivy-covered complex were left open all the time, and folks who lived nearby made a habit of going there to walk, skate, exercise their dogs or toss a ball with their kids on the baseball diamond. In back was a wooded area that hid a steep ravine where generations of children had at some point in their coming-of-age sneaked off to explore and earn spankings or groundings from worried parents. Down there were slippery, moss-covered rock walls to be scaled by nimble 11-year olds, a waterfall, and a statue of the Virgin who was almost always holding a small bouquet of freshly picked wild flowers.  I think a nearby plaque identified her as Our Lady of the Ravine.

One sunny summer day, an older boy proposed naked Frisbee to me and two of my girlfriends. I was jazzed by the idea and suggested we bring a camera. We had to be very furtive because people were walking their dogs around the loop, so we chose a spot off to one side, partially hidden by trees. We tossed the Frisbee only a few times, mostly busying ourselves with capturing our daring act on film. I was posing against a large oak tree with my nude back to the camera when we were spied by a white-haired woman walking her little white-haired poodle. We quickly put our clothes back on, having noticed her scowl. About three minutes later, a middle aged man in black clothes and a white collar approached us and asked to speak to us. As I remember it, I was the one brave enough to go up to him and allow him to interrogate me while my friends hung back a few yards to eavesdrop. He calmly and politely explained to me that the seminary was private property, but that they welcomed the public to come there for their picnics and walks and ball games. My friends and I were welcome there, as well, he said. However, he said, we were expected to keep our clothes on.  “Yes sir,” I said. And that was that.

My mother used to assuage my worries over being so hairy by telling me I could be in the circus when I grew up. TRUE. At some point when we were still living in California I accompanied my mother to a school where she was either teaching or volunteering, I’m not sure which. One of the kids came up to me and asked me why I was so hairy. Do you remember those moments in your childhood when some difference about you was pointed out to you by another child? I remember all of them. I remember the day my freckles were brought to my attention. Adults would fawn over my hair colour (it was flaming red when I was born and had changed to strawberry blond by the time I was five). On this particular day, I was made aware that other children did not have a lot of arm hair. I had so much corn-silk coloured hair on my arms that I really looked like a bird ready for flight.  In spite of the fact that I morphed into some sort of extroverted, psychotic demon during my adolescence, I was a VERY shy child and wanted desperately for the spotlight NEVER to land on me.  And so I begged my mother to cut the hair on my arms. She wouldn’t do it, but she tells me that one of my babysitters–an older friend–often took it upon herself to groom me in this way when I was in her care.  For some reason, I’m no longer that hirsute. I guess it was like the down of a pre-adult stage. At some point I molted.

My navel is pierced. TRUE. My second husband, Pete, asked me to have my navel pierced and I did so. I wore jewelry there for a few years. Later I realized I had done that for him, not for me, and had never myself really wanted it. So I took out the jewelry, but the piercing remains.

In university, I audited trigonometry just for the fun of it. TRUE. Although I had barely scraped by with low Ds in algebra in junior high–in spite of many hours of one-on-one tutoring (I was granted the D by Mrs. Cann out of pity and to recognize my effort), in university, it all finally clicked. I got it. And I enjoyed it! Astronomy was so fun. I was drawn to physics, too. Someone must have mentioned to me that the astronomy questions would be easier if I had trig, so I audited it. The prof was absolutely fantastic. Soon I was grooving through the homework for both astronomy and trig, and enjoying the tie-ins between them.

My first husband is  serving 50 years in the Arkansas correctional system and has a book coming out next year in which I play a major role. TRUE. The book part I only learned of the other day, through my blog, no less. Take a look at the very last comment on this post.  Pretty wild, eh? The publishers have given his book a new title, which he doesn’t like but has no say over. You can see a marketing blurb for the upcoming book here. It’s pretty cool because on the book blurb it says, “William W. Allen is an exemplary inmate….”

In response to that blog comment, I sent Bill my new address on the back of a post card to the jail where he is serving out the remainder of his sentence. (He was moved from the prison population to a small county jail on what is called an Act 309 to ease prison overcrowding. Only highly trusted inmates are eligible for that move.) A few weeks later, I received a letter from him in which he says, “I hold you personally responsible for me [sic] being the person that I am today.”

I have a small yin-yang tattoo on my right buttock. FALSE. Congratulations to Tom for winning the contest. You might think that was too sneaky since you would have no way of knowing, but actually had you used the SEARCH window on my blog and put in the word “tattoo,” you could have found my Things I Have Never Done post, in which I mentioned never having been tattooed. Also, Sylvain reminded me that in my post about visiting the nudist park two summers ago, complete with photos, there is proof positive that my ample, very white, right buttock is unmarred.

Thank you, everyone, for participating! :)  Tom is also doing the game now, so check it out. Oh, and Sylvain plans to do it in the next day or two.

Ed and That Old Green Man

I’m thinking today about how we never know how others perceive us or how people we used to know perceived us.

I’m thinking today about that Old Green Man low self-esteem.

I’m reading two books currently: Party of One – The Loners’ Manifesto is by my bed and The Introvert Advantage – How to Thrive in an Extrovert World is in my desk drawer at work.

I’ve understood for a long time now that I am someone who recharges my batteries by being alone. I treasure my friends, but being in their company costs me energy. I learnt a while back that if I’m going to spend time around people, I need to start banking the energy beforehand with lots of solitude and block off another chunk of time on the calendar immediately after the event in order to recover.

What I did not realize until reading The Introvert Advantage is that in being introverted, I am outnumbered in society 3 to 1. That is one more category I can add to those that put me in a minority. Aspergerish, I was a weird and spacey child. IQ-wise, I am in the 98th percentile. Yet I wasn’t singled out for the honours classes nor a gifted program. Some of my teachers thought I was delayed. One became repeatedly angry with me for hiding behind my long hair and for not responding or for mumbling when asked a question. I consistently forgot to do my homework, forgot to take it home with me or–if I remembered that much–forgot to bring it back again.

From Rufus I am learning that shy does not equal loner. There are shy extroverts–what a painful lot theirs is! And while social anxiety can be overcome, introversion is a temperament. Introversion / Extroversion is also a continuum and constantly in flux. In any case, to add to my being trapped in a world of extroverts with their social expectations of what makes a child (or any person) healthy and normal, I had the stamp of trauma from my father’s death branded into my psyche at age 6.

Sizzle.

No father in the house until psychopathic step-father who was constantly trying to grope me or get me drunk and kiss me.

Sizzle.

No strong woman role model in the house, rather my introverted mother with her own social anxiety.

Sizzle.

Is it any wonder I felt like a visitor from another planet?

I am thinking today about Patti Digh’s essay Heart Unlovable People.

I had to laugh at the question that bounced around my head after reading that essay and her article in Skirt. What have I done to love the unlovable people in my life?

Sorry, I misspoke. I didn’t laugh at the question. I pondered it for a moment and laughed when I realized the answer. I married them.

After 3.5 years of Jungian Analysis, Anna and I were winding up a session one day and were talking about the blind spot each person has…that area where they cannot see something about themselves…something many others probably can see fairly easily. I knew there was a reason our defence mechanisms keep this something hidden from us and therefore I had never asked Anna outright to tell me what she saw in my blind spot.

Until this day. I asked her. I just asked her, “do you know what is in my blind spot?”

She smiled in that loving way that is tinged both with humour and sadness and replied, “maybe it is your tendency to identify with the underdog.”

===

I had a good friend once with whom I used to spend hours talking. She also struggled with self-esteem issues, though she did not call it that. She rejected all popular psycho-babble in favour of her own organic terminology. I could use words like “rooted” or “grounded” or “energy” with her, but not the C word (co-dependent). I wanted to recommend to her the self-help books that had helped me overcome challenges just like hers, but she had such a visceral negative reaction to them that she could not use them.

One day she was telling me about a time when the owner of the spa where she was a massage therapist ended up on her table for a one-hour massage. This was a difficult woman who was never satisfied with anything. When the massage was over, the owner told my friend that is was incredible, that it was BY FAR the best massage she had ever had in her life, including massages she had had in Sweden and Italy.

“My camera is broken,” is what my friend said to me. If each person has a little camera aimed at themselves through which they perceive what they are like, then hers was not functioning properly. That was her organic way of grasping her self-esteem problem.

It takes a long time… a lifetime, perhaps… to bring those aspects of ourselves out of the blind spot.

And when you get that information and live with it in your heart long enough to understand its implications, what will you do with it?

My Sacred Life, Day 4

I was probably about 9 years old. I remember standing in Penney’s department store with my mom, who was trying to get me to pick out a dress I liked.

I shuffled my feet and said, “But mom, we can’t afford it.”

“Don’t worry about that part.  Which dress do you like? Do you like this one?  What about this one?  Do you like any of these?  We can go to another store if you don’t like any of these.”

I looked at the ground.  “Mom, we can’t afford it.  I don’t want one.”

Very irked with me, my mother said, “Yes, we CAN afford for you to have one new dress a year!”  But I wouldn’t budge. I refused even to consider which dress might look nice on me.  I just could not accept her spending that much money on me when we barely scraped by on the veteran’s benefits checks that had been supporting us since my father died in 1969.

I remember another day.  My mom asked me if I wanted to come with her to a place called the Bargain Basement.  It was a charity-run thrift store. She said they had children’s clothes for a quarter.  If I came with her, she’d let me pick out some pants and tops or whatever I wanted.  I was curious.  I said okay.

We walked down some concrete steps and entered the basement shop. There were huge boxes, like the ones appliances come in, all around the room filled with second-hand clothes.  Mom said I could have anything I wanted.  Each item was only a quarter, so I could pick out as many as I wanted.  I fantasized about the kids at school not teasing me anymore about wearing the same outfit every day.

I still remember just exactly how that felt.  I could ask for something and not feel guilty.  I knew my mom could afford this.  I found some paisley bell bottoms!  I found a top that was so wonderfully loved soft by its previous wearer, I couldn’t stop stroking it.  I was in heaven.

My whole life I’ve been shopping at Goodwill, yard sales. I’ve made a lot of my own clothes.  I will go into a boutique, but only to scan the sale racks at the back.  Occasionally, if there is a really good 75% off sale, I might come home with a bag full of new clothes.  But that shopping trip must last me a year or two.

Mind you, I have managed to overcome this complex when it comes to shoes.  It was my mother who pointed out that by buying cheap shoes, I wasn’t saving any money.  The cheap shoes wore out quickly and I had to replace them often.  She convinced me that investing big bucks in a really good pair of shoes was actually a frugal move.  And so I found a way to trick my brain into letting me indulge in really nice shoes.  My favourite shoes are Naots.  You were right, mom.  They really do last a million years.

After weeks of scanning the job websites daily and getting very used to the same routine (truck driver – nope; mushroom picker – nope; software engineer – nope; mig welder – nope, and so on),  yesterday I finally saw something I can do.  The job is only a 2-week contract, but still…the description made it sound tailored for me and only me.

Suddenly I was in a panic. If someone were to ask me in for an interview, what would I wear?  I have one pair of Dockers and a nice golf shirt, nice loafers, but no belt.  My belt was worn out, so I tossed it before the move.  Yikes! I need a belt!

I approached Sylvain right after dinner with the idea of a run to the mall.  He wasn’t in the mood to do that, but he said, “relationships are about compromise,” and off we went.  After I got my belt, Sylvain spotted some dresses.  He made that face he makes when there is something I could do to make him really happy.

“Would you like me to try it on?” I asked.

Sylvain made his big-eyed, panting, rapid nod that means “yes yes yes yes yes yes please.”

I emerged from the dressing room for Sylvain’s opinion.  Apparently garments that show off my derrière inspire Sylvain to dig out his debit card.  In a few short months, I’ve gone from being a woman who thinks of herself as having a fat ass to a woman who thinks of herself as having one of the sexiest bottoms on the planet.  That is what an adoring lover can do for ones self image.

Before I knew what was happening, Sylvain and I were loaded down with shopping bags.  I am now the proud owner of two new dresses, a gorgeous business suit and three blouses that will go with the suit.  From the look on the clerk’s face, I’d say she was on commission.  It was a very happy face.

This feels strange.  More money than I have ever spent on clothes for myself at one time.  Yikes.

But in a strange way, it feels okay, too.  The little voice in my head that wanted to say, “no, it’s too much,” and “no, I’m not working yet…we can’t afford this,” and “no, I’ll come back and get that in February when it’s marked way down” was just a tiny whisper buried way at the back of my head.

Thank you, sweetie.  Thank you for helping me say yes to myself.  Thank you for all the times you tell me I’m hot.  Thank you for helping me see myself as worthy of such treatment.  If that company has any sense at all, I’ll be getting an interview soon.  And when I do, I’ll be able to walk in feeling that much more confident…knowing I look like someone who respects herself.

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When I Grow Up

I am only half-heartedly looking for a job right now.  This is because I have yet to fulfill the promise I made to myself and to my mother that I will visit her this year in Arkansas.  That trip can’t easily happen while little Owie is still in my care.  He is doing a bit better, by the way.  He took his medicine without any struggle this morning, licked it right from the tip of the syringe.  I guess he was hungry and the strawberry-flavoured antibiotic was better than nothing.  After that I filled his treat bowl with yam baby food and a slice of banana.

Oh, right. I was talking about jobs.

Every day I look at Job Bank Canada, Monster.ca and Workopolis.  Every Saturday Sylvain’s Ma gives me the classifieds section of the Windsor Star.  I keep my eyes open for Help Wanted signs in windows.  I inquired with a business that just opened around the corner to see if they were hiring.

From these daily searches, I’ve reached some conclusions.

If I were a MIG (metal inert gas) welder, I’d have a job already.   Millwrights are in demand here, as are truck drivers and mushroom pickers.  There are jobs for systems analysts and tech support people, but you need to know a bit about networks and hardware, not just software.  I only know software.  Many of those ads specify that you must have a car and be willing to travel.  Ugh.

Had I gotten my Masters of Library Science, I would be okay.  I didn’t.  There was not a Masters of Library Science program in Arkansas back when I needed one, perhaps there still isn’t.  My friend Scott was smart; he went to Austin to work on his degree.  I didn’t want to go to Texas or Oklahoma or Kansas.

When I was growing up, what did I want to be  when I got big?  Hmmmm.

I have always been an underachiever.  The earliest fantasy I can recall…I was seven or eight when I came up with this one…was of making a living as a beachcomber.  I would live in a shack the size of a tool shed and my most valuable possession would be my metal detector.  I would scan the sands each evening after the bathers and tourists went home.  I would take my finds to the local pawn shop and with the meager profit, I would buy a can of beans.

I would decorate my shanty with found objects and sea shells, colourful bits of beach glass.  I would not need locks or alarm systems, for I would own nothing worth stealing.  Perhaps before the age of 9, I still had memories of a former lifetime as a monk? I don’t know.  I just know that while many of my school chums were dreaming of big houses and shiny cars, I was dreaming of simplicity and proximity to nature and the sea.

Later I realized that this answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question brought ridicule, I began to tell people that I wanted to be a veterinarian.  That wasn’t true.  I just said that to have something to respond—something that didn’t elicit derision.

In grade seven, I took typing.  If all else failed (I still didn’t know what the all else was to be), I could fall back on secretarial skills.

I went to university and got my B.A., but in Spanish of all things.  Unless you want to interpret, translate or teach, a degree in Spanish is about as useful as a degree in philosophy or history.  No, I didn’t get my degree in Spanish with job prospects in mind.  I got it because my mom wasn’t going to keep paying my tuition forever and my guidance counselor said I needed a degree plan.  “Our goal is to kick you out after four years,” he said.  I managed to stretch it into six years, what with dropping out after year two to hitchhike Europe and then live in Japan just shy of a year.

When I was in university, I had absolutely no interest in preparing for THE REAL WORLD.  Work schmerk.  I just wanted to learn.  I wanted to keep buying fresh, crisp spiral-bound notebooks of college-ruled paper and mechanical pencils.  There was no greater joy than coming into a lecture hall or classroom, pulling my binder out of my backpack, flipping my notepad open to a virgin page and dating the top of the sheet of paper in preparation for copious notetaking.  When the prof walked in, my heartbeat quickened.

I took German I, II, III, IV; Spanish all the way up to the lit classes where you write theses in the language.  I took Italian for Business and Travel, Demotic Greek, Latin I and II, algebra then trig, astronomy, history of the English language and as many linguistics courses as were offered.

Mom wanted me to train to be a speech and language pathologist.  I found that idea palatable, but did not pursue it.  For a while I worked on an associate degree in interpreting for the Deaf.  My profs would pull me aside and tell me I was a natural.  Oh, what an excellent interpreter I was going to be.  But then Cameron and I broke up and I had nobody to pay the rent while I went to school.  I had to get a job.

And so I spent the next ten years floating into the next better job than any smart person can do.  Oh, I loved being office manager at a little book store.  I was Queen of the Office.  From now on, I told my co-bosses, the publishers’ catalogs will go on THESE shelves, arranged alphabetically by publishing house.  We can keep last season’s catalog and this season’s, but that’s it! The antepenultimate season’s catalogs must be thrown out.  You can’t operate in a tiny, windowless basement office without being ruthless about clutter control.  Period.

I was in my element.

I handled accounts payable (“the check is in the mail, I promise!”) and accounts receivable, (“Mrs. Turner, what size payment on your overdue balance would you consider manageable?”), payroll and balance sheets.  I made sure supplies were kept stocked and set up the appointment with the gift wrap salesman every fall.  The owners and booksellers came together to vote on which five holiday wrap designs we’d go with that year.  What colour ribbon looks good on that paper?  Should we choose something more earth friendly this year?

Each day the UPS guy would ring the back doorbell.  While I signed the bill of lading using his magic pen and screen, he would wheel a stack of boxes in on his hand truck.  It was my job to make sure there was a clear space on the tiny receiving room floor for him to unload each morning.  Then I had 24 hours to get that day’s delivery scanned into the inventory and up onto the category shelves.  The booksellers took it from there, making room on the sales floor for the new arrivals.

Opening boxes of new releases and stock replenishment every day is like having 285 birthdays a year.  Ah, the smell of new books.  Oh, and don’t forget the promotional freebies! Buttons, stickers, pencils, pens, tee shirts and posters galore.  I raided the freebie box regularly and considered that to be one of the best perks of the job.  And let’s not forget advance reader’s copies!

Jobs like that one don’t come along every day.

This I am learning.

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Mom and Dad and Ralph Ginzburg (a Thank You)

My father plodded through the years of schooling and dissertation it took to earn the right to put D.S.W. after his surname and taught in the graduate school of social work first at Chapel Hill–where I was born, later at Smith–where my brother was born, and was teaching at Fresno State when he died in 1969 from cancer. I was about to turn six.

I remember his books; gosh that man owned a lot of books. After my father’s death, mom donated the vast majority of these books to the university, who then named a reading room after him…a room filled by his collection. Or something like that. After this many years, what I’m telling you might be 70% fantasy and 30% truth.

A few very special books came with us from Fresno to Little Rock when we moved. There were the complete writings of Sigmund Freud. Symbolic Logic came with us, though I’m not sure why. With Hemingway he had shared a passion for bullfighting. I remember the beautiful big coffee table book–Aficionado it was called–full of photographs of the fights, reproductions of the posters. I learned the difference between picador and matador. He had taken my mom to Mexico more than once before I was born. I can still smell the misty blue velvet inside of her jewel box when I picture the delicate silver brooches and bracelets he bought her on those trips.

I remember four slender hardbound magazines entitled Eros. In the 1960s, my father–along with a chosen few Americans of higher than average income and intelligence–received a letter inviting them to become charter subscribers to this new quarterly. My father didn’t flinch at the subscription price which made Eros ‘the most expensive magazine in the world.’ He knew this was going to be important. He told my mom never to get rid of them, they would be highly collectible and valuable one day.

When I was ten and eleven and twelve years old, I pulled these notebook-thin treasures carefully from their place on the bottom shelf of a white built-in bookcase. I would sit right there on the shag carpet and slowly drink in the pictures, read the articles, turn the luxurious thick pages.

Though all four issues fascinated me (all that Ginzburg managed to publish before he was jailed), the article that captured me most powerfully was a photo layout, a series of photographs of two nude bodies pressed together. You couldn’t see the two people’s heads and you couldn’t see their feet. You couldn’t see much of anything but their skin in close up (goosebumps), an arm, a hip, a hand. Tenderness. Intimacy. Love.

The thing that made these photographs so powerful was the fact that the man’s skin was the deepest, darkest roasted coffee bean colour I’ve ever seen. Shiny. The woman’s skin was pale and pinkish like mine. His ebony bicep pressed against her alabaster ribcage was striking.

I’m so lucky.

I am so fortunate to have had him for a father and to still have his widow for a mom. They raised me right, you know? They gave me gifts that keep giving, that carry me through the world and serve me well.

One of the best things about my mother is the way she makes everyone feel at home and comfortable. I always knew (and I was only wrong once!) that no matter how crazy my choices appeared to the rest of the world, my mom would be supportive. Had I turned out to be gay, she would have welcomed my partner into our fold just as warmly as she would have a male partner. And when I did bring home Tavi, who was so very homesick for his hot Latin homeland he’d left behind when Castro opened the gates in 1980, she set a place for him at the dinner table right away. She soon found out who her friends were over that one! He’s … is he? Well, look at his nose, his hair. But his skin isn’t really that dark. He looks Spanish, doesn’t he? No, he’s… you know.

This was Arkansas, remember.

Octavio, if he groomed his hair a certain way, could pass for generic Latino. But when his brother got out of Fort Chaffee and joined him, there was no longer any doubt in the minds of my mother’s friends. While Tavi looked like his Spanish-Cuban mother, Tavi’s brother had their father’s Afro-Cuban complexion.

I have to chuckle now when I think back on how mom fielded the questions, how certain neighbours (Hi, Andrea!) stood by her side and spoke up to the ones who thought miscegenation, as they called it, was some sort of affront to God and Country.

Mia

There are a few things in this life you’ll only ever have one of: a first date, a first love, a first kiss. One mom, one dad. Oh, okay, Heather has two mommies. But you know what I mean.

After my childhood best friend, Mia, and I drifted apart in our mid to late teens, I sort of expected another best friend forever would come along. It took me a long while to figure out that there would never be another Mia. I want to tell you about her.

I was eight and mom had brought Mikey and me from Fresno back to her childhood home of Little Rock, Arkansas, to be closer to her dad and step-mom. My dad had been dead for two years.

We moved in late summer or early autumn. I still remember the smell in the air. Fresno had smelled like dust and deodar trees. Arkansas smelled like wet fallen leaves.

I came home from school one day to find Mikey on our porch counting out Halloween candy with a small girl his age (about 18 months younger than I). She had brown eyes, a turned up little nose and long, brown hair. I felt a pang of jealousy as I made my way past them into the house. Mikey had a new friend from the neighbourhood.

Mia and I became best friends. She spent lots of time at my house, I spent lots of time at her house. Every day one of us would call the other on the phone. I remember that I didn’t ask whether she wanted to get together that day, rather, “what do you want to do today?” Together was a given.

Mia’s mom and my mom became good friends, too. Terri would come over and have drinks and snacks with my mom. They sat on bar stools and talked. Mom always peeled and cut up carrot sticks and put them in a boat-shaped dish in ice water.

Mia and I went through so many things together, including losing her dad. We sometimes had terrible fights. I still wince to remember the time I bit her…and I mean HARD… on the upper arm.

Of the two of us, Mia was the cute one. I had to get used to the fact that when a really hot boy from school or from our neighbourhood wanted to talk to me, it would be to ask me, “do you think Mia likes me?” That was okay, though.

Mia came from a large family. She had three brothers and a sister, all older. There were always lots of dogs and cats and other pets at Mia’s house. That was a big family in my eyes, anyway.

When we were growing up and growing apart, I remember one day Mia told me that one reason she was distancing herself from me was that it was too painful to watch what I was doing to myself.

“What am I doing?” I wondered. Yeah, I knew. But I could only bring my head up out of my thick cloud of denial for a split second every few years. Those were the days when I would sleep with anything that moved. I drank a lot. I used to get drunk at lunch recess and be drunk during English. Where did a 15-year-old girl get booze? My step father bought it for me and for my friends.

It’s sometimes hard to look back at those days and see how carelessly I handled my own life. I was so full of anger and despair, so lost. I was turning all my destructive energy toward myself. It was like a game of Russian roulette. Instead of a gun with one bullet in the chamber, I had unprotected sex with people I didn’t know. I drank myself into a stupor in alleys with homeless people. I walked alone through dangerous streets late, late at night. If a questionable character bade me follow him inside his house, I went. That is the Kelly Mia last knew, I suppose.

====

Mia’s twin older brothers were both Jehovah’s Witnesses, as were their wives. At some point after we became young adults, I got word through somebody that Mia had also become a Jehovah’s Witness. And so each year I would remember, “hey, this week is Mia’s birthday!” And I’d consider dropping her a card in the mail. But then I’d remember that JWs don’t celebrate birthdays or any other holidays. So I wouldn’t.

I had other close girlfriends. But it was never the same. Like I said, I had trouble accepting that I would never have that again with any female friend…that closeness and trust and wanting to be together so much. Whenever I met someone who was still close to a childhood best friend, there was a pang in my heart. Whenever I met someone who got along really well with a sister, it was as if the void standing next to me was tangible. A ghost stood there where Mia used to be.

She’d gone on to marry and have a baby. We didn’t even live in the same part of town, so I never ran into her at the grocery store. I sometimes saw her older sister with her two beautiful girls in the grocery store. “Tell Mia I said hi when you see her,” was the most I could manage.

Then when I was working as office manager at WordsWorth in Little Rock, there was this one day when Vic Snyder wanted to order a book from us, have it sent to Washington D.C. His assistant was on the phone and gave me her name.

“VALERIE?” It was Mia’s eldest brother’s ex wife. “This is Kelly, Mia’s friend Kelly!” Wow. We spent the next ten minutes or so catching up on each other’s news. I asked about Mia. Valerie said Mia would love to hear from me, so I got her phone number, wrote it on a scrap of paper. Valerie said she wasn’t JW anymore.
I never did call. I don’t think I even managed to keep up with the piece of paper. But I kept thinking about it.

Another time Valerie and I spoke by phone and again, I asked about Mia and got some contact info…found out where she was working. I should stop in, say hi, Valerie urged me. I said I would, but knew I probably wouldn’t. I was feeling shy and unsure. We probably didn’t have anything in common anymore. Maybe I should just let things lie, hold on to my precious memories.

This year, on Mia’s birthday, I thought about her. I wanted to send her a birthday card. Though it has been seven or so years since I last spoke to Valerie, I knew she’d still be working for Vic Snyder. So I sent an email to Snyder’s office in Washington D.C. with subject line, “FOR VALERIE.” I asked Valerie for Mia’s email address. Valerie was happy to hear from me and we caught up on each other’s lives. Valerie read my blog.

I did send an email to Mia.

She wrote me back. We’ve exchanged photos and several long emails now. She’s happily married with two boys. Her older boy is 20, almost as old as Mia was the last time I saw her.

I was so excited to get news of Mia and her life, I called my mom to give a big report. “Mom, Mia’s older boy is TWENTY.”

I paused for effect.

“MOM, if I’d had kids, they could be that old right now. You could have a grandchild who was TWENTY.”

My mom was doing a lot of verbal nodding. I guess the math wasn’t as impressive to her as it was to me.
“MOM, you could have been a great grandmother by now!”

“Your aunt Pat is a great grandmother,” she reminded me.

Tonight I got another email from Mia. We’ve been comparing notes on our pets and love for animals. She wrote–at the bottom of her email, “I’m so glad you’re back in my life.”

All I can do is sit here and cry.

====

Mo wondered ‘what next?’ after Farsi school and the lifting of the paraphilia. I said it felt like I was now in about my mid to late teens.

And now Mia is back in my life, having departed when I was about 17.

Violet has come into my life, as well. I remember when Violet and I started hanging out together… I thought to myself that maybe it can happen twice in one lifetime. I feel with Violet the way I felt with Mia when I was 11 and she was 9. “Call your mom and see if you can spend the night!” I still remember her phone number.

I don’t know, people. These are all just puzzle pieces. It feels like I’ve been handed these incredible gifts of late.
Yes, I have.

Bird


After my dad died, a friend of his sometimes visited my mom. I called him Uncle Bill. He liked birds and he put up a pole in our backyard from which he hung a birdfeeder. I watched the birds come and go. I asked him what kind they were.

Uncle Bill showed me how to look up birds in his Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (it was California). I must have shown a keen interest, because he gifted me with his precious, well worn field guide. His last name was printed across the page-ends in black marker.

The book came with me when mom moved us to Arkansas to be nearer to her dad and step-mother. It sat on my bookshelf for years, almost never touched except when a pretty new bird came to our feeders in winter. We’d pull out Uncle Bill’s old green field guide to see what kind of finch was cracking open the black-oil sunflower seeds out on the snowy deck.

One summer day when I was in my late teens, I saw an intriguing bird flying over the houses on our street. I knew my birds pretty well. I knew a grackle from a starling, a sparrow from a house finch. This was not like any bird I’d ever seen before. It was crow-sized but slender. It had a silver head and tail. It reminded me of a falcon! I HAD to know what this bird was.

I ran back to my mom’s house and grabbed the field guide and my father’s old binoculars—the ones he’d always taken along to the bullfights in Mexico. He’d been an aficionado, and mom still had many of his books on bullfighting, plus those by Hemingway that mentioned the bullfights.

I searched for the bird.

It took a while, but toward dusk I spied the bird again. It was soaring low over the trees of my neighbourhood and settled in a tall oak in my best friend Mia’s backyard. I picked out some leaves so I could adjust the focus on the binoculars. Then I raised them and followed a branch out to where the bird was perched.

Oh, what a beauty! I stared and stared. Then the bird again took flight, veering west. I ran as fast as I could down the alley to Cantrell and back up Harrison, scouring the sky for my bird. I found it again. It settled in another tree, and I got an even better look this time.

Do you know what I saw? That sleek silvery bird had a black mask almost like a peregrine falcon has. When it turned its head, I saw something that sent chills down my spine: RED EYES. I am not kidding you. Irises as red as garnets!

I knew there could not be too many birds with red eyes. If I looked all the way through Uncle Bill’s book, I could find this creature. I could know its name.

I started in hawks, buteo, but they were too big. I went to accipiters, the slenderer, falcon-like hawks.

Finally I found it. Ictinia misisippiensis: Mississippi Kite.

From that day on I noticed kites everywhere. They reeled high, high up in the sky over the Heights all summer. I saw them on the university campus in the tall pines.

That’s how I became interested in birdwatching…because of the gift of a book from an adult to a child of six. That book and my interest in it lay dormant for over ten years. Yet when they awakened, they gave me something that has nourished my soul ever since.

On Death and Dying

My father had complained of stomach pains that year. I was only four, but I remember hearing him talk about how bad it hurt; it was rare for this stoic man to speak of discomfort.

The first doctor said it was an ulcer. Months later, by the time a second doctor was consulted, he was as good as dead. He was being eaten alive from the inside. His cancer had already metastasized.

I have some memories.

He went into the hospital. Mom brought Mike and me one day to see him, but we couldn’t go in. So we stood on the sidewalk outside the one-storey building and waved when he came to the window and cranked it open. Then he said he had to close the window, his roommate had a cold. We went back home.

When he came home, he had something poking out in front of him. Mom had to change the bandaging on it. To me it looked like half a huge peeled tomato growing out of his stomach. It was all mystery to me. I didn’t know if that would ever go away or why it was there. I’m sure it was explained to me in an age-appropriate way, but of course I didn’t get it. How could a five year old get that?

My best friend from next door wanted to see it, too. So one day we hid behind the sofa and waited for my father to emerge from the bedroom in his robe. Mom had set him up in the front bedroom, a room with walls the colour of morning sunshine. Sara got to see the tomato thing.

Friends came to the house, sat around with mom talking and having drinks, and dad would get up to join them just for a little while. Then he’d have to go lie down again.

In the last days a nurse came every night. He sat in a chair in daddy’s room, just sat there in the dark while my dad slept. He administered the shots of morphine. At some point the nurse was told not to come anymore, my father wanted to die at home and wanted my mother to give him the shots. And so she learned to jab the needle into his muscular arm, giving him temporary relief from the agonizing pain of being eaten alive from the inside.

Then came the day when the door closed. Mom told me I was not to open it. Daddy didn’t want us to see him anymore. I was very confused and hurt by that, but I was an obedient and respectful child. I didn’t disobey, I didn’t protest. I’m sure my ego wasn’t formed enough yet for me to know I could. And I was frightened. I’m sure a part of me was relieved the door was closing… but then again, I didn’t realize at that point that it would never open again.

Daddy had a bell he was supposed to ring if he needed anything, because he was too weak to call out. Mom told me to come get her if I ever heard it ringing from behind the door. One day the door was cracked and I saw my father. He had gotten so very thin; I was shocked. He was trying to make it to the washroom by himself, gripping the dresser for support. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it. I ran to get my mom as fast as I could.

I wanted so badly to help. That one day…just running to fetch my mommy…means more to me than everything else put together. And it was accidental. I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to help. I couldn’t articulate my feelings. I could only watch and listen and nod as the rules of this dying process were doled out.

Mind you, my parents had discussed at great length how they would handle it all when it came to us. They loved us very much and made the decisions they thought were best for us. My father’s doctoral work had been about children facing death (their own). So he was no stranger to these issues.

One day Mom picked me up from kindergarten and when we pulled up to the house, instead of letting me hop out, she asked me to sit a minute. She had something she needed to tell me. She began to sob (though I could tell she was trying not to) as she told me my father was gone. I hugged her and she hugged me. We sat there a while. I was crying because she was crying.

Then we went inside to the now clean, empty house. The next I remember, the sunny front room was sunny again. The bed was made up. The door stayed open. There were no signs of the nurse’s chair, the vials…nothing. It was as if it had all been a dream, except that I no longer had a father.

My Auntie Kate has since told me of the day I found my father’s partial dentures in a drawer and asked her, “why doesn’t daddy need his teeth anymore?”

As I’ve talked about in earlier posts, I didn’t grieve my father’s death until I was 18 years old, instead turning all my feelings in on myself in an unconscious way, a very self-destructive way. On getting me back from my Miami escapade, Mom got me into therapy with a child psychologist, who helped me start the grief process.

Several years later the Universe gave me the most amazing gift I could ever have asked for… a second chance. One day soon I will tell you about helping my grandfather through the dying process.

Remembering My Grandpa


The sun is not shining. It’s coldish out. But I’m feeling GOOOOOOOD.

Michael and I popped over to Sunlife this morning for their annual charity garage sale. I got a little piece of office furniture the shape of a file cabinet, honey-coloured faux wood. The bottom drawer is for files, and I’ve been looking for a place to put my files.

So I’m up, I’m dressed. Michael helped me Thursday night to get to a big grocery store, where I got more stuff that’s good for me, like ground flax seed, collard greens, garlic, tofu, nuts.

Sometimes I buy good produce and then it stares up at me from inside the crisper, threatening to wilt if I don’t cook it up soon. The collards were doing that this morning. I love preparing a mess of greens. It brings back memories of my mother’s father. That’s the Arkansawyer side of the family.

Grandpa always had a garden going. He was famous for his tomatoes. On the corner two blocks from my house was a little barber shop. For decades it had been a shoe shop where a very quiet, stooped old man fixed your shoes for a song. Then he retired or died, I can’t remember which. And Mr. Mackey set up his barber shop in the tiny building that had once been a gas station. There was just room in there for two barber chairs, three or four chairs to sit in while you waited for a haircut, and a small table stacked with hunting and fishing magazines. On the shelf beneath was a stack of comic books, mostly Archie and Jughead.

It was probably by tagging along with grandpa that I got to know Mr. Mackey. I would sit on one of the chrome and red vinyl seats, swinging my legs while grandpa got his haircut. The shelves behind the barber chairs had glass jars full of blue liquid and combs. Grandpa usually got a shave, too. I liked watching Mr. Mackey use the brush to lather up Grandpa’s face, first tucking a white bib all around his neck.

Mr. Mackey was really nice and gave me a piece of Dubble Bubble just because. He told me I could stop in and read his comics anytime, even when Grandpa didn’t need a haircut. When he’d finish with Grandpa, he’d always shake out the apron, snapping it.

“Next?” he’d say expectantly, brushing off the barber chair’s seat, looking straight at me.

“Not this time,” I’d always say, not quite sure if he was pulling my leg.

I continued to stop in to talk to Mr. Mackey whenever I’d walk past on my way somewhere, especially during the long summer vacations from school. I ran around barefoot all summer, telling my mom to stop worrying about my stepping on glass because going barefoot summer after summer had made the soles of my feet as tough as leather. I was proud of the fact that of all my friends, I could run across gravel or broken glass in dim alleys without a care.

Even after I was all grown up and no longer interested in his Archie comic books or bubble gum, I would stop and talk to Mr. Mackey. He’d always ask about Grandpa, especially about his tomato garden. See, the two of them had a competition each year to see who would get the first ripe tomato. Grandpa ALWAYS won.

Today my kitchen is filled with the smell of black-eyed peas and the tart smell of greens simmering on the stove. Those smells go up my nose and directly to my happiness receptors. There’s no other way to explain it.

Grandpa lived with his second wife (who was also my great aunt) on Normandy Lane. His large backyard sloped downward toward some woods, which descended to a ravine. So his yard was THE BEST for catching fireflies, for hearing a real owl at dusk, or for spotting a rabbit now and then.

I liked it when Grandpa gave me jobs to do. My mom never taught me or my brother to do any chores around the house. She always said it was more trouble cleaning up after us as we learned than to just do things herself.

When Grandpa grilled steaks out on the barbeque, it was my job to go around picking up hickory sticks, as he called the little twigs that littered the grass under his two towering hickory trees. Sometimes I got the outer husk from the hickory nuts, too. Grandpa would add these to the charcoal briquets to give his steak a nice smoked flavour.

There is another smell that transports me instantaneously to my grandfather’s backyard, and that’s fresh mint. See, my other job at Grandpa’s came when he was making mint juleps for all the adults who were seated around the kitchen table. He’d ask me to go down to his garden and pick some sprigs of mint. Oh, the smell that rose to my nostrils as I broke off the stems. One time there was this wonderful fuzzy caterpillar on one of the plants. I got so engrossed in petting it, talking to it and letting it crawl over my hand that I almost forgot there were people back up at the two-storey white clapboard house waiting for the mint!

When I handed over the mind, I told Grandpa about the caterpillar.

“Did you kill it?” he asked.

I was confused. Of course I would never kill a cute little fuzzy caterpillar. Heck, I didn’t even kill ugly bugs. Grandpa told me that caterpillars were bad because they ate up Grandpa’s tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes and everything. We had to kill them every chance we got.

I nodded silently, stunned by this new knowledge. My loving wonderful grandfather killed things. That was something to ponder.

Well, the beans are done. I like them not too soft. The greens will simmer quite a bit longer on a very low flame. I’m thinking about what my friend K said about this habit of mine of preparing a two or three course meal for myself that could take hours of prep. She said she never does that for herself.

Well, I highly recommend it, ESPECIALLY if you have self-esteem issues. You see, belief follows behaviour, not the other way around. If you want to feel good about yourself, do something nice for yourself. Make it a habit. Slowly but surely, you’ll start to feel like the loved and worthy person on the receiving end of those kind acts.

Soul Food

I didn’t even know I LIKED southern cooking till I moved north. Mom never was much one to cook for us. She would open a can of spaghetti-os, a jar of apple sauce, a can of green beans. She could do that. Macaroni and cheese was a staple. Mind you, she had her hands full with me and Mike and no husband. I don’t hold it against her. Heck, we LIKED spaghetti-os. We didn’t know we were missing anything.

It wasn’t until I visited my Aunt Pat and late uncle Bill in New Mexico that I found out how fun it can be to drive out to the country in the morning and select freshly picked vegetables for that night’s meal. My aunt pat made me a mess of greens to die for.

Momma sometimes made hot water corn bread. Yum. That was the best. But these home-cooked meals were just little blips on a vast landscape of drive-through cheeseburgers eaten in the car on the way to bridge club, corn dogs, doritos, family-sized buckets of KFC, MacDonald’s milkshakes.

I don’t remember how long I’d lived up here before I got my first hankerin’ for down home cooking. I asked Pete if we could go out to the Dixie Cafe for supper one night. I was going to order the fried okra, the cole slaw.

Um, we don’t have that chain here, he told me. No? Ok. Ok, no problem. Let’s go to The Black-Eyed Pea! Um, no. We don’t have that one up here, either.

Oh, ok.

What’s an expat to do?

Fortunately, I have a knack for attracting men who can cook. And so Pete learned to cook greens for me. You may wonder how a person who is paralyzed from the collarbone down can cook. You’ll have to take my word for it. It’s called “self directing,” and it’s an art.

It helps if the attendant on shift for his dinner call knows his/her way around a kitchen, but Pete is so good at directing cooking, he can guide a neophyte through couscous, stir fry and soup all at the same time. Or steak, potatoes and sauteed veggies. “Turn down the heat under the couscous… stir the soup… let me taste it… add a pinch more salt …. cover the stir fry.” I wonder how many university kids have learned to cook from being Pete’s dinner call attendant?

I learned most of what I know about food prep from my second husband. For example, always wipe down your chef’s knife immediately after use and put it back in the knife block. Never leave it in the sink. Never leave it dirty. This is my 10″ Henckels chef’s knife.

Pete taught me how to grill a red pepper on the stove element, popping the charred vegetable into a plastic bag while still piping hot so the skin sweats loose. He taught me the difference between real and pseudo Balsamic vinegar, how to bake a head of garlic, how to score the bottom of a tomato with a knife before blanching it. I could go on and on. He gained all this knowledge from cooking shows.

Today while pushing my buggy through fresh produce, I got a hankering for black-eyed peas, corn bread, and a big mess of greens. Maybe it’s the hint of cooler weather coming that’s getting me in the mood for comfort food.

Tomorrow or the next day, I will teach you how to make this meal, too! Tonight I’ll get you started. First, you soak the beans overnight in plenty of good water. This water is going to soak into your beans, so you might want to use some of Michael’s famous wonder water, as I do.
See you tomorrow!

Fourth Grade (continued)

That was not to be my last brush with dirty old men who like to touch little girls. It was a rough journey through the next years, including a couple of decades keeping my psychopathic step-father at bay. That was stressful.

I don’t really have any wonderful imagery or tales today, but didn’t want to leave you with the impression that everything was swell …that being molested is something a child gets over just like that. I can’t even imagine how others–men and women–survive much, much worse at the hands of uncles and fathers and brothers and sisters and step-fathers and cousins and yes, even mothers. I’ve known three women who were victims of maternal/sororal incest and two men who can’t even admit yet how deeply their mother damaged them.

At the time I didn’t know where healthy boundaries were, didn’t know keeping my mother’s boyfriends’ hands off my body wasn’t solely my cross to bear. It added a lot of stress and self-esteem crushing toxic shit to my already pretty f-d up childhood.

But it was years before I could come to terms with it all, grapple with my feelings about it. I eventually found my indignation. I found my healthy anger. To this day I can’t smell his nasty cheap aftershave without wanting to vomit. Even after all the journaling and hours with talented, skilled counsellors, I was still having flashbacks until 10 years ago… flashbacks to the date rapes and sick relationships that contaminated my teen years and early adulthood.

After the promiscuous years, I couldn’t let a man touch me, not even one I loved dearly. Oh, yes, I have issues. For seven years I was married to an imprisoned man who couldn’t share my bed. Coincidence? Of course not. Did I realize it at the time? No.

More therapy. More sick relationships. Marriage to a man who can’t move anything below his collar bone. Coincidence? Of course not.

There are the healthy boundaries to learn to set down around myself. There’s the self-esteem to cultivate. There’s learning not to sexualize everything all the time with everyone. Whew. Recovering from toxic bullshit is years of frikking hard work. Journal, journal, journal. Learn to extinguish an oncoming panic attack by reciting affirmations while thumping your clavicle. Oh, the karate chop! That’s a useful one. There’s active imagination, role playing. Writing letters you’ll never mail. Painting mandalas. Prayer! Crying and screaming and beating pillows with fury in the sleepless wee hours of the morning, barely able to breathe for all the snot.

It’s been an amazing journey. Along the way I’ve met and befriended a persona who came along to save me from those men, the many men I let treat me like I somehow expected to be treated on such deeply rooted levels of my damaged psyche. I used to call one particular coping mechanism “S” for Seductress. I ended up with HUGE control issues when all was said and done. Perfectionism. OCD.

What a tangle! But the nice thing about Jungian work, which I discovered in my 41st year, is that you don’t have to know what caused this and what caused that. Was it being abandoned at age 5 by my dying father? Was it being molested? Was it having no STRONG woman role model? Was it inheriting my mother’s negative animus? Martyr complex? Was I born shy and easily battered down? Would I have had serotonin imbalance related problems anyway, even with a perfect childhood? Does it all run in my family? It doesn’t matter!

Jungian work has turned my psychic funhouse on its head. For this stuff to work, you don’t have to figure out the causes and effects. You don’t have to map out a healing path. You don’t need a goal or a plan, really. Your psyche already knows the direction of the light, like a flower on a windowsill. Turn it, it will reach back for the light. Block it, it will grow twisted trying to go around. All you have to do is learn the language of your dreams. Then listen to what you hear. Then follow the wisdom and guidance that arises from within.

Nowadays, three years past my fortieth birthday and big turning point, I am able to live every day with so much joy, awareness and humour. Most of the time I remember not to take myself or life too seriously. I can laugh at myself and make it easy for those around me to laugh at me, too.

I leave you now with a picture I call OCD repair kit:
Item one: a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor
Item two: a level for straightening pictures in doctor’s offices and in your living room when you’re in the kitchen making our tea (shhhhhh)
Item three: a red sharpie for correcting bad grammar and misspellings on public signage

In parting, just remember what Stuart Smalley always said: You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!

The Circle of Life

Still no ratlets tonight. I made the mistake of reading another rat care resource. This one, instead of telling me I really have nothing to do other than make sure mama has lots of fat, protein, calcium and liquids, nature will take care of itself… tells me one should NEVER breed a rat for the first time once she is over 8 months old because of pelvic fusion or some such thing. And I should be ready to rush her to the vet for a C section if labour takes much more than 2 hours. Oh, THANKS! Now I can either stay home from work day after day waiting for labour to start, or be distracted out of my gourd all day at work worrying about my little Stella at home dying without me there to rush her to the vet.

Well, fortunately I found ANOTHER source of info that has set my mind somewhat at ease. I think she’s going to do just fine. I think I felt them moving tonight, too, when I held her fat belly in my hands.

In the meantime, I notice my sweet apricot hooded male, Monty, isn’t quite as energetic as he used to be. His cagemate, Carlo, rushes to the edge of the hammock for dinner and treats. I have to put food under Monty’s nose before he’ll lazily take it. I cuddled him a while tonight and talked to him. I asked him if he’s getting old. I really have no idea how old Carlo and Monty are, since you can’t rely on what the Humane Society THINKS their ages are when you adopt them. He’s a real sweetheart, I can tell you that. He has a soft, silky coat and loves to be held. He loves to have his little head rubbed. He’ll close his eyes and soak it up.

I whispered to him as I held him close, “Hey, Bug. Are you going to leave me soon? Thank you for being part of my life, eh? I’ll miss you. I love you.”

These are things you don’t want to wish you’d said later. It’s never the wrong time to say them. Yeah, I know I’m saying that for ME, to help ME have closure. But I have also noticed that animals DO connect to these farewell visits in some way.

When I was 5, almost 6, my father died. I din’t understand death. I asked my “auntie,” upon finding my father’s dentures in a drawer, “why doesn’t daddy need his teeth anymore?” Everyone took pity on me.

So when I “found” a beautiful, fluffy grey kitten at the end of our block and imagined it was orphaned, began sneaking my carton of milk home to feed it in the bushes, …when I finally asked my mom if I could keep this stray cat, I was initially told no but eventually told yes. I think a deal was somehow struck and the neighbours felt sorry for the little redheaded child who’d lost her father to cancer. Fluffy was mine.

She slept with me and was my constant companion through my entire childhood. I was allergic to her, but I didn’t care. I didn’t mind sneezing and seeing the world through caked, puffy eyes in the morning. I loved my Fluffy. She was the most docile cat ever and must have been part Ragdoll. She never scratched or hissed or showed any ill will toward any child, even if a toddler was clumsy with her or pulled her tail. Maybe she was an angel God sent to look over me.

My mom was having trouble raising me and my disabled younger brother on her own, so when I was 8 she moved us all back to Arkansas from California to be near the support of her father and step-mother. We couldn’t take Fluffy on a station wagon ride to Arkansas. My Auntie Kate took her in. I was heart broken, but tried to understand there was no choice in the matter. Everyone assured me Kate would take very good care of my Fluffy.

Then one day in our new house in Little Rock, mom said she had a surprise for me. In she came to the play room with a cat carrier and my Fluffy inside! Auntie Kate said my cat was neurotic and was peeing and pooping all over her house. She bought Fluffy a plane ticket to Arkansas. We were together again.

We were not separated again until I went away to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Although most of my ACT scores were mediocre, my science score was high enough to raise the overall score enough to get me a freshman scholarship. Off I went to experience dorm life.

I didn’t have much time for my cat on the rare weekends when I came home for a visit. I didn’t have a car and it wasn’t easy to get a ride back down from the Ozarks. Then finally the year was over and my mom and Robert, her second husband, came up to Fayetteville to load up my stereo, bedding, help me peel my posters off the dorm wall.

As soon as I stepped out of the car that hot summer night, Fluffy trotted up to me. “FLUFFY! I’m HOME!” I said to her. I was about to keep hauling things inside, knowing we could cuddle later, but something told me not to. I put down my stereo speakers and gently picked up the old gal.

I stepped out of the way of people carrying things into the house and stood there quietly communing with her. “I’m home now, sweetie. I’m home. I’m not going away again on Sunday. I’m home.” Always in the back of my mind I’d feared she might die while I wasn’t there. But I’d made it back in time. She’d made it to see me again. One last good scratch behind the ears, another kiss on the head, and I put her back down so I could continue unloading the car.

You know the rest, don’t you? We never saw her again.

Don’t tell me animals don’t know. They know.

Blogger’s Block

I have so many things I don’t want to write about. I don’t feel like telling you about how I met my first husband, who was doing 50 without parole in Cummins Prison when we met, what the years were like between 1989 and the anulment seven years later. Don’t feel like talking about my father, who died when I was almost six. Don’t want to write about my brother, who was born with Spina Bifida when I was 18 months old. I almost want to write about moving from Fresno, California to Little Rock, Arkansas when I was eight. Could almost write about fireflies in Mason jars and my grandpa’s tomato garden. His possum stories. Almost.

Certainly don’t feel up to telling you what happened when I was 9. That’s when my trichotillomania began.

Why is it so hard to write now? Is it because so many people might eventually come here and read these words, these not-so-secret secrets? And anyway, delving back into those subjects of my past feels somehow wrong right now. I’ve already filled stacks of journals working through that stuff, have paid the light bills of more than one psychologist getting all that out of my system. It’s time to move on. Time to be in the here and now.

Never had trouble writing letters. I could always write four pages effortlessly a few times a year. That’s one-on-one. Maybe that’s what I’m missing. Like a concert pianist who picks out one audience member who seems to be listening better than the others, should I pretend I’m writing to just one person? That might do it.

Dear Cam,

Today I rode my bike over to my boyfriend’s house so we could watch the Story of the Piano together. Michael is an oenophile like you. He has a modest vineyard out back. Mom recently asked me to ask him to recommend some new wines for her to try. We got to talking about what is available in her area; I tried to pull up a catalog for Bullard’s or Heights Fine Wines and Spirits, to no avail. She won’t shop at Yancey’s anymore…not after they hiked up the prices trying to keep from going under after Jose was caught embezzling. Stupid Jose. I never liked him anyway, did you? Didn’t have a good handshake. Wouldn’t look you in the eye.

Ended up showing Michael the websites of Post Familie, Cowie, etc. I saw the Cynthiana! Boy, did that bring back memories of your attempts to educate me. Sorry I wasn’t listening very closely back then. Or maybe I just didn’t have a well enough established framework into which to fit the things you were eager to teach me.

He saw the muscadine wine there and asked me what it’s like. I couldn’t remember! So I tried closing my eyes and going back in time. I was standing in the middle of your vineyard with a bucket on a hot fall Arkansas afternoon. I reached out and picked a golden muscadine, started to put it in my mouth. I can see the little dots on the bronze-coloured skin.

“It’s big,” I tell him, my eyes still closed. BIG? Michael was surprised. He thought they were small.

Oh, yes, the scuppernong is very big. I put it in my mouth. The skin has a roughness to the outside. I bite down. The skin is very thick; you don’t really want to eat it. Sometimes I eat it, most of the time I just press down on the skin until the slippery flesh of the fruit pops out. Spit out that thick casing. Then there is the labourious task of separating the big seeds from the fruit. Spit those out one by one. Finally you can savour the meat of the muscadine. After eating muscadines for a while, my lips begin to turn raw. They will still feel chapped tomorrow. When you have a paper bag full of muscadines, there’s nothing like putting your nose down in the bag. Inhale. Oh, the pungence! It’s heady.

And the wine?

I still don’t remember. It’s like a fruit wine, I think. Muscadines are more like berries or another fruit than like grapes, if you ask me. Suddenly I WANT to take that trip back to visit mom this October. If it means showing Michael persimmons and muscadines and okra, taking a culinary tour that includes Scott plantation… maybe I could muster a yen to go back this year. Maybe.

Nine Rats

My mother’s lifelong passion has been art. My childhood memories include the feel of a wet lump of clay wobbling between my hands on the potter’s wheel, screen printing our own images on cloth, melting wax onto fabric for batik wallhangings, learning to bring my paintbrush to a fine tip with my tongue, latex gloves making my hands sweaty, the pungent pine pitch smell of turpentine. These are gifts that have never left me.

While visiting me last summer, my mom agreed to do a painting of my rats and donate it for fundraising. Mom is a signature member of the Mid-Southern Watercolorists. That means her work has been accepted and hung in the prestigious Mid-Southern Watercolorists’ travelling exhibit at least five different years in her lifetime. It’s quite an accomplishment, and I’m darned proud of her. So when you see the “MSW” after her name, it doesn’t mean she has a masters degree in social work.

She took snapshots and did sketches of my ratties. Six months later, the painting was finished and she had it professionally photographed for me. The original is in Little Rock, Arkansas and can be purchased for a mere $750 USD. In the meantime, feel free to order products sporting this image from my CafePress store (see links this page). All proceeds will be donated to The Hedgehog Welfare Society and other non-profit organizations that rescue and care for unwanted, abused and neglected small animals. Posted by Picasa

Critters


I have always loved animals. I was a shy child who gravitated toward babies, elders and critters. My peers scared me. If my parents took me along to visit acquaintances or friends, the first thing I did was look around for the family dog or cat. Then I would get down on all fours and begin to commune with her or him. I didn’t want to be in that strange room full of even stranger people.

The dog’s eyes told me he understood what I was feeling. She offered me her thick coat to bury my hands in. She licked my face. I disappeared into her world and only emerged when my name was called and it was time to go home. The human species made me feel vulnerable and judged. Non-humans did not.

A year and a half or two ago, my coworker (the crazy lady whose cubicle is wall-to-wall hedgehog photos and mementos) and I got to talking about our love for animals. Slowly a friendship began to blossom as we would see each other at the coffee/tea station and talk about her rescued hedgehogs or my birding expeditions. It wasn’t long before she was trying to rope me in as an adoptive parent of a guinea pig or rabbit. I did give one rabbit a trial weekend, but discovered that I’m really not on the rabbit wavelength. My tuxedo cat, Nike, was very happy when that weekend was over, as Bit had spent the whole 2 days courting her. She spent the weekend on the window ledges, looking down at the frisky rabbit buck, a slightly worried expression on her kitty face. He may not have cared that she was a cat, but she definitely minded that he was a rabbit.

Then one day Linda came to my cubicle and told me about a friend who was desperate and running out of time to find a sitter for her three rats while she went to Alberta for 8 months. Rats??? Did someone say rats??? I don’t know how I knew, but my heart just knew this was the critter for me. I agreed immediately to meet Pizza, Princess and Ernie (female), and learn to care for them.

This is a photo of me meeting Princess for the first time.

Shauna, their devoted mom, couldn’t take them to Alberta because that province is “rat free.” They don’t allow rats to be transported across their borders. I learned the rats’ histories. Shaunna had been working as a vet’s assistant when “Bitey” was brought in to be put down. She was “vicious,” her guardian said. After the young woman left and Bitey was taken to the gas chamber, Shaunna looked down at her. Bitey looked up. “She doesn’t look vicious to me.” Shaunna reached into the enclosure and picked up the sweet rat, who did not attempt to bite at all. Shaunna finished her shift with Princess Bitey tucked inside her overalls. Princess helped her sweep up and do all the closing chores.

Pizza was a breeder whose every baby was taken away and sold as snake food. Shaunna gave her a new home, along with her sole surviving offspring, Ernie–who had started off life mistaken for a boy. Hence her odd name.

And so my life was about to change forever.