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Archive for August, 2020

Alone

The best thing of all is to be alone.  Just add up the fantasies: 

Farley Mowat hied himself to the arctic, there to subsist by eating only mice, all to prove that wolves were good creatures not begging genocide. 

What’s better than a tree house where a person is free to think and be whatever?  Ask any squirrel. 

When there is no other to circumscribe reality, a being can be all that it truly wants to be.  My poet’s year in the Appalachian woodlands said it all for me.  As long as I could remain cabin-secure, steering clear of other humanity, the local fauna and I celebrated a gentle peace.  Whenever human society overstepped its bounds, and intruded on the safety of my soul, I ran.  Far— and far away—I went to where there were no others so close to me as to assume I should be like them, think like them, define beauty like them—that was the place to be.

My side of the mountain is elegantly described in the book of that title: A young naturalist runs away from home and goes to live in a hollow tree with his raccoon.  He finds and trains a peregrine falcon so they can hunt for food.  It’s the best of fantasies until it isn’t.  Like COVID19 which makes of every person an insular recluse, anything that drives a person to hide wrapped only in the solace of his own company is a problem: 

When my Uncle Wesson, chewing on his unlit cigar, undertook to find me, where was I?  Hiding under a bush of course—a good place where adult and frightful discussions couldn’t be heard. 

When Sister Rose Marie recoiled from my aggressive cuddling, where did I go to hide and heal?  The attic of the convent was the perfect place, wrapped only in quiet cobwebs that cushioned consternation.

When my husband, Larry, and I wanted a respite from stupid corporate politics, it was waiting in a winter campground, where there were no insects and no tourists.  There we found only silence and a place to remember why we had found each other in the first place.

Now Larry waits to die a continent away in Washington State.  The surgery that would place a stent and might save him is held hostage by the virus.  It falls under the definition of elective surgery, and as such, cannot compete with others dying this very day of COVID assault. 

I hide in my Oakley apartment, picking up comestibles once a week from masked grocers and visiting a library that is oh-so-hesitantly re-awakening and lending books.  Without the food and the books I too would be a-dying.  As it is, I am like the near-sighted bibliophile in the Twilight Zone, who wakes to a world where all of humanity save he has succumbed.  He is left alone—triumphant—mounting the grand front steps to his town library, and he drops his glasses.  They shatter.

Larry and I, matched introverts, adored our solitude, even with respect to each other.  It is a cruel and petty irony that we suffer a continent apart, in our separate sterile spaces, waiting for the virus to give up its singular and collective tiny ghosts.  Perhaps it is we too—separate and alone—who will die. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder is a wise old saying.  It knows all about Larry and me.  The same truth holds for all three of my long-suffering husbands.  I loved them better having left them, all the more perfectly now that they are dead or dying.  Memories of shared happy times gather to remind me to value their sweet friendship and affection.

The best lesson of COVID19 is specially designed for those of us who idealize solitude.  It is better wished for and ideated.  Experienced it leaves much to be desired.  My favorite wall art features a ceramic oval that says simply, “PEACE.”  In this dead quiet place, un-jarred by any voice but the empty nattering of TV and Alexa, I haven’t been inspired to hang that lovely plaque advertising the romance of silence.  Best it should stay behind the couch on the floor where it cowers in the dark and leave me to my fantasies of rambunctious family gatherings, wishing for at least a furry coated cat to warm cold feet and purr away the bittersweet silence of alone.

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Mother Goddess

I am the world’s best at enumerating my mother’s failings—who, better than I, to know them?  As her one and only offspring I have had a front row seat for the entire drama, but foibles are only one side of her story.  For every cringe worthy account there is another juxtaposed as a delight.

She was determined to do her best as a mom and started off right hiring a registered nurse to come home with us and make sure nobody dropped me on my head.  The photos of the nurse in full white cap and uniform are a fine memento of a brave beginning.

Mother bought a new Brownie Box camera that she exercised ad nauseum, cranking out hundreds of baby shots.  She did the hard work of keeping up with them for a lifetime, and it was I who managed to lose them in a problematic state-to-state move.  I’m glad that she had the fun of snapping that shutter with such obsessive joy.

Her favorite staging of reality was my doll house as background for every doll she had gifted me since birth.  They sat in an eerie silence, row on row, attesting to how much she appreciated her only offspring.  Each doll was dressed for the occasion, known and named by one of us.  If I was silent on the subject, it was she who came up with the perfect moniker.  On the back of the photo image she would list each doll ekphrastically by name.  The march of the seasons could be marked and appreciated as the hoard swelled in number.

As soon as I could command a vehicle, a tricycle appeared.  Unlike the congregation of dolls, which I pretty much ignored except to undress and disassemble them, the better to find out how they worked, the three-wheeled velocipede was a friend.  Mother memorialized it in an iconic photo of our family lined up along the street: I on my trike, Mother on her blue Schwinn, and Daddy on his motorcycle.  She treasured that shot, and I didn’t disagree.

As soon as I could hold on, she sat me on the back fender of her bike and we took off at speed.  We went everywhere wheels could roll.  When I got a new puppy for my birthday, she added a basket to the front and we were a threesome.  We sang as we rolled, a brave example for The Sound of Music, yet to hit the air-waves.  When she got tired of peddling, we stopped and conversed while we rested.  I remember a stop where we enacted a lizard story: “There came a lizard to a wall, all on a summer’s day.  He zipped it once.  He zipped it twice.  And then he ran away.  The wall wasn’t sunny; the boy wasn’t funny; and the maid had no money.  Isn’t it funny?  But it’s true.”  Memory may not reconstruct it just right, but it’s well remembered as a sweet and pleasant time of rest.

Even when there was no more bike or spaniel, we filled the time with bus trips around the 40’s Boston Metroplex.  The one I most remember was a bus-then-walking tour of the Wellesley campus which Mother explained I was to someday attend.  She pointed out the ivy covered brick buildings and insisted that the learning inside was just as beautiful as the lovely facades.  That was the key to a learning that mattered.

Like most every upscale mother of a six-year-old girl child, she signed me up for tap, ballet, and acrobat lessons at the Stella Stevenson School of Dance, and she delivered me to the bar at scheduled intervals, tutu a-swirl and satin slippers a-shimmer.  It was all for naught, due to lack of talent, but her devotion was noted and appreciated.  She explained that I had inherited my father’s awkwardness as it relates to feet and their dis-artful mobility.

Mother was ever the crafter of art, and it was a great day when she offered to build a box to house my second grade class Valentine collection.  At a time when women’s hats came in fanciful boxes of whimsical shapes, she chose a great heart of a box.  With crepe paper cut in endless strips and glued to the outside, then finger stretched into a tangled swirl of pink, the construct exploded with Valentine adoration of love and all its implications.  A slot in the lid accepted every child’s trove of greetings to be delivered to other students on the very day.  That day arrived.  It was a date to make my mother proud, and I proud of her.  She was my Valentine sweetheart.

Mother fancied herself a poet and loved to mark special times with special words.  When I graduated from first grade and was disconsolate over losing that first wonderful teacher, she wrote:

          “I have a dear, dear teacher,
          Who means so much to me,
          And what I’ll do without her
          Is more than I can see.

          I want to go to second grade,

          For it’s the proper thing to do,
          But teachers like Miss. Chater,
          I know there are but few.

         And so, My dear Miss. Chater,
          I know that we must part,
         But please be sure to know,
         You’ll be always in my heart.”

Mother taught me to sing before an audience, and to earn my place at the center of any and all attention.  On Halloween, stalking the neighborhood for treats, she taught me to recite,

            Hello! Hello!
            I’m out to have some fun,
            But never fear,
            I’m here to cheer.
            There’ll be no destruction.

When our church decided to produce a play, Mother was chosen as the lead actor.  It was called “Mushrooms Coming Up” and featured a comedic confusion of toadstools being perceived as mushrooms.  It was a hit, and I got to attend every rehearsal as well as the grand performance.  When it came time for me to mount the stage and perform, it felt like a normal, acceptable thing for a person to do.

Mother was obviously multi-talented and reveled in a cacophony of artistic expression.  You name it; she could do it.  But of all her many responses to her muse, it was music she loved best.  I can thank her for teaching me to love singing.  She demonstrated at my life’s very inception the possibility of spirit as a vehicle of expression.  I saw her as a living goddess of music, of beauty, of art, of everything filled with light and lust for life.  When I was still a toddler, she began directing a community chorus called the Glad Girls Glee Club. 

It was a gaggle of neighborhood urchins who agreed to come to our house, learn to sing as a harmonious group, and perform at public venues throughout the Ft. Worth, Texas area.  The girls experienced the excitement of performing art, doing the hard work of learning, practicing, and disciplining their little-girl selves into a veritable choir. 

They learned the fun of authentic formal dress-up, wearing “little ladies” white gloves and pearls to set off their long gowns.  The whole endeavor was a celebration of spirit, and Mary’s personality breathed it into fire.  It was an authentic example of 1940’s post-depression glee.  At that time, I had passed birthday number two and was full of myself as I headed for number three.  Mother installed me as official mascot for the group.  I was handed from lap to lap, soaking up more than my fair share of the happiness.  Every group photo shows me in matching dress and hair-ribbons, situated in one of the many singers’ arms.  I never forgot how it felt to be treasured by all those lovely singers.  It was a time to remember and never, ever forget.

I can remember my mother, even as a creaky old lady, sliding onto any available piano bench and belting out Melody in F.  At her assisted living facility, the old folks refused to participate in a hymn-sing unless Mary was there to lead the singing.  Whenever I picked her up for a day away from the institution, we would sing as I drove, matching my high tenor to her soprano—or if I sang melody she slipped into an alto harmony.  As we sang I remembered all the other days, the other songs, the other adventures, and I determined to never forget how it feels to be important to someone as wonderful as Mary, Old Pal of Mine.  Even the memories ring with the chords of that sweet treble harmony.

Like most 40’s women Mother was always cooking up something to challenge her oven.  When we were still constituted as a family, she made pies from scratch that even today haunt my memories.  No one makes coconut cream or lemon meringue like she did.  I stopped trying out others peoples pies long ago, hoping against hope that they might be as good as hers.  It’s not going to happen.  The most successful reconstruction of that taste sensation has been in my own kitchen using the freshest of ingredients and applying every care, but even that is not quite as wonderful as a pie produced by Mary Opal’s own hands.  I have determined that what is missing is the love—her love.  That was what she added to the mix that made it the best, the very best.  She added that too, to the making of me.  I have no doubt that what she gave to me, that made everything else something that could be lived through with courage, was the certainty of her mother love.

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Silly Me!

There’s something magic about advanced degrees.  They do confer a credibility of sorts, depending on the status of the outfit doing the conferring.  I was sitting, ruminating at my writer’s group, surrounded by the excessively educated, when it occurred to me that I was lacking.  My BS is a meager substitute.  What kind of crazy am I to think I could speak my meager truth in the presence of such august company?  At one point I collected a barrage of verbal assault by calling them ostentatiously educated.  I made the stupid assumption that a mutual love of writing would seamlessly bridge the chasm, but silly me, it was just a garden variety delusion of grandeur.

One mark of sanity is knowing your place.  People with dark skin in America know all about that.  Race oppression, gender oppression, and age oppression share more commonality than is generally understood.   I have a place at my Monday Morning Writer’s Group.  It is a place given to a crazy old lady who keeps nattering on about how she was once an engineer and inventor, but in spite of that strange preoccupation had no trouble attracting men.  Women aren’t inventors.  Everybody knows that.  Grandmas aren’t sexy.  Old women are sweet, harmless, and taken up with grand-babies, recipes, and stitchery.  They bring covered dishes to church suppers.  They have forgotten what sex is about, but remember, with clear fidelity, the result.  They tend toward the inappropriate in their commentary.  Don’t be surprised if “Don’t forget to wear a condom!” follows you out the door as you make a break for a dignified exit.

To know your place you must understand, not only your place but yourself.  There’s the rub.  We do all this writing to get a grip on who each of us really is; at least that’s why I do it.  The thing I have most feared has always been going crazy like my mother Mary Opal did when her world went off the rails.  But, silly me, that wasn’t to happen.  That isn’t my kind of crazy.  Mine is the kind that spells odd.  My son Lane calls me eccentric.  That works. 

An eccentric mass is fixed at a point some distance from the center of gravity of a rotating system.  When things go round, everything wobbles.  Is it the fault of the system?  Hardly.  It’s the poorly located addition to what was a nicely balanced agreement of coordinated masses that ruined everything.  How out of kilter is the wobble?  That depends on the mass of the object as well as its location.  The more the mass, the more the problem; the farther from center, the worse the effect.  It’s all neatly mathematic.  But going on like this is eccentric, so I’ll shut up.

When at Salem College, sniffing the bouquet of a liberal curriculum, I found out about normal human psychology as in Psych 101.  That was helpful, but even more interesting was Abnormal Psych, where I was sure to explore the tortured mentality of a daughter spawned by a paranoid schizophrenic mother and a bipolar genius father.  Just the thought of the match made me shudder in my sneakers.  As each chapter elucidated a new area of mental aberration, I was newly terrified.  This was surely the information that would give me a diagnosis and the hope of a cure.

I explained the quandary to my professor who suggested I just settle down and enjoy earning what was sure to be my A.  He said that in medical school would-be doctors typically try on each of the described anomalies before they just shrug and go on with their course-work.  I did learn that my tendency to analyze everything to death was called being obsessive.  That’s an accusation that could be leveled at Freud as he convinced the world of the universal need for psychoanalysis.  He too, liked to analyze everything.

Eventually I decided that the medical establishment was obsessive compulsive given their anal-retentive organization of such behavioral imperfections as the Mental Health International Classification of Diseases, otherwise known as ICD10 codes.  That leads me to a very healthy position vis-à-vis my place as a patient in a world of medics who are supposed to know.  If I am no more obsessive than they, why should I worry?

Well, at least I can worry about being anxiety ridden.  The most important thing I do is worry.  When analyzing any situation, the paramount concern is “what can go wrong.”  If anything can go wrong, it will.  That’s Murphy’s Law.  I assume it will, or at least must be anticipated and bulwarked against toward some marvelous, or at least acceptable, future disposition.  As a designer of systems, anxiety seems to be part of my self-definition.  I can’t defend against the accusation.  But anxiety is the least of maladies.  I don’t see things that aren’t there, or plot to attack enemies skulking in the fictive flights of fancy that lurk in my dream-time.  When the sun comes up, it’s time to get real.

Given all that, maybe my therapist is correct.  Maybe I’m not nuts, or not likely to so become.  Maybe I am just getting old and odd.  I can live with that and have a good time doing it.  I can quit worrying about going crazy and accept the fact that I have been a little bit off all along and just thought I was perfectly sane.  Silly me!

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