REPORT A PROBLEM
F. lived on the same block with me freshman year, and we'd confide our pain when others mocked us because we were different. Like me, she valued obscure books like "Girl of the Limberlost." Yet I became distant when her clothes began smelling from all the animals she and her family owned, many cats, dogs, whatever. She felt my distance. Later when I met her, greeted her and smiled, she looked at me with distant eyes, rebuffing me. What a hypocrite I'd been. But my resolution to never reject a friend again caused me to let another shallow friendship linger.
I need to write an essay about M., St. A's, and sixth grade, maybe the happiest year of my life--I not only had a best friend but a lunchtime circle of friends. It's hard to push through the fog of the years, though, to even remember what M. and the others looked like, and some of the names escape me, too. But I can still picture that side street where we played, blocked off by wooden horses, and I remember looking up amazed at skywriting, once; it just advertised some credit card. The boys played in the actual brick-walled playground.
Once upon a time there was a cat named Helinda. Her humans were nice to her. They fed her and loved her and brushed her beautiful fur. But what Helinda really wanted was to explore the world She gazed out the window every day, dreaming of chasing birds and squirrels.
So one day, when her human opened the door, Helinda sped out and ran downstairs and down the sidewalk.
"Helinda! Come back!"
The sun and fresh air felt wonderful. She rolled in the sweet grass.
Helinda's fur stood on end. A huge dog on a leash towards her.
The human holding the leash yelled at the dog. "Quiet down, Rover."
But Rover kept barking.
Helinda dashed away, terrified.
Oh no--she was in the street, where cars rushed up and down, and one came to a quick halt.
"Hey! Whose cat is that? Get her out of the street!"
"Helinda! Helinda!" Her human's voice sounded just as scared as Helinda felt.
Still, the sunshine was so warm, the grass so sweet--and there was a squirrel!
She ran after it. But it climbed up a tree, hopping from branch to branch.
Helinda looked up. Oh, to climb that high!
I remember family rituals when I was a little kid, back when my family seemed more normal. Sundays, Gran would cook a big meal, pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, and there'd be salad with sweet red tomatoes. We ate at a huge mahogany table with leaves, with a linen tablecloth. That was before my uncle married Aunt G. and moved out, although he never was around much before; I never remember him playing with me. One time, though, he brought home a toy for me, a little wooden set with geometric pieces to hammer into the right holes.
The online poetry class is fun, but I bristle at some of the occasional elitism I sense--a Chicago group that emphasizes the north side or Hyde Park, as though other parts of the city aren't worth mentioning. A lot of other writing events I've participated in also have seemed skewed towards the young and white and well-to-do. Nothing against folks who are white, young, and well-to-do--my skin color is beige and I used to be young and I'd love to be well-to-do! But it's as though large segments of the population are't represented, and nobody seems to notice or care.
Her life is a soap opera, has been all year, she says. I offer comfort: "Everyone has soap opera years." She responds, "Yeah, but I try to live so my life doesn't become one."
I feel slapped--of course she knows of my soap opera years with my ex-husband. I just say, "Well, nobody intends their life to become a soap opera." I almost wish I hadn't called her; I have enough trouble banishing memories of past mistakes and focusing on the good present. But maybe I'm getting all emotional for nothing and she wasn't thinking of my dramas at all.
The tooth fairy is no fool.
If you lose your tooth, and leave her an IOU, remember, she's magic.
She has high-power vision and can see where the tooth dropped
Whether in the furthest corner of the playground
Or in a blue jeans pocket.
Her wand has scientific powers.
She checks the tooth's DNA
To make sure it's yours!
Teeth are like money to her
And she's a miser.
Her mountain of teeth grow higher and higher...
She wears tooth necklaces and tooth earrings,
Her fairy castle is built of teeth,
And guess how she plays catch with her dog?
I watch a video where a professor divides students by eye color and then treats them differently, viscerally demonstrating racism that African Americans deal with daily. I applaud her intent, but she was so harsh that one young woman left in tears. The other students discounted her pain--"She wasn't being beaten or anything"--and the professor mentions Emmitt Till. No, she wasn't being physically tortured. But what if she had an emotional disability, or was suffering from depression? Studies show that emotional abuse ranks right up there with physical. Or is this my whiteness showing, that I feel this way?
The poetry class is too much, what with work and overtime and my critique group and my writing, never mind just living a life and seeing friends and taking care of felines and doing laundry! I didn't realize how rigorous the certificate process would be--and the critiquers aren't kind but seem stuck-up about their smarts. I appreciate intelligence, but arrogance about it seems so misplaced. If you're smart, chances are you inherited good genes and had parents who emphasized education and rewarded you for good grades. Not everyone is blessed with those gifts, and they're no less worthy than you.
I saw my first rainbow at U.S. Cellular after a White Sox rain delay. I have no idea if we won or lost that game, or even if the game was able to proceed or had to be made up on a later day. My son teases me about that to this day. But a rainbow! A city child, I'd read about rainbows and sometimes admired gleaming color patterns on urban cement. But never had I seen that perfect band of colors stretched across the sky before. And at U.S. Cellular the sky was unbroken by skyscrapers or other interruptions.
This is a fun year. Total right knee replacement surgery in March, and possibly total left knee replacement surgery right before Christmas. At my annual eye appointment, the retinal specialist says, "Hm, temporal slope in your optic nerve, what should we do, hm." Tuesday, I may have a root canal, and the new dentist says he sees another tooth that may need one. At my annual dermatology appointment, the doctor notices a small mole on my face--if not gone in a month, I'm supposed to go back. Ugh. I hate needles! Of course, I'm grateful modern health care exists, still...
S. wants a cliffhanger story about a cat. Oh, and it should be a talking cat. Hm. Should the poor feline dangle from an actual cliff? Or should the cat sneak outside its comfy home to explore and discover dangers galore--as well as wonderful warm sunshine and sweet-smelling grass? What woes should he or she (I like to avoid calling a cat "it") encounter? A growling teeth-snapping dog? A firetruck racing down the street, sirens blaring? A truck noisily backing up? A garbage truck trying to scoop up a can that the cat is nosily investigating? Cruel kids throwing rocks?
A lot of my 100 words are complaining words, vents against people who violate my pet peeves. Years ago, I don't remember being so annoyed by humanity's foibles. I think I've become more protective of myself. Do I hold grudges, or am I just protecting myself? I still remember J. criticizing my parenting, saying I was over-protective, and C. assuming I'd be just like my mother. I never asked J. for advice again; I never called C just to chat again. I love them, but their words left a sting that hasn't healed. Yet I'm sure I've accidentally stung others.
At the end of sixth grade, we were evicted again. Maybe my mother hadn't paid rent--we lived on welfare, check to check--and we weren't the world's greatest tenants. With her mental illness, my mother cursed neighbors, proclaimed they were out to get her, didn't have energy to clean. I didn't know how to help.
We stayed with my grandmother that summer, scrunched into a studio. For a while, my best friend M. and I kept in touch.
One day a girl named M. called. We chatted until details of my life escaped; she quickly said she had the wrong number.
Chicago. It's always had a hard-working blue-collar reputation--home of stockyards and steel mills--but the stockyards, steel mills, and other factory jobs are long gone. What's left are white collar jobs requiring masters degrees and service jobs flipping burgers. An exaggeration--but too comfortably close to the truth. And it's a divided city--sunnny neighborhoods where kids draw pastel flowers on sidewalks, and neighborhoods where kids stay inside to avoid gunshots. I sit writing in my neighborhood Mexican restaurant, near my block with pastel chalk flowers, and I feel like a "good German" in Hitler's times--what am I doing to stop kids being murdered?
I was so excited to go to the district science fair, especially because BK was representing our school, too. What a crush I had on him--tall, well-built, blue-black hair, sparkling eyes and a happy laugh. He even gave me a ride--bliss. Years later, he wrote me a love letter--after he's learned I'd lost weight. I didn't pursue him. What if I gained weight again? Would he nag me incessantly? Leave me?
But I remember most talking to a science fair judge; somehow I laughingly referred to my family as "poverty stricken." She laughingly said she'd better watch her purse.
I feel blocked, not sure why. Tomorrow, maybe a root canal. In two months, maybe total left knee replacement. In a couple of weeks, maybe a mole removed from my face. Next month, another visual field test to make sure the sloping optic nerve doesn't mean glaucoma. But I've had friends who dealt with worse. Not only was J. of short stature and using a wheelchair, she needed hearing aids and realized that someday she might be deaf--she just didn't think about it, she loved music so. M. was hard of hearing, then lost vision and had cancer three times.
I'm finally embracing the idea of "artist's dates," now that I'm taking a class on the book "The Artist's Way." The idea is, once a week you take a couple of hours and do something fun or inspirational by yourself. The rationale is that if you just let yourself stay in the same old rut, you won't be inspired to create anything. It was tricky when I was a single mom of a toddler, but that toddler is now bearded, six foot five and a college senior living on campus. So, no excuses now! Last week I watched Verdi's Requiem.
My uncle died; no one told me. Instead, a few years later, visiting relatives one summer, having breakfast before flying home, someone casually reminisced about, you know, that cold winter, Uncle T's funeral--
Breakfast quiche now tasteless.
I made my face expressionless, didn't break down until my son and I were away.
I hadn't been close to Uncle T, who wasn't a blood uncle. In my twenties, isolated from family, he saw me and scolded, "Why don't you call your mother?" He didn't ask how I was--probably because he didn't care.
And that's the thing--my mom's family have never cared.
We left for my brother D.'s funeral on my birthday; in the car, my brother J. and his family and my son sang to me. That night, they surprised me with a party with cake. D., the half-brother who'd never accepted me--because of his passing, for the first time I celebrated my birthday with siblings.
At the service, I cried for the brother I'd never known, or had the chance to be his big sister or be children together. I've forgiven my dad for not welcoming me into his life when I was a child--but that doesn't erase the damage.
I love 100 words. I love how it motivates me to write when I'm not sure which project to work on. And I love how it helps me work on projects, a tiny bit at a time. It's helped me with essay-writing--it's since I started doing 100 words that I've had essays and letters to the editor published. It's funny--the letters to the editor turned out to be 100 words long! It's nice to have a prose structure to shape my writing. I found that I did my best writing for my MFA when the teacher imposed a word count.
It's happening again, this time with my left leg. Last year, replacing my right knee gave me wonderful freedom, I knew at some point I'd need to have my left knee replaced, and, using logical common sense, I'd tentatively scheduled surgery for December to fit it in this insurance year. But now that I feel the deteriorating actually happening, making surgery and my limitations real--ugh. I'd wanted to go to Dunkin Donuts to write, but didn't now if I trusted my knee to cross busy Western. As always, I carry my folding cane, but how I hate to use it.
Ideas for artist's dates:
- listening to Bruce
- listening to classical music
- listening to WFMT programs
- Garfield Park Conservatory
- baking or cooking something special
- going to a restaurant I've always wanted to try
- going to a new coffeeshop
- going to the Field Museum
- going to an art gallery
- going to Chinatown
- checking out online drawing classes
- watching a movie I've always wanted to see (maybe the 1968 Romeo and Juliet)
- watching Channel 11 educational program
- looking at art on the Art Institute website
M would have been 65 this week; when she died, she was 53 going on 54, but until that last cancer attacked, she barely looked forty: slender, flowing blonde hair, happy laugh, an enthusiasm for life. How I wish I could pick up the phone and call her--we'd be on the phone for hours, and she'd understand everything--my anger at R's ignorance on Saturday, how indignant I feel when people label me by age. She never let herself be labeled; like me, she thought denial a good thing, especially when people are trying to put you into an artificial box.
February was horrible; apartment bound because of my knee, friends immersed in own lives cancelling stuff, but I didn't feel up to having a game day. Luckily, I work from home, but still...
One Saturday, I called my sister-in-law S. just to chat and have a bit of human contact. She was only on the phone with me five minutes when she said, "Oh, my God, J. and I never thought about you being housebound. I think we can take you out to dinner tonight."
So S., my niece, and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant; I still smile remembering.
I envied my aunts' lives when I was a kid, and hoped I'd have a similar one when I grew up. They were married, not divorced, like my mom, and they had lots of kids who had siblings and weren't onlies like me. I always remember, when visiting my aunts, their stomachs bulging with child, and they were busy, hauling in groceries and feeding highchair babies.
Now I think--um, I'm happy with my life, even though I ended up divorced with one kid. But even while a single mom, I never gave up on my dream of being a writer.
When I was 19, I realized why my aunts had put a distance between me and their families--because I'd grown up in a horrible childhood just like theirs, I triggered memories, I was a threat to the normal worlds they'd created for their own precious kids. It was easier to look at me as a clone of my mother, to assume I was just like her, and of course they tried to pretend she didn't exist--and of course I was supposed to be a good dutiful daughter and take care of her, no matter what harm that did to me.
"You should be worse." That's what my son says whenever details of my childhood escape, or whenever he reads one of my autobiographical essays. I've heard versions of this my whole life--the university counselor shaking her head, amazed that I was so "normal," back when my mother was showing up for profanity-screaming 1 a.m. visits. And recently, when I confided about my mother's schizophrenia to a priest, she blinked, changed the subject. My son said no, it wasn't because she thought I had three heads coming from such a background--no, she probably had trouble believing it. I should be worse.
I bought the book "Pollyanna" at some secondhand store when I was a kid, and I loved it. What a great idea--to always try to find something to be "glad" about.
But in high school English, classmates laughed at the Pollyanna mentality: "I broke my leg--man, am I glad!" They mocked anyone foolish enough to think or feel that way.
But I wonder--the other kids in honors English came from middle-class two-parent households. Not to say they didn't have their personal griefs--but still. Maybe if they'd faced evictions and food stamp embarrassments they'd reach for reasons to be glad.
The Tip Jar