Summer Camps, Musicals, and German-ish Words

Being raised as a Baptist, I know three things well:

1 – Potlucks will always have too many potato salads
2 – Catholics are amused by grape juice communion
3 – Summer camps

My dad’s employer had a camp reserved for them, and we went every year when I was a kid.

Now, when I say camp, I’d like you to imagine please the 1970s/early 1980s suburban camps, with hot meals in the dining hall, large patio with shuffleboard and ping pong. Our tents were wood frame “hogans,” basically a cabin with a canvas roof. Think Brady Bunch with fewer footballs to the nose.

You probably can’t tell, but these are ancient family snapshots.

camp 9

camp 10

There was also a creek to swim in of course. Now, this is the Tuolumne River. If you aren’t familiar, this river is from snowmelt. It is clear, beautiful, and exactly as warm as you would imagine liquid snow to be. But it’s what we were used to and we loved it.

camp 7

One time my sister and I were heading back to the “tent” for a reason lost in time. When we got there we flipped the door flap and there, hanging all upside down, was a teeny tiny bat having a nice snooze. In hindsight, he was perfectly adorable. But 9 or 10 year old me was not enchanted.

I screamed so loudly that the poor little fella sort of shook. The next morning at breakfast, as we all stood in the line for food (no bacon, will the suffering never end!) a few people in line were comparing notes about the piercing scream that came out of the woods the day before. Laughter and jokes commenced as I crouched down further into a metaphorical hole. Bev, as I recall, was zero help.

camp 8
Lookit her…brushin’ back her hair all innocent-like.  

Anyway, traumatized bats aside, it was fun to run around without supervision, to have a “summer boyfriend,” a local boy who once rescued me as my inner tube got caught in “rapids” that put me in very grave danger of bumping slightly into a rock and being annoyed. But I recall everyone on the river bank screaming and my hero running into the very dangerous rapids, grabbing my hand and pulling me slowly out of harm’s way. He was a dreamboat, I tell you.

And then we left and I never saw him again. Such is the life of a song from Grease.

These were good times.

When I was a little older, I went to a Music and Drama camp.

MAD camp was fun; I was around like-minded people, and I got to show off my voice. Next to writing, singing was my greatest joy. The councilors would choose a piece for us, we would practice and do a performance at the end when the parents got there, which was exactly as corny and wholesome as it sounds.

One year they chose “Godspell.” I loved this musical, and I was chosen to sing a solo of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”

Camp
Picture only, since I’m unemployed and don’t have money to pay a copyright lawsuit.

I know this song perfectly, I had sung it before. I figured I could work on other things and just ran the song through my head once or twice. Easy!

Here’s the thing though, this is a rapid, wordy song, there is little time to think. When I got up to sing it at the show I realized that thinking something is not the same as singing something.

I don’t have a clear memory of it except to say that my heart started to pound, my eyes bugged out an inch from my head, and the sweat poured off my body and made a pool on the floor as deep as our freezing cold river. Those last two may be exaggerations but only just.

I got through it. The director told me I repeated a couple of lines, but overall it went fine. My parents and friends said they had no idea that it had happened.

Many years later while I was studying opera (not as impressive as it sounds as I still don’t know how to read music,) I told my instructor about that, and he told me a secret.

When he was applying for his scholarship, he had chosen a song in German that he knew well.

He got up on stage, staring at the faces of the people who would decide if he could afford the Academy or not, and started to sing. Halfway through, his brain simply froze. He listened to the piano between verses hoping to jar his memory but…nothing. So he started to sing again on his cue and simply sang words that sounded vaguely German-ish but meant absolutely nothing. On the next verse he got his brain back from whatever frozen tundra of fear it had been hiding and finished the song perfectly.

He got the scholarship.

He had the opportunity to ask one of the professors how, exactly, had that happened? The seasoned performer told him, “Of course we knew what had happened. Of course we knew you were singing nonsense. But you did not stop. You filled that gap with words that fit the meter and sounded German, the average listener would never have known. Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”

“Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”

See? And I’ll bet you wondered how I was going to tie this into my intentions for this blog.

Both of us, in varying levels of importance, froze and could have failed. I did not practice, and he became overwhelmed with stress.

But we kept going and we got through and we did well; we did our best.

Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. If you fall, that’s ok, get back up and keep going.

Don’t worry what anyone else thinks, because there’s a good chance they didn’t even see you skip a beat.

Abuse and Memory – Finding Our Truth

My sister and I have a shared memory that one of us remembers absolutely wrong.

Bev is five years older than me, but we would still do things together growing up.  One of the things we loved to do was put a record on the console hi-fi, (ask your parents) play a song and sing into hairbrushes, because hairbrushes are microphones, naturally.  This would be to a song by The Beatles, or Journey, something we both liked.

I have a vivid memory of singing along to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” a fairly graphic song released in 1976 about a killer for hire.  Our mom came in disgusted that they were glorifying murder like that.  Bev looked at her and said, “Three words, mom.  Mac. The. Knife.”  This is a fairly graphic song released in 1959 about a killer for hire. Realizing she had no comeback to this, she turned and left the room.

I told that story to a group of friends recently, Bev among them.  We all laughed because the opportunity to zing a parent like that is very rare and very funny.

But Bev frowned, “No, that’s not what happened.”

“We were in the car singing along to The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” on the radio.  Everything else is the same, mom said that, I said Mac the Knife, all that, but we were in the car, and it wasn’t Dirty Deeds.”

I was flummoxed.  “It absolutely was Dirty Deeds.  We were in the living room like we always were.”

Then Bev made a very excellent point.

“I hate AC/DC, that’s your thing.  I would never have sung along with them.”

I do a lot of research for my articles.  Sometimes it’s scholarly texts, sometimes it’s Facebook Messenger.

Memory 1Memory 2Memory 3Memory 4Memory 5

 

She is 100% correct, she does hate AC/DC, (on that point anyway, she is grievously wrong) so it is very unlikely my recall of this is accurate.  But the thing that bothers me is, even after she described what likely happened, even after the completely reasonable argument of why it could not have happened my way, I still see it how I always have – living room, hairbrushes, AC/DC.  One of us is simply wrong.

But neither of us is lying.

I am 100% certain that my version is right.  I can see it, I can hear the song, our painful adolescent attempts to copy Bonn Scott’s un-copy-able voice, I can see the hairbrush in front of my mouth reflected in the living room window.  I can see my mother pound into the room and angrily interrupt, and I can see Bev’s raised eyebrows and grin as she delivered the verbal body-blow that ended the argument.

I remember it exactly like that.

Except I am more than likely, 100% wrong.

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really not.  I’m not lying when I say I see that scene play out exactly as I describe.

In preparing this article, I spent some time talking to my psychiatrist about the implications of memory fluidity. I had to come to peace with my own issues around this before I could try to offer any comfort to you.  But she has, as always, helped me work through it.

Because that’s really the thing, isn’t it?  That’s the easiest way to dismiss an accusation, to devalue an experience, especially if it happened long ago, in childhood, teenage years, is to simply say, memory is fluid, you have a vivid imagination, you saw a TV show and made it real in your head, etc. until no one believes it, and eventually, maybe you don’t even believe it.

Memory is fluid, eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable, that is a fact.  But what does that mean for survivors?

Memory and doubt 12

I used the example with my sister because it’s funny, and I wanted to work into this a little gently.  But it is also apt.  I remember it exactly as I always have. I don’t remember being in a car.  I don’t remember Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.  I remember the living room, hairbrushes, and AC/DC.  I am likely completely wrong.

But, and this is important, I am wrong about the details, the where, when, what song, but I am right about the important part of the story.  A taboo song, a mother trying to shut it down, Bev winning the argument before it even started. We are in complete agreement about these details.

The actual, important event, is correctly remembered.

This is important to me because memory has played such a critical role in my “story” and even my identity.

I was abused by various people, including a brother, throughout my childhood.  I have no memory of not being angry, of not feeling rage and fear and blinding, white-hot hatred, for him.  I remember specific events.

I have identified as a survivor since my 20s.  When the book “The Courage to Heal” came out, it was a revelation.  I was validated, seen, and I was not alone.  I remember going to an all-day event and watching women much older than me walking from lecture to lecture carrying stuffed comfort animals.  I remember wishing I’d thought of it, and realized that I would not have had the courage to carry it in public if I had.  Allowing myself the self-care I needed was nearly two decades away.  But here I had a community, a large group of kindred spirits who had been victimized to one degree or another, all equally valid, all worthy of love and care.

I remember sitting alone at the lunch break and falling to pieces.  All of these women are here for each other.  All of these women are here for each other, because all of these women have been brutalized and broken, to some degree or another.  I felt hurt, wounded, exposed, and heartsick.

In the coming years I came to terms with my alcoholism, my depression, and finally landed the correct diagnosis of bipolar II, which became bipolar I a few years later.

But the abuse, that was first.  That was in the late ‘80s with the release of that one book, the first time I heard the term “survivor.”  And I am forever grateful to Ellen Bass for that.

When my father confronted my brother after I’d spent a horrible afternoon telling my parents what had happened, dad asked him why he did it.  Dad told me later that he hung his head and said, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.”  These are not the words of an innocent person.  The words of an innocent person are, “What are you talking about?  How dare you!  How dare you accuse me of something so horrific! So vile! How dare you!”

With that tacit confession, I should have no longer doubted what I recalled.

“I hate AC/DC.  It was in the car, not the living room.”

It’s not only a single detail being confused here.  It is the entire scenario.  Except for the “punch line,” every single thing I recall is wrong.

Memory and doubt 8
How would you describe this in 20 years?  Are there stairs leading to a doorway?  Chipped paint on the ceiling?  What color was it, what color was the sky?  But it took your breath away, that you won’t forget.

I have my memories, and more importantly, I have an admission of guilt and diaries and poems that go back to nine-years-old.  I have “source material,” if you will.

And even still, I had doubts sometimes.

What of the women who don’t have anything but their memories?  What of the women for whom this is a “he said/she said” situation?

What of the women who completely and utterly disassociated while it was happening, to the point that it’s a black nothing in their memory?  Don’t think that’s possible?  Here’s another story.

When I was 16, I bought my first vehicle, a yellow Toyota truck with a camper shell.  I took it out for a spin with several of my friends, laughing and having fun in the back of what was basically a playhouse for teenagers.

I was on a four-lane street with a large grassy median.

Here’s what I remember next.  A car swerved in front of me within inches of my fender.  I remember seeing the jackass in the back seat turn around laughing as I tried to keep control.  Next, I was on the median, the entire left side of my truck on the curb, my rims had bent and ripped my tires to shreds.  My friends were trying to open my door and get me out.  When I came to, when I started to get my higher functions back, my hands were so tightly gripped on the wheel that I could barely remove them, and I was aware very slowly of the shooting pain up my arms as I had apparently used them as shock absorbers during the crash.  My friends finally coaxed me to unlock the door.  I got out, lost control of my legs, fell to the ground, and just…shook.

My friends said I was amazing, I kept control of the truck, I had no choice but to crash the way I did, but I skidded along on my rims and came to a safe, controlled stop.

To this day, I have zero memory of any of that.

My brain simply went on some sort of autopilot, I guess literally this time.  It was so horrible that my memory said “Well, I’m out.  I’ll be back here with Smell until this is all done.”

This happened during a car accident.  Imagine what our brains can do when we’re being raped, abused, beaten, molested, imagine how far away we can leave our brains and hide, or even rewrite, something life-shatteringly horrible.

Memory can get muddled, that’s a fact.  Those of us who are survivors become extremely good at disassociation.  I have been a pro since I was a child; it’s an escape, it’s a world you control, you are essentially a god.  It can also make for a rich creative life.

But these things can be, and are, used against us.  How do we know what is real?  How do we know what really happened, was is AC/DC or The Beatles?  Is it a total blackout from mental self-defense, did it spring from a vivid imagination?

I can’t answer these questions for you but I can tell you this.

My memories are real.  Maybe not minute details, maybe not the room, the surroundings, the time of day.  But the events – what actually happened – are drilled into my head.  The more traumatic the event, the more likely we remember.  Or sometimes it simply never writes to memory.  Like my accident, that 3 or 4 minutes is not there.

I have the details surrounding the event wrong.  It was The Beatles, it was in the car, this could not be more different from my memory.  But the core of it, the actual, meaningful event, was correct.

Friends, men and women alike, if you have a memory of abuse, if that memory causes your heart to hurt, I suggest that it is probably correct.  At the very least it should be examined, try to find a therapist to help you work through it.  I’m including some resources you can use as well.

Please, do not let anyone tell you it’s not true, you are misremembering, or worse, that you are lying.  If it hurts to think about, look at it.

Memory is foggy and imprecise.  But it is not to be ignored because the curtains were blue and not yellow.

Please take care of yourselves.  Be gentle with yourselves.

Carry a stuffed comfort animal if you need to.

 

National Helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Free, confidential, 24/7 support.

https://www.rainn.org/

 National Suicide Prevention Hotline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Golden Spikes and Memories – Not Just for Rail Nerds

Guess what I’m doing?  If you’re in my general circle you know because I won’t shut up about it.

Chris and I are going on a road trip, listening to podcasts in the daytime and then spooky old time radio shows after dark, and eating cheese-poofs with chopsticks because it’s tidier.  We’re fancy.

https://www.relicradio.com/otr/show/horror/

We’re going to Utah for the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad — (aka Golden Spike)  May 10, 1869.

https://www.visitutah.com/places-to-go/parks-outdoors/golden-spike/

One of the line of the largest steam locomotives ever, Big Boy No. 4014 is there, and I get to see it.

https://www.up.com/heritage/steam/4014/

There are probably about five people reading this who know what that is and also, are excited about it.  Maybe six.  But those half dozen folks are really impressed.

Rail BIG BOY 6
Yes rail fans, I know, this is 4019, not 4014.  Don’t freak out.

On Friday morning there is the ceremony of the Golden Spike, and I will possibly cry because that is a thing that I do at any given moment.

I come by this passion honestly.  In the ‘50s my dad became a member of a railway museum that opened in 1946.

http://www.wrm.org/

I cannot properly put into words how much I love this place.  It is a shiny blissful memory in a childhood that was not always so happy.

My sister and I had absolute free rein to a degree that my mother probably would not have approved of.

We would ride the cars, swing the heavy poles when we got to the end of the line to go back the other way.  This would have been in the late ’70s to mid-’80s so I would have started when I was in the 11-year-old range.  Not sure we’d get away with that now.

Rail POLE 9
Those poles are heavy and wobbly and I loved it!

We’d poke around the car barn and its many pointy bits and pieces, run down the mainline tracks to find dead sheep.  After closing time dad would let us run one of the cars.

I also got to work in the bookstore, an old building warmed entirely by a Franklin stove. In the cold days of winter, it was perfection.  There was an old-timey cash register I got to use.  Eleven-year-old me felt very important.

“The House” where the guys stayed was full of dusty, weathered antiques, mismatch dishes, a probably-safe-why-not fireplace.  I would spend hours in there too, enjoying the privilege of being my dad’s daughter.  It was private, set far back from the public areas, but we came and went as we pleased.  There were also many stray cats and kittens who would sleep in the planter boxes in the sunroom.  We’d pick them up one by one, snuggle their kitten faces, plop them back down when their mothers came back.  There was a small room crammed with bunk beds; this is where mom drew the line.  We always stayed in a hotel in Fairfield.  In hindsight, I would have done exactly the same.

Since I grew up with all this, it was normal, and I took it completely for granted.

I would like to go back in time right now and just sit there.  Actually, I just did.

In the summer the valley was surface of the sun hot so we would alter our activities accordingly, so we did not actually die.

But the winter, the winter was magic.

There’s a thing called “tule fog” that is thick and cold and billowing.  It hugs the ground in a flowing blanket that made me feel calm and contemplative, as it blew wisps of ground cover that made everything unreal.  There were few tourists there if any, and only a skeleton crew, so I could be absolutely alone most of the day.  I would sit by the duck pond and imagine that I was the last person on earth, that the ducks were my only source of food and I’d have to scrounge to get by in this new, human-less world.  I would walk through the fog around the trees and grass, around the tracks, back into the empty house and imagine utter solitude.  It was bliss.

Rail TULEY 3

Tucked inside this blanket of fog was the nonfunctional steam locomotive #334.  I bonded with her very early, and she will be in my heart for the rest of my life.

That’s her in the featured photo, as I knew her back then.  But this is the view I generally had, leaning out the window of the cab staring down the track as I flew along to points unknown.

Rail LONG SHOT 4
“The House” is dead ahead.

There was a decaying wooden seat inside, held together only by habit. Sometimes when I sat down I could hear it creak out a warning, there will be splinters soon, but I didn’t care.  My heart and my mind were worlds away.  For hours and hours, I would go away.

The levers and knobs inside still moved a bit so I could control it, and the cover of the firebox would open with the grind and squeak of very old metal so I could stoke the fire.

Every now and then Casey Jones was the engineer.  I was already fairly morbid.

Rail CASEY JONES 8
An American legend.  If you don’t know who he was, check it out.  It’s a heroic and tragic story, complete with a folk song.

Anyway, sometimes I would be on a track, sometimes I would be in the clouds.  Generally the wind blew so strong that with my head out the window it was all I could hear. I was absolutely free as I was nowhere else.  My dad was doing his thing, any siblings were doing older sibling stuff, so no one was watching me, no one was bothering me, no one was telling me to get out of that fantastically dangerous, tetanus-ridden jungle gym.

It was magic.

So off I go to this incredible event, this huge event, and I will be there. I will write again about it I’m sure, and I’ll post some photos.  Probably not ones where I’m crying but, besides that.

I hope that even if you are not a rail fan, you can enjoy the story and pictures.  Maybe you’ll find yourself getting lost in the daydreams and fantasies, the utterly romantic and spooky glory that is rail.

Rail 1
Dream fodder.  I don’t think I would ever leave.

 

 

Mental Health Month

I know this is off schedule on a Friday, but since my goal with this blog is to raise awareness of mental illness, to support others dealing with it, and to kick stigma in the face, I really can’t go without mentioning it.

You know what I think?

My illness does not define me.  It’s part of me, it always will be, but it is not the boss o’me!  And yours isn’t either.  I’m gonna fight and I’m gonna laugh, and I’m gonna spell words wrong because it’s funny to me.

I added a frame to my personal Facebook profile picture.  I thought about changing the photo to something a little bit less…disturbing.  But I did not because the picture is funny, and that’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to flip my bird at bipolar and live my life the way I do.

 

mental health month
I will make myself look ridiculous for the funny.  Heck, I’ll hurt myself slightly for some quality slapstick.

 

Do you know how strong you are because you got out of bed this morning?  Because you face each day the best you can and you keep going and you find beauty and laugh because there are goats?  (That may just be me.)

You are a warrior, a lion, a superhero, whatever image speaks to you.

I am going to continue to laugh at pretty much everything, talk to people in my real life, and write this blog, it helps me and I hope others find something they can use here too.

Anyway, that’s about it. Be strong and when you feel overwhelmed, please seek help.

I’m listing some links for you from Mental Health America and NAMI where you can find information, resources, banners, and frames if you are comfortable using them.

Remember –

Hiding is exhausting, fear is debilitating, and shame is just plain bullshit.

 

http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may

https://www.nami.org/whycare

 

Writing Fiction – How Hard Can It Be?

So I’m going to try my hand at fiction.

I’ve never written fiction before.

How hard can it be, I asked, ducking the objects all my writer friends are currently lobbing at me.

I’ve written poetry all my life, articles like these sorts of things, autobiographical scribblings, narratives based on real events, but never a book with real dialog, pacing, something approaching a point. I’m very excited!

My fear, because if I didn’t have doubt and fear it wouldn’t be me, is that I’ll discover I’m awful at it, like, not where my skills could be polished no, just flat out Jr. High School kid who uses fancy words they saw on British T.V. and overwrought, sledgehammer to the head symbolism except I’m not 13 I’m 51, and that would be so very sad. It would crush me like the bolder of Sisyphus crashing down on his frail limbs while he raised is horror-stricken visage to the heavens above and shouted: “Why have you forsaken me!”

Like that.

This started because I had a waking dream so terrifying, I truly thought I losing my mind and may in fact die. I wrote it up, the whole thing had to be split into three parts, and prepared to publish it here when I realized it really isn’t appropriate for my blog, it’s not what I’m trying to do. So, I decided to write it up as a short story.

Then I realized that I’ve had many nightmares and D.T. dreams that could make really good scary stories if I can pull it off. (D.T. is “delirium tremens” and is the result of excessive drinking that affects the body in quite horrible ways. If you have them, call a doctor, because you need help, my friend. It’s not worth a story.)

I have come up with five that I can flesh out. I’m thinking an anthology. I’m designing the cover in my head and practicing what I’ll say on my book tour.

I laugh, but honestly, if any of my writing was going to make me money, it would be that. I write this blog to give back and because I enjoy it. I wrote Life Songs for my heart, and because it fills me, I believe my royalties total about 50 bucks at this point. To commemorate my first royalties ever, I bought a human phalanx, probably from a man based on the size, and made a necklace out of it. It has a locket that contains a few words from one of my poems. I have never made jewelry before and probably never will again, but it means the world to me, so I don’t care that it’s amateurish. I love it beyond measure.

fiction 4
 Forever resting on my heart.  Also, it’s legal to buy human bones in the U.S.

Now, it would not hurt my feelings if Life Songs suddenly sold thousands of copies, but I didn’t write it for that. And this blog has a specific mission statement, and there is no way to monetize it. My necklace is just for me, no one else would understand it without a long story. In fairness, most everything with me involves a long story so this blog won’t be done any time soon.

The other book I’m working on, which is decidedly not fiction, is going to be a great deal of work and research and talking to doctors and digging through some hard things from my past. I have no idea when that one could possibly be done, and no idea how it will be received. It will be another that I write for me, and for people with mental illness, and then who knows. Maybe it will hit a chord, maybe it will wither away. But I’m prepared for either.

But scary short stories? Now that could work. And that will be so much fun to write, I think. It feels good to start something new, something I’ve never done. It feels good to stretch myself and get out of my comfort zone. And it feels indescribably amazing to be able to do what I love.

Because the reality is that from getting Life Songs out, to publishing twice a week here, my serious book and my scary stories, to the paintings and jewelry and all creative work, none of this, not one thing, would be happening if I were still drinking. Nothing would have gotten done.

All of these heart-filling accomplishments would be another regret waiting to happen.

So, here’s to sobriety and all it can bring us. Here’s to all the stories it can tell.

What do you want to do, what would fill your heart and help you rise like Phoenix from the flames of turmoil to fly mighty Pegasus to the waiting arms of Zeus?

That, that right there. I really hope I don’t write like that.

 
Here’s a number for you if you are still drinking too much and need help.

National Helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline