I knew it had been a while since I last wrote an article, but I didn’t realize just how long. Yikes.
I can blame some of this on Covid, looking around my four walls for most of 2020 wondering how many times I can write about taking care of yourself, and drowingly busy in a 2021 that turned out to be far more eventful than I had planned. But that isn’t the whole story.
I have a Facebook page for this blog, Nightmares and Laughter Facebook, which was supposed to be a place to share my articles and reach more people. In other words, blog first, Facebook page second. It hasn’t turned out that way though.
I love this quote I previously thought was from Dorothy Parker but looked it up and now I’m sad – “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Yeah. That about sums it up. I put a lot of time into my writing here, edit after edit, making it worth people’s while to read them. I love it when they come together, that feeling of yes, this is what I want to say, this fits my goals and intentions. And the pictures are just spot on. I love that feeling.
You know what’s not so hard? Getting a picture up on Facebook. Finding something comforting if it is necessary, or something funny or cute to brighten a day. I love it. I love that I recognize so many names there now (hello FB readers!) but do you know what I love most about it? It’s easy. I mean yes I spend time choosing the right thing, I still craft my little write-ups, but it takes about 1% of the time it does to write here. And the responses are immediate. It’s like taking dopamine intravenously. Poof! Awesome.
But I started this whole shindig with a stated intention – to help others with mental health/substance abuse/survivor issues by telling my story, or sharing intimately how I view the world and the ups and downs that come with all that. My mission was to have a community where people, all people, have a safe space to share with each other, or just read and keep to themselves, whatever they’re comfortable with.
But I used a pseudonym, Belle Chapin because I was nervous about putting my real name out there, of people “finding out,” afraid of the stigma that can come with mental illness, and a million other reasons that came down to fear.
But I mean, I’ve given my real name a number of times. I’ve posted my freakin’ picture, mine and Chris’! (Also Crazy Legs, but he doesn’t care so much.)
My whole reason for starting all of this was to help. Maybe someone can relate to it and find their voice and power. Chris said “Why are you afraid? Hold your head up proudly and say ‘Do you know what I’ve been through and survived? Do you think I’m a’scared of you?’” A couple of days later, I changed the author name and display name here to Sue St. Blaine. That’s me. That’s my real name. So all articles now show that. Am I terrified to use my name on articles? Oh my, yes.
Another thing is, this blog is a labor of love, I do it because it fills my heart, because I love to have written (thank you person who said this before Dorothy) and because I think I can do some good with it. Unfortunately, none of that pays any bills. I don’t intend to monetize this blog, the idea makes my stomach turn, but I may start to offer other ways to support it, me, Chris, and Crazy Legs. That is in the future maybe-I-don’t-know stage, and will never affect reading here. I am not a very good capitalist. I came to peace with that in the ‘80s.
So I solemnly swear that I will be more present here, I will still post cute critters and funny memes on Facebook, and offer comfort when necessary. I value each and every person following me on any platform. And finally that I will never monetize this blog. Anything you may see that sends money my way will be voluntary.
Now, my friends, I suppose I should look for more venues to get my work out there. Nightmares and Laughter has a Twitter account and I guess I should use it, but Twitter scares the shit out of me.
Chris is away for a couple of weeks, taking a well-deserved break. He’s traveling alone, which we both do now and then. It’s a different experience to travel by yourself, you can do whatever you want, change your mind at a moment’s notice, or you can stay in your hotel for the entire day, eat local junk food, and watch an Austrian show called “Kommissar Rex” dubbed into the language of wherever you are, but not English, yet it remains my favorite show about a German Shepard police dog who catches bad guys by jumping over things and knocking them down.
It works well that we are both the kind of people who have to be alone sometimes. I get overwhelmed by noise and wearing the mask that one must wear that says “Hey, you know, I don’t own a set of dishes I found at an abandoned camp in the redwoods that was overgrown and forsaken, kitchen cupboards creaking in the wind, rotting bunk beds awaiting tired campers, dishes discarded and strewn about…”
So when one of us travels, the other gets to be alone, and that is a nice break.
I made a list of things I’d like to do during this time, because making lists is one of my superpowers, things like organize the drawers, clean all the rooms, put stuff away so it looks less like an abandoned camp for forsaken children and holy crap I just got an idea for a story.
I’ll write a couple of articles, work on the two books I’ve got going. I’m also starting “Parks and Recreation” for the umpteenth time, but that’s just the way it is.
So this morning I woke up, shuffled out of bed, fed Crazy Legs, grabbed my coffee and I realized something – I remember everything that happened yesterday. I remember what I did last night, I remember when I went to bed, I turned off the “Parks and Recreation” where Leslie thinks the tops of carrots are marijuana plants and has a stakeout with Tommy and they find out that Andy is living in the pit and then…sorry. I love that show.
But I remember that I turned it off, went to bed, and this morning I woke up and I felt great.
Many people are probably wondering what the big deal is, you woke up and had coffee, so what? But anyone with an addiction, or alcoholism in my case, knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I’ll explain. In the bad old days, when I woke up in the morning, step one would be to lie still and figure out exactly how hungover I was. Was my head spinning? If I moved, did I have to bolt to the bathroom? How bad was my headache? Am I, in point of fact, actually in my bed?
After a physical assessment, next came the worst part. What did I do last night? What’s the last thing I remember? Did I blackout again? Did I see anyone, talk to anyone on the phone or email? Many times the memories were like little filmstrips, the kind we used to watch in grade school. Just a flip of a picture here, a face, a loud crash. Did I break something? I don’t remember. So I’ll stay in bed as long as I can and then nothing bad happened. It’s the alcoholic equivalent of the monster can’t get me if I keep my limbs under the covers, except the monster this time is of my own making.
A quick peek around to see how everything looks, and either a sigh of relief or a gutting regret, and a quick run-through of ideas on how to explain whatever it is. And then back to bed, a day will be wasted, projects forgotten, goals washed away. Tearful vows to never do it again, and then doing it again, in my case, for decades.
It has been a long time since I’ve had a drink, and for the most part, it is gone from my present thoughts. But now and then, like this morning, it occurs to me. I got up, stretched, took my meds, fed Crazy Legs, got my coffee, and sat down to write an article. I feel great, the day is ahead of me, I have many things lined up, and I have time to work on them. It has been so long that I frequently forget the bad times. And that’s good, kind of.
I used to ride a motorcycle. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.) A long time ago, I got a bike, learned to ride, got pictures to look at when I was “old” say, 50 (I’m 51 now so younger me shut it already.) Anyway, I had some fun, got cut off at a four-way stop and dropped it, so I have the all-important crash story, (not so much a crash as an “I didn’t know how to respond so I popped the clutch and the 650 took me down.”)
I’ve heard that the two most dangerous times for a rider are when they are new and scared, and when they are experienced and confident. There should always be, not fear, but the realization that you are a soft, water-filled body wrapped in leather or Kevlar, sitting exposed and going very fast. Be aware of that, and don’t try anything stupid. For me, I rode for a while, but I never got over the fear, so I sold it.
In early recovery, one is very much aware of the danger of relapse. The fear of the shame, the pain, the lost dreams, lost jobs, lost children, etc. is raw and works as an excellent deterrent. The first time I said, “My name is Sue, and I’m an alcoholic.” was profound and earthshaking. It was also not the last time I’d start with a 24-hour chip. Or the second to last time. I got a year chip and later gave it back. Early recovery is a dicey time, especially if you don’t address the reasons you’re drinking or using in the first place.
In the time since my last drink, I’ve started this blog, and I’m proud of it. I’ve published one book, and I’m working on two more. I’ve painted, explored mixed-media, watched “Parks and Recreation” like four times, and lived a life where I wake up and know what I did the night before, and don’t have to run through an inventory of possible horrors before I get out of bed. I’m confident and this, just like riding a motorcycle, can be a dangerous time.
That voice that says, “Aw, it’s alright, you can handle it. You’ve proven you can be sober, just have one drink!” can be quiet for a long time, but it’s always there, waiting to fuck you up.
Two kinds of people don’t get that, those who do not have an issue, and those who do. The second group is threatened by your sobriety, they need you to drink with them, so they don’t have to face their own demons. They want to sabotage you, and they will try very hard.
If you are in early sobriety, be very aware of this, and try to catch it earlier than I did.
Many years ago, two decades anyway, I had a dear friend, my best friend, who took good care of me when I was still drinking. She was nurturing and said exactly what I needed to hear. She was the strong one who took care of me until the very moment I started to find my feet. Once I stood and began to get better, snipes and passive-aggressive comments, subtle digs at my worth, accusations of getting arrogant, would begin until I believed them and fell. And the “mothering” continued, until one night when I was falling into a depression but didn’t want to relapse. So I called her.
By this time, my dear friend, my rock, was using heroin. She sat and listened to me intently. Then she stood, dropped her pants, and showed me the bruises where she had been shooting up because her arms were no longer viable. I stared in utter disbelief and shock. When she covered up and sat back down, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “It’s ok, we can be addicts together.”
That was it. Even for my fragile mind, that was the end. Chris and I were newly dating, and when I told him what had happened, he was apoplectic. He said it was as if I were drowning and she threw me a cement lifesaver. It was the validation I needed; I had second-guessed myself for so long.
People may do this, to one degree or another. They may try to sabotage your hard work, your important work. They may try to convince you that you are weak.
You are not weak. You are as strong as a person can be, whether you feel that way or not. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You went one day without a drink or drug? Stand up tall and be proud of yourself. Twenty-four hours without your drug of choice? You are awesome, simply amazing. Let no one tell you otherwise.
However you may feel about A.A. long term, go and say those difficult words, “My name is xxx, and I’m an alcoholic.” They may be hard to say, you may not say them loudly, you may break down, that is all ok. Any of these reactions are appropriate. Those people you’re talking to, they are there because they are also struggling!
And when they offer a chip, a 24-hour chip, raise your hand, walk proudly to the front, and take that chip with you. An entire day without a drink becomes two days, becomes a week, becomes a year…you can do it!
It’s a cliché, I know, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. If I can do it, after decades of terrible mornings, after losing jobs, living in squalor, after a childhood spent drunk to hide the pain, if I can do it, you can do it.
You can do it. You really can. Please don’t let anyone tell you differently.
You are worth it. You deserve happy mornings.
I believe in you.
If you need help, please call.
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.
As I write this, September 8, 2019, it is the 53rd anniversary of Star Trek’s premier. (The Original Series, pedants. Don’t even start.)
I always get a little misty about this, because Star Trek means the world to me. I wrote about how much Close Encounters touched my heart, so I’m going to wax poetic about Star Trek too, and the real lessons to be learned. And Spock. Just a lot of Spock.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the ocean or knew about the redwoods, and I don’t remember a time I didn’t know Kirk and Spock and all my friends. I have no memory of seeing Star Trek the first time, it was just ever present. (In fairness, I don’t remember the first time I saw the visual acid trip that was Sid and Marty Croft either, but I digress.)
What was it about this sci-fi show that was canceled when I was 1-year old that moved me so much?
I loved that Starfleet Command and Academy were here in San Francisco and Marin. Did you know that the Golden Gate Bridge is the only one still standing because of course bridges are no longer required, but they left it because it is simply too beautiful to not exist? Remember in “The Voyage Home,” how proud Sulu was when they saw it? “San Francisco. I was born there.” <swoon!>
Quick fun fact –Starfleet was located here because it’s where the U.N. Charter was signed. Ok, I’ll stop.
My irrational adoration of this City aside, Star Trek hit a lot of buttons for me. The Salt Vampire was genuinely terrifying, nothing else on the show scared me that bad, and actually it still creeps me out.
The episode “Mirror Mirror” filled me with undefinable joy that perhaps I will expand on at another time. Suffice to say, Bearded Spock. Bearded Spock, my first boyfriend.
Bearded or not, I loved him so very much. He was handsome, brilliant, and without emotion. I wanted to be a Vulcan since I was very little. Actually, I wanted to be T’Pring, but without the stupid decision, but anyway.
I would stay in the bathroom and hold my eyebrows up at the corners to see if they would stick that way. I used the words “fascinating” and “logical” all the time. I tried to be smart like him, well-read like him, I played guitar because I didn’t know where to get a Vulcan harp. To this day I want that glowing red animal thing he had in his quarters. Luckily Chris is also a nerd, so if we could find one it would go directly next to the dining table. For the life of me, I can’t find a picture of it.
To my child mind, being a Vulcan meant no pain, no sorrow, no regret, no fear. If I had no emotion, I was free, really. I couldn’t get in trouble for expressing increasingly volatile emotions, because I wouldn’t have any. I’d just raise an eyebrow and flash an amused little smile.
Being emotionless would be impossible, of course. A human can’t be devoid of emotion. Vulcans aren’t either if I’m honest. Sarek for example, Mr. “You should have gone to the Vulcan Science Academy, not Starfleet Academy I won’t talk to you until you give me your blood.”
Anyway, to kid-me the whole Star Trek world seemed ideal. Food on command, twinkly lights and poof! you’re anywhere, pretty sweet. That brings up something that has always bugged me, though. In “The Enemy Within” why didn’t they just send down the shuttlecraft? Maybe it was too cold for that too. But damn, that bugs me.
So, being emotionless is impossible, what is the alternative? If we follow Trek canon, I suppose I could be a Vulcan from their distant past. For those who haven’t spent their lives in front of the T.V. box, Vulcans used to be emotional and warlike, until they got all enlightened and went too far the other way.
The thing to do is find that middle way, that balance between modern Vulcan and ancient Vulcan. Between the Vulcans who tore each other apart and the ones who could never tell their mothers they love them. (From “The Naked Time,” which is also the episode with the best off-hand line ever, when Sulu calls Uhura “fair maiden” and she says “Sorry, neither.” Perfection.)
Star Trek taught me other lessons about honor, friendship, communal good. Trying to emulate Spock actually helped too, I think, because he was inconsistent, he broke his own rules. He was a scientist, but he also loved music. He was logic and dignity personified, but he went to jam with space hippies. He had no emotion and no capability for love or friendship, but his reactions really didn’t bear that out.
In our lives, I think we need both and a middle ground. Sometimes we do put up a hard shell to get by. That’s fine, that can be important. But we also need to be able to be passionate, to let ourselves be blissfully happy and climb a tree, to be so in love that we forget who we are for a bit, and sometimes we need anger. Sometimes anger is appropriate. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, we fight. But if we must it should be as defense. Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701 – don’t even start!) had a mission of exploration – a five-year mission, if you will – but she also fights if necessary, frequently with Klingons, aka Star Trek’s Daleks. I like Romulans better, honestly.
It’s the human condition I think, to try to figure out when to use emotion, and when to curb it a bit. Do I need my passion right now? Is this worth getting angry about? Is this, as a friend put it, the hill I want to die on? If you decide it’s time to be heard, be heard. But be safe.
One of the constant messages in Star Trek was equality among all races, genders, species. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t exactly subtle with this subtext, to the point now and then of being a bit heavy-handed.
But it was a different time, the late ‘60s. Some people, including women, lost their minds because Nurse Chapel was so strong. There was a Russian on the bridge, and a Japanese man, and a, well, some people actually said Spock was a devil, because pointed ears. Sometimes I weep for humanity.
But these characters, these stories, they reached more than a messed up little kid in the suburbs. They made a real difference. Here’s a link to an interview with Nichelle Nichols, Uhura. Yes, Roddenberry saying “a black” hits our ears wrong now, but take it for the time it was said, and hear the story she tells.
Star Trek was just a show, a sci-fi T.V. show that could be written off as fluff. But it wasn’t. Looking at it now, the cheap costumes, the plywood sets, the saltshakers McCoy used as medical instruments (no, seriously) sure, they look cheesy. But look deeper. Try to imagine it’s 1966, and you’re an impressionable kid. There is likely something or someone you relate to.
Many scientists cite the show for sparking their interest in astronomy or what have you. Sometimes it gave a person a glimpse of self-worth, of dignity, of pride.
Remember what MLK told Nichelle Nichols? About how she was a symbol now, a non-stereotyped black character?
So no, it’s not just a show. It made a major difference in many lives, in myriad ways. And it is relevant still. Despite J.J. Abram’s best efforts, it will live forever.
Is it Halloween yet? Trick question, it’s always Halloween.
When the chill comes into the air and the days get shorter, Chris and are giddy waiting for everyone else to start putting out spooky things and black clothes and Addams Family memes. Then we put on our best boots and long coats, go to the Halloween stores and skip across the parking lot singing “It’s the most wonderful time…of the yeeeaaarrrrr…..”
A few years ago we were picking out some serving dishes shaped like skulls and a nice print for the living room. A young lady working there asked us if we needed help. “Can I help you find anyt….oooooh, you shop here for all year, don’t you?” We giggled prettily and skipped away. Yes, we do shop there for all year. Our goal is to be Gomez and Mortica and I think we’re well on our way.
We love the fog belt in San Francisco, where there are many ravens hopping around being ravens, crows forming murders, fog horns singing a mournful song to the sea. Sorry, got lost in thought.
It’s normal to enjoy being scared, or Stephen King would be a copy-editor. As adults we know these things can’t really hurt us. But it gets us right in the fear receptors, something deep inside, whatever it is that scares each person. A big one for me is dread, what isn’t seen. I don’t like jump scares, I like the gut squeezing build-up, or the just barely perceptible mumbling or the thing that morphs into a menace that shouldn’t be.
As an adult, I know that none of this is real but as a kid, oh it’s serious business. This happened when I was about 7 or 8, and it was one of the best moments of fear-imprinting ever, so I share it with you. (Fear-imprinting may not be a thing, I just thought it sounded cool.)
We had gone to visit an aunt who lived outside Chicago in a huge old three-story house, with dozens of closets to play hide-and-go-seek, and a giant basement. As a girl in a one-story ranch house with no basement in suburban California, this was utterly alien to me. But as bizarre as the basement was, it was the furnace, a coal furnace, that blew off the top of my vivid imagination head. I had never even conceived of such a thing, and except for a steam locomotive, I’d never seen coal used as fuel.
One day, I went to the basement alone, it must have been a game of “Truth or Dare.” I pulled the chain of each bare light bulb as I went down the stairs, step by squeaky wooden step, and down onto the cement floor of this otherworldly space, and walked slowly forward, my eyes on my feet. I could hear my heartbeat and very little else. A few more steps and then…I looked up.
And there it was, this giant beast. It was staring right at me! It had many red, rectangular eyes, angry eyes, but its mouth! Huge, gaping, glowing yellow and white. I stood, unable to move as it fixed its red eyes on me, as it frowned its open-mouth frown. What do I do? All I knew is that it was going to devour me messily with a great deal of noise that no one would hear because I was way down in the basement which was larger than my entire house. After a lifetime fit into a minute or two, it hissed at me! A long, cat-like hiss. I was going to die.
I have no memory of running through the paths of boxes, Christmas ornaments and forgotten toys to the stairs and up, but the next I knew I was in the brightly lit kitchen. I told my older sister and brother what had happened and they responded exactly the way an older sister and brother would, they laughed themselves dizzy.
I had kept my eyes on my feet because a long-accepted rule of kid-lore states, “if I can’t see the scary thing, it can’t hurt me.” The rule includes the subset “if my limbs are under the covers it can’t get me.”
Is this really kid stuff though? Is it any different than horoscopes or T.V. psychics? It’s a very small step from “there’s a ghost in my closet” to “there’s a ghost in my closet, call the Ghost Hunters.” It’s the same need, I think, to be afraid of something we know deep inside can’t hurt us, but we believe just enough to be afraid.
Anyway, when you watch a scary movie, especially a slasher type, there’s always that moment when someone does something that makes you think “No! Don’t go there, do go toward the sound, you dumbass!” Then you’re annoyed because nobody would ever be that stupid, I mean, who would ever be that stupid?
Um, about that.
Chris and I were visiting friends in Petaluma. It was a cold night and there was steam coming out of a manhole cover, that’s normal. But we got closer and heard what sounded like both metal scraping and a sort of growl. Did we – A: Cross the street with some urgency B: Note it, and walk around it or C: Walk right up to it, stand on either side, lean over and say “ooooh, what’s that noise?”
C. We did C. We would have been dead before the opening credits. Now when we watch scary movies and someone says, “Nobody would ever be that stupid.” we just sort of glance away and munch our popcorn. Yeah, nobody would be that stupid.
Sometimes as a skeptic I get called on to help someone logic out of a situation they can’t explain. Sometimes that answer is very, very funny.
Imagine this setting. A big group of us are camping beside a river. It’s dark, some people are getting as crazy as near 50-year-old people do. (Wooo hoo! We’re gonna stay up until 11 tonight!) We weren’t really roughing it though, there was a building with toilets and showers.
So I’m sitting there near the fire, and two of my dear friends run down the path from the bathrooms, linked arm in arm, scared and laughing, wanting me to go with them to check out a ghost in the bathroom. Ok, fine. I set down my sparkling water, and off we went.
As we walk into the bathroom, my girls are giggling but also scared (I really should have messed with them.) “So it looks like your ghost has great taste, it carries a Louis Vuitton bag.” That was the first clue. Ghosts don’t have jobs, how can they afford to buy stuff? Think about it! Anyway, I moved further in and I heard the “ghost,” who was a woman, by herself in the shower, and was in fact moaning.
No ghost, just a woman with little shame and a lot of stamina.
So we laughed that release of tension laugh, and we talk about that to this day. So yeah, it’s not just kids who do this, most of us do to some degree or another.
One doesn’t have to be Gomez and Morticia year-round like we are to love Halloween. It’s just fun, it’s fun to be something or someone you’re not, just for a night you give yourself permission to be silly or play pretend. It’s not just for kids, dammit! You can go play too! Go look for the creepy monster in the basement, do the mind-numbingly stupid thing and lean over the manhole that clearly contains a chain dragging monster waiting to break free, or investigate the ghost with a designer bag and needs that just can’t wait.
It’s August 21 as I write this, just a little over two months until the big day. I do love Christmas, but it’s a different animal. I try to be a little Dickensesque and keep Halloween in my heart all year. Play, laugh at absurdities, be nice to kids, and never, ever go toward the creepy sound in the attic barefoot, dressed in a flimsy nightgown and carrying a candle.
Recently my friends gathered up their kidlings and we all headed off to the Oakland Zoo. One of the things the kids wanted to see is the petting zoo, which is perfectly reasonable, but when we arrived we found out that the only animals in the petting zoo these days are…goats.
I tried to prepare myself, I did. I tried to remain composed around nature’s most perfectly absurd and hilarious animal. I failed.
There are several times goats have tried to kill me. Once when driving down the freeway, Chris said, “Hey Sue, look to your right.” And there it was, a large goat, with a beard and that disproportionately tiny, always disgruntled mouth, standing in the bed of a pickup truck, tethered down with ropes. I lost it completely. Then a hand reached up from a man clearly laying on his back beneath this bearded personification of ridiculous and scratched it on its belly. Just a hand, attached to an arm, attached to a man lying in the bed of a truck. If the large creature had decided to drop, if it had suddenly laid down, that nice man would have suffocated underneath the belly of a furry, rectangle-pupiled beast, and there is no way in which that is not heart-stoppingly funny.
Another time I was certain it was over, and my friends would have to stifle giggles as they told others how I died, was in Aswan, Egypt. We were at Abu Simbel taking a break because it is surface-of-the-sun hot there. So we’re resting on a slab in the shade of other slabs and Chris pointed out a herd of goats. Chris is a very bad man. We started talking about goat cheese and he begins to wonder what a goat cheese shop would be like. “They’d be angry because they can’t use the cash register, just banging on it with their goat-hands, *bleating* all mad, then slamming on it again. When they helped a customer they’d just slam their goat-hands on the display case and *bleat*, then they’d…” I don’t know what he said next. Between the picture of the cash register scenario, “goat-hands,” and the fact that every time I wrote bleat in those sentences he actually bleated, I scream-laughed and bent double until my face nearly hit my feet. Several people whipped their heads to see if I was about to die. I love Egypt very much, it was my life-long dream, but I wasn’t quite ready to be buried in the Temple of Ramses. Also, Chris is a very bad man.
Last example, we were sitting on the couch, surfing the Smithsonian Archives and Project Guttenberg – or Facebook and Reddit, one of those, when Chris says “This is for you.” and holds his laptop where I can see it and plays…this. From Sunflower Farm Creamery
If you’re in a spot with slow internet let me tell you that what we have here is a video of tiny goats in pajamas leaping up in the air and running sideways, jumping onto hay bales, and generally being adorable and absurd. I mean, why do they run sideways? Why do they leap and wag their heads? How can someone be so adorable and so preposterous at the same time?
So you see, a petting zoo full of goats is pretty much the best and worst thing in the world for me. I explained to my friends my “goat thing” and off we went. The kids, the human ones, were so well behaved and gentle and generally quiet. The grey-haired “adult” though, yeah.
Will you please look at this guy? Will you just take it all in for a moment?
It’s our bearded friend, just laying there being bearded. I’m mocking him! Does he care? Does he have any idea how hard I am making fun? No! You know why? Because he’s a goat and they have no concept of such things! I mean, no animal does, but still, he looks so smug about it! This is more exclamation points than I’ve ever used in one article I think!
So while I’m walking away, starting to compose myself, this guy peeks around the corner. “Hey, you know, what’s up?”
Seriously? This is what’s happening now? All I can see is those goat-hands whackin’ at a cash register, the always-annoyed look on his face, and then…he head butts our friend! Just puts his head down and rams him with his curly horns. There was no reason! There was no call for that! Maybe there was an argument earlier and this brown and white guy was still angry. Maybe there are unresolved issues from high school. Maybe the white one deserved it, I don’t know, I don’t know what kind of sordid past these two have.
So that was my day at the petting zoo. We left, ate at the café, and then went to Aquatic Park. All the while I am looking at these children with the thought I have frequently…they are more mature than I am, and then I giggle when I see a ship and think of a “dinghy.”
Here is the picture on the front page of this blog. It is a caption magnet, plus I can hear the “mlep” every time I look at it. It’s just funny, even if you don’t have my goat thing.
Anyway, several of the last articles have been kind of heavy and hard to write, so I figure it’s time for the laughter part of “Nightmares and Laughter.” And damn if goats don’t make me laugh.
***You know, reading this over, it occurs to me that the three examples above were all initiated by Chris. If I die suddenly, be sure to show the police this article. I’m pretty sure he’s trying to kill me, slowly, over nearly 20 years. He’s a very bad man, but patient.
All my life, I’ve been somewhat crippled by fear. I was afraid of failing, so I wouldn’t start, afraid of being rejected, so I wouldn’t put myself out there, afraid of looking foolish, so I didn’t try new things. I remember as a child being terrified to jump off the backyard fence, it seemed so high. I sat there for a while before someone helped me down. I just couldn’t make that leap.
When I turned 30, I decided I would try to not live in fear anymore, so when my friends decided to go skydiving, I jumped at the idea. (The joke there is just too easy, so I’m not going to take it.) I put on a hot pink jumpsuit and harness, took the mandatory class, and headed out to the runway. At this point I wasn’t scared which was unlike me since I was about to leap willingly from a perfectly good airplane at 15,000 feet with a man I didn’t know strapped to my back and a trust that he knew what he was doing. That 8-foot wooden fence had given me vertigo, but here I was, resplendent in pink and thinking of paratroopers in old movies.
There was one moment when I actually thought I might throw up, just as we were leaping directly into a cloud. In the pictures you can clearly see the what-the-actual-fuck-was-I-thinking look on my face. I’m sharing that moment with you because I’d rather be funny than cool.
Skydiving was scary and exciting and made me question my decision-making skills, but once I did it I felt like a rock star for a while. In the grand scheme of things though, it was a fun diversion and nothing more. I overcame a fear and then went to get pizza. Life changing leaps, the sort of make-it-or-break-it moments, those are far riskier. Ok, the dive was also risky had the chute not opened, but you see what I mean.
When the first tech boom happened in San Francisco in the mid-‘90s, I was working as an Administrative Assistant, which was good steady work, something I could do and make a livable wage, but I wasn’t happy and I wanted to do more. I knew nothing about computers; once a friend told me I could download my work to a floppy, and I had no idea what that meant. But I started to look at the techies sitting in their toy-covered offices and realized they weren’t actually any smarter than me, I just had a gigantic learning curve. So I made a bold decision; I was going to save six months of living expenses, which one could do in those long-gone days, and then quit my job whether I had a new one or not. I figured that would be a great incentive to hustle.
I lived alone with my cat, so it was all on me, sink or swim. I was terrified. I deeply questioned my decision-making skills. But I did it anyway, and I ended up working in I.T. for 20 years. It sounds as I write that like it happened quickly and easily, but it did not. I worked hard to get there, paid my dues, got hand-me-down equipment to tear apart and put together, learned what it meant to download to a floppy. I put in the time, and I succeeded.
Then, after 20 years I decided it was time to move on for a variety of reasons including my health, but that’s a story for another article.
My point here is that skydiving, and taking a giant risk to change careers didn’t make me brave, doing those things while every fiber of my being is screaming “Are you out of your damn mind? Terror! Death! Homeless!” is what made doing them brave. I was scared and unsure, but I did it anyway, I took the chance.
None of this makes me special. Like the techies rolling through their offices on Segways, I am not any smarter than you. I am pretty average and I can’t do math in my head. I can barely do math at all, honestly. I don’t like math is my point, I guess.
Bravery is not going in, metaphorical guns blazing, confident and bad-ass and fearless, bravery is going in when you’re scared and doing it anyway. Bravery is taking a deep breath, squaring your shoulders, and moving forward.
The things I talked about would never have happened if I had not taken the brave steps of saying the words “I am an alcoholic” and confronting the illness I was self-medicating. My book would never have been finished. This blog would not be happening. My art and my budding photography would be gone.
This does not happen overnight, it is not easy, and you may fall. I got sober, and then I relapsed, and then I got sober again. And each time I felt like a failure, and my illness agreed, so I drank more. But I got back up, did the work, and succeeded. Now I’ve been clean for years and work hard to live and thrive with bipolar disorder; I have the correct medicine and support and do the best I can, day by day.
None of this makes me special. But it does make me brave. Facing these demons, getting out of bed even now when I feel depressed, these are the regular, personal victories that should be celebrated and praised.
Whatever you’re facing, big or small, makes you bad-ass and strong, you are a lion or whatever image you like. You are diving out of a plane at 15,000 feet into a cloud, every fiber in your being screaming “This is a really bad idea!” but doing it anyway. Don’t forget that.
Oh by the way, contrary to what cartoons have told us, clouds are in fact not bouncy and soft. They are really really cold and wet. I had an ice-cream headache when we landed.
And it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
If you are suffering, and afraid to ask for help, remember – you are awesome. You are bad-ass. And getting help if you need it is every bit as brave as taking that leap.
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
My husband was away this weekend, and since I was on my writing break, I got bored. I needed to do something creative but I didn’t know what.
Poking around in Facebook I saw an ad from a corsetry shop a friend owns. The featured corset was made with the lace from an old wedding gown which was in tatters. I thought that was a great idea. Then I remembered that my first wedding gown is under my bed. I had it cleaned and preserved after the wedding, and it has sat in that box unseen for 31 years.
But it’s much older than that. My dad and my uncle split the price, and my mother wore it in 1954 for their wedding, and my aunt shortly after. When my first husband and I got married, I wanted to wear it too, so a few alterations later, it was ready for the big, extremely ill-advised day in my 20-year-old life.
The pictures of me are so funny; she looks like maybe we are related but not the same person. Well, we aren’t the same person. I mean, few of us are the same as we were at 20, I don’t think. Unless you are 20, then hey, you do you.
But the dress is not sacred, we split up after five years, so why on earth should I leave it in its box like a mummy in a sarcophagus?
To recap, I was alone, bored, and had a 65-year-old gown with two previous owners including my mom, that I wore 31 years ago and haven’t seen since. Nope. Nothing there to set a person into a spin.
I dug it out from under our bed, brought it into my dining room, and started to unbox it like Howard Carter but with fewer “wonderful things” and deadly curses.
I had forgotten how heavy it is, and how fragile the lace was even back then, and the veil is so huge I sat on it when I was wearing it.
It did not fit. I am a tad larger now. But I found that if I unbuttoned the back I could slip my arms into the sleeves and it looked, from the front, like I was wearing it. It is old and cracked and the pearls are dropping off with each step and something had to be done with it. Something…spooky.
I was alone, and the good camera was with Chris so I decided I would just take some random goth-y photos as selfies with my phone. And then I had an idea. I made a little photo-narrative. I used the plastic skeleton that is in my profile picture, (Ermastus, meet everyone, everyone, meet Ermastus) to be the…
You know, I’m torn here. I am fairly dark by nature, I cut my teeth on Poe and Lovecraft, I’ve always leaned to the macabre, and to me, the Paris Catacombs are beautiful and life-affirming. But not everyone shares that and this page is not meant to upset anyone, so I’m not going to explain it.
Here’s one of the photos that is not spooky.
I do have to explain this though. Part of the process was getting a photo of me in crippling pain; pain so deep and so unfathomable, my mind has left the physical world, never to return. In order to do this, I had to make the faces and body language to capture it (while holding a phone and trying to disguise that I’m taking a selfie,) and after an hour or so of this, something odd happened. I started to feel deeply, horribly, crushingly, depressed.
I took off the gown, put my jammies back on (who are the people who dress in street clothes in their homes?) and left the room. I looked at the photos. Seeing my face and body like that, in an old storied gown, remembering my mother, long gone, my aunt, my first marriage, long ended, every single wound and unnamed pain, and every time I considered suicide…I closed the photos and thought about the void.
Here’s a picture of my cat, Crazy Legs.
This is why it is so important to know how to practice self-care. I was alone, and I would be for two more days, so I did familiar things, ate some leftover gnocchi, sat on the sofa with Crazy Legs, and started to marathon “Parks and Recreation” for I think the fourth time. I love that show, it’s comforting and normal and is not even acquainted with depth. I can do it nearly line for line and I love every single person on it.
I do wonder though, how someone looked at sweet, tubby Andy and said, “Hey, let’s make him Starlord!” But I’m glad they did. I could have watched any of the Marvel Movies too.
After a couple of hours, I was fine. But something very intense had happened.
My art is mainly on the page, and sometimes on canvas or three-dimensional. Photography is new to me, and this sort of quasi-acting is unknown to me, so I was not prepared for what it would do, what it would dredge up.
Holding that pose, over and over and over, pretending to scream and wail, I was not prepared for what that would do to me. Chris has acted, so when he got home he told me that’s what actors may go through; it can really fuck with a person’s head. I only did it for an hour. They do it for days or weeks or more. The body/mind connection is powerful. It can hold emotions that can be triggered by anything, touch, smell, vision, or action in this case. The mind brings it forward, affects the body, and so on.
Now, I did get some beautiful shots from this whole thing, so it was worth it. But it was hard, and knowing what to do to shake it off was critical.
Whatever it is that you do, whatever might bring pain to the surface, you need to have a full toolbox, ready to grab what you need to fix it. Sit down, take stock, and think – what makes you happy, what simple thing can you do to make yourself feel safe? A certain food? An animal, a beloved T.V. show or film? What is your simple joy?
Also, celebrate all the victories, big or small, cute or spooky. For me, I’m writing again, I’m making art, so here’s an alcohol-free toast to all of us!
I am an excitable person. This is not exactly a shocking admission like “I am the Dread Pirate Roberts” or something, but still. Honestly, I’m so excitable and I get so wound up about even the silliest things, it’s sometimes hard to tell a manic period from “that stop light is wearing a traffic cone hat!”
For the record, if I can sit back and calmly discuss what I’m thinking about, if I can relax and form a thought, I’m just excited, probably not in a manic place. It also helps if I’m not saying things like “This will be the best thing ever and I will make so much money and no one has ever thought of this before and oh my god I need to buy more crepe paper!” all in one breath.
I’m also a bit obsessive. When I find something I’m passionate about, that I feel good about, or is simply fun, it might overtake everything else for a while.
Enter Nightmares and Laughter.
Everything I’m doing right now involves the word “blog.”
“I need to finish an article for the blog.”
“I need to engage my readers on my blog Facebook page.”
“I need to moderate the thread on my blog Facebook page and delete trolls.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, except for the trolls, I am loving this. I get to do a few of my favorite things that do not involve raindrops on roses; I get to write, talk to people, be an advocate or comfort, make people laugh. The only thing that could make this better is if I wrote an article entirely about Hello Kitty.
I’m totally going to write an article entirely about Hello Kitty.
My life pretty much revolves around this blog right now.
But there’s more I want to do that I am ignoring.
• I have two books waiting to be written, one has a working title of “Nightmares and Laughter,” because the content is related to the mission of this page. So, not really a skip through the posies to write. The other is an anthology of scary stories, and since I have never written fiction before, that one will take a while too. But if I don’t start it, I will never finish it. That’s just science.
• I have an idea for a business that could be fulfilling but will take a while to set up and whatnot, and probably won’t pay much. Ain’t that always the way.
• And finally, I want to work on some art related to this blog that I think I could sell without disrespecting my vision.
I’d like to make a living doing this manner of thing if I can. But that won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen if I don’t freakin’ do it.
I’m going to tell you a secret. I wrote an article that I was going to publish yesterday. I wrote it during our heat wave last week, and it was meant to be about how I didn’t feel well, I planned to write it while I was down and talk about that, and how sometimes it’s just hard, but we get through it. And I did write that article. I got it formatted in WordPress, I had all the pictures and the banner set up.
Do you know I actually had nightmares Wednesday night that I had already published it? I knew it wasn’t good. I reread it and saw that what I wrote was three different articles, including the bones of this one. So I split it up and I’ll finish all of them.
My point though is that I’ve gotten so hopped up on getting articles out that I almost published one I actually had bad dreams about. I never want to publish something below my own standards, I respect all of you too much to do that. Plus I just don’t want my name attached to bad writing.
So I’m neglecting the other projects I want to do.
I love this blog, and I feel good about the mission of it and the hope that I can make a difference in some way. But I’m literally losing sleep to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Another thing that brought me down is that the article was such a Frankenstein’s monster, I immediately thought, “That’s it. My productive spell is over.” My last writing dry spell lasted 25 years, and the idea of having it back only to lose it again was too much.
Then I woke this morning, saw a video about goats that overran a neighborhood, nearly blacked out from laughing, and then immediately found a focus.
The picture on the left of the banner is me, 1993, 25 years old. The grey-haired woman on the right is also me, 2018, 50 years old. Several lifetimes have passed in those 25 years; some very hard lessons learned.
I started to write poetry when I was a child. When I was the young woman with the dark hair, I decided I would compile some of them, and I made a book I called “Life Songs – A Collection of Poems.” I did finish, but I put it away and fell into a pattern of self-destruction and failure that lasted for years. Life Songs died.
But at 50 I began to wonder; what dreams have I let go? What are the seeds of regret?
My dreams of singing professionally were done, too much whiskey and smoke had taken its toll. That one hurts.
My paintings are unlikely to hang anywhere, my photography is hit or miss, and having a business to call my own died a premature death. Don’t go into business with friends, that’s my advice to you.
But there was one thing left, my first love, my greatest love, my sanctuary, my heart, my everything.
Writing. That I could still do.
It had been 25 years since I put Life Songs together, then I drank my muse away. I killed her with my hands around a bottle of Jack.
I also made the grave mistake of majoring in Creative Writing and taking many poetry classes which put an inner critic in my head I had never had before. Everyone is different, but for me, this was a massive mistake.
Anyway, as I neared 50, I realized that I needed to complete Life Songs and get it out. So I read it over, all bright-eyed and optimistic. Then I closed it and stared into space.
Many of the poems were, well, let me put it this way, I separated it into chapters based on content, and I decided that each chapter heading would be a take on “Ten Definitions of Poetry” by Carl Sandburg. Trouble is, I’m not Sandburg now, let alone at 25, and it went…poorly. I will not be sharing any of those with you. Oh my, no. So I was stuck again.
Then on a warm summer night, after a lovely meal with dear friends, we began to talk about our projects. I never had anything to add to these conversations since I had no muse and no art in my soul. But this night I did. This night I talked about it, and as sometimes happens when thinking out loud, I had an epiphany. I am not the same person I was back then. So why not let the grey-haired lady speak to the dark-haired one? Choose poems that are relevant or particularly painful or funny and talk to her? Maybe I could find healing in that. Maybe I could help another reader find healing or hope or at least know they are not alone.
Maybe I really could finish Life Songs.
And then, just like that, my muse came home.
When I sat down to work, everything came back. The traumas and moments of life, sure, but that’s not what I mean. I mean the absolute and overpowering joy of writing, of moving my hands on a keyboard and making the words I want to say appear. I had forgotten what it felt like to write. It’s like forgetting what it is to taste ice cream or smell freshly mowed grass.
Many of my friends are writers. They post on Facebook, share funny memes, talk about their process and craft. I would be happy for them, but I would also burn inside. I was not a writer anymore. One can call it a dry spell for a while, but after two and a half decades, you’re no longer in the club.
But after I wrote a few pages, and after I started this blog, I was a writer again. I could respond to the comments, laugh at the memes, and talk about my process and craft.
I was a writer again. I was in the club.
I worked on Life Songs, I thought about it when I wasn’t, I dreamed about it at night. Then the first draft was finished. I celebrated with some non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider in a flamingo glass. It’s tradition.
Then the final was done. After twenty-five years, I was almost ready to publish.
Now, I don’t know Photoshop or anything like that, and I can’t afford a professional photographer, so I decided to stage and shoot my own photos. I had a good idea what I wanted it to look like and every single prop I used I already had, so I set up a photo “studio” in the dining room, complete with the lights with umbrella things and my husband’s Nikon D90, and got busy.
Two months and about 3,000 photos later, I got seven or so that I loved, and chose two for the front and back cover.
I sent them to the cover artist my mother-in-law, a professional writer, had recommended, and prepared to upload my manuscript to Amazon.
Then I typed up the title page
Life Songs – Discussions with an Angry Child
by – …….
And I froze.
Belle Chapin is a pseudonym. I started this blog under that name because I was afraid to use my real one. (Belle Chapin was my grandmother.) I was afraid of not getting a job, afraid of trolls, afraid of being so vulnerable. So I was going to publish Life Songs under that name as well.
I backspaced my real name out, and I typed
by Belle Chapin
And then I cried. And then I cried more. This girl is me. This is my life, goddammit. This is my life, my heart, my work.
It took some time with my therapist, but I finally came to a decision.
This girl is me. This is my life, my heart, my work.
I sat down at my laptop and I opened the title page.
Life Songs – Discussions with an Angry Child
by Sue St. Blaine
And then I closed my laptop.
The cover artist sent me the final product. I opened the attachment I cried so hard I nearly passed out. It was real.
I finished my life’s work.
The way I’ve lived my life, the choices I’ve made have left many scars and regrets. I know there are things I didn’t do because I didn’t have the confidence, I was scared, I was drunk.
I was drunk. The seeds of regret are sown.
But it’s been a year since I published Life Songs. It is sitting on the shelf behind me. My heart fills as certainly as my eyes when I think about it. I did it. I finished it.
In a life full of mistakes, this is something I did right.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.