Yesterday Chris and I visited a few gravesites we’ve meant to see, some are my family, my grandparents at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, my great-aunt at the Columbarium.
We tried to find my great-grandfather in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery but couldn’t get a map, so he will need to wait until next time. I think he’ll stay put.
Then we hit two San Francisco characters I can’t believe I’ve never visited before. On the very famous side, we have Norton I – Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. We dearly love him.
Within that memorial grave lies the mortal remains of one William Snyder, aged 13. Now, this next bit will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but remember, he died in 1854, so no one who knew him or his family is still with us. William Snyder died by…see below picture.
Horrific. Tragic. Both of these and more. I hope my death is that utterly hilarious. I mean, this is objectively funny.
I have a list of things in and around the City we are going to visit, local hangouts, restaurants, memories, places we’ve meant to see but never have. We’re getting this done before we leave my beloved City and move up to Portland, Oregon.
We are leaving because we have an amazing opportunity we can’t pass up. We will be able to own a home, something that will never ever happen here. I love Portland, I’ve been going there my whole life, the PNW (Pacific North West) is my home and I love it, so I’m not “settling.” My sister and brother-in-law live there, a pack of cousins and in-laws. It’s a very good, well-timed move that we’ve considered carefully for months. It is the right thing to do at this time in our lives. So I’m excited to get there, move into our own home, finally get a dog we’ll call Smedley.
But I am finding myself swinging rapidly back and forth. On one side, I am excited, starting a new chapter, owning my first home, leaving apartment life behind. We will have a backyard, a patch of dirt for some carrots or something, and a room specifically for my Hello Kitty collection. That was my husband’s idea, but I think it’s mostly so it will be out of the bedroom. Regardless, it will be ours, Portland is beautiful, art is everywhere, and we had some of the best Ethiopian food there.
On the other side, the thought of leaving the City where my family lived since the 19th Century, where many of them are buried, where I have so many memories all of my life, a place that is my heart and my identity, where a clown-related comic-tragedy took the life of young Mr. Snyder. Except for a handful of graves, there will be no more family in California at all, which gives me chills.
It would be so much easier if I hated my City, but I don’t. I’m not blind to its problems, but “lost its soul?” Good gravy people, breathe. The San Francisco my great-grandparents loved in the 1800s is not the one my grandparents knew in the early 20th Century, which is not the one that my dad knew in the 30s and 40s and is not the one I knew in the 80s and 90s. OK, rant over, back to the actual topic.
This is the right decision. Chris and I have been processing it for months. We are not being forced out; we are not leaving due to economics alone, we have chosen to do this and we have solid reasons. Otherwise, quite frankly, I’d be pissed as hell. But that’s not the case. We are heading off on a new adventure, one with a backyard, a private laundry, without a pack of hideous people living above us, without hours-long screaming fights and banging that shakes our cupboards and drunken hostility when we ask them to keep it down since like the very first time we ever did oh my god how do people live like that and think it’s ok to treat people like that and use my illness as a weapon and….<deep inhale>
Anywhoo, that’s done. We’re off to a new, but not unfamiliar place. I have family in Portland living not too far from us. Memories to be made, new favorite places, and a dog called Smedley. No idea what he’ll be yet, other than the one we fall in love with at the shelter. His name has been Smedley for many years; a story for another time.
It will be a few months before we go, most likely. I’ve learned words like “good faith deposit,” “escrow,” “closing costs,” “eye-bleeding fear.” For now we’re purging, packing non-essentials, and sightseeing, all of which I have on checklists because that’s what I do.
We’ll be trading this deco masterpiece, seen here through the living room window, for the green one there in the cover photo, St. John’s Bridge. And we’ll love it. And I already love Powell’s because it is a bibliophiles dream-scape.
I’ll be writing as we go through this process, leaving the state, starting a new chapter. I do welcome any and all advice, words of comfort, or places we should definitely see in Portland, especially the spooky ones. We like the spooky.
Christmas is almost here, which is stunning to me, but I thought I’d share a thought for the many of us who sometimes have a problem dealing with it.
You don’t have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
There’s a lot of pressure around this one day, a lot of messages to be happy and joyful, to bake cookies, watch some version of “A Christmas Carole,” smile at children, or something. If you’re religious, there’s a whole other level of pressure; I remember it from my youth. Sit and be happy with your family, smile, be loving, give meaningful gifts. Also, you must have gifts.
If someone in that family has abused you somehow, this can be devastating. Maybe you seethe all day, maybe you act out, maybe you self-medicate, or worse. I did all three. The only way I could even remotely deal with this was to medicate with alcohol or weed. It tarnished the holiday for me, darkened it, and that took years and the removal of the toxic person, to overcome. I still feel down now and then, but less often and with far less intensity, and I’ve remained sober. I also had help from the family I kept in my life, my friends, and my husbands. I’ve been married twice, my first husband remains a wonderful man.
This brings me to “Mr. Robot.” Chris would say he just got whiplash from that segue but bear with me.
“Mr. Robot” is one of my favorite shows. Recently there were two episodes with disturbing scenes involving attempted suicide and a mind-exploration (I’m being as vague as I can to avoid spoilers) that were graphic. I didn’t really key in on the first too much because I was wrapped up in whatever horrible thing was happing to Rami Malik that week.
But the second scene hit me to my core. Chris knew it would, so he asked me if I was ok. We talked about it, and I was able to center and appreciate the art of it, but it did, in fact, rock my world for a bit.
Here’s the thing though, at the end of both episodes, a message came up listing the appropriate contact numbers. I was shocked to silence for a few minutes; I have never seen anything like that.
This is what I mean when I say we must watch out for each other, that we are all in this together. It’s why I’m very careful with what I say or the images I use and include the appropriate references at the bottom of any article I believe could be provocative. Also, because I write about such personal things, and I write without blinders, many articles have thrown me for a loop, and I have to find a way to process my own words. My therapist told me she loves that I do all the initial work at home and bring in what needs to be worked on. It’s a timesaver.
You may not know this, but I am incredibly protective of you. I spend a lot of time editing words or photos I fear might be upsetting to someone, so sometimes I do find myself completely paralyzed. “Is this word inclusive enough? Could this hit a button for anyone? What if I make a joke so bad that it makes someone pass out with rage?” That last one is pretty likely to have happened.
People need to feel safe and nurtured, but that word seems especially vexing for some. Why? Is there a bottle somewhere full of nurturing, with a message like, “Expires at Age 20 – Please Place All Bad Feelings in Your Stomach.” I really don’t think so.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am all about play, giving yourself permission to have fun, whatever it is, go to a meadow and make a chain out of wildflowers. You know, I never figured out how to do that, I tended to just blow the fuzz off of dandelions.
Christmas is hard for some of us, to one degree or another. It’s gotten easier for me, and I enjoy it and my chosen family. I love the traditions the family has. Chris and I have our tree up, pride-of-place on the tree goes to a severed finger ornament, all bloody, wearing a Swarovski crystal ring, Crazy Legs generally leaves it alone. I have my own Hello Kitty tree set up, and of course Ermastus, greeting people as they come up the stairs. He’s friendly, but he can’t hold his liquor!
My family is largely gone, my parents and brother have passed, my sister and brother-in-law moved to Oregon, but Chris’ family is here, so we spend the day together, we enjoy each other’s company, exchange gifts that can be fun toys from Think Geek (pay me Geeks, and I’ll do that more} or something sweet and meaningful, it doesn’t matter. Then a huge feast of Indian food, Christmas Crackers, listening to each person read their horrible joke and show off their prize, lovely desserts. No caroling though, I’m the only singer. I do miss that, but it’s all good.
Oh, Indian food, yes. Most of Chris’ family cook and they love to show off at Thanksgiving just for fun. Years ago though, long before me, they decided that Christmas was stressful enough without having to do all the cooking again, so one of the only places open for delivery would be Indian food and there it is, a tradition that makes me happy, and very full.
But this was not always the case. And the messages we get from every direction are we must be happy at all times, that a sad face is somehow an affront.
You do not have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
In the spirit of taking care of each other, which Christmas should be about, remember that. Feel what you are feeling. Try to not compound it with guilt because you don’t want to skip down the street singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Anyway, that’s nonsense, the most wonderful time of the year is when the Halloween stores open. Then Chris and I skip hand-in-hand through the parking lot to find batties and ravens and skeletons that will sit outside and greet our neighbors.
No, no, I’m kidding, Ermastus. Nobody can replace you.
So, taking a page from Mr. Robot, I’m listing some numbers for you below in the closing credits so to speak. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this holiday, if you need help, do not hesitate to call. There would be nothing worse at any time of year than to lose you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.