That’s what the owl said to me, in the voice of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. However, unlike the caterpillar, it delivered the question without disdain, and the owl was not expecting an answer.
We were walking around Town Lake for my birthday, moseying northwest under the high leafy canopy of pecan trees just before the Lamar Street Bridge when I spied a fluttering of wings out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, looked up and saw a giant barred owl staring at me from a tree branch above. “Look!” I said with awe, and Gage followed my pointing finger to the owl. His eyes grew big and he grinned.
“I’ll go get Dad and Jack!” He raced off ahead, his sneakered feet pounding the packed gravel. Owl’s head turned and followed Gage’s progress with mild interest. Then it turned back to me. Eyes big and round, calm, attentive, curious.
Who ARE you?
I watched and snapped pictures as Owl stared, turned its head to survey the surroundings, adjusted its stance in the tree, and stared again. Owl glided to another branch facing the water, then swiveled its head in that impossible, 180-degree way and made eye contact again.
Who are you?
As I watched Owl, a calm resoluteness came over me. I was not intended to answer the question. I was meant to be it, go out and find it, in the world and inside myself. Owl’s was not so much a question as an invitation, one posed without judgment or attachment. Then, Owl soared away.
Days later, an owl landed in my inbox. A raku potter I follow, the Alchemist, had made some. I picked one who spoke to me, and my very own owl arrived, carefully wrapped, in my mailbox a short while later, all the way from Canada. It was addressed by hand.
Now Owl sits on my desk. I smile when I see her. She watches me type, and she is always asking….
I am really good at getting lost. As I’ve mentioned, I’m also not a very good driver, so maybe don’t get in the car with me. Ever.
Young and Lost
When I was a wee thing, younger than five, my parents sat on the sands of Galveston, Texas, and watched me frolic in the surf and dig holes in the sand with my chubby hands. They saw me collect shells that only a child of that young age would find remarkable. Then, they watched me walk off down the beach in the wrong direction, away from them. They waited for me to realize my mistake, but when mom began to lose sight of me, she hustled down the hot sand to retrieve me. I had no idea. Ah well, she’s young, they thought.
When I was thirteen, my friend, Cindy, and I liked to be dropped off all the mall where we would revel in our independence and spend all our babysitting money on nail polish and cheap earrings at Claire’s. One of the first times I was allowed this freedom, I got lost. We’d agreed Mom would retrieve us from the very same Sanger-Harris entrance where she’d dropped us off. We waited, and Mom didn’t show. Mom waited, and we didn’t show. After a lot of driving/walking around and missing each other in that pre-cell-phone era, we realized we’d been waiting at the wrong entrance. At thirteen, Mom decided a little advice was warranted:
“April, when you walk in the mall, look at where you are. Are you by women’s shoes? Luggage? Furniture? What floor are you on?”
Most people don’t need to be told this, but I did, and I still forget to pay attention to it sometimes.
Drunk and Lost
In my late 20’s, I attended a gathering at a close family friend’s new condo in East Austin, about the time the gentrification in that area was really picking up momentum. We were scarcely out of earshot of I35, but I still turned the wrong way out of the complex and ended up driving around two-lane roads bordered only by tall grass and trees in the dark for the next two hours. I had a cell phone by then. I called my then-husband, Javier.
“Where are you?!”
“That’s the problem, dummy. I DON’T KNOW!”
I don’t know what I expected him to do. You couldn’t track phones back then, and he, stupidly, did not have the magical ability to divine where I was. I gave up, hung up, then I put my little red Dodge Stratus in a ditch. I rolled right off the gravel side of the road into a small depression in the earth that was not exactly a gully but trapped my car nonetheless. We may have been a little drunk.
Miraculously, after driving around for over an hour on unlabeled roads without seeing another vehicle, a car came by, and the group of guys inside helped us push the car back onto the road. About fifteen minutes and several more random-guess turns later, I saw a road sign:
“Ed Bluestein!” I yelled.
One of the special and maddening things about Austin is how half the streets have more than one name. Start driving down Bullick Hollow at one end, for example, and it’ll turn into RM 2222, Northland Drive, Alandale, then Koenig before it sputters out at I35. Ed Bluestein happens to be what Highway 183 is called at one of its more easterly sections. 183 would take us home.
Married and Lost
Once, when Jason and I first started dating, his cousin was giving me directions over the phone. Mike said, “April, you’re going to have to be the direction person in that relationship because Jason has no sense of it.”
Jason and I have spent a lot of time driving around, missing exits and asking each other, “Where are we? I thought the restaurant was right here.”
Engaged and shopping for wedding bands, we drove all over the city looking for a Jared’s we swore we’d seen on Brodie. Or was it on William Cannon? Maybe the other side of 71? We finally gave up and went home only to find the Jared’s within spitting distance of our apartment.
Soccer Mom Lost
The advent of Google Maps on our phones changed our lives. We reduced our driving-around-in-circles-lost minutes by 60 percent. I still sometimes manage to get myself and my family spectacularly misplaced. A couple of weekends ago, I was responsible for all the driving for the soccer tournament because Jason was sick.
I carefully mapped out each location, saved them in Maps, checked traffic well in advance and left extra time for parking and finding, say, field 17 out of 35 when nothing is labeled. (Seriously, have you ever tried to find one field in a park/event center/soccer complex? It’s a Where’s Waldo? sea of numbers, nets, cleats and umbrella chairs.)
Saturday afternoon, Jack and I departed Gage’s game early to get to his, leaving my mom to ferry Gage home. My phone battery was dying, so I asked Jack to navigate us, ensuring he typed the address correctly. We’d been at the same exact location earlier that day for his morning game.
We took a lot of weird turns and ended up at the address on Pecan Street, where we intended, but somehow, it was a gas station now. There were TWO addresses that were THE EXACT SAME on that street. It makes a big difference if you leave the “East” off “Pecan Street” apparently. When I squealed up on two tires, delivering Jack to his game minutes before the start time, I was full of apologies, explaining we got lost then ran into horrible traffic. A friend teased,
“You know they didn’t move it after this morning, right?”
There you have it. I can get lost at age three on the beach within sight of my parents, and I can get disoriented in a brightly lit, well-labeled mall. I can misremember what is outside the home I’ve lived in for two years, and I can take a wrong turn while driving to a place I’d been THREE HOURS AGO. With GPS! It’s one of my many talents, so friends, if you ever find yourself just a little too well located, a little too sure of where you are in the world, hop in the car with me. Let’s go on an adventure.
“Fucker,” I mutter under my breath at the tan, dented Cadillac crossover immediately in front of me. It’s traveling ten miles under the speed limit, and I’m impatiently tooling along behind it, but that’s not the source of my ire. There has been a hideous traffic violation.
Seven seconds earlier, the same nefarious boat of a car and I had been idling at a red light, side by side, in the left-hand turn lanes, me in the outermost one. The green, protected-turn arrow blinked on, and we veered off, southbound. In the process, the Cadillac casually drifted into my lane as if it had every right to do so, and I was forced to apply my breaks and let it in.
“Hey!” I gesticulated with indignation. I tried to honk the horn but missed the center of the steering wheel in this vehicle I wasn’t accustomed to driving yet. And so I settled for a few choice expletives that only I could hear while I glared at the back of the car that had just cut me off. I no longer flip people off or yell out the window; somewhere in there, I got old enough to realize I was neither immortal nor always right.
As soon as I had room, I swerved into the left lane and zoomed around the Cadillac but not so fast I didn’t have time to turn my head and get a good look at the offender. She was around 80 years old with hair dyed the dark brown of her youth and giant sunglasses covering the top half of her face. I turned forward to keep my eyes on the road ahead again, was quiet for a second and then burst out laughing.
She was me. Or rather, I will be her in thirty or so years. I have never been the best driver, and at 45, I can already feel my night vision failing. It stands to reason that I will eventually progress from occasionally cutting someone off, realizing it and gesticulating an apology, to obliviously drifting into the lane next door without noticing. Her hair was dyed brown, my hair was dyed purple. I had on giant sunglasses too. And yes, the vehicle I am getting used to driving is, hypocritically, a Cadillac crossover handed down from my late father-in-law.
I put that last part in there so you would know I didn’t choose this vehicle; I’m just driving it out of convenience and circumstance. I am not so bourgeois that I would purchase something as pretentious as a Cadillac. But secretly, I love that car. I could’ve driven my 2013 Toyota minivan with bald front tires and Goldfish crackers permanently ground into the floor mats this morning, but I chose the Caddy because damn, it is comfy. I smile with pleasure when I sit down on its plush seat and close the door to its calm and silent interior. It corners beautifully; it has a great sound system and a big color backup screen which is something my spacially unaware ass sorely needs.
Coincidentally, the dueling Caddies incident happened when I was driving home from getting my license renewed at the DPS office where I’d had to prove I could read the bottom line of an eye chart. Lucky for my left eye, it had to read the same six-letter sequence my right eye had just called out, so it knew that what looked like a blurry “O” was actually a “C.” I’m going to be Muriel (that’s what I named my future Cadillac-driving doppelganger) before I know it. The way she’d been straining forward to see over the steering wheel…I feel myself in the same pose, every time I’m driving home in the dark.
When I was young, immortal and always right, I was a shitty driver but for different reasons. I could see just fine, but I was an impatient asshole who would sooner slam on the breaks to make a turn and risk getting rear-ended than pass it up, turn around and arrive thirty seconds later than planned. I cut people off on purpose. I almost wrecked my parents’ van on the way to a Eurasure concert in Fort Worth, because I was unsure which way to go when the highway divided. As my friends frantically flipped through the Mapsco from page 45 to 102 to find our next turn, it was only when someone shouted, “Left, left, go LEFT!” at the last possible second that I swerved to avoid the concrete barrier in the middle. I didn’t want to go the wrong way and be late; missing the opening acts would’ve been the worst — far worse than slamming into cement, killing all my friends and bleeding out on the side of the highway.
Fortunately, by some miracle of the traffic gods, I made it through my impulsive teenage years with only a couple of minor fender benders. I got speeding tickets aplenty for doing 90 in my grandmother’s Chrysler while flying through the ranchlands between Austin and Dallas, but I never hit anyone going faster than a roll. And now, despite my presbyopic vision, I haven’t even dinged anyone’s bumper in at least a decade. According to me. A certain person I live with alleges he’s gotten his car back from me with new dents, but that’s just hearsay. And there was that one time I backed out of our driveway and hit our neighbor’s Jeep, but I only hit her tire. There was no damage, so it doesn’t count. Plus, I was distracted, bitching at the kids for bickering instead of looking over my shoulder, so it’s their fault anyway. This is why I need the Cadillac that beeps when I’m about to hit something. Well, shit. I’m Muriel already.
I was going through jewelry, getting rid of some things, when I came upon a pair of silver peace signs, small and dangly with black backgrounds. I smiled inwardly and remembered:
It was the early 90s; my friends and I were at Lollapalooza at Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas. All our favorite bands were there, but I was most excited about Alice in Chains. Between shows, we wove our way through the vendor’s booths of hand-woven bags, scarves and homemade jewelry. Russell had asked me to carry his wallet for him. I was wearing my favorite, low-slung jean shorts and would have carried his anvil if that boy had asked me to. And so, I perused the jewelry, oversized 90s guy-wallet sticking out of my back pocket.
I came across the peace earrings, smiled and fingered them. I said, within Russell’s earshot, “I really like these.” I moved onto the next table of wares, confident he’d heard me but not at all certain he would choose to take the bait. That boy was full of mysterious processes I could never figure out. He had an ulterior motive for stashing his wallet with me, I’m sure; but to this day, I’ll be damned if I know what it was. I liked being in charge of his things, though — having a sense of propriety of him. My heart blossomed with delight when he reached over to pluck his wallet from my back pocket to purchase the earrings for me.
He cares; he wants to make me happy.
The woman behind the table chastised him for using his girl’s cash to buy her a present, but strangely he didn’t correct her. Perhaps he’d given me his wallet to set up precisely this situation for whatever convoluted motivations lurked in his grey matter. Or perhaps I’m giving him too much credit.
That same day, ensconced in the shade of the main pavilion between acts, we sat side-by-side waiting in amiable silence. We were early; there were a few people scattered here and there throughout the bolted-down folding seats. To pass the time, I watched them. A dude came galloping through the empty chairs, leaping over rows and eventually tripping. He fell but recovered himself quickly. He had a wild and unfocused look about him. I casually thought, he’s drunk.
Russell turned to me. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” I answered, as I turned toward him, my eyebrows raised questioningly.
“No, you said something about that guy being drunk.”
My mouth fell open. This is an ability my husband has now — something that drew me in when Jason and I first got together — that uncanny habit of voicing what I almost opened my mouth to say.
Those earrings transported me to a snapshot of the past when I felt confident and connected to the person I was with. It was a day of fun and good music — one when, for once, I didn’t secretly long to go home before everyone else I rode with was ready.
That relationship, mine and Russell’s, was, for the most part, a fucking mess. It was on-again-off-again and rife with infidelity, manipulation and mind games. When I look back at the four years I spent wringing my hands and crying over him, I shake my head at my younger self. How could I not have gotten disentangled from that doomed liaison sooner? The earrings, and moments like that day at Lollapalooza, remind me, though, that there were good times, there were reasons (maybe not solid ones) I kept hanging around.
Our relationship wasn’t so much banging my head against a wall as it was sitting at a slot machine — one that, as time went on, payed off less and less, but I still kept playing, hoping for another break. Rats will learn to push a button, when they’re hungry, to receive food pellets. They’ll push it obsessively, even after they’ve eaten their fill, if they only receive food pellets ever so often. Russell was my Vegas, my gambling habit, the one everyone in my life could see was dragging me down but me. I did, at long last, break it off for good. It has been a good 20 years since I even laid eyes on him.
It started when I was 16 and had been legally driving less than a year. Four years later, when I called it quits over the phone and knew this time it would stick, I was 20 and what passes for an adult. I was closing in on a degree and had modest career aspirations. Those are some formative fucking years. During that time, I fashioned a life in a new city, learned how to make friends and grew into a person independent of her parents’ house and finances. Russell was in my life through all of that, often on the periphery, throwing a wrench into my works by showing up when I least expected or by his conspicuous absence when I needed him most.
My relationship with him was by far the most volatile of my entire life. I still harken back to it because I learned so much, so painfully — that some people will take advantage of my openhearted nature, not because they consciously intend to, but because it’s the only way they know how to be. That I, despite the apparent ability to leave, had a tendency to become complicit in my own misery. I also now realize that, in retrospect, he may have been an asshole, but he wasn’t the only asshole in that relationship. My connection to Russell burned blisters into my soul, then formed callouses. Callouses that protected me from future harm. And from future connection. Much much later, I slowly began to file off those callouses, began to trust that the people in my life would be gentle with the soft tissue underneath.
It was dramatic and hard to ignore, even in the present.
I can look at those earrings, smile and recall the parts of my life that held some joy at the time. I can even remember the rocks I dashed myself upon too many times to count. And I can be grateful I learned those lessons then and have them to better navigate my life now.
I am hunched on the edge of the concrete slab, summer sun scorching my neck and shoulders unrelentingly. I am chiseling, with hammer and file, the mortar off of salvaged bricks. I curse each time a brick breaks under my chisel; that’ll be a dock in pay. It’s August in Texas; I’m fifteen years old.
It sounds like a scene from a post-apocalyptic, dystopian teen novel, but I’d chosen this brutal prisoner’s labor. The concrete slab was our front porch, and the bricks had been reclaimed from the demolition of the front wall of our house. Dad was paying us a quarter a brick to clean off the old mortar so he could reuse them in the addition he was building, but you only got a nickel if the brick cracked in half. Our younger cousin, JulieAnn, had already been fired from brick cleaning for breaking too many.
The addition was designed to give our family extra space now that my sister and I were teenage-sized, with gaggles of teenage-sized friends we brought home to take over our one living room. My parents were tired of being banished to their bedroom. Dad completed the project, with the last coat of peach-colored paint on the walls, in May of 1994 after I’d been off at college for two semesters and my sister, Bonnie, would be out of the house in a few short years — just in time for my parents to rattle around in a place that was now too big.
Dad honestly didn’t care how many bricks we cleaned; he offered the monetary incentive and left us to our own devices. He didn’t micromanage us or yell when one of us broke a brick (to our surprise), and he rationally “let JulieAnn go” for her clumsy cleaning, without a note of reproach in his voice. As I remember, Bonnie cleaned more than I did. I was fifteen and eager for the money, but I also had a boyfriend with a car — places to go, things to…well, places to hang out, anyway.
I didn’t think too much about the legacy or metaphor of brick cleaning at the time. My dad put us to the task to save money and also because it would have been difficult to find new bricks to match the original ones. Mostly though, my father hates to waste things. Throwing something out when you can clean it, fix it, reuse it, offends his very nature. In our house, there were flip flops repaired with twine, a washing machine with a weird metal knob replacing the plastic one we kids broke, and a manual-transmission vehicle that started without the clutch engaged. By the time my sister and I were budding teenagers, we took things like chiseling mortar for the sake of frugality as a matter of course. It was weird to our friends but not to us.
Just today, however, I was reading a chapter of Walden, “House Warming,” and came across an account of building a chimney with used bricks, and I was excited. Granted, I had to go back hundreds of years to find camaraderie in brick cleaning, but still. Let me use this opportunity to quote Thoreau and seem much more cultured and literary than I am:
I started reading Walden because a novel I was reading — blasting through fervently, actually, and ignoring everyone in my house – frequently referenced it. I’m not blasting through Walden but reading it more like you would poetry or philosophy – a few pages here, a chapter there, accompanied by a lot of pondering. I have been delighted to discover Thoreau and I are philosophically similar in a lot (but not all) ways. I’m surprised I have that much in common with a nineteenth-century man who never had children and died when he was younger than I am now. But like me, he reveled in nature and simplicity, he was a writer, and apparently, he cleaned bricks.
Thoreau took a much loftier approach to his mortar chiseling than I did, sweating over the quarter per in-tact brick I would get. He would have pitied my working for coins when I could’ve been toiling to my own ends. In a way, I was, as it was the roof I lived under that my dad was expanding. I, of course, didn’t see it that way. I was fifteen. I wasn’t helping improve our homestead; I was after money for movies and snacks.
Now, 30 years later, I can more easily see Thoreau’s and my dad’s view of things — brick cleaning and otherwise. Because while I was occasionally motivated by the almighty dollar in my youth, the older I get, the less excitement I’m able to muster about a couple of bucks, which is unfortunate because you know, capitalism. Now I prefer to do a lot of things myself instead of hiring someone, who admittedly, might do it better and faster. It’s money-saving, but the real reason I cut my own hair is that it’s simpler. I don’t have to make an appointment or drive anywhere or torture myself and a relative stranger with soul-killing small talk.
This is why I clean my own house (a.k.a, why my house is so fucking dirty); why there’s a hole in my bathroom showcasing visible bathtub plumbing that has been there so long I don’t see it anymore; why we have inside doorknobs on outside doors replacing the ones the kids broke. There is satisfaction in repairing things ourselves. The downside is, there is always shit waiting to be fixed in our house; the backlog is like, eons. We’ll probably fix that gaping hole full of PVC plumbing in the bathroom when we decide to sell the house in ten years. Probably. Because, unlike Thoreau, we can’t spend lazy days fishing at the pond and tending a fire for hours to cook our catch. We have kids to take to soccer, a geriatric dog to drag around the block and Everests of laundry to wash and never fold or put away.
But even if, like Thoreau, I could build my own little cabin with second-hand brick chimney upon the idyllic land owned by my financially independent good buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, I wouldn’t. Thoreau himself said his two-year stint by the pond, second-hand bricks included, wasn’t about making a map by which all people should live. He only sought to prove (primarily to himself, I suspect) that it was possible — if you lived simply — to work for yourself, to work very little and to be contented for it.
I’m not gonna go live off the grid. I like cell phones, Netflix and having neighbors. But I do seek to make things simpler by cleaning my own metaphorical bricks when I can. When the work is for my own house or my neighbor’s and not meaningless labor to make widgets or advertise said widgets for a corporation who will then pay me so I can turn around and pay someone else to fix my toilet, even when it’s hard, tedious or maddening, it feels good. So I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything or process anything, but maybe I am okay with cleaning bricks, as long as they’re metaphorical…me, Lloyd Dobler, my dad and Thoreau. Good company.
Throughout my childhood, my mom was The Fixer. You had a problem, yo, she solved it faster than Vanilla Ice, no revolving DJ necessary. The vacuum would start emanating that burned-motor smell, and she would spend the next half-hour sitting on the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaner upside down, with a screwdriver in her hand. She’d take it apart, clean off the gobs of hair wrapped around the rotor, retrieve whatever plastic hair tie had clogged it, reassemble it and finish cleaning the floor. “A clean machine is a happy machine,” she would say.
Put a package on it!
My sister and I liked to draw at the kitchen counter when we were little. Mom would be in the same room, cooking or doing science experiments in the sink or whatever moms do in the background when you’re six years old and self-involved. Ma, the meatloaf! I never know what she’s doing in there.
We’d invariably make a mistake — the cat’s tail was too fat or we left an “r” out of “Merry Christmas.” We always went straight for the markers, never learning from experience to write it in pencil first. We’d wail that our life was over because of this egregious error; now, we would have to start all over, and we just didn’t have it in us to face the blank canvas (manila construction paper)again. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Mom would swoop in with a fix: “Put a present over it!” Thus, our artwork was littered with random, brightly wrapped packages with red bows, smack in the middle of words, trees and cat’s hindquarters to unsubtly cover our mistakes — kind of like a kindergarten version of Japanese Kintsugi.
Mom applied the same technique to our clothing. When holes appeared in the knees of my jeans way before I’d outgrown them, she covered them with the assorted patches she kept in her sewing stuff — rainbows, hearts, flowers (presents). Until that is, I reached sixth grade and patched knees became too horrifyingly uncool for school. She sewed up the holes my sister accidentally cut in the collars of her shirts while trying to rid them of every millimeter of itchy tag full of size designations and washing instructions with a pair of safety scissors. Once, my sister cut a hole in a nightgown my grandmother had made, viciously forcing it to part ways with the detestable bow on its front. Mom fixed that, too.
Put it in a box.
Mom was also a pretty good fixer for teenage hearts that had been shattered into a million-billion pieces causing much weeping to sappy Richard Marx songs. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend and was wringing my hands over what to do with all of the memorabilia of our relationship that had adorned my room for the entire nine months of our coupling, Mom knew what to do. I didn’t want to look at that shit, but I couldn’t bear to throw it away, so she brought me a box. We put all the precious things — dried flowers, saccharine love notes, mason jar full of deflated balloons (a story for another time) — inside and stashed it in the back of my closet where I would find it several years later and toss it without a second thought.
Break out the lug wrench.
Mom is in her best form when annoying and unpredicted problems arise. She’s good with a flat tire. One year, she changed no less than six of them, each time on her way home from work. My dad accused her of running over nails on purpose, which made perfect sense. I’m sure she was just itching to wrench off lug nuts on the side of the highway in the dark after working ten hours at the hospital where she’d, incidentally, been fixing things all day.
In a crisis, Mom is cool as a little Fonzie. She’s the one you want first on the scene of a car accident and first in line to fix a ruined bridesmaid’s dress an hour before the ceremony. When my sister’s best friend’s mom exited stage left to go live in New Hampshire with her boyfriend, leaving two kids and a hapless ex-husband behind, my mom helped pick up the pieces. She shuttled those kids to and from school, dance classes and soccer. She fed them when necessary. She sprinted down to their house to shut off the malfunctioning burglar alarm all. the. time. Because no one was home and they didn’t want to have to pay the security company for yet another false alarm. “Stay calm now, fall apart later,” was her motto.
Pass down the skills.
My mother is the reason I calmly handled a tire blowout while driving a child-molester-sized van full of day camp kids 65 miles an hour down I35. She is the reason I fix the holes in my adult jeans, though now they show up, relentlessly, in the butt along the back pocket seam where my trunk junk can’t be contained by mere denim. She is why, when my toddler fell and hit his head on the tile so hard he started passing out and throwing up, I didn’t explode in a volcano of dysfunctional hysteria while trying to keep him awake on the way to the ER and instead pressed that rising panic down so I could function for my son.
Luckily, he was okay. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find time to fall apart later because I was so relieved my kiddo wasn’t permanently brain-damaged (though it was a little hard for the doctor to assess since he’d just started walking and moved around like a drunken college student already). It’s a good thing, too, because that kid is ten now, and he’d look pretty funny with a red and green-bowed Christmas package on his head.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thanks for always keeping our shit together.
I was coordinating the university blood drive, sitting at a table helping people fill out forms when a boy arrived in front of me with this bastardized clichéd poem. He gazed down at me with his big brown eyes, grinning at his own cleverness and manufactured mystery. In fact, I did know who he was. We hadn’t met, but his name was Diego.
I thought about using a pseudonym just now, but with a suave name like Diego, I just couldn’t do it. He was a friend of a friend and a nice-looking guy — cute, maybe even sexy. But I was not amused. I glared back up at him, tapping my pen impatiently.
Are you going to donate blood?
No, I just wanted to meet you. (flirtatious smile)
Then move out of the way. I’m busy.
I was not playing hard-to-get. When I am intensely focused on something I can be a dick to anyone who interrupts me. It’s a well-known fact in my family. But there was more to it than my annoyance. Diego was not just a gnat buzzing in my ear that I absently swatted away. He represented a larger conflict.
I was a nice kid. When people came up to talk to me, I smiled, listened and made eye contact, even when I was in a hurry or they were interrupting my intense navel-gazing. As I went through puberty, though, this started to backfire. What I considered polite and friendly was taken as flirtation and a promise of something more. Then, I’d get ambushed with some guy’s tongue on my face and he’d act like I’d stolen his lunch money when I pushed him away. Or worse, I’d think I’d made a friend only to discover he didn’t want to hang out with me if friends were all we were going to be.
So I quit being nice. I stopped smiling at people on the shuttle bus, quit making eye contact when a male person asked me an innocent question like, “Does the Pleasant Valley bus stop here?” I had resting bitch face down so pat (before it was even called that) that my ex-husband — who intimidated most people right out of the gate — was afraid to talk to me when he first laid eyes on me. The only time I did let some boy past the barrier was when I was entertaining the idea of making out with him; I had sunken to their expectations.
It became a habit. I didn’t just shut out potentially lecherous guys; I barred the door to everyone. And I did it long after the days of my getting hit on in public spaces were over. I eventually put resting bitch face to rest and became more outwardly friendly again. Still, I had lost the ability to open up, to be myself, to put myself in the position where I could potentially be shoved aside and rebuffed because I wasn’t offering what was wanted.
Luckily, I’m 45 years old and still here, so I have time. I can work on it. I AM working on it, and I’ve already gotten so much better at being vulnerable and making real friends. I’m not sorry I didn’t give Diego more attention 25 years ago, but maybe if I ever run into him again, we can be friends…metaphorically, anyway.
It’s five o’clock in the morning. I see Stonehenge, the massive horizontal stones looking deceptively precarious atop their supports. The circles of rocks are surrounded by a lush, green, rolling landscape. The monument is bathed in late afternoon light as are the inhabitants atop it. Calmly perched on one of the horizontal monoliths is a cartoon walrus who resembles the Lorax. He’s pink, anyway. Keeping him company are several, normal-colored guinea pigs – the kind who look like their hair is one big cowlick. They are brown and white and frolicking around on top of the stones, making those cute squeaky noises. There is also the name, Charles Lindell. Not printed anywhere, and certainly not a person in the flesh, but just the idea of a name. In the air, maybe. An aura?
Stonehenge, pink Lorax walrus, cheerful guinea pigs and the idea of a name? It’s not an acid trip; it is what is going on in my brain as I lie in bed between waking and sleeping, in a perfectly ordinary bedroom, no drugs involved.
I am crazy. Or I am some sort of oracle.
I watched a documentary on Stonehenge right before going to bed last night. I also saw a cartoon walrus who made me giggle in a Facebook meme yesterday. An old friend sent me a message recently and mentioned his kids had lots of pets, which prompted me to wonder if they were the regular dog-and-cat variety or something more exotic like birds, lizards or guinea pigs.
The documentary mentioned that the horizontal cross stone on the tops of the supports are called lintels. I remembered that’s also what you call the crosspiece over a doorway, and noted that lintel is a general-crosspiece word, not one specific to stone monuments. It was interesting (to my writer brain, anyway.) Lintel sounds like the last name, Lindell. Which reminded me of Charles Lindbergh, who did something cool with planes or aviation or something, so the name “Charles” got attached to Lindell.
The Stonehenge documentary got me to thinking about how we, as people, tend to have a less intimate relationship with nature and the celestial cycles for which Stonehenge seems to have been created. Thus, the Lorax element. I didn’t realize I was doing any of this. I just saw the trippy Stonehenge panorama, complete with cavorting beasties. But when I traced each element, I realized its origin.
So that is what my brain sometimes does when it is supposed to be sleeping. It’s pretty entertaining. It makes me wish I could draw better, too. I’m not crazy or clairvoyant, just a little weird maybe. And super adept at free association. What does your brain do in the twilight world between wakefulness and sleep?
When Sharon Hudson hired me to edit her e-book, I was thrilled. I’d always gotten good vibes from her, and we have a serendipitous friend in common. I met Hannah, who Sharon interviewed for Episode 9, in a prenatal yoga class; we ended up giving birth across the hall from each other on the same day. That kind of connection, even once removed, seems significant. Still, I figured I’d scroll through the rough draft of the book, make some developmental suggestions, dot some i’s, cross out some split infinitives and that would be that.
But in addition to the standard editorial fare, I could not resist typing rambling personal commentary in response to her content. The book, Authentically Me, (coming soon) addresses how society’s values and teachings can interfere with our finding out who we really are and what we want. Even in the editorial process, it caused me to reflect on my expectations for myself and why I’ve struggled with a narrow vision of success. My takeaway?
Man, Sharon is really smart and introspective! I want to spend more time with her.
I am terrible at following up on thoughts like that, so when Sharon asked to interview me for her podcast, Soul Quest, I was excited. And then I was nervous. I was going to talk about myself for 45 minutes, and not like, which are my favorite yoga pants, but about my divorce, my miscarriages and how my whole initial plan for adult life fell in the toilet. I took many, many deep breaths, tried not to ramble and put it out there.
The podcast is “conversations with inspiring people about their quest towards living their authentic life.” You may come away from Episode 15 inspired by what NOT to do as a functional adult, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.
Huge thanks to Sharon for allowing me to spill my guts on some of the messier moments that have bludgeoned me into who I am today.
For someone who is pretty attentive to all the shit that goes on in her head and whatever the latest science/space/blackhole news is, I can be oblivious to the walking, talking, irl stuff. Early concrete example: my dad built me a Barbie house for Christmas when I was eight. While it was a work-in-progress, he threw an old paint-stained olive green bedspread over it in the garage. I walked past its five-by-five Snuffalupagus-like bulk every day for months to access my bike and roller skates. I didn’t notice it.
My mother said, when I was young, sometimes kids would make fun of me in that subtle, it-sounds-like-a-compliment-but-any-sentient-adult-can-tell-it’s-not kind of way. It hurt her heart, but upon realizing I had no idea anything was going on beneath the surface of “I like your hair,” she decided perhaps ignorance was bliss and kept it to herself.
I am still like this. Although, at forty-five, I may get an inkling that your “that sweatshirt looks so comfortable” comment may be your way of passive-aggressively saying, “You look like a slob, and now I feel better than you,” I am still too exhausted to try to figure that shit out. Whatever. You are dismissed.
I was just reading an advice column in which a person asked, “When a guest brings a bottle of wine to my house for dinner, do I have to serve it with the meal?” Figuring out what social custom dictates you do in situations like this is so incredibly tiresome. If you bring me a bottle of wine, please, for the love of god, tell me what to do with it. “I thought it would go nicely with the chips and queso” or “Save this for yourself for later” are welcome directions. Better yet, take liberty, get comfy in my house, and open that shit yourself or shove it in my wine fridge, which is probably empty because stocking up on wine is not something I’m capable of.
Whatever you do, don’t give me a choice and expect me to say the “right” thing. If you say, “Whatever. Open it if you want.” I will circumvent trying to read your true desires in your face like tea leaves and do exactly what I want. I’ll ask, “Are you sure?” That’s your one out. If you don’t take it, you’ve no one but yourself to blame.
Look, I will pick up on your mood. I am annoyingly empathetic. If you are having a shitty day, I will know that you are sad, tired, pissed off, depressed, whathaveyou. But if you are trying to send me subtle social cues to tuck my bra strap under my sleeve, I will absolutely not notice. Then, you will make fun of me to your “friends” later, which will feel delicious at first but leave you with that horrible hollow feeling after the fact, and I will go home none the wiser.
I used to think this lack of social awareness was a failing of mine, but every time I have gotten a clue that I didn’t use the right fork or someone was smirking at my shoes, it hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel bad (when I was younger) or annoy me (when I was older). Plus, Jason says he loves this about me, and with all the other shit he has to put up with, I oughta throw him a bone. So…oblivious. Yeah, I think I’ll keep it.