Angst, anger, anarchy

Days of Amber

Posted by on Nov 16, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Spirit | 3 comments

The light is perfect today, brilliant and golden, like the world put on its polarized sunglasses, laughed, and then woke me early to share the joke. Even before I venture outside, the color tells me there will be a crispness to the air and a faint whisper of burning leaves. The scurry of fall is upon us; the memory of languid summer days almost erased by the press of winter anticipation. Even city dwellers who cannot tell soybean from wheat fields feel an urgency to count their metaphorical sacks of grain. The days grow shorter, the grasshopper’s summer song begins to take on a remorseful refrain, and the ant tidies up his honeypots with a dour air of smugness.

The suede jacket that has hung in my closet these long months wraps me in it’s soft embrace, like an old friend returned from sabbatical. My blood quickens as I step out into a world ablaze with color. For all appearances the earth goddess Gaia rejoices in her her lying down to sleep, but perhaps she stuck a bad bargain and is making the most of it, like us all.

I am thankful it is Sunday and I have time to reflect. I need physical and emotional recovery from two nights out this weekend and the excitement of my first real birthday party since I was a teenager. Two weeks before the party I began to wish I had ignored my natal day as I have so often in the past. The week before I am unexpectedly teary. On Thursday, the day before my birthday, events unfold both at work and in my personal life that make my sojourn in my own private purgatory a bit more bearable. Friday afternoon I send out all my work evaluations at ten minutes of three and make my escape before anyone can email me. Friday night I find myself surrounded by supportive loving friends and family, and I sat there drinking it in like the woman who has everything.

I am acutely aware of how lucky I am when I see envy on the faces of strangers and casual acquaintances. It makes me ashamed about all the times they might have seen the same look on my face, just for a second, just before I turned my head. We are greedy creatures we humans, and I more than most. The words from  Leonard Cohen “Bird on a Wire” play on the soundtrack of my life:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

I give myself over to a moment of selfishness on Saturday night and tried to explain my restlessness to the man I married. The words don’t come out right. They never do, they never will. I live in a place of abundance, surrounded by love. No one could ask for more, and yet, I do.

After the band played its last song Saturday we stepped out  into the cool dark of evening, flushed from the dancing. I lifted my hair and let the air evaporate the dampness from the nape of my neck. In the car I fingered the amber talisman on my bodice, an ancient palliative against aging and evil spirits…

The morning sun found me on the sofa, my charm still encircling me, guarding me. Its honey yellow color echos the light of the day and an unimaginable morning forty million autumns ago when resin dripped like butterscotch from a wounded Mesozoic tree, now long extinct. In an eye blink of years from now the memory of my current struggle will be reduced to lines on paper, less important to the universe than the flotsam this amber trapped before it hardened. Unanswered questions that shot like sparks from the fire inside my soul will be long cold, and my restless spirit will lie still and silent. Today I am taking inventory. With a burst of grasshopper regret I realize that the dreams I stored in the summer of my life may be insufficient to take me through to the end. Perhaps I need to run faster than I ever have before to find a place I am not even certain exists. It may be that my run must be in solitude and sacrifice, but not to try is to deny my birthright. The rustle of  leaves beneath my boots seems to whisper, “Hurry, hurry.”

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Posted by on Nov 6, 2010 in Angst, anger, anarchy | 3 comments

The bridge grew like a leviathan as we approached from the south, it’s exposed metal girders suspended impossibly high off the ground. In the back seat I become silent as my brother and sister chatter about our trip north. My skin feels clammy, my stomach twisted as if the bridge has reached its awful steel-gray hands into my gut. My brother, suddenly realizing I am too quiet, seizes the opportunity.

“You know the road ends up there.” He points forward and I look with rising terror at the arch of the highway ahead. My five year old eyes cannot fill in the space outside the lines. I believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy because they give me gifts. I wonder why I go to God’s house every Sunday, but he never seems to be there. I imagine him as a man in pith helmet, machete in hand, cutting through the African jungle in search of lost sheep.  I believe in the picture I see ahead, where clearly, the road is simply not there.

My thirteen year old brother, encouraged by my fear, continues, “When we get to the top the car is gonna just sail off the end.” My fists clutch the edge of the fold down arm rest that divides the space in the back seat. I am allowed to sit there because I am the smallest. My siblings both fume at my privileged position. I look for help from the front seat, but my parents seem engaged in serious conversation. I waver slightly on our imminent death by drowning, but I know for a certainty the consequences of interrupting them. I look back at the road way. I review the few years of my life I can remember, the sandbox in my back yard under the willow tree I love, the church, the grocery store, my grandmother. It blurs into a impressionist montage as the mouth of the monster approaches. Seconds now until our death, but my brother continues to badger.

“Just a little further and it stops” he taunts as we draw ever closer to the crest. I hold my breath for the plunge, eyes riveted to the asphalt. Very soon in real time I become aware that the ribbon of highway in front of me stretches flat and straight as an arrow across the Indiana bottom land, as far as I can see. I know I have been duped, and I tell him so with my eyes. My confused and angry glare elicits a quick, “Wrong bridge” and a belly laugh from he and my sister. “It’s the next one, honest” he swears, hand in the air. The scene fades to a gray humiliation.

Ten years later, Sunday afternoon on a back country road, my mother sits beside me in the family station wagon. I am the apprentice driver, my hands positioned on the steering wheel like they showed me in the driver’s manual at 10 and 2, as if the wheel were a clock. Her fists are digging into the seat in a manner reminiscent of my five year old fingers long ago. A pale shadow of the giant bridge of my childhood looms ahead of us. Both of us look at the pancake flat road as if the ground were going to open and swallow us whole. “Move over to the center line,” she intones, trying to keep the rising panic out of her voice. Responding to the fear I turn the wheel slightly left, slow to a snail’s pace and straddle the double yellow lines. We roll down the center of the three car length structure like a parade float, our four eyes fixed directly and unblinking forward. Finally on the other side, we both remember to breath.

At age twenty I drove across the Verranzano Narrows connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island with a steady hand and a joyful heart. At twenty two I crossed the Golden Gate to visit friends at Stanford, delighted at the beauty of the perfect bay around me. Large or small, from coast to coast I cruised over them with a trust in technology stronger than any fear I could conjure in my head. One night, not long before my second marriage, I woke from a fitful sleep in a cold terror. A nightmare of a bridge loomed ahead of me and my car was moving too fast for me to control, especially from the back seat where I found myself sitting. Reaching desperately for the wheel, knowing it was too late to stop, I sailed off the end, just like my brother predicted. It was the bridge he told me about, the one my mother tried to prepare me to cross. Since that night the dream has come back to me many times in many forms, all my fears tucked neatly in one basket.

Perhaps in my rush out the door of childhood I was moving faster than the speed of fear. Now here in my dotage I have time to reflect on how high those bridges were and how deep the water lay below them. I do not pretend to understand the psychology of irrational anxiety. I only know I miss the audacious, reckless, sometimes outright foolhardy girl who lived on faith and velocity. I think I might still have enough courage left to conjure her again, slightly shopworn perhaps but stronger for the journey.

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Time Zone Shift

Posted by on Sep 28, 2010 in Angst, anger, anarchy, My Children | 0 comments

I have slept on this futon in my firstborn’s living room for four nights now, and only this morning became cognizant of the clock that ticks somewhat laboriously right over my head. It has the distinctive mechanical sound of a swinging pendulum, something I can’t help but believe is a calculated contrivance. Perhaps the pulse of it has been soothing me at night, the heart steady beat taking me back to a time and place of primitive comfort. After three busy days and four restless nights neither my brain or my body have adjusted to the rhythm of the northwest coast. I don’t think I can blame it on the wonderful coffee, for although my consumption of it has increased while here, I lie me down and sleep peacefully with enough caffeine roaring through my system to lift the airplane that carried me from the east. Since I have ignored the clock until today’s 3AM awakening I think we can discard that as a possible cause of my unrest. I feel it might have more to do with recent revolutions and revelations in my own life and those of my children. I am filled with secrets, possibilities, and impossibilities in equal measure.

My grandson’s birthday was held on a cold rainy Monday and all the cool kids were there. We dressed everyone up in homemade cardboard robot costumes and paraded down the street like so many happy fools. Seattle did not even blink at our absurdity. The next day my eldest son took me for a wonderful walk through Elliott Park which is sandwiched artfully between the towers of downtown and the proliferation of ships in the harbor. The hillside is wild and tame in turn and dotted with sculptures. Every man made object along the path seems to have a grace and style that says “look at me again”. For some reason my lasting memory was a lone creosote log, balanced on an angle down the rocky coast line, and bobbing up and down precariously with the tidal echo.

With so much of the day still left my son drove us over to Ballard to watch the ships go through the locks and have lunch at an old converted Firehouse. The words between us were of a private nature that required us being face to face and heart to heart. He tells me his secrets between sips of a light crisp local Pilsner that tastes like a fleeting summer day. He does not have to ask for my blessing or my acceptance, because for these few hours we are the intertwined souls that held each other fast in days gone by. As we leave the restaurant I take his hand like I did when he was a little boy and tell him how proud I am of his integrity and decency. Over at the locks the ships slip by us one by one while all the words that can be said are said. He judges not that he be not judged and I do the same. I come home filled with joy and hope and love beyond my understanding.

Wednesday night I had a less serious interaction with my middle child over dinner in a fu-fu Asian fusion joint that worked a bit too hard at being exclusive. We arrived unfashionably early and the large minimalist room had only two patrons. “Do you have reservations,” the maître d queries, in a tone that suggested she had recently been sitting on a tack.
“They were for 6:30 but we took a chance and came at 6.” She looks around the empty restaurant as if she is trying to figure out where she can squeeze us in. My son and I are both amused, but play along by following her eyes around the room. She seats us in what seems like as desirable location as any other, along the wall toward the back. After a perusal of the menu we order and dine sparingly on excellent but exorbitantly priced seafood. I leave too large a tip, just to prove I am cosmopolitan and accustomed to such practices.

The web of pretense I weave around my humble origins surprises me at times. I try to hold my center as I move through places and people unfamiliar to me, but my success with this attempt is sketchy. The young man across from me, the shy bright peacekeeper of the family, seems to have a firmer grasp on the concept of self. “In Richmond,” he says, “I was a bleeding heart liberal. Here I am almost conservative.” I compliment my steadfast child and he shrugs it off like water, for after all, it is his nature.

No matter where I land, my chameleon character cannot hold its color for long. My voice, my step, and what is left of my religion begins a slow shift, attempting to make myself indistinguishable from those around me. When I was in England I shared my colorful history with my daughter’s family by marriage. In trying to explain my roots I related a story from my childhood of the night when our Redbone coon hound gave birth to puppies under our tiny one bedroom house. My father had to crawl into the spidery darkness to remove the babies, whose whimpering woke all of the occupants above. Of course I then had to elaborate on the practice of coon hunting in rural Kentucky and further expounded that the modest house was literally where I was born. There were no hospitals, no convenience stores, no alcohol, no bars in that small town – only churches and gas stations, one grocery store, and steadfast honest people from the heartland. It stands to reason that I could not hold the pattern of my childhood sacrosanct when I left that life behind in such a tiny corner of the world.

Here, far away in the last cool damp days of the brief northwestern summer, I try on the mindset of unfamiliar philosophies and colorful people. Their dress and attitude reflect the landscape, grey and brown and black with unexpected splashes of bright color and print. I feel my colors changing to as I turn through the clothing in the cute shops of the delightful neighborhoods. Still, I am slightly out of step with the street traffic, find no discernible accent to mimic, and realize I am perhaps too old to fit into the crowd I would gravitate toward. It is this advance and retreat that keeps me unsettled here. My elder child and his wife embrace the life on this shore, love the friends they have made, and look forward to rearing their child in an atmosphere that is green and hopeful. My middle son is more stoical and merely says he fits in here as well as anyplace. I see all of them content with a full and rewarding life together.

I peer into the future from this vantage point, but like the rabbit in the Dr. Seuss story, I look around the world and back again only to see the fool on the hill trying to know the unknowable. The only thing I am sure of is that I will get on the airplane Saturday morning and fly back to the comfortable but confining place I have called my home for almost four decades. After all this living, I still have more questions than answers; at a time when I am supposed to be settled and serene, I still yearn for adventure and challenge. The stranger I see in the mirror often lies to me about possibilities and impossibilities, but she always yearns for a perfection she is incapable of achieving. I almost hope she never figures it out.

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Bird on a Wire

Posted by on Jul 28, 2010 in Angst, anger, anarchy | 0 comments

One foot out the door, the smell of summer pleaded with me to linger. Seductive and enticing, it pulled at the high heel of my summer sandals, imploring me to abandon the trappings of adult responsibilities and step barefoot into the damp grass. I pushed myself onward against the invisible force of early morning mist, remembering when time held it’s breath for me. I think of long sticky August days spent watching ants, exploring the fields and forest of Kentucky with no clock but the sun, running free with my father’s hounds. Time was a boundless fortune I could not dream of exhausting.

My hands are full with gym bag, lunch, and responsibilities. I must deny myself even a minute to stop and examine a single leaf. My manicured finger touches the door handle of my car and the magic of technology takes me off on its pricy magic carpet. The news of the day comes from the radio and the sweet earthy fragrance of summer is washed away by my own soap and vanilla scent. Outside my office the warm aroma of high summer seems distant and diluted. Once inside the door it is altogether gone, replaced by the anonymous sterile odor of papers and keyboards. As I open my computer, the day’s chores nibble tiny bites from my soul. For one more day I will be faithful, loyal, and responsible, even knowing that nothing I can purchase with the gold I earn can buy me a minute of the freedom I yearn for this morning.

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A Minor Occurrence

Posted by on Jan 23, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal | 0 comments

It seems indecent to post her picture here, this wild thing, mute and still in death. I do not know if she died from hunger or, struck by a car on the road, she limped here to rest. Before I found her I had followed the story her hoofs made in the deep snow, crossing back and forth, x and o, circle, and around again. I saw where she had scraped the snow back searching for food by the tree, and there a branch shows her teeth marks. When I am almost to the edge of the water the unexpected smooth brown fur startles me. I freeze in place and watch her, waiting for an explosion of motion when she realizes I have found her sleeping place. As I stare at her belly for a tell tale sign of breath I walk back in my mind through my noisy passage to this spot. No living deer would be within miles of the clumsy ape that rules this forest, my feet like thunderclaps across the still landscape. As minutes pass and she stays there, motionless, I notice how the snow covers her front hoof, how the crystal ice on her rough coat catches the sun and clothes her in precious gems like a woodland fairy. Back inside my warm house I think back to reading a story to my eldest son from an old book that had belonged to his great aunt, Deer In the Snow, by Miriam Schlein. It was an idyllic tale of young children who lived with their parent in the woods where game was abundant. They notice three deer that seem to be hungry and the father goes to the feed store and buys oats and alfalfa so the children can keep them nourished all winter. The book was written in 1956, long before deer suffered from overpopulation. In fact in the 1930’s the white tailed deer came close to extinction in the US. It is difficult to imagine today as recent estimates put the deer population at around 30 million, enough to qualify as a nuisance in suburban and even smaller urban areas. Yet here I am looking at the picture of one fallen deer and I cannot help feeling sad. I suppose if I had known she was hungry I would have tried to feed her, even realizing it would be a stupid thing to do. It’s just that there is a difference in the millions of deer that trample down our suburban flower beds or throw themselves in the paths of cars and this one dead helpless creature lying nestled in the snow, glittering in the sun, under a sky as blue as cornflowers. It is always thus when we are directly confronted with natural selection. I suppose in that stopped clock way Joseph Stalin was correct when he stated that, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Today under my tree, by my lake, during my watch, a lovely creature breathed her last breath, hungry, cold, and alone.

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Posted by on Dec 6, 2009 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal, Mother | 0 comments

Slamming the door in anger was not allowed in my home. The punishment was to be spanked, and then with deep shuttering sobs shaking my body, I was required to go back and close the door gently. Sometimes it took three or four repeats to make the closing sufficiently soft to suit my mother. I think I was about eleven when I finally learned the lesson that my anger would have to be expressed more covertly. I do not think it was the lesson my mother intended. It was around that age when I started stealing money from one of her many pocketbooks on an almost daily basis. She carried a different one each day, leaving a wealth of change jingling in the bottom of all the others. It was money she never missed, money I did not need, money she would have given me if I had been able to explain why I wanted it. I did not care to explain even if I had known why. I took it and spent it at the drug store on cherry fountain cokes or strawberry ice cream sundaes, often treating my friends too, the ones my mother told me really didn’t like me because I was whatever thing she was annoyed about at the time.

We were at eye level by the time I was eleven but I grew three inches in the next year, making her the smallest, but still the most terrifying person in my world. Although we never spoke a word about the changes happening in my body, my mother’s tight lipped disapproval seemed to increase as I morphed rapidly from child to woman. It was that summer that I finally stood defiant and stared her down the last time she ever dared to punish me physically. I did not sob or even speak. I waited until she was finished shouting her angry triad and hitting me, and then I walked quietly to my room and shut the door softly, just the way I had been taught. Behind that closed door I sat dry eyed and felt the power grow in me.

I became a stranger to my mother that day, as she did to me. It was not that moment alone, but the accumulation of blows both physical and emotional that made me close the door gently, my rage sucked inside. Since that time I have traveled many miles and years from my childhood home, often being self destructive, very rarely turning my anger outward. I never realized how much I let it control me until the spring day in 1994 when my sister called me and said, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.” Although Mother had been ill, the death was unexpected. None of us believed a woman so strong and fierce could actually die, especially not during what her doctor said was a simple surgery. I was numb inside for many weeks, but pictures of that time come to me in dream-like memories.

My husband drove the twelve hours to the place I once called home. My children sat in the front of the van, frightened, while I lay silent and almost comatose in the back seat. I wish I could say I tried to find words to comfort them, but I was an empty husk, moving only mechanically, unable to even hear their loving attempts at condolences. Sometime later that evening I sat in the enormous bedroom my mother shared with her husband of fifty eight years and listened as my family tried to figure out how to arrange a funeral without Mother’s supervision. No one asked my opinion. I was the outsider, a role I deserved, but there in the middle of my chest I felt the old familiar anger at my mother for bringing me to this place with these feelings. Right beside the anger was the grief for the mother I always wanted, and hidden beneath it all was a terrible guilty relief that I never again had to hear her tell me why I was a failure.

Thousands of people who loved and revered my saintly Mother filed past her casket where she lay so tiny in death. She wore an unfamiliar blue suit, my brother’s choice of clothing. On her cold left hand was the diamond my father had given her for her 50th anniversary and on the right the Eastern Star ring I had never seen her wear in life. My sister had insisted the jewelry be buried with her. Somehow in seating people for the funeral my family and I ended up on the second row, with me on the far end, directly behind one of the giant columns of the First Baptist Church sanctuary, while my father, brother, sister and all their children sat in front. It was only later I realized I had still been praying that in this last goodbye I would somehow finally be a child beloved, cherished, asked to come to the altar rail and receive her blessing. The symbol would be lost on her of course, because kneeling in public was a scorned ritual of the Methodist Church that I had joined despite her objections.

As the time without her has slipped by, I have shed my anger a bit each year, like a snake letting go of its skin in order to grow. In those rare times when I have lost my temper with one of my three children I have done my worst by going to my room and slamming the door. The boys accepted it and left me alone, but it always made my daughter furious to hear the noise, the closing off of communication. I have come to understand that my resolve to never spank my children did not free me of the curse of my own childhood. The slamming of the door is no more helpful in teaching them to deal with their anger than the blows from my mother’s hand. I had to invent a way of showing love, and allowing anger, and letting my children know how amazing they are to me. In those areas where I have done badly I have gone, pride discarded, and asked their forgiveness. Hopefully I have not made them suffer too much because of my ignorance of mothering. I do not want to have to die to set them free.

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