Normalcy: Barely Required

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My mother had a thing about sweating.  Even a single drop of perspiration, especially at her hairline, made her act like she was not long for this world.  The unfortunate treatment of this affliction was to run around the house in a bra and cotton panties.  During the heat of the summer, she dressed for her own friends, but when children came to visit, my pleadings for normal decency were met with, “I don’t give a damn.  I’m not going to die for your company.”

But her sweating practices were innocent compared to what went on when she was behind the wheel of a car.  Proudly driving ‘like a ‘bat out of hell,’ she was in the habit of turning to her four children as she screeched to a halt at a red light, and commanding that we “Act normal.’’.  Her approaches insured that while we waited for the signal to change, all eyes in surrounding cars were on us.  We were trained to sit quietly until she took off from the intersection ‘like a ruptured duck.’

We only needed a general destination: ‘to hell and gone.’  Her goal after that was to save us with dramatic exhibitions of her superior reflexes.  In those near-miss moments, her rage was replaced by confidence, and what she was running from was obliterated from her radar: the total wreck that was our home life.

Originally, this short was going to be about the shock in realizing ‘Act normal’ was not what most parents said to their children, an epiphany occurring in a writing class.  But in re-examining some of the car stories for this post, it struck me, for the first time, as long as we were in a car, normalcy was barely required, and only when there were witnesses.

Putting Down the Fugue

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Along with the sorry state of the world, heavy matters of life and death have left me without a soft place to land and write.  I spent several weeks just thinking, trying to pin down a faceable subject.  But I kept returning to an exhaustive rehash of other people’s criticisms of my work. What a fugue; but it provided an effective escape from the recent tragedies and losses.  Enough already, it’s time to let it go.  So please bear with me as I do.

Beginning this litany with the comments of a well-published essayist, he suggested that each subject of these latest shorts is packed enough for a whole book.  My close friend who’s a copy writer and poet has respect for the discipline of the epic-on-a-single-page.  And his preference is an original voice that includes consciousness and politics over obvious spiritual or political writing.  However, some do favor my inspirational columns, and others are most interested when my pieces hit upon today’s issues.

While the above mentioned essayist has no objection to Self as a subject, a few are of the opinion that personal writing is indulgent, possibly ugly, although no one has used that word to me.  My siblings don’t object to pieces from our collective past, but they remember events differently than the way I tell them.  And at a reading in Kansas City, one family member said: “You know, Steph, if I didn’t have to work so hard, I’d like to write a book too. ”

As much as writing is a privilege, it’s not an evening in front of the TV with a box of chocolates and a G’n’T.  The process (not complaining, just stating facts) often requires drilling through a mountain of resistance.  Yet, because life doesn’t make sense without writing, when I’m struggling in the dark to come up with a decent sentence, or trying to figure out what the piece is really about, I have no desire to escape.

Much of what I’ve learned about myself is from the commitment to this work and reading other authors brave enough to expose the foibles of humanity.  Even though it is an interior practice and I stay true to the subjects that interest me, others’ criticisms are invaluable.  But this rehashing exercise has eaten up enough time.  So I’ve cleared my slate and shall begin again.

The Days of Witchy Discoveries

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While taking an active role in issues of equality and ecological preservation, I find myself repeating, ’I’m glad I’m old.’   That sentence should be enough nihilism for one person,  But no:  there’s something even worse.  My first (and last) foray into the dark side of witchcraft keeps circling my brain.

I must begin by stating I have devised an anti-doom plan: to spread love and live well.  But before it’s totally implemented, this diabolical discovery is worth repeating one more time.

In the early seventies as my interest in natural medicine began to form, I was at the local library and opened a barely read, very small book.  It was  written by a turn-of-the-twentieth-century British witch.  The acrid paper burned my nostrils and was almost too brittle to handle, but It contained a nice array of common herbal remedies.  So I took it home.

By that same evening, I came to the last chapter, which was dedicated to black magic.  The author described an ancient formula of herbs used to do away with enemies.  Once ingested, not a single symptom occurs until eighty-four days later, and then BOOM.  The unfortunate recipient drops dead.  And none of the potion that kills them is traceable.  I don’t remember a single one of the ingredients, but I can attest to the recipe as an efficient fantasy in the darkest of times.

Photo Credit: Michael Dali

Body Politics

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When I came of age, free love, the anti-war movement, and women’s liberation simultaneously hit the streets.  And they wreaked havoc behind closed doors.  The advertising industry and lawmakers, male governors of body politics, means women’s issues have been always been co-opted.  Yet, thanks to other women, activists, story tellers, herbalists, and clandestine crones, I learned sovereignty over my own body.

It started in the sixties when I was introduced to the secret society of liberated midwestern women.  At a Love-In, for a few seconds, I was separated from my twenty-two year old husband.  With the sun at her back, a braless women in a loose T-shirt and jeans handed me a mimeographed flier.   Her buzzed hair bristled like an electric halo.  Without a drop of make-up on her boyish face, she looked right through my Sophia Loren painted eyes.  I folded the page in half and she said, “Open it.  Read it, now.  You need to know this.”

Satisfied with her mission when I opened the sheet, she walked to the next recipient.  Half the page was a primitive illustration of female body parts.  Shutting it very quickly, I waited a beat before peeking at the text, which described the intricacies of bringing one’s self to orgasm.  By the time I got to the part about intercourse and men being unnecessary, even a possible hindrance in achieving this natural wonder, my head felt like it had separated from the rest of me.  My husband’s firm hand placed upon my shoulder brought an end to the euphoria.

“Who was that woman,” he said, as I crammed the paper in my bag.

“Nobody.”  I held the purse to my chest.

“She looks like a troublemaker.  Do you know her?”

“Never saw her in my life.”

“What’d she give you?”

“Nothing.”

“Let me see it.”  He pushed his thick blonde hair behind his ears and gave me one of his famous eye-darting stares.

“No, it’s BY and FOR women.”

As efficient as a detective finding a gun on a dangerous suspect, he grabbed for my bag and pulled out the paper.  Initially, he did a double take at the drawing, but when he got to the meat of the information, he said, “We’re married and you’re hiding this from me?”

We had strong ideals: us against the Establishment, his identity as an artist and my role as the muse and homemaker, I had not begun to write and didn’t know myself any better than I knew him.  I stared at my feet while he stood firmly planted in this new territory, waiting for a response.  Risking pleasure, our marriage, and not ready to communicate, I took off for the middle of the Love-In with him a few steps behind, calling my name.

Photo credit: Larry Miller, Fluxus Artist, circa late 60’s

The Advocate

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Two years ago, I met a curly-headed Adonis at a healer’s meeting and invited him to my memoir teacher’s annual Christmas party.  My date claimed to be a big kahuna in the energy treatment world, but when he came to pick me up, he creeped my out by going through my apartment like his body was carried by wheels instead of feet.

When we arrived in Brooklyn at Pat Willard’s house, quintessentially full of books and ideas, after a brief intro, he made a beeline through the entry hall, he wove through all the cooks in the busy kitchen, and found a dark corner in the pantry where he hid his bottle of wine.

Pouring himself a glass from the community table of alcohol, he revealed he was being thrown out of his living situation.  Pretty sure the way he infiltrated my apartment had been checking it out to see if there was room for him, I silently vowed to get through the evening by keeping my distance, not difficult because the party was a dreamscape for a gigolo.  He made the rounds to every unattached woman, but there were no takers.   At the end of the evening, Pat said, “Do I need to check his backpack for stolen belongings?”

At this year’s party, one of her guests, curious to see me with John, my boyfriend of ten months, politely remembered the gigolo as ‘interesting.’  Pat, my first advocate on men and writing, sequestered John and put him through the wringer, just in case he harbored less than honorable intentions.  Near the end of the evening, to a small group, she said, “Stephanie has to write,” as if it were my oxygen, my blood.  Her tone implied battling the demons of distraction for me, and if I didn’t write, the world would be a lesser place.

Like most obstacles I present to John, he took all this scrutiny in stride.  So that I can write at his house in Woodstock, he  created a sanctuary, a room of my own.  I hung a bunch of paintings around my desk, an intimate gallery consisting only of portraits.  I refer to them as The Thinkers.  Intense gazes can be a challenge to live with in bedrooms and kitchens, but in my writing space, their unflinching expressions exude courage, the support I need to reveal myself.

Unlike spending an evening with an aging gigolo, my relationship with John is rich in connection and promise.  But as if writing and love cannot exist in the same world, I find myself vehemently advocating for time alone without distraction.  John is innocent in this strife, generous and willing in the face of my selfish independence.  He might not understand what drives my passion, and prefers to be busier than I, but the real problem lies in these protests.  They serve only as distractions from the very thing for which I’m fighting: to write.

The above image is one of The Thinkers, by Robin Kappy robinkappy.blogspot.com

Another Vocabulary

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The first time I left a moving vehicle should have cured me from ever letting it happen again.  But in a family that considered emotional expression a sign of weakness, passions had to be creatively released.  In our case, they happened on the proscenium of four wheels and a gallon of gas.

I was three years old when it all began.  My parents were arguing in the front seat and I opened the back door and slipped out.  The second time, at sixteen, I was thrown from a boxy Ford Falcon.  It was the day John Kennedy was assassinated.  Instead of going straight home from an early dismissal of school, I suggested a spin through Dead Man’s Curve.  My friend who was driving, lost control, we were abruptly stopped on a utility pole, the passenger door popped open, and I cannonballed through the air and onto the street.

The third, and hopefully last time, was during my divorce.  Everything was unraveling, including the latch on the driver’s door of my Dodge Dart Swinger.  I took an exit off a highway, the door flew open, and as I grabbed it, it yanked me out of my seat.  With one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the door handle, my rear scraped the pavement.  Using the Herculean arm strength of someone about to die, I pushed myself back into the still moving car.  That pulled the steering wheel to the left, which inadvertently prevented me from going through a guard rail and over an embankment.  Before I came to a stop, the passenger side of the car scraped the rail from the front end to the back bumper.

The middle accident resulted in a concussion, and the first and last falls required the extraction of pieces of gravel from my hide.  They were small prices to pay considering what could have come to pass.  All I can say in my defense is I came by risk-taking rightfully.

Bravado, speed, and danger were the language my mother used to articulate words she dared not speak.  The year seat belts became the law, she said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in them.  They’re for sissies.”  It’s no wonder I curated a vehicular vocabulary of my own.

This legacy began to change when I moved to New York.  Over time, I learned to express myself without a car.  And considering my history, it was pretty clear that uncanny miracles as my only salvation could not be counted on forever.  Nor could feeling most alive when about to die.  Unlike my mother, it has always been my intention to live a long life.

Submission

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Two months before turning thirty, I separated from my husband, moved into a little house, bought a big journal, and for twelve days, I wrote down every single possibly significant memory.  It was the beginning of my commitment to writing.

Shortly after, I was invited to annex a writing class at the local college.  The piece I turned in started with a dream that revealed an intrigue I had avoided admitting in waking life.  The idea contained a chilling aspect to it, but the submission was ridiculously undeveloped and amateur.

When the teacher, a lanky, 40-year old handed the piece back to me, he said, “You write like a woman.  And you’ll never write like anything else.”   He swung his floppy hair from his eyes and continued. “Let me tell you what writing is,” he said.  “When I walked in my girlfriend’s kitchen the other night, she was making guacamole for the second time in a week.  She described it as a ‘Guacamole Summer.’  That is writing.”

I was full of lofty ideas about taking the necessary risks to produce good personal writing, digging for the truth in a situation, turning it into a story, and at least attempting to make it universal.  His girlfriend’s example might have been a catchy book title, but it struck my tender heart as merely scratching the surface.

That evening, my boyfriend, who was several years younger than I, sat staring at the walls of his art studio as I described the encounter.  Never able to listen for more than thirty-seconds, before I got to the end, he grabbed a hammer and banged the ends of a pile of boards, an unneeded jazzy percussion accompanying the rhythm of my words.

Frustrated with yet another dismissal, from the bottom of my lungs, I started to sob.  That got his attention.  Unsure of what to do, my lover said, “Come on.  What do you care?  He’s nothing but a peeny turkey dick.”

By now, I am used to constructive criticism from other writers, and nothing slows me down in my commitment to write.  But months passed before I had an epiphany about that emotional day.  At the age of fourteen, I announced to my father with great confidence that I intended to be a writer.  His response was, “How the hell do you think you’re going to do that.”

Thankfully, my boyfriend’s adolescent assessment detonated the impact of the teacher’s comment and, it is with mixed emotions, I remember that period as the Peeny Turkey Dick Summer.  The phrase remains one for all seasons, for too many situations we find ourselves in, including and especially what our country faces these next four years.

2016-12-21 12.03.22.jpg     Both images by my sister, Melanie Urdang, this one of the Occulus at Ground Zero.