No More Blue

Bringin’ it home with Part III.

———————————————-

A few days after the God of the Parking Lot Attendant blessed me and washed my blackened heart clean, I exited the parking ramp again. Delightfully, it was David–not his gristly, plucked-chicken, Vikings-loving, puka-shell sporting compatriot–working the booth.

It’s a real crapshoot, the exiting of a parking ramp.

David slid his protective plexiglass open, and I noticed he was wearing a rugby shirt with a huge shamrock over the heart. Hmmm. This shirt choice didn’t smack of “Mormon-raised-on-the-compound” to me…even if it was St. Patrick’s Day. My sense of Mormons raised on polygamist compounds, once they’ve struck out into the secular world and followed a woman who then rejects them, is that they stay away from shamrock-festooned rugby shirts and tend more toward donning a hat and beard like this on St. Patrick’s day:

Plush Leprechaun Hat w/ Beard

In its way, this look is a shout-out to Brigham Young and the childhood conditioning of the Angel Moroni.

Thus, I was flummoxed. Was it possible that the entire back story I’d created for David had been woven from my own fascination with origin tales involving buried golden plates, television shows starring Chloe Sevigny, and every last member of the Osmond family (right down to fifth son Merrill’s ten grandchildren)?

Was it possible David was just a normal guy who happened to work in a parking lot booth and who suffered from bunion pain?

Was it possible David had never stolen a truck from his father, the Prophet, and used it to bust off the compound one night to avoid the sublimated pain and jealousy that would run through every hour of every day if he grew up to become a Man of the Principle?

Was it possible David had never fallen in love with a young woman named Arnolene Odanna, nor, when she was expelled from the sect in disgrace for not “keeping sweet,” had he followed her to Northern Minnesota?

Was it possible he had never nor not followed a fictional young woman and actually was a real person himself with his own claim to a personal history not of my construction?

As David greeted me that day, my brain was storming with the possibilities. I was so dazed I almost blurted out, “Are you a real boy, David? Are you more than a Mormon Muppet that I’ve imagined to life? Do you breathe even when I’m not looking?”

Fortunately, while my childhood conditioning wasn’t overseen by the Angel Moroni, it had a goodly dash of “say things that aren’t actually what you’re thinking” embedded into it, and therefore, I was able to give David a bright “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I like your shirt. Are you of Irish extraction?”

If we removed the childhood conditioning that trained me to play nice, I wouldn’t have wished him Happy St. Patrick’s Day (holidays are dumber than the student who called me at home at 6:25 a.m.), I wouldn’t have told him I liked his shirt (the thing was a blight upon my vision like a plastic bag blowing across a field of sunflowers), but I would have asked if he was Irishy (hoping my question would yield a brief explanation of the history of Mormonism in Ireland, thereby opening the door for me to find out all the names of his 32 brothers and sisters, which I would then post here with annotations).

“Oh, thank you,” said David. “My friend got this shirt for me when he was in Ireland…”

With this, an entirely new chapter to David’s back story flitted through my brain–and get this, you guys: after Arnolene Odanna dodged his love, DAVID REALIZED HE WAS GAY! WHICH ALSO HELPS EXPLAIN THE SALON-INDUCED HIGHLIGHTS IN HIS HAIR! AND NOW A FEW OF YOU WANT TO ACCUSE ME OF STEREOTYPING GAY PEOPLE, BUT I’M HERE TO TELL YOU THAT IF I EVER DROVE UP TO HIS WINDOW AND CRANKED HADDAWAY’S CLUB HIT “WHAT IS LOVE/BABY DON’T HURT ME,” DAVID AND HIS HIGHLIGHTS WOULD DANCE. HA! Screw you, Arnolene Odanna. He never needed you anyhow.

“…and so I wear it every year for Saint Patrick’s Day. As far as my heritage goes, I’m not exactly sure. My great-grandpa was adopted from Ireland, we think, but there’s some question if it might not have been Scotland.”

At this point I chimed in with a quick mini-lecture about the Scotch Irish; clever David nodded knowingly as he listened. Say what you will about the social structure on the compound, but those polygamist kids do receive a solid educational foundation.

Oblivious to my judgments about the fine tutelage he received in the one-room schoolhouse, David continued, “So I’m either Irish or Scottish; also, my last name is Livingston, which could be Irish or Scottish, too, I suppose. Anyhow…” [shrugging adorably and making the shamrock on his shirt slink around like a competitor in a Mr. Leather contest at a bar called The Manhole] “…Hey, are you a lifelong Duluthian?”

I hoped my response of “No, I’m from Montana originally” communicated to him that I, a fellow Westerner, had bred into me a sensibility of as long as you stay out of my business, I don’t care what you do and, therefore, he should feel free to tell me anything, anything about his life in Utah, and he could trust that I would listen with an understanding ear.

As is David’s way, he ignored the sound of my thoughts and carried on: “Oh, so if you didn’t grow up in Duluth, you probably never heard of Livingston’s Electrical. My grandpa and then my dad ran a shop for decades here, so I was thinking maybe you’d have heard of it.”

What ho?

A longstanding family business in Duluth? That very nearly implied that David’s family wasn’t Utah based.

Sigh. My earlier suspicions were confirmed. David was a real boy.

Who, then, had loved poor Arnolene Odanna, if David had never even met her, what with his growing up in Duluth? Had no one ever loved her? Had Arnolene Odanna, consumed by lonely desperation after leaving the compound, been driven to a life of prostitution? Should I be looking for her outside the burned and boarded-up ruins of the Kozy Bar a few blocks down the street? And when I found her, would she be wearing Sasquatch-like boot covers? Did she need both a fashion intervention and for me to hook her up with the community-organization that aids victims of sex trafficking? What the hell was I doing talking to David about shamrocks when Arnolene needed me?

Fortunately, one of my superpowers is the ability to continue speaking casually while my mind is agitating with fictional characters and their plot lines.

Thus, I managed to reply, “Nope, I haven’t heard of Livingston Electrical, but how cool that your family had a business that passed through the generations.” Then, noticing a line of cars stacking up behind me, I realized our time together was nearly over, so I needed to move to the pressing question of the day before pulling forward and letting the next lucky sod bask in David’s company for as long as it takes to hand over a dollar bill.

“Hey, how is your bunion today?”

For a nano-second, David’s face registered surprise. As has always been the case with young men and me, he had forgotten about our previous intimacy. “Oh, have I told you about that?” he asked.

Occasionally, I suspect I might be an international spy, a regular master of disguise, given how frequently people whom I see all the time act like they’ve never clapped eyes on me before. Refraining from pointing out, “It’s been a mere three days since your bunion and I met,” I instead mentally conceded that I did look very different that day, as I was wearing a wide headband that covered most of what the Mormons might term my “crowning glory.” Truly, if I was about to go out and save the prostitute ex-love whom David had never met, the least I could do was cut my favorite Recently-Not-A-Mormon a break. Also, I vowed, in the future I would attempt to be more memorable. Perhaps I would be the lady who always cranked Haddaway’s “What is love/Baby don’t hurt me” every time she drove out of the parking ramp, for instance.

“Yea, I know about your bunion. Last time I came through, you were trying to change shoes really quickly because your foot was hurting,” I told him in a quick re-cap. (Sidenote: Game of Thrones wanted to hire me to do their synopses, too, but then decided to pass after my first submission read “Just don’t get too attached to anybody.”)

His face lighting with recognition, he trilled, “Ooh, speaking of changing my shoes, that’s actually something I really need to do right now. After trying every possible shoe, I finally have discovered exactly the right pair; I’ve had them for ages, but when I bought them, I got them a size too big, so I’ve never really worn them. But now that I need a big, loose shoe, they’re perfect!”

Don’t you guys love that David uses semi-colons when he speaks? Testament to character, that. I fear poor Arnolene Odanna speaks in nothing but comma splices peppered with sentence fragments.

I followed up his excitement with a necessary query, “So what brand are these magic shoes? I mean, in case I ever get a bunion?”

“Oh, they’re Clarks. Something like a Wallabee Trekker–sort of a desert boot,” he told me, reaching back behind his desk area and grabbing one off the floor.

Just when David seemed as perfect as his Good Lord could have made him, he went and got even better: this guy wears Clarks, and he even knows the name of the model of shoe he sports. Oh, David, DAVID: it is a very special former-fundamentalist-Mormon-but-not-actually-one-at-all who is acutely attuned to the details of his footwear!

Since David was standing there, waggling his Wallabee at me–an apt euphemism for what Arnolene Odanna was dealing with down by the Kozy Bar–I decided to give him the moment: “Heck, I’m here, and I’m happy to hold all these other cars at bay while you make the shoe change. I’ll just idle here for a minute while you slap that shoe on your foot, okay? Just let me know when you’re ready for me to pull forward.”

With that, David dropped out of sight, his highlights dripping toward his Wallabee. As I waited, I hummed “What is love/Baby don’t hurt me” quietly under my breath, passing the time until his ailing foot was properly shod.

A moment later, his head popped back up and announced. “There. Much better. And I want to say more than thank you. Today wasn’t going very…well, it wasn’t good. I had this stupid thing happen earlier, and it just put me in a bad mood, and I couldn’t shake it.”

I squelched my impulse to yell, “DID SOMEONE MAKE YOU FEEL BAD THROUGH HIS OR HER INTERPERSONAL COWARDICE?” Instead, I said, “I’m sorry you were having a tough one. Was it anything specific that made you gloomy?”

“Hey, that’s exactly the word for how I’ve felt all day. Gloomy. No, it was just a random moment where a guy in a car almost hit me, and I truly almost died, and even though it was a near miss, I just can’t get past it.”

“Nor should you,” I assured him. “Those moments are scary–when we realize how one tiny blip can make all the difference. All that adrenaline hits and then the anxiety sets in, and both brain and body get all out of whack. I totally understand that.”

A beam more powerful than highlights threatened to spread across David’s face. “Yes, that’s exactly how it is. I keep telling myself I didn’t die, and these things happen, and that I should let it go. But I just kept feeling down all day. It’s so dumb that we finally have a beautiful day outside, yet I just feel like the color of the sky. I don’t want to be blue when the sky is blue. Now, thanks to your thoughtfulness, my foot feels better, and I feel better. No more blue.”

What can a person say to that? Especially when she’s already been sitting at this guy’s window for a couple thousand words already? Yes, she could wax on about karma and how he doesn’t know it, but a few days before he pulled her out of exactly that kind of crap mood with his own kind words. She could compose a little ditty about “the good you sow is the good you reap.” She could leap out of her car, ask him to join his latex-gloved hands with hers, and twirl him around as she sings “What is love/Baby don’t hurt me.” She could freak the Brigham right out of him (that there’s a “compound” phrase, incidentally) by implying that she and he apparently have been cast into meaningful roles for each other–that somehow the Universe, or his God, has determined that they shall serve as each other’s pick-me-uppers on the worst of days.

However, the cars behind me were starting to get angry-looking headlights, so it seemed best to keep things simple: “I’m really glad. That makes me happy, too. Now, I hope both you and your foot feel great all day. Have a good one.”

As I started to pull forward, he leaned over the silver ledge that separated us. “Wait, what’s your name?”

“It’s Jocelyn. I should wear a name tag, like you. ‘Cause I already know you’re David. Have a great day, David. No more blue.”

“Oh, thank you, Jocelyn. You have a good one, too!”

As I put the car into gear and began inching out–carefully, so as to not hit any pedestrians–I thought to myself, “Yea, like you’re going to remember my name is Jocelyn the next time I come through.”

No matter. I don’t have to be his Jocelyn.

But he’ll always be My Special Was-Nearly-Raised-By-Polygamist-Mormons David.


(This is one of my all-time favorite scenes from a tv show–it’s from My So-Called Life when Delia and Ricky help each other feel better after all the world has been a big bummer)

——————————————–

Epilogue:

This thing nearly spiraled into Part IV when a student stayed after class the other day to tell me about her sister’s bunion and impending surgery and how Crocs are the only shoe the pain-ridden girl can wear. There was absolutely no reason for this student to come tell me all of this. Clearly, the energies of the world have knighted me Bunion Whisperer. I should start a Tumblr of bunion-friendly shoes.

My Redeemer

A continuation from the previous post. I believe such a thing is called Part II.

—————————————

My stomach hurt all that day. It had absorbed the fallout of a couple people’s interpersonal cowardice, and I felt sad, sad, sad.

It’s not for nothing that Byron and I joke about my alternate name being Counselor Deanna Troi, what with the psionic abilities that sometimes make me crawl around the house on all fours, so burdened by emotional pain am I. (True confession: I’m also crawling around because I’m trying to find a missing jigsaw puzzle piece. How effing frustrating is it to get 999 pieces in place, only to have the last one go missing? That distress alone could lay me low for a week.)

While I could rock that hair, the costume not so much. My physique is a Spanx defeater.

 

Generally, if I’m feeling down, the endorphins from exercise can roll me out of that trench. So I headed to the gym and broke a sweat. It helped. A bit.

But still, my internal organs felt dipped in black.

Scuffing my feet, I walked to the parking garage, hopped into my well-dented ’97 Camry, and drove down to pay the parking attendant.

I have a checkered history with parking attendants, particularly at this lot. It’s as though the position description (“Needed: individual to stand in cement box all day and interact with strangers’ germs. Ability to make change preferred”) doesn’t attract upbeat, accomplished go-getters. First, there was the guy who looked like Santa but who always managed to slur “those Mexicans” while taking my money. Then, for a long time, the box was staffed by an angry 65-year-old woman with a penchant for appliqued sweatshirts. On several occasions, when I’d entered the parking garage and found the “arm” up and no tickets to be had from the machine, I’d had the audacity to just drive in and park. When I would attempt to exit later, this woman, having come on duty, would yell at me, make me back up the ramp (see: my well-dented ’97 Camry), park again, and walk back over to the gym to have them put their stamp on a post-it note that I then could walk back to my re-parked car (on the sixth floor, approximately nine thousand eleventy stairs up), drive down the ramp, and hand the post-it to her while she harped on my lack of foresight and responsibility.

I give her credit for this: at least she had the conversation.

More recently, the garage has been staffed by two men, both every bit as odd as one might reasonably hope for. There’s the 70+ sinewy guy who reminds me of a gristly plucked chicken. Unfailingly, he wears a Vikings football jersey accessorized with a puka shell necklace. A few weeks ago, when the “arm” was up, and the ticket machine wasn’t dispensing anything, I sat there for a minute, pushing the button on the machine, hoping desperately that it would cough out a ticket so that I wouldn’t later be taken to task. As I hit the button, the gristly Viking, already on duty, opened his window and hollered at me, “Just go in, for Christ’s sake.”

At that moment, I opted not to have the conversation that would have had me yawping back at him, “YOU DON’T KNOW MY HISTORY AT THIS GARAGE AND THAT I HAVE A LITTLE BIT OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS FROM THE MEAN LADY WHO SAT IN THAT BOOTH BEFORE YOU. I’M SITTING HERE, PRAYING FOR A TICKET TO BE DISPENSED, JUST SO I DON’T GET HOLLERED AT TODAY, BUT, THANKS TO YOU, WE CAN ALREADY CALL THAT ONE A LOSS, CAN’T WE?”

Relative to his compatriots, the other man who currently draws a paycheck from staffing the booth is a regular Jesus. In fact, his vibe screams squeaky fundamentalist. My brain has written a backstory for him in which he was home-schooled, perhaps as part of his life on a Mormon polygamist compound. I like to think he broke away from that life when he moved to Duluth–in pursuit of a young woman named Arnolene Odanna Smith who’d left the sect. When he got here, though, she rebuffed his advances, leaving him no choice but to grow out his hair a few inches, add some random highlights, drop out of college after a semester, and get a job at a parking garage.

Despite my fervently wishing he was an Orlon or an Elvoid, his name tag tells me he’s David.

I like David. He usually wears latex gloves while he works, and while my busy brain wants to pretend he does that because he’s hoping to sweat his hands down into wee paws (all the better to pet you with, my dear), of course he’s simply protecting himself, wisely, from the Stranger Germs that inhabit every dollar bill he touches.

I’ll say this for David: he never comes down sick. The box shall not go unstaffed, not on David’s watch!

On the day in question, when I still dragging my emotions through the slush as I exited the parking ramp, David was working.

I pulled up and saw that he was hopping around a bit on one foot, holding something in his hand. Noting that I’d  pulled up, David hopped forward and slid open the plexiglass.

I had to know.

“So, uh, what’s going on in there? Are you learning a new dance? It looks fun, and I imagine the hours in there can get long. Nothing like breaking up a long stretch of time with The Hustle.”

Because he’s David and not Puka Viking, he had the sense to look sheepish before answering, “Oh, I was just changing my shoes.”

“Ah, I see,” I said, not seeing at all why a shoe change is necessary in a booth with a desk and a chair.

Leaning forward so as to impart a confidence, David revealed, “I have a bunion, and I just can’t find the right shoe to keep my foot out of pain, so I change shoes throughout the day. The thing is, I was supposed to have surgery on the bunion last week, but then something came up, so I didn’t have it done, and now I’m regretting it. I already have hardware in my other foot, and so there’s already an issue there, and now that the bunion’s getting worse, I really can’t find the right shoe for either foot. That’s why I’m changing right now: if I switch things up, I can get through the day.”

Tamping down my tendency to help people shoe shop as a means of bettering their lives, I simply noted, “Wow. That’s tough. Maybe you need to reschedule that surgery, eh? In the meantime, there’s a line of cars behind me, so can I do you a favor? How’s about I loiter here for a minute while you finish your shoe change? I don’t need to pull forward until you’re all set and ready to deal with the next person. That way, you won’t have to explain to the next guy why you’re hopping around with a shoe in your hand. Sound good?”

As I was talking, David bent down and slid his foot into the new shoe. He straightened, righted himself, and stood firmly on both feet. Looking me in the eye, he leaned out of the booth like a hand puppet pushing through the fourth wall of its theater and, with all the purity of heart that a home-schooled polygamy-based Mormon can convey, he gushed brightly, “That won’t be necessary, but thank you so much for that offer. That was just so kind.”

Then, very directly, very cleanly, without any of the smudged undertones of my interactions earlier that day, David burst forth with a fully felt “God bless you.”

And what do you know.

This non-religious woman felt a tingle right down to her toes, a sensation of happy ease, and it blew away all the shadows that had been lurking in my corners. Oh, it wasn’t God pouring into me. I’m too crowded already with rollicking universal energies, none of whom require a specific name.

What I felt was unadulterated and genuine goodness hitting me viscerally,

and as it flowed through,

so rare,

so clear,

so light,

my mood soared.

My day was redeemed.

—————————-

Let’s call the next post Part III. ‘Cause I gots more David to tell.

Yellow-Bellied Chicken Hearts

When I was sixteen, I made a difficult phone call.

Having started ballet and modern dance lessons at age seven, I, as a teenager, was ready to be done. Once high school hit, I got a job at the mall, joined a variety of extracurricular activities, and craved All-Important and Enriching Time with My Friends Which Usually Entailed Us Doing Nothing While Hoping for a More Interesting Future. Thus, I found it difficult to turn over my late afternoon hours to dance classes twice a week.

The secret hope was that my mom would convey to my dance teacher the decision to quit. I’d seen this happen a couple of times during ballet class, when a parent would stop in to announce, “Chris made the cheerleading squad, so she won’t be taking lessons any more.” Bailing through parental effort seemed easy enough.

However, when I told my parents I wanted to stop with ballet and modern, they understood, were sorry to see a good thing go, and told me the next step would be for me to call Miss June and tell her of my decision.

Somehow, having say the words out loud to Miss June made me feel guilty, like I’d been bad, like I was doing something wrong in deciding to move on. She and I had a history that stretched all way back to when I was learning to read chapter books, back to when her face lift was fresh. She’d been something in my life, so un-tethering myself from her orbit–jettisoning myself from it, in fact–created a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in my brain.

Put more simply, I didn’t want to tell her directly that what she was offering no longer met my needs. I didn’t want to make that phone call.

Fortunately, the dial on a rotary phone took forever to spin around. Even the number six–midway on the wheel–dragged. And wouldn’t you know Miss June’s number had a zero in it? My pointer finger scraped that zero from the right, down to the bottom, to the left, all the way to the top of the circle. In slow motion, the dial spun back to its resting place.

In between each number, I stretched out the process by fiddling with the copper magnets that hung notes onto the old-fashioned washboard next to the phone.

Picture of Washboard 1 each - Item No. 9124  

If it meant I didn’t have to have that conversation, I could have played with those magnets all day. I wanted to wish my way past saying the words out loud and get to the end point of not having to go to dance class anymore. Dealing with the in-between, the part where I took responsibility for communicating my choice, made my stomach hurt.

When Miss June answered the phone, I tried to make it quick and painless by staying away from specifics and simply explaining “I’m really busy these days, so it’s not going to work for me to take lessons any more.” While she seemed a little taken aback, Miss June wasn’t stunned. She’d taught enough years to understand the rhythms of girls-becoming-women. What surprised me was her closing comment, one that left the conversation on a note of faint regret.

“What’s a shame is that you do have the potential to become a fine modern dancer. I did think you might pursue that.”

REALLY? In all the years of hearing that I needed to suck in my tummy, all those years of having micro-adjustments made to my posture and stance, all those years during which my sole source of dancing pride was that I was a natural jumper (watch yourselves, ceiling tiles: I’m comin’ fer ya), I had never gotten the message that any part of my bulk should consider pursuing a future in modern dance.

That’s the nature of teachers and students, of course. The teacher gives helpful words of correction; the student hears the words but not the positive intention, and sometimes the larger message is lost. In the moment, I felt a combination of “Well, whaddya know?” coupled with the relief of “Okay, can I hang up the phone now?”

We had the conversation, and it was over. Inasmuch as possible, the relationship between Miss June and me remained “clean”–that is, free of the confusing, hurtful smudges that blur things when direct conversation is avoided.

Didn’t wanna do it. Did it. All good.

That blip of a life moment during my teen years imparted a hugely important lesson. Although it might make me feel queasy, although it might be the last thing I want to do, although I might worry about the outcome, it’s always best to have the conversation. Even if those involved in the conversation have differing points of view and if the whole thing ends up feeling emotional or conflict-laden, it’s still always best to have the conversation.

If you have the conversation, there’s a chance for a fair airing, and even if you don’t agree with each other, you’ve treated each other with the dignity and respect that go missing when the conversation is avoided. Don’t diminish each other: strap yourself into your Big Girl undies and have the damn conversation.

Misunderstand me not: I’m not waving my flag of superiority from on top of The Hummock of Morality. There have been countless times I’ve sidestepped having a direct conversation, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to dig deep for the energy and courage to face something head-on. Here’s an innocuous example: in college, at my work study job, I would sometimes decide I was ready to leave, and then I’d just kip out without ever notifying my supervisor. When I’d show up the next time, he’d ask, “So where did you go the other day?” My response should have been, “I didn’t feel like finding you so as to announce that I wanted to cease my data entry and, instead, sit under a tree and listen to someone play the guitar in the sunshine, so I just left.” However, all that came out of my mouth was, “Um, huh? I guess I had to…like…go. There was a thing.” Then I tried to use body language to communicate that it was somehow his fault that he had to ask this question.

That’s some crazy tough body language. It would have been easier to shape the hell up than to shift blame through pronounced slouching.

As the years have ticked by, and I’ve gotten older–along the way wondering when I’ll ever truly feel like an adult–I’ve gotten better at dealing with things I don’t want to, and if that’s not Adulthood, I don’t know what is. More and more, I am convinced that having the conversation is an essential part of keeping my emotional life clean. When I can’t say what clearly needs to be said, I feel dark and sick inside. When I know people aren’t saying what they really want to say, that, too, sticks in my guts.

Thus, last week when I was hit by two significant non-conversations, my mood plummeted. Because individuals in my sphere opted not to step up and have the conversation, I felt kicked in the gut. If they’d just gotten over their interpersonal cowardice, it would have been fine. The issues weren’t huge, but somehow these individuals’ defaulting on their responsibilities and channeling their choices sideways made me sad (in one case, I was informed through email by a third party of someone’s decision; in another case, I was asked to take charge of a conversation that I had no business being involved in. In both work-related cases, I was left without recourse–situationally stymied from the redress of further conversation).

My innards felt smudged.

I was in a right funk, and there was no thinking my way out of it. I even shouted to my empty office, “WHY CAN THEY NOT HAVE THE CONVERSATION? THEY CAN MAKE WHATEVER CHOICE THEY WANT TO, BUT THEN THEY GOTTA HAVE THE CONVERSATION.” My office, always a good listener, offered me a shot of vodka. Apparently, it keeps a bottle in the filing cabinet.

Woefully, it was too early to start bending my elbow.

Trying a different tactic, I hurled bad names at those involved. Then I hollered a bit more about “INTERPERSONAL COWARDICE.” Swearing didn’t help diminish how heavy and clouded my insides felt. Even running hard and breaking a sweat some hours later didn’t clean it out.

In fact, the only thing that helped restore my equilibrium that day was the counterbalance of a wonderfully pure moment.

I’ll tell you all about it in Part II.

‘Cause lawsy I do like to rattle on.

Unless I’m calling Miss June.

 

 

I leave you now to consider a world in which Jocelyn Became a Modern Dancer.

CALL FOR SUBMISSION OF  NEW & EXCITING DANCE WORKS:    BE PART OF HCC'S ARTS COLLECTIVE  DANCE COMPANY  STUDENT PERFORMANCE THIS SEASON!    DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS:  SEPTEMBER 27, 2012

I’m the one who’s jumping really high.

Apparently, I also became black in this alternate world.

‘Kbye!

All Is Not Lost

It’s always easy to moan about “how it used to be” and “what’s been lost,” particularly because that attitude validates nostalgia as An Excellent Filter Through Which to Assess the World.

Nostalgia’s whole modus operandi is one of superiority. Nostalgia, that sly vixen, slides into our psyches and whispers, “Aren’t I preferable to what you have now? Don’t you wish we could be together again? Wasn’t I the best thing you ever had?”

Perhaps it’s Nostalgia’s ability to sow discontent that can make me impatient with her. When I listen to someone recount tales of youth, back when kids actually went out of doors, back when kids weren’t in front of screens all day, back when people were nicer, back when times were simpler, my internal monologue goes something like:

When I was young, I went outside sometimes. Other times I stayed inside and read, made cookies, or watched television. This business about “We went out at sunrise and didn’t head back inside until sunset, and the only thing we put into our bodies during that time was a few hot sips of water right out of the garden hose” sounds suspect to me. Really with the 14 hours a day of madcap romping with the neighborhood kids? You found snake skins and collected rocks and made forts, every day, all day, for, um, 90 days straight? If we’d followed you around with a video camera every day, all day, for 90 days straight, I’ll bet a more complicated story would emerge. I’ll bet sometimes you were inside, and you were listless and annoying, and sometimes, when you weren’t out scaling 200 foot cliffs, you were crabby–and if you spent all day outside, it’s because your poor mother was screaming inside her skull and pushed you out the front door and locked it, lest she sharpen the kitchen knives on your shinbone. I’ll wager you drove your parents up the wall with your constant “I’m hungry. There’s nothing to eat” and “I’m bored” and picking fights with your siblings. You know what else? Of course everything was sunlit and fun in your memories of being six BECAUSE YOU WERE SIX and that’s the nature of a six-year-old’s brain. Of course life was better when you were six…YOU WERE SIX. It was a simpler time BECAUSE YOU WERE SIX and hell if you had a job or bills to pay or relationships to manage or forms to fill out or meals to cook.

As Nostalgia continues to pour out of the speaker’s mouth, I muse:

When I think of my childhood, I have lots of memories of playing with the neighborhood gang of kids–roaming the neighborhood on our bikes and climbing around those fabled 200-foot cliffs by our houses and whooping down the Slip ‘N Slide and going crazy with joy when a huge rain would fall, after which the streets would be flooded. I have all that. At the same time, Nostalgia, I refuse to accept, part and parcel, your version of events. Because our parents often weren’t home, or if they were, they were inside, all those hours of playing outside were ripe for bullying. Some of the meanest moments in my life occurred during the hours you’re trying to pass off as “Better.” In fact, because you are an unreliable narrator, Dear Nostalgia, I have to break it to you: I’m okay with the present. I don’t need to moan about how kids these days are missing out. Truth be told, my kids spend more time outside than I ever did; they have limits on their screen time–and I would argue that their screen time brings them many rich rewards and developments; they are addicted readers; they are kind; they are thinkers; their lives are not diminished by technology. In fact, when the grousing voices start harping on how social media is ruining our lives, I object. Social media has created many new relationships, has rekindled friendships that had virtually died off, has given me insight into the daily existence of people I care about, has made writers out of people who otherwise never would have taken words from their heads and expressed them. Yes, I realize the messages being written generally don’t adhere to the rules of Standard Written English; for me, whose job it is to be a standard bearer of the rules, this can be troublesome. On the other hand, I also glory in the dynamism of language and can’t fault a new world of communication that has made writers of us all. When I get bogged down in the lack of rule following that happens, I become guilty of something that has been beautifully coined as “vigilante peeving.” Truly, to follow that popular line of griping and sighing about The World Today and How Good It Used to Be is too pat for me. I’m not willing to believe that things used to be better. If I fall into you, Nostalgia, then I’m denying my abilities as a critical thinker. Honey, I just can’t let you win that battle.

Every time I get faintly ranty and the tiniest bit breathless, we know a BUT is coming, right?

BUT.

I do think something lovely is being lost with the death of traditional letter writing. Right now, I’m reading Book of Ages, which focuses on the letters exchanged between Benjamin Franklin and his sister Jane. Their letters reveal a relationship that would otherwise have been lost to history, and they reveal many new realities about both a famous man and the lives of 17th Century women. As we know, to write a letter on paper is dramatically different from composing an email. Thought, feel, texture, reflection, mood–all are diminished in an email or online communication. Putting the pen or pencil onto paper creates an atmosphere between author and recipient that can’t be replicated in other formats.

In the basement, in a couple of boxes, I have stacks of letters and notes from earlier in my lifetime. I haven’t added to those stacks in recent years. And part of me is sorry my kids won’t have stacks of letters in boxes in their basements when they are older.

Trust me: I’ll get over it. The present isn’t bereft of memory storage. It’s just that their personal archives will take different shapes, and those shapes will be full of richness that we don’t yet know how to see.

My nostalgia for letters had a happy moment–clap hands, Nostalgia!–the other day, though, when my cousin sent an email containing an attached .jpg. It turns out Paco had been given an assignment at school, to “write a friendly letter to a friend,” and then the teacher mailed those letters to the intended recipients.

We had no idea about this assignment, which surprised me, as Paco generally likes to relate his goings-on. Thus, it was an unexpected delight to read his missive to his cousin, Elijah. These boys are technically second cousins, but beyond lineage, they’re quite simply very good friends.

Here’s the image my cousin, who enjoyed the letter a great deal himself, shared with us:

Paco LetterI know the image is hard to read, so here’s what Paco wrote:

Dear Elijah:

How are you? I’m fine. I’m writing about my birthday party. Wasn’t it so much fun? As you know, it was tubing, and when we went down the big hills we yelled, “Whoooooo!” I know you liked going down alone because it’s fast, but you have to admit big, spinning groups are amazing. The first time we went down my stomach felt like it was flying through my mouth, but when the icy snow spray hit my face, it was so much better than before! After that, I felt like my arms were going to fly out of their sockets from holding onto the other tubes when we did a spinning group of five. [hand-drawn picture] And of course, you have to remember the lift. When they hook us up and we get pulled it’s peaceful, except when we had to wait 10 minutes for the grooming van. It went down the hill going, “Vroom, vroom, beep, beep, vroom, oh no! I hit a fence, beep beep, vroom, vroom” for 10 minutes. But, one of the best parts was dinner. It was so funny! Thanks for the gift card!

From,

Your cousin, who’s writing this for school

So, yes, Nostalgia, you wily minx, you got me. I read this letter, and it made me so happy. Now we have a very special record of our fifth grader’s writing, and we have a recap of his 11th birthday party, and we have the softie warm hearts that come when parents get a glimpse into their children’s heads.

Plus: we are reminded that on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and in email:

no one ever personifies a snow groomer.

 

I Saw a James, a Simon, a Bunch of Andrews, Johns, Philips, Thomases, Matthews, Maybe a Bartholomew but Definitely Not a Labbaeus or a Judas

The Apostle Islands National Park is about an hour-and-a-half from Duluth. Every now and then, we have cause to drive that direction or swing over to the neighboring town of Bayfield. However, the other day, we aimed the car directly towards the park, on purpose.

We decided to join the stampede and visit the ice caves there–usually only seen by visitors in kayaks during the summer. It’s been five years since the caves could be visited on foot; getting there is dependent on ice conditions on Lake Superior, and in general, the ice isn’t suitable. This year, though, the extended cold has created conditions that allow thousands upon thousands of visitors access to the caves. That rare access, coupled with the power of social media and regional news coverage, has created a perfect storm of tourism.

Figuring the ideal time to visit a place that’s become a phenomenon would be a weekday, we packed up some lunches and the kids and headed over on Tuesday.

In short order, the moods in the car made me wonder, “Why are we making this effort again?”

I was dopey and headache-y during the drive over (but still well able to enjoy the hell out of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure), and the kids, formerly the most harmonious of siblings, lapsed into their middle school relationship, wherein Allegra finds her brother annoying, and her brother excels as Prime Trigger Tripper. The most-recent trigger is Paco’s new ability to whistle. He whistles all day long and is adding new songs to his repertoire every day: the Olympics theme; “Oh, Susannah”; the songs his sister practices on the clarinet each evening. Without thinking, he whistles. Contrastingly hyper-aware, Allegra notices every time he whistles. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of our time in the car that day:

Paco: Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet (“Ode to Joy”)

Allegra, looking up from her book: Not in the car.

Paco: Oh, yea.

Two minutes later:

Paco: Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet

Allegra, sighing exasperatedly: PACO. NOT. IN. THE. CAR.

Paco: Whoops.

 

And so on. Ninety minutes each way.

This dynamic may be familiar to anyone who’s ever been part of a family. It may be the reason you currently live alone. I understand and view your existence with a certain amount of envy.

Once we got to the park, our moods got worse. The place was mayhem. There was no question of trying to drive down the road to the parking lot, as the road was fully parked on both sides, with perhaps a hundred people walking down it. Looking to park out on the main road (where cars whiz past at 55 mph), we drove first one direction and then the other. Lines of parked cars stretched a mile in either direction. People who’d not walked a mile since 1991 were out, walking a mile, plus another, plus three more, by the time the day’s activities were over.

Hungry, stunned at the steady flow of humanity, our collective mood slumped even more. Good Lord, REALLY? On a Tuesday?

In general, we count on moving one’s body in the out of doors in the winter to be a terrific weeder. We can go virtually anywhere in Nature in February and be assured that there will be only a couple other crazies about. So what the hell?

It appears people want to see ice. And caves. It appears the news coverage is doing its job since 11,000 people showed up last Saturday, with another 10,000 taking it all in on Sunday. It appears people are itching for an outing. It appears this is a record good “off season” for the hotels and restaurants in the area (one restaurant owner said, in a newspaper article, that they’ve been serving 400 people a day, which is 385 more than they’d normally be serving on any given day this time of year). It appears that the only thing more lovely than visiting the Apostles is visiting the Apostles when it’s possible to be Jesusian and walk on water.

We drove back and forth, trying to decide where to park. Eventually, I suggested, “Let me drop you guys at the road that leads down to the parking lot, and then I’ll park way down the highway and eat my sandwich as I walk to meet you.”

Gracious, but that was a fine picnic-stacker of a sandwich, with roast beef, turkey, and ham all piled on Byron’s Hearth bread and glued together with his red-wine mustard. Gnawing on it as I walked along the highway, I marveled at all the Sam’s Club shoppers who were out for their yearly airing.

I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to seeing the sights in the company of 4,000 new friends, and I still wasn’t quite sure I actually wanted to be doing this thing,

but I do love a good sandwich slathered with the condiment of people watching.

When I got to the family, their feelings matched mine. But, heckfire, we were there, so off we went.

To trudge along at the end of a long, unbroken line of people feels strange. My mind kept flitting to historic trudges–The Trail of Tears…the Jews in WWII…all sorts of grim images (grimages!). I can’t think of another time I’ve been out in an open space like that, shuffling along with myriad groupings of others. It didn’t make me feel happy or touristy or like taking pictures. In fact, I snapped this one simply because there was a rare moment of fewer people cluttering the horizon.

SONY DSC

As soon as we neared the start of Icey Things, our family peeled off from the pack, angling for a break. The fellas headed off one direction, and Allegra and I poked around in another. With that, we broke the ho-hum mood of the day and began enjoying ourselves.

I can never get over it: ice is beautiful.

For the next three hours, all of our cameras were firing; all of our rear ends were freezing from sliding in and out and over and around; all of our faces were smiling.

Yes, ice is beautiful. So are rocks.

If you aren’t personally into ice or rocks, we should probably say goodbye right now. Consider this sentence right here The End of the Post.

Otherwise:

SONY DSC

SONY DSC SONY DSC

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC DSCN1483 DSCN1485 DSCN1493 DSCN1513 DSCN1531 DSCN1537 Joce IceYup, my mood was dramatically improved by the time we reached the end of the chambers/caves/recesses.

Of course, when we got to the end point, that actually meant we were at our midpoint: we still had to turn around and walk back. Applying all her best Intermediate Algebra, Allegra pointed out that taking a tangent off the main path would actually be a shorter route back to the parking lot. It also would mean walking through untrampled snow, which is hard work. Shorter = better, though, so off we went.

Three minutes later, I suggested that I return to the beaten path and run, not only back to the parking lot, but back to the car another couple miles past that. Oh, yes, please, moaned the weary walkers (too tired to kvetch about whistling during the ride home, one hoped).

And with that, the day ended much better than it had begun. My mukluks and I ran across the frozen ice–Haha, Jesus! Look what you never did!–and hoofed it back to the car. The Sam’s Club shoppers were uniformly stunned, as I jogged by.

The car and I arrived in the parking lot a few minutes before my very tired family did. Sheer fatigue threatened to drag the mood down once again, but, on a runner’s high, I wasn’t about to brook any more of that nonsense.

“All right, then: who needs pie?”

Polarian

February is known for leading with blah.

Here in the Northwoods of the American Midwest, February can create a strangled scream in inhabitants who attempt perkiness. “Well now. We’ve had quite a winter this year, haven’t we, with a seriously snowy December, historic Polar Vortexian cold, and seven days of school closures so far?” Just as we’re bucking ourselves up and attempting to bend our frozen arms into something like a pat on the back, we look at the calendar. So it’s February. And last year our snowiest month–the one with the most school closures–was April. People were still skiing in May.

That means, if it’s February, we’re about halfway done with winter.

It doesn’t help that the extreme cold has kept new snow from falling, and for those of us who are winter lovers, new snow is cause for joy. Sadly, we’ve had a whole lotta joy-free shivers.

Without an occasional prettifying layer of new snow, the world gets ugly.

In particular, the world of cars gets ugly.

SONY DSCDirt and oil and general car snot = dispiriting.

SONY DSCThe salt and chemicals used to treat the roads coat everything.

Then there’s the fact that our big black plastic composting bins are not only frozen shut; they’re also buried in snow. So we’ve been dumping our compost sort of on top of/next to the buried bins.

We help the neighbors feel better about their own lives.

SONY DSC

On the other hand, I would argue that compost is strangely appealing, visually. I’d do this jigsaw puzzle.

SONY DSC

Queer fascination with compost aside, I can also admit it’s public rot.

Fortunately, all the windows are iced over, which turns the house into a cocoon, a place where we can ignore everything outside the walls.

SONY DSC

While there are benefits to the cocoon, it also means no one will know if one day I glance at my husband’s ear lobes and think they look like delicious hors d’oeuvres. No one will know if we start eating each other.

That’s February for you: the month when you decide your middle schooler’s haunch might fit in the slow cooker.

However.

February…and January…and December…have also been gorgeous. Winter is gorgeous, especially when machines are kept away from it. Complaining about the cold gets really boring really fast, especially when one has central heating, a stash of teabags, and heaps of clothes–not to mention the ability to wear them in layers.

As with everything else in life, the key to finding pleasure is to engage. Truly, I wouldn’t mind if my headstone one day reads, “She didn’t understand electrical wiring, but damn if she didn’t get out there and give everything else a try.”

Indeed, I’m all for children and adults alike taking on winter with an attitude of gusto. Sitting and griping is, at best, self perpetuating. But putting on four layers and rolling down a hill and getting a snootful of snow is damn fun.

So is going out into the woods with friends and cutting down your own Christmas tree.

SONY DSC

 

So is rolling snow people, especially when you give them eyes made out of rotten crab apples, which then makes them look all mascara-smudged and hungover, which then makes you name them things like “Walk of Shame Snow Woman,” which then causes you to put a Pumpkin Porter into their broken lacrosse stick hands, which then causes you to create an entire Facebook series about your snow people.

SONY DSC

 

Also glorious in the winter are Lake Superior and Duluth’s Lift Bridge as steam ghosts dance around them.

SONY DSC

 

Few things are more delightful than putting on snowshoes with a crew of pals and careening through powder down the side of a steep hill.

DSCN1351

Then there’s the sledding. A good “wheeeeee!” definitely clears the passages.

DSCN1368

In this video, Paco (aka “Panda Man”) and I whizz down the hill with three-year-old Aliya. That girl was born to compete in skeleton, I tell you. Allegra comes down after us, as a nice piece of punctuation.

What’s more, there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than skiing up a frozen creek tucked in behind Byron’s cute behind.

DSCN1408

Sometimes, when I’m skiing alone in the woods, a Tomten crosses my path. I have to pretend I don’t see him, lest he scurry away.PLUM2G

For Paco’s eleventh birthday, we went to the downhill ski area for a tubing party.

SONY DSC

One other great thing about winter? Cute knitted ear bands.

SONY DSC

When you’re usually the one behind the camera, a view of the feet is sometimes the best way to capture your own existence.SONY DSC

There was enough cold and snow this year to hold the John Beargrease sled dog race (it serves as a warm-up race for the Iditarod for many mushers). Although we were frozen stiff by the end, getting out there and seeing all those happy doggies was a pleasure. Plus, Paco got to decimate huge chunks of ice.SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

The kids have been doing Sunday afternoon ski sessions, too. As well, Allegra’s on her middle school ski team–’tho she has no desire to race and therefore only attends the practices. She’s gotten skate skiing technique mastered this year. Maybe some year she can teach me how.DSCN1423SONY DSC

And, finally, there is my very favorite: when the pack ice blows in to shore and breaks up into slabs of beauty.SONY DSC

SONY DSC

If there has to be February, at least I’m glad we’re having a true winter of it.

How can a soul feel down in the face of this?SONY DSC

———————–
The kids are off from school this next week, so we’re planning to head over to visit the Apostle Island ice caves. They can only be visited during years of extreme cold, when the lake has frozen enough to allow visitors to make the mile walk out to them. During the summer months, these caves are visited by kayakers. Guess what my next post will be about?

Moist Beavers

 

There are a few things that my ears like:

1) The fffftzz sound of a beer cap being pried off;

2) When I go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, come back to the bed, and flip over my pillow, making the whole thing cool and soft again;

3) Green gemstone earrings, especially when they’re nestled next to a white, flower-like thing, thus creating a dreamy and romantic atmosphere that makes me believe once I put them on Kenny Rogers could stop by at any moment to serenade me with “Lady”;

Medium Silver Green Onyx Dangle Earrings, Green Bezel Gemstone, Green Drops, Emerald Green Jewelry, Sterling Silver

4) Eavesdropping.

 

Just the other day, in fact, my ears had a mighty fine time eavesdropping on a couple of women in the sauna at the gym.

It was a very cold day. A few of you may have heard in recent months about such stuff as “cold day.” Blessedly, the sauna was a very warm room–the only place this winter, in fact, where the marrow of my bones actually feels heat seeping in, melting the ice.

I quite love the sauna.

I quite supermuch love the sauna when upper-middle-class white ladies with exposed breasts start sprinkling water onto the rocks and words into the befogged air.

Once the ladies start sprinkling their words, it’s important that I lean back, which allows the heat from the wall to work into my back; inhale deeply, which allows the cedar scent from the wooden benches to permeate my skull; and close my eyes, which allows my ears to eavesdrop on the words without my eyes getting distracted by waggling areolae.

What my ears heard the other day was this exchange between two mostly naked women, the dominant one of whom proved herself comfortable with a variety of public exposures:

Dominant Breasts, asserting themselves: “So I’ve been seeing this new practitioner. She does spiritual massages.”

Listener Breasts (get a load of the ears on those melons!): “Hey, that’s cool. How is that differ–”

Dominant Breasts: “It’s just been amazing, like, I knew I needed this kind of bodywork before I could move on in my life.”

Listener Breasts: “How does it–”

Dominant Breasts: “I went the other night for my first session, and there I was, flat on the table, and she was pushing into all these places in me I’d never felt before, and all of a sudden, tears! It was such a release, such exactly what I needed. I’m going to get on a regular schedule with her so that I can continue the therapy.”

At this point, I cracked open an eyelid and took a gander at the speaker, noting her thick blonde hair piled high into a carefully tousled bun. Yup, that looked ’bout right. As my lid slid back down, my eye managed a quick side glance at the fourth woman in the joint, a Full-Nudie Lady up on the top bench; every last one of her girl bits seemed to be enjoying the eavesdropping as much as I, and I’m here to tell you life isn’t complete until you’ve seen a labia grin.

Responding to the revelation of tears during massage,

Studiedly-Neutral Listener Breasts: “That sounds intense. It’s great you’ve found something that’s really working for you.” Faking a “Woo, but it’s hot in here” fan wave in front of her face, Listener Breasts grabbed the edges of their towel with surprising dexterity and began to rise.

Dominant Breasts, doing what such breasts do (taking over the room like they built the place) : “Actually, I also had a really intense experience last summer.”

Resigned Listener Breasts, slumping back onto the bench: “Oh, really?”

Dominant Breasts, getting, if possible, even more perky (nipples threatening to tunnel into the nostrils): “Yea, it was unbelievable. Eight women and I went up into the Boundary Waters for an eight-day canoe trip. They all are in my same Master’s program–in counseling–and so we all knew each other but hadn’t really had a retreat together, until this trip.”

Listener Breasts, looking dehydrated, almost flapjackian: “That’s a special–”

Dominant Breasts, paddling the canoe of memory, “It was such an amazing journey for all of us. It was more than mere bonding. It was transformational. We all got to the camp site that first day and built a fire and gathered around it, making a unity circle. Within minutes, we all were sobbing. We sat there for hours, all of us, just crying and crying.”

My eyelid threatened to rise again, so as to ease the execution of an impending eye roll. Putting a finger upon it, I feigned an eye goop crisis and clamped the thing shut.

Listener Breasts, hanging limply but gamely carrying on: “You guys must all have–”

Dominant Breasts, buoyed by the increasing emotion of the narrative: “And then, for the next eight days, that’s all we did. All day, every day, we just cried. It was so beautiful.”

woman-crying_2733998b

At this point, Eavesdropping Breasts (aka “Jocelyn”) knew it was time to gather her towel and bolt for the door, lest a snort of derision befoul the detoxifying airs.

At moments like these, I realize–with gratitude–that I’m just not woman enough to understand that level of need. Some years back, I read a local woman’s memoir about her transformative, emotional journey on Lake Superior as she paddled for 65 days and experienced spiritual healing. At a key moment in the story, she communed deeply with her womanhood and then symbolically smeared her menstrual blood on a rock.

My impatient reaction of “Oh, fer chrissakes. You have got to be kidding me” echoed all the way to Split Rock Lighthouse.

The thing is, while I like tears and find them helpful in processing stress and pain and joy, my tears come on fast and blow through just as quickly. I feel, process, and move on.

But crying for eight days with eight women?

That’s sixty-four kinds of hell, which is a pretty significant chunk of my Book of Ten Thousand Hells.

By the second day of that trip, after the third portage during which my canoe-toting compatriots’ muffled sobs drifted out from their overturned boats, I’d be plum out of tolerance.

Hollering “Snap out of it, you self-absorbed whiners,” however, would only result in an emergency stop for intervention and reparative therapy.

Instead, I’d wait until the canoes were back in the water, and then, as the strokes hit their rhythm, I’d purposely swamp the canoe and use the ensuing chaos as my opportunity to dive deep and, under cover of water, swim far, far away from all the estrogen- and leisure-fueled Feeling and Caring.

Surrounded by the natural, freed from the artificial, I’d make it my mission to seek out better beavers–

the kind who don’t have time to sit around crying,

the kind that have actual work to do.

——————————————–

Unrelatedly:

I also have a password-protected blog where I post essays about my teaching life. Should you be interested in that kind of content, please send me a message, and I can share the passwords for the various posts (there are only three so far!).

Her Body, Her Self: Part II

After her beloved grandmother’s death, the specifics of Jayne’s molestation, stifled for so long, pushed their way out. The resulting confluence of grief, shame, and bewilderment caused Jayne to shut down completely. She was unable to concentrate, unable to lead her team of three other Covenant Players, unable to serve as their mentor out on the road; she was an emotional mess.

When Jayne’s grandma died, she and her team were in Northern Minnesota, staying in a host home. Jayne headed to Canada for the funeral and then rejoined her Covenant Players team in North Dakota. The team of stand-up individuals then accompanied Jayne to a town where they had performed previously, a place where Jayne had formed a deep connection with a loving family, the Dotans. Knowing that she wasn’t okay, that she was non-functional, that she was falling further into a pit of raw devastation, Jayne needed time to recover, so she took shelter in their support.

Initially, Jayne moved in with family who was friends with the Dotans; she lived with them for six months. After that, she moved in with the Dotan family and remained there for years. During that time, she began deliberately working on her abuse history and its resultant issues. Once she began facing and talking about the abuse that had occurred in her childhood, the serious weight gain began for Jayne. Similar to the same way a toddler who makes a leap in language development might experience a regression in physical development, Jayne’s body reflected the pain that her brain was processing. During her years with the Dotans, as she liberated her memories, grieved for her grandmother, and gained significant weight, Jayne also started attending college and became involved in theater and performance.

Then, in September of 1996, just as Jayne was getting some traction in her life, her mum was diagnosed with cancer.

As her mother’s health declined, Jayne reverted to her grandmother’s motto for comfort: “Fuck the world; let’s get ice cream.” During her mum’s illness, Jayne’s sister did much of the care taking since she was geographically closer, but Jayne got there as much as she could; she would alternate a couple of weeks of attending college classes with driving to Canada to help with her mother for a few weeks. Back and forth between worlds, helping usher her mum toward her death, Jayne–an emotional eater fighting through the worst of stresses–gained even more weight.

From the time of her mum’s diagnosis–to her death a year later–and with a few years of grief beyond that– Jayne gained a hundred pounds.

A changed body shape doesn’t necessarily change the essence of the person. Somewhat astonishingly, it’s entirely possible to gain a hundred pounds, or to lose a hundred pounds, without a similar change occurring inside. Yes, there is always a mind/body connection; at the same time, there can be a profound mind/body disconnect.

For Jayne, the disconnect meant that she was still going river rafting, riding motorcycles, going to the bike rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Jayne Sturgis

Yet while she remained active, a full participant in life, her subconscious knew something was afoot. In the years following her mother’s death, Jayne didn’t weigh herself. She refused to get on the scales at the doctor’s office.

As it can, pursuit of education gave her life forward momentum and purpose. Jayne earned her Associate of Arts degree in 1997, an Associate of Science degree in Corrections in 1998, a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 2000, and her Master’s of Sociology in 2003. Her Master’s thesis was a case study of a woman who’d been traumatically abused by her husband, a woman who’d also been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The interviews they did together were hard for Jayne; sometimes, the sheer brutality her subject’s experience and its intersections with her own history caused Jayne to vomit. Thus, in addition to working on her issues with a counselor, Jayne’s education served as a form of therapy.

Then, in February of 2006, her second father, Mr. Dotan, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Two months later, Jayne’s dad–that born salesman who could have convinced a tribe of nomads they needed a camel load of sand–died. He’d lived as diabetic in denial, having undergone a partial leg amputation and problems with his eyes before his body gave out. Rounding out this spring of stress was Mr. Dotan’s death the month after Jayne’s father passed away. Bam. Bam. BAM.

In the face of these losses, Jayne hit a new low.

And a new high. Her weight had hit its peak: 436 pounds.

So there Jayne was: in her early thirties, finished with graduate school, working at a Parenting Resource Center, having lost both a surrogate and biological parents, feeling emotionally wiped out, weighing 436 pounds. Something had to give.

Fortunately, the same way education can change everything, so can a baby.

In this case, the baby was Jayne’s niece. This little girl, born the year before Jayne’s father(s) died, brought a new dimension to Jayne’s choices. She wanted to be there for her niece; as the last person alive holding the family surname, Jayne wanted to represent in this child’s life. Deep inside, she knew one thing: if she didn’t do something about her weight, she was going to die.

After several thwarted attempts, Jayne found an insurance company that looked at her BMI of 64 and agreed “Hell, YES,” a gastric bypass surgery was merited. In August of 2006, Jayne underwent an old-school, textbook “open roux en y” surgery. In the weeks after the surgery, she could have three one-ounce cups of liquid each day for her meals. After some time, she moved on to eating little squares of toast. If Jayne overate, she would throw up and become, as she puts it, “a hot frickin’ mess.”

Obviously, the change wrought by the surgery was huge, akin to applying defibrillator paddles to a heart in crisis. With her weight loss jump-started by the surgery, she lost 100 pounds in three months.

Whereas earlier in her life, Jayne had gained weight while letting out the secrets of sexual abuse, now weight loss opened up a channel that allowed other hidden information a means to come out.

Three months after the gastric bypass, Jayne was visiting her friend Sarah’s house, panicking because the initial weight loss was slowing down. Knowing that she’d failed at every other weight loss effort in her life, Jayne was gripped with fear, doubting that the results from the bypass would continue. Watching Jayne’s agitation, Sarah asked, “So what haven’t you worked on? If you’re an emotional person, and these feelings are connected to weight, what else is hanging out there? What haven’t you connected?”

Sitting at Sarah’s feet, Jayne finally allowed the dreaded words passed her lips: “I am gay.”

Immediately, she tried to suck them back into her mouth, to unsay them, even though Sarah’s reaction was no more threatening than a neutral “Are you sure?”

After that moment of coming out, Jayne sobbed for three days, drawing, writing, covering her bedroom floor in Sarah’s house with paper. Attempting to lend balance to Jayne’s emotions, Sarah challenged her to have a plan before she left and advised her, “Don’t jump completely into the gay thing.” Thus, Jayne went home and started talking to people. In short order, the music teacher at the college in town recommended a local woman named Claire as a resource to talk to. Claire, a lesbian, had been a college instructor until her retirement and had worked for decades as an advocate for sexual minorities.

One week after being given Claire’s name, Jayne ran into Claire at a play, in the lobby. Jayne used the moment to tell Claire–to ask Claire, “I’ve been told you might be able to talk to me.”

Looking closely at Jayne, Claire asked, “Is this the kind of conversation we can have at the coffee house, or do we need to meet at my house?”

They met at her house. They talked for hours. Claire proved to be the perfect resource for Jayne–affirming, questioning, explaining.

Bolstered by her talks with Claire, Jayne came out to her sister that Christmas. She came out to more and more people. Eventually, her friends were ready for her to hook up with someone, and when one of them asked, “So, Jayne, what are you looking for in a woman?”, the answer was, “Well, a 45-year-old version of Claire would do it for me.” Remarkably, the friend’s conclusion was not that they needed to search out such a person but, rather, that Jayne saw what she wanted in Claire. The friend urged Jayne to “go for it.”

And so it began.

Over the next few months of meeting with Claire, Jayne knew she was falling in love. When they would part from each other, the looming question was: “When I am going to see you next?” Their email conversations gained momentum. They became flirtatious. What Jayne realized, with each passing day, was that she was attracted to Claire emotionally, but not necessarily physically. In fact, she was on the verge of telling Claire, “I just can’t do this,” when, one night, Claire took her from a wine tasting to an evening at the theater, and then, during the performance, Claire reached over and grabbed Jayne’s finger and held onto it.

Jayne’s brain shut down as she asked herself, “Holy shit, what is this about?” That night, Claire kissed her on the cheek and all the next day, Jayne couldn’t stop thinking about Claire and “those fucking fingers.” From then on, when they were together, they sat knee to knee, teeming with schoolgirl crush. There was a lot more kissing. There was delightful groping. Unquestionably, the element of physical attraction had kicked in. As Jayne explains it, “When that switch flipped, from then on, when we lock eyes, I don’t see her age.” The way Claire frames their physical relationship is equally poignant: “I was her first, and she is my last.”

In the summer of 2008, friends and family from near and far gathered to witness their union. During the wedding ceremony, a very special guest–her willingness to attend this wedding stunned everyone–rose, walked to the front of the church, and gave a reading. Proving that the ghosts of the past can find peace, and that people are always more than we think, Jayne’s “Icky” grandma, the very proper British war bride, had found it within herself to attend her overweight grand-daughter’s lesbian wedding.

As Claire and Jayne were dating and committing, Jayne continued to lose weight, eventually getting down to 230 pounds. With a two-hundred pound weight loss behind her, she was wrapping and binding her torso every day due to excess skin. To truly be free of the weight and reclaim her body as a place she was glad to inhabit, Jayne needed to get rid of the bindings, so she had skin-removal surgery on her stomach surgery in 2009. This surgery took off a remarkable 19 pounds of skin from her belly and left her with 172 staples around her entire body. Also during this process, the surgeon lifted her rear end and created new belly button for her. Instantly, post-surgery, weighing in around 219 pounds, Jayne felt better, in terms of her self-perception. Finally–FINALLY–she was able to wear clothes that made sense, which resulted in a significant confidence boost.

It’s important to note that, as she was working on herself, Jayne was also helping others. Her primary job had her working with “at risk” students. In truth, every job she has taken has been quite deliberately chosen because it allows her to make a difference for others. She is exceedingly aware that “Key people saved me, made the difference, fostered resiliency.” As a result, Jayne’s professional life is devoted to giving it back–particularly in her work at the local high school, where she serves as a touchstone for the school’s “problem” kids. In addition to working to keep them on track, she also teaches at the community college and takes groups of teens to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area on trips every summer.

Then, in 2010, Claire was diagnosed with cancer–a return of cancer she’d fought off twice before. The stress of that time, with driving back and forth to appointments, with her partner undergoing chemotherapy, triggered Jayne’s emotional eating habits. By autumn of 2011, Jayne was back up to 256 pounds, back in her size 16 pants. She realized she was losing control.

It was around this time that Jayne’s sister, who had become involved in selling and promoting the nutrition-and-wellness products of the company called Visalus, drafted Jayne as a distributor. If Jayne joined her sister’s team, she not only could help her sister, she also could help herself.

Visalus is a goal-oriented company, and Jayne is a goal-oriented gal. Because Visalus asks customers to state their goals publicly and then uses group support to help motivate participants, it was a good fit for Jayne (“You give me a challenge, and I’ll take it.”). Responding to Visalus’ challenges, Jayne went beyond thinking solely about diet and began incorporating exercise into her days–for the first time since childhood.

Throughout the course of several 90-day Challenges, Jayne fought back against the encroaching weight. To increase the challenge, she launched herself into a full-on madcap attempt to try out as many kinds of activities as she could manage. She bought a treadmill and ran her first 5K. She took a swimming lesson; with the technique of the strokes re-awakened, she began swimming regularly. She started attending yoga. She tried dog sledding, skjoring (being pulled on skis by a horse), downhill and cross-country skiing. She attended a Core Challenge class…which raised the half-joking question, what in her life so far hadn’t challenged her core?

With the exercise switch flipped, Jayne worked off the pounds. Even beyond Visalus challenges, her personal goal was to get to a point where she was satisfied with her weight and felt like she was “done.” At that point, she planned to reward herself with one last surgery: getting her “batwings”–the excess skin on her arms–removed. Without that surgery, her exterior would never truly reflect all the work she’d done, both in therapy and in tennis shoes. As she mulled over the idea of a magic number with regards to weight, trying to figure out when she could call an end to the fight, it became clear that there is no magic number and that weight, so plagued by emotions, is actually best when measured emotionally. Jayne had to ask herself, “Do I feel confident? Do I feel healthy? Do I feel like I can sustain this?” When she realized her answers to these questions were “Yes,” and when I doctor mentioned that, in his opinion, her body was at a good stage for the surgery, Jayne realized it was time to reward herself and get rid of the batwings. She was in the best shape of her life, swimming eight miles a week. She was ready to see what her swimming arms really looked like under all that skin.

In April of 2013, Jayne had the surgery on her arms. Going into it, she was terrified because it meant she couldn’t work out for six weeks, and her relationship with activity and a reasonable weight still felt new enough that she didn’t fully trust that it would always be a part of her life. During the recovery from the surgery, Jayne did gain fifteen pounds, but once she was given the go-ahead to move her body, she worked “like a mother-fu**er” to get it off. Her strongest motivation post-surgery came from the state of Minnesota, which had finally legalized same-sex unions. If she and Claire were going to get married “for real,” then Jayne wanted to look better than she ever had before. As their August wedding date approached, Jayne lost those fifteen pounds, and then some.

The wedding was the high point of a very high summer. At long last, her body felt truly healthy, and when she looked in the mirror, the person Jayne saw felt like someone she wanted to see. Fantastically, she could weigh herself at any point in any day, and the number on the scale was under 200 pounds. It felt suspiciously like Jayne had made friends with her body.

What’s more, with the fitness piece in place, and her arms actually looking as strong as they were, Jayne started to discover a long-hidden “girlie” part of herself. She went shopping. She bought dresses. She wore tank tops. She experienced the kind of moment that is folded away in the heart, like an unexpected love note, when she was attending a conference in Atlanta and had been having a terrible week. At a conference event, Jayne was wearing maxi-dress, and a beautiful woman came up to her just to say, “I’ve been noticing you, and I want you to know I really like the way you dress.” This compliment was incredibly well timed–the capstone to Jayne’s celebration of her new self–because a couple of days later, when she got off the airplane back in Minnesota, Jayne had to face a problem that had been bothering her. Strangely, her right hand had been and continued to be huge, seemingly infected.

After spending a day at Urgent Care, Jayne came home with a course of antibiotics. They didn’t help. Her hand continued to look like she weighed 436 pounds again. Something else was going on. Jayne met with a specialist at the Mayo Clinic, a woman whose empathy and understanding were exactly what Jayne needed. During their first appointment together, the doctor had a moment of revelation when Jayne lifted her arm and exposed, under her skin, “a cord.” Apparently, during her arm surgery, the surgeon had cut through a bundle of lymph nodes, which then created some cording. With this revelation came an eventual diagnosis. Jayne had lymph edema. The honeymoon was over.

Many people have seen women with lymph edema, women who are survivors of breast cancer. As a consequence of their illness and its ensuing interventions, they can end up living the rest of their lives wearing compression sleeves that compensate for what the lymph system is no longer doing: draining fluids. When we see such women, the response is sympathy, respect, gladness that they are still alive.

For Jayne, cancer wasn’t the culprit. The fact that she’d undergone an elective surgery–”I was vain”–and ended up with a lifelong side effect ate at her. For the first twenty-two days after her diagnosis, Jayne cried every day. Her emotions swirled from regret to anger to outrage to guilt. The guilt came only partially from her feelings that she’d been vain; the bigger cause of her guilt was the face that Claire’s cancer, held for months in a kind of remission, had returned. They had learned on September 4th that the tumor in Claire’s pelvis had doubled in size during the previous three months. She would be returning to chemotherapy. Then, in early October, Jayne got the diagnosis of lymph edema, subsequently feeling herself crash from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows.

Between the two of them, they were sometimes attending seven appointments a week at the Mayo Clinic. When one works more than full-time and is constantly driving 45 minutes to the hospital, it’s hard to find time to go have a restorative swim at the pool.

Jayne was going to physical therapy, getting medical massages to help drain the fluid out of her arm, learning that she can anticipate being on antibiotics frequently for the rest of her life, as a scratch or a cut will likely result in infection. At the same time, she was being loaded up with information about how to wrap her hand (all day, every day), how to deal with the cracks in her skin that result from daily wrapping, how she will have to monitor her physical activity so that she just barely hits her limit and stops before she overdoes it; she was learning that there was no such thing any more as waking up and dashing out the door. Her hand, for the rest of her life, will require constant, detailed, careful, time-consuming tending.

Jayne hand

With so many appointments and so much emotional fallout, Claire and Jayne were struggling. One of them had cancer; one of them had lymph edema. The stakes were radically different for each of them, yet Claire’s insidious tumor was a quiet thing that needed periodic tending while Jayne’s hand was a big, visible thing that requires constant thought and care. Jayne’s mind was consumed with her sadness over her hand–over never again wearing a maxi dress without its impact being marred by the presence of a fistful of gauze and a compression glove–yet it’s not as though she was dying. For months, she struggled with the anguish of letting herself feel her own pain while trying to acknowledge that it was something she could live with. Going into the closet to put on a dress resulted in a good cry rather than a personal celebration.

Fortunately, the escalating tensions in their household were defused by the promise of travel. Both Claire and Jayne love to travel and have had some of their very best times as a couple after getting on an airplane and winging off to sights unseen. Now, it was time for their honeymoon, even though it felt like the honeymoon had ended in the Mayo Clinic.

Although both women were well traveled, neither had been to South America before. To celebrate their legal wedding, they had planned a trip to Peru and Machu Picchu. The time they had together was a perfect balm to what ailed them. Claire cuddled a baby sloth. It peed on her; she never wanted to wash that shirt again. In a native village, Jayne shot a blow dart. They went fishing for piranha. Claire, months later, still carries the jaw of a piranha, well protected in a Ziploc baggie, around with her.

Jayne blows

Thus, their honeymoon trip restored something important between them. It also presented Jayne with the chance to take her hand on the road and learn to deal with it outside of normal daily existence. Plane travel is terrible for lymph edema, and so Jayne’s hand was a mess. Yet she had a great trip.

If a messy hand and good times could co-exist, then maybe everything was going to be all right.

Initially, as she grappled with the development of the lymph edema, Jayne kept uncharacteristically quiet about it. An extrovert who needs to externalize to process, she made no public announcement of her new condition. When she was out in the world, she would pull down her sleeve and try to cover her bandages. Outside of a close circle of friends, she didn’t tell people. Those who loved her would want to be outraged on her behalf, to yell that she should sue the surgeon, to overlook the fact that lymph edema is listed as a potential complication of the arm surgery, to forget that Jayne signed off on the idea of  potential complications. Before she could handle people’s reactions to the edema, she needed to be more in control of her own.

And then, after a few months of struggling with the intersection of her and Claire’s diagnoses; after learning to deal with the minutiae of her hand; after taking a wonderful trip with her love; after considering that she might, in fact, consult a lawyer; after feeling herself completely crumple; after making herself get back in the pool regularly;

and after standing back up and shaking her swollen fist to the sky–

Jayne came out–

this time with a disclosure of the lymph edema. She told everyone: her friends, her family, her co-workers, her students.

When the flood of their reactions hit, Jayne wasn’t swamped by them. She didn’t drown in their loving outrage and concern.

Nope.

She handled them. She helped her friends, family, co-workers, students feel better about her condition. She was ready.

And as she swam through the wave of love, she stayed afloat.

She became the hero of her story.

 

Jayne collage

Her Body, Her Self

Holidays were the worst.

During the holidays, the family gathered together in one house, so he gave up his bedroom for the guests.

During the holidays, he slept on the couch in the living room. As a “big girl” little kid, she slept on the floor in the living room.

Her took her body from her.

He was a teenager. She was three.

He was her uncle.

The first time he touched her, she had her Mrs. Beasley doll with her. Eerily, when Mrs. Beasley’s string was pulled, one of the doll’s utterances was, “Do you want to know a secret? I know one.”

For the next decade, every time there was a family gathering, a holiday, an opportune moment at her beloved grandma’s house (where he, Grandma’s teenage son, still lived), molestation threatened.

The sexual abuse denied her the chance to inhabit her body as a place that was easy, free, carefree. He groomed her over the years, as they do, and his use of her removed the possibility that this young woman could ever take her body for granted. Some girls romp, dance, tumble, perform, all with a sassy toss of the head. Their bodies are their friends, helping them achieve feelings of power and health and “can do” confidence.

Girls who are abused, however, find that their relationships with their bodies are corrupted, often permanently.

For my friend “Jayne,” whose uncle began abusing her when she was three years old–

who, as she got older, realized that having her uncle’s attentions directed at her ran a kind of protective interference on behalf her younger sister, assuring that she remained untouched (as Jayne puts it, “I stayed in the game long enough”)–

who, when she was ten, realized that she was sprouting towards her ultimate adult height of 5’10″…and that being bigger and stronger could put her at an advantage against a smaller-framed molester, that sheer size could put a stop to things–

for my friend Jayne, now 42, her entire life has been about trying to make friends with her body.

Her decades of pain, vulnerability, love, effort, work, digging, strength, frustration, and celebration move me. The details of her story expose Judgement for the superficial, small-minded bitch that it is. I met Jayne a handful of years ago, and with each passing season, I’ve come more and more to regard Jayne as a sister.

One ongoing topic of our conversations is the issue of weight. There is the front end of Jayne’s story–the business with her uncle. The middle of Jayne’s story can be summed up with this piece of information: 436 pounds.

The details of her story are what make me feel like screaming when a 160-pound gangly man, or a 110-pound super-fit mom, or a 120-pound still-developing teenager announces, too often from a perch of superiority, “All you have to do to lose weight is eat less and move more.”"

Because.

You know what weight loss isn’t? A dog that jumps to heel with the snap of the fingers.

Weight and weight loss are so much more than an easily biddable cause/effect. Weight issues are fraught with emotion, meaning, Mrs. Beasley’s secrets, untold stories, deeply absorbed blows. A significant padding of pounds reveals at the same time it protects.

There are dots that can be connected between ten years of molestation and 436 pounds.

Here are the dots:

Jayne’s father was equal parts charm and mess. A born salesman, he also struggled to live a responsible life. Whenever he’d get himself into financial trouble, he’d disappear. When Jayne was in college, he drove away one last time, was gone for four weeks, and ended up on Canada’s Missing Person list. He’d lost his job six months before and had begun living off credit cards and hiding the statements from Jayne’s mum. Throughout Jayne’s childhood, her mum was always cleaning up after him, along with working full time. Fortunately, Jayne’s grandma (the “good” grandma in her life) would frequently watch the girls when their regular daycare provider couldn’t or when their mum needed an assist. This grandma was the mother of both the disappearing dad and the abuser, yet she was a source of steady, reassuring love for Jayne.

The sustaining grandma was full of love and affection–Jayne still refers to her as the “good grandma,” the one who offered unconditional love, the one who would sense the judgment heaped upon herself or the “husky” grand-daughter and announce, “Fuck ‘em. Let’s go eat ice cream.” Yet this woman who offered Jayne’s primary emotional comfort lived in the place that threatened Jayne with the greatest physical danger.

Jayne was given her first membership to Weight Watchers when she was ten years old, that age when she consciously chose to become bigger than her molester.

At one point in her growing up years, Jayne stood on the second floor of her grandmother’s house and looked down through the iron grate in the floor to the action below. There, she watched her beloved grandma counsel her mum about Jayne’s n’er-do-well father–that beloved grandma’s son–advising her daughter-in-law to “dump his ass.”

On the other side of the family was the “Icky Grandma,” Jayne’s mother’s mum. This grandma was a British war bride brought to Canada and was all about appearance and perfection, to this day still sometimes wearing gloves to church. The Icky Grandma always sent cards for Jayne’s birthdays and holidays that mentioned the problem of weight. Icky Grandma didn’t like that Jayne was sloppy, dirty-kneed, and not into dolls. In Jayne’s recollection, this grandmother’s most heartfelt moments always started with the words “You would be so beautiful if…” When Jayne was 14, this grandmother offered to pay Jayne $5 for each pound she lost.

The perfection-oriented grandma didn’t get her wish. Whereas in the third grade, Jayne weighed 120 pounds, as a graduating senior, she was 250 pounds. In addition to being an effect of her uncle’s abuse, some of Jayne’s weight issues stemmed from genetics–as she notes, “We’re big people”–and some of them came from the diet of low-income families in Central Canada twenty-five years ago. The family ate a high-carb diet, regularly featuring homemade buns, mac ‘n cheese, and potato salad; as well, the produce section then wasn’t what it is now. Jayne distinctly remembers her mother’s disappointment when she discovered her two daughters had eaten a bag of oranges in a day-and-a-half.

Interestingly, while Jayne’s childhood saw her trying out every known diet, including a go at the cabbage soup diet with her mum (who was never more than a size 18), her younger sister was never overweight.

The shift from 120 pounds to 250 pounds really happened after Jayne’s family moved during her 9th grade (er, Grade 9) year. With that move, she lost her best group of friends and their acceptance. For Jayne, 9th grade was horrible, as she moved to a town with one class of thirty-five 9th graders, and, as she remembers, “I was fat, and they were brutal to me.” One guy drew pig faces with a marker on her desk top. In a kind of silver lining, the lack of Lane Bryant-type clothing options made her creative: she would buy jeans and rip them apart and remake them into something unique. Ultimately, her best coping strategy, her best way to fight for a spot in the crowd, was to focus on her personality: being funny. At a school where partying was pervasive, with a lot of drinking, Jayne made herself into one of the guys. And although she didn’t have a real boyfriend in high school, she did have a fling with an older guy (in his 20s), a man seemingly named by Canadian Prairie Central Casting: Oren.

As the teen years ticked by, and Jayne negotiated new ways to either neutralize or sexualize her image, there was always an underlying, unacknowledged piece: Jayne was gay. Even before the move in 9th grade, there had been three girls in the neighborhood, her age, who were sexually experimental types, and Jayne sought out their attentions. At the same time, she and a good friend hung out with a circle of guys—her friend would flirt, but Jayne was genuinely “in there” with a couple of those guys, and it was around 8th grade when she let one of them have sex with her. Then she and her easy, complicated, open, tamped-down, confused sexuality moved in 9th grade.

What Jayne discovered over the years was that the only people talking about homosexuality–in any terms–were the fundamentalist Christians. So at the same time that she was partying and having sex with well-named Oren, she was also attending the fundamentalist youth group once a week because they’d give kids attention and, even better, remove them from their small-town confines every weekend to visit Bible colleges or for a bowling or shopping trip in the city. With regards to homosexuality, the fundamentalist folks were all about “picking up the trash,” yet because they actually addressed the issue of homosexuality and said the word, they felt like Jayne’s only option. She never came out to them, not in that culture of “it’s pray-away-able.” Because there were no counselors in the schools addressing sexual orientation, because there was no diversity club, because nobody was talking about it, Jayne didn’t really know how to call her inner urges what they were.Yet, even though she wasn’t clearly “a lesbian,” she managed to be a project for the fundamentalists: it was their mission to save the obnoxious badass who drank too much. For her part, Jayne understood that faith was important to her, just not in the way the fundies did—“but that’s all right: it was free bowling.”

During these teenage years of partying with friends, hanging with fundamentalists, and not knowing how to say “I’m gay,” Jayne formed a friendship with a Mennonite girl that allowed her to stumble into the bosom of the friend’s uber-conservative family. Their home ended up being the place Jayne would go to crash and burn because the mother, Grace, and the entire family genuinely loved her. This love was part of the equation that saved Jayne’s life in high school.

Then high school ended, and Jayne’s option was to get a job or go to college. So her family moved her into an apartment, but that summer after high school graduation, according to Jayne, “the gay thing was itching in me.” As a way of moving her life along, she opted for college. However, Jayne only went to U of Brandon for four days before dropping out to join a traveling theater group called Covenant Players. You see, the other faith piece throughout her teen years had been that Jayne went to Christian summer camps and eventually became a counselor; after she was done with high school and was trying to decide if college would be a “fit,” she went to a youth retreat, and Covenant Players performed there and announced they needed people. Four days into college, Jayne took them up on that call and tapped the group as an “out.”

For the ensuing five years, she used Covenant Players as a tool for keeping a lid on “the gay thing.” As she continued to resist her sexuality, her weight externalized that conflict, moving up and down from 225 to 300 pounds as she traveled Canada and the U.S., performing and staying with families.

The intersection of repressed sexual orientation and unexposed abuse from a family member created a situation in our 18-year-old heroine wherein food served as a release valve. What’s noteworthy is that coming clean about the abuse didn’t help Jayne reclaim her body as a healthy place. In fact, the result was just the opposite.

As a senior in high school, Jayne did tell her mum about the abuse. After that, during her five years in Covenant Players, she would eke out more information to her mum and others about what had happened to her, but in a very controlled way. Here’s the thing: her abuser’s mother, that beloved grandma, was still alive, and Jayne couldn’t bear to hurt her.

It was only in 1995, when the “good” grandmother died and Jayne no longer had to protect her from what her son had done, that Jayne shared the details of what had happened to her between the ages of three and thirteen. Losing her favorite grandma while simultaneously blowing the lid off a lifetime of secrets took an emotional toll that led to the beginning of the end with Covenant Players.

Jayne had a breakdown.

———————————————–

Stay tuned for “Her Body, Her Self: Part II.”

The Twelve-Inch Scar

Apologies to long-time readers: this post is a re-run from six years ago. I was ready to update the ending.
————————————————-

 

Eleven years ago, on January 17th, I made one of my students vomit.

I hadn’t even assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” either.

Rather than yacking up her lunch as a reaction to Coleridge’s opium-induced writings, she barfed out of affection and empathy.

See, this student came from a background so sketchy, so traumatic, that you would be skeptical of the details. The first twenty years of her life were positively and brutally cinematic, in a directed-by-Quentin-Tarentino-and-starring-Harvey Keitel-as-a-coke-addicted-mafia-enforcer-with-a-blowtorch-and-a-pair-of-pliers kind of way. In short, any possible abuse that you can imagine inflicted on another human being had been heaped upon her before age eleven, when she finally broke free of her parents’ terrors one seminal night and found possibility–found life–on the streets.

I didn’t know all this at first, of course. All I knew was that she seemed oddly experienced yet unformed there in Freshman Composition, and when I gave students twenty minutes to write up a paragraph of introduction, she fidgeted and ultimately turned in less than a line, apologizing that she was having a bad day. At that time, I didn’t know her literacy was so newly-minted that it shattered in the face of pressure.

As the weeks passed, I noticed that she was making tentative overtures of friendship and that she seemed willing to expose some hidden parts of herself (when she came up after I’d assigned the persuasive essay to say, “You told us to write from our personal experience, so, uh, could I argue that the War on Drugs is a good thing, from the point of view of those in the drug trade? I can easily come up with three reasons to support that idea–it keeps our, um, their prices higher and keeps employment opportunities up for some of us, um, them and such to have drugs outside of government control). I told her to go for it, draw from her experience, and if she didn’t want to share her essay with classmates during a peer review session, she didn’t have to.

In particular, she seemed fascinated by my expanding belly that semester, as I was in my last trimesters of cooking up Paco. She started with “I’ve never seen a healthy pregnancy before” and, a week later, progressed to “So this kid won’t be addicted to nuthin’ when it comes out, right?” before eventually winding around to “Because of some stuff that’s happened to me, I can’t have kids.”

Thusly, through small disclosures, we became friends. The semester and third trimester carried on.

Then the semester ended in December, and the third trimester carried on. And on. And on. Those last weeks dragged out endlessly, as they do in most pregnancies, but for me they were exacerbated by a big baby in my uterus deciding to turn. Generally speaking, at the end of the pregnancy, a fetus is too big to move much, but Paco apparently was feeling the squeeze because he shifted from happily-head-down (the Ready to Rock position) at about Week 38 of my pregnancy to Head Up and Right, Head Up and Left, and eventually Head Slowly Descending, which I think is also a yoga pose.

Trust me, having a huge ball of flesh move around in a womb that’s stuffed to bursting–bursting like Kim Kardashian’s kshoe kloset–is painful. Each time he started travelin’, I had to stop and grab the counter or the car or Byron’s leg, thinking, “Holy Red Hots, but this is some funky contraction.”

Then it would stop, not a contraction at all. I’d clean up the spilled cereal or pick up the groceries or administer a soothing cream to Byron’s broken leg skin, and we’d move on.

We did have the support of a doula during the pregnancy and labor, fortunately, and during the “Where the Hell’s the Head Now?” phase of things, when I was getting weekly ultrasounds to determine the babe’s position, she would come over and help me try to flip Paco. There are age-old methods of baby moving, apparently, that require the expectant mother to crouch on the living room floor in a position called Turtle or to do lunges against the edge of the couch, in the hopes of prompting the Little Shaver to rotate. Since these methods have emerged out of eons of childbirth, I found them worth trying, although I never could figure out how prehistoric women did them–what with not having living rooms or couches.

After all my contortions, the baby ended up head down, but anteriorly, not posteriorly (translation: when you’re standing behind a birthing woman–which is safer than standing in front of her, where any missiles she lobs…water glasses, car keys, unopened condoms…can nail the innocent onlooker–the baby’s face should be looking right at you when it exits the birth canal. In my case, the baby was trying to come out face forward, so he could watch and flinch each time innocent onlookers were pelted with unopened condoms). The upshot was that the kid was overdue and not in ideal position, but he could make it out.

Ultimately, labor was induced. The night before, I was checked into the hospital, where a heavy-handed resident practiced, with loudly-whispered advice from the bystanding nurse, inserting a little P-gel, in the hopes of ripening my crabby cervix and making it more amenable to labor. It didn’t help much, so the next morning, they broke out the hard stuff: Pitocin.

Haysoos Marimba, but a Pitocin contraction is a regular contraction on steroids (or, um, Pitocin). Bigger, harder, meaner. I labored for about six hours–in awe at my water breaking, at upchucking my Nutrigrain Cereal Bar when I dilated to four centimeters (classic stuff, I was told). Truth be told, I was only awed for about 4 seconds during that time. The rest of it?

I wanted to die.

There’s a reason why I’ve never written about this day before. Even with my love of juicy vocabulary and a sound thesaurus, I have continued to have the sense that there just aren’t words for that day. When I type, “I wanted to die,” it sounds cliche. It sounds like me at the mall when I spy the perfect pair of ankle boots on clearance–and, amazingly, they are available in my size–but when I get them to the check-out, I am told they weren’t on clearance after all. That’s when I usually drum up a good “I just want to die.”

So it’s almost impossible for me to convey my longing to die that day. Unquestionably, if I had been Linda Purl in The Young Pioneers, out there alone on the prairie, just me in my corn-husk bed, raising my calico skirts to make way for the delivery, reaching for my sewing shears to sever the umbilical cord, I would have died. I would have reached over for my plow-loving husband’s rifle, angled it towards my head, and pulled the trigger.

Fully aware of the impact of my actions and the fact that I would miss that year’s wheat harvest, I still would have pulled the trigger. Knowing how much we had desired this baby, craved his addition to our family, planned to have him, I would have pulled the trigger.

On our way out of the world, I might have whispered an apology to the baby. But mostly, I would have welcomed the release from the agony. That day, in the hospital, I just didn’t care. I only needed it to end.

In my recollection, the long hours are actually a blur. Women in labor dive so deeply, internally, that we don’t realize our husbands are shoveling in Dagwood sandwiches while standing next to us–getting the bones in one hand crunched during a contraction, snarfing down a stack of turkey and lettuce with the free hand. I certainly had no idea Byron had eaten. Later, I expressed to Byron my admiration of his uncomplaining fast, noting that he must have been incredibly hungry as he worked Support Staff. Turns out, he ate quite a bit while standing a foot away. He probably answered the phone, too, fluffed some pillows, and carried on conversations about the local news anchors’ hairstyles. I had no idea.

Certainly, I was not proud; I availed myself of one, two, three epidurals, the story of which is another twelve-page post. In brief, epidurals are more efficaciously administered when the hospital pages the anesthetist on duty, not one who is at home shoveling his sidewalk. And certainly, I had my peeps. Pulling me through that day were not only the doula and my husband but also our kids’ godmothers, my cousin’s wife (herself nine months pregnant, yet she dropped to her knees repeatedly to massage my lower back as we paced the halls very early in the process, helping me wheel the IV stand along), and my mother (who was ultimately sent from the room, when she couldn’t handle seeing her own grown-up baby girl in such a state). This troupe went through their own physical contortions on my behalf: pressing into me a foot or an elbow to counteract the back labor; chasing the heartbeat around my uterus with a mobile monitor, to avoid having to insert a scalpal monitor into the baby, who was firmly lodged inside of me; getting my husband that big ole sammy.

Even surrounded by help and love, however, I was ready to die.

Still working, our doula urged me to lower my vocalizing from high, squeaking, ineffective pips down to lower, stronger, diaphragm-centered tones, yet the baby didn’t descend any further. The nurses came and went with a bustle. And then the resident insisted on checking my dilation during a contraction.

As I bellered at this painful indignity, and the cast swirled around me, trying to regain focus out of chaos, the curtain shielding the door to my room was pushed aside. It was my excited, naive student. She was happy, expectant, ready to see a healthy baby for the first time in her life. She was ready to behold the post-birth beauty of Mother and Child, nestled in joyous union.

Instead, she walked in on Dante’s Inferno, if Homer Simpson had doused that inferno with charcoal lighter and held a Bic to it before spraying the whole thing with aerosol hairspray.

At the moment she popped through the door, she heard one of my low, gutteral,”I-am-a-broken-person” moans. It struck her as a familiar a sound. It struck her as the same sound she’d made herself in moments of profound physical pain, when others were on her, in her, torturing her. It struck her that I was dying. I wager it struck her that I wanted to die. She’d been there.

As the doula called out to my stunned student “This is NOT a good time,” she’d already turned and run–run down the hall, stumbling into the nearest bathroom, where she vomited up her visceral reaction to what she’d seen and heard.

For the rest of that day, both of us were shaking. I had five more hours of torment before decelerations in the baby’s heartbeat led to an emergency C-section. Strangely, I felt shame about not being able to get that baby out on my own. I felt I hadn’t worked hard enough. I felt a failure.

However. When the blessed epidural finally took effect in the operating room, and the misery ceased for the first time in eleven hours, and I proclaimed my everlasting love to the anesthesiologist, they pulled Paco out of me, and no matter how he got here, I was oh-so-glad he had arrived.


(with Paco weighing in at a few ounces over 10 pounds, the surgical team greeted him with a roar of appreciation; for at least a few more days, he had the distinction of being the biggest baby born in the city that year)

Due to the sheer amount of painkiller my body had accumulated throughout the day, I had been on oxygen; I had the shakes; I had uncontrollable itching. As I was prepped to move into the recovery room, the brusque surgeon took two seconds to stop by my arm, which she touched briefly. I had been warned that bedside manner wasn’t her forte, but her words sliced me as deftly as her knife: “You need to know that you couldn’t have done this any other way. Neither you nor he would have made it. This was the only option.”

It is so rare that we hear exactly what we need to, exactly when we need it most. She gave me that solace.

—————————
The day after Paco was melon-balled out of me, when I was still hooked up to the ease-inducing morphine pump, the phone in my hospital room rang.

It was my dear, traumatized student. She opened with, “So you’re alive?” An hour later, she sat at my bedside, a bag of chocolates in her hand. Amazed, she took in the fact that I had been through such an ordeal, yet I was still her same Jocelyn (read: happy to see chocolate). When the nurses brought my boy in for a feeding, she refused to hold him, aw-shucks-ing that she wouldn’t want to drop him.

A few minutes later, after our goodbyes, I spied her down the hall, standing outside the nursery, where she stared through the glass at him with marvel bordering on reverence. Overwhelmed, I hit the button on my morphine drip and clutched a pillow to my foot-long incision, grimacing as I anticipated the pain of an approaching sneeze.

That hospital hall saw my student move from spew to wonderment in the course of twenty-four hours. It took me weeks to recover from the agony of Paco’s delivery, but the sight of her down that hall, her nose against the glass, appreciating for me what she could, can, never have, was an instant benediction.

Her joy at my good fortune,

her joy at seeing a healthy, welcome child,

her joy in his tightly-swaddled purity

reminded me that beauty can be birthed out of terror and anguish.

SONY DSC

And now Paco is turning eleven, and Student has, these last few years, found her vocation–

first as a nurse, then an echocardiographer, and more recently, by taking classes that are moving her towards becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

I like to think something from that day in the hospital when Paco and I were struggling so fiercely stuck with her, as she’s now driven by feelings of awe at what the human body can do.

For me, as I hug my sweet boy to me every single day, I look at this special woman’s achievements–accomplished without loving parents shepherding her through life–

and I am completely in awe of her.

She can vomit in my bathroom any time.

Especially on Paco’s birthday.