Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Kingdom of Yurts

The Lesser of Two Evils

This week I'm back with, writing from a prompt that you'll find at the end of this post.


If I’m to believe everything my aunt says, and I've never had any reason not to, I was born of insanity. Real honest to goodness, bugs crawling, Bible verses screaming, painting the walls with shit, insanity. My mother insisted she’d never been with a man - a falsehood according to my aunt who, at some wild early 70’s party, watched her drop acid and her gypsy skirt, and spread her legs for an equally stoned guy. To this day we have no idea if my mother’s notion that she got knocked up by an alien was born of the acid trip or of her brand of paranoid schizophrenia. It doesn't matter. Certain that she was carrying an alien baby, she made all sorts of gruesome attempts to harm the fetus, yours truly. Finally someone decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to institutionalize her and strap her down for the duration of her pregnancy.

Seven months into her pregnancy, my mother quit eating and began paraphrasing Bible verses  (according to old therapy footage). Her favorite verses to obfuscate were the beatitudes. You’ll probably think I’m a heartless douche, but I laugh at that old footage. I laugh a lot. How can you not laugh at a woman crying out, in a come-to-Jesus voice, “Blessed are the freak babies, for theirs is the kingdom of yurts!“ Another favorite of mine is, “Blessed are the chicharrones! Yabba dabba doo!“ My excuse for laughing is that it’s like whistling past the graveyard. I mean, if I can laugh at my own mother’s pathetic psychosis, then deep down I’m probably okay, right? If I can be amused at the shear far-fetchedness of it, then I’m not swimming too dangerously close to the deep end. That’s my theory anyway.

Where was I? Right. Seven months pregnant, my mother began to refuse food. Even in the most confused mind there’s a certain type of logic. She knew that if she stopped eating, the alien in her wouldn't have anything to feed off of and with any luck, it would die. What really happened is that my mother went dangerously anemic, both of our heart rates bottomed out, and they ended up taking me c-section just as we rounded into her eighth month. She didn't make it through the operation, which was considered by everyone to be a mercy.

My aunt adopted me the minute I was born. She had planned on raising me anyway from the moment she knew her sister was pregnant. She knew my mother would never be able to care for a child. I can’t imagine being raised by a finer woman. Even the most serious stuff was laced with her brilliant sense of humor. She gave me boundaries, but full reign to explore life within those boundaries. If I showed interest in something, she made sure I had all the right tools to take it as far as I wanted to. When she saw how rapt I was doodling on scraps of paper that she gave me, she insisted we go shopping for decent paper, colored pencils and crayons. At her insistence, any time I turned to a new creative medium, I had the right supplies. She never once suggested that I have a back-up plan in case I failed as an artist.

When I was about 16 years old I asked her, “Why is it I don’t call you Mom?” It’s the only time I can recall seeing her look troubled, angry almost. She leaned across the table, took both of my hands in hers, and looked me in the eyes. “Sweetheart, I love that I've been able to raise you, love you, have you in my life… but… I’m not your mother. I’m your mother’s very proud sister. You know your mom wasn't right in the head, right? That didn't ever make me love her less. If anything, it made me love her just a bit more. Life with her was always a strange, fascinating adventure. Growing up with someone whose reality was more often than not the land of make-believe? I think I had something valuable that other kids missed out on. Whenever we’d walk to the corner store together for candy, folks would see us skipping hand-in-hand and they’d always give me a look of sympathy. It’s as if they felt sorry for me for being saddled with her. But it wasn't like that. I loved her. I loved the messiness of her.

“So, no. You shouldn't be calling me mom. My sister was your mom. I’m just your adoring auntie. So many of the good things about you, you get from her. You have that envious way of looking at even the most repulsive things with curiosity. You can’t learn enough. And you take all that, chew it up, and spit it back out as some pretty damned terrific art. She did all that too. Before things got really bad for her and she tried self-medicating to stop some of the noise in her head, she used to draw all the time. Wondrous, fantastical things.

“We once saw a dandelion growing up through the rotted carcass of a squirrel. She was enthralled by it. I thought it was gross and wanted to walk away from it as fast as I could. But, she sat right down on the sidewalk, pulled out her sketchpad, and within minutes had sketched this ridiculously cute zombie squirrel complete with a tux and a bouquet of flowers. She was a master at seeing art in the every day.

“I know you've heard all the stories and there’s a lot there that was sad and probably frightening, but celebrate her being your mom. What was it the wise man once said? Unless you know where you've come from, how can you know where you’re headed? Something like that.”

As she drifted into silence, I asked, “What if I end up like her?”

“Oh, darlin’ girl. Maybe she was two tickets short of a carnival ride, but that doesn't have to be you. Besides, do you think you’d be asking questions like that if you were just like her? She never questioned her sanity, or insanity. Everything she experienced was reality for her. Up to and including the alien baby she gave birth to.” Here my aunt favored me one of her famous Joanne Woodward style grins.

I tossed a very similar grin right back at her. “That’s me. Blessed are the freak babies!”

“You bet your sweet yurt!”

Fast forward to 2012, just two weeks shy of my 40th birthday. I was about as glammed up as I’ll ever get in my plain black dress, sensible black pumps, silver earrings and an artsy silver broche resembling one of Dali’s melted clocks. Also, wonder of wonders, my hair was recently brushed and pinned back into something smacking of style. Normally I wouldn't put that much effort into my appearance, but I was the honoree at the Caldecott awards. I was to receive a medal for outstanding illustration of a children’s book. The book was about a critter by the name of Jabbers the Zombie Squirrel. Jabbers, always resplendent in a black tuxedo jacket, carried a bouquet of magic dandelions as he made his way from one outlandish adventure to another in the Kingdom of Yurts.

I stood and made my way across the stage to the podium when my name was announced. The applause was overwhelming and my vision almost went a little swimmy until I saw her. There she was, my elegantly plain, sharp-eyed old auntie, sitting six rows back from center stage. As I waited for the applause to die down so I could give my well-practiced speech, I saw her mouth the words, “Freak baby!” It was my burst of laughter that finally got the crowd to quiet down.

I cleared my throat and began. “Thank you. This story actually began many years before I was born, with two sisters. One sister was much like the rest of us - I refuse to use the word normal. The other sister couldn't differentiate between her reality and ours. My mother was the latter of the two. My mother had a severe mental disorder. In the vernacular of the streets, she was crazy. But maybe she was crazy in the best possible way. It’s because of her that the idea for Jabbers was born at all. I have several old tapes that were filmed during her time in a psych ward, while she was pregnant with me. I will share with you a favorite bit of wisdom taken from my mother during one of those sessions. It is: Blessed are the dandelions. They will never be dismissed as nuts.”


For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Kurt gave me this prompt: "And the stories they told you were true, babe: your mom really went crazy. But that doesn't have to be you." -The Elected, "Greetings in Braille". 

I gave Chelle this prompt: reconsidering

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tell the Story

A few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (If you have Netflix streaming, it's available there and I highly recommend it.) Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in southern France. The cave, discovered in late 1994, contains some of the earliest known cave paintings. The paintings, dating back approximately 20,000 to 35,000 years, are of various animals as well as one painting of a partial female figure.

I was in awe as the movie unfolded. It's rare that a documentary captivates me so completely that I forget where I am, but this one did. What struck me wasn't just the beauty of the paintings, but that all those tens of thousands of years ago, someone took the time to tell their story and here we are today "reading" that person's (or maybe persons') stories.

It gave me chills and warmed me all at once that someone, way back then, took the time to tell their story. Somebody thought it important enough to paint it on a cave wall in bold images that said, "I am here. This is my day." Whoever it was wanted to tell about the buffalo stampede, and the wild horses, and the lion on the prowl. Whoever it was recognized and bowed to the thought, "This is too big to keep inside. Too profound to keep to myself."

Let's face it, we all have stories to tell and we all have various forms of communication that we use to tell them. An artist paints or draws or sculpts; a writer writes - those are obvious. Most of us tell our stories in other, less obvious ways. We tell our stories in the way we do day-to-day tasks. We laugh, we cry, we share our stories at reunions, at parties, during rounds of chemo, over cups of coffee, shopping for groceries, cooking our meals, hammering nails, sweeping floors... we each tell our own stories in thousands of ways.

Every story lingers in some way, even if we don't see it. Even if it's stuck in a cave that's been obscured by a pile of rocks left by a landslide.

I began this blog over five years ago. At the time I didn't know who would read it or even if anyone would read it. I didn't care. I simply had to get my story out. I had to find a place where I could say, "I am here. This is my day." That was all there was to it. I wasn't worried about being the world's next top author. I wasn't concerned with how many readers/followers I'd end up with. I'm still not.

I know I've neglected this little campfire that I ignited (what feels like) so very long ago. You might be surprised at how often I've stopped by here, thought about writing, then crept away without a word. I have all the standard excuses: I've been busy, I've been concentrating on art, blahblahblah. But what it really came down to is that I've needed time to figure out what story to tell.

See, lately when I've stopped by here it's felt a little bit like going back to a house I used to live in. You know the feeling. You walk through the rooms, familiar with the layout, but everything is different. Everything feels... I don't know... everything feels so that-was-then-this-is-now. So, I've had thoughts of just giving up this blog, of leaving it where it is. But I just can't do that. I thought about revamping it, giving it a different look, feel, purpose. I can't do that either. This blog is my cave. It's still where I throw things on the wall, sometimes with a scream, sometimes with a whisper, sometimes with a simple gesture that says, "I am here. This is my day."

The other day my friend Jacob accused me of being a writer. I say accused because when he says stuff like that, no matter how innocuously, there is weight to it. There's no telltale sycophantic hiss underlying his compliments, just honesty. So, when he said, "You're a writer..." I felt responsible. I felt a call to duty, to honor even.

Mostly I felt like I needed a good, long stretch of smooth wall. The truth is, I have stories a-plenty, just waiting for the telling. Whether I make art out of them or write them or throw them into a stew pot and serve them with bread for dinner doesn't matter. The point is... well... the point is be a good custodian of the cave and tell the damned story.

I am here. This is my day.

To be continued...