Photo of the bridges of Cleveland courtesy of John Hogsett
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Seven years ago we moved from Shaker Heights to Collinwood. We’d lived in Shaker for decades. It’s one of those cities that when you tell people you live there, they nod sagely and say, “Oh, yes. Shaker Heights." Your stock goes up. And it probably should because Shaker Heights is a magnificent place to live—even if you don’t, as we didn’t, live in one of its storied mansions. Founded on principles of excellence in architecture and education, forged out of a commitment to housing equality—at a time when that was in way short supply—and, for the most part, manicured out the wazoo, Shaker is pretty darned breathtaking.
The perception that people—particularly Cleveland people and maybe particularly-particularly Shaker Heights people—have of Collinwood is not quite so stellar.
In the tumultuous years of the Great Migration when African Americans abandoned the South to seek safety and opportunity in cities like Cleveland, the working-class Eastern Europeans who’d migrated for much the same reasons and built the neighborhoods, succumbed to the impulse to fly white.
Drive through Collinwood today and you see a city that is still, at its roots, the same industrial town, built around a railroad yard, it was when it thrived. When steel turned rust, when populations jostled and moved out, when the economy got hard, towns such as this got hit very, very hard.
That’s Collinwood now. More black than white. More poor than rich. Beleaguered schools and parents. Crime. And despair sometimes. So how come I love Collinwood with a blind passion I never, ever felt for Shaker Heights?
A black, ex-CIA agent named John Pritchard showed me the truth about my new home town.
We moved here for the lake. It had been whispering to me—first softly calling, then hollering—ever since we arrived in Cleveland. According to MapQuest it’s 9.08 miles from our old address to our new one. When it comes to a body of water as big as Erie, that’s next door. Stormy nights up in Shaker, I could hear the thunder echoing out over big water. I could feel its tug. I longed for it like a woman who’s infatuated with a bad man. A wink and a nod (and a brave, supportive husband) hooked us up. Before I knew what hit me, I was driving down E 152nd past two blocks-worth of burned-out building and going “holy shit what have I done?” My mother in heaven was wringing her hands.
I cannot possibly defend the ridiculous impulse that made me think I could write a guy (a gender affiliation I know about only through close observation of a good one of those), a black guy whom I can access only by the most speciously ill-informed imagination … plus he’s a CIA guy? Really, Annie? Are you NUTS?
But there he was, talking to me, telling me about his wife, Norah, who’d died last year, his old boss Harry who was retired but not one bit out of The Company, his best friend Andy Corrigan who’d crashed his plane into Lake Erie under suspicious circumstances, and Andy’s widow Emily, still very much alive and in danger from who knew what. Plus very attractive, Emily. Very. Even if your good old best friend was dead out there somewhere in deep water and your own beloved spouse was also gone. Maybe especially if those things were true….
John Pritchard and I were both in over our heads in this story. Big time.
So whatever else John Pritchard might do for me now from the digital drawer in which I’ve laid Twice as Dead to rest, back then he showed me Collinwood. He and Andy grew up here—black kid/white kid— obsessed with the dreadful Collinwood School fire of 1908 which killed 172 children of a very small neighborhood. John and Andy swore their oath of loyalty on that tragedy: “I’d walk through the fire.” (That one still haunts John. I feel his shame.) They played—without parental consent, of course—out on the frozen lake with near-disastrous results that foreshadowed…. But that’s another tale.
Over the course of their story, John introduced me around. He showed me the old Commodore Theater. (It fell to the wrecking ball in 2008. John got me there just in time.) He took me, for the first time, to the amazing City of Cleveland Greenhouse. We had lunch at the Time Out with Emily’s annoying son John. (Yeah. Namesake. Too bad the kid was such an SOB.) He took me down 152nd Street in the back of a cab, and showed me an ancient abandoned building, still smoldering. Or maybe, that one, I showed him.
And the deeper I looked, the more I moved home to the heart of Cleveland. He took me on a stroll up an somewhat unmanicured street in my own neighborhood and showed me the flower boxes, the kids, the folks who are and are not me in the way that all we humans are and are not each other. He taught me to listen for the wail of trains up in the Collinwood Yards and to hear the bells of St. Jerome toll 172 times for the lost children of Collinwood.
Writing John Pritchard did this for me. Made me look deep. Showed me how rich life is in the places that don’t get mowed once a week, where neighbors sometimes cover up what’s not working with plywood. Kicked me in my arrogance, made me accept some hard truths. Writing John Pritchard may not have revealed me as an expert on black CIA agents, but it enriched my life.
Now, when I drive down 152nd and look at the progress that’s happening and the hard times that are still going on, I soak it all in. I understand now why Collinwood is fast becoming a major magnet for artists of all kinds. All you have to do is open your eyes and your heart. Art—beautiful, ugly, miraculous—is happening wherever you are.
A year after they tore down the Commodore, and about the time I decided I was either not enough or too much of a woman for John Pritchard, I was driving home from the McDonald’s up on Lakeshore and I heard a woman’s voice that was and was not my own saying, “You know you live in a rough neighborhood when someone honks at a blind man in the crosswalk.”
That’s how I met Allie Harper, protagonist of Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead. But in my heart I know that she was introduced to me by a black retired CIA agent who lives in a digital drawer in my laptop and is still in love with Emily Corrigan.
Thanks, John Pritchard. For everything.
Photo of the bridges of Cleveland courtesy of John Hogsett
Posted by Annie at 5:24 PM
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
As I've mentioned before, the novel I wrote when we first moved here introduced me to a guy who grew up in my new neighborhood at a time when the memory of the fire was, if not fresh anymore, still very much alive. John Pritchard, retired black CIA guy, was my guide to Collinwood and in Twice As Dead he introduced me to my new home.
Writers will tell you that characters come alive, make their own decisions, get into their own scrapes, and tell you stuff you didn't know -- which is as unnerving as it is amazing and wonderful. John helped me write myself home in this new place and he helped me learn about the fire. It was a big theme in the story of his friendship with Andy Corrigan, who was his best friend for life -- even when Andy was, like, twice as dead.
Here's what John said:
"149th takes you past the new Memorial School. It’s “memorial” because of the first elementary school that stood on that site. Collinwood Lakeview was a name that struck terror into the hearts of educators, parents, and students for decades, because it was that school that burned down on Ash Wednesday1908. A fast-spreading fire exploded out of the basement, up through the wooden structure, feeding on dry wood joists and oiled floors. Over two hundred seventy children died, more than half of the school’s students, most of them crushed by panic into a vestibule by a first floor door.
I’d been horrified and fascinated by the fire when I was growing up here. It always seemed to me back then that, after that day, Collinwood must have been like Hamlin Town. So many of the children gone, the Pied Piper of death having called them away from school forever. The rest, the ones left behind, lost, mourning. Limping through life.
Andy and I had gone over and over all the facts we could find about the disaster. It was the thrilling tale of terror that cast its smoky midnight shadow on the walls when we slept over at each other’s houses. One piece of the story, the account of two best friends who both perished in the fire—one returning to the blazing building to find the other—was inspiration for a lot of youthful bravado. We swore we would both have gone back for the other. But, of course, in our scenario, the rescue was successful. We always found the better, smarter escape route and lived on as heroes forever. For years—until we got old enough to consider it silly—we swore our loyalty with the pledge, “I’d walk through the fire.”
A Memorial School had been built in 1910 next to the place where the burned school stood, and a Memorial Garden was made. That school had been torn down and the garden now occupied the corner of the schoolyard of the new, latest version, of Memorial School. They’d kept the original plaque which I remembered read something about a stunned nation in mourning and said, “a caring community remembers.” It didn’t mention anybody resting in peace, or the grace of God. Maybe they just didn’t have any heart for that. This newest school was a bright, modern building. It appeared that whatever else might go wrong here, fire shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the ghosts could leave it to this new generation of children and go wherever ghosts go when the unfinished business is all done."
And when John's adventure was all done, he took me to the memorial service for the 100th anniversary of the fire. Election Day, 2008.
"March 4, 2008 was the centennial observation of the anniversary of the Collinwood Lakeview School fire. Appropriately, maybe, the weather was awful—cold rain getting on towards ice and snow. They had planned a little ceremony in the remnant of the memorial garden at the new school, and I went up there for it. After some cold standing around, making awkward small talk with a scattering of somber old guys, I was glad when they moved the service inside the school.
It was warm and cheery in there. All primary colors and nice artwork done by the children. They’d made round badges with the names of the lost students in kind of abstract designs—tasteful and nice. Not the nightmare drawings Andy and I might have made of the fire had we had the assignment at their age. I figured they’d had some thoughtful instruction. A handful of the kids were present for the program and they wore their pretty badges.
They stood almost under a stairway leading up to the second floor—the sprinkler system, painted a contrasting primary color, was pointed out by the principal as something positive that had come from the tragedy: a new standard for safety in schools all over the U.S. The children stayed mostly at attention, with some minor incidents of nudging and giggling. These were brown children, I noted, while the lost ones had all been white.
Some people said some things. A couple of congressmen—a white man, a black man—were there and shared the reading of a proclamation. As I was leaving, in the cold rain, someone began tolling the bell in the St. Jerome tower. It had been a hundred years ago, just about to the minute, that the janitor had rung the fire alarm to signal the end of so many worlds, including his own. Three of his children were there in school. Only one made it home. They were going to ring the bell a hundred and seventy-five times. Once for each child and one for each of the two teachers and the neighbor who perished, too.
The tolling of bells for the dead, like the playing of taps, the firing of guns, the flying of the missing man, is always solemn and majestic. It struck deep in my heart and I felt emotion, rising, clenching my throat, but the moment eased as the bell went on and on. I walked through the parking lot, listening. It was election day. With people coming and going around the school building. Casting their votes for a future that might be different from the past.
As I drove by the church, I still could hear the bell sounding, piercing the skin of the Jeep. So many.
One hundred years is surely an adequate span of the time that heals all wounds. The wrenching grief had faded as one by one the mourners had all died, too. The spirits had no cause to linger any more. Only a soulful pathos remained. A cold March morning with a heavy, overcast sky and the sound of bells. All in all, it was good to have been there. I was glad I had come."
So, I was there with John Pritchard on that day. I can tell you that the tolling of that bell took just about forever and was one of the saddest sounds I'd ever heard. But it was part of the process by which I came to feel rooted in my new home. "I was glad I had come."
Posted by Annie at 10:11 AM
Friday, December 7, 2012
One year I ran. I ran every weekday morning. When I made my vow to run every weekday morning, I also made up my Rules Of Exception. The only excuse not to run would be 1) a fever of over 100° 2) a storm, with actual lightning and thunder, and 3) a wind chill reading below some ungodly number I can’t remember. Let’s say 18 degrees.
As I recall it now, none of those things ever happened. They’d almost, but then it would be 19 degrees or a fever of 99.9 and I’d have to go. And I went. For a year. What really sticks with me is the shocking difference between the idea of running—the vow, the idea, the frickin’ fantasy—and The Running. The moving of one’s body with one’s feet. The dusky gray squares of the sidewalk. The slick, mossy places. The crossings with cars. The sound of thudding: my shoes on pavement, my own heart.
Cheryl Strayed at age 26, never having backpacked anywhere ever, vowed to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. And she did it. She walked more than 1,100 miles, carrying a pack that, when she started out, she literally could not pick up.
Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.
There were bears, snakes and leering strangers. There were steep drop-offs and slippery slopes. Strayed repaired her feet with duct tape. Her toenails fell off. She was hungry and couldn't afford a cheeseburger. She strained her drinking water from mud. She walked, with that impossible pack stripping the skin from her back, for 1,100 actual, real miles.
But, as you’d have to expect, these were also miles of the spirit. The Cheryl Strayed who began that improbable hike in the Mojave Desert, grieving and raging at the death of her mother, mourning the end of her marriage, spiraling with heroin and promiscuity, crossed the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon into Washington changed and empowered, with things to say that have made a difference to me and a lot of other people.
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. … Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid.”
One morning, after my year was up, I fell and sprained my ankle, and that was it on running for me. The wrench, the nausea, the pain were so real, so memorable, I was never able to get past them. Never able to counteract them with a vow to run that I might keep. Never able to overcome my ingrained sense of self-protection that speaks in my mother’s voice, “You’ll get sick. You’ll get hurt. You’ll die.”
You can go to the bank with this: I will never hike the PCT. But because Cheryl Strayed is an extraordinary person who is also an extraordinary writer—fearless, generous, unapologetic, compassionate and really, really good—the truths she discovered upon the path are accessible to readers of this book, including readers who are sometimes weak, sometimes strong, and who sometimes fall short in the guts department.
Reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is no substitute for the PCT but it is a wise and powerful guide to the lessons of courage and the possibilities of life. I say read it. Gift it. Set it loose in your world.
Posted by Annie at 9:16 PM
Saturday, October 13, 2012
A few years back, the ad agency where I worked hired an animator for a TV spot we were producing. When we found out this guy was an Academy Award-winner, we all lobbied for him to bring his Oscar when he came to Cleveland. He did it! (Obviously this was before a TSA person would have told him he’d have to check his lumpy gold weapon or skip the plane.)
So there He was. Oscar. We handed Him around. He was heavier than I expected. Bigger, smoother and shinier too. One thing that happened, though, we probably should have anticipated. When the heavy, gold, naked, somewhat androgynous person was placed into someone’s eager paws, the someone would be compelled to make a speech.
They wanted to thank somebody. They wanted to pull out a wrinkled up piece of paper and acknowledge a big bunch of folks who made it possible for them to realize this dream. And, of course, somebody always wanted to tell somebody else, “You like me. You really like me.”
The point here is not to say what yahoos we all were—though, folks, we were, and I loved that about us—but to draw attention to the desire most of us have to reach the universally-agreed-upon apex of our ambitions and, then, while standing on that heady pinnacle, to thank everyone who help us climb up this high. Gratitude. Pay back. A sense of finally having earned our belonging in an inner circle to which we’ve aspired for a lifetime.
But look. A great number of us will never get there. That’s the math of life. Watch the Olympic Games and ponder the fate of those beautiful, committed, accomplished, almost-golden losers. We can’t ever guarantee the win, but that heady moment of gratitude can be ours right now. This is mine.
I want to publish my novel. Ho boy. Do I. From the brightest part of my spirit, I believe I will. And from the dark night of my soul, I believe I won’t. But nothing at all is stopping me from writing the dedication and the acknowledgements for my as yet, unagented, unpublishered, unpublished book.
That way it’ll be ready when I need it. In a couple of months or so. So here goes.
For Bill. The forever believer.
Yikes! Now I know what the wrinkled piece of paper is for.
To my family, Bill and John, who didn’t laugh when I sat down to write. Even when I was secretly and not-so-secretly mocking myself. Who treated my work with respect. Who picked up the slack when I was working, slack-jawed, at dinnertime.
Extra kudos to Bill who even though he grew up in the dark ages before feminism like I did, always encouraged me to take risks and honor my ambition. He’s been braver for me than I’ve been for myself. And steadfast. Always.
These two guys have made it possible for me to know that if I never published a freaking thing, my life would still be greater, luckier and happier than anyone could believe. And Allie. I dreamed up Allie Harper before John met you, but you are the beautiful coincidence who makes us all happier.
To Tina Whittle for the kind of support an aspiring writer can only dream of: solid advice, appropriate admonitions against direct foreshadowing, cheerleading, empathy, networking, even pitching on my behalf. You know how grateful I am. Actually you don’t. You couldn’t possibly.
And to Lynn for introducing me to Tina, you too, lady. Big time.
To my family of origin. Mark and Margaret.
Mark: My father’s legacy was delivered to me though the memories of the people who witnessed his love for me in a time I don’t remember. Obviously, love is one kind of immortality.
Margaret: My mother’s confidence that I was special, gifted, and destined for wondrous things ferried me over my own doubt about that stuff, like a million times. Momma, after you died I found a book in which you’d underlined somebody’s advice to: ”Write something every day.” And in the margin you’d penciled, “Ann.”
To my BBFs: Judy, Karan, Laura, Elaine. Each of you has been my dream’s best defender. Each of you has been my strength, refuge, and partner-in-crime for a major part of my life. Together you are all still my inner circle of support. My good-listeners. My ass-kickers. My friends. I sure hope I’ve been worth it.
And for Elaine & Bob and Doug & Thom, the Usual Suspects. You make the fun and bring the love. As far as I’m concerned, without fun and love there’s nothing worth writing about.
For Joe and Mary Lucille (and Pat, behind the scenes) you have been my “writer’s group” and much, much more. Daily support. Daily friendship. Sustenance. And the taste of home.
Now, for my readers, in order of their appearance: Bill, of course, Elaine, Doug, Dan, “Tuckie,” Joe, Susan, Fran, Judy, Vicky, Laura, Bob, Anne, Terry, Cathy, Jane, Traci, Ellen, Cindy, Tess. Some of you passed the ms onto people I didn’t know about. I bless them for reading, too.
To Rip Ruhlman for taking the manuscript of Twice as Dead to read even as he was dying. And for always making me feel confident and appreciated. Rip, we were robbed when we lost you.
Then, of course, although I haven’t met all y’all yet: To my future agent. My future editor. My future publisher. So grateful and I don’t even know exactly what for. And not least to my future readers. Remember that I wrote for you before I believed in you. On faith. Out of devotion for what other authors have written for me.
That’s it. And yeah. I know. It’s too long. Everybody went to the bathroom or got beer or changed channels while I was droning on, but I don’t care. When I write the “real acknowledgements” I’ll tidy it up, put in the ones I’ll be horrified to realize I left out, and not gush so much. But I’m glad I had the chance here and now.
Because here’s the other thing. Last spring I went to a writer’s conference and the author who won the big award for the best new writer was a man whose wife had recently passed away. Right there, I got it. Like a hammer in my head.
If it’s just you, any victory is no bigger, or more wonderful than you can make it, all by yourself. There can be a party, for sure, and you can be glad and honored and validated—all that—but the celebration won’t be complete unless all your people are there, too.
And this, as well. If we don’t take the opportunity to thank and re-thank the people to whom we feel grateful, we might lose the opportunity to make our gratitude complete. They might get away before we say the most important things. We might have to leave before they have a chance to know how full our hearts have always been with thanks for them.
Thank you, my people, you make my life very sweet.
Because you like me. You really like me.
Posted by Annie at 9:09 AM
Friday, August 17, 2012
Some years ago, when I was feeling pretty anxious about stuff I can't even remember now, I wrote this little piece about something that kind of worked for me. I was rooting through some files today, and up popped the essay about the bunny. I'd forgotten him. He'd forgotten me. No wonder I get scared sometimes....
Here's the bunny. May you know comfort.
Human beings, especially so-called enlightened human beings -- and especially, especially so-called smart human beings -- often find it quite difficult to deal with the emotional thrill ride of life. One might assume that this problem has grown worse under the pressures and uncertainties of the so-called modern world. I’m not so sure. I bet it was tense in the caves from time to time.
We’d like to think we can handle our emotions. But wise people tell us that emotions operate pretty much on their own timetable. They come. They go. They come back. And they keep doing this all your life, no matter how smart, how transformed, how determined you are.
One of the most persistent and paralyzing emotions is fear in all its most unnerving disguises: terror/panic/anxiety/ uneasiness/nameless dread. Very hard it is when fear comes to visit. We think – being the sort of beings who put a lot of stock in our minds – that we should be able to reason ourselves out of our fears. Often we are dismayed that in spite of the application of extreme rationality, we’re still pretty scared.
I believe our emotions are part of our animal nature. Not bad. Not good. Just something that comes along. And something that’s not particularly reassured by intellectual pep talking.
I think of my fear as a small rabbit that lives inside my chest. When I’m scared, it sits frozen, quivering. Its eyes are very wide, darting wildly about, scanning for danger. Its whiskers vibrate. Its body is clenched very small because it longs to be invisible, hidden and safe. It’s afraid to hop away. Terrified to stay put. It doesn’t need a cheerful talking to. It needs to be petted and soothed. Like a bunny.
So, when you are afraid, the most important thing is not to brush the fear away or hide it -- even from yourself. For then the bunny is terribly alone and hopeless. Find the frightened bunny trembling inside you, accept its fear and sorrow, and imagine that you could hold it in your hands and cradle it warm and soft against your chest. Smooth its silky fur with great tenderness, and say, “There, there, little bunny. There, there.”
Just until it feels strong enough and safe enough to hop along. However long that takes. And be sure to love the bunny. Because it always does the very best it can.
And because it is your heart.
“There, there, little bunny. There, there.”
“There, there, little bunny. There, there.”
Posted by Annie at 12:47 PM
Saturday, August 4, 2012
The hijacked post is actually this post you're reading right here, originally entitled "I'm In The Mood For Whine." And which began: "... simply because I broke down and purchased the 2012 Guide To Literary Agents."
There followed a major moan and whimper about the kind of morning I'm having because I've found myself back at what almost feels like Square One with The Novel. And what's worse, immediately after that disheartening moment of confrontation with my un-agented state, I stumbled into the "promoting yourself online," maze and the "what is your *^%$^ platform?" arena. Wherein I became not merely way sorry for myself but also seriously overwhelmed. And more sorry for myself.
I experience this whiny, overwhelmed, self-pitying state as the sensation of having about a pound of that cold, kind of slimy clay from kindergarten lodged in my chest where my heart is supposed to be. And also (I find this sort of interesting) in a numb tingly feeling in the general area of my elbows. A paralyses of the typing muscles, I presume.
I had it bad. And that ain't even supposed to be good.
Right after that I realized I was hearing The Tune.
NOTE: Tell me I'm not the only one who gets annoying repetitions of pop, rock, and very occasionally, classical hits in my head. Right? Hah! You do. I know you do. For example, you know that song, "Beautiful Sunday?" Like, "Hey, hey, hey beautiful Sunday. This is my, my, my beautiful day?" Forget it quick. It will rule your brain for weeks. Fortunately that was not the tune I was hearing this morning.
It was "Here I Go Again." Not a tune I'm particularly familiar with. I didn't, for example, connect it to the band Whitesnake. Nor am I actually a big fan of Whitesnake. (I had to look them up to make sure Whitesnake wasn't, for example, one guy. A Mr. Snake.... Face it folks, 1987 was not my musical year. I was busy.)
So here I was having this Whitesnake thing mainlined into my head from ... somewhere. Just the hookie part. "Here I go again on my own. Goin' down the only road I've ever known." Appropriate, though. Pretty sad and whiny, right? A good description of my dead end state of mind. So I went onto Rhapsody (where all the music lives, all the time) and played it to enhance the crankiness of my crappy mood.
Pathos can be so consoling.
Guess what? I found out something you Whitesnake mavens -- and possibly a part of my brain that I do not have direct access to -- already knew. This is a kick-ass song about ... kicking ass.
For example: "But I've made up my mind. I ain't wasting no more time."
Yeah, it's about the "lonely street of dreams" but it's also about being the Comandress In Chief of your own @%&#$ lonely street of dreams. It reminded me of the one thing I need to forward my writing right now:
A new playlist.
Not necessarily for my ears, but for my soul. My fainting clay heart. My numbed writing muscles. Access to the stash of courage that lies around in a subbasement of my being until I remember where I put it.
I remember where I put it now.
Here what's at the top of my new list:
"Here I Go Again." Whitesnake
But listen. Here's what I wonder. Here's what moves the tingly feeling from my elbows up to the back of my neck: Where did it come from, that little tune? How did it get into my head? And what part of myself gave me a chance to hear it, really hear it, for the first time, today of all days?
That's the part of myself I want to come straight here and stand right by me, with its spooky l'il hand on my shoulder, when I lose my focus and my nerve.
And to go with me. Down the only road I've ever known.
Posted by Annie at 1:56 PM
Monday, July 9, 2012
I have been much inspired by Viv's post about her dad. She made Ed real for me. She made him a little bit alive again for herself, I think. But since I am compelled by my untrammeled egocentricity to make this blog about Me, Me, Me, this post is not precisely about M & M (Aren't they beautiful over there? Weren't they just cool?) but about what I discovered about them, long after it might have done the three of us any good.
Okay. Let's give the old Beginner's Mind a shot here. It appears that parents are -- kind of like Soylent Green -- made of people! And before your eyes glaze over with the absolutely brain-killing obviousness of that statement, just stop for a minute. Breathe. It took me about 51 years to get a toe in the water of "Hey. Margaret was a human being."
All my life people told me I was just like her. She had to live 88 years and die (more than a decade ago) before I could start to realize:
She was just like me. UhOh.
And Mark? Forget about it. He died at 42 when I was not even 2. He wasn't just an icon. He was a god. I was probably six or seven before I realized he was not actually, The "our father who art in heaven." And the idea that he was "watching over me?" Not comforting. In the extreme.
In the dawn of Me History, Mark & Margaret created my universe and placed me at the center of it. They named the animals. They brought the food. They made fire. And gravity. They set the rules. They told me The Story of Elizabeth Ann and when my father, whose voice I do not remember, "went away?" Margaret picked up the thread and devised the great Myth of Mark. When I say, "Myth," I don't mean to suggest it was untrue. It's a Joseph Campbell thing. And a lovely myth. But it wasn't Mark. Any more than my Myth of Margaret was Margaret.
So I'm loading the dishwasher yesterday. And making a lot of judgments about how I'm doing it and wondering if I should be doing something else, something better, something more ... worthwhile right then. Such as a Good Person would do. The kind of person who would not be unexpectedly crushed by the universe as punishment for Something. And experiencing the miasma-like, hypnotic and overly-familiar little tune that plays, with all its variations of theme, in my head pretty much all the time. "Ah, maybe you're just lazy. Are you lazy?"
And There. She. Is.
Should I blame her for that? NuhUh. If your parents abused you in ways that were truly cruel and you blame them for that, you're completely entitled.
But if they screwed up? If they gave you Life Rules that weren't much help or messed you over in major ways? If you hear their voices saying things that don't do you a bit of good? If you can point to a number of occasions when they were just TERRIBLE PARENTS? Cut them a break.
Forgive them. And while you're at it, if you're a parent and, actually, even if you're not, forgive yourself. Just a little bit. You came out of the darkness into the light. You had about 15 minutes to figure the world out. And then you were on your own. Your parents (who'd had that exact same experience a shockingly few years before) tried to keep you safe and make you good and love you to the best of their ability which never, never expressed the frantic passion of adoration and fear that was in their hearts for you most of the time. Those folks? Forgive them. Love them. Love their memory.
Try to know them for a minute. See them. Recognize them not as gods, but as you. But exactly. Confused. Scared. Pissed off. Awkward. Having a bad hair day. Hating their boss. Destroyed, almost obliterated, by an unexpected death and another and another. Hungry. Weak. Forgetful. Capable of well-intentioned mistakes, inexplicable bad moods, unbelievable carelessness, fully-intended anger and general meanness.
Also, figure that, like you -- and definitely like me -- they were probably driving through an intersection, trying to make the light and not kill someone, when you asked them what f**k meant. Because that pretty much sums parenting up for me. Human. And conducted most of the time on the fly, ineptly, and without even a speck of parental wisdom. At the point in a child's life when the parent was, to all intents and purposes, God. Or Goddess, as the case may be.
So, Mark & Margaret. Look at you two. The more I know about me, the more I understand about you. And the more I understand about you the more my heart just breaks open to everything you have always been for me. Because parents -- though human -- are the people in your life no one else will ever be.
I had no idea who you really were. Probably still don't.
You are more beautiful and mysterious than I could ever have imagined.
I wish I could sit us down and tell you that.
Then you could tell me to vote for Mitt Romney and how I should do my hair.
And, Margaret? Remember how you always said, "One of these days you'll understand. I wish I could be there."
Today's the day. And me, too.
Posted by Annie at 11:19 AM