{the sisterhood of the cynical}

Netherlands 2018 1120

I never expected to be an older sister.

I spent long years being the youngest, a position loathed but familiar, before finally getting two younger sibs in one go, but little did I know that they meant my own position would change to that of Big Sister. This meant explanation, exhortation and most often, commiseration. And so it was that when my phone rang on Friday and my younger sister said, “Something’s happened,” and her voice warbled up in that tearful fashion to which I have become accustomed. I got comfortable, expecting the usual – a spat between she and Dad, or our eldest sister. Not today.

It was, she told me, at school, where she, with her cohort, are learning the ins and outs of the world of hair. JC keeps me up to date on the restless world of the Young and the Black-Clad, as all good Paul Mitchell-ites must be, and there is always some drama – so-and-so up and walked away from a client of hers and just left her hanging, so-and-so did a bad cut that the teacher had to rescue; so-and-so is the best colorist in the whole group, and is a little too proud of that fact. JC is a deft hand with the color bowl, and moved beyond doing wash-and-sets on the disembodied head of Maria the Mannequin to real human clients a little less than a month ago. Friday’s client was in for a color… and then abruptly took over the discussion on hair with a personal question.

“Why are you in a wheelchair?”

JC was the only physically disabled kid in her entire school, so she’s well accustomed to discussing her disability, and not at all uncomfortable with a quick explanation. However, the client wasn’t… satisfied with quick. She asked probing questions, and kept turning the conversation from the general to the personal. When she was finally draped and settled in her chair, and JC went to get her color, the woman asked the room at large, “Why do I have to have her? Can’t someone else do my hair?”

I imagine the room was uncomfortably silent. Afterward, the woman became uncommunicative and surly in response to questions and overall was a difficult client. JC’s confidence wavered, and she called in her teacher to finish for her… then a friend told her what had been said.

I commiserated, of course. I said how sorry I was that something like this had happened. I expressed my disgust with the woman’s ignorance, and her apparent belief that disability is contagious; I wished aloud she had received some home training. But, none of that fixes anything; in the long run, nobody can fix people. And, because I am so very bad at commiseration, I said, “And what’s your plan for the next time this happens?”

“What?” she quavered.

“It’s going to happen again,” I said, trying to be gentle. “Humanity is consistently awful.”

To no one’s surprise, she hung up a few minutes later, saying she was going to call Mom.

It was… maybe? the wrong thing to say? My sister, who was born with such birth trauma and such horrific birth parents and who manages with physical disabilities is still a mostly sunny-side-up type of kid. While I assume that there are going to be people in the world who are just generally ugly about things, she is horrified to find them. While she rolls through life assuming that doors will open for her, I trudge around with an axe. If it came down to wondering which of us was right the greater majority of the time, I’d probably say me… and she’d probably say her. Some sisterhoods are all things sweet and comfortable. Some sisterhoods have traveling pants. Ours, unfortunately, seems to have a cynical wedgie.

I guess this explains why I’m not actually great at this gig.

Regardless, I still think she needs to make a plan for next time. Because, in my experience, people will try you. We all know some folk move through the world looking for power exchanges, those moments when they feel like they can level up from the ground-floor misery that they feel they are by clomping on the head and shoulders of someone else to rise, even briefly. Everyone with a minus in a world that counts only pluses needs to have the tools at hand to lay boundaries for the way they wish to be treated and with kindness, insist on it. The Golden Rule isn’t meant to be a yardstick with which we smack each others’ hands, but a yardstick by which we measure how much we, too, are worth, and look toward treating others in kind. I want JC to know she’s worth being treated better, worth more than someone who has to explain or defend her choices or her existence.

Until then, Sister Cynic is practicing her shin kicking, in case Little Sister might need her.

{fortress}

Under the ruins of a walled city
Crumbling towers and beams of yellow light
No flags of truce, no cries of pity
The siege guns have been pounding through the night
It took a day to build the city
We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the fields I’d known
I recognized the walls that I’d once made
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

It’s Old School Friday! You know you remember this song from way back when. It was on autoplay when I was about sixteen, and my friend Molly was the world’s biggest Sting fan. She found him to be So Profound (insert eye roll), thus, she had a Sting song for every occasion. Funny how much our friends’ musical choices shape ours. I know many of the words to many of his songs by heart, even though I wasn’t the superfan. Ah, well. Sting’s largely disappeared from my world, except for a the albums left on Brainradio, one of which is Island of the Blue Turtles where this song, with its imagery of war and hearts, is found.

Anyone who has grown up with challenging parents feels the war thing a bit more keenly than most. If you grew up where voices were raised, objects were thrown or swung with astonishing accuracy – or lack of said – or if you could hear yourself breathe, from holding yourself so quiet and still, and felt like your room, in a closet, was your personal foxhole, you might know how confusing it is to wonder if …the war’s over.

And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire

I used to laugh at how on Crash Course, John Green would occasionally address commentary to Me From the Past, the younger, undeniably dumber John Green who was the hapless soul who made non-logical conclusions, dork moves with girls, and in general was a git. My “Me From the Past” has never been quite so clearly identifiable a character, but she exists in my head when I think of my childhood. Especially when I think of my childhood as compared to now. Sometimes – and we all do this – we let Me From the Past be the narrator in our heads that tells Me in the Present how things are going to go down. Occasionally – frequently – my Me From the Past is just as full of dork moves and non-logical conclusions as John’s. She believes that nothing ever changes.

And, sometimes she’s right.

Negotiating a relationship with someone who consistently hurt you, consistently disappointed you, consistently told you that you weren’t good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough is tricky as hell. Now, smart money’s on people like my friend, A., who can just …not do that. She opts to have NO relationship with those family members. But, I … I have, quite frankly, guilt complexes, questions of “am I being a good person” and an inability to let go. Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone. The thought horrifies me.

(This is not, by the way, proof that I’m a good person. This is proof that I have a whisper of Machiavelli in my personality and want to retain the moral high ground at all times.)

Me From the Past stands ready, in the back of my mind, at all times. Me From the Past believes her job is to remind me of things – to supply dates and details, if necessary – so that I don’t make the same dork moves I did back then. That’s okay; I accept that she feels that’s her job. Me in the Present, however, likes to reserve the right to overrule her. And, that’s where the problem lies. How much do you overrule your past? How much do you ignore what you know as truth from situations you’ve already been in?

Then I went off to fight some battle
That I’d invented inside my head
Away so long for years and years
You probably thought or even wished that I was dead
While the armies are all sleeping
Beneath the tattered flag we’d made
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

It bothers me to be in my well-past-thirties, and still resentful about parts of my childhood. Our older relatives age; mine are nearing seventy. Some of those problematic people can show themselves to be lovely and affable now; storytellers, bakers of special treats, complimentary and, frankly, changelings that cause me tremendous guilt. Me in the Present wonders who these people are. Me From the Past reminds me that I know this version of these people, too. And that I’ve watched the rebounds happen over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Me From the Past reminds me, as always, that it is best to feed these people with a long spoon. Me in the Present feels guilty and wishes she could shorten that spoon, get back within arm’s reach. This is troubling to both versions of my self.

Part of maintaining sanity is honoring Me From the Past enough to accept that her experiences are valid enough for Me in the Present to make decisions from. Me From the Past isn’t delusional. Me From the Past is young and goofy, yeah, but she is real and didn’t make overblown statements about what was, simply on a whim. But, sometimes, it’s not about questioning Me From the Past’s judgment entirely, though. Sometimes, it’s just wondering if Me in the Present can ever make the choice that Now is safe. If Me in the Present can ever say to Me From the Past “You can come out now. It’s safe to put your full weight down on your heels, and to not be prepared to run, because the land mines have all been collected.”

This prison has now become your home
A sentence you seem prepared to pay
It took a day to build the city
We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the lands I’d known
I recognized the fields where I’d once played
I had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid

And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire

The one thing Me From the Past and Me in the Present agrees on is that, so far, not even the UN has managed to collect all the landmines after wars from sixty years ago. Nobody ever collects all the landmines after a war. And, you’ll NEVER KNOW ‘TIL THEY EXPLODE.

Is it discounting Me From the Past’s experiences to want so badly to believe in change? Me in the Present is always afraid of being looked on as a cynic… but sometimes, you are what you are.

I’m pretty sure someone wrote a YA novel about this…

Stirling Castle 192

{the gift was for me}

I can count on one hand the number of times my father has really and truly liked his Father’s Day gift. When I was a kid, the handmade macaroni necklaces and the soap-on-a-rope was received politely, and given to my mother, as my father does with all gifts he doesn’t really want. Last year I scored with a bunch of salty nuts and six bottles of Dad’s Root Beer. I know my father liked his gift, because he hoarded it, and allowed no one to touch it. Generally, giving my father root beer as a gift is the answer to all things — not soap, not ties, not sporting goods, not sentiment. Root beer. And so, I give it to him for his birthdays and for Father’s Day, and we muddle through the gift-giving thing one more time.

This year, on Father’s Day, my eldest sister dropped by my parent’s house. It was hot, and my father was lying down on the cool tiles of the front porch with pillows, a drink (probably root beer) and a book. To my sister’s surprise, my father was reading MARE’S WAR.

My father is proud of me. Truly, he is. But, his pride consists of telling people that I’m a writer, suggestion on to whom I should give books, suggestions for writing subjects, and generally telling me how to do what I do. His pride has not so far extended to actually, you know, reading my books or anything. But he was apparently bored enough, and hot enough to make a start. And then, he responded with enthusiasm. He regaled my sister with his list of actors who should be cast in a film version. He raved about how surprisingly good the book was. He was engaged. He was excited.

So, this year, the gift on Father’s Day was for me. And I shall hoard this little memory, and not let anything touch it.

{I Hope You Dance}

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

This weekend I helped Tech Boy give a gift to a friend – by attending the epic wedding of his friend Axel and being the on-the-spot photographers, as our gift to him. It was an epic wedding because a.) it’s Scotland, and Scottish parties are epic, b.) Axel is Romanian, and Romanian dances are epic c.) it lasted for two days, and many, many hours.

I am an introvert, socially backwards in some ways, and sometimes weirdly shy – so there were parts of the whole thing which made me break out in a sweat, including waltzing into the bride’s dressing room and photographing she and her attendant getting ready (I’d never met her, so, our introduction was, “Um, yeah, hi. Don’t mind me, I’m just here to photograph you while some random chick puts lipstick on you. Just ignore me, thanks.”). There were also some moments which were beautifully surreal, which included the Greek orthodox service with the cantor and the icons and the marching around the altar three times, and the crowns – the bride and groom are crowned in an orthodox service, which, along with the sugar cookie (well, they looked sweet) wafers they got to eat (which represented the sweetness of marriage or something?) was just great. But the moments I loved the best were the dancing.

I was raised not dancing – I’ve never sat through (READ: Suffered through) Flashdance FOOTLOOSE* (thank-you, Leila), but I’m told my life ran a parallel to the theme – churchy folk Just Didn’t Do That, because dance Led To Other Things. The only difference is a.) I’m not an angsty 80’s boy, and b.) I figured I was too physically awkward to worry about dancing anyway. But, that’s not strictly true. I think not dancing, seriously, takes something away from a person. I’m not talking grinding or freak dancing or whatever – please — but to not dance — as families, as generations, as people — is to miss a pair of middle-aged women attempting the Virginia Reel and ending up in a breathless giggling tangle – or to miss being the groom quick-stepping his mother around the floor and singing with her some silly ABBA song, and to miss first-date couples and grandparents and shy Scots boys paired with shyer Romanian girls attempting cèilidh dancing for the first time, trying desperately to remember which way to step, hop, clap, and twirl. To not dance would be to miss all the suddenly unselfconsciously delighted Romanians of all ages — resplendent in their kilts — who ran shouting out onto the floor, arms raised, at the first strains of their traditional music.

It was joy in action, celebration embodied. And I felt crippled that I couldn’t stand up and join in. (I know I technically could have, but I was working. I wasn’t really a guest. And, remember: socially backwards and weirdly shy.)

When I was in college, I remember reading William Carlos Williams’ The Dance, and looking up the painting. I giggled at the words — he was so right about the round butts and heavy shanks — and this weekend I remembered again the circular phrases that remind me of the dances – running along, laughing, stepping and trying to keep up with the crazyfast Romanian circles, or the amusingly named Dashing White Sergeant in the cèilidh – all stumbles and laughter, wild twirling and stumbles — learning grace with a slow, slow, quick, quick step. The laughing, the swinging hips, the stomping feet — all of those images swirled through my head. So, these are my fantastic memories of someone else’s celebration – and a reminder to learn to uncripple myself and join the dance.

The Dance

~ by William Carlos Williams~
In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies, (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess

* Okay, here’s the scoop on Footloose, which, I am told, even THE JOSH thinks is a good movie. The Josh has many weird tastes in things and has dancing Kokopelli etched on the stock of his gun, so we don’t actually TRUST his opinion, only Leila’s, but nevertheless, let me tell you why I’ve never seen this: A#1 Reason:) the music. Okay. It’s fun, catchy, whatever. But. I had this Eeeeevil Aerobics teacher, pre-Zumba days, when people still did plain old aerobics. She made us do this… well, it can only be called a chicken dance thing — complete with rapid, full-extension can-can kicks, arm flailing, and side hops — to the title song to this film.

A lot of hate going on, after that. A lot of hate…

{a tale of tables past}

Pleasant Hill 48

“Gratitude is the antidote. It is a specific against a variety of diseases, from something as vague as the discontents of civilization to something as specific as personal grief – but gratitude is the antidote. Thanksgiving is the holiday of gratitude, and I am always willing to celebrate it.” – Jon Carroll.

So sing we now of tables past,

Of slow-hipped aunties brushing by

With plates and platters. Sing again

Of table leaf, piano bench;

Of room enough to spare for more.

So sing we now with gratitude

The antidote to our discord,

We share the table’s luxuries,

But sing we, too, of just enough –

Of feasts made more by scarcity.

O, sing, and pass the plates around,

With new-made family standing by

With sated hearts. And sing again

Of old made new, of friends beloved,

Of miles bridged close when we’re apart.

Gratitude holds the cure,

– for reality, for family, for lack of sleep –

Take the dose – drink it deep!

And raise your glass to tables past.

Always such busy days, Thursdays, and in the UK, Thanksgiving is inevitably the day for some sort of exam or conference, and Tech Boy is racing around, and I am home making a tiny roasted vegetable bread pudding and pasta and sweet potatoes and pumpkin tarts and all manner of things for which we will run out of space in our dorm-sized fridge. And then, I will play the annual I Will Kick Your Behind At Scrabble online game with my sisters, and then will be the Skype family dinner in which the fam will hold up their plates (Which always cracks me up. What, do we have smell-o-vision?) and talk to me between bites. The nephew will giggle and tell knock-knock jokes when he should be eating, and the baby will dump something over and try wriggling down from his chair, and the whinging will begin, and we will all sign off until next year — or, in this case, Sunday, which is when we always talk anyway.

And I will be grateful, and remember that certainty, that I have something for which to be grateful, and when it is dark and snowing and I slip on the stairs – which will be, in all likelihood, tomorrow morning — I will still feel the thrumming of the antidote in my veins, and I will sigh and get up and be grateful nothing is worse than a slightly dirtied pair of jeans. And I will go on. Because, that’s what gratitude does: lets you go on. In the dark. In the winter. When it is cold, and you would rather sleep than get up.

A lady said to me the other day, “I always thought the Americans just got another day of Christmas,” referring to Thanksgiving, which they are shocked is “so close to Christmas.” Um, not really. It’s a whole month away. And yet, Thanksgiving is a gift. I think I’ll keep it.

Kabocha and Sweet Potato Pies

And Everywhere, She Sees Hoors

My Dear found whores everywhere; her everyday world was a sphere bisected by those women who were, “right for that, she was,” and those misfortunate who were “a dirty slut” or just “a whore.”

“She kicked ‘im out,” she would say in dark satisfaction, as some Godly woman, who would later possibly be excoriated for some other failing, kicked her no-good husband to the curb. “She was right for that.”

(Odd that things like spousal justice gave her such satisfaction, she who adored her philandering husband, and never recovered from his death. Odd that she was so fierce in her words, so inflexible in her pronouncements, when she spoiled her sons rotten, doted on her nephews and grandkids. The only ones with whom she was strict were her daughters. Potential hoors, those.)

The world as Kingdom of Whoredom was news to me; I thought I lived in a more benign place. In my understanding, lack of housekeeping skills was a minor sin, a tiny blight, thus the things under the bed were dust bunnies: rolls of dust that had soft ears and wiggling noses. In m’Dear’s iron age of what was right, and what was whorish, they were simply Slut’s Wool, and not to be tolerated by right-thinking Christian women, who knew how Eve fell. She was only out cavorting with that snake because she was neglecting the housekeeping. You know there was slut’s wool on the grass beneath the bower where she and Adam slept.

(Slut’s wool! O, fabulous creation! Can you imagine the scandalous things which one could knit with slut’s wool? Felted things would possibly leak unmentionable fluids. One could not possibly make something as mundane as socks. There is a good chance one can only find it in siren shades of magenta and red. Anything else would somehow be against nature.)

It was, of course, arguably non-Christian for my Dear to be quite so judgmental and name-call-y about Those Women, but if you think I was up to arguing with her, than you are indeed delusional. My grandmother Spoke With God. She began every day with her large-print King James’ Bible, reading aloud, her third-grade vocabulary enriched by the sonorous words. When she finished her devotions, she would cook and clean and Make Pronouncements, possibly some of which she believed were on loan from God Himself. There are some women who are Right for things.

And some women are just whores.

Thus saith Dear.

This all comes to mind as I’ve just been home in Cali for six weeks, and spent time every few days talking to her, and chatting with my sister and aunt as they fed and bathed her, transferred her to bed and wheelchair and lounger, which is now the shrunken orbit of her withered star. I was never easy with this woman, whose only reading consisted of Holy Writ, who never answered my carefully penned letters, full of news of myself, my school mates, and my little concerns. She never answered them, but she kept them in a box, like treasures too good to handle. Only later did I understand how foreign I seemed to her; she who had to leave school in the third grade to take care of her siblings. How could we write? What was there to say to a self-conscious, self-centered little child with not a care in the world?

I’m sure she thought us messy little hellions when we visited her, and I remember being dragged to the tub each time we visited her home, no matter how later — because it was a sin to go to bed dirty. The following morning our towels would be gone from the bathroom — because towels in her house were something you only used once. (Yes, those environmentalists who put out “don’t wash my towels” notes in hotels would run screaming from her.) I was never easy with my grandmother when she was whole, and now after a series of strokes and an aneurysm, I am less easy with her, worrying that I will miss some important pronouncement, concerned that I don’t quite understand the transmissions from the satellite drift of her mind.

These days, my grandmother still speaks with God, but it is only some days that she can read. Nowadays her pronouncements like as not are mumbled and rambling. Only once this past holiday did I unwisely ask her to repeat herself when she directed a comment to me. She snapped, suddenly quite clear and in control of her faculties, “I done said what I had to say.” And would not say it again to the pesky whore who kept bothering her.

I think of her tonight, because the boiler has been broken since we got home, and once again, I have the 32 quart canning pot on the stove full of water, boiling it to lug to the bathroom and perform what our Scottish friends call a “cat-lick bath.” Animals be damned, you know my grandmother says any bath which does not immerse you fully as Jesus was immersed in the River Jordan is a Whore’s Bath. Yes. I have returned to the United Kingdom, and now I am a whore.

Only some days does my grandmother recognize me; most days I’m the minister’s girl (and D’s the minister – cutting a foot off of his hair must’ve helped — I can’t imagine who she thought he was before. The Unwashed Hippie?), or “that girl,” and those days she glares at me from behind eyes clouded with sullen confusion, and suspicion. The day before we left, though, she widened her eyes and me and smiled. “Happy New Year!” she said joyously, and my eyes filled, though God only knows if she has any idea what year it is.

But that matters little, because to those of us who adore her, it is her year. Never mind the Lunar Calendar, 2010 is The Year of the Whore.


Translation: Dear is pronounced “Dee-uh,” it is the Southernism for Mother Dear (say Mutha-Dee-uh, and think of Steel Magnolias), and that is what we call my mother’s mother. Dear’s mother was Big Ma. HER mother didn’t speak English, and so her name was in Caddo, a language of which I sadly know very few words at all. Certainly not the word for “whore,” more’s the pity.