Life Just Kept on Walking
Our autobiography is to be about our movement, geographically, emotionally or educationally. I am not sure where mine is going at this point. I am unsure what I want to share. If I tell the truth, the whole truth, it becomes something unbelievable for most people. Suffice it to say I am torn between telling it as it was, or as I wanted it to be. Or maybe I just want to put in the few good memories and leave it at that. I do not want to shock anyone with the horrors of my childhood, but I want to be honest. Being honest may mean being harsh and shocking. My life reads like bad fiction. I walked through much of my life wearing labels other people put on me. Later in my story I will address this label issue. For now I think I will leave out the goriest details and just put in the moments that had the biggest impact on me.
My earliest memory is riding in the back seat of our family's car and noticing the appearance of my leg changed if I lifted it off the seat. I kept lifting it and setting it down again, thin, fat, thin, fat again. I was intrigued. I do not know how old I was, but my foot barely extended past the seat bottom, so I was fairly small. I am alone in this memory, as I seem to be in most of the memories prior to my family going through divorce when I was eight years old. It is one of the few positive memories I have before my parents divorced when I was eight.
We lived in the sleepy little town of Whittier, California. My mother has attended college at a small Quaker college in Richmond Indiana, which just so happened to be the sister school of Whittier College. She had a professor who always talked of Whittier with great fondness and all of her school friends wished he would just move back there. Never did it occur to her that Whittier would one day be her home.
I did something that surprised my mother when I was about 4 years old; I began to read. I read labels at the grocery store. I read the simple books I had. Mother thought I had memorized the books and chalked the label reading up to the pictures on the cans. But when she brought home a book I had not yet read, or had read to me, I was able to read most of the words in it. No one told me that I had done something spectacular in teaching myself to read, they never really said much about it at all. The opposite was true in our home. I was treated as if I was stupid and frequently called "stupid" or "idiot" by my parents. By the time I started Kindergarten my brother was studying cursive writing, and I began to imitate him. So the first time I was asked to put my name on a paper at school, I wrote it in cursive. Again, no one seemed to think this was unusual. However, I began to know I was doing something different because my friends could not read or write. It would be many years before I truly knew I was not stupid. I wrote this poem because of the label my family put on me. It is my voice and the voice of many others.
You called me STUPID,
And I believed,
I called me SMART,
And I achieved.
You called me DYKE,
Like I was dirt,
I called me LESBIAN,
It didn't hurt.
You called me OLD,
All used up,
I called me YOUNG,
I'm just a pup.
You called me GREASER,
No good and lazy,
I called me LATINA,
Worked like crazy.
You called me NIGGER,
Good for nothing,
I called me BLACK,
Now I'm really something.
You called me KIKE,
Christ killer and cheap,
I called me JEW,
My pride to keep.
You called me INJUN,
Drunken red face,
I called me NATIVE,
I was here in the first place.
You called me FAG,
A person to bash,
I called me GAY,
Your labels I smash.
You called me STRANGE,
Twisted and bent,
I called me NORMAL,
Just a little different.
You called me by LABELS
That made me want to hide,
I called me by LABELS
That I could wear with pride.
You called me a NOTHING,
What could I do?
I call me a PERSON,
Just like you.
I loved to read. The first book that I fell in love with was Harold and the Purple Crayon. It was a marvelous story of a little boy who drew adventures with his purple crayon and then lived in those adventures. He became part of what he had drawn. It was a while before I understood it was his imagination that he was living in. I would draw in hopes of somehow getting into my drawings like he did. Harold was my hero and purple was his color. To this day purple is my favorite color. The other book I loved the most as a child was Where the Wild Things Are. I loved stories where children went away from the real world and had adventures. I was living in a not so wonderful family and longed for escape, which I found in the books I read. I loved The Owl and The Pussycat. I loved to look into the drawings in picture books and see myself in them. I wanted to be free, and in reading I was; free of the dramatic rescues of a mother who tried to kill herself, free of the males who hurt me, hit me, free of the other children who taunted me for wearing glasses and being “weird.” I honestly don’t know what weird or different is to a 5 year old. It was as though they could see through me to the abused, broken child I kept hidden inside.
I had the coolest teacher for first grade, Mrs. Schubert. She was wonderful. She helped me adjust to the discovery that I needed glasses. The discovery was actually quite startling for me. A note was sent to my parents spelling out that I was more than likely going to have trouble learning to read. Now they knew I could already read so they blew it off. Two weeks later they did routine eye screening; the woman gave me a Dixie cup and told me to cover my right eye and read the chart. My response was, “What chart?” A letter went home immediately telling my parents I am legally blind in one eye; reading ability no longer in question. She made me feel special about wearing the glasses, so I didn't feel like a geek. In the middle of that year her husband accepted a job in another state, and she left me. I was devastated. This is my poem about it.
As I sat in my first grade class
waiting for the time to pass,
I twiddled my thumbs and twirled my hair;
for the assignment of math, I didn’t care.
My beloved teacher had moved away.
How much that hurt I wouldn’t say.
Mrs. Schubert was gone, Miss Boils in her place.
The first one was kind, this one a rat face.
It was my job to drive her berserk;
from the day she arrived I refused to work.
The time for math over, now time for fun,
I wasn’t allowed, my math wasn’t done.
We were to make gifts for Mother’s Day.
I sat with my math, not allowed to play.
Colored popcorn and beans on a paper plate,
That I wasn’t included filled me with hate.
I sat alone facing her wrath.
I wouldn’t give in, I would do no math.
Everyone left carrying their prize,
I walked home with down turned eyes.
Looking down I found a wondrous thing;
I discovered a butterfly wing.
Oh, it was a beauty to behold
the delicate wing of black and gold.
My face lit up; the day wasn’t black.
Over the years, and looking back
on the gift I gave that day to my mother,
it’s the one she remembers above any other.
Christmas A. D. (After Divorce)
The year my parents divorced I was eight years old. We moved, not once but twice in that year. We settled in an apartment in La Mirada, right on the line between La Mirada and Whittier. We were within walking distance of the home I had lived in the first eight years of my life. Money was tight, very tight. Mom had almost no money and it was getting close to Christmas. She sat us, my older brother and I, down for a heart to heart about what to expect at Christmas time. We were both past the age of believing in Santa. She was frank with us. We were not going to have a tree. There would be no presents. She would save what she could to make a nice holiday dinner for us. It was going to be a really poor Christmas. She was so depressed and she cried as she told us all of this. I, being the one who assumed the role of "fixer" in our family, decided I would have to do something to fix it for her.
We lived in an apartment on a street behind a Vons grocery store. They had their Christmas trees out the day after Thanksgiving. I went there to play in the trees, to pretend one was mine, all decorated and pretty. As I was playing there for the umpteenth time, I spotted this spindly little tree about my height. It had very sparse needles and it was kind of light green, not the rich green of a Plantation Douglas fir. I was reminded of the forlorn little tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas Story. I stopped to read the price tag. If I could afford this tree, I would help mom and make the tree not so lonely. It was only 75 cents, but for me it might as well have been $75. However, I decided I was going to try to get that tree. I hoped that being so sparse and all no one would want to buy it before I could gather that much money. The man in charge of selling the trees, or guarding them or whatever his job was, allowed me to put the tree way in the back, shielded by other trees.
I enlisted my brother's help. Asking him for help was not easy. I never knew if he would be nice or mean. He was nice this time. We began to scrounge through the dumpsters behind our apartments looking for returnable bottles. All pop bottles were returnable back then. Small bottles were a nickel, bigger ones a dime. We found some, but not enough. We got into mom's closet and looked through the bottoms of her old purses, where we found a few more pennies. We started expanding our dumpster search. He boosted me over the side and I would dig through the yucky trash looking for those bottles. It took us almost a week, but we came up with the 75 cents we needed. The tree was still there last I had checked, and I checked twice a day at least.
Mom must have known we were up to something because when we asked her if she needed anything from the store, she sent us after something cheap she didn’t really need. We ran off to the store. Mom was home watching TV. The tree was right where it had been all along. We paid the man and started carrying it home. Mom says she heard us giggling as we climbed the stairs to our apartment. We set the tree down in front of the door, knocked and hid behind the air conditioner.
Mom was flabbergasted. She cried. She couldn't think of what to say. She put her arms around us both and cried some more. I felt warm inside. Mom was happy and I hadn't seen her happy in a very long time.
Something in Mom changed at that moment. She went out and took out a loan against our home furnishings to make sure we had gifts that year. Our little tree dried up and died before Christmas; Mom replaced it with a larger, greener one. I was grateful for the gifts I got that year, though I cannot remember one thing I got. I only remember the gift I gave. It was year I learned that giving was the real gift at Christmas time.
I moved in with my father, and for the 5th time in 4 years, I changed schools. At my new school there was a student teacher who read to us the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He made it come alive for me. He pointed out the symbolism and forever changed the way I read anything. I began to look for meanings beyond the words. But even more than that, he introduced me to Richard Bach, a writer and philosopher who has changed the way I see the world. I was very fond of the man, whose name I still remember, Mr. Dzerzhinsky (I am unsure of the spelling, but we all called my Mr. "D" anyway.). The day he was leaving for good I cried and cried. My friends all thought I had a crush on him, but I did not, I simply admired him and felt close to him in a father daughter kind of way. I was afraid to go see him while I was crying but my friends urged me on. So I went to him and as I got angry with myself for not being able to speak to him without crying, he spoke softly to me and said, "Remember this, it is better to feel things and feel them deeply than to never feel at all." I have never forgotten that and I have learned to forgive the tears I cannot always control. He changed my life forever.
I actually got to go to three years of high school at one school. That was the record for me until college, three consecutive years at one school. So I started ninth grade, a geek, or a freak depending on who you asked. I was definitely not one of the "In Crowd." I had to ride a bus to school in Pomona; we lived in Diamond Bar at the time. At the bus stop there was a girl, a geek like me. She didn't wear the cool clothes. Her hair was pulled into to pony tails at the sides of her head. He hair was blond and her eyes a piercing blue. She had a full woman's figure, with hips and curves. I couldn't keep my eyes off her. I was shy, but in time we became buddies, sitting together on the bus every morning and every afternoon.
Over the course of a few months we got to be best friends. I was smitten with her. I was just beginning to understand the feelings that had made me feel so different from my school-mates all through the years of puberty. I was just learning about lesbianism and I knew it was finally a label that fit me. I was in love with, or had a major crush on my best friend.
There was an afternoon when we were hanging out in my room. We were listening to Neil Diamond. I leaned over and kissed her softly on the cheek. She turned to face me and I kissed her mouth. My heart was beating a mile a minute. I felt like I was going to fly into bits. I thought she would push me away, but she kissed me back, for a moment, and then the moment was gone. She said she couldn’t do “that” again, explaining that she had already had a lesbian experience and the guilt over it had eaten at her, so she just could never do it again. She was my first friend in a long time; I do mean close friend. She was the first person outside my family, and therefore required to, hug me. We so close through most of the three years I was at that school that my fantasy of her being in love with me almost became real to me. We never kissed again, but the kisses in my fantasies, wow, those kisses were dyn-o-mite. I mention her here not only to tell you of my being a lesbian, but also because Meri Lou, that was her name, was the first person to tell me I was smart. She encouraged me to excel in school. She got me into deep discussions about books we had read. She challenged me to be the "A" student I could be. I was still attached to the label of "stupid" my family had given me, but I think I began in that time to shrink that label if not yet to discard it.
It was in these, my teen years, that I also began to show signs of what would many years later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues. I had some rather spectacular psychotic breaks, one very memorable one at school. I don't know what spurred it, a whole chunk of time is missing and I was suddenly throwing my book bag at a boy's head and screaming at him that all men were disgusting and stupid. Then I started roaming the halls trying to find Meri Lou. I knew I would be okay, I could calm down, if only she were there. A campus proctor tried to grab me, but I pulled myself loose and kept moving. It eventually took two proctors to rein me in and get me to the Vice Principal's office. The school psychologist was called in. The nurse was there. They got out of my rantings and ravings about men and school, and whatever else I was ranting about, that I wanted Meri Lou. They got her from her class. We were allowed to go into the nurse's office and there she held me until I could calm down. My father was called and I was taken home. My father's reaction was not one of understanding, but of threats as to what might be my punishment should I ever "pull any crap like that again!" There were to be many more outbursts of that nature, and with them many depressions, with a few suicide attempts thrown in here and there. Neither of my parents, or anyone for that matter, ever tried to find out why I was having such outbursts and depressions. I was 35 before I was diagnosed and treated with medication. To give my mother credit she knew I was troubled back when I was 8 or so, and took me to see a therapist. The therapist kind of traumatized me by exposing her crotch to me. I was fascinated seeing a grown woman’s private pats and also so freaked out I puked on the way home.
My mental illness kept me from completing my education in a timely manner. It is still a factor. I have been going to college off and on since 1980. I took 3 years of Theatre classes and went out into the world to work as a stagehand. I have one AA degree that I got in 1995 with highest honors. I applied to Whittier College and was accepted, but could not afford the tuition because I had defaulted on an old student loan. I stuck around community college a while longer while I rehabilitated that loan then applied to California State University Fullerton and started attending classes there. My mental health became an issue as I tried to balance a relationship, a job, and school. I screwed up my GPA and dropped out of school to keep my job and relationship. I was blessed to have a very understanding and loving partner. My mental health was an issue in the relationship as well. At CSUF in my poetry writing class I wrote two sonnets, or attempted to; this is one:
Sonnet of the Mentally Ill
You know what it’s like to live in my head?
Connections aren’t made like they are for you.
More often than not you wish you were dead.
It’s hard keeping straight what’s what and who’s who.
Important things get lost in the jumble.
The pill drill can help, though not all the time.
Frustration at this can make you mumble,
But take them you must, or walls you will climb.
Some days it’s hard not to sink through the floor,
With mangled thoughts and twisted perception,
I don’t want to feel this way anymore.
Shrinks say they cure; what cunning deception.
Counseling may help, and the drugs do too,
But all said and done, I’d rather be you.
The Chemistry Game
My brain chemistry
Plays games with me.
Day after day,
Level I can stay.
But one tiny bump,
Comes to my throat a big lump.
As I Choke on the rage
Too varied to gauge,
I fly off the handle,
And Flare up like a candle.
Then suddenly it drops,
The mania stops.
Falling out of control
Deep into a hole.
Passing ground zero,
No longer the hero.
Deep into the pit.
I’m tired of this shit!
My brain chemistry
Plays games with me.
We never have fun,
It’s a loaded gun,
Pointed at my head,
One slip and I’m dead.
I wrote this one while staying in a mental health unit trying to get through a deep depression.
The Pillity Pop!
I've got lots of questions,
please don't tell me lies.
What happens inside me
when sanity dies?
how hard can it be,
to find the right key?
What makes me so different?
Don't pretend its not so,
my pistons aren't firing
all in a row.
what kind of a mix,
my brain it might fix?
How is it possible,
how can it be,
that taking a drug,
makes me more me?
take this one to see,
some semblance of me.
What can I tell you
I don't make the rules?
If this isn't real,
the doctors are fools.
I take a bite here,
I'm shrinking, I fear.
Where did she come from,
my strange, evil twin?
Who opened the door
that let her walk in?
what else can I try,
to make the twin die?
All of that doesn't matter,
what matters is this,
I act like I should,
if a dose I don't miss.
take them I must,
or my sanity's dust.
In 1996 I was first treated for depression and later for bipolar disorder. It was a memorable year in other ways too. I found what I thought was to be my soul-mate; I found the woman with whom I intended to spend the rest of my days. She is the most patient, understanding, loving, giving human being I have ever known; we are still good friends. Her life experience is not at all like mine and yet when we were together we fit together like a hand in a glove; or at least I thought we did. The trouble with emotional illnesses is that our perceptions are not the same as those of other people. I have written many poems to her and about her, but this one I think says more about what her love did in my life than anything else I could say.
All my love
All my love packed away in little boxes.
Saved for one day when Ms. Right would come along.
Stored unused, dusty, yellowed with age,
They sat so very long waiting for the "one."
Rusted to each other, pieces large and small, from the damp,
Dampness of tears shed over love that came and went,
Stunted in growth from lack of light and air.
All my love packed away in little boxes.
Dragged out and dumped at your feet,
Smelling of mildew, and mold, in damaged boxes.
Given to you in one big heap,
For you to sort through, looking for the salvageable;
You, Ms. Right, receiver of half-forgotten bits of love,
Must somehow breathe new life into the dying love.
All my love packed away in little boxes,
Labeled, "father," "mother," "brother," etc.
The box labeled, "lover," far, far back on the shelf.
Boxes long ago given up on, never filling, always draining.
Convinced was I, that I would never use them again.
All my love packed away in little boxes.
You opened each one to see what it contained.
Handled each fragile bit with care,
Examined them in the light of your love,
Tossed out what was broken beyond repair,
Repaired all that you could with love of your own.
And after all you set aside as garbage,
I still need bigger boxes to hold all my love again.
I am still on my journey of love, of discovery, of education. In 2004 I was attending Cerritos College to pull up my GPA. I applied to CSUF and CSUDH. My wonderful partner that I thought I could not live without broke up with me. I had to move into my mother’s apartment. CSUF turned me down, telling me to keep going to the CC and pull the GPA up a little more, CSUDH said if I finished the classes I was in with Cs or better, I was in. I went to CSUDH the following Spring. I was determined to get my BA. I was told I would never finish it, but I did, straight through; even enduring the suicide of my younger brother during my first semester there.
I thought I wanted a teaching credential, but schools are laying teachers off. There are no jobs in teaching. I tried my hand at Management in graduate school, but I hated it and I knew I would never make it in management. I lost the job that I wanted the management degree for anyway. For once I did not lose the job over the economy or my mental health. I simply blew it and made a serious safety error that got me fired.
I’ve been told I can write. I have been given a gift. I love to put words on paper; stories, poems, creative non-fiction, essays, pretty much any opportunity to string together words in order to convey feeling. I have had not one, not two, but four creative writing instructors tell me I should pursue my talent by getting an MFA in creative writing. But I’ve always asked myself what in the hell could I do with that degree. The funny thing is I have told many, many people to do what they love and the money will follow. I love to write more than I love to read, and I never thought that was possible. Where the road will take me now is anyone's guess, but I am applying to an MFA creative writing program. When I get that degree I will figure out how to make it into a living.
My mental health is still a concern. I am still adjusting my meds. I have been given a diagnosis that makes perfect sense if you knew my whole story. It makes perfect sense if you know that from time to time I come to behind the wheel of the car not knowing where I am or where I am going. I have missing memories of most of my childhood. I have a lot of missing memories from my teens. I lose time here and there regularly. One minute I know where I am in a conversation and what seems like moments later is much later and I have no idea what I’ve said or if I have offended anyone. I use humor a lot to mask my fear. Did I mention I am afraid of everything? Some of my fears have no basis in anything, like being afraid I’ll skewer my eyeball on a straw by accident, or worse on purpose.
I know where I want to go, I want to be published and I want to teach community college. This time I can see myself getting there. Visualization is one of my favorite tools for learning. I visualize where I want to be, or how I want to be, or what I want to come into my life, and by repeated visualizations, I make those things come true. I love to use visualization, but for some reason I have drifted away from it. Perhaps because I can’t get my mind to be quiet, there are all of these alternate personalities trying to tell me their stories and share their memories. I don’t want these memories and stories. I don’t want to be DID. I don’t want to be sicker than I have to be.
When I do visualize I do the footwork, don't get me wrong; I don't expect magik to make my life better without getting off my ass and moving myself along my chosen path. The road doesn't move, so I have to! I will leave you with this thought:
Out of breath,
running just to keep up.
Fear like lead weights
holding down my feet.
Each stride, each step,
Hills too steep,
climbing and stumbling
I fall further behind.
I trip and fall,
pick myself up,
start running again.
Worn out shoes,
I want to stop,
just stop and rest.
Huffing and puffing,
I cry out,
No dice, no slowing,
Life just kept on walking.