"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Month: November, 2011

Rock the Boat

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She was determined to get the real, the grit, the rawness out of me. She wanted me to rip off the bandage and see the crusty wound underneath. “Stop wrapping up your writing in a cutesy little bow,” I imagined her saying. “Give me less sweet lemonade and more vodka; let your stories pour,” she was always pushing me. She taught life. She shared the real stuff of her life: her dog, the books she loved, her dying mother. Her teaching was up close and personal, a hand on a shoulder to make sure I was not just hearing but also understanding. She smelled like Folgers Coffee, Marlboro cigarettes, and Nicorette gum. She was gruff, in-your-face, and when I was a freshman she scared the shit out of me, as did the painting on her podium of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Her teaching philosophy echoes in me.

My English teacher saved me. In high school I locked myself in the stall when I didn’t have to pee. Sometimes I pressed my forehead to the metal stall to feel the coolness when I felt dizzy. Sometimes I wiped the sweat that wouldn’t stop dripping from my body. Sometimes I simply stared at the walls of the stall, especially the second to the last one’s graffiti that declared Melissa K. was a four-letter word. Then after throwing up and shivering and trembling, I turned the faucet as hot as it would go and held my hands under the stream. I looked in the mirror, smoothed my hair, wished I wasn’t here and wasn’t me.  But in her class, being pissed off at the world meant you had usable material. In her class I was free to dream and create and hate and did not have to pretend to be okay. And the only class you had to act in was her drama class. 
She could act, though, really act. We were cast as Babe and Lenny McGrath in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. Though I was merely in high school and she was nearing retirement, the play made us sisters. Ironically, she saves me in the play, too. She pulls my head out of the oven. In the play, she basically tells me that although my life is screwed up, it does still have purpose. She needed this play to be her life; she needed her part to be perfect. She needed an outlet for her passion. She was probably tired of dealing with students who didn’t possess any.  She performed her lines with different emphasis trying to get the sound, the meaning, the feeling just right. She wrote an eleven page character synopsis to get herself into character. She asked for suggestions and then got mad for not thinking of them herself. I saw myself in her. I was fascinated by her friends—the characters that made up the rest of the cast–from the moment I met them. They lived unapologetically–on purpose–with an appreciation for the arts that seeped into every aspect of their lives. I loved them for the way they laughed their gritty, gravelly laughs and told me inappropriate things. I loved them for the way they forgot I was sixteen and offered me mimosas at cast parties. I loved them for showing me life was more than high school. She was my teacher, my favorite, my sister, my friend.
 I think she wanted me to be on Broadway or on some best seller list. She was surprised I wanted to be like her; she was shocked I applied for her job position. I always thought she knew everything, and I think she had a hunch I would not get the job. She knew I never fit in at Edwards County High School. She knew I never would.  Except for the sanctuary of her classroom, the school’s walls always felt like a prison to me. I know she wanted future English students to be free, alive, messy, silly, inspired, deep, and different. She knew I’d continue her unconventional legacy. She knew I’d be damned before I let a student tiptoe through learning. She knew I was too much like her, too fiery for this town. She sat in on my interview anyway, nodding her head with a proud smile on her face and knowing she created me. I hope she knows her techniques still live.  In whatever classroom I teach, my students and I get out of our seats. We laugh real laughs. We sit in a circle. We read Shakespeare aloud. We act out stories. We have the sacred writing time which I believe saves their jaded high school selves. We share. Rules are broken. Pages are curled, passages are starred and underlined and chewed on, metaphorically. We ask and answer tough questions, tough life questions. Coffee splatters and worthwhile comments dribble down their essays. I fight, like she fought, against censorship, against normalcy, against apathy, against policy, against playing the education game.  I loathe the standardized tests that tell my students how to think and lock them back inside the box I try to lure them out of every day. But the school board and the administration do not know what students need. They wanted someone less like her, less like me. They wanted someone who wouldn’t rock the metaphorical boat on the pedagogical sea.            

Virgin Faith


I don’t know any girls at church camp. They seem like they have no idea what life could throw at them; they are stupid, innocent, seemingly flawless, spoiled girls.  I’m angry at God. I’m a stone wall—hardened and cold. I don’t think about how there is “power in the blood” or “washing in the blood of the lamb” or being “covered by the blood of Jesus” until I wake up in my bunk covered in my own blood. And I don’t tell a soul because they’re all just interested in saving my soul.
Camp is not the first time I’ve seen the blood. Several months earlier when the blood appeared, I knew I’d “become a woman.” But when it disappeared for months, I guessed it was a false alarm.  Perhaps I wasn’t actually ready to be a woman. I felt like a girl, a bud not ready to blossom, too ugly and stupid to bloom. I wanted to shut the world out and remain tight, forever in a bud.
I have stained sheets and stained faith. I tear strips of my white washrags.  I then wind toilet paper around the rags and wrap them around the crotch of my panties to keep everything secure while wondering why those ridiculous wing commercials on television make having your period seem glamorous. I don’t think I can speak to anyone about supplies. I’m never good at asking for anything, especially asking for things I need. I bet the girls in the bunks surrounding me would have no problem asking. They seem like they wouldn’t be ashamed about talking to their moms about shaving their legs or using scary looking tampons or needing a stronger deodorant to prevent sweat stains from going all the way down to their waists.
  I don’t think I can speak to anyone about anything.  I can speak, technically, but what I can’t do is hear, not very well. About a year before I came to camp, God decided to take most of my hearing, take it away from the girl who is scared and awkward already. We went to hospitals and specialists. No tumor, no blow to the head, no ear infection. God just took it suddenly with no good reason. Now I feel stuck in my own world where the real world is muffled and muted, slightly spinning and baffling to me.
The bell signals flagpole time.  I waddle to the circle hoping blood won’t seep through my jeans.  With my luck, today’s Bible lesson will involve Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. Instead, we’re each given a notebook. I am handed a red one. Red must be the theme, the color of the week. I run my hand over the smooth cover and fan the pages. The first page is so white, so blank, and so pure. I stare at the first page for two hours. I write, “God, You feel far away.” There. That sentence wasn’t so bad. The act of writing was easier than holding hands around the table and listening to my disappointed parents beg God to fix me. Writing was easier than my dad’s idea of allowing the Elders at church to place their hands on me. I didn’t want them to touch me or hear them say, “Thy will be done- heal this child- out demon, out- restore her- to God be the glory.” I could, however, handle a notebook. I could control a notebook. I could fill it with what I wanted. I could take away from it what I wanted.  I could close it when I felt like it. I could rip out pages. I could chuck it across the room. I could sleep with it under my pillow.
I tried to explain that I couldn’t pray out loud.  When my youth minister took me to a shelter house to talk, he didn’t actually make me speak. He simply sat with me and read to me Romans 8:39 NIV: “Neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of Christ that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I wondered, “Nothing will be able to separate? Not my wall, not my distance I put between us, not my faith so spotted with questions and doubts and the embarrassment of being me?” Did God take away my physical hearing so that I could spiritually listen? Though I don’t know the answer to that question, I do believe God started listening to me.  In Genesis, when Cain kills Abel, the blood cries out from the ground. God hears the blood. God heard what was happening inside me, inside my hopeful, pumping heart, inside my changing body.
That night, as I took my flashlight, virgin faith, pen, and red notebook under the stained covers with me, He heard the words I no longer hesitated to write but instead thrust onto the paper.  I spilled out questions. I reminded myself that even Job questioned. I poured out fears, anger, and brokenness, knowing I’d heard somewhere that God uses brokenness. Faster than I could think, my words dripped out of the pen. At that moment, I realized writing was submission. Writing meant opening up, stretching, tearing, releasing, and most of all, giving and letting go. It was writing that redeemed me. Writing is what broke the shell, tore the curtain, destroyed the wall, and awakened a woman.

During invitation, I put one foot in front of the other until I made it to the altar. Jesus bled and died for me. Blood stands for sacrifice, for pain, for lifeblood, for womanhood, for birth, and for me—rebirth. As I emerged from the water with the floating melody of “Now I belong to Jesus,” I noticed, with a slight smile on my face, that I had stained the baptismal water with the slightest tint of red.           
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Masks Fall

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                     I come into the world impatient and stubborn and restless, an angel hell-bent on not being a present wrapped up in a perfect bow.  My tiny body is overwhelmed by the unruly dark hair I inherited from my father. My mother is sick. In every newborn picture, my mother wears a mask so that she does not breathe on me. In the moments after birth as I drink from her breast, we are close. I imagine her holding me too tightly, wanting me to remain hers forever. Yet there is distance, a barrier.  My infant fingers desperately attempt to claw the mask away from my mother’s face. 

                         At five years old, I sit at the salon with a cape around me.  My dark hair is starting to fall out in places. Soft tufts of hair are coming in golden, like my mom’s. I look a bit like a baby skunk. Tsk, tsk, snip, snip—the dark hair disappears, was never there. My eyes are blue-green-gray. I am my mother’s daughter with my dad’s coal-black eyebrows and glistening long lashes.  But by thirteen, I am no longer my gorgeous mother’s mini-me. I am awkward, ugly, and shy.  My hair is growing in dark again.  “She needs highlights–the blondest you’ve got,” my mother says matter-of-factly.             
                         My mother is mad when I am sick.  She frowns when she feels my forehead.  Life—or the fairytale—is disrupted when something is wrong with me. She is aloof when I am desperate. She is suffocating when I don’t know how to communicate. She covers my depression and anxiety with fresh bright paint, paint that makes her house look beautiful and clean. I manically scratch at the walls and peel off the moldy layers of wallpaper that are stuck to this barricade surrounding me, desperately trying to get to bare plaster. 
                         I date boys because they call, and I’m pushed to get to know people, to be “known.” And then, too young, I fall hard in love with a grown man who takes me horseback riding. With urgency and intensity, he grabs my face and knows how to kiss so deeply he hits my soul, makes me stand in the rain soaked to my core until the mask finally washes away. My mother hates Josh for his maturity and frankness, his natural firmness and authority, his ability to see through superficiality. Josh brainwashes me, my mother says. According to my dad, he isn’t good enough. He’s not the star of the football team, the cocky jock who tries to jam his fingers down the waistband of my jeans during homeroom but won’t acknowledge me in the hallway.  My mother would rather see me with this “Ken” to my Barbie. My dad would rather see me go on shallow dates that mean nothing.
                         If Josh isn’t good enough, I fear I must not be good enough either. I escape, often, to the place that feels most real to me—his parents’ house and more specifically, their swing which feels more like mine than any memory. Their house is beautifully lived in, and no masks are hidden in the closets or drawers. Their moods don’t change and lives don’t stop if they have a guest or an audience. They hand me an always-open invitation for supper. When they are mad, they are mad. When they are happy, they are happy.
                         I break up with him towards the end of high school. They pull too hard; my parents win their tug-of-war. They convince me he’d put a ring on my finger and a baby in my belly. They assure me I’d be stuck forever in my hometown of no opportunities. They say I’ll never get my degree from the university I apply to that makes my future feel packed with possibility. But life doesn’t feel real or even possible when I’m not with him. I am robotic, colorless. I am overcome with strong urges to touch the earth, ride bareback, climb a mountain, skinny-dip in twilight, and feel alive with passion again. I drive to his house and cry in his swing. “Forgive me,” I sob. He looks me hard in the face. “I’m in,” he said, “all in. I’ve never questioned anything with you. This is real. Are you ready not to run? Are you ready for this to be it?” And so I finally stop fighting hands that always held me. I need his touch, his taste, his truth, his voice, his fierce loyalty, his gentleness. I need what feels like home—the highs, the lows—the swing.
                         My mom pretends the wedding won’t happen. So I take the three hundred-count guest list and attempt to plan a wedding myself. If I could marry him again, the wedding would be more rustic, less pink. I’d marry him at sunset in autumn. I’d marry him in my cowboy boots. I’d marry him in a field under a tree with just God attending. We’d whisper vows we wrote ourselves.  We’d make love and wake up covered in leaves.   
                         At twenty-three, I find myself as a new wife in a house my mother swears is haunted. I run my finger over the date 1920 and the words “Aint Love Grand” which are carved into the wall of the closet.  Knowing Josh’s job would force me to often dwell alone, mother makes up ghost rumors. Because I leave mother and father’s house to be united with my husband, her irrational fears and loss of control conjured up an apparition living in the basement of the house.
                         I think I hear noises: gurgles, whispers, creaks. I lock the doors, but she still floats through the walls of our house, making me wonder in my lonely bed if love is really grand or even worth it or if I should have paid attention to her constant alerts of “red flags.” She tells me life could be convenient, more glamorous.  I could go back to school, have a mother-approved house, a husband with a mother-approved job, and have anything “I” wanted. Her ghost-games taunt me, haunt me. I relive the time I told her I was going to see him and she dove into the backseat of my car, then got out, and jammed her foot under the tire like a deranged refugee shielding her child from the bullet. But the bullet is just life. The bullet is the reality of heartache and sickness and inconvenience and messiness and shattered expectations. Sometimes we bleed and scream. Sometimes we nearly die. Sometimes the bullet sticks and stays as new flesh grows over top of it because the body always knows how to repair itself.    
                         I want our mother-daughter relationship to heal. I begin to understand that her suffocation is a twisted form of love, an attempt to fulfill all she wanted to be, a desire to lock me inside a box and remain her companion and company, a gift she doesn’t have to share. I believe she tried to control me because she could not control her own life—her parents’ divorce, her own mother’s breakdown, the fears she allows to control her, her own loneliness, and her own battle with self-doubt.
                         I sit in a chair draped in a cape. “Do I need to mix up your usual?” my hairstylist asks. I pause. I will never grow long nails the way my mom wants me to. I will never be perfectly polished. I will continue to take the anxiety pills that prove I have a problem but ultimately make me feel better. I will continue to write the truth instead of pretending perfection.  I will never have the patience to iron my unruly curls into submission. I will always love the man who fills my soul and tears off my clothes and my masks and my fears. I believe authentic love is unconditional and grand and the hardest thing of all.  I’m learning to understand the mother I love with all of her flaws. I’m learning to love my own.

                         “Brunette,” I blurt out of nowhere. My stylist mixes a shade of color, a liberating hue as dark as years of bleaching is able to stand. I simply was not the girl my blonde hair shouted to the world.  I relax at the touch of her hands massaging the chemicals, the fakeness out of my head. A sly smile crosses my face as my eyes sparkle blue-green-gray. I think of sophistication, my favorite coffee, warmth, my own definition of confidence and demure beauty. The shade appears much darker than my mom’s, still lighter than my dad’s—a transformation that I know in my heart is much deeper than a mere cut and color. She takes off the towel, and the mask—finally—falls.
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