Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
Waiting for the sunshine
You stood in the kitchen, waiting for the sunshine.
Oh, Mama. You waited.
You waited while the tickle in your throat rattled and rattled. Every phone call, eruptions of coughing. I listened, there was nothing else I could do—and sometimes I’d cut in, “hey, I’ll call you back, how about, when you’re feeling better.”
Now I see it through a backwards lens, time is funny like that, now I’m about how old YOU were then and my daughters are the ages I was then; I was your little last bird flown. Now I know the feeling of that emptiness, that new empty-nest, and how precious those calls become. Now I can feel, all these years later, how alone you must have sometimes felt, in your small kitchen, especially that last winter, coughing, insisting, talking, waiting, insisting that you were just fine.
You couldn’t really talk, but you didn’t want to hang up. It was a tickle, the end of a long lingering cold, a cold-on-top-of-a-cold, it was nothing.
Now I see you, frozen in the amber of that long-ago cold alone kitchen. Me not so far away in miles, but twenty-something me. So busy, busy, busy. A budding Bokonist, junior capitalist, believing that being an adult meant staying on the spinning hamster wheel. And also believing that you were going to be around for years and years, Mama. You were my mother. Life without you wasn’t comprehensible, and I didn’t imagine it, wouldn’t even try.
So I believed you, about the cough being nothing.
And still you coughed. I began to notice the unendingness of it. Worry crept in. I insisted you go to the doctor, but not soon enough. You locked my worries out and I let you. I locked them up, I guess. They were scary. Where did I learn to lock up so well? From you, Mama, you who waited in your small kitchen, vinyl-tiled, traces of avocado green barely visible in the corner, a little spot you missed when you carefully painted over with eggshell cream.
The wall phone is still avocado green in the mists of my memory. The round orb of the pendulum lamp casts a golden glow over the Formica table of the past, littered with bridge hands and newspapers and you, sitting there, smiling. So warm. I wish I could climb back into that kitchen, climb back to you.
I went to a movie with a friend the other day, an art film. Over ice cream afterwards he asked me, wonderingly, did I think the movie meant that all a man really wanted was a mother? I looked into his slate-gray eyes, and I thought of you, Mama.
No, I thought. It’s not just men who want that.
I thought of that horrible Psychology textbook photo, of the poor little monkey in the experiment who could choose, while starving, between a wire-framed “mother” equipped with milk and a nipple, or a fur-covered “mother” to cling to.
The little monkey always chose gnawing hunger and the fuzzy mama.
My friend’s sad eyes after the movie made me slide backwards through all the years. His eyes made me want to find you again, find you and fold you in my arms, to mother you, Mama. Because that is what you must’ve most wanted.
Because sometimes, life is scary, and you just want your mother.
But life is a funny circle, too. Scary and funny. In seeing how I failed you, I found you once again.
You’re here, waiting in the sunshine. Sometimes the darkness covers your shine, like a cloud. But you’re always there.
(Fastwrite from a prompt on regret).
In this one, you are standing by the old canal at Holcolm Gardens. The sun has made your hair catch fire, the sun is coating your tanned legs and long arms with a honeyed light, and for some silly reason lost to me now, you are holding up a big red box of Cheetos, holding it proudly, as if you are Carol Merrill and the box of snacks is a glistening prize that a nervous contestant is pondering.
In this one, you’ve driven back east to visit me, with a loaded Magnum 357 tucked under the front seat for company. It was the last time I would ever see you, but I didn’t know that then.
I guess you never really do know?
In this one, you are as I imagine you still are — slender and strong, tough and flexible as a zip tie. I was sure, in the way only a young person can hope to be, that somehow we’d stay best friends forever. That some how the trauma-bond of our shared childhoods and barbed wire moments of our teen years would bridge the miles, bridge the chasm growing between us, already as deep as a Colorado ravine.
In this one, I was laughing and my boyfriend was squirting lighter fluid on the grill and you were smiling, that sharp sickle-shaped smile of yours. Behind your mirrored aviators, your sky-blue eyes must have been smiling too.
In this one, I already missed you, even though your were still right there, holding the Cheetos.
(This was a fastwrite from a prompt: imagine a photograph that you have in an album or on your phone; get a picture of it in your mind, and begin with “In this one, you’re…” Write for 10 minutes.)
I was very excited when I saw the latest edition of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment–which includes a story of mine which won an honorable mention in their annual “Sweet Corn Prize in Fiction.” I’m happy this short but mighty story found such a beautiful home. Lots of other great work at Flyway, check it out.
I came across this pencil drawing titled “the news scares me” that I did several years ago. (Seems it’s not a new trend, the news, being scary…) This is a reminder to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed by the state of things not to despair, but to keep doing whatever you can do to make the world a better place, in whatever ways are within your means. Small actions, large actions—just take action. Do what you can do. Meet the world with love. And laughter. And anger. And hope.
We are not so different, you and I, aside from the blood pumping in my veins and our obvious size difference, me so large and pillowy soft compared to your flat hard rectangular slipperiness. Oh, you go everywhere with me, like a shadow or a best friend (but maybe you are more shadow than friend?)
At night, like me, you inexplicably wake, beaming. Sometimes I wake at the same time as you. (We are, I think, linked?) And I see you, wide-eyed, staring at me. I have turned off every notification setting I can find; I have activated the “do not disturb” feature on your very latest OS—yet still, you wake over and over.
You are the sieve, the news-breaker, the heart-breaker of my life, aren’t you? Through your tiny speakers I have seen news that gutted me and heard hard words from people I love. I’ve heard honesty and seen realities that should have shattered your dark face.
But you are a phone. Why do you wake, little one? I wish you could sleep.
Maybe old hard syllables echo in you, something like abandonment dreams or trapped memories?
Triggers of something hard-wired into you by a tired woman half a world away who assembled you in a factory far from her family, thinking maybe of a mother or father or child she would likely never see again, swept by economic suck from home forever?
Is it her that wakes you?
You light up the dim bedroom, again, again. Is it the news? The latest assault or attack that flows through you to me? Do you try, and sometimes fail, like I do, to let it go? Is that it?
The news that rings with nightmare laughter of pussy grabbers, of men (and women, too) with hearts harder than your protective casing. Oh, little one, I understand that. I wake afraid, too.
Rape is a weapon, sexual abuse is a weapon—I’m getting off track, but rape is a weapon, and rape culture is to rape as open-carry is to gun violence. The news! Over and over, the wife or girlfriend shot before the rampage. They are trying to keep us afraid, aren’t they? But they don’t know. I’ve begun these sleepless nights to figure it out.
Maybe this is why you’ve taken to waking me. To make me see that to be afraid is to be human. We humans, all of us—are vulnerable to hurt, to pain. So maybe the trick is to be afraid, and do what you want anyway. Do not comply out of fear.
Complying from fear: that would be like losing yourself.
Like losing your heart and soul.
Speaking of loss, my soft body with its hard bones will not last, my little rectangular friend. In the end, we are both disposable. It’s okay. My soul will, I think, continue on. In some form or another.
Maybe I’ll become some whispered words between lost lovers who find each other on a starry night. Words that unlock something healing. Maybe I’ll be whispered words in a phone like you, words that might push someone else to move, despite their fear, into the stream of life.
Maybe I’ll be reborn a rectangle, hard and sleek, living warm in a pocket.
If I do, I imagine I’ll often wake with a jolt like you do, full of dread and information.
And then, like you, I’ll do my very best to close back down and sleep until it is time to chime awake the lovers tangled together in the bed next to me, to gently tell them morning has come, and the world somehow continues still to turn.
[ Note: much as I love and personify my iphone, we are no longer sleeping in the same room 🙂 ]
Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
Vaguely heartshaped, that’s how you described her face, and I always imagined her—with my child’s-eye, literal imagining—as having a face the color of a pink valentine’s candy heart, a face with a pointy chin and also big eyes made of chocolate, because you said hers were brown and melty.
That’s how I saw her, my grandmother I never knew.
The photos were all lost in the legendary house fire, so I never got to see her, how she really looked. I used to long to be able to visit her, like my friend Annie did her Nana. I thought that the first thing I’d do was crawl in her lap and tell her how much you missed her and how much you talked about her. It seemed that would please her, and the way your face looked when your talked about how her singing made the moon rise, how she played a mean game of cribbage and could bait a hook with one hand made me want to know her, and please her.
Later, when I was near-grown, everyone began to remark how like her I was. I used to pull my dark curls away from my face and look for signs of the tell-tale sweetness emerging, but to me, the eyes reflecting back in the mirror were cold as the glass itself, cold as any Canadian January. My face itself was more of a pillow shape. I began to wonder what sort of sieve memories run through, to sugar them so.
Much later still, describing you to my own children, I honeyed your brown hair, I made your eyes the color of the ice on a bright day in March, that fresh slate color, and I made your hugs as warm as raisin-oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven. I waited for them to pepper me with the questions I once would have asked.
My children were raised on your photographs, though. Raised, too, on reality TV and iPods and textbooks, not fed random poetry and left to wander woods and libraries alone, the way I was.
I thought I was doing the right thing, educating them, drilling them with the math facts that I myself could never pin down, the after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, sending them to the Catholic school for good discipline and rigor.
But I think I made them blind.
This short piece was written from a prompt in workshop, using the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method.
I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
And now, I am from here.
(snippet from a writing prompt using the classic George Ella Lyon poem, Where I’m from, a poem that has inspired many, many poems, and is one of my favorites.)