ramen

 

There are so many ways to eat ramen. Ramen wet, ramen dry. Ramen that got stepped on, straight from the package, crumbled up. Ramen in a bowl with hot tap water. Put another bowl on top, if you have one. Let it sit for three minutes, if you can stand to wait.

Ramen quickly, ramen slowly. Ramen sitting on the floor. Ramen on a hillside covered in dandelions, overlooking a busy intersection. Mountains in the distance.

Flavor packet. Flavor packet on the dry noodles. Flavor packet in the hot tap water. No flavor packet. Half a flavor packet. MSG. Beef packet. Chicken. “Oriental”. Flavor packets in the silverware drawer. Flavor packets in the silverware drawer when there is nothing left, not even any silverware. Flavor packets mixed up with the rubberbands, plastic ties from bread bags. Square small silver foil flavor packets. chicken chicken chicken printed diagonal on the packets.

Ramen costs five cents, ten cents, twenty-five cents, depending on how much you buy at once. It’s a pyramid and the more money you have to spend the less the ramen costs. The whole world is set up like that and you’re at the bottom, the bottom bottom bottom, you slid slid slid scrambling and grabbing at roots and tangles of ivy and sticks that broke off in your hands, rotten from the rain. You rolled end over end, all striped and splattered with mud, and landed in a wet and stinking ditch where the only food is soggy oreos that wealthy children have dropped absentmindedly from their plump, sticky paws. You dart from puddle to puddle, picking the soggy cookies from the mud, like in a nightmare.

If you’re poor enough, ramen will always cost too much. If you’re poor enough you’ll feel like a trespasser even going through the automatic sliding doors of the grocery store. You don’t have any money and your hunger pulls negative ions from the food and even that is stealing. You walk through the doors anyway and take free heat and free light and free non-violence and non-shouting and it’s free to be around people who aren’t hallucinating, at least for a little while.

Ramen’s a good friend when you have a quarter but it doesn’t fill you up. It fills your tummy full of salt water and makes your head feel hot and then in an hour, you feel sicker than you did before. You’ve got a hunger that’s deeper than the salt mines in the Mediterranean sea. You’ve got a hunger that turns your insides into catacombs. Your muscles are steel cables and your bones are swiss cheese. Your head is a bird’s nest made from spider webs and your own saliva. You can’t think.

You can’t concentrate. School is good for the free meal. Corn dog, microwave corn, thick cobbler made from corn syrup. Quart of milk. Bright yellow mustard. You want to steal the other kids’ lunches. You can smell the ho-hos in their lunch boxes from across the cafeteria. Those kids don’t even notice if they have food or not, they’re so well fed. Turkey sandwich, foil packet of fruit snacks. Like gold coins.

Today after school you walk south along the road, past the forest to the strip mall where there’s a bakery thrift store and a value village. It’s breakup, there’s a good blustery wind and all the snow is melting and you can smell the wet dirt underneath. When summertime comes the sun won’t set anymore and you’ll play outside till ten at night, collecting leaves and sticks, stringing sunshine dandelions into necklaces and making small dens in the mossy, spongy riot of the forest.

When the summer comes the forest will sustain you, but for now you’ve got to eat.

Heaving yourself up, you bend at the waist and lean into the dumpster behind the bakery thrift store. Just like on the parallel bars on the school playground, girls with their jackets draped over the metal bar, going round and round and round. There are lots of boxes of donuts inside the dumpster and you feel your heart race as you paw through them. White powder donuts, waxy chocolate donuts. Dropping back onto the ground, you cradle your score in your arms. You tear one package open as you walk and quickly eat a donut. You eat another as you walk past the forest, past the narrow dirt paths that lead to the flat, tea-colored lake. You can smell the lake today, the earthy water, the salty ducks. You eat another donut, biting carefully its waxy chocolate exterior. The inside of the donut is dry yellow cake. It backs up in your esophagus, coats your mouth like chalk. By the time you get home your head is thumping and you feel dizzy. Your thoughts are going in quick circles, bumping into each other, manic and frightening like a Donald duck cartoon. You lay on your bed, still, and will the donuts to digest. You drink a cup of lukewarm tap water. It tastes like metal.

In the summer there won’t be free school lunches but it won’t matter. There’ll be sunshine and warm bare dirt and bare skin and green good-smelling plants along the burbling forest streams and wolves howling in the mountains. You’ll make necklaces out of chips of wood and small treasures from leaves and grass and bits of spruce pitch. You’ll lay belly-down in the moss and stare for hours at the millipedes and the iridescent beetles. You’ll climb every single tree within a quarter mile of your house, giving them names and stories and remembering their smells, sweet and green or sharp and dusty, and peeling off thin whorls of their bark to wrap around your wrists like bracelets. You’ll avoiding going home as much as possible, and at home you’ll sleep with all the windows open and the bad air will go out, out, and drift away into the wind, and dissipate into a million tiny particles and be eaten up by the good light and the green growing things, which are bigger and larger and more important, and stronger.

Nature is stronger.

And this summer you’ll be brave. You’ll steal handfuls of cookies from the bakery in the grocery story (there’s a sign that says One Free Cookie! but you’ll take five) and you’ll make a plate of tacos at the hot bar, with the thick refried beans that you love, even though you don’t have any money to pay. You’ll eat them on the grass among the dandelions, ravenously, and when they’re gone you’ll go inside and make some more. You’ll steal Barbara’s purse and poke your fingers through the holes in the lining, run your hands over the old leather until you find the place where a few quarters rolled, the place where a crumpled dollar lives. You’ll go to the mall and check the coin return in all the payphones, slide your finger along that curve of metal, feel your heart jump when there’s a dime there, a quarter, money forgotten by someone rich, someone who walks around with dollars falling from their pockets, someone who owns every packaged product in the world, every expensive box cereal, every 49 cent fruit pie.

You’ll find five dollars on the ground and blow it on nutty bars and pixie stix. You’ll shoplift red nail polish and sit in the back of the public library, reading seventeen magazine. You’ll have dreams of earthquakes that shatter the glass facades of every store in the mall, leaving ruined merchandise piled in the aisles for you to take. You’ll suddenly hunger for not just food but for material goods too, for plastic molded objects and clothes that smell like the store. In the evenings you’ll eat your ramen on the wooden back deck of the apartment, your shoes off. You’ll watch the shadows move as the summer sun passes over the hill. The ramen noodles are soft and crimped, a little cottonseed oil floats on top of the broth. There are flecks of vegetable matter or some cousin of vegetable matter, something that was once a leaf. You watch the shadows lengthen over the dandelions. You can feel yourself growing inside yourself in this good summer light, opening up like a moth. There is something inside you that’s stronger than all of this. Stronger than ramen, stronger than poverty. You don’t know what it looks like but you can feel it there, like a white hot ball of rage or fire, some potent, highly reactive element that wants to break open and set your whole apartment in flames. Something living, something that you grew on bleached white flour and hydrogenated cottonseed oil and MSG. Something monstrously strong. Something just strong enough.

snow cave

I’m nine years old and our apartment is filled with smoke. Yellow, heavy, cloying smoke, the cumulative exhaust of thousands and thousands of cigarettes. It’s been a long winter- cold, dark, blustery, trees popping in the night-time, bitter stars, snow piled up against the window panes. The electric wall registers are cranked to full-blast and they tick-tick-tick, steaming up the dull white walls. There hasn’t been an ounce of fresh air in the apartment since fall.

My eyes burn from the smoke, and I can’t stop coughing. The kids at school (even the teachers, sometimes) tell me that my clothes smell like an ashtray. The apartment IS an ashtray. There are ashes everywhere, on every surface, in plastic gas station cups and overturned jar lids. The overfull trash can in the kitchen brims with cigarette butts. Cigarettes in Alaska are expensive, and it’s where all our money goes, that little bit of cash we get from the state after DHS pays our rent. We lost our foodstamps years ago, it was too many paperwork hoops to jump through for a schizophrenic mother who could hardly string together coherent sentences, much less fill out paperwork. So all we get is that little bit of cash, and it all goes to cigarettes for Barbara. My brother and I get one free meal at school a day and on the weekends, we’re fucked. I’d like to say that we make due somehow but we don’t. We suffer.

There isn’t any food in the house, and the house is filled with smoke. And I can hear Barbara in her room, muttering at the radio, and what’s worse, laughing- which is what she does, often, when she’s interacting with her delusions, and not in a pleasant, funny way, but in a terrible, horror-movie, stephen-king-evil-clown-novel sort of way. The edges of her bedroom door glow gently, and a thin stream of smoke flows out from them. It must be even smokier in there than it is in the rest of the apartment.

I check the cupboards again, but there isn’t any food in there. There’s an old potato in a plastic sack. I open a pizza box from the stack that leans against the wall, and pick the cheese from its corrugated interior. The fridge is empty, but smells like a dumpster, and is coated in rough, sticky food residue. There’s mold growing in the crisper drawers.

In my bedroom it’s silent at least, and sometimes tidy, and if I lay on the floor there’s a pocket of cool, clear air. My pink snow pants are in a pile in the closet and I pull them on, along with my coat and hat, and finally my snowboots and thick winter gloves.

Outside the world is cold and clean, and the snow squinches companionably underfoot. Our apartment complex is edged in forest, and there’s a slope where the long branches of the spruce trees meet the deep snow, making secret, hidden snow caves. Clambering up the slope in my warm snow-suit, I dig at the snow until one of these caves is exposed and then crawl inside, pushing snow out to block the entrance behind me. I lay down on my back, my head resting comfortably on a pillow of snow. The sky is clouded and dark and I take deep breaths of the fresh, biting air. The deep snow insulates my body and the smell of snow intoxicates me. As I look up fresh flakes begin to fall and I watch them, spinning widely in the light from the streetlamps. They land on my face and melt, like little gifts from Jesus.

I am nine years old, and I believe in God. I like all the artifacts that go along with god, the stained glass windows and wooden rosaries and plastic prayer cards with the virgin Mary on them. But most of all, I like the sense of largeness- the sense of mystery, the fearful, vaguely pagan incomprehensibility of my mother’s Catholicism. I believe in Santa, too, even though my only Christmas presents are from the big Christmas tree in the mall. I’m one of those kids whose name and age gets written on a paper tag for someone to pick off and buy presents for.

I am lying in the snow, watching the sky, and the trees are sleeping all around me. The world is peaceful, the world is patient, and my small self hums with life and presence.

You’re safe, say the trees, as they breathe in my cigarette-smoke residue and breathe out oxygen. We’re here, say the trees, as I run my gloved hands along the underside of their green, fragrant boughs. The snowflakes land silently, gently, cleanly. The dark sky turns around, splits open, blows away, and the stars glitter, so far away, the universe so big and empty. I start to cry, thinking about the big empty universe, and the tears mingle with the snot from my cold, red nose. It’s ok, says the forest, as it holds me in its branches. It’s ok.

fish soup

My mother rarely ate anything other than cigarettes, mountain dew and strong black tea. Occasionally, when she was feeling generous, she would buy a bag of fritos and a tub of cottage cheese and we would eat them together, sitting cross-legged on the carpet. Fritos and cottage cheese were a combination that she had brought with her from her past, an artifact from her life before Alaska. It seemed as though, when she got married, she had left behind her the desire for all other food- it was as though, when she got married, she had abandoned all pedestrian comforts.

But still, there were her children, and on rare, lucid days she would remember- children need to eat! And not only that, but there were certain foods that children should eat. Foods that, if she succeeded in getting us to swallow them, would validate her parenting skills at last, and compensate for the weeks of dismal neglect that piled up between her periods of mania.

Barbara was a terrible cook. A terrible, disastrous cook, a short-tempered, hateful woman with a rough, impatient touch and not a single taste bud in her mouth. The kitchen, to her, was a battle zone- a place where dirty dishes and empty cupboards mocked her, where small children with hungry mouths made ceaseless, high-pitched noises and reached out at her with their tiny, sticky hands. She hated the kitchen, she hated to cook, and most of all, she hated her children. But pride drove her, in her moments of lucidity, to face that hateful space, and attempt to prove her dominance over it.

One of the foods she prepared was beef liver. Raw beef liver, pureed in a blender, and then injected into sausages, which were fried in a pan. The sausages, since they were filled with pureed beef liver, tasted terrible. Barbara hated liver the same as she hated most foods, but she wanted us to eat it. She sat at the table and watched us, her hands curled into claws, her green eyes like black, bottomless coals. We pushed the cut-up pieces of liver-sausage around on our plates, and tried not to vomit.

Eventually this manic phase passed, and she retreated back inside herself, with only the demons and the deep voice of god for company. The liver was forgotten. She was back on the couch, hair matted beneath her, and would remain there for weeks. She was lost to us, unreachable even by our shrillest, most incessant crying, although if we went at it long enough, we might rouse her for a good round of chase-us-down-and-beat-us-until-we-shut-up, which, ninety percent of the time, was the only way that she would interact with us.

The next time the fog lifted, the canneries were handing out salmon from the backs of semi-trucks downtown, and Barbara got the brilliant idea to make fish soup. It was chum salmon, third-rate, called “dog salmon” by the natives because it was only fit for dog food. It was a byproduct of commercial fishing, and the canneries couldn’t use it. We drove downtown with fistfuls of black plastic trash bags and picked the slimy, less-than-fresh fish from the barrels where they sat, packed in slowly-melting ice. By the time we got home our big, black plastic trash bags of fish were already beginning to stink, and Barbara barked instructions at us as we stood over the sink, cutting open the bellies of the fish, one by one, and pulling out their slimy, messy insides. The finished fish we tossed in coolers, which had no ice, and once they were all gutted we were instructed to put them, slimy heads and all, into gallon freezer bags, and we were to suck out the excess air with a plastic straw, so they would not become freezer burnt in the freezer. While my brother and I did this awful, endless chore, Barbara assembled a pot of fish soup, using the biggest pot she could find in the house. The soup had potatoes in it, and milk, which were the two ingredients that we were sure to have around, if we had any food at all. And then it had the putrid salmon, bones and skin and all, and some black pepper. This soup crowded the fridge for days, and if we were hungry Barbara reheated the pot on the stove, until the milk in it had congealed, and the potatoes had disintegrated, and the bottom part of the soup had burnt to the pan. And when that pot ran out Barbara made another from the fish that we had frozen, which had become hopelessly freezer burnt, despite our efforts with the straw. And if we didn’t want to eat the soup anymore, if we were hungry and our stomachs gnawed and legs cramped and we screamed at her for something, anything else to eat but that- then, of course, she would beat us.

Unsurprisingly, as an adult, I do not like fish soup. I do not know who thought it was a good idea to put fish into heated milk and eat it with a spoon. And with potatoes, no less! Yuck. My mother was a terrible cook, and everything she touched turned inedible. Even if, in the middle of the night, you asked her for a cup of water, she would hand you a plastic tumbler with a half-inch of cigarette ashes in the bottom, filled up from the tap. She would hand you anything that was near her, just to get you to shut up. She did not know what food was, she did not know how bodies worked. All the rules and boundaries of the known world had tumbled down around her like a deck of cards, and she no longer knew how to navigate her life. Each day was an ocean and she had only one hateful paddle with which to navigate her canoe in angry, erratic circles. I lay in the bow, forgotten, dreaming at the clouds, weak from hunger. And my brother, frustrated, would jump over the side on occasion, as if to swim to safety. But the water was filled with sharks and he would always return, a little more ragged, a little more lost than he had been before. There weren’t any islands, anywhere, as far as either of us could see. We didn’t know, yet, that land was something you built with your mind. We didn’t know, yet, that it was possible to live any way but this, in a canoe on the wild open ocean with no food and a mad captain who steered us in circles. We wanted to swim to safety but first, we would have to believe that there was any place to swim to at all. Because to build something you have to believe in it, and to believe in something you have to imagine it, and how do you imagine it if you have never even see it at all.

Light box

As an adult, I look back and I see the paranoid schizophrenic woman who raised me, and I see the woman who raised me- and it is impossible, sometimes, to separate the two, to know what would have been different if this woman hadn’t been so paranoid, if she hadn’t been hallucinating, and what would have been exactly the same. I ask myself how much of her irregular, nonsensical behavior was just Barbara, with all her complicated human-ness, her faults and weaknesses and broken places, her nakedness. And how much of her behavior was due to her busted frontal lobe. And how much of her busted frontal lobe was due to her circumstances, her extreme isolation, the culturally imposed helplessness of women of her time.

How many of us, when pushed, act logically.

Take, for example, one of her ideas of mothering-

Barbara wanted us to be Good Children. And she knew, somewhat abstractly, that All Good Children Have Talents. Barbara felt great pressure from the outside world that her children have specific talents, and she felt ashamed that her disheveled, hungry children, aged between six and eight, had none. Then, one day, in a fit of manic energy, an idea was born- her children would learn to draw.

Neither my brother or I had any natural inclination toward the visual arts. I liked to read books and enact dramas with Barbie dolls, my brother liked to dismantle small machines to see how they worked. Our shared interests were razor blades, making flame throwers from cans of hairspray, and playing with insects. My brother also built forts in the woods with his friends from plywood stolen from construction sites, and I would tag along with that.

My mother, having been manic for a week or so, had cleaned the apartment from top to bottom, and the stark-white rooms smelled of pine sol and bon ami. She’d even rented a carpet shampooer and cleaned the carpets, and I rolled over and over on the living room floor, inhaling the good chemical smell and running my fingers through the soft, clean pile. Man From Snowy River was playing on the VCR- it was a movie my mother had rented and then taped the rental tape onto a blank VHS, and parts of it were just snow and dialogue. My mother had a crush on someone in the movie, but there was too much static to make out any of the actors very clearly. I liked to watch the movie over and over, and as I rolled in the fresh, new carpet, I worked on imprinting the dialogue into my subconscious.

On this evening Barbara bustled through the door in a gust of sharp winter air, her arms full of paper sacks of groceries. In her manic state she had filled our kitchen with things we liked to eat- boxed sugar cereal, macaroni and cheese, gallons of milk, cheap brown bread, margarine and bologna. She had done our laundry, bought us fresh new packages of socks, notebooks and pencils for school. She answered the phone and talked normally, thought ahead to the future, planned revolutions for our cheerless, humble lives. And each time she was manic it was like she had been returned to us, whole and pure, a functional mother. And each time we were pleased and delighted, but also unsurprised, because she was always telling us that our hard times would end, and so we had always expected it. We were sure we had a mother, now, like how the other children had mothers. We would be taken care of, now. So we received the groceries smugly, and ate our fritos in front of the television, and rolled around on the still-damp carpet, scattering crumbled chips into its pile.

As Barbara became more manic, however, she also became more aggressive. And it was in this frenzied, anxious state, with her eyes like hot coals and her hands like sharp, gnarled claws, that she corralled us in the living room and sat us down on the floor, in front of a glass coffee table beneath which she had stuffed a bare hundred-watt light bulb. On the glass top of the coffee table was a children’s coloring book. It was a spring themed coloring book, with pictures of rabbits and flowers and birds. Barbara ripped out a page for each of us, and set it on the glass beneath a sheet of lined notebook paper. She wedged pencils into our small hands. We were to trace the picture from the coloring book. We were to trace it again and again, until we could draw the picture on our own. And if we left the table before we had mastered this task, she would beat us.

My picture was of three chicks hatching from their eggs. One chick faced to the left, one chick faced the viewer, and one chick’s beak was pointed up, towards the sky. I drew the image over and over, my small hands making ovals for eggs and chick bodies and tiny triangles for beaks. Children should have talents, I thought, as I drew. Eventually I got bored, and ran away from the table, and Barbara found me hiding in the bathroom, and beat me with her leather belt. So I sat again, and cried as I drew. The table grew warm from the hundred-watt light, and the shape of the bulb burned itself into my retinas. My ass hurt. My pencil became dull. My brother was farther along than I was, and was drawing with a pen. I ran away from the table again, and hid in the closet. This time my mother did not notice. She had retreated to her room.

In the weeks that followed we were repeatedly hauled to the makeshift light table and made to draw. Still, neither of us were very good at it, and Barbara could not make sense of our apparent total lack talent. Her handwriting was beautiful, thin and looping and perfectly slanted, like the handwriting in the declaration of independence. She could make dresses and pinafores from remnant scraps of fabric, and sew dolls with hand-embroidered faces. My handwriting, she told me, was chicken scratch shit. She spit the words out as if they tasted bad, her thin lips pulled back into her face, her eyes blazing. I had rarely heard her swear.

Eventually the cupboards emptied of boxes of cereal, the milk ran out, and the carpet again filled up with debris. Our new clothes were dirty and stained, our socks were stale, and we had broken all of our school pencils. Barbara was asleep on the couch, her long hair matted beneath her, and she refused to get up. It was a Wednesday afternoon and we knelt on her bedroom floor, setting small scraps of paper on fire and burning off our eyelashes with our hairspray flamethrower. The light table was forgotten. We would never, apparently, learn to draw.

OCD

Barbara is out of cigarettes again. It’s wintertime, and she can’t remember a time when it was anything other than wintertime. She takes her long, puffy pink coat with the toggle buttons from the ladder-backed kitchen chair where it lives and buttons it up over her tall, narrow frame. She puts her long fingers in the pockets and feels for loose change. She finds a five dollar bill crumpled up with a bus transfer and grips it tightly in her fist. Checking to make sure that the stove is off (she lights her cigarettes on the coiled electric burners, she can never keep herself in lighters and matches) she steps out the door, pulling it firmly shut behind her.

Outside the sky is black and set with stars and the snow is hard-packed underfoot. Barbara walks laboriously along the road, her scarf buffeted by the wind. Cars pass, sweeping her face with their lights. Suddenly, she pauses, standing upright on the roadside. The stove. Had she remembered to check the stove? And the door- had she remembered to lock the door? She remembers turning off the stove, but what if what she remembers is yesterday morning, when she turned off the stove, and today she has forgotten? What if the burner is hot and glowing, just now beginning to smoke- what if the food and debris caked below the burner catches fire?

Turning against the wind, Barbara re-wraps the scarf around her head and face and trudges back to the apartment. There are long icicles hanging from the eaves of the apartment building, and they glint at her in the light from the road. The front door is unlocked. She had indeed forgotten to lock it. Alarmed, she walks quickly into the kitchen.

Her daughter is there, crouched on the kitchen floor, walking a Barbie doll across the linoleum. Her daughter looks up, eyes wide.

“Are you going to the store?” asks the daughter.

The stove is off.

“Yes.” says Barbara.

“Can I come with you?” asks the daughter.

“Come on.” Barbara re-wraps the scarf around her hair and face, and pulls her thin lips together. It will be harder to get to the store for cigarettes, with the child along. The child hurries into her coat and snow boots and as they leave the apartment, Barbara remembers to lock the door behind her. She pulls it firmly shut and listens as the deadbolt clicks smoothly into place. Outside, the daughter stumbles a little on the ice and Barbara grabs her small hand firmly, pulling her along behind.

They are walking along the road, faces down against the wind, when Barbara remembers the stove. She turns to the daughter, and shouts above the wind.

“Is the stove off? Did you remember to check it?”

The daughter’s face is wrapped in her pink scarf. She looks up at Barbara. “The stove is off, mom.”

“Are you sure?” asks Barbara.

The daughter pulls the scarf from her face. “It’s off, mom.” She has to shout too, against the wind, and her voice is shrill and high, a sort of wail.

Barbara squeezes her cold hand tighter around her daughter’s and wrenches her around, pointing them both towards home. Silently they plod. It is bitter cold, and as they walk against the wind their breath freezes solid in the folds of their scarves, the frost collects on their eyelashes and nostril hairs.

At home the apartment is warm and smells of cigarette ashes and rotten milk. Barbara hurries to the stove, examines each dial, and holds her hand above each burner. The stove is off.

“Well.” says Barbara, re-wrapping the scarf around her face.

“I told you it was off.” says the daughter. The daughter is stamping her feet on the carpet in the living room, trying to get her toes warm.

“Shut up!” says Barbara, hissing like a cockroach. She grabs her daughter’s coat sleeve, pulls her out the door, and shuts the door behind her. After locking the deadbolt again they set out, Barbara striding quickly and the daughter stumbling in her snow-boots behind.

They have almost reached the store, this time, when Barbara remembers the stove. The stove where she lights her cigarettes, the stove that she often, when home, forgets to turn off. The stove she sometimes finds lit late at night, glowing redly in the dark of the apartment. The stove that could start a fire that would easily spread to the jumbles of trash, the haphazard piles of wax-coated pizza boxes. A fire that would kill her son, where he sits unsuspectingly in his bedroom, dismantling the electric motors from small appliances and sorting their parts into piles.

Barbara stops walking and stares forward, the image of the stove like a red-hot coal in her brain.

“I think I forgot to check the stove.” she says.

The daughter rips the scarf from her face.

“Mom!” she shouts. “You turned off the stove! I saw you do it! The stove’s not on!”

“We need to go back and check the stove.” Barbara sets her jaw, and her steely green eyes look out over the frozen road, the lines of cars that pass slowly on the ice.

“Mom! Mom!” the daughter is screaming now, and snot is dripping from her nose. “Mom!” Her voice is high and shrill and off key, like the wail of an ambulance. She is crying now, and the tears are catching in her scarf, where they freeze.

One day, thinks Barbara, this daughter will understand how hard it is to be a mother. Turning in the snow, Barbara walks back in the direction of the house. The daughter stands unmoving behind her, her bare hands clutched into fists, and heaves her wail into the crackling cold air where it waves like a ribbon that rises, and finally falls, and catches in the limbs of the bare winter trees.

The Virgin Mary

Imagine you’re my mother. Imagine you’re the virgin Mary. The virgin Mary has been reincarnated into this tall, thin body, this black hair and green eyes. She’s been reincarnated into a woman who chain smokes capris and drinks mountain dew out of plastic gas station cups. My mother as the virgin Mary.

It’s no treat, being the virgin Mary. You have to give up your family, your life, your home. God is constantly relaying messages and instructions to you in his deep, authoritarian voice, and you can’t write them down fast enough. You scrawl them as quickly as you can, in your perfectly slanted penmanship, on the backs of old Christmas cards and the margins of newspapers, but you just can’t seem to get ahead.

You’re not a very confidant Mary. Some of God’s messages are confusing and you can’t ever figure out how to carry out his instructions. And not only that but the Devil is always shouting at you too, trying to get you to do the wrong thing. It takes all of your strength to stay on the side of God. It takes all of your focus. There isn’t any time to eat, and you can’t risk falling asleep. It’s best not to answer the phone, because other people, unbeknownst to them, are under the Devil’s control, and they might try and wear you down. And it’s easiest not to ever leave the house, unless you run out of cigarettes.

Somewhere in the fog beyond God’s deep voice and the shrill, needling voice of the Devil, there are two children. They are bad children, demanding and distracting, screaming and crying and running away. They keep asking for things that have no relevance, clean socks and money for the bus and something to eat. They’re moving quickly to the side of the Devil, although if you focus hard enough, you might be able to bring them back to the side of good. But you’re not sure how much longer you can hold out, saying the rosary on the floor, crouched in front of the glowing radio. It’s a nice rosary, with glass beads the color of pomegranate seeds. Your fingertips are smooth and you move them over the beads, saying the Hail Mary again.

But you’re out of cigarettes, and cigarettes are a problem. The state pays your rent and gives you paper books of food stamps, but you can’t buy cigarettes with food stamps. So you put the children in the small blue ford and drive the icy streets to the grocery store, where you give each child a one-dollar foodstamp bill and send them inside to buy a miniature reeses peanut butter cup. Each child comes out with seventy-five cents in change, and after a few rounds of this you’ve got enough for your cigarettes.

Your children, your babies. You used to sleep with one of them, her little fist curled around your hair, until it got to taking too much energy and you had to sleep alone, or not at all. It takes so much out of you, to fight the Devil.

It’s important to listen to music, to help lesson the voices of the demons who are always chattering, always trying to break you down. Tell you that you’re stupid, fat, and lazy. You can listen to the radio, and that’s pretty good. You also have your little walkman with your James Taylor and your Dolly Parton tapes. Those are pretty good too. James Taylor is so good looking, and his voice is so sweet. Of course, you know that you’re pretty good looking too. After the divorce, for a while, you went on dates with men you’d met in the classified section of the newspaper. You put on your ruffled blouse and white shoulders perfume and brushed your long, black hair and said, How Do I Look.

You Look Beautiful, said the children.

The men were nice, bush pilots and outdoorsy types. They took you and the children skiing, to the state fair, and up in single-engine planes. They bought the children little things, small plastic animals and hamburgers. It was fun to date these men, but then the devil would show up and try to influence you, especially if there were any red-headed women in the mens’ past. Red-headed women are always working in cahoots with the devil.

You stopped dating. What’s most important, as the re-incarnation of the virgin Mary, is to transcribe god’s messages onto the backs of greeting cards. It’s best not to leave the house or talk to others or interact with the children. If the teachers at the childrens’ school become concerned, if social services calls, one can just move to children to another school. It’s best not to open up even a crack, because the devil could come in.

Sometimes you go into the catholic church downtown, the big stone church with its beautiful stained glass and it’s empty, echoing halls, and you light a candle for your children, that the Devil does not take them. It would be better that Jesus would take them, tonight while they slept, than the Devil. It would be better that they died while they were babies than the Devil get them now. It smells of incense in the church and you kneel in a pew to pray. You think of the virgin Mary with her pale blue eyes, her bare sandled feet. You think of the complicated draping of her clothing and her plump, open palms. You are the virgin Mary, floating on a cloud of God’s grace, high above the city, where the Devil cannot touch you.

(I am writing about my mother every day for a week. This is the second post.)

Where darkness lives

I woke up this morning thinking about my mother. I invoked her, yesterday, by talking about her, and when I woke up this morning she was there, in the room. Her spirit, her energy.

My mother exists.

It’s hard to believe that something still exists when you do not see it with your own eyes. It’s hard to know that something exists when you do not pass it on your daily walk, talk about it in casual conversation, or read about it in the newspaper. Environmental catastrophe, prisons, endemic poverty, my mother. These things could all be one and the same- my mother is environmental catastrophe, my mother is endemic poverty, my mother is in a prison built for one. My mother is second-hand cigarette smoke, yellow fingers, and gas-station popcorn. My mother is isolation, alienation, hopelessness, and despair. My mother is fear.

My mother is homeless and schizophrenic. She lives in a halfway house in Alaska, and she suffers. Part of her suffering comes from inside, from her f-ed up frontal lobe, from genetics combined with environmental exposure combined with whothefuckknows. The other part of her suffering comes from outside, from being homeless. The inside and the outside feed each other, make a great cycling loop of isolation-alienation-hopelessness-despair that our culture will never interrupt. Round and round goes the loop, isolation and lack of treatment making her illness worse while the paranoia of her illness causes her to isolate herself even further. The upside is that the suffering that comes from inside of her is so huge and real, that the conditions of her physical environment must pale in comparison.

My mother has been a victim of the horrors and hallucinations of her own brain (which are modeled after her deepest, most secret fears) for the past 25 years. My mother’s paranoia causes her drive away those closest to her, or those who would try to come close. She is angry, spiteful, elusive, psychotic, and often violent, and for this reason she is without a single friend.

My mother is crouched alone somewhere, in a room that I have never seen, arguing vehemently with the voices in her head. She is trembling and rocking back and forth. She is chain smoking. She will not eat. She will not talk. She is hallucinating. And yet she lives, and lives, and lives.

My mother exists.

What I don’t understand is how my mother can suffer so much, and for so long, and have such a low quality of life, only to die someday, and then just be dead.

There’s no story arc to that. There’s no “Life is beautiful, life is hard” in that equation. There’s no dignity, no simple pleasures. There’s no “Things got shitty but we were brave and now we’re stronger for it”. There’s just badness, on and on and on, a black and infinite badness, like how you feel on the very worst day of your entire life, only forever, and with no ending or beginning. One single, endless moment, of suffering.

My mother didn’t do anything wrong to go crazy. She was just a regular person once, a sort of american archetype- young, beautiful, working class, small-minded, and racist. She was petty and shallow, bad at math but good at basketball. Just out of highschool she met my father, and they moved to Alaska to try their hand at life. There were jobs in Alaska. It was the seventies, and white people were moving there in droves. The quarreling, drama-prone couple settled in the mountains outside of Anchorage, half-built their house, and had two kids in the first four years. (In Alaska, if your house is not “finished”, you do not have to pay property taxes.) Somewhere in that murky, convoluted time, which no-one in my family will talk about and which contained a messy divorce, a restraining order, and my brother and I spending a total of two years in foster homes (apart)- my mother’s frontal lobe broke. The next seven years are, for me, mercifully blank, although I have been trying recently to get the memories back. (How to do this- therapy? Hypnosis? Writing?) I do not remember what my favorite foods were, what clothes I wore, or what kinds of toys I liked to play with, before the age of nine. I do not remember if I had any friends, if we had pets, where we lived, or anything about school or any of my teachers. And after the divorce (restraining order?) I never saw my father again.

If my mother hadn’t been in Alaska, so far away from her (controlling, hostile, small-minded) family, and so stubborn about staying there, then she might’ve ended up like my aunt. My aunt is also schizophrenic. She’s on a toxic cocktail of medications that took many decades to perfect and many cycles through the revolving door of the mental health system. These medications cause my aunt many unpleasant side effects, but she is functional. She has her own little house, her own interests and hobbies, a job, friends, and community. My aunt suffers, but it is closer to the way that we all suffer- endlessly, but with bright spots, flares from the infinite darkness, bits of poetic justice, hope. She has been known to keep geese, watch interesting documentaries, and ride her bicycle in the sunshine. She is a tireless fountain of trivia, very curious, and endlessly engaged with life.

She was also her mother’s favorite, the first-born, the one closest to her parents. And so it wasn’t hard for her to stick close to home and get support when she needed it, and when she ran away it wasn’t as far, and her parents were always able to bring her back.

In the beginning my mother was too stubborn to leave Alaska, too stubborn to admit that she had failed. She had no marketable skills, she had no clue how to raise children, and the friends she had made she was driving away, one by one, with her paranoia and her anger. But she was too stubborn to give up, and in the end Alaska and total destitution were the only things she knew. The life she’d had before Alaska was slowly eclipsed by the life inside her busted frontal lobe- a life that was like a movie projected onto the empty space around her- god, satan, the virgin Mary, and most of all, demons who knew her most secret insecurities and taunted her, day after day after day.

In a way, we are all like my mother. We all suffer, and we all occupy realities that we create inside of us, with our thoughts and our spirits and our expectations, and that we project onto the world around us, like a movie. Each of our movies is different, and yet each of our movies is real.

We are all like my mother, and we are none of us like her.

Once, in a crowded, wooden kitchen in the forest, I met an old man who told me that we humans are meant to experience the goodness, joy, and beauty of life about sixty percent of the time, and to dwell in the darker, more painful places for the other forty percent. This balance is based on the golden ratio, he said, which is a pattern that pops up often in nature, architecture, art, and the patterns of galaxies. It is one of the patterns of existence, a spiral and, mathematically, a sort of tilted balance, a leaning scale that lists towards Life and keeps us from slipping back into that dark abyss of pre-existence.

If my mother’s life is meant to be 60/40 goodness/badness, then do her pre-marriage years count as goodness? Did they consist entirely of flawless, sun-filled days, of flips on the trampoline, of sewing pinafores, of bickering breezily with her siblings? Is this why she was spit out into the world so helpless, without any skills, so small-minded and so shallow? Was it because she had never experienced suffering? Because she had never really been crushed by life, had never experienced the blackness of despair? Would a little bit of suffering have inoculated her against the dark hole of badness that she was about to stumble into?

And if my mother’s young years were pure goodness, and her adult years were pure suffering, then she has, as of this writing, spent equal time in each. Which makes the ratio of her experience 50/50, and counting slowly higher on the side of darkness. And what of that, universe? Does the irregular nature of her suffering to not-suffering ratio create imbalance somewhere else in the cosmos? Does it alter the fabric of space-time? Does it contribute to global warming? Does it speed us towards environmental catastrophe and ecological collapse?

Or is her unwarranted burden of suffering just a reflection of a larger trend, a mirror in which, if we are brave enough to look, we can see the grossly unjust worldwide distribution of resources, the disparity between the rich and poor in our own country and others, and the vague, far-flung wars we participate in but whose purpose we do not understand and whose aftermath we will never have to see.

A mirror in which, if we are brave enough to look, we can see all of the individuals, in our culture and in others, who must carry the burden of suffering and who will never be forgotten, because we do not bother to know them in the first place.

(In honor of the fact that my mother (still) exists, I am going to write about her every day for a week. This is the first post.)

A Fate Worse Than Death

(this is the piece I read at my reading on tuesday. the theme was “what we are afraid of”, so I wrote about my schizophrenic mother.)

(also- I use the word “crazy” alot in this piece, and I realized, last night after reading it aloud to the entire city, that my  usage could be pretty hurtful to people dealing with mental health issues- indeed, mental health is a broad spectrum and it’s a universal truth of human existence that we all struggle with mental health issues, be it depression, anxiety, bi-polar or schizophrenia, at some time in our lives- and so you should know that the “crazy” I talk about in this piece is my mother’s brand of crazy- full-blown, catatonic, “can’t talk or hear or think” schizophrenia, of the chronic variety, that lasts a lifetime and does not respond to treatment- and this is why I equate it with death, indeed worse than death. But know that I do not believe that mental health issues in general are cause for suicidal thoughts, nor am I encouraging it, this is only a story of my unreasonable fears around my mother’s particular brand of the disease. Also, did you know that 20% of the population has experienced auditory hallucinations at one time or another? True fact.)

——————————————–

A lot of us are afraid of one day becoming our parents. We’re afraid that those behavioral patterns that we hate so much might one day manifest in us.

My mother is crazy. She’s schizophrenic. She hallucinates, she hears voices, she’s enormously paranoid. God and the devil are real to her in the physical, tangible sense- and all of the people and events around her are part of her elaborate religious delusions. In these delusions she is the reincarnate of the virgin mary, put back on earth to transcribe god’s message onto scrap pieces of paper and the backs of old Christmas cards, so that the people might somehow receive it.

It’s not a simple mission. My mother is up against insurmountable odds. The devil has sent demons, to try and derail her progress. These demons have access to her subconscious, and so they know her history, and her very deepest fears, and the spots in which she is most vulnerable, and they use this knowledge to psychologically torture her more effectively than even the most talented torturer at Guantanamo would be able to do. They force her to relive, again and again and again, all of the terrible memories and painful moments of her life, and they make her go through elaborate rituals in order to carry out the simplest tasks, like leaving the house or answering the phone. They yell at her to keep her from sleeping, they yell at her to keep her from eating. Sometimes they even enter the bodies of those closest to her- my brother and I, when we were young- and are brought to life to conspire against her in the third dimension. But mostly they insult her, endlessly and forever, all through the night and all through the day. The insults are simple, almost laughable- you’re stupid, you’re fat, you’re lazy- but I imagine that over time, they have their effect. And daily, into the din of the demon’s voices, comes the clear voice of God- and my mother transcribes his message onto paper grocery bags, or whatever she can find, in her beautiful looping penmanship, and all of it is complete and total word salad.

This is what I grew up with, this was my only adult mentor. To a child, she was a monster- violent, unpredictable, irrational, psychotic, and more often than not, catatonic- kneeling in child’s pose on the floor in front of her gently glowing radio, incapable of speaking, or hearing, or understanding anything you might say. She subsisted off of fear, cigarettes, and mountain dew from the corner store. The government paid our rent. My brother and I raised each other.

There were moments of lucidity. My mother would walk out of her room in a cloud of cigarette smoke and see me sitting there on the couch watching TV, a bowl of top ramen in my lap. She’d look straight at me and really see me, not just the fantastical demons that lived in her head. Our eyes would lock, and recognition would wash over her. Tilting her chin back on her long, thin neck, she’d look over the room- our apartment was a mess. The floor was covered in fast-food bags and crusted pizza boxes. Paper cups filled with her cigarette ashes sat on all the surfaces. The counters were oily, the sink smelled like rotten hamburger. A lone potato moldered in the cupboard. My mother was alarmed. She quickly pulled on her long, puffy quilted coat, in pepto pink and with holes in all the pockets, and fumbled closed the toggle buttons with her thin yellow fingers. The front door slammed. She was gone. A bit of cigarette smoke traded places with a puff of cold winter air. She would return a few hours later, with heavy grocery bags dangling from the ends of her fingers. Cleanser, dish soap, windex, bleach. And food- milk, potatoes, margarine, cottage cheese, fritos, cans of corn. And a big-gulp of mountain dew, frosty and green and sweating. We’d eat the fritos and cottage cheese together, me slurping up whey-soaked chips and stealing drinks of her soda. Then she’d begin to clean, and to talk- manically, and with more and more urgency- everything was going to change. Everything, was going, to change.

Mostly, though, she was catatonic. Mostly she stayed in her room. My brother and I fished coins and bad checks and lost foodstamp bills from the ripped folds of her purse and walked to the grocery store. We weren’t very good at choosing what food to eat. Mostly we ate little Debbie snacks and cans of soup. Often there was no money in her purse, no blank checks, no matter how hard we looked. I remember the smell of that purse, old crumpled leather and tobacco that had fallen from her loose cigarettes. My mother couldn’t read, or talk, or understand anything you said, so there was no way for her to keep up with our welfare paperwork, and we were always losing our benefits. Mostly we ate the free school lunches, corn dogs and soft apple crumble. The weekends and the summers were the hardest. I started shoplifting when I was twelve, stealing tacos from the taco bar at the grocery store, crispy fried tortillas with great piles of salty refried beans, and iceberg lettuce. And lots of cheese. And olives. I would walk out without paying and eat them on the grassy hill that overlooked the parkinglot, the wind in my face.

When I was fourteen my grandparents adopted my brother and me, and we left Alaska to live with them in Colorado, in a little meth town in the desert near the Utah border. By the time I was nineteen I wanted out of that town. My grandparents were close-hearted, spiteful catholics, who had me pegged as an insufferable slut and drug addict, and my brother and I had grown apart while in highschool, which was tragic- having lived through the war of our childhood together, I felt as though his heart and mine were permanently fused, and I loved him fiercely, and he had been enormously protective of me, and he was my only close family- but now he’d taken up with the wrong crowd and made a living manufacturing meth. He also collected illegal firearms, committed armed robbery in his spare time, and had developed a hostile, drug-fueled paranoia to rival our mother’s.

I had an older cousin, Nathan, living in Portland, so I decided to move to Portland. Nathan’s brother Jason was also moving west so we drove together, in my little Honda prelude, amped up on adderal, and bonded. In Portland the three of us lived in Nathan’s moldy apartment off 22nd and Powell, and Nathan got me a job bussing at the restaurant where he worked. Nathan and Jason were a beautiful set of brothers, Jason tall and dark like his mother, Nathan stocky and blonde like his father. Nathan liked to paint and go for long runs late at night. Jason liked to read textbooks and write open-source software. We would all drink pabst together, and make endless pots of black beans.

My grandparents have six children. Two of them, my mother and a childless aunt, are schizophrenic. My grandfather’s mother and brother were also schizophrenic. Modern science knows very little about schizophrenia, and there are lots of conflicting theories about its origins, but the theory that schizophrenia runs in families has been very popular in the last fifty years. My grandparents have fifteen grandchildren, ages two to thirty two.

Since I’d grown up in Alaska, far away from the extended family, moving to Portland with my cousins was the first chance I’d had to get close to any relatives other than my mother, brother, and grandparents, none of whom I could be close to.

So it was nice to hang out with my cousins, in Portland. One night when we were drinking and walking in the rain, over the Hawthorne bridge, I told them that every new place I lived, I planned how I could quickly and easily kill myself, if I woke up one day and was crazy.

“Here in Portland,” I said, “I’d jump off a bridge.”

“I do that too,” said Jason.

“You think of how you’d kill yourself, if you went crazy?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jason. “Everywhere I go, I think how I would do it.”

“Me too,” said Nathan. “I would totally kill myself if I started hearing voices.”

The cars crossing the Hawthorne bridge made unearthly humming noises, strangely melodic. Everything glistened, wet.

“Do you ever think about our other cousins?” I asked. “Do you ever wonder who’ll go crazy next?”

“Oh yeah,” said Nathan.

“Yeah,” said Jason.

“No-one’s gone crazy yet,” I said.

“No.”

A few years went by. I traveled compulsively. I’d never had a home, and didn’t really know how to have one now. I dated people, and our courtship would always follow a certain pattern. It would be around the third or forth date, and we’d be at that point in the getting-to-know-you game where we discussed our relationships with our parents. Like, yeah, my parents and I didn’t talk for a while, but now we get along ok, although I wish they wouldn’t try and send me money all the time.

And then I would say, because it is the truth-

“My mom is schizophrenic. I haven’t seen her in thirteen years. She’s in a halfway house in Alaska. We don’t talk at all, because she thinks I’m satan.”

And then there would be a silence.

And I could almost see the gears working inside this person’s head, that churning engine of history, and book learning, and socialization.

And then they would almost invariably say-

“Since your mom is schizophrenic, do you ever think that you, one day, might be schizophrenic too?”

And I would bite my tongue and try not to laugh, or scream, and then maybe I would tell my date that not only had I thought about the fact that I might go crazy one day but that I had thought about it every minute of every day of my entire life, and also that asking the child of a schizophrenic if they had ever thought about going crazy was like if someone told you that their mother had died of breast cancer and you, after a moment of silence, and in total earnest, asked them if they had ever thought that they might, you know, die of breast cancer one day too.

As the child of a schizophrenic person, how do you go through life without making yourself nearly sick with worry that you, one day, might be schizophrenic too? The answer is you don’t. You think about it all the time, and this worry becomes its own obsessive condition. It’s intrusive, it colors everything. It takes up a good chunk of your hard drive, like an eating disorder. It hangs over you, and invisible weight. The blank canvas of the future. The unknown. Calamity, death. The end.

But I kept being alive. I kept not being crazy. I got older. I wondered if maybe I had missed the window to go crazy. But then I knew that I could still go crazy- people went crazy in their late twenties all the time, their thirties, their forties. And anyway, mental illness is a broad spectrum. How did I know that I wasn’t crazy ALREADY? I mean, maybe I wasn’t crazy like my mom was crazy, like if you looked up the word CRAZY in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of her. But I might already be crazy nonetheless, in my own way. I mean, seriously- I hadn’t lived in one place for more than eight months since I was nineteen. That’s kind of crazy. I had this intense wanderlust, and I couldn’t focus on anything. I always wanted to be in the place I wasn’t. I was impulsive. I had potential, but lacked follow-through. And not only that, but I didn’t believe in the future. There was no such thing as linear time! And I thought that there was magic everywhere- I thought that the sunset was infinity, and our imagination was more important than anything, and that every day was the morning of the world.

So was crazy just around the corner?

One afternoon a few years ago, I had a revelation. I was laying in my bed, and the sun was coming in my window. And I thought- What if one day I was old, just about to die. What if it was the last ten seconds of the last minute before I died, and I still hadn’t gone crazy. Would I feel relieved, like I had won some sort of contest? Or would I feel crushed and destroyed, when I realized that I had spent my whole life in fear of something that had never even come to pass.

And right then and there I stopped fearing the crazy so much, because I was TIRED of being afraid of it. And now, instead of thinking about going crazy once every minute, I was thinking about it once an hour. And then, only a few times a day. And at last, only if something jogged it, like a memory of my mother, or if I was feeling especially anxious. It’s like I was going backwards- growing up with a crazy person had made me, for a time, crazy, and now it was finally wearing off, like an old coat of paint being rubbed away.

And then, too, as I got older, there were other things to worry about. Real things that really happened to people I knew and loved. I could get hit by a car while biking in the rain. I could get breast cancer before I was forty.

And then I had another realization- I realized that all of it- the crazy, the bike accidents, the cancer- all of it was just manifestations of my fear of my own mortality. All of it- illness, accidents, the accumulation of passing time- it was fear of the fact that one day, this all has to end.

Because eventually, we all go crazy. Eventually, we all disappear.

One day, no matter how I live my life, no matter what I am or am not afraid of, I will disappear. One day, we will all disappear. One day the people that we love will disappear. Our journals will yellow and fall to pieces. Our photographs will crumble and be lost. Every letter we’ve ever written, every clever text-message we’ve ever sent, will cease to exist. Parents? Gone! Cats? Gone! Our hopes and fears? Gone! All of our memories will be forgotten, and everything we’ve ever anticipated will be over and done. Something else will be here in our stead- and after a good amount of time has passed, it will be as if we never existed at all. The wind will blow the leaves, the sun will come through the windows, and no-one, anywhere, will remember us

But

not

yet.

None of that has happened yet.

We’re here, sitting in this coffeeshop. It’s a Tuesday. It’s dark outside. You’re listening to me. You’re alive.

You have no idea, yet, what will happen.

It turns out that I was right when I thought that the world was made of magic. It turns out that I was right to be young, and earnest, and impatient. It turns out that I was right, when I didn’t believe in linear time. Because it turns out that there is only one moment, and that moment is

right

now.

And it turns out that this moment, is the greatest, and most perfect, moment that there is.

The Grotto

.

There’s a big hunk of rock on 82nd and Sandy covered all over with douglas-firs and yellow cedars, right next to highway 205. It’s the Grotto. A chunk of old-growth forest that never got cut down all the way, because the Catholics wanted it. I’m not sure why- before a week ago, I didn’t even know that it was there. But it’s there, just a few blocks from my friend’s house, past the Rocky Butte Pub with the pale guys in sleeveless shirts slouch against the wall out front, smoking resentfully in the good clean light of afternoon, mad at the smoking ban, blow-dried mullets trembling un-ironically in the wind from the freeway.

The Grotto is right across the street from that bar and around the corner from a car dealership whose blinds are never opened, wrought-iron gate high and closed, five new cars gleaming in the sunlight. There is a residence upstairs, some place with curtains, a lamp glowing softly in the window.

And Sandy running through like the Sandy river of its namesake, only more rushing, not like a river at all, more like a waterfall or an ice age or a landslide, cars moving and exhaust and concrete and dust and nothing to breathe it in but the wind-battered apartment buildings and small shuttered houses with dirt yards. Sandy near the Grotto is something obscene and traumatic, going on and on and on. And it intersects 82nd right here, too, 82nd is narrower with no place for bikes to ride and ambiguous with strange sex shops marching up and down in barred-window houses painted the color of conversation hearts, tiny grass yards and then taco shops, too, on their concrete aprons, those places actually look delicious, like I might get a taco there someday.

The bus. And the bus blows by, rumble rumble, smoke. It’s the guttering baritone of the landslide traffic symphony. Harrrrrrumph! Hiss of air. I never ride the bus.

I’m at the Grotto, I’m standing in the forest with its fresh breathing leaf-litter and I’m staring up at a diorama of the virgin Mary cradling poor dead Jesus, their smooth robes draped handsomely about their bodies, all of this carved out of the brightest stone and set back in a massive cave of dripping slabs of rock that’s lit with electric candelabras and stuffed with potted flowers. A latin hymn is pumped from a loudspeaker that’s nailed way up in a Doug-fir.

The cave ends way up in the rock bluff, and on top of the bluff is the other part of the Grotto. You have to take an elevator up there and it costs some money but if you come here after hours you can just hop the turnstile and no-one will come hunt you down, no monks in brown woolen cloaks, I promise. You can also scramble up the hillside where the bluff meets the backside of the apartment complexes on 82nd, and find a sort of road through the forest, it’s trimmed down there and the hemlock boughs are stacked in drifts, there’s an abandoned hobo nest, too, is there anything more sad, flattened tent and sodden scraps of clothing, the requisite moldering shoe.

But back to the rock-cave and its shadowy diorama- out in front is a broad expanse of stone for standing on and looking around in awe, and on either side the flickering lights of a hundred red glass candles, white ones too, lined up straight in a tall metal stand, each one cupped safely in a green metal band with a green metal cross on front.

I watch the candles flicker in the shadow of the rock bluff. It’s bright sunlight out on 82nd, unseasonable warmth and glinting car-metal, but here it’s all dampness rising off of rock and moss and gibbering pools crammed with wet pennies. I walk up to the candles in the metal case, smell their burning wax smell, and I am reminded of my mother’s long papery hand, yellow with nicotine, as she pulled me into the churches of my childhood, tall stone catholic churches that smelled of dust and wood, big and empty and peaceful, always open. I’d leave her to genuflect and dab herself all over with water from the cold pewter bowl and I’d slip into the side room where these candles were kept, carpeted there and secret, a metal box to buy a wish, a prayer, a small votive candle, flames dancing hopefully, a forgotten book of matches. I didn’t have any money but I’d light a candle anyway, pocket the matches. Then I’d sit for a while in a pew, way I always liked to worship, (I was a true believer sort of catholic up to the age of 11, then it was god and Santa Claus stopped existing in the same day) looking up at the vaulted ceiling or running up to the balcony or rearranging all the bibles, depending on what sort of mood I was in. Outside downtown Anchorage was putrid bus malls with shops that sold frozen burgers and dusty postcards to drunken homeless people and drunken people who had homes, too, and shops that sold fur coats to the tourists and strips of whale baleen that you could hang above your mantle. But inside these churches it was empty and smelled of wood and burning votives, and it was always like this. We never went in the churches when there was anybody in them, my mom was too crazy for that. She was afraid of people and them looking at her and plus she smelled like rotten coffee grounds, if coffee grounds could rot somehow, but I don’t think they can. She smelled the way she looked- terrified and furious, her body forever set to “panic”, that and a bad acid trip that never ended, even though she’d never done acid not even once, was a basketball player in high school and had friends and did flips on the trampoline in the western Colorado sunshine. Now there was a horror movie playing in her head, it had been playing for years, and all the characters were cast from the depths of her own imagination, and she had lost the remote control, and couldn’t turn off the VCR.

After I am done thinking of my mother and remembering one of the nice parts of my childhood (after we left the church we’d go to the giftshop across the street, and finger the cheap pewter saint medallions, and she’d buy me a blue plastic rosary or a wooden one, if she was feeling rich) I take the elevator to the top part of the grotto, where the woods have been sort of carved out into a sunlit gallery of the virgin Mary, leaving the biggest trees of course, yellow cedars so big around you could hollow one out and live in it, if you didn’t have too much furniture. There are a handful of Japanese tourists walking around in raingear like they’d gotten the weather off the internet, snapping pictures, but no-one else. I tramp through the woods off-trail and find an abandoned shed, a nice sunlit clearing, a cemetery for the priests. I wander back and find a small wooden chapel, candy-apple red, gathering sunbeams in a grassy clearing. Inside are oil paintings of our blessed mother, lit from above with florescent lights, a place for kneeling, a potted geranium. I circle the tiny structure, looking at its neat wooden sides, and add it to the list of places I’d like to occupy after the collapse of civilization, if I get the chance.

I get Catholicism, I get the romance of it, I get why they used to do the masses all in Latin. If it was a new thing I might just sign up, especially if I thought it was all stained-glass windows and the worship of young pregnant women in the forest who had been turned to stone, somehow, and just might bring you to tears, looking up past the treetops with their blank smooth eyeballs.

The forest is beautiful and I spend all day there, park on the prickly duff beneath a yellow cedar, wad up my puffy vest and use it as a pillow, read my book. When the shadows get long and the breeze picks up I walk to the “meditation” chapel, a glinting modern building perched on the edge of the rock bluff, and open the clear doors to the warm air inside. It’s a big open room with four over-stuffed leather armchairs that look out at a tall, tall wall of glass, and through this glass you can see the blank-eyed sprawl of the airport, the crawl of 205, the Columbia River in the distance and beyond that mount Adams, with its jaunty cap of clouds. I sit. I am swallowed by the chair. I open my book, wonder how long I can read before someone kicks me out (a monk from the stone monastery with its thick yellow windows that sits next to the cemetery? A heathen groundskeeper pulling a plastic cart?). I watch the sun set in the west, it gets too dark to read, no-one kicks me out. The lights twinkle on along 82nd. Standing before the glass is a modern sculpture of the Virgin, enclosed in a clear glass tube to protect her non-stone skin from the heated air. She is like an artful mannequin, fingers cracking, her armpit-skin lifelike where it folds above the blue cloth robes on her chest. She holds a sort of toddler, blonde and blue-eyed, of course, who I assume is Jesus. She looks young, like mothers used to be. Her toes poke out from the bottom of her drapery, they are alarmingly lifelike, knobby and asymmetrical. She reminds me of my mother, again, because my mother was young and beautiful, and for a moment I am grateful that I will never be a young, beautiful mother, that I have skipped that part of life altogether and have opted instead to be an asexual butch lesbian, sort of haggard in my mid-twenties, not wanting to nurture a single thing and entirely obsessed with myself. Way it should be.

A family comes into the meditation chapel, talking loudly the way families do, grandma in her wheelchair and mom fussing about plans for dinner, daughter stuffed into her shapeless tween clothing and dad standing at the glass window, stoic, looking out over the Columbia, thinking about manly mechanical machines and aeroplanes or at least pretending to. Mom and daughter settle into the leather chairs and grandma parks nearby and they start up a lengthy chat about vacation time shares in Panama city, which they have but which they do not use because Airfare is just too expensive they really should bring airfare down they really should and I think of all those houses, all the houses of the world sitting empty, waiting for no-one, heat set low for the furniture. I stare at my open book, eavesdropping. They exhaust the talk of timeshares and move on to bringing grandma up to date on all the distant cousins and neighbors and friends of cousins scattered throughout the country, children getting older every year who are smart or brilliant (genius, really!) or at least good at sports, or at the very least trying very hard, or at the very least autistic. Mom paints a hopeful picture for grandma, grandma listens along, silent, she lives in a little wind-beaten cottage in the twinkling grid below, doesn’t have a timeshare, uses a rented wheelchair, says GROTTO across the back on the blue leather. Dad stands at the glass, stares out, says nothing. Eventually the family leaves and I do too, a few minutes later, riding the elevator back down to street level and passing the banks of candles, brighter now in the dark, single man sitting alone on one of the cold benches, posture twisted in prayer, or sleep, whichever.

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It’s like this

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A few days ago I read
Davka’s post on class anger, and it got me thinking about my own experience growing up, and how it differs from that of most of my friends, and how it makes me different- if only in that I have memories they don’t, I have a perspective they don’t have. And then I was hanging out with my friend Starling McMorning the other day, who also grew up poor, and we were looking at photos of some strangers she is stalking via their flickr account (which is apparently a totally acceptable thing to do in this age of infinite electronic photo albums). These strangers are traveling in europe, and we looked at photos of them in Italy, photos of them in Greece. The photographer was a young man, tall and tan and ironically mustached, and his girlfriend- a white-legged redhead with a clear, blank face and white linen garments, was the subject of most of the photos. In each photo of her the sun seems to set on her shoulders, and blades of yellow grass bend at her bare ankles. She looks past the camera with practiced blindness, her young hands resting on a slab of warm stone. Starling and I clicked through the photos, fascinated.

They’re WASPs, she said, fascinated. They’re old-monied new englanders.

And then the next day I was having a conversation with another friend, about fancy rich art school, and young snooty hipsters, and far-away lands- and I realized- my experience really is different from that of most of my friends. Like really, really, really different.

And then I started thinking about the moments that had marked my growing-up, the smells and sounds and flavors that had filled my days.

And so I wrote this very emotional piece, sort of stream-of-consciousness, filled with some of the things that I carry. It’s growing up poor, but it’s also MY experience growing up poor, which I know is in itself unique, as all of our childhoods are.

It’s fucked up. But it’s the way it is.

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Growing up poor is like this

It’s the smell of ramen cooking from a dozen open windows with the screens missing
It’s frozen orange or blue ice in plastic tubes that cut the corners of your mouth, and the way they feel in your fist when you pull them from the qwikstop freezer, and the way they feel thawed, loose and sliding in your hand, when your friend’s parents buy a whole box at costco
It’s windows with the blinds closed, always, but two slats broken or bent where someone peeks out
It’s checking the change slots of payphones and candy machines for a forgotten quarter, and finding one
It’s dumpstering powder-white yellow donuts at the bakery thriftstore way, way before dumpstering was cool
It’s taking incredible care of your toys and always knowing where they are because you only have three and you’re not getting any more
It’s being one of the paper ornaments on the big Christmas tree at the mall
It’s the pair of tapered jeans and the diskman you get from being one of the paper ornaments at the big Christmas tree at the mall
The diskman you keep for five years
It’s a free turkey at thanksgiving and a can of cranberry sauce
It’s your single mother, driven crazy from stress, and her leather belt, which you know and fear
It’s everyone’s stressed out parents, fear-driven and sick, and their cruel and loveless parenting methods
It’s not having any money for soap
It’s not having any money for the city bus to school
It’s wanting to go to school more than anything, for the warmth, and the regularity, and the free lunch
It’s social services, it’s social services calling on the phone, don’t answer the phone, it’s social services and they want to take you away
It’s wishing they would take you away
It’s women’s shelters and their clean fleece blankets
It’s women’s shelters and their humming ceiling fans
It’s women’s shelters and their oppressive, condescending environments
It’s scratched Teflon pans and hydrogenated margarine
It’s having three shirts and two pairs of pants
It’s not having anyone who cares if you go to school
It’s not having anyone to help you with your homework
It’s having the cops show up at your door because your brother’s been caught breaking and entering at fifteen
It’s a weakness for commercials
It’s a tendency to value over-packaged products
It’s an inclination towards waste, in spite of everything
It’s never having clean clothes
It’s thirty below and you only have a cheap walmart coat
It’s not having shoes that fit
It’s sleeping on the floor
It’s people who smoke inside
It’s knowing exactly how much the “fruit pies” in the waxy-looking wrappers cost and noticing when the price goes up
It’s not having anyone to come running when you cry
It’s screaming because that’s the only way you’ll be heard
It’s being abused and then forgetting it
It’s salty yellow popcorn from the corner store
It’s gas station nachos
It’s trying to live off of these things, trying to grow off of these things
It’s wiping your ass with newsprint
It’s a bath towel that smells like mildew
It’s a coffee can full of cigarette ashes
It’s potatoes for dinner
It’s an overflowing trashcan
It’s never going to the doctor, even when you’re sick
It’s not having braces and luckily, not needing them
It’s having far-away family members who you only see every five years and who tell you you’re lying when you tell them about the neglect
It’s having nine cavities before your baby teeth fall out
It’s having leg cramps from malnourishment that wake you up at night
It’s wearing four dollar canvas shoes
It’s the sound of the TV on all the time
It’s running away from home
It’s low-income housing and their rules
It’s moving every year
It’s your mother writing bad checks for cigarettes
It’s your brother disappearing for days like a stray cat
It’s your loved ones selling drugs
It’s your loved ones joining the military
It’s feeling grateful that you somehow didn’t have to
It’s having teachers tell you you’re “gifted” and still being too hungry to concentrate
It’s befriending your teachers, and having their kind words and words of wisdom stick in your head like priceless jewels, the only parenting you’ll ever get

What it’s like being an adult who grew up poor

It’s never going to college
It’s teaching yourself how to eat, how to cook
It’s crossing the line from one kind of poverty to another, and knowing that you will never, ever go back
It’s realizing that most of the world grows up the way you did, but only one or two of your friends did
It’s growing into your privilege
It’s being bad with money
It’s realizing that you’re not the only one who’s ever experienced violence
It’s swearing to yourself that you’ll never have children
It’s a brother who’s your only close family, and feeling as though the two of you have lived through a war
It’s never being able to talk about it
It’s being called a “downer” when you do
It’s secretly resenting your friends’ expensive college educations, and then getting over it when they graduate and have just as hard a time as you
It’s seeing a baby at the co-op in an expensive stroller wearing clean, well-made clothes and feeling horrified and disgusted, in the very pit of your stomach, and not knowing why
It’s being triggered by hunger and the smell of cigarette smoke
It’s having four visible cavities and more that can’t be seen
It’s not remembering anything under the age of nine, and finally understanding why
It’s extended family members who will finally admit the truth that was your childhood
It’s hearing one friend mention to another that they read in a book that children who are neglected and abused always grow up to be violent, psychotic people, and saying to them- “I was neglected and abused, and I’m not violent and psychotic,” and watching them not know what to say.
It’s realizing that abuse and war and genocide are all one and the same, and is a seed that we carry inside of us, each and every one of us, things that we are all capable of
It’s feeling like you’re lived ten lifetimes in one
It’s realizing that there are no monsters
It’s finally forgiving your mother

It’s not apologizing for being happy, or for the peace that you find
It’s knowing that nothing will ever, ever be as bad as your childhood
It’s knowing that it’s all a piece of cake from here on out
Life is a piece of cake
It’s feeling so proud of yourself you almost can’t stand it
It’s remembering your childhood teachers, and wishing they knew you now
It’s thanking your friends instead, who have found meaningful work as counselors and teachers
It’s being thankful for the ways you were spared:
you never had a father
you were never raped
And you haven’t gone crazy like your mother, yet.