Wednesday, August 19, 2015

...moving through the land of suffering

...The land of suffering feels like a land that blessing has never touched
Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. John O’Donohue.

The past and present walk hand-in-hand with us into our future and, with them, our shadows. Marcella Jayne, cousin of my friend, Marcella Salisbury, shared these memories of her journey...

When I was seven years old, I was in the kitchen of our really old farmhouse/duplex looking for something to eat. There were mice, lots of them. There were those moths that eat pasta and their larvae that crawl on the ceiling. I found a single packet of ramen noodles. I was elated, but then I saw the corner had been chewed open by a mouse. The flavor packet was still intact. It grossed me out but not enough. I pulled a chair to the stove. I pulled a pot of stagnant water from the stove and rinsed it out. I turned the burner on. It was electric. I touched it with the palm of my hand. It burned a spiral into my hand. I had my ramen. I poured it into a mug and ate it in front of the TV.

Last night I ate a $50 pork chop. I drank sixteen-year-old scotch and twenty-year-old wine. I would have been eight years old when the wine was made. My friend treated me. I tasted the best olive oil I have ever tasted. We had great conversations.

I was so angry today and I couldn't figure out why. Everywhere I went they kept fucking up the coffee. I went to a pharmacy to get a prescription fill and the guy was being a jerk. I was so angry. I went home and then it came, that lava in my blood that rages. I can never make what was wrong right. I see myself throughout my life behind soundproof plexiglass. I want to reach in, to help her, to stop something, to give her something, to hug her, to hold her, and to protect her...and I can't. It is through these juxtapositions, when I feel well fed, when I feel safe, when I feel respected, that I am forced to confront the antithesis of each sensation.

There is no soft healing. There is no gentle reconciliation. There is gradual mending. There is a girl with lava for blood. Her skin is molten hot. You cannot touch her. She cannot even touch herself. She is in a white room flipping tables, hurling buckets of red paint against the walls. She has no fear left. She taunts her torturers. She leans into the implementation of pain, whatever it may happen to be, she leans into it. She laughs just to piss them off. No matter how good the food I eat is, it never makes it way to her. She stays starving. She only knows about deprivation. And if I am on a massage table enjoying a benevolent touch, it never gets to her. She only knows about violence and mutilation. If I am dancing in a man's arms and feeling beautiful and free, it never gets to her.  She only nows about rape, exploitation, and misogyny. She stays angry and she deserves to be.


The ravages of abuse and poverty are time-travelers, passing ruthlessly from one generation to the next. J. K. Rowling's description of splinching in her Harry Potter novels comes to mind: "Splinching, or the separation of random body parts [in this case, the separation of the self] occurs when the mind is insufficiently determined. You must concentrate upon your destination, and move, without haste, but with deliberation." I give these words to Marcella, words that helped me determine my mind: when bad memories knock on your door, acknowledge them but don't invite them in to spend the afternoon. We acknowledge and we heal, I believe, by helping others.

Part of healing is telling the story. I am grateful for Marcella Jayne's honesty and for her courage. I wish her strength for the journey. And I am grateful that Marcella Salisbury shared her cousin's powerful words.

If this subject touches you, you might be interested in this link:
...the name of the room is Remember

NOTE: "According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the 'sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life...the shadow must never be dismissed as merely evil or demonic, for it contains natural, life-giving, under-developed positive potentialities'."

Saturday, June 20, 2015

...a boy and his mule

He was fourteen years old the summer he left the old farmhouse each morning in the semi-darkness, before the heat had begun its rapid climb. As he hitched up Old Sam, his much-loved mule, his thoughts were of his mother. Widowed early with three young sons to raise on the small south Georgia dirt farm, she cooked and cleaned, boiled clothes in an old washtub and hung them outside to dry. She fed their meager livestock and the chickens, weeded the garden that fed them and hoed the fields, all the time caring for the two younger boys. Life was not easy in the post-reconstruction, Depression-era south.

The idea had come to him slowly. At night he had figured and planned, then chosen his words. As he told his mother, she looked deep into his eyes. Once convinced that he would not be dissuaded, she gave him her blessing. And she prayed. Without ceasing, she prayed. Each morning of her eldest son's fourteenth summer, she stood on the back porch and waved, prayed some more as he and his mule trekked across the field toward the woods.

Thin but determined, he and his mule cleared twenty-two acres of loblolly pines over the next two months. He felled the tall trees and, with Sam's help, drug them into the field. In the heat of the day, he and Sam walked to the creek where he propped against a tree and ate the cold biscuits filled with sorghum syrup she'd wrapped after breakfast. After a quick dip in the cold creek water, he returned to work.

For sixty sweltering south Georgia days, days filled with mosquitoes and rattlers, moccasins and gnats, he cut and drug and cut some more. When the trees were down and the wood cut into logs and stacked for cooking and heating, he and Sam pulled the stumps, every last one, the mule straining   while the boy tugged with all his might. As if the days weren't hot enough, he then burned the stumps in a field, away from grass that might catch fire...never on a windy day, only on the still, hot ones. Once the ground was free of roots, he hooked Sam up to a plow and they tilled the twenty-two acres. He hoed and planted cotton, a later crop than usual, and returned each day to weed. As the plants grew, like his mother, he prayed: for the crop to grow and for the weather to nourish, not destroy. But mostly he prayed for her. He never heard his mother complain but sometimes when he stole quietly to her room, he glimpsed the fatigue, the furrowed brow.

The weeks turned into months. He ran into the field after August hail storms. Watched the sky for rain clouds. Finally, in the fall he picked the prickly bolls, crawling through the rows with a burlap sack hitched around his neck. He and Sam hauled the cotton to the gin.  In quiet triumph, he had brought his first cash crop to harvest. The cotton yielded enough to pay bills and plant the winter garden. The next year's early planting yielded a bumper crop. For five more years, he and Sam planted and picked and hauled their way through the seasons.

He reached manhood - quiet, still wiry but now strong, as kind and loving as his mother - just in time for WWII. All three of her boys were drafted but he was the first to leave English Crossing, their small Georgia community. After basic training in Nebraska, he embarked from New York City. Another English crossing would follow the next summer, this one to Omaha Beach. Across different fields, to the hell of the Ardennes and other places that would live only in his memory, he marched. And all the while he read and re-read her letters. He wrote to her that all was well with him. "Somewhere in England, May 1944" became "Somewhere in France, June 1944", then Germany and, somewhere in the mix, Holland.

Back in Georgia, alone on the small dirt farm, she fought her own battle...her diagnosis, breast cancer. Discharged on Christmas Day 1945, he got home in early 1946, in time to be with her before she died. For the rest of his life, her name was was Old Sam's. She would have liked that.

His battles were never discussed, neither those of boyhood nor any that followed. He told the odd funny story, occasionally recalled an old Army buddy. Sam often came up in conversation, always with a twinkle and a laugh. "Yesiree, I wish I could see Old Sam one more time. He was a special mule." But never a word about that long-ago transforming summer, about D-Day, about the Battle of the Bulge.

He bonded deeply twice in his life, both times in a battle for survival. Whatever pain or fear he knew going forward belonged only to him and to God. He found great peace in books and loved his neighbor. Some prosperity followed but, in his last years, new management cut the sales territories of all who neared retirement to cut expenses. Salesman of the Year many times over, he became a study in solitude as he struggled once again. It is his spirit, though, that is remembered by those who knew him...loving, beloved, so deeply missed.

One brother survives. Before he slipped into the fog of age, one evening atop Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, he recounted memories at the dinner table. As he spoke of the big brother he yet loves, tears spilled onto his face. Outside in the deep darkness of the Blue Ridge, stars gathered overhead and blessed the words he legacy, my father's fourteenth summer.

Sugar Mountain, NC

With Uncle George, the morning after
Sugar Mountain, NC

John W. Strickland, 1922-1995

He remains, always, my Daddy.
Photo: Vestavia Hills, AL, 1990

Sunday, May 31, 2015

...where the journey leads

She is to the magnolia born, my friend, Jane-Anything-But-Plain. A Southern beauty, lover of hats, well-schooled in manners, terrifying at times. Holly Golightly as written by Louise Erdrich. Loves the lush green of Ireland. Lives, sometimes, in the red-dusted New Mexico land known as Ghost Ranch where she received the phone call every mother dreads. Her daughter had died and her own heart was not so much broken as shredded. She returned to this landscape to mourn. And has returned again, and yet again, to the land where she ruminates and sheds a layer or two.

Mentor, friend, bossy pants, she drug me to Ireland, then across the landscape in her VW Beetle to New Mexico...Tucumcari, Las Vegas (not that one), Taos, Abiquiu, Chama, Trampas, Chimayo, Espanola, Santa Fe. And Ghost Ranch. Where Georgia O'Keefe, another bossy pants, had lived and painted. Where, the day after we left, Don, a Presbyterian minister/volunteer at the ranch, fell to his death hiking Kitchen Mesa. Not a place for sissies. During a subsequent six-month volunteer stint, her emails described a sidewinder that crossed her path and the afternoon the Coca-Cola man removed the machine on the porch of the Trading Post because a six-foot bull snake had taken up residence in its innards. Then there's the October tarantula migration. I offer Exhibit A which crawled up the wall where I had stood the day before. Multiply five-inch long "A" by thousands and then picture the creepy-crawly horde pouring across the land and roads in search of a date.

Jane was a buyer for an upscale department store in Birmingham, a woman who made regular trips to New York City, wrapped in an ankle-length Blackgama mink coat to ward off the winter cold. She could intimidate a cabbie and collect a brilliant smile from, of all people, George Peppard in a Manhattan crosswalk...all in an afternoon's work. Or manage two chance encounters with O.J. Simpson, first on the street where he beamed at her, then an hour later at Barney's, with Nicole, when he recognized her and said, "We have to stop meeting like this." [Or did he say, "Are you following me?" Not sure. She'll set me straight.] Her appraisal of the man: spot on. She sold the mink coat to underwrite the Ireland trip. Just as well since the only time I ever saw her take it out of the closet was a frigid Birmingham night when she took the garbage out clad in her huge black-rimmed glasses and grey sweats topped with The Coat. To paraphrase Phineas Nigellus' talking portrait in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (or Kingsley Shacklebolt in the film version), "You know, you may not agree with Jane on many counts...but you cannot deny she's got style."

Style and moxie in spades she has. Enough cracks so as not to be unbearable. Some hard-earned knowledge, of which Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote: "It isn't for the moment you are struck that you need courage, but for that long, uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security." And, with this, the growing awareness that sanity and faith and security aren't formulaic goals - doctrinal and attainable - but forged by the authenticity of the journey...the grace "between the macro and the micro". I've been watching, Jane, and learning. Thanks for the ride.