Pre-dawn. I’m groggy. You draw me to our desk, our milieu safe, your intent, crystalline. Your skin, smooth, cool to my touch, awakens me. I pick up my pen and we begin. Conjoined twins, we share a single brain. Communicators, over our lifetime, we aspire to impose form upon reverie. More often, though, we revisit unresolvable, old arguments and -isms knowing that at day’s end, we’ll shred them. Still, we labor to array our words into thematic sensibility. The work is maddening. Your patience reassures me-- screeching screeds never daunt you. We decided long ago to allow our discourse to wander where it will: And that keeps us sane.
First Grade Play
I don’t remember the actual snapshot being snapped though I do have clear memories, my own and some gleaned from family lore, of the night it was taken. I didn’t like being photographed. Mom probably insisted. I imagine her coaxing me.
“You’re so pretty. Smile. Just once.” I probably cried, instead. I sense someone said or did something silly, then smile, snap, and here we are, Mom and me.
I’m six years old, shy, uncomfortable around people. Dressed like a porcelain doll in a light blue sateen, long dress with matching hat, I’m to perform with my first-grade class. A special night for Mom. She wears a stylish polka-dot cowl-collared, dark-colored dress and a silver necklace with matching earrings. At twenty-four with four children she couldn’t often dress up and go out. Earlier in the day she accomplished a hair miracle for both of us by transforming her jet black and my golden kinky hair into soft, trendy styles. She’d trained as a beautician during her teens. She enjoyed fussing with her three daughters, hair. Every day we were brushed, combed, braided, curled, and snipped. That afternoon, she inspected her handiwork and gave me no chance to mess it up.
“You cannot go out and play.”
Mom was excited, proud, talkative as she dressed us both. She insisted I needed make-up.
“You need make-up so you’ll show up on stage.”
“You’re so fair-skinned. The audience won’t see you.”
“I don’t want them to see me.” I cried in protest. She dried my eyes. “Just a little.” I acquiesced. She applied face powder, eyebrow pencil, and pink lipstick. “That’s better.” She reviewed her creation, pointed to her bedroom chair, then did her own make-up. I licked the lipstick from my mouth while I sat. When Mom finished, our struggle over the photo ensued.
Mom walked me to school, told me she’d be in the front of the auditorium where I could see her. She kissed me and left me at my classroom door. Inside the classroom, Sister Bernadette Marie, my teacher, sorted her chattering class into couples. We lined up in twos. She walked up and down the line inspecting us–hats on girls secure, neckties on boys correct, shoes buckled and tied, no candy or gum in our mouths. This was an important night. My partner and I were third in line. Show dolls, we would share first row center stage with another couple. As I came under her scrupulous eye Sister said, “Oh no, Joann,” then reached into her sleeve, pulled out a red lipstick, lifted my chin with one hand, applied the lipstick with the other.
“That’s better. Now the audience will see you.” She finished her review then marched us to the auditorium where we took our places on a semi-dark stage.
The curtain rose. Lights lit up our class. The audience was dark. Where was Mom? Panic. The piano struck the intro. We sang, “In my sweet little Alice Blue Gown….” and danced a few slow steps holding hands, boys guiding girls on tiptoe around them. I forgot to tiptoe, tripped over the hem of my dress and started to fall. The audience gasped. I regained my balance. The audience quieted. We finished our routine. Applause.
And the audience saw me.
Mining A Memory
I salvaged a treasure when I was five. My mother discarded some paperbacks. On impulse I grabbed one from the garbage. I remember nothing about the book’s title or content but once I seized possession, nothing—candy, toys, or threats of lethal germs—could redeem it from me. Clutching it close I ran into my family’s basement apartment and found a pencil. Then, outside again, surrounded by urban noise and smells, I sat on my Bronx tenement’s concrete stoop and scribbled inside my book.
“Wouldn’t you like some blank paper to draw on?” someone asked. I shook my head. “I’m not drawing,” I said. “I’m writing.”
Decades later this memory fuels my passion for writing. Indeed, I played a game that day but I also labored over that book with as comparable a focus as any adult author. Ideas and stories poured from my head onto the pages. I surrendered to the process and my ego swelled.
I draw on this memory whenever I mine my imagination. It inspires me to persevere despite slippery wordings, shaky sentence scaffoldings, or conceptual cave-ins. I return here every time I write. Here I find courage and the determination that strengthen my self-image. I return when my notions defy excavation, when I wander through tunnels of phrasings that lead nowhere, when my fear forces project abandonment, and when, in desperation, I yearn for words to manifest magically upon my pages. Indeed, digging through intellectual rocks and shifting emotional layers is no small task. I never know whether my work will yield anything until I’m well invested in the endeavor. Yet, my hope of discovering something worth cutting and polishing spurs me on and forces me to take the risk necessary for success.
As a child I lost myself in make-believe by adding scribbled footnotes to my stolen treasure. I trusted the nature of the ores deep within my consciousness. My combined effort and play extracted precious gems. And that pleased me. Yet my energies brought few accolades from adults in my world. My scribbles’ meaning was indecipherable. Without real letters designing real words scribbles lacked coherence and relevance. They provided representations only I could “read’ and my chances of holding onto their substance diminished with the day. Unlike a sketch adults could appreciate, scribbles did not declare, “I am a polished gemstone.” But I didn’t care. The book in which I scrawled was a precious showcase, a unique reflection of my world. And though I didn’t understand it at the time, I sensed a sketch could not bear witness to its own inner state. But through writing, I could, and that was the point.
Of course, at the time, I knew nothing of motivation, only that my behavior satisfied my need for words. My little girl compositions have long vanished. But I cherish my returns to the experience that gave me my first awareness of my love of writing. I truly believed in the make-believe life and the credence the process gave my thoughts, and in the confidence I felt. I believe it still.
That night, as I slept, my mother returned my treasure to the trash. I probably cried over my loss the next morning though I don’t remember. Most likely, I applied my pencils to other media. Of course, I would not realize until adulthood just how much my scribbled-up paperback served it’s purpose and sealed my own. I continue mining memories, digging through the rocks, seeking gems, and writing them down.
The bird swooped into range as I walked across the Navajo Bridge.
I set my camera on it and started shooting. I had no idea what it was. Just that it was huge and I was mesmerized.
I began clicking, rapid firing, following the bird wherever it went–high above me, below the bridge to the Colorado River, around and around, close to the canyon walls. The bird soared, dipped, and circled.
I heard my husband behind me.
“Go, Jo,” he yelled. “It’s a condor.”
I ignored his cheerleading and focused on the bird. I’d never seen a condor and I wasn’t sure that the creature now in my sights fit that definition. I knew only that I was invigorated, that it was beautiful, and that I had to capture it.
I don’t know how long the bird stayed with me. Seemed a long time. It vanished as suddenly as it appeared. It wasn’t until I after I researched the introduction of California condors into the Grand Canyon and checked my photos with a credible birder that I realized the rarity of this sighting.
The California condor (Tag #LO) in these photos is a young female. Raised at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey she was released into the wild in 2012.
And three years later, we met. What a gift!
There Then Here
A week on the road–nice weather made the drive easy there and back.
Just a few pics this trip. The goal was to visit family and friends across three states. Time was short. Conversation was long. Love ran deep.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of the North Carolina Wine Country, Dobson is a place of serene family farms and sleeping vineyards this time of year. Looks a bit bleak now but in a few more months, the vines will be heavy with grapes.
New Bern, founded in 1710, is North Carolina’s second oldest town. Settled by the German and Swiss, it was named after Bern, the capital of Switzerland.
The town is set along the Trent and Neuse Rivers on the North Carolina coast.
New Bern was home to the First State Capital of North Carolina.
Home in New York’s North Country. Drove 200 miles upstate and the snow struck just south of Albany. Typical welcome home after the warm, balmy weather of the South.
Ah, yes, it’s good to be home. Haven’t seen the ground up here for weeks. Probably won’t see it for a few more.
Be it ever so humble–
well, it’s heart-warming
even if bone-chilling.
Three days on the road
and nearly 1,000 miles of travel,
I arrive in Douglasville, Georgia.
Hotel check-in, short rest,
then a Cajun dinner at Gumbo’s, the town’s culinary landmark.
Good talk and laughter
so far away from home.
It’s a family get-together,
occasional, happy, loving,
On December 14, 2012 twenty children and six adults were shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A military style weapon, the Bushmaster .223 caliber model XM15-E2S rifle with high capacity 30 round clips, was used by twenty year old Adam Lanza who, according to news reports, may have had a form of autism which is a developmental disorder.
Since that horrible day our shocked nation has plunged into a discussion surrounding the prevention of future similar tragedies as we mourn the victims of that senseless shooting. In essence, we are a nation in grief seeking ways to deal with the incomprehensible—the bullet-riddled imagery of babies. And we desire to leave no issue unaddressed as we strive toward our responsibility as citizens in a country that accepts gun ownership as a constitutional right.
And this is where things can get a bit murky. Part of our national conversation includes issues relative to our society’s mentally ill and their presumed tendency toward violence.
Much of our focus has been on the necessity of keeping guns out of the hands of those with psychiatric disorders. Indeed, we’re hard-pressed to find news reports, opinion pieces, investigations, and congressional hearings that do not carry the “mental illness-violence association.” Yet we run the risk of strengthening some existing, negative, social connotations that often feed our ideas and formulate our imagery regarding this group. For example, who has not heard that “lunatics” and “crazies” kill people, or that those who are “sick in the head” are the most capable of doing so in our society?
In actuality, this is far from the case. Though less than 7% of those diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder commit criminal acts, it is also true that the majority of those with mental illness in our country are not violent. They are, in fact, more likely to harm themselves than others. And they are the most likely to be preyed upon by other groups. This population is one of the most vulnerable among us. And the most stigmatized.
Our discrimination of this group is not new. People who think and behave inconsistently with cultural norms have always lived among us. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that technological advances allowed researchers to find ways of adjusting imbalanced brain chemistries within this group that allowed them to live within convention. These days most people with psychiatric disorders can live normal lives with the help of medications and various cognitive and talk therapies. But only if these treatments are readily available to those who need them.
Our mental health system is, like much of the rest of our health care system, difficult to access and expensive. People with psychiatric disorders need maintenance care. Many need medications throughout their lifetimes. Yet many people do not seek help because of stigma. And stigma continues because our culture has assigned mental health/illness issues a low priority.
It’s important to understand that our words matter along with the associations they express. Especially when there exist strong, social connotations. While we can benefit from discourse on mental illness within the context of gun and violence control, we run the danger of removing the focus from the event that shocked us into our dialogue. That Adam Lanza may have suffered from a form of autism is regrettable. That his parents had few health resources available to them added to their personal tragedy which, unfortunately, exploded into our national one. But we do a disservice to the millions of non-violent people with psychiatric disorders by allowing the continuation of the stereotype that they’ve been cast into.
The 26 people killed in Newtown were killed with a military style rifle that would have continued to have been banned under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. The ban expired during the Bush administration and was not reinstated. Another aspect of this tragedy.
More information can be found at the following links: