Archive | August, 2015

There’s No Place Like Home

I just returned from the first hometown visit with my boyfriend. Carl gets a rose, meshing with my family in myriad ways, from drinking a beer with my stepdad Jim while being treated to a tour of his gun racks, to marveling over the details of my dad’s train layout, to running a 5K (his first!) with my dad at the crack of dawn.

He’s a keeper.

But I already knew that. What I didn’t know is how other parts of the trip would burrow under my skin like swimmer’s itch throughout our few days in Southwestern Michigan.

With a flash thunderstorm quashing a beach glass hunt, we had some time to kill. Under grey skies, I asked Carl if he wanted to see the house where I spent my teenage years with mom and Aunt Vikki, her “business partner.” I’m writing a memoir about what when on inside the house, and that’s a story for another day. But outside the house offers its own tragic tale.

Driving over the Bicentennial Bridge, the bustling Caucasian streets of St. Joseph quickly gave way to a quiet, foreboding landscape. I became monosyllabic, retreating to my internal crawl space. As I drove towards 709 Colfax over uneven streets cracked, rutted, and neglected, Carl’s mouth dropped.

“Holy shit,” he said. Then, every minute or so, he would ask me to slow down. My inclination was to speed up and get the hell out of there. It’s the same instinct that sent me fleeing, car doors locked, as soon as I graduated from high school.

I lived in a ghetto. People don’t believe me, thinking I’m prone to hyperbole when describing the area of Benton Harbor where I grew up. With wide eyes and two words, Carl validated my entire adolescent experience. Holy shit.

I lived in fear from 12 to 18. Thirty years later, Carl saw exactly the same bleak dystopian vision I accelerated through.

709 Colfax itself is still in pretty good shape for its surroundings. There’s no junk around it, paint isn’t peeling, it looks lived in. But neighboring houses tell a different story. My junior high was just blocks away, but to get there meant traveling over pavement with weeds sprouting through the cracks, past houses boarded up, burnt down, or with black windows and little apparent life. Mom drove me those few short blocks every morning. After school, I boarded Dial-a-Ride, a bright red short bus that broadcast my shame to my classmates. During recess, teachers doubled as guards as we set up yellow metal barriers on either end of the street so we could play four square without interruption. The red ball might have sometimes hit outside our squares but it never bounced past those barriers. We ran like the dickens to grab them before we jeopardized our safety beyond this makeshift fence.

My spidey sense was finely tuned by the age of 12. I’ll never know the fear and anxiety that African-Americans deal with on a daily basis, but I do know how it feels to be a lone 12-year-old white girl in a plaid uniform skirt in a predominantly black neighborhood.

For better or worse, I carry that frozen little girl inside me still.

Driving at a snail’s pace, I drove beyond St. John’s church until I hit Pipestone Road. Here, Carl gasped at a once-grand Craftsman, roof caved in and burnt beyond repair. A majestic Victorian with a carriage house tucked behind it lay fallow, as if waiting for someone to arrive who could grow new life on the grounds. The one well-maintained house had a chain-link fence surrounding the property.

“I can’t believe these abandoned houses are still here,” he said. “There’s no money to tear them down or fix them up,” I replied. My stepmother explained later that the city received a grant to raze the houses and turn them into empty lots but that only 80 had been removed to date and time on the grant was running out.

Benton Harbor’s “arts district,” just across the river from vacation haven St. Joe, now features a handful of charming pubs and shops in refurbished brick buildings that harken back to a once-prosperous era. The Livery contains an elevator that used to raise and lower wagons and horses; how nifty is that? There was no such hipster hangout when I was a teenager. Instead, I worked in the children’s department at the public library. It is located a stone’s throw away from this gentrifying area. Even though it was across the street from the police station, I always walked to my car with another employee, my key-cum-shank poking out through tense fingers.

That old fear was still palpable as Carl and I drove, doors locked, through the sorry streets. We’d occasionally see signs of life, such as it was, dark faces staring blankly above inert bodies sweating in the post-storm humidity.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks how I imagine New Orleans looks,” Carl said, adding, “Post-Katrina” for clarification.

I got it loud and clear. The town, named worst place to live in the US by Money magazine in 1989, looks like the universe took an eraser to it but got distracted by another worthwhile project. Some houses have been rubbed out but detritus has been left behind.

Gripping the steering wheel of our rental car, I became overwrought, holding back tears as the man I plan to grow old with saw for himself why I’ve always felt so ancient. He got me on a profound level. Living behind locked doors wears on the soul, slowly eroding it like waves lapping against sand. Writing my memoir has been fruitful at times but it’s never been easy or joyous. As I dip into my memories, I also tap into a well of feeling. I am tethered to this neglected city, even as I’ve flown upwards and away. Driving down Britain and Catalpa, Pipestone and Colfax, I Benjamin Buttoned myself back to 16. All that angsty energy and emotionality bubbled to the surface. Home may be the same, but I’m not. Now, I’m using self-awareness and acceptance, not fear, to propel me forward. I’m not running away, I’m absorbing the power of this place to take me to a new place where I can truly soar.

There’s no place like home—and maybe that’s a good thing.

(image: prwatch.org)

The Season of the Witch

My week at On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis’ cooking school in Normandy, was downright magical.

I’m not kidding.

Yes, there was the fois gras and the crème Anglaise and the moule frites and Tarte Tatin and all good things that we prepared and then ate. There were fresh pastries from a different bakery awaiting me each morning, afternoon walks through worn cobbled streets, a tuxedo cat named Coco.

Dreamy, yes. But things didn’t turn freaky deaky until late one night as we rubbed our full bellies and drank the last of the evening’s wine.

A formidable group gathered around the table. First and foremost, force of nature Susan, our hostess/guide/cooking goddess. Then there was my fellow student Doug, a lovely New Yorker who, after suffering some loss in his family, was treating himself to a week at On Rue Tatin, which had long been on his bucket list since reading Susan’s charming food memoir years before. And then there was Carolyn, an American who visits Louviers each Fall. This year, however, she was cutting her trip short to go to the South of France to study medical French for a gig with Doctors without Borders.

It gets better. She told us that she was trying to fit in a session with Martine, a local massage therapist/psychic, before she left town. The previous year, Martine told her during a treatment that in a past life Carolyn had been a Norman man who killed his brother and had to flee the country and spent his life trying to make amends and pining for Normandy. That’s why Carolyn was drawn to the region and pursuing work with Médecins sans Frontières.

Maybe it was the wine, but I had to get in on this. This trip of a lifetime would not be complete without my own session with Martine.

Fast forward to a few days later. During our afternoon break, I walked a few blocks to an apothecary shop and climbed the stairs to a small room on the second floor where Martine was waiting. A squat woman with frosted tips that made her short hair look like sparkly wheat stalks, Martine spoke essentially no English. Between my Franglais and our mutual gesturing, we figured things out. I assumed the usual massage position on the table and received an oily rubdown. Then silence. I am legally blind without my glasses so when I opened one eye, I could see her hazy figure sitting on a chair at the foot of the table. She was just watching me, or at least I think she was.

I was acutely uncomfortable, reminded of the one time I tried a meditation class. With my eyes closed for a few minutes, I got nauseous, as if my mind was trying to keep me from calm. As then, my mind and even my body started working against me. I fidgeted. Crazy thoughts raced through my head. The soles of my feet suddenly felt as if they were on fire, as if Martine had just lit a match under them. Before I left for France, I had a dream about Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in nearby Rouen so I had a brief thought that I was Jeanne d’Arc reincarnate.

Then Martine started talking. Even without my glasses, I understood what was coming out of her mouth.

“You have no confidence.”
“You don’t love the little girl inside you.”
“You are sexually shut down.”
“You don’t love yourself.”

Fuuucccckkkkk.

In an hour with English not even as a second, third, or fourth language, Martine tapped into all the shame I have spent a lifetime hiding, often from myself. With her French frankness, she brought to the surface issues I only recently had been able to talk about with my leadership coach, with whom I’ve been working for a decade. She gave me some visualization exercises for each of my issues—one involving picturing a red disk the size of a CD spinning three times clockwise over my girl parts—so she didn’t think me completely hopeless.

I broke down. I barely kept it together while she was talking to me, bawling, howling, and screaming like a banshee as soon as she exited the room. The dam broke, and all my disconsolation flooded through me and out my tear ducts.

How was it possible that I was carrying all this crap around, so close to the surface that a stranger in a foreign land could pick up on all of it? I felt broken, like a doll on the Island of Misfit Toys, defective and rejected before I even had the chance to be embraced and loved.

Silently weeping, I left the apothecary shop and wandered the streets of Louviers as a light rain began to fall over the ancient roofs. I felt as old as my surroundings.

I left Normandy that week unsettled and untethered, and convinced Martine was a witch (Louviers held witch trials in the mid-17th century). Traveling solo in France with really rusty language skills, I was already out of my comfort zone. My session with Martine forced me into internal foreign territory. Maybe I needed to break down to break through my crap. And maybe unfamiliar surroundings helped me do that. I don’t know if I have figured out everything Martine was trying to tell me but I do know that I met the love of my life three weeks after my session with Martine and he makes my head, heart, and everything else spin.