Slingshot: This Is Not Where I’m Supposed to Be

 

IMG_2174I waken at about 1 a.m. and stare at the wall, trying not to look at the clock, its white number so stark, so painfully truthful. It’s past midnight. Hours loom before me.

You’re not asleep. This is not your house. This is not your bed. Those are not your children down the hall.

There are no children down the hall. No sighs, no whimpers, no calls for a sip of water. The girls are in their own beds, in the next town. Their father is the gatekeeper. The divorce is not going well and he has decided to keep them all, against their will, against mine, to make me suffer for whatever sins he thinks I’ve committed, most of all, leaving him.

The girls cling to me when I see them, when I turn up at school to catch them before they walk home. The other mothers sneer and turn away. I’m a gorgon, the Medusa who will freeze their blood and bones if they speak to me or smile. Divorce must be a norovirus you can catch by sharing the same bench, standing under the same overhang.

Roll back the tape six months and I was on the PTA, co-chair of the Reading Carnival, helping at Catechism on Thursdays. Girl Scouts on Saturday and dance class on Monday and Wednesday at 4. I took his elderly mother shopping and to the doctor in the mornings, mowed the lawn and cleaned house, whipped up dinner for five each evening. He’d come through the door and pour the first scotch-rocks before he set down his briefcase. It must be a lot, I guess, meeting the endless wants and needs of the wife and three children and the mortgage and minivan he said he wanted.

What he wants is not this. Not us.

I sneak to see them. I promise I will fight. But I don’t know if I can. He’s that powerful, and I’m that weak. During the one year of solitude without my children, I drive back and forth to work each day along the long stretch of road by the airport, around the shorelines of San Francisco Bay. I have to keep my face on for work, as I chase down stories and cover school board meetings. I have to keep it together at my shared apartment, because a weeping woman, especially an older one, is really boring, to say the least. But in my car, each day, I sob and choke my way from home and work, thinking, “I could take some pills,” “I could buy a gun,” or, perhaps most satisfying of all, “I could drive to the bridge, stand at the edge and just let go.” First the terrifying plunge, but then – cold deep water, darkness, silence, an end to everything. I have no idea if I will ever get my children back. I think I’ve lost them forever.

In the middle of the night, the world has stopped for me. There is mayhem and destruction everywhere, not just in my own little life. But I am dead to the world’s events. I don’t care about any of it. I write the news, watch terror and sadness on the television, in the newspapers, with no other feeling than shame, that I am not with my girls, I cannot reach them, I cannot protect them, I cannot mother them, I cannot shelter them, I cannot cry with them, I have become this useless slag, I have failed at the one thing I am biologically equipped to do, I have scorched the earth black with my own misdeeds, so that death and disasters on a global scale mean nothing to me. I’ve been catapulted out of a slingshot on a trajectory I could never have planned, with no way to slow my momentum.

I lie alone in my bed and stare at the black of the wall, the tilted shadows from the street. I think I should pray, but that tank is empty, too, something else to feel guilty for. I lie there counting my failures, my inability to act. Eventually, when the sky begins to pale, I fall into the darkest of dreams, an hour of madness before the morning bell.

This is not what I asked for.

 

From my unpublished memoir, Wedlock.

Behind Closed Doors

2015-05-18 10.13.18October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pit Bull Awareness Month, National Pharmacy Month, Pastor Appreciation Month, and Halloween, among other national observances. You can see how easy it is to forget or to overlook something that is, in fact, an epidemic right under our noses.

But before your eyes roll back in your head or slip away to another blog post, let me take it from the general, the theoretical, to the personal. Domestic violence – when someone in the household hurts or harms another – ranges from a parent hurting a child, an adult abusing an elderly family member, a sibling bullying another; the means could be belts or fists, words or secrets, threats or punishment. It’s so repellent that we instinctively turn away. And our turning away, pretending not to see or hear, allows the abuse to continue.

When I was a new editor back in 2001, the newspaper where I worked published the police reports every week (as it still does). One week we ran a report about domestic violence – the incident and general location, as we did with all incidents. There had been an arrest, and we included it in our weekly summation of crime on the island. Unfortunately, the abuser saw the event in the newspaper and when he got out of jail, he went right back and abused his family member again for “telling.” That was the last time domestic violence reports appeared in general listings of police reports in that paper.

A child I knew once showed up at our house with marks on his arm, and when I asked him, he said it was from roughhousing at school, that his friend had given him a wrist-twist and caused the marks. About a year later, after CPS had become involved, I found out those were cigarette burns that the child’s own mother had inflicted on her child.

An acquaintance of mine, a mother I knew from Girl Scouts, came to a meeting with a bruise on her cheekbone and told me she had opened the cabinet and all the pots and pans fell out and hit her face. Later, she had a burn on her arm and said one of her children had pushed her into the stove by accident. After the divorce, she told me her ex-husband had inflicted those and other wounds on her, and she had lied to cover up.2014-01-18 09.09.41

When I was a teenager, the 12-year-old boy living next door came over early in the morning to ask for help. His father had shot his mother and then himself, and the boy didn’t know what to do. His little sister was still asleep and he didn’t know how to get her out without her seeing the bloody living room. An argument had gone terribly wrong, and suddenly two children were orphans.

When I was separating from my ex-husband, who had never laid a hand on me, there was a very bad week when we were both angry and said things that were vicious, and he slammed me in the front door, leaving a huge bruise from shoulder to collarbone; he followed up by calling the police and claiming I was threatening him. It was a he said-she said situation and, without making it worse in front of the kids, all I could do was leave. The bruises did not show up for a few hours, and I was too scared and weary to make a fuss by then.

So there’s a litany for you of events that have occurred right here in the East Bay, in this town, or another local city, where domestic violence had devastating or traumatic, if not deadly, consequences. People wonder why victims stay in the situation, why they don’t just walk away – but physical abuse is more than skin deep. It breaks the spirit, too. The little boy who had cigarette burns never stopped bragging about his mother’s excellent cooking. It always sounded strange to me – but abusers are often very charming, and the honeymoon phase between incidents often brings out the best in an abuser – until it happens again.

Keep your eyes open for the child who walks on eggshells, who defends or brags vigorously about a parent who gives you a funny feeling. Pay attention to elders with bruises or who seem nervous, or penniless when they should be more financially secure. Listen to raised voices or thumps against the walls of your apartment or condo. And be there with your divorcing friends, who are in the most dangerous period as they try to escape. Don’t assume all is well if the divorce gets ugly. It could be your male friends as well as your female friends, straight or gay. Abuse knows no gender, color, religion.

If you need help, call 911. Visit this website (National Network to End Domestic Violence). Be safe and be smart. Make a plan and tell a friend. Don’t be too afraid to reach out. People care and will help you.

And for the rest of us? Be aware that domestic violence is all around us. It’s the least we can do.

*This commentary appears in the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of the Alameda Sun newspaper. Copyright Julia Park Tracey 2015

Birthrights and Wrongs

I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person Ole Maryin Alabama. I’ll be staying in Jasper, with forays into Birmingham and down to Alexander City and Hackneyville. Part of the research will be digging into libraries and part will be driving around to see the environs where my forebears were slaveholders.

I’ve found what I could find on Ancestry.com and at my local library; I have looked through old photo albums (hence the photo of Ole Mary washing clothes, from about 1915; it’s very possible she was a former slave). I have purchased deed-mapping software and found information in the strangest of corners online, but nothing beats feet on the ground.

I’ve never been to the south before. The furthest south I’ve been is Charlotte, Virginia, to visit a former relative by marriage, and to Baltimore. But I’m talking deep south, this Alabama journey, into the Black Belt where cotton was king. It’s a new experience for a California native — and part of my evolution. The paradox of moving forward is going backward, to see where I came from, which will help steer me ahead.

In the summertime when I was a child, we had lots of farm chores to do, especially before we went off to play. When I was about 12, my mother left a list of chores for us, and mine was to clear some weeds from the garden. I took the shovel, and I dug and sweated and shoveled, turning over the dirt, breaking a whole new row, fresh soil with no weeds. It took me about two hours in the hot sun to break that row. When I finished, I was so hot and tired I didn’t want to go out and play with a friend.

When my mom got home later that evening she said I hadn’t pulled the weeds.

“Yes, I did — look!” I showed what I had done.

But she shook her head, and showed me where the weeds were still standing in the rows already planted. What I could have done in ten minutes — pull the weeds and be on my way — I had not seen, had missed altogether. I still had to pull those weeds the next day — but I had broken ground, made the garden bigger.

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for privilege — just pulling a few weeds and skipping away, when someone has done all the work of breaking the soil, throwing the rocks aside, making it friable and fine enough for seed. I’ve done it both ways, the easy and the tough, and believe me, it was galling to think how hard I had worked when I could have had it easy. I imagine if I always did the hard part and someone else always did the easy job, I would be pretty fed up.

Am I a good person? Am I in integrity with my roots, with my future actions? Am I standing on the backs of others who broke the path? Enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labors? Am I bold enough to tell the story I find, regardless of what it is? Of how, or whom, it hurts?

I have many thoughts going through my mind as I prepare for this first venture into the past. But consider this a vow: Whatever I find, I’ll write about it, unflinchingly. I hope to tell it well enough so you want to read it, too.

 

Fill Your Paper…

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
–William Wordsworth

When I sit to write my blog, I am like the slot machine that comes up with one lemon, one X and one banana peel. It takes a few pulls to get gold. As I sat late this Sunday evening to write the elusive *something* I wanted to write, I saw the clipped-out graphic with those words from the aptly named Wordsworth. So, to follow my own instructions, here is what is breathing in my heart.

11289601_10153304885225280_5399429457367157976_o

I want to write beautiful, wrenching things that leave clawmarks as I drag them into light.

I want to describe the color of my daughter Simone’s eyes, how they are the greenest, sea-green, peridot jewels, and how sweet or sad they sometimes look. When I see her I remember her a toddler holding my leg with one hand and her bottle with the other, laying her head against me until she was too tired to stand, and then fitting into the crook of my arm while we napped.

I want to describe the things that scare me, or used to scare me, that don’t scare me as much as exhaust me, bore me, weigh on me anymore. How they ceased to frighten and turned to lead. How they still drag on me, without fear, but yet with consequences.

When I sit at my desk the hourglass trickles away the grains of time and will I ever get to say it all, spill the words that clog my throat? Will I die before they make it to the page? Will the daily drag, like sodden clothes weighing me down in a flood, keep me from that end?

I want to have left it better than when I came in. Better stories, cleaner air and water, rebuilt lives, warmed hearths. I want there to be lions and elephants and whales for my great-grandchildren and for theirs, too.

I have words in my head, in my chest, still forming, bumping around like polliwogs without legs and arms, without what they need to stand alone. I’m busy, too busy, and time slips past, and the year is almost over, and I have to do these things, and then the words have dried up, used up all the air and died. I was gonna write about that, but I missed it. It’s over. It was a one-time thing, but — I get anxious, sometimes, and the words are there but the hands won’t perform. Or the words want to come but the anxious makes the body tired, so the words stay in.

I want to write about the stories of my ancestors who struggled, who suffered, who caused suffering — but I need to see it, process it first. So the filing and sorting is going on in my head and I’ll get it right, eventually, if there’s time. If I can just get it down.

I want to think that I’m winning at this, that I’m succeeding in a pool where everyone is splashing at the same time, and it’s hard to see who’s got the ball. Is it my turn? Can I catch it? Can I throw it? Can I even see it coming? Is the water too deep? Am I just going to slip in and get wet, and then get out and dry off and call it a day?

I want to write about bigger, deeper, more — and I’m afraid the instrument is too blunt. I’ll smash it instead of shape it. It won’t work, and no one will want to read it anyway. I want to do it just for me, except I don’t, really, because it’s the tree in the forest without an audience, making noise for whom?

I want a way to harness all this energy, to light up my own world, and maybe yours, if I could just —

If I could only — you know. Write.

Home at the Edge of the World: Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

Home at the Edge of the World
Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

2015-01-06 13.03.12There are houses down your shaded streets –
beneath your oaks, your ginkos, your avenues of palm –
Leaded in glass, shingled in fish-scale, spangled with gingerbread,
Victorian ladies tarted up for Carnival,
their history and lore curving like a staircase into view.

Gentlemen strolled in spats, ladies swung their parasols,
bay breezes curling with fog and the clank of halyards, snapping flags. Water, at every turn,
glittering to shore, to ship, to ankles and toes.

Neptune would have been pleased to see his name emblazoned,
to hear the calliope, the splash and crank, the punch of tickets.
Men pummeled each other in the ring at Croll’s, the Nickelodeon competing with the cry of merchants, seagulls, girls on the beach.
With popsicles and peanut butter.

The famous train stopped here, golden, spiked. Immigrants worked invisibly,
then vanished from the record,
as if they’d never owned that shop, inhabited this neighborhood.

We’re at the edge of the continent, a dot on the map, an island of sand and silt.
We have our own secrets, our dirty clothes, our backyard politics – small minds and big mouths –
our stories of brutality and red-lining, of spite and malice.

I came here a refugee from the Marriage Wars, empty-handed at Starbucks, where I found a roommate, a latte, a lifeline.
The past was closed to me then, our future uncertain
as airplanes crashed into buildings and fell to dust.
From desperate shores I washed up, crumbled like the missing tower of City Hall.

I didn’t know yet2014-08-27 10.58.35
That in Alameda the past is under your feet, in shell and sand.
That the streets of Bay Farm were paved with the bones of other people’s ancestors.
I didn’t know
That some islands are real and some islands are made.
That we could live here for three generations and still be new.

But I have roots here, I’m an Alamedan, too —

My mother, just a child in the Depression, came down
from tawny oak-strewn hills for sand from the beaches for her sandbox.

My father, just off the ship, his Navy uniform still salt-damp from the Sea of Japan,
took a drink at Wally’s Corner, then
crossed the green bridge, up the road to the University, to stand at Strawberry Creek and think,
I’m finally home.

He brought my mother down Trestle Glen, Park Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Webster, through the Tube to their apartment on Lincoln Avenue – the Ulysses S Grant – to take out trash and mop the halls in exchange for rent.

My brother came, a squalling newborn at the hospital where consumptives once went
to bask in sunlight, to dry their shattered lungs.

He crawled, he walked; my sister followed, and we moved away
to suburbs where there was room to grow.

But I came back.
My daughters became Jets; my stepchildren were Hornets,
my allegiance to the home team shifting when the rent was raised.

I’ve met a prince here, and been a pauper,
and married the same man twice on green grass by the water,
lived in houses big and small, with stories of their own.

2015-07-19 20.32.23Alameda, Alameda, your name is lyrical on my lips —
you showed me how far I could walk on shifting sands before drowning.
Before I was in too deep.
Before I thought to ask for help.
Before I learned to save myself.

Alameda taught me that even the least of terns has power.
That even people living in mansions sometimes lose their beach.
That two newspapers are better than none.
That when there’s trouble, raise the bridges.
That when in doubt, hold a street fair.

Alameda, Alameda, you’ve unfurled me, shucked me like an oyster.
Tell me your secrets. Send me scribbling
to the page.

 

Julia Park Tracey
Alameda Poet Laureate
2014-2016