Everyplace. And Noplace.

The day I almost died probably wasn’t the first. We spend our entire lives almost dying in the hundreds of mundane decisions we make every single day.

Go here, not there.

Do this, not that.

One destination or decision over the other is really all it takes. The only difference on that particular day, is that I actually saw it coming.

The story I’m about to tell, is about souls and spirits and miracles and magic and premonitions and the afterlife and everything else I know almost nothing about. Depending on your upbringing, biases, filters, and beliefs, your opinions here may be strong. That’s ok. I’d still love for anyone who’s willing, to feel free to come along. That being said, there are a few things that I need to make perfectly clear up front.

I don’t need permission.

I don’t need validation.

I’m not ashamed.

I’m not deranged.

I’m not psychic.

I’m not being “attacked my Satan” or “led astray by The Enemy”.

I have nothing to justify.

I have nothing to debate.

I want to know what I know, and feel what I feelwhich means the experiences I’m about to share don’t belong to religion, or to anti-religion, or to any belief factory in between. After thirty five years of loaning them out to all of the above, I’m simply claiming them as my own.

When I was growing up, the Bible was a book of hidden landmines that only the extra saved knew how to navigate. One wrong step could blow you straight into hellbut if you were extra-lucky, then the extra-saved, would share their super special secrets with you.

The Extra-Saved could talk extensively about the rules, but when it came to the supernatural, they were the last people you wanted to ask. On paper, we believed in The Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In action (or inaction) we treated Holy Spirit like that unhinged relative who chews their nails and burps at the table that you hope doesn’t show up for Thanksgiving.

Because spirits are ghosts.

And ghosts are Satanic.

An invisible God was fine. So was a Savior who died, and rose from the dead. But a Ghost or a Spirit, even a Holy one I guess, was clearly the line in sand.

Outward displays of worship (like love and joy) were frowned upon as well. They weren’t controllable, or qualitative, and couldn’t be put in the weekly bulletin as proof of our success. “Three more baptisms already this month! Only 7 more to go to reach our goal!”, as if our souls were Target Red Cards, and they were aiming for that corporate bonus. Every now and then, when a stray emotion wandered through after hearing a favorite song or verse, I’d feel a flutter in my chest, or a sense of hope from deep inside. I learned early on what to do: pretend it was the holy jalapenos from my nachos the night before, and keep that spirit stuff where it belonged. With the “crazy” churches. Who weren’t extra-saved and special. The ones who held their hands in the air and their faces towards the sky like a child begging for attention. Adoration unashamed. The thought of it made me shudder.

Until the day I almost died, the most supernatural experiences I’d ever had, were getting gifts in December from a fat, voyeuristic stranger who could apparently see through walls, or finding a quarter from a magic fairy, when I lost a tooth. So imagine what it would be like, to wake up one morning with a terrible premonition, that you knew was going to come true. And from that moment on, it’s like a doorway opened up, to a place you couldn’t possibly understand. And in that place, you knew things you shouldn’t know, and felt things you shouldn’t feel, and did things you shouldn’t do.

Like talk to people who are dead.

When I first started writing this blog, I made a promise to myself: I either write it real, or not at all. No filtering for a certain audience. No branding or labeling a thought, feeling or experience, to fit an ideology, religion, or belief. No pretending to know or understand, what I will never know or understand. At least not until this life has passed, and maybe not even then.

That being said, I’m a Jesus Girl. Not a particularly well behaved one. Or the kind that most other Christians accept, apart from a patronizing pat on the head. I don’t do sects, or memberships, or affirmations, or affiliations, or prayer on-demand, or food-for-your-soul ministries, or dogmas, or committees, or casserole baking, or ladies class, or group sharing of any kind, and listening to Joel Osteen radio for all of eternity, is my ultimate idea of hell. But a Jesus Girl is still who I am. I get it though. Claiming to belong, without being bagged, boxed and branded has a way of making people mad. But that kind of belongingwhere we filter thoughts, feelings, and experiences, to look like we fit inis the exact kind of belonging that I never want again.

My favorite bakery downtown has a punch card. Collect 12 heart shaped holes, and you get one piece of cake free, as in “Yay you! You’re a cake eating superstar. Just a few more to go, before you and your insulin resistance win a free trip to Diabetes!”

I handed the cute Millennial in the blue apron and the fully tattooed arm, my almost-full card, for the second time that week.

That’s when I heard it. The metal punch, clicking through the card stock. It was a sticky click, where she had to turn her wrist and wiggle it a bit to coax a slow, reluctant release. It sounded just like the metal click on the crumpled paper card I used to carry to the fields, on those early summer mornings when I went strawberry picking as a kid. Except those cards weren’t a pristine blue and pink with cupcakes and ribbons on the front. They were smeared greasy red and brown with berries, warm bologna, and mud. And instead of a free piece of cake, the hole that was left, meant a Band-Aid tin full of dollar bills at the end of each picking season. If you saved your dollars, that is. I usually spent mine as quick as I  earned them, for Lemon Heads down at Sam’s Drug Store, or on an Orange Crush in a cold glass bottle that sweated cool drops of forehead heaven, or on a red, white and blue rocket-sicle, that always melted before I could eat it. One year though, I saved every single penny, and bought a lavender velour jacket to match the Shawn Cassidy bell bottoms that I got for Christmas the year before. His child bride face and Palomino hair covered the bottom left leg, from the knee clear down to the hem.

At the start of each season, it took me a week or so of distraction to remember that there was no lemon candy, or melty popsicles, or pastel velour until ripe berries actually made it into the flat. And that didn’t happen if you sat in your row and ate them. Or if you army-crawled between the rows and peeked your head up just long enough to pelt your friends in the back with the rotten ones. Or if you took an entire handful and smooshed them in each others hair, yelling “strawberry shampoo!!!” while hurdling over flats and maybe landing in one or two.

I can still see the field boss, with her work gnarled hands and a choppy Scandi accent, pointing to me with my red stained face and berry filled hair, and yelling at my sister.

“Christy! You gonna have to do someth’in ’bout your ‘lil sister!”

I used to wonder what that “someth’in” could be. And from the look of despair in her well-behaved blue eyes, so did my poor big sister.

It doesn’t take much, does it?  A sound. A smell. A slightly familiar object. To transport us back to a long forgotten time and place, that feels so right now, we think we can reach out and grab it, if we only tried hard enough. In that one sticky click of metal through paper, I could smell the wet, muggy warmth rising off of the fields as the sun came up over the trees. And I could feel the hot summer sun, baking my back as I picked (or ate) my way up rows of fat red and ruffly green. Standing at that bakery counter, absently pulling a loose strand of hair, I was almost surprised to look down to find clean adult fingers with manicured nails, instead of the chubby stained nubs of a child, sliding globs of mud and berries from her head.

The entire month of March, with it’s slow blooming trees, both bitter and sweet, and the feel of warm, wet days, that end in cool, dusky evenings, release a gauntlet of memories for me.

When I tried to write this story back in March, I couldn’t follow through. It felt too intimate. Too invasive. Like a close talking uncle on his fourth glass of sherry, who leans so far into your face, you can feel his breath across your cheek. It left me recoiled in my chair, thinking of polite ways to leave. So I shoved in April and May as a buffer, like that empty seat in the theater, to keep a shoulder, or a leg, or heaven forbid a hand, from accidentally touching someone else. But even that wasn’t enough, because here come the tears again. The super concentrated kind, like those cardboard cans of frozen juice, they sell five for five dollars at Fred Meyer. Just add water, or the truth, and you’ll end up with a whole lot more.

There are parts of this story that I’ve told out loud, many times before. Then there are some parts, that until recently, I’ve never even said to myself. I’ve learned that telling a story, and feeling a story, aren’t the same thing at all. Feeling it out loud, as I am right now, is like waiting for the trap door to open on one of those free fall water slides, with words like Death and Insanity in their names. Even though you know you’ll probably be ok, there’s still that lingering doubt in the back of your mind as you smile and wave goodbye.

Then WHOOSH.

You’re at the mercy of gravity until you reach the end.

-March 6, 1983-

Chores. My older sister and I were fighting over chores. I was 14, and she was 17, and for as long as I can remember, we fought over chores. Mostly because she did hers, and I didn’t do mine. Or at least not all of them, which meant that most of the time, she did mine and hers both.

“Christy! You gonna have to do someth’in ’bout your ‘lil sister!”

The usual, not-nice words were exchanged. I don’t remember exactly which ones, but I know they weren’t nice, because we weren’t nice to each other in general. Some of it was normal, but the majority of it was not. I like to believe that the love was there, but a relationship would never be possible. Not all parents want their kids to be friends

I was leaving for a church swimming party that morning. Not with my own church. My church was over an hour away in “the city”, although it wasn’t a city church at all. It was a suburb church. But since we lived in “the country”, anything not in the country, was the “the city”. Where we were going, was a town in-between, that wasn’t the suburbs, or the city, but it was a bigger town than ours and had an indoor swim park and a pizza parlor.

The argument over chores came to an abrupt end when I heard the dog barking out front, and I knew a car was headed up our long wooded driveway.  I grabbed my bag to run outside, but then right as I opened the door, an overwhelming urge to hug my sister and apologize kept my hand paused on the knob.

Apologies didn’t happen in our family. Not for real at least. Especially not the hugging kind. And definitely not between my sister and I. We’d had an unsaid agreement for as long as I could remember, to touch each other as little as possible. We shared a bed when we were younger, with two Yorkies and a pile of dolls, and the nightly ritual went something like this: “G’night. Love you. Don’t forget to say your prayers………AND DON’T TOUCH ME.”

I practically had to chase her down for a hug and an apology that morning. “Love you…..and uh…..sorry” is about all I got out before she wrinkled her face and pushed me away like she’d just smelled something foul. Not that I blamed her. Huggy and sorry isn’t who we were. But in that moment, I desperately needed it to be us, to soothe the ominous sense of knowing that something terrible was coming our way.

As I ran out to the waiting car, and crawled over the front seat and into the back, the second part of that same premonition came barreling in out of nowhere.

“Wear a seat belt” it said.

“It won’t matter” came the response.

We were country kids in the early 80’s and as far as we were concerned, seat belts were for weaklings and whiners who couldn’t brace themselves on the dashboard, like normal people did. I ran my finger across the shiny silver buckle that was lying in the seat, but didn’t clip it in. There was an empty glass bottle on the floor and a curling iron in the back window. I grabbed them both and shoved them up under my seat, so when the car rolled later, they wouldn’t hit me in the head. That wouldn’t matter either, as it turned out.

Why this supernatural frequency opened up to me, is something I may never understand. Unless chronic fear was a spiritual gift, I had nothing special to speak of. I was just an emotionally constipated church kid, who worshiped eye shadow and flavored lip gloss and thought a lot about feathering her hair. But like the prints on my fingers, or the color of my eyes, it’s become a part of me now. I can’t explain how, but I knew what I knew, to the tips of my rainbow striped toe socks: something awful was coming our way, and we couldn’t have stopped it if we had tried.

We drove to the neighboring town, while I waited for IT.  We swam, while I waited for IT. We ate pizza while I waited for IT. Then we laughed and joked on the way home, while I still, waited for IT.

Our older teenage driver was so good. Heartbreakingly good. She kept both hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road, even with the distraction of three middle school girls who couldn’t sit still in her car. She was no different than the rest of usthere was nothing she could have done to avoid what happened next.

About half way home, the three of us girls fell asleep—almost instantly it seemed. One minute, my friend L was waving her hands and telling a story while bouncing up and down in the front seat, and the next thing I remember is waking up with clammy hands, a racing heart, and a desperate need to escape. The third and final act of the premonition had arrived, and I had never felt so much fear in my life.

I pulled myself up between the two front seats, with an arm over the back of each. I listened for noises. A bump, or a rattle, but the air was calm and quiet. The radio was on low, and I heard that song by Nazareth, Hair of the Dog, begin to play on KGON.

“Heartbreaker. Soul shaker. I’ve been told about you…..”

I stayed perfectly still, like a fly on a window, with the shadow of a swatter hovering over it. Then we headed into a straight stretch, gaining just enough speed to pass the person in front of usand our car began to shake and weave.

“Make it stop!” I remember begging. But I didn’t mean the shaking. I meant the IT, that had been gathering strength all day.

“I can’t….” I heard her say with her arms locked on the wheel as we drifted towards the ditch. Then there were bumps, and a fence, and we were headed straight into a field.

“This is it?” I remember thinking, with a momentary flood of relief, that we were landing out in the grass. Then we lifted off the ground like a plane rolling down the tarmac, and we were flying through the air.

Even when a car rolls multiple times (they put ours at around 6, end over end) the worst of it is over in 30 seconds or less. But time as we know it, isn’t the same, when Death decides to show up. It’s like a hidden doorway opens to a secret roomthat’s neither Here, in this world, or There, on the other sideand seconds and hours feel exactly the same.

The first thing I remember, is the sound of metal grinding on pavement as we flipped back towards the road. Then there was the crack of my skull on every roll, that hurt so bad I could barely even feel it. The firework show behind my tightly closed eyes looked just like Disneyland at nightand I knew if I hit my head one more time, that Death would be taking me away.

Then a sliver of light began to open in the distance, like a mouth full of braces, yawning in the dark. As the light became wider and began swirling with color, I felt a deep, ancient pull that I had known forever, like the tides must know the moon. Some dark fuzzy figures like a Rorschasch Inkblot, began hovering off to my right. Not good. Not bad. Just detached workers, with no authority of their own, waiting for permission to start their workas if spiritual housekeeping, can’t clean your room, until the Do Not Disturb sign is gone from your soul. 

Then a Voice who felt the way lightening looks, filled the entire room.

“It’s ok, Alyssa, this is supposed to be happening,” was all it said, and I wasn’t afraid anymore.

“Can you please get me out?” I immediately asked “I’m going to die if I hit my head one more time.”  The next thing I knew, I broke through something solid, and away from The Room and The Voice. I saw the pavement spiraling towards me as I flew through the air and the car rolled away in the distance. I was still fully conscious when I landed face down, in the muggy wetness of that old country road.

I’ve spent my entire my life, wondering who Lightening Voice was, but up until recently, I’ve never bothered to ask. Religion would give me it’s opinion, then Anti-Religion would give me theirs, but neither of them would know the truth. Then one day, not long ago, I got brave and asked God itself.  “It was The Whisper in your ear, who’s been with you all along,” was the answer I received. In my heart I know it was Holy Spirit, although now I just call it The Whisper.

The first thing I did after landing in the road, was to take inventory of my bits and pieces. Besides one hanging pinkie, my hands and arms were still there, which was a surprisingly positive start. Patches of hair were missing and my body felt sticky and wet, but I could see, and crawl, and I assumed I wasn’t dead, which I was still finding hard to believe. I laid down in the road, with my cheek on the pavement, afraid to move in the eerie quiet. Then I heard the windshield wipers scraping over broken glass, and Hair of The Dog was still on the radio, blaring at full volume now.

“Now you’re messing with a…..Son of a Bitch!”.

I still hate that song, more than I can say.

The details of what came next, aren’t completely mine to tell, but at the very least, I need to say this: my friend L, with her jokes and her stories and her effortless charisma, died when the rest of us didn’t. I’ve rewritten that last sentence over and over, using Oprah-eque phrases like “crossed over the veil”, or “stepped into the light”, to try to spruce it up a bit. It’s a compulsion I guess, to give the ugly truth a new suit and tie, and hope no one sees it for the mangy rat it is.

There were no cell phones back then. No Trauma System to alert. No Life Flight to swoop in.  No Level I Trauma Hospitals with teams of nurses and surgeons waiting for us at the ER door. So my friend N and I sat by the road in the dark, with cloth diapers held tightly to our heads. Then the volunteer ambulance full of friends and relatives, bandaged us, and consoled us, and kept us safe, until we reached the community hospital, almost an hour away.

In the beginning, before help arrived, my friend N and I had gone to search for L. We were worried that the car was going blow up, like it always did in the movies. The man from the car that we tried to pass, had already found her first. “Don’t come down here!” he begged, with his arms open wide and waving back and forth, like he was trying to herd confused ducklings. But there was no amount of pleading that could have kept us awayshe was our friend, and we weren’t going to leave her.

When we finally found her, each of us grabbed a hand, but then we both stopped pulling in unison. With her perfectly feathered hair, and that smile on her face, we thought it best to leave her “sleeping” until help came.

Even later on, as we saw shaking heads and the  blanket that was reverently put over her, we still believed our friend was “sleeping”, and would wake up when she was ready. Then sometime in the night, between stitches and x-rays and being left behind curtains under bright florescent lights, we got the news that our friend was gone. I didn’t learn the truth of what had happened to L, until that following summer when I overheard an EMT telling a friend about what she had seen. She said the beautiful vision, that both N and I saw, had never existed at all.

So how did two separate sets of eyes see the very same image of peace and joy, shining from the inside out? This is what I believe: we were given the gift of seeing our friend as she was from the moment she died, safely on the other side. And it was an act of mercy, from a God who cared, who created a memory that we could both live with. Even after 18 years as a medic, that vision has never changed.

So if your God is so caring, then why isn’t everyone protected like that?

And why did your friend die in the first place?

And why are some babies sick and starving while others are healthy and fat.

And why…….????

How’s this for an answer: I don’t have one.

What I do know is that in 6 rolls of a car on pavement, my world was divided into two realities.

In one, I ate Doritos and Pop Tarts at sleepovers my friends, and I would have sold my soul to watch MTV. I also had a blue satin jacket that wasn’t soaked in blood, and children didn’t die.

It the second one, I was left with visions and voices from a place I didn’t understand. Dreams became night terrors. Fears became phobias. Rage became outbursts. Anxiety became self-destruction, compulsion, and recklessness. And guilt for surviving fed that old time religion, of shame for being alive at all.

No one did counseling back in the 80’s. It was half-heartedly offered, but even if I would have wanted it, I knew the right answer was an indignant “no way”.  Counseling was for weak people. For crazy people. For people who weren’t Extra Saved. Not that I didn’t talk about it. I talked about it incessantly. Exhaustively. To friends. To family. To complete strangers. Even more in my later teens, when I found the comfort of a boozy oblivion.

The best part about being hammered, was being able to talk about ghosts and spirits, and a Lightening Voice in a Secret Room, and how sad I was all of the time without ever having to feel a thing. As an added bonus, everyone else was wasted too, and they wouldn’t remember anything you said. Talking didn’t mean feeling, so for the longest time, a drunken ramble in the middle of the night was as real as this story ever was. And by never being able to feel it out loud, it became an alcohol soaked network of risky compulsions, that tried to destroy me in a different way. I know I wasn’t the only one.

I still grieve for the kids, who walked single file down the steps of our school, past the playground, and the baseball field, to the church. We said goodbye to our innocence and to our childhood friend, and then marched back to class to take a spelling test.

I still grieve for the boys in the pew behind me, with tears streaming down their faces. It was the first time I had seen any of them cry.

I still grieve for the families, so paralyzed with pain, that they never knew what to say. And I hurt just as much for all of the kids, who mistook their silence for blame.

I still grieve for the siblings, who lost their sister. I didn’t know how to tell them I was sorry.

I still grieve for the parents who lost their child. I hope they know how much we all loved her.

I still grieve for the friend, who’s name we stopped saying, to protect all of the hearts that were broken. But pretending she didn’t die, hurt worse in the end, because it felt more like forgetting she lived.

L came to visit me a couple of years ago. Dead people still do that sometimes.  I was sitting in the parking lot of my daughter’s school on a miserable, rainy evening. As I stared at the trees, checking off a laundry list of failures, I felt a familiar tingle down the back of my neck.  The Room was open, and L stepped through as if we did this all of the time, instead of it being the first time in thirty some years.

“I’m sorry……” I said, starting to cry. I didn’t even know what for. For living when she died? For everything we had done without her? Like drinking hot chocolate on sleep overs with the mini marshmallow she loved. Or buying dresses for homecoming and prom. Or graduating from High School, and picking careers and spouses and homes and curtains and baby names….

“Stop”, she said, in an older sister voice, that sounded nothing like the girl I used to know.  “You’re spending so much time on the things that don’t matter, you’re missing out on the ones that do. Like your daughter’s game, that you should be at right now—you’re already 10 minutes late you know.”

I looked at the clock. It was 10 minutes past 6. I gave her a watery thanks and dried my face on my sleeve. My friend Denise says when Souls are on other side, that God gives them jobs to doI like to think that maybe L’s job is me. As I ran towards the school, I heard a sigh of relief rush through the trees, that “‘lil sister“, heard the message loud and clear.

In her newest book, called Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown describes “the wilderness” as the metaphoric wild place, where we all must go to feel what we feel, and know what we know, and tell the truth about who we are. Even if no one validates us. Or believes us. Or agrees with us. Or wants to hear what we’re saying at all.

“Belonging is being accepted for you who you are” she writes. “Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”

We all want to belong. We need it, crave it, feel like we’ll die without it. We want our stories and our experiences to fit into everyone else’s boxes, as proof that we’re normal and ok. But unless we live in our own truth first, we lose the sacred parts that make us unique, in our insatiable desire to fit in.

In an interview in the early 70’s, Maya Angelou once said this: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place. You belong every place. And no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Everyplace. And no place. Being a part of it all, with the courage to stand alone. For the first time in 35 years, I know exactly where this story belongs.

The Itty Bitty, Big Things.

If a page in Open Office could be ripped out of my computer and tossed in the corner, you wouldn’t be able to see my floor right now. That’s how many times I’ve started this post.

And stopped.

And started again.

This is what happens when an agoraphobic story, desperately wants to be heard, but still isn’t convinced that it’s safe to walk out into the world. No matter how times you dress it up pretty and have it almost coaxed to the door, it may just as easily turn back around, and spend the evening on the couch, with a stale bag of Fritos instead.

So here’s the thing. Not only do I love stories. I need stories. Even if they never make it outside of my head, they’re my long walk on a stormy beach. They’re my wander through a sun-dappled forest. They’re my Prozac. My Zantac. My Xanax. They’re my prayers for peace and understanding: my arms lifted in gratitude for everything I don’t deserve, but I still, miraculously have; and they’re the unbreakable thread that binds my heart, to the entire rest of the world.

Tell them, and I will listen. Listen, and I will tell them. Put me in an uncomfortable position, and I’ll make stuff up that I probably shouldn’t say out loud. Like when I’m flying. I spend the entire time, with my face buried in a book, blasting 70’s classics or 80’s hair bands through my ear buds as loud as my neighbors can stand it. Then the book and the music, merge into one, and become a story of my own.  On my way to Chicago last Fall, entire scenes from Outlander fell victim.  Like the one where Claire leaves Jamie in the 17th century at Craig Na Dun. In my vodka spiked version, just as she slips back into 1945, the rocks morph into jumbo versions of those fake stone speakers that they’ve hidden all over Disneyland, like the ones that blast banjo music while you’re having your spine re-arranged on Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster. Then The Scorpions lyrics “Always Somewhere…….Miss you where I’ve been…..I’ll be back, to love you again….” roll into the Scottish countryside as Jamie runs back to fight the battle of Culloden. In red leather pants. And a long auburn perm. With an electric guitar raised in the air. And the battle cry “Je Suit Prest!”. In a voice that sounds exactly like Klaus, as he closed their last set to a sweaty, screaming, half naked crowd in 1989, at Monsters of Rock in Candlestick Park. (Which is an entirely different story on it’s own).

On another flight, a few weeks later, I birthed a Helen Redy /”I Am Woman”/50 Shades of Grey, mutant story-child, that came out looking like a Jim Carrey/Vera-De-Milo/Buffed, Beautiful and Bitch’in version of Anastasia. It talked like me, but with a baritone Vera lisp—and bent Christian’s pinkie back the minute he tried to spank her, and told him if he ever tried it again, she’d rip it off and pin him to the wall, like a bug in a science project, with his fancy leather riding crop. To which he immediately replied “I’m so very sorry. I respect your boundary. Can I buy you a Greek Island in apology?” Then Me/She/We tap our bucky front tooth in thought, and say “No thanks, but a new pair of Manolos would be nice.

“Size 9. Extra Wide. Bunions. You understand.”

Then he looks at us like that’s the hottest thing he’s ever heard, and donates a few million dollars to the Malala Foundation. The End.

In these situation, keeping myself completely distracted until the last bit of turbulence has finally rolled through, is the only goal. Along with making sure that those tiny Matchbox wheels, that have no business supporting the weight of an entire plane, don’t pop off the moment we land, or get ground to smoking nubs before catapulting us end over end.

Yes. Telling stories helps me cope. But these particular ones, and this type of coping have nothing to do with why I’m here.

Which means I’m stalling.

I use stories to do that too.

* * *

It’s been an entire week since I wrote that first part. I’ve caught myself on the verge of Googling “How do I write this damn story?” twice now. Not that it would do me any good. I never find my damn keys that way either. It’s the reason I can go months between posts. It’s not easy to sit in the bug-crawly discomfort of a stage-frighted story, let alone set it free, to run amok, outside the safety of my own person.

As a last resort, I asked Siri.

What am I afraid of ?!?” I half yelled into my phone, because sometimes it feels good to yell at something that can’t yell back.

Interesting question, Alyssa” she said in her superior, un-bothered way, and then sent me to an online game, where the pictures you choose, reveal your unconscious fears.

The first time around I got Fear of Death. Not a big revelation. I’m afraid of those creepy clown, pop up music boxes for the very same reason. Knowing the demented clown is coming out of the box, isn’t nearly as scary as not knowing when the demented clown is coming out of the box. So I took it again, and got  Fear of Failure.

WA-wa. Disappointed face.

I was hoping for something new.  They may as well have told me that I’m afraid of palm sized spiders. Or of accidentally swallowing that placenta-wad, that lurks in the bottom of my Kombucha.

But as I kept scrolling down, it was the obligatory pep talk at the end of the game, that suddenly caught my attention: Many of our greatest fears are unconscious beliefs, attached to untold stories, that may or may not be true. Tell the story. Challenge the meaning. Overcome the fear.

Which weirdly enough, leads me right back here, to the story that wants to be told. About a little girl. And a lost dog. Stuck way back in the recesses of a grown adult’s unconscious mind, creating shadows, and monsters, and limitations, and fears, for no other reason, than she didn’t know it was there.

And of course it’s afraid to come out.

It’s about a little girl.

And a lost dog.

And in the broad scope of childhood trauma, it ranks slightly above falling off the Merry-Go-Round or a badly stubbed toe. Yet here it is, calling daily, with the persistence of a telemarketer who won’t piss off, using every trick it knows to keep you on the phone. “But wait! That’s not all! For just $9.99, your Social Security Number, and the name of your first pet, we’ll include a free set of nose hair clippers!”

Which may be the entire point: Maybe it’s not the bigness, or the smallness of an event that defines the trauma. Maybe it’s defined by the person experiencing it, and their ability to know what they know, and feel what they feel, and to store what they know and feel in a place that they can find it, and name it, and make sense of it. Because when we’re not allowed to know it and feel it, our emotions, and beliefs, get warped and twisted and stuck where we can’t reach them; and before we even realize it, we’ve become a living, breathing legacy, to things that no longer exist.

*ITTY BITTY*

Bitty was my first child. The eat-you-up-adorable Yorkie runt, who was dropped into my world as I held her pregnant mom in my lap. One minute I was watching Donny and Marie, completely conflicted as to whether I was A Lil’ Bit Country, or A Lil’ Bit Rock n’ Roll, and the next minute, I was a new mom, to a blind, grunting ball of black fur and slime. I immediately named her Itty Bitty. Bitty for short. After she opened her eyes and weaned from her mom, she and I were inseparable. She slept with me, rode my horse with me, and shared Shwanz ice cream, straight from the tub, and a jumbo sized Sugar Daddy, as we watched Adam 12 and Emergency 911, under an orange and brown crochet afghan after school. She was Team Johnny too.

Then one day, I came home from school, and Bitty was gone. So were her brother and sister, that we’d named Fat Boy and Fat Girl, because they looked like black and tan sausages, with thick, grub-like tails, that wiggled non-stop. I knew they’d be going to new homes soon, because most of our puppies did, but not my Bitty. I was her Forever Person, and she was my Forever Dog.

No one knew what happened.

Maybe they ran out the door before anyone knew they were gone. 

Maybe they’re lost in the woods.

Maybe an owl or an Eagle carried them off.

Maybe they were picked up off the road.

Don’t get your hopes up looking. You’ll probably never see her again.

To a frantic little girl who had just lost her child, all of those possibilities brought unimaginable grief. Every day after school, I walked up and down our old country road, or combed the woods, calling her name. I slept with a picture of the two of us; her on my chest, me with a candy cane in my mouth, while she pulled it from the other end. I saw her in my dreams, hiding under a wet, mossy, rotted log, shivering in the rain.

And crying.

Always crying.

For me.

Her mom.

After not finding a trace of her, on the road, or in the woods, or from the people I showed her picture to at the drug store, or at the market, I knew I would never see her again. The ache in my chest kept me up at night, and when I did go to sleep, that deep feeling of  infinite loss, even followed me there. I didn’t speak of her again.

A few months back, I was driving my daughter home from soccer, when we saw a dog in the middle of the road with a massive head and paws and an awkward puppy body. He ran sideways, weaving in and out of traffic, tongue hanging out of his mouth, completely oblivious to the danger he was in. I did a U-Turn in the road and followed him down a side street.

We whistled.

We clapped.

We called down the road in those high pitched, Good-Dog voices, that only pet owners know how to use.

He ignored it all, eventually disappearing  into the maze of the neighborhood, and we didn’t see him again.

“If I ever lost Riley, I’d never get over it” said Annika, after we were on our way home again.

Riley is our rescue terrier. Although he’s older than us in dog years, he’s still the baby of the family. My husband is his person, but Annika is a close second. He sleeps on. Or by. But mostly on. Her bed every night. She says she knows what he’s feeling by the twitch of his feet, or the crumple of his ears, and we absolutely believe her.

“Have you ever lost a dog?” She wanted to know.

Thoughts of Bitty, were stashed so far down in my Bank of Things Remembered, they had almost disappeared, so my first response was to say “No”; followed by an ancient ache in my chest—and a painfully reluctant “Yes”.

Then I told her the story of Bitty,  with so much detail, color, and emotion, that I actually surprised myself.

She was quiet for awhile, biting her cheek, and glancing out the window, before finally turning to say, “You know you call me Bitty, right? Don’t you think that’s weird?”

Well, of course I knew I called her Bitty. It’s the name I gave her the moment she was laid on my chest, right after she was born. I just didn’t know it had anything to do with my little lost childhood dog. And yes, I suddenly thought it was weird.

If it was a matter of just being weird, I could have stopped right there. Weird and I go way back, and we get along just fine. But it was more than that. What I hadn’t realized, until that very moment, is that a 40 year old story of fear, loss, and grief, had been showing up for an encore performance, in a fully grown woman’s life.

From the time my kids were born, I’ve had a paralyzing fear of losing them. Like on a playground. Or in the store. Or in their own bedroom. I wish I was kidding about that last one, but at least the other two I know are normal. Most parents worry about losing their kids in public. Especially when they’re little. Then as they grow, and learn, and have the ability to protect themselves, and make safe-ish decisions, we as parents, begin to let those fears go.

Unless you were me.

If you were me, you had two teenagers, and still felt inexplicably panicked when they left for school, or walked to a friend’s house, or were in a public rest room for more than 5 minutes. Then in nothing flat, you could escalate from, “Wonder what’s taking so long…” to a vision of lying awake at night, knowing you’d never see them again, completely consumed with unimaginable grief, without ever stopping to consider, the far more likely possibilities in between.

Like hair gel.

Or lip gloss.

Or Snapchat.

Just that day, as I’d been watching Annika play soccer, I found myself searching for her repeatedly. If I didn’t see her familiar run, or the one brown ponytail, in a sea of brown ponytails, that I somehow knew was hers, my hands felt sweaty, and my guts felt jello-y, and my vision felt tunnel-y, and it only went away when I spotted her again. Those feelings had become so familiar, I’d never stopped to question their sanity. They just were.

Except now, I was doing more than question.

That ache in my chest, with it’s nose in the corner for all of these years, was suddenly free from time-out. It was just as painful as I remembered; and for the first time in my adult life, I saw how powerfully present, that decades old story had been.

The ultra-simplified, not-a-professional-so-do-your-own-research-or-get-your-own-therapist, lay-person version, of how this happens, has been explained to me like this: The Conscious part of my brain, that should have been saying logical things like “Of course she’s still on the field. She’s the height of a grown woman, not a teeny, tiny, purse puppy that can disappear without a trace, the minute your head is turned”, was completely oblivious to the story being told by the much deeper, Unconscious part of my brain. This part has no concept of time and place, or even a language of it’s own to say “Pssst! All is well. That terror you’re feeling right now, happened 40 years ago. Relax and Google crock pot meals like everyone else is doing“. Since it can’t tell the difference between what happened then, and what’s happening now,  familiar stimuli (like searching for your “lost” child), can cause us to think, feel and experience it, in the same jello-y guts, and tunnel-y vision way. As miserable as that is, the Unconscious brain doesn’t give two hoots about how it makes us feel, because it’s primary job is not to make us happy. It’s first job is ensuring our survival, so it stores events, feelings, emotions and beliefs in a way that it registers as “safe”—even if it keeps us attached to a painful story, in a clearly dysfunctional way.

This is how the memory of Bitty became trapped in a maze of sadness, loss and grief; a repressed sorrow, that was being told and re-told through an invasive, irrational fear. And blocking it’s path to awareness, was a single question, that created so much shame and despair, I’ve spent a lifetime shush-ing it down: “How do 3 expensive dogs, disappear in one day, without anyone knowing where they went?” Even as a little girl, I didn’t believe that no one knew. But by never admitting that I questioned the story, even to myself, I buried the painful possibility, that the god-like people who I trusted the most, may have sold my dog with the other two—which  kept the reconciliation of that loss, out of my reach as well.

Our pain hates to be shush-ed. It’s like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. “It won’t be ignored!”; and one way or another, it will have it’s say—in either a fully accessible, agreed upon story—Past with Present, Conscious with Unconscious, no boiling bunnies or jacked up hair. Or as an anxious, obnoxious mom, counting heads like Rain Man by the side of the field, or pacing outside of the men’s bathroom and calling “Are you done yet, sweetie?”, to her mortified teenage son.

Every now and then, when I’m at the doctor’s office, and they see that I’m a retired paramedic, they’ll say some version of “Wow. You did that job? I wouldn’t want to do that job. Have you ever needed therapy for all of the bad stuff you must have seen? Here, go pee in this cup”.

Then I respond with some version of “Nope. I’ve needed therapy for everything else, just not that. Do you want a fill job, or just a splash?”.

They look at me out of the corner of their eye, like I’m in some sort of denial or have a trailer full of bodies in my back yard; which sometimes makes me wonder, as I’m shifting in discomfort on that crunchy tissue landing strip, in my gaping floral gown, if I should come up with something else.

“Well, it’s been a struggle, but I do try my best”.

Then we could nod to each other knowingly, with a face that’s appropriately sad, and it would all make perfect sense. But the truth of it is, I don’t struggle. Not because I’m in denial, but because of the exact opposite, I think. Anything sad or mad or painful or gross from the years I spent as a medic, sit in a small, accessible box, on a fully conscious shelf, which means those thoughts, feelings, emotions and beliefs, don’t need to stomp their feet for attention, or get unruly, and misbehave, to be heard. Not the way Bitty did.

When my kids were little, I had a solid reputation as a Grizzly Mom, who most  didn’t cross more than once. I did what I knew was right, and didn’t apologize for standing my ground. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unless it shows up where it’s not invited.

And it did.

More often than I wanted to admit.

I used to catch people rolling their eyes, or hear them whisper behind their hands—”It must be her job, poor thing……”. Like I had a terminal illness that I wasn’t aware of, and no one wanted to break the news. Being a medic would have been an easy excuse, if I was ever inclined to make one. I do admit, I was way more cautious than most other parents, for pretty obvious reasons. But when rational concern, turned into scary monsters that I couldn’t explain, I knew it wasn’t “my job—I simply had nothing else to call it at the time.

In all of the years I spent doing what many would call a traumatic job, I only carry a handful of calls with me, and even fewer names and faces. Not because they didn’t matter, but because they did; and one way or another, they were laid to rest instead of being left to wander, like homeless ghosts in the door wells of my mind. Do you know what I do carry with me though? The way the ambulance smells in different weather; like oil, metal and pavement when it’s hot, and like a big, un-bathed rodent when it’s wet. And the weight of our block radio, as it hung from my peeling leather belt. And the grid of the city, like a GPS tattoo, etched into my brain. And the cloudy scratched plastic, blurring the buttons on the Lifepack, like a kid’s candy fingerprints. And the clunky laptop, pulling on my shoulder, as I lift it to write a chart. And the smell of 7-11 Nachos after being stuck for twelve hours, under the drivers seat. And the taste of a lukewarm Venti coffee, with chunky swirls of Half and Half, floating on the top. And the way my waffle bottom boots squeak when they’re wet, across the shiny ER floor. And the early years of Fail-Safe, blaring in our ears, when we took a corner over 40 miles per hour. And the bare dangling wires, when my angry lead ripped it off the wall, and threw it out the window. And the laughter of my favorite partners. Or which ones snore. Or who would only eat a one kind of Pad Thai, from one single booth down at Saturday Market. And who would eat anything, from a withered carrot found rolling on the cab floor, to a day old McRib, left in their work bag overnight. And the pure fun of driving code 3, especially when it’s dark. But there are no pop up surprises. No painful stories left unresolved. Nothing forgotten that should be remembered. Nothing remembered that I should forget. Which is my best explanation, for why a big traumatic job, left a much smaller imprint, than my black and tan Yorkie runt.

The events in our lives are funny that way. Whether we know it or not, they’re constantly weaving a fabric. When we can feel what we feel, and know what we know, the threads become part of a strong, resilient whole. But the ones we snip back, (or that are snipped back for us through shame, guilt or fear), are fragile, and weak and eventually leave a hole. The hole that’s left, becomes the untold stories that live on and on, through our destructive thoughts and behaviors, our liming fears and beliefs, our unexplained anger and control issues, our self-sabotage, addictions and relationship failures—and so much more. Like a highly anxious mom, who doesn’t know she believes, that her two beloved children are destined to disappear, like her beloved childhood dog.

I’ve always said that I became a medic because it’s fun. You learn real quick (like after you’re slapped down on your first ambulance ride-along), to never say “because I like to help people”.  But it’s ok to say it’s fun. And for more reasons that I have room to explain, it really was fun. But on a deeper, and yes, unconscious level, I know it gave a voice to some very different stories, that I also couldn’t tell out loud. Like chaos. And abandonment. And betrayal. And unimaginable loss. And being taught to believe that I was a disgusting, worthless, un-savable worm who was hated by God. And a crippling fear of death (For obvious reasons. Like burning in hell forever.Duh.)

If fear, anxiety, worthlessness, and visions of being flung into the pit of hell by a laughing, vengeful, god-monster was the disease, being a medic was the cure. When I entered that realm, I felt indescribable peace and calm, because when other people were depending on me, fear and anxiety lost their power. There were tools. There was a plan. There was a way to control the chaos that usually seemed to work; and when it didn’t, I knew, that the dying aspect of living, was completely out of my hands. I hadn’t caused it, or created it. I was only there to help.  And someday do something so heroic, that god would forget that he hated me. And hopefully pay my penance for being a disgusting, worthless, un-savable worm.

I ended my career, never feeling like I succeeded in that, but the one thing I did understand: in allowing me to tell my story in a way that my soul understood, it’s my patients who really saved me, instead of the other way around.

You know that saying, “When the past comes calling, don’t answer it. It has nothing new to say”? Well I think it’s exactly the opposite. When the past comes calling ANSWER THE DAMN THING. And then invite it over for coffee; and ask it to tell you everything it knows; and then tell it everything you know; and then keep inviting it over until the conversation becomes so incredibly boring, it doesn’t want to talk to you anymore.

Because here’s the thing. Dealing with our past isn’t like removing a tumor, where the bad part is cut away, and the good part gets to stay. The good and the bad are fully intertwined, and in shunning our past to escape the bad, we lose the rest of our lives as well. In knowing what we know (even if that means shaking your fist at no one, and screaming into the air “You sold my eff-ing dog?!?), and feeling what we feel (even if it means ancient tears, streaming down your face, that you haven’t tasted in 40 years); we not only preserve the fabric, but we create new fibers of meaning and belief, that weave in and out, through time and repetition, to eventually mend that hole.

“Letting go” doesn’t mean spinning around an ice castle, singing a Disney song. If we really want to let something go, we have to pick it up, first. That means facing our stories, grabbing them tight, holding them close, listening to what they’re saying, over and over, like a child who’s afraid of the dark, until we fully understand; and then, and only then, can we truly set them down. Feelings from our past, don’t go away, just because they don’t make sense in our present lives. Neither do the holes from the stories we’ve left untold. We may call it choice, or destiny, or being cursed, or “this is how I’ve always been” or “I don’t know why I feel like this but…”, or “how do these same things keep happening?”, when the truth of the matter is, it may just be an Itty Bitty story, that’s so desperate to be heard, it does whatever it thinks it has to do, to simply be invited in.

Finding Peace and Understanding, in the Gross, Spongy Center of Life.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that was kind of about the B word (Bigotry) and kind of about the R word (Racism), and then sort of about some other things that weren’t doing me a bit of good to keep carrying around.

So I threw them out.

Into cyberspace.

why? Why? WHY?

Almost 5 posts down The Road To Blog, and I continue to ask myself that same question, right before I close my eyes and press Publish anyway. And I still don’t know the answer to it, any more than I know why I buy a 3 Musketeers and peel the waxy chocolate coating off of that gross, spongy middle part, and throw it away. It’s just a compulsion that brings me peace. Reason enough, I guess. Continue reading Finding Peace and Understanding, in the Gross, Spongy Center of Life.

Sinners, Honkys and Misfits.

I never have loved to run. But for whatever reason, every Spring, I try to convince myself that I do. That’s how I ended up here. Staring from the top of these old concrete stairs, completely out of breath—not only because I’m overweight and out of shape—but because of the staggering flood of memories that have just come rushing back in. Continue reading Sinners, Honkys and Misfits.

It’s More Than Just the Poopy Revenge.

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw The Help, I fell in love with Minny. She was a Truth Telling Nightmare, who fought back, regardless of the risks; and shined a light so bright, that the Doers of Darkness, had nowhere left to hide. And while tale after tale of bravery and heroism had me cheering the whole way through, nothing compared to Bad Ass Minny, taking a dump in a Narcissist’s pie. Continue reading It’s More Than Just the Poopy Revenge.

Mostly Peace, Love and Light…….And a little F-You.

Every time there’s a big political event, our social media News Feeds fill up with fake news, ugly memes, and depending on who your friends are, flat out personal attacks, from people you thought were somewhat decent. Or at the very least, who had a base level of respect for highly regarded people–like say, a favorite High School Teacher–to not equate them to a “whore” for participating in a march; or call them a “cry baby” when they post their views; or tell them to stop their whining and “go make a sandwich”. Continue reading Mostly Peace, Love and Light…….And a little F-You.

Dear WordPress. You’re the only one who truly understands me.

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Dear WordPress,

So here we are again.

You: still waiting patiently.

Me: cursing and crying and digging a hole in the wall in front of my desk with an anxious big toe, as I Write. Erase. Repeat. And then press my fingers into my eyeballs as far as I can without causing permanent blindness, and think “Who even does this?”

Like really. What kind of person feels the burning need to vomit words into space where anyone.

Or no one.

But mostly anyone.

Can read them?

For the last month. Every time I’ve tried to write this post, that’s the only thing that comes out. Continue reading Dear WordPress. You’re the only one who truly understands me.