Squealing in on Two Tires

Writers write. So I am only a writer here by the stretch of the imagination. It’s been too long since I’ve had the chance to talk to you. I have been writing, though, to the joy of some and the consternation of others. Such is the life of a memoirist while the supporting cast is still alive.

It’s that time of year at school when it seems we’ll never make until Spring Break without one of us running naked from the building in the middle of a psychotic break. Please don’t let it be me. My dual-credit students have proven to be exemplary. Some days, they keep me from leaving. The rest of us will get through the standardized drama of HSAP and EOC exams. Always, the students squeal across the finish line and pull it out at the last minute.

I haven’t sent much out for publication, but what I did send out went to the top of the list, and I’m waiting on the rejection letters so I can send them to realistic choices over the break. Wish me luck.

I am still medicated. It’s why my writing is subpar, but I’m working on it. The small death of my former creative self sometimes seems overwhelming, but so far boring has beaten dead. I suppose that’s progress. 

This is the end, my beautiful friend

Graduation night tonight at Creek Bridge High, and a lot of the students are seeing this as an end–of high school, of their circle of friends, of childhood. Parents see it that way sometimes, too. But I’d rather think of graduation like a funeral.

I know the simile is a stretch for most, but bear with me. Though my grandmother would say the devil will hear me, I’ll type it anyway. Everyone who’s important in your life comes to your funeral; they’re all dressed up and on their best behavior. Someone you may or may not know gets up and says good things about you until your loved ones sniffle and cry. You have no control over your wardrobe choice for the evening, and would have chosen a simply FABulous one if you had. People bring you flowers. But the biggest thing is this–no matter how much you think you have things figured out, nobody is really sure what comes next, and you hang on the precipice.

And that’s a knee-knocking, dry-mouth generating thing. You could go anywhere from that point. Graduates, your life may turn out just exactly as you planned, but chances are the real life will get in the way. There will be good times. There will be times when you struggle to pay the light bill. But the real life will lead you to one much richer and rewarding than you could ever imagine now. It happened to me, and I wouldn’t change it.

So, let your toes hang over the edge of the precipice. Balance there and sway and close your eyes just for tonight, for tomorrow you leap from it, and start anew.

I’m Okay; You’re Okay: How Labels Make a Teacher

There are days I feel as though I’m nothing but a pile of social constructs, struggling to rid myself from being the mere sum of my parts, fighting against all the labels that define me from the outside in. While that struggle is something that gives me a desire to grow, there is also no denial on my part that I am the product of my culture, and I am what I am because of my experiences. There is also no denial that it will affect the teacher I’m becoming.

I’m not from an affluent family. While members of my family have been firmly middle class to upper-middle class, I am closer to the lower end of the ladder. Born in a trailer park to a homemaker and a telephone lineman, we struggled financially when I was younger. My grandmother, a professional seamstress, made many of my clothes. We ate lots of grits and pasta, cheap staples of my mother’s Italian background and father’s Southern one. Over time, they improved their financial situation through education (My mother returned to school, earning her graduate degree and going on to teach, and my father excelled in the phone company, training others to use computerized switching systems), and my life got easier. I still think that education can change anything. That I allowed the other girls in dance class to tease me for wearing my sister’s hand-me-down leotard is still an episode I don’t like to replay in my head. Dancing was something I loved, and the teasing made me stop doing it. Even though I can’t afford to pay for dance lessons for my three girls, I spent time cleaning the dance studio and doing book work for the instructor so they could have the option of attending if they wanted to (They all have until they left home.). Sometimes learning means being creative.

Twenty years after I left, I moved back to Marion because of my childhood, and because I share so many things in common with others who live here. I did what Texans call serious livin’ while I was gone. Married twice, had three children, divorced twice, moved more times than I can count. Tried a go at college, stopped 12 credit hours short, and went on to be a floral designer for almost 15 years. Single parent, struggling, I got laid off one Christmas Eve. Finally enrolled in college again, and I haven’t looked back since.

Even that short version makes me sound so different from everyone I know. It doesn’t take into account that what I know about civil rights I learned from my father, a white southerner transplanted to New Jersey, who was involved in the movement through music, a folk guitarist swept along in the struggle. It doesn’t show the months he walked the picket line later, when the union went on strike for months at a time, when the CWA signs were the most permanent furniture we had in our living room. It doesn’t show the gym teacher I had in the fifth grade who showed the boys how to play football, and just threw the girls jump ropes. It doesn’t begin to explain why I love power tools and the feel of sanded wood. It leaves out those things that begin to explain the kind of teacher I’m becoming.

I did really well in the floral business, working for years as a manager of a large high-end shop in Texas, catering to the Junior League crowd. Sometimes I was treated as hired help, and other times I was the belle of the ball. My employees were much more diverse than my clients: a middle-aged meth addict, a twenty-something drug dealer, a single mother with an autistic child who lied about having a GED, and a thirty-something man who had left his wife and children to live with his male partner. And then there were the delivery drivers…As frustrating as they could all be, they were talented people who went about their work in very different ways and achieved spectacular results. I can only hope that my new colleagues will do the same.

The long and short of it is that I’ve had an interesting life so far.

The most interesting thing I’ve been, by far, is crazy.

Bipolar is my largest label, and it confines me like no other. I have always been a person of extremes, and my diagnosis wasn’t surprising. It has, however, been terrifying to live with. I learn differently every day, depending on my mood. One day I can sit for hours reading, another, I can read the same sentence five times and still not process it. On the worst days, I make lots of lists so I don’t forget things, and I put in earplugs that keep me from being distracted from whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. But I’ve learned to adjust and handle my illness much better than the people around me. The stigma of mental illness is often more of a struggle to combat than the illness itself.

So here I am: white female, lower class, liberal in the land of conservative republicans, single mother, unemployed, with a mental illness. It doesn’t make me a bad candidate for a secondary English teacher; it makes me open-minded. I know what it feels like to be on the outside of mainstream society, and I go out of my way to see things from other perspectives. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t know near enough to make generalizations. My life has served to slow me down when it comes to making judgments, make me more reflective about what makes me think the way I do, and listen to others more actively. And listening goes a long way—with students and parents. Everyone has something valid to say. Everyone has a story. You just have to be open enough to hear it, and find some common ground. That’s when the break-throughs happen.

I Walk the Line

Memoirists walk a fine line. We care about the people in our lives (Really, we do.), but what we do is write, and writers write, dearies, what they know. So how do we balance the emotions about those we hold dear with the reality of what we write? Even trickier, how do we balance the emotions for those we could care less about?

Life isn’t pretty, and neither are the characters in it. Fiction writers get off light, I sometimes think, because they don’t have to write what’s real. In my particular brand of creative nonfiction, where many of the players (especially me) are broken or wounded, the decision about what to write is never easy. I’ve chosen to just plow away and get real, and that makes a few people uncomfortable, especially since I’m now publishing. I’m not going to apologize.

Do I write about my illness?–Kinda the point.
Do I write about the weaknesses of others?–Sure. We all have flaws. Get comfortable with that.
Do I write about small gestures of kindness, of love, of hilarity?–Whenever I can.
Is almost everything fair game?–You bet. I’ve earned this life and everything it involves.

There are only a handful of people in my life for whom I care unconditionally. They know that I do, and support my endeavors wholeheartedly. For others, I say this–If you don’t like what I write about you, perhaps you should have behaved differently when I knew you. I owe you nothing, and if I choose to write about you, I will write what I believe to be true. These stories are MINE. And if you don’t like it, take a flying leap off the jetty at low tide.

Brevity Blog Post–On Writing “Everything (Except What’s Important)”

Dinty Moore and the crew over at Brevity have been too kind. Not only did they publish my flash piece, they also invited me to send in a blog post talking about its genesis. Check the post out here, and keep going back. Brevity is just amazing…

The Body

I walk down the aisle and take my place in line, waiting for the magic, the myth, the body of Christ. I get to the front of the line, say “Dellinger–D-E-L-L-I-N-G-E-R, Pamela.” She hands me a bag that rattles, says, “That’s four dollars.” Absolution comes cheap. I swipe my debit card, sign my name, and take the offering home.

The bag sits on my kitchen counter  for an hour before I get the courage up to open it. Inside, a regular pill bottle, brown, white childproof lid emblazoned with the Walmart Pharmacy logo. Push and Turn. I do, and pour redemption into my palm.

The pills are not pills at all. In the last five years, they’ve changed from name-branded to generic, from pills to capsules branded with the letter H and the number 96. They are also now pale pink, I suppose to make me feel like they’re innocuous as candy–a call back to the inner child, to the me I used to be.

But I know they aren’t.

This body does not fill; it takes away. Once consumed, it removes all about me that is unique. There is no free sprit, no ecstasy, no light. There is only normalcy, and they tell me that’s a good thing. No more sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll for me. No more creativity, no more writing–this I’ve learned before.

But there will also be no more stones.

I open a bottle of wine for ceremony, pour the blood. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been five years since my last confession. I swallow, and the dogma enters.

Compartments

Today I helped my sister pack. It’s her turn evidently. So I spent a few hours helping disassemble furniture, bubble-wrap fragile keepsakes, and just cram things in boxes. I’m practiced at it, and packing the things from her life made me think about mine a little differently.

My last big move. Nine hundred and fifty miles.

The truck is full—nothing left in our shell of a house. The beds, the pots, the plates, the hurt all packed away, like the game has been called and I’m taking my toys home because Steve’s too mean to play with anymore. They’ve all helped, smiling, not talking much about it, not opening the wound again as the photos and belongings are boxed or thrown away. Nobody mentions how many times this has happened before, how many times it will happen again, how predictable the ups and downs of manic depression have made my life. Nobody mentions the path of destruction left in my wake, or how I never seem to separate the fairy tale I want my world to be from the chaos it is. Nobody mentions that as soon as I feel sane there will be another relationship. Steve pulls into the drive as I put the last fragile things in the cab, close the door, and tell him I’m leaving.

And I realize today that the remission I’ve been in for so long has also painted me into a corner. While I’ve moved around town a few times since I’ve come back to my hometown, I’ve bought a house in a crap market. The first one I’ve bought on my own. They call it a “death note” for a reason. So, moving away from myself this time is not an option–not 900 miles or across the street.

And the job I’m in now is in its fifth year–the longest I’ve ever been employed in one place. Although it is a job that can be done anywhere, it isn’t one where I can cut off my brain and turn on my hands and do intuitively, like the floral design I used to do. And there are people who count on me. 

So I’m doing the only thing I know how–I’m packing. Just figuratively, instead of literally. I’m busy sorting and taping shut the boxes that hold all the crap I don’t want to see and deal with. Cycling too fast? Box it. Reckless behavior? Box it. Wake of destruction in my path? Box it. There’s a compartment for everything.

 

PUBLISHED in The Silent History Project

I received word this week from the editors of The Silent History that both of the field reports I submitted to the project have been accepted and included in Volume One. Amazingly cool to add this to my “published in” list and to be included in the innovative work that approaches language and literacy on SO many levels–from the narrative arc of the testimonials to the interactive element of field reports only accessed from the location of the event. As of this moment, mine are the only two reports in our state (even, I think, the only two between the metro DC and Atlanta areas). If you are not experiencing this project, begin NOW, people! This is what cutting edge is about…

Eat Me; Drink Me

Valproate Depakote Carbamazepine Tegretol Lamatogrine Lamictal Gabapentin Neurontin Topiramate Topamax Eskalith Lithobid Clozapine Clozaril Olanzapine Zyprexa Risperidone Risperdal Quetiapine Seroquel Ziprasidone Benzodiazepine Clonazepam Klonopin Lorazepam Ativan Zolpidem Ambien

I curse the medicines. I curse them sweating in my bed, crawling from the stainless steel bowl I sleep with to the porcelain bowl of my bathroom. When I start a new one, it’s always a grab bag. I was violently ill and dehydrated with a toxic dose of lithium. I fell asleep if I sat down to fold clothes with Depakote. There was a plethora of side effects in between. My favorite was one manic-depressives call “Benedryl high, “ a combination of antihistamines innocently taken for a cold and lithium, which made me feel like I was on speed, a soaring substitute for the highs I missed so much.

Not only do I curse the meds, I curse every doctor who prescribes them, and I curse myself for not staying on them. Every time I selfishly decide I don’t need them and have to come crawling back, the combinations have to be stronger, more debilitating.

I do not have bipolar disorder. I live with manic depression. The DSM revision of my label to negate all but the most extreme ends of the emotions I navigate has never suited me. Everyday life in this illness is not black and white; it is a pushing at the edges of gray in every direction, not just toward two opposite ends. Manic-depression is, for me, a disease that is not book-ended, but chaotic at its core; the cruelty of it resides in its inconsistency.

Everyone affected by manic-depression knows it kills. Some trials estimate the survival rate at a paltry twenty percent. My odds are better in Vegas, though my bluff at cards isn’t near as good.

What isn’t said is that it is a disease of selfishness. As addicting as the mania is, I would sell my soul to keep it from spiraling out of control. I may want to buy all twelve bottles of ketchup in stock at the Food Lion at 2am, drive to the Keys to pick up a bale of pot when I’ve said I’m going for a soda, and have sex with the guy sitting six seats away from me at the bar just because I like the number six, but those decisions aren’t always good.

So you learn to manage, and I manage well. Meds, only the ones my doctor allows, twice a day, exactly twelve hours apart. Water in hand constantly for the dry-mouth. Typing instead of writing when the tremors are epileptic in scale. The girl who always leaves the party early to get her sleep, because once the line blurs between day and night, it’s all downhill from there. Structure everywhere for the omnipotent free spirit that mania morphs me into just before I can’t speak a coherent sentence and tumble over the edge. I am obsessive about it, and whenever I feel myself starting to slide, I let everything go and shut down until I’m back in control.

In the past month, I’ve lost 15 pounds, slept erratically, driven around in the country between the hours of 2 and 5 am when I can’t sleep, started a relationship, selfishly run screaming from the same relationship when I found it full of ghosts, and twice seriously considered the size and number of stones I would need in my pockets to sink to the bottom of the river.

No matter how many times I’ve tried, there’s no room in this life for a relationship. It’s a liturgy of the damned that always ends badly, and I should know better. I do know better. That doesn’t mean I can stop it.

Fading

Because, as a writer of creative nonfiction, I deal in the business of memory–who remembers, what they remember, how those memories are extrapolated and skewed–I am concerned with artifacts. I’m especially concerned with the tangible ones: lettters to and from lovers, photos of lost relatives, quilts made from scraps of clothing. I have even gone on the occassional fossil hunt. And, as a teacher, I am concerned with literacy–the ability of myself and my students to navigate our way through the lexicon that is the printed letter, to make sense of those images and render them meaning. The districts and states and higher powers-that-be certainly attach signifigance to the ability to manuever through the printed word. One third of the SAT depends upon it; one third of the state exit exam does.

As both a writer and a teacher, I find myself in a strange time. The written word is fading, and from one moment to the next, I’m finding it tough to judge how I will react.

In my personal life, I’m divided. It’s no secret that I spent my afternoons ensconced in the local library, and that in my home I am surrounded by the physical word. They are, in some respects, more real to me than the people who have come and gone from my life–the smell of them, the feel of them an emotional call. When I move, the boxes labeled “books” far outnumber any others, and each one represents something different to me. Above all, they represent my way out of what my small town expected of me, and for that I am grateful beyond words. But as a digital immigrant, it’s the “beyond words” part that’s beginning to bother me. What does it mean that I now spend at least as much time (if not more) reading words that are only representations of binary code, words that are not really words, but in essence numbers? What is that fact doing to literacy?

I’ve been reading A Silent History. While I can’t say enough good things about it, it has led me back to the issue of what it means to read, and where the novel stands in contemporary society. One of the arguments that ALWAYS surfaces with changes in technology is that we are “dumbing down” and losing substance–it was an argument against the novel as a genre when the Romantics kicked around Gothicism, and it’s an argument now, as we work in the digital. That’s a topic for another day. Today is about the letters themselves.

My personal literacy skills and the wiring in my brain have changed. I notice it every day when I surf and dive reading a digital newspaper instead of reading it front to back like I did when I was a filing clerk. I appreciate the serial release pieces I get, and look forward to them every day. I am almost never completely unconnected from words, since I have a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone, but I am connected to them in a different way.

But I still feel panic when someone says my server is going down for maintainence, and still back-up my hard drive every day. I could not function if my words were lost. And losing words entirely is a completely different issue. Silent History is talking about it with its epidemic, but the academic world is discussing it too. Termed “post literacy,” it’s worth a google. It completely changes the game. What if the printed word is as flexible as the spoken one? What if the lexicon of communication shifts to embrace something else entirely? How do we teach to that? Do we? Or do we continue to hold the party line until it’s too late to change course? What will the new communication be? What will it mean to be literate in the face of it?

Scares the crap out of me, just like it did the Romantics (the disappearing and reforming words in Wordsworth’s The Prelude are no accident), and I don’t have any more answers than they did. But I know this. Terrifying as it is, change can be exciting, too. The ramifications of a project like Silent History are ripples in water–a book that changes as the environment changes the reader, and the reader changes the environment? Based in physical experience as much as words? A tangibility is happening of a completely different kind. This could be the good scary, or it could be the nightmare. I’ll keep you posted…

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