Monday, February 27, 2012

Internal Exile

I remember reading in the New York Times, during the last days of the Soviet Union, an article about “internal exile,” where individuals retreated within themselves, largely out of a healthy, self-protective need to conserve personal resources, psychological and otherwise, due to the burdens the crumbling, corrupt state placed on them daily. (This, in a state all too familiar with the more conventional, political definition of the term:“a state of comparative isolation imposed upon certain political dissidents within the former Soviet Union, in which the subject was forced to live in a remote and often unfamiliar place and in which freedom of movement and personal contact with family, friends, and associates were severely restricted.”)

Despite having searched, I cannot locate this piece, much as I would like to refresh my memory of this account of a unique psychological state. I am frustrated anew by my failed searches, largely because lately I have felt that I am in just such a state of internal exile, making major transitions in my work life and attempting to integrate them into the rest of my life.

My comfortable job in the familiar academic world ended as the calendar page turned from September to October. My office had been understaffed for my entire time there, and I couldn’t go full-time, needing to get family members where they have to be in the after-school hours.  I was fortunate to have several job offers before my position even ended, and made the best decision I could, based on the partial information I had.

I am now a proposal writer for a small local construction firm that bids on Department of Defense (DoD) contracts all over the world. The learning curve is as steep as any I have encountered, including (but not limited to): decoding the culture of a toy factory (Cootie or Perfection, anyone?) during a high school summer, where my boss, an alcoholic ex-con, had it in for me because I read novels during my lunch break and wouldn’t be staying on; navigating the social climate as an onboard services employee at Amtrak, one of few whites and fewer women riding the rails out of Chicago for two summers in college, sleeping in common crew cars with men from the South Side and working long days in the close quarters of the last old-time dining car with a wood burning stove; surviving an introductory paleography seminar at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, where the librarians dismissed any ideas of modernizing the system, proudly displaying huge leather-bound tomes that served as indices and card catalogue, into which tiny period-penmanship entries on back-folded slips of vellum were glued, and reglued as necessary, to accommodate new entries; deaning undergraduates at two august Ivy League colleges I had not attended, boning up on both academic and social conventions in order to best represent my students in the college.

I am learning more about the worlds of construction and the military than I ever dreamed I would. I find it to be a wholly foreign universe, but I feel lucky to be accepted as I am by (mostly) men with completely different experiences from my own, who are willing to acknowledge my good intentions and intelligence, and work with me. I am learning quickly to wrest and represent partial understanding from confusion, and to have faith and keep writing, researching, learning, even when it feels like exceedingly slow going.

I am grateful to be employed in a difficult economy, and grateful to be learning new things at a time when I could easily avoid learning anything new. I find I have limited energy for interactions outside family and work at present, in my personal “internal exile,” but I trust I will emerge from my learning curve with greater energy, and confidence.  See you on the other side!

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Birth Day

The day I was born was January 22, 1950. I was supposed to have been born sometime in December of 1949 but I was reluctant to leave my cozy accommodations, so delayed my arrival for about four weeks.   

As the story goes, my frustrated and miserable Mom at long last went into labor the morning of the January twenty-second.  Assuming I was indeed planning on being born that day, my parents headed to Doctor Parker’s office.  

Unusual for the time, Doctor Parker was a female doctor and an old curmudgeon.  She often assisted with births and was rumored to be the provider of other pregnancy related issues.

Doctor Parker’s assessment was that I was just testing the waters and I would probably not arrive for a couple of more days.  Reluctantly Mom and Dad started home to continue the wait for my arrival.

My Mother, Juanita, was not a novice when it came to giving birth.  I was her third child and regardless of what Dr. Parker had to say on the matter, Mom knew I was on my way.  About half way back home she insisted Dad turn around and go back to Dr. Parker’s office.

As fate would have it, as they approached a railroad track the bells and lights began to clang and flash.  They watched the gates swing slowly closed as a train of epic proportions began to pass.  I like to think the bells and lights were my cue to start making my way to the exit because that's when Mom went into hard labor.

The train lumbered past and the final dash back to the doctor’s office was just fast enough to get Mom in the stirrups before she give birth to me.  A ten-pound, wrinkled face, bald, screaming baby girl.  I have always wondered how close I came to being born in the car delivered by my Dad.

Mom and I remained at Dr. Parker’s office that afternoon and apparently I was not happy with my new situation. I cried loudly and continually enough for my mother to tell the Doctor “To shut that baby up.” To which Dr. Parker replied, “Let her be, it just means she has good lungs.”

Diana, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine Poem

You have it
I want it
I work hard
You make work look easy
I am searching for answers
You ask all the questions

I’m looking old
You look young
You make me seem small
I give you great power
I feel like a child
You embrace your fading youth

You want more
I have had enough
I have less to lose
You are fearless and daring
I talk and explain my life away
You listen then smile

Then some days everything is reversed

I am on top
You are depressed
I feel invincible
You are defeated
I give and you take
I need and you want
I go and you follow
You love and I am seduced

I’d give a stranger my blood
You give a passer-by a smile
You want to be open but not harmed
I want to be friendly but not the object of unwanted attention
I fear the unbalanced in mind or body
You fear loss of power and strength

Together we can face anything

For all the valentines' tomorrow

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Something To Hold On To

This morning I saw a raccoon in a tree.  I was unaware how high they’d actually go.  It looked awkward and ambling like at any moment that branch would break and here’d come this fluffy thing out of the sky.  I looked up there because the crows were really pissed off.  I imagine the raccoon was stealing something…probably an egg.  Raccoons are weird.

I loved raccoons as a kid, even as a teenager.  Among the stuffed animal collection I carried far too long into my upper teens were a couple of raccoons.  I was a stuffed animal kind of kid…they were soft, you could hug them…they had eyes and faces and…they had stories.

Their stories were my mirror, as I matured so did their plot.   Smitty, the large stuffed raccoon, eventually felt remorse about his stealing ways and decided to set himself free from the life of crime.   
A ceremony ensued…I snipped the thread that held his hand to his face.  He was free, he’d been saved.  In celebration, three stuffed animal friends took a trip to the West Coast…to Oregon and Washington, and Canada…with a chaperone…me.  A seventeen-year-old person is an intriguing phenomenon…on the one hand…traveling onwards,  broadly leaving home…on the other hand…stuffed animals with stories and names? 

That trip was visionary, although it was difficult to comprehend what I was seeing.  I knew mountains, but I’d never seen the ocean, or a rainforest.  I’d never been on a large boat or been to Canada.  I’d been invited on the excursion by my boyfriend.  He, his father, and younger brother always took several big trips in a year…the three of them were seasoned expeditors and I was available.   Me, three stuffed animals and a duffel bag.  I set the animal crew up every night in our tent along side of me like they might stop a bear from tearing through or make the banana slugs more bearable…and they did.  I thought I was going to die on that trip.  Terror requires so many relics; stuffed creatures were my allies.  If it wasn’t the bear, it was the three day boat ride towards Alaska, or the dirt road up the side of a mountain.  Was I normal to worry so much?   I knew myself well though…I knew that I’d go anywhere, and do anything if I was invited--whether my fear liked it or not, but it wouldn’t stop the terror.   I could deal with the terror, I’d learned how to cope - clutch stuffed animals, hold my breath, disassociate, just keep moving.   No wonder I began to carry the medicine bag…even if it was just full of stuffed animals. 

I see kids today with blankets and t-shirts they won’t take off for the life of them…favorite shoes or boots that they will not remove…stuffed animals that have been invested with so much attention their heads are falling off.  I ponder the meaning of this.  In a way, it seems we are all little shamans at some place in our beginning.   Or, we have a lot of terror to cope with.  Or, maybe innately we are born with the function of adoration…always exploring the power naturally invested in us to breathe life into anything.  

Hi there Smitty, Rainbow, Mustard, Puddles, C-Lee, and Owl Lee.

…I’ve never gotten over the habit, this breathing life into things that seem to have none.  Toy cars are “those guys,” a large tree, “that fine gentleman reaching towards the moon.”  And I still have the stuffed animals, even some new ones… smaller relics who travel around in my car or ones who can be found on shelves in my apartment.  I look at these, and imagine those of us who’ve chose to go off on our own, called by the quest of breathing life into form, turning inanimacy into vitality.   I think of the purpose of play too.  I think of all those little miracles when we invested ourselves in worlds, when toys were still archetypal.  How our minds and hearts naturally developed rich love and deep imagery when we were free to create stories - when an elephant could be an elephant without being “Dumbo.” 

How are our children going to be able to have their own narratives when the commercial story line blares into the imagination waves?  I wonder.  

Maybe it’s not such an eccentricity to keep these creatures around

 I watch myself think this …when I hand Bird-E to Elie, she always wants to see him after school.  Bird-E’s seen better days though. He’s a homemade puffball cardinal with tiny black balls for eyes and pipe-cleaner feet.  I made him with a six year old.  She opens the palm of her hand, Bird-E fits perfectly in, her eyes widen,

“Bird-E, how are you feeling, how was your trip to Canada?”

She brings him up to her ear and listens, then hands him back to me,

“What did he say?”

“He wants to talk to you about something.”
 I place the smashed red puffball up to my ear saying,
“uhuh, uhuh, okay I’ll tell her.”

I put the soft guy down on my dash,

“He feels a little under the weather today due to his long flight with friends last night, but he said that he saw you looking at him from the street on our walk yesterday.”

She beams.

“I saw him too!”

She paused, then added,
“Allison, Bird-E wants you to glue his eye so he can see better, or he’ll have to get glasses.”

I can see this story’s about to grow a moral

Allison D. for The Poplar Grove Muse