I just have to share a dog park experience with you before I put the rocking chair on top of my car and drive to town. Yes, I will have the music blaring from speakers hung outside the windows playing “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I won’t disappoint you.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ –Martin Luther King
Kids learn in grade school that the answer to this question lies in doing rather than telling. MLK’s question simply threads the gemstone of morality from which all decent human behavior springs. The brilliant heart of the gem Do unto others as you would have others do unto you says
- “Don’t lie.”
- “Don’t cheat”
- “Don’t steal”
- “Don’t bully”
- Share your stuff
It’s true–how we treat each other remains the hallmark of a life well lived. However, how may we treat others well, if we treat ourselves with disgust? We may not realize we slam ourselves with put downs:
- “I’m so stupid!”
- “I’m an idiot!”
- “I screwed up.”
- “I just can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry.” (Essential if we have indeed broken the Golden Rule against another–but have we really committed an actual offense or are we in the habit of putting ourselves down?) “Sorry” gets a lot of air time.
Unwarranted self-denigration is not a moral virtue. Maybe as kids, self-denigration was passed on to us. Some of our adults refused us admission into our own lives. We weren’t allowed to enter the theater, much less look at the screen, to sit in the seat and get acquainted with possibility so that we might individuate, to become our own person, to grow up as our Maker intended. We were hardwired from years of hearing damaging phrases from our powerful adult bullies:
- “Quit your whining!” they said when you were thirsty,
- “You are worthless!” when you brought home a “B” from school,
- “You’re too sensitive!” when a nightmare frightened you,
- “You’re selfish!” when a sibling stole something of yours and kept it,
- “You’re stupid!” when you asked questions,
- “You’re arms are too fat!” when you knew they weren’t…. Or were they? You look at them again.
- “Shut up!”
Some of us learned early and well, that to merely exist was to be labelled rebellious, selfish, and inconsiderate of others. Physical, psychological neglect and abuse were OK because we deserved it. We were worthless anyway. We were barred from that critical growing up process. We were isolated from normal others, cut away from the cloth of peer interaction and rewoven into fabric of fear that failed to keep us warm in winter.
Here’s the morally twisted part: those with power over us–abusers, neglectors–were “right” and we were wrong. Always wrong. So…Abuse was always “right.” For us to question, to have an opinion, to be seen as real meant to suffer psychological or physical injury. Let’s face it: all abuse amounts to psychological injury. So we learned to hide from ourselves so that we could hide from injury. Woundedness became the GREAT AVOID. Our attentions were forced away, diverted to mere survival.
- “Will he find me under the bed?”
- “How can I get warm?”
- “I shouldn’t have asked for shoes that don’t hurt.”
- “It was my fault Mom beat me.”
Worse, in the hands of an abuser who uses morality as justification for abuse and neglect (i.e., religious and cult leaders or a partner who says, “This is for your own good” or, “This is what God commands” or “We all have to sacrifice.”), outward neglect morphs into “self-sacrifice” for the good of the “family.” Neglect of self, then, strangely enough wears a mask of “moralness.” In other words, we are no good unless we suffer. So we learn to put ourselves down.
Not only does “sacrificial morality” excuse the abuser, the sufferer often uses it (unwittingly) to avoid making a change.
So we grown up us, our wiring completed by others, have been set into a pattern for life. We have learned to neglect ourselves, to call ourselves names others got away with calling us:
- “I’m stupid.”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “I can’t get anything right.”
- “I’m sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Unwittingly, many look for a life partner who will support the tradition. Knowing predators hunt for someone exactly like us.
Until the grown up child decides they’ve had enough. After all the years of suppressing questions of their own, the abused gets to answer the question by asking the one that really matters, “Is my want of safety really selfish after all?” Or, “Might it not be morally wrong–a crime against me–to allow the abuse pattern to continue?”
Dig deep. To those grownup kids who’ve decided to get out of abuse and rewire their learned behavior patterns, change can be excruciating. And the kaleidoscope of change may surprise us, change the way we look at things. When we start with being kind to us, we may find we have perpetuated abusive talk and attitude onto others by which we are now embarrassed.
We are worth it. Others benefit from our change. Others are worth it. Let’s us treat others the way we would have them treat us. But let’s us treat ourselves kindly as grown up we, at last, may parent our precious child within. It starts with the way we refer to ourselves.
Kindness to self is not arrogance, but decency.
Fun for the whole family! Tune in to KSQM Community Radio to hear LITTLE RED RIDING PANTS’ NARROW ESCAPE, written and narrated by Eva Stanfield. Two airings: 9AM and 5PM. For bonus laughs at the end of the story, the 5 PM airing will include Little Red’s Handy Vocab List! Total running time 40 minutes with two breaks for station identification.
Go, Little Red, go!
Every morning a one-legged junco shows up for his job at Starbucks. He stands alone, one foot away from the closed glass door. Coffee vapors seep through the edges, lace a frosty morning. Roasty goodness smiles, beckons you inside with its brown finger. You step closer. Mr. One-Leg refuses to move. You reach for the door. Forget about it. Not moving. You feel like you can’t get at the coffee, though in truth you could. Does the bird understand you’re on a tight schedule? Mr. One-Leg has moxy.
Only when you give this well-fed junco your crumb pledge does he hop aside and let you pass. Now, he has you trained. Then, something else happens: his confidence and courage earn your attention and respect.
Sometimes you may feel like a one-legged junco. You may have come into this world intact but birth family had its way with you and now you find you’re “missing a leg.”
- You may hunger to be seen.
- You may long for mutuality.
- You may also experience crushing loneliness. This may come as a result of choices you make, which may not be bad choices at all–I’m talking about the hard and best choices a person makes to protect one’s self from others who would harm.
Sometimes good choices can feel incredibly bad when it comes to choosing not to stay around people who make you feel bad. You may feel like you lost a family or mate that wasn’t really family at all. A double whammy. This can be crippling. That’s one possible outcome.
Yet, you, like Mr. One Leg, continue to show up for life because you’re made of good stuff. You may have received some awful programming. You may have been bound for years by unhealthy family ties. You may have lost some feathers, picked up some dents and dings along the way. You may have lent your heart to someone who vandalized it for a while. They may have even burgled your voice. You may have lost sight in one eye. A broken wing may have mended badly, a beautiful dream may have ended sadly and maybe, just maybe you can’t fly like you thought you somehow would. Life took little child you and did its thang. You got a bum rap. And yet you survived.
It’s good to establish the facts. That way you can look into the mirror and view your strengths, your remaining options. We are all damaged. Don’t be afraid. You have new choices to make so you’d best get busy. Think about this: as you look into the mirror, let’s suppose your world of I CAN’T shifts to a world of WHAT IF?
- What if your remaining leg has gotten so strong that it’s given you REAL STRENGTH?
- What if the other birds respect your COMMITMENT to the door?
- What if your woundedness gives you REAL COURAGE–the kind that brings you to a better way of doing life every morning? What about that, my friend?
- What if your tactics for survival in the past may now help you to STRATEGIZE for your future?
- What if you dig deep and ACT on your hard-won knowledge?
- What if there’s more to you than you realized?
I give Mr. One-Leg a lotta credit. Once he figures out a basic strategy he takes it one hop further! He gimps alongside you to the patio table (making sure you follow through on your commitment). Then, he looks up and says, “More, please!”
If we have a family member who suffers from mental illness, then we suffer alongside them. Or beneath them. We are their witness, yes. We understand too well the tumult, the moment by moment, the wrinkled implication of their affliction, especially as it pertains directly to us. We are forced to come to the realization that they may never be our witness. We suffer out of our own want for them to please get better or out of our desire to be seen by them. We suffer out of our basic unmet needs to be clothed and warmed, the very indicators that they care for us. We want them to witness us. But they cannot see beyond the thing that binds them. They cannot see us.
Who will be our witness, then?
Well, heck, we reason, haven’t we been lovingly placed in this physical time/space thing right now? Doesn’t all of nature see? There is so much out there that is real that we haven’t seen yet. We cannot see the true largess of life (or its smallness)–we only see glimpses. With great relief and wonder we stand and gape at the portal.
Then we break down the biggest most beautiful things into the smallest, even into quarks (But are they really the smallest?) You may want to check this out: Tiny Grandeur: Stunning Photos Of the Very Small.
Are we, ourselves, any less awe inspiring? Our bodies, our spirits? Our sheer will to struggle? To overcome? To really live?
If we were somehow able to pause on our path and pull back the curtain all the way–if we glimpsed all of it right now, the big and small stuff behind all we see and experience here, I wonder if our eyes wouldn’t go blind from brilliance and our physical bodies unable to manage the weight of its abundance.
Meantime, we pass through this very real space one step at a time (sometimes two steps forward one step backward!) doing what we were meant to do. All of nature–great and small–is our witness. Our body is our witness. Our spirit is our witness. What happened and will happen to us was and will be real. Our struggle to live in this time/space continuum is real. We know it because we see growth here, in spite of or because of the difficulties of a family member’s mental illness. As we continue to move forward we forge a path by clearing the brush of uncertainty out of the way.
As a result of our work we see dynamic change spring up not only in us but all around us in nature. Nature is reciprocal. Nature reflects back to us our struggle, rewards us with glimpses of what lies just beyond the scrim. Then, we see that we are our own witness. Witness is all around us. It’s inside our very spirit too.
And it is enough.
My legs are tall. My tail is short.
I watch my mistress. Watch watch watch.
It is time to go stalk lions now. I stalk lions in tall grass at the beach. I never find them but I always look for them. I will catch one soon.
I wait. Wait wait wait. She cleans the kitchen after supper.
After dishes mistress calls me, “Mia Flower, Come.”
I always listen. Sometimes I play a game. Sometimes I do not come when she calls me.
I love her. She feeds me.
She walks with me at the beach. I love the beach. I love–
“Mia.” She calls again and I run to her. I love her.
It is walk time.
She scratches my ear. Right. There. Ahh.
She holds something in her hand for me to sniff. A tiny stick.
Sniff sniff sniff.
Too small for fetch. Each end of the stick has a fuzzy ball. I like balls.
Too small for catch.
Time for beach. Time for the huntress.
“QTip, Mia,” she says.
She cleans my ear. Not too deep. Gentle mistress never hurts ears. OOH, ball on stick in ear feels good.
I love her with my eyes.
It is time for walk now. I stare at my leash on a chair.
“See?” Mistress lets me sniff a shiny tube. She holds it tight. Brown goo comes from the tube. I sniff. Mmm. Peanut butter toothpaste.
“Toothbrush,” she says. She holds up a different stick. It is longer than a QTip. A brush at one end. I do not like the toothbrush.
Up and down and all around.
I do not like the brush thing. I love goo.
Mistress finishes brushing my teeth. I love the tube of goo with my eyes all the way to the drawer.
It is time for walk now. I go to the leash on the chair.
I point to the leash with my eyes. See? See? See?
She reaches. She holds a big bottle. I know the big bottle.
I do not love the big bottle with my eyes. It is squirty.
I run away.
To the window. Lions live out there. I must watch.
Mistress calls me. I do not look at her with my eyes.
Not time for walk. Four wrinkle day.
She comes to me. No.
“We must wash your ears,” she says.
I don’t think so. In my head I hunt lions in tall grass right now.
I do not like the bottle.
Mistress holds me close. I squirm. I cannot get away.
She will not hurt me. I hold still for her.
Mistress squeezes a squirt into my ear.
I do not like it. I shake my head.
Mistress rubs my ear with a towel. I love towels. OOH towels feel good. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Yes towels feel good.
She does not hurt me.
My ears are clean.
My teeth are clean. I like the goo.
Mistress holds my face in her hands. She loves me with her eyes.
“Good girl,” she says.
Mistress lets me go now.
I stay. Stay stay stay.
I stare at her. I sit tall.Tall tall tall.
She says, “Go for a walk?”
My tail is too short. It tries to shout.
“YES YES YES!”
My eyes ask, “Now?”
My eyes tell her I hunt lions.
Mistress laughs. “I will take you to hunt lions now.”
I stalk a lion at the beach. I never find one but I always look for him. I will catch him soon.
I will catch one soon.
A tough topic, but let’s run with it. Rather, let’s fly. Let’s hold forgiveness tight against our thumping hearts and fly away from fearful grudges hiding like mice in the field. Let’s let the falcon of un-forgiveness do its own hunting. Let’s us fly like the eagle to a high tree and rest on another branch. That grudging field isn’t the only game in town.
Anger has its place and we should not deny our anger. Anger let’s us know of injustice against us, against others. Anger tells us something must be done to protect ourselves and others. Anger helps us pinpoint unsafe people. Anger is powerful and helps keep us safe. So, let’s hold forgiveness even tighter than our anger so anger may serve its purpose then release its grip. Otherwise, anger will give way to fear.
Fear, the little thing that looks up big-eyed and helpless, little thing that leaves the little creature so exposed, armour-less, and begrudging it lets itself be snatched up by a falcon, the swiftest of the raptors, the one who dives and precisely snags the fearful mouse in the field and tears it apart before it knows it has died. That mouse was too busy being big-eyed and fearful. Non-forgiveness, the bird of prey that lives on fear, digests it and expels its shell on the floor of its nest.
Let’s fish the river of forgiveness, a glittery stream that flows, dances, advances toward somewhere big. Let’s fish from forgiveness and feed on something that fights for life. Unforgiveness is not us. It can go a-hunting in its own little boxy field that doesn’t flow anywhere.
I can smell Dad now: he smells of heating oil and monkey. Having consigned his adult self to fixing refrigerators and oil heaters for a living, it was all Dad could muster, given the abuse he suffered as a child and his subsequent breakdown at the age of seventeen. Repair work — Dirty, grimy work, helpful work that made others’ lives better — was tedious work of which his beautiful mind grew bored. So, every evening in order to decompress he carried a newspaper pouch heaped with leftovers across Second Street to his pet monkey, Squeako. The beast’s Sacred Feeding Time was sacred to them both. Mom refused to go. She had had enough of the monkey business — all the injuries Dad’s various monkeys had inflicted on her and Dad through the years. Often he allowed me to go with him to feed Squeako. This was where the mere memory of Squeako and Dad combined to make that sharp blend of monkey and heating oil. It permeated his skin and clothing. I both hated and loved its pungency; it invades the nose of my mind right now.
He — Dad, not the monkey — could have been an architect. As with any creative, not all of his ideas were home runs. But, judging from his many brilliantly conceived ideas such as the the Luggage Buckle, and the Tricycle Go Cart (fastest in the hood), and the Duct Tape Butterfly Bandage On the Six Inch Chainsaw Wound (self inflicted), the Taj Mahal For Primates turned out to be one of his best. He designed and built an elaborate network of rooms and runs: a heated feeding room, an exercise room, sleeping space and the piece de resistance (in Port Angeles we called it the piece of resistance): the Sun Tower. Ah the Sun Tower, but I digress. Another time, perhaps, you and I will pick fleas together in the Sun Tower. Right now, I want to talk about Dad’s music.
As a professional musician myself, I can say with confidence that Dad’s musical talent was of the highest caliber; he possessed an excellent ear and a fine-tuned, silken voice of phenomenal range. His rhythm was on point, his interpretations were marked with great insight and tenderness. This was a man of great creative potential, potential of pure essence stripped of him at an early age by his own father who quite thoroughly abused him. At the age of seventeen Dad, before he was Dad to me, snapped under the strain of abuse. To say he never recovered his essence would be a gross understatement, though it helps to believe he did the best he could.
So, it’s a thing worth thinking about. Abuse often triggers the onset of mental illness. Here’s a link: http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/15/how-child-abuse-primes-the-brain-for-future-mental-illness/
Abuse, a prolific breeder, begets a many things. It begins with verbal abuse which, in turn, spawns emotional abuse. You can’t document verbal or emotional abuse. Can’t take a picture of it. Hard to get a witness. It’s insidious that way. Makes you think you are the crazy one. Then, abuse breeds more abuse: physical, sexual and where does it stop? So a person copes by shutting down all but the most basic survival system. That’s what happens to so many abuse victims. They, in turn, abuse because abuse and subsequent shut down have stamped their imprints onto their psyches. Such was the case with Dad when he was a boy, and it all started with words. Not only is this worth thinking about but it’s worth changing ourselves for.
Abuse –our rampant societal ill — from parent to playground to President — smells to the mind a whole lot like an uncleaned monkey run. Abuse starts with our words. Escalates from there. Like a slow buildup of discarded banana peels, buckwheat pancakes, oatmeal slime and sodden newspapers, the stench builds as the breakdown of waste continues to pollute that which was once clean and new, until that place becomes unreachable.
Such wasted space robs us all.
Mental illness is a huge problem. And where does much of it begin? Perhaps it begins with the quieter thing to which we have grown accustomed: verbal abuse. We do not have to scream at or beat another person in order to abuse. Perhaps we as a race have grown so accustomed to a verbal abuse so subtle that we do not realize we ourselves are abusing others with our words, with our put downs and our withholding. Abuse spawns more abuse, so why not prevent what we are able to prevent? Why not nip it in the bud and stop our cruel words, our unkind actions? Or let’s stop withholding and actually dare a conversation about the effects of withholding? This is where it begins.
Dad failed to reach a potential that matched his gifts. He didn’t need to be famous or spectacular to be successful. Most of us don’t. He did need to live the way he was designed, in accordance with his gifts. Verbal abuse, physical abuse and subsequent mental illness stole real life from him. Adult he, in turn, abused his family, withheld from us. And, when life got to be too much for him he went to that dark fortress he had erected in his mind, one not unlike the Taj Mahal For Primates. Instead of giftedness, he smelled of heating oil and monkey.
Perhaps I am being unfair. On church days he added Old Spice to the mix.
That’s the thing about having a parent afflicted with mental illness: you feel caged. I can only imagine how my dad felt. Speaking of cages let me tell you about my dad’s monkey’s cage. Talk about the Taj Mahal For Primates, an edifice Dad took great care designing and building. The finished product boasted a warming room, a tunnel leading to a sunlit monkey run about twenty feet long, and a sun tower that jutted far above the tar papered roof of the adjacent building. It really would have been impressive except for the fact that the Taj Mahal For Primates was warmer than my bedroom at home. Dad saw to it. Why my dad afforded the monkey every comfort and failed to build warm fires for me, his flesh and blood, was something I spent a lifetime trying to figure out. Plus, the monkey had fur. Not fair.
About my dad’s monkey (there were six total). Think Rhesus. Think Mean. Fangs. Cage rattler. You would be those things, too, if you were caged most of the time. This monkey’s name was Squeako and I am here to tell you I am not making this up; Squeako was born the exact morning as I. Not kidding. The day my mom came home from the hospital with infant me in her arms she found a surprise awaiting her: a monkey in the oven. Baby monkey. In a shoe box. Sadly, while I was busy nearly dying from my own birth, Squeako lost his monkey mother in his. Thankfully I lived so I could tell you — work with me here — everyone has got to have a purpose — this completely ridiculous yet true story. From what I understand of the situation, my near death experience couldn’t hold a candle to Dad’s concern over his monkey in the oven. An incubator, Dad said, since the mother was dead, and could we please use the baby girl’s diapers for Squeako? I had a name for Pete’s sake.
Squeako lived forty years. Just like my dad’s mental illness, Squeako watched, chased, terrified me, terrifies me still, in dreams. Growing up I simply could not get away from him, especially when Dad got bored and “accidentally” left the door to the Taj Mahal open. He laughed and laughed a scary high pitched giggle when he was pleased with himself, especially after he had done something stupidly dangerous, followed by, “See, kids, it’s funny, isn’t it?” Not funny, Not at all. I was terrified of the monkey. None of my needs registered with Dad. So I stayed cold and afraid and there was no comfort. Until I learned the power of pen on paper, the power of witness. Then I learned to express myself through music. At last, when I finally learned there was no shame in talking about mental illness I shared my truth and got some great tools to help me cope with the strain of a mentally ill father.
I was glad when that monkey died forty years later. My whole life I pitied Squeako, yet feared he would get ahold of me eventually. He seemed a perfect picture of my dad’s sickness, of our family’s torment, something I couldn’t understand, something that chased, caged us all, for a very long time.
Many of us with mentally ill parents shouldn’t have “made it” this far. But we did and I’d be willing to bet it’s because the power of witness was present in our young lives. When I was littlest I was unaware of anything “wrong” with Dad. I walked with him downtown to the Post Office, letters to his Congressman in his hand. (He was convinced the government was controlling the weather and his letters demanded the government come clean.) I figured him a good dad protecting me from a government who wanted to create drought, take us all out by preventing rain from falling. However, as I developed into a teenager and my emotions grew more complex, the slow dawn of embarrassment revealed my truth, something I kept pushing away: Dad was very sick. Every day he slipped further away. I experienced his abandonment of his own self and his abandonment of me; tricky to understand because his physical self was still there. Yet his mind wasn’t. None of us knew what to do. There was little help for someone like him, not then.
When I hitched rides home from church youth group outings I dreaded all the questions people asked about why did my dad keep so many derelict cars in the yard. Why so many cats, and why the blue tarp over the roof? And the worst question of all…why did Dad insist on keeping a monkey? My own questions I could not answer. Then I remember asking my friend’s parents to start dropping me off a few houses away from mine, in order to avoid embarrassment.
We were required to keep Dad’s illness secret too. So, instead of talking to someone about it I had to pretend everything was fine. Not talking turned me into a silent observer. As a result, I found there were many good people in this world. I watched the good ones and tried to imitate their healthy behaviors. I made decisions for my future self. Even as a teen I vowed I would get help if I ever felt like I was catching whatever Dad had, and I was plenty worried I might. I could have caught it but it passed me by. Though I could could not get help, I didn’t have nothing with which to cope. Three important things made the difference.
The most powerful thing in my young life in the face of so much secrecy turned out to be the power of witness. Kids whose parents suffer with mental illness need a witness. Otherwise they feel completely alone, floundering in a sea of neglect and abuse. Even if the witness can only stand with a kid but cannot do anything to help their circumstance, if a kid knows someone sees them, they don’t feel quite so invisible. This is very important. Back then there was no support. Now there is an organization, NAMI, to help with advocacy, education and support. Here’s a link: https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI
Witness can take a few forms, that of a fellow human being the most critical. The second can be the witness of pen on paper. My years as silent observer spilled out onto the page. I found the written word to be powerful and satisfying in a world where there was precious little satisfaction. Writing story or composing poetry provides a safe place for the sufferer to go and speak silently. Strangely enough, the act of putting pen to paper provides a way for the sufferer to be heard, if only for himself. It provides a record and proves the suffering exists. Third is the power of music or art. Those who suffer tend to run deep. The artistic outlet can be priceless and enriching for the sufferer as well as for those lucky enough to witness their work, because it helps transform frustration and grief into something beautiful and tangible, worthy of visual and aural consideration.
I was blessed to have a few good people who cared for me, people I considered gifts, ones I observed and tried to emulate: Grandma Coriander up on Third Street who made chicken and dumplings every Sunday, a Sunday School teacher who took our class for hamburgers every Saturday, a school teacher who encouraged my creativity — writing, music and art — but one very dear friend stood with me through it all, though she could do nothing to actually change my situation. I believe my witnesses, along with the witness of my writing and music, were the reasons I survived.
Out back near the Gravenstein apple tree in the back yard Dad tended a garden where he focused his efforts on growing taters, peas, and strawberries. I loved using a small shovel to dig up little taters with him — like digging for gold nuggets. The nice thing about taters was, they stayed fresh in earthen mounds for a long time. The peas I had to sneak about and pick when Dad wasn’t looking because by the time he said the peas were “ready” they had overdeveloped into hardened green pouches filled with marbles. He got quite protective of his peas. Difficult to understand why a dad would grow peas but not let his kid eat them when they were edible. That was the nature of his mental illness. Logic meant absolutely nothing to him. Therefore, in order to survive my dad’s version of crazy I had to do the only logical thing I knew: I had to throw logic out the window.
But his strawberries remained the biggest mystery to me. “No, no, no,” he would say, as I reached for a strawberry warmed by summer, “don’t you pick strawberries yet.” In the Northwest the slug population was and still is huge because it rains a lot there. Since slugs thrive in wet weather it “slugs” a lot too. I swear all the slugs in town migrated to our backyard when they heard the strawberries were ripening. Once word got out, by means of slug shortwave radio or megaphone or whatever, slugs from all over the neighborhood dragged slimy trails down misty sidewalks, across damp streets and into our very moist backyard for their annual Strawberry and Slug Festival. Dad grinned from ear to ear (you should have seen the crazy look in his eye) he was so proud to host such an event. Again, ditch the logic and for heaven’s sake, don’t ask questions and don’t even try to eat a strawberry. Every single one eaten by a slug. Drove me crazy it was so unreasonable.
That’s the thing about being a kid. You can look at a situation like that and say, “It’ll be weird like this for a long time but — note to self — when I grow up I will never grow strawberries for slugs. My grown-up garden will be for my own kids.”
The inspiration for Little Red Riding Pants came from my father who suffered from mental illness. I realized even when I was a child he went in and out of a catatonic states and was becoming unreachable. I also knew if we walked together the soothing rhythm and sway of walking would open him up and he would begin to talk to me. Many nights he spent time walking with me downtown to the big zigzags that ran like hairpins up the face of the hill overlooking First Street. We raced up and down those zigzags; he, clumping along in his lace up work boots, pretending to lose the race to my two dollar Mary Janes. We didn’t care. We had fun.
I remember being thirsty for his words. He told me love was the most powerful emotion in the whole wide world. I remember wishing he would tell me more.
While I was still little, before his mind slipped away forever, he spent a lot of time reading me bedtime stories. With a wildly creative mind like his he couldn’t help but make many of them up as well. All the neighborhood kids loved him for his pranks, stories and, of course, Squeeko his (real)pet monkey. Kids didn’t know how much he suffered. Nor did it matter to them. There was no stigma. All they knew was he spent time with them. With him they were completely safe.
We lived across the alley from General Electric. Every week they put out tall refrigerator boxes in the alley for the trash men to take away. I assisted the trash men and hauled many of those boxes across the way to my back yard where we built super-deluxe refrigerator box forts. When the neighborhood kids caught word, they brought sleeping bags and flashlights. Then we waited, our faces all lit up, whispering until Dad appeared. Not that we saw him at first. We knew he had arrived when we heard the scratching — soot-blackened fingernails on the sides of the fort and a low “Mwoohahahahaha…” of his voice. Of course we squealed, pretended we were freaked out. He hunched into the shape of a “C” just inside the box opening and told stories and sang us songs.
In the Sixties and Seventies there was precious little help for those who suffered from mental illness, mainly primitively administered shock therapy, something that scared him to death. He told me so when I was just a girl. My audio book, Little Red Riding Pants’ Narrow Escape is a tribute to Real Dad, the Dad who sometimes held me close and spoke of love and stories, before his wonderful mind disappeared, irretrievable from an illness that robbed us all.
Here’s a link to Little Red Riding Pants’ Narrow Escape: https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/evastanfield
Perhaps, I spent my most memorable moment at Swain’s when I turned ten, long before I became an employee. Every year we Stanfields made homemade root beer with Old Fashioned Root Beer Soda Mix (gotten at Swain’s, of course-at least in the sixties). We kids picked discarded beer bottles out of garbage cans, and bought new bottle caps because, of course, Birdie Stanfield the Self Sufficient One owned a bottle capper.
While we mixed the root beer, that fragrance of warm, fruity brown liquid filled the house and reminded me of gentle ice cream pillows in an icy mug piled deep with sweet, latte-colored root beer foam. All I wanted to do was jump into a root beer float and do the backstroke.
Mom said we had to let the root beer ripen for a few weeks which, to a little kid felt like a few years. With great reluctance, we capped the beautiful, drinkable nectar into bottles and set them in a dark pantry on the back porch beneath the watchful eye of a dim light bulb for a very long time.
We had plans for that root beer.
When it finally reached its full bloom of flavor, we each grabbed a bottle, snapped off the bottle caps, and set out for Swain’s. And bragging rights.
Oh, the looks we received. We were too cool, parading through the scenic hills and valleys, the aisles of Swain’s, taking deep swigs of root beer from umber beer bottles, checking out rows of Can’t Bust ‘Em jeans, steel-toed boots, and Welch Leather Loop suspenders. Concerned shoppers stopped to stare, looked away, walked again, stopped and turned back with incredulous eyes pulled to the irresistible magnetism of a double take.
We took the evaluation process we could see taking places in their eyes as our cue to leave, so we bought popcorn from a cashier too busy to notice our bottles, and finally burst out of that store with our now empty beer bottles. My brothers and I inhaled deep breaths of pristine air, laughed our heads off. I felt older, smarter; the fine edges of my newfound cockiness blurred ever so slightly by the ittiest aftereffect of guilt.
Ah, Swain’s, as much a part of a Peninsula childhood as log booms, mountain lakes, fishing, and a River called Elwha the color of cat’s eyes rushing to an icy Salish Sea.
Have you been to Swain’s? You can see Sasquatch paraphernalia on an end cap, a great selection of camping gear, and some seriously tough clothing built for such a place as this glorious and sometimes punishing Peninsula. Oh, and you might want to try the popcorn, which you will find situated at the front, close to the cash registers.
It’s not that the Olympic Peninsula doesn’t have much to offer a visitor. It does, but I am compelled to ask, have you ever visited the real Port Angeles? Have you experienced the intricacies and possibilities of an iconic place of business with its own internal landscape as vast and varied as the space it inhabits: have you been to a place called Swain’s?
Sure, on the Olympic Peninsula, pristine lakes drop exclamation points beneath tips of craggy crevasses and lap at ragged edges of evergreen bowls in colors too exquisite to name; just one of their colors impossible to label, all colors unthinkable. It’s true, rivers the color of cats’ eyes furtively search their banks for silt to shoplift from beneath arthritic roots of black evergreens and umber feet of Madrona trunks clawing and scraping glacial melt that rushes by from snow-capped peaks, strutting joy down, down turbulent avenues to the depths of the Salish Sea. This piece of land, this Peninsula, nearly an island hanging by threads of ragged inlets like the sleeve ripped from the body of an entire continent, promises astonishment, joy, and unsurpassed beauty, yes. But have you gone to Swain’s and checked out the jutting fishing pole trees and acres of outdoor clothing? Have you seen all the mountainous flavors of Idaho SPUD candy bars, Aplets and Cotlets, and Almond Roca there, or observed rivers of nuts and bolts, galvanized thirty gallon trash can-invaluable for monkey capture-rushing down the main aisle to cash registers, flowing into pickups waiting like handsome steeds in a rain-soaked parking lot?
When I was a kid, I grew up in Port Angeles, the largest city on the Olympic Peninsula, set like a gemstone amid the stunning backdrop of the Olympic Mountains . We lived in a Victorian, five bedroom house right across the alley from Swain’s General Store, on Second Street. We frequented Swain’s every time we had a need, especially when we planned to hold one of our famous yard sales beneath the maple tree, not that we kids were much competition for Swain’s. My brother, Jack, perhaps the most successful businessman of us four kids, paid Little Susie a penny for every paying customer she could find in the neighborhood and bring to the sale. We ran to Swain’s for tag board and markers so we could advertise effectively. Swain’s had everything, after all, from tag board to shoes. Don’t forget the popcorn-ten cents then, twenty-five cents now.
With paper route money I bought my first horse bridle and gleaming saddle in the equestrian aisle, across from sporting goods, where I also bought fishing tackle and a license too, right before I went fishing at Peabody Creek. I even got screws for Dad when he sent me to Swain’s on an errand to the hardware department, deodorant for myself when I began the perspiration of adolescence (Chapter Three of my book Second Street), and slippers for Mom at Christmas. Swain’s existed as our sole go-to place outside of the Tradewell Grocery Store and the garden in the back yard.
It was from Swain’s I stole my first and last package of headbands the colors of a rainbow. I always was a sucker for color; I admit, the beauty of those headbands proved irresistible. Across the alley I, thief, sprinted, and I hid them in the branches of the pear tree in our side yard, where Mom wouldn’t find them and I could return to get them later. But my experience with Swain’s was about to teach me crime did not pay.
I was wrong about Mom. As a perfectly balanced counterpoint to Swain’s motto, “Swain’s has everything”, it could safely be surmised that “Mom saw everything.” I swear she had eyes in the back of her head, because she saw me hide the headbands. Big mistake on my part, an underestimation the size of a gaping hole in the black earth of my thieving sole. After the bitter sting of a pear switch across my back side, she marched me across the alley to apologize to the lady behind the counter at Swain’s. Mom made me give the headbands back.
When we grew old enough to work, three of us four kids got jobs at Swain’s. I began at the age of fourteen as a Christmas bagger, graduating into a cashier position when I grew old enough. I worked for a total of seven years at Swain’s during Christmas and summer breaks and learned a lot of important lessons like:
- The customer is always right
- Be polite, no matter how bad you feel.
- Start work on time.
- Hardware is everyone’s friend.
Swain’s was, still is, a great place to work. Thanks goodness they forgave the headband incident of childhood and gave me a job.
To be continued….
A BIRD (circa fifth grade)
A bird outside my window
Sings a song for me
The length of it is not for me to measure
But I know it’s indeed quite long
Enough to give my soul all pleasure.
(First thing I ever wrote, circa fifth grade.)
Green her stem
Green her leaves
Red her garment but then–
I was there on that day in fall
She had lost her leaves, her garment, her all.
But wait! There’s still a hope–part of her garment is still there,
Torn from her heart, her heart so fair.
Then I discovered a very sad thing,
She wouldn’t be back ’till the coming of spring.
With a mentally ill parent love may very well come hard or not at all. When a child comes into a family you can bet your life that little kid is very interested in getting the parent to notice her, because that kid believes her daddy is equally interested in his offspring. My dad’s interest in me started out as genuine, then slipped away as his mental illness took him over until his meager efforts appeared phony. Confused the heck out of me, why, at every turn he had abandoned me. I kept trying to get him to see me.
As I grew older I mistakenly believed that, since my dad was still present bodily, then he must still be there for me. I really didn’t understand how ill he had gotten. His downward slide paralleled my growth incrementally. As my material, emotional, and spiritual needs grew greater his provisions for me quickly dwindled to nothing. For example, living conditions got so bad we had to haul water from town for months on end because the well pump stopped working. He seemed unable to make things better for those who depended on him. I did not have adequate clothing or heat. Mom happened to be a resourceful hunter/gatherer so she made sure we were OK in the food department. In the midst of Dad’s wealth, and in spite of Mom’s efforts, desperation ruled our days.
His body was still there, living at the house, fed by Mom. He talked, yes. He had gumption to feed the monkey. He worked some, too. However, the thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was this: he was not really at “home.” Though I could see, touch and speak to (at) him, his mind, the thing that made him him, had gone away.
A kid loves a parent, right? So, the parent loves the kid, right? If not, maybe the kid thinks she hasn’t tried hard enough. Some adults think this, too. If the kid tries harder he or she can get Daddy to love him or her back, right? Wrong. Not a little kid’s responsibility to present the love model to the parent. The onus is on the parent to model love for the child. Imroperly modeled “love” by a parent is something a lot of kids don’t receive, an awful gift that keeps on giving. A lot of time passed from early childhood to adulthood before I was ready to swallow that pill–my truth–about my mentally ill father who could not love me. No matter how much I looked to Dad to even see me, his window had closed long ago, and would not be opened by him again.
However, I vowed at a fairly young age not to let Dad’s depression rule my life. While I still lived at home I did everything my gifts allowed in order to offset the overwhelming influence his illness tried to exert on my life. Later, when I had the freedom, in my early twenties I sought counseling. Counseling invoked the power of witness. Witness is powerful. Witness sees and understands. Witness validates things that cannot be seen. Witness helps us parent ourselves.
- Witness can be a professional counselor. You can trust yourself to find a good one because you are caring for yourself.
- Or, witness doesn’t have to be in the form of a counselor. Witness can be a five minute phone call to a friend. Sometimes simply hearing someone say, “I have your back” is enough for that day.
- You can experience the power of witness by reading the story of Hagar in the Bible, or inspiring stories like Jeannette Walls’ book, the GLASS CASTLE.
- Witness can be writing a letter to yourself and keeping it in a safe place.
- Witness can be a book or story you write, a song you compose or even someone else’s song you sing.
- Witness can be a poem you write about a little tree that grows in spite of lack of rain, a tree whose roots learn go deep to find an underground pool.
- Witness can be painted, drawn or doodled on paper, then hung on a bathroom mirror to remind you you are caring for your heart.
- Witness a powerful tool and helper, a good one you can trust yourself to find.
When I was old enough, free enough to parent myself I followed my instincts to care for me. I wrote, created music and drew. I walked a lot, got into nature. Still do. Not afraid to say it, I still get counsel from time to time. And what a difference counseling, writing, walking and creating has made in my life.
These are smart things we do for ourselves so we can break the chain of neglect. Neglect has to stop somewhere. Why not with us? Why not explore the power of witness?