A Thanksgiving Memory.

1

I spent Thanksgiving up in NH, with family.  It was a gathering of around 30 people, mainly of the Irish Catholic persuasion.  I am used to this.  While my immediate family is sort of an Irish Catholic anomaly (there are only three of us kids), my dad was one of eight, which means that the first half hour of any family gathering is spent trying to remember the names of all your first cousins, to say nothing of your first cousins once removed.

When you’re an adult, these gatherings are generally spent catching up on who died, who’s got gout, who’s in the hospital, and who’s going to be too drunk to drive home.  When you’re a kid, anything goes, especially if you’ve got at least 20 cousins with whom to go there.

Last night, little Aidan was shooed out of the playroom and told to join his 15 or so cousins at that semi-desolate island known as “the kids’ table.”  “Go on…get in there with your cousins,” his mother told him, “Go make some memories.”

That struck me.  When I was a kid, I don’t think anyone put it to me in quite that way.  It was more: “Jesus H, you’re drivin’ me crazy…go outside, the lot of yuh.  Mother-a-GAWD.”  But, really, weren’t we similarly being encouraged to make memories?  I mean, invariably we were going up to someone’s bedroom and daring one another to eat dog biscuits.  But it’s a MEMORY, RIGHT?

I feel bad sometimes that I didn’t have a couple of kids of my own, to unleash into the vortex of cousins once they were old enough to know the difference between a cookie and a dog biscuit.  Because that’s where roughly 65% of my great Life Lessons were learned.  It doesn’t take a village to raise a child, it takes that village’s cousins.  Your first dirty joke?  You learned it from a cousin.  Your first urban-legend-as-gospel truth, the story that’s going to keep you up nights for months?  Your cousin told it to you.  And don’t get me started on the infinite variations on common expletives.

I hope Aidan did make some memories last night.

Friendship Pins

1

I spent most of yesterday at a family barbeque. Eight of my twelve nieces were there. They range in age from four to twenty. They all seem to like me. I’m not really sure why.

I was thinking about how a lot of my longest, most enduring, most quality friendships are with guys. I mention Michael and Jon a lot in these blogs, because they’re the ones that have put up with me the longest (going on 27 years now). Even as a kid, I didn’t surround myself with gaggles of girlfriends. I always preferred hanging out with boys. They were, in general, more accepting of my quirks and ideas of what was funny. (Of course, that eventually worked against me when I began to be “interested” in them, and I learned that the girl who will listen to Rush albums and talk movie monsters is not the girl to make out with at the back of the bus on field trips.)

Obviously, a lot of my inability to be completely open with other women (in person, anyway) stems from having been bullied — exclusively by girls — in my adolescent years. I’ll say it again: you carry this shit with you long after the events have transpired. It has been almost 30 years since the bullying stopped, but I still have very serious trust issues where other women are concerned. Forgive me, ladies, if I keep a whole lot of you at arm’s length until I know you won’t turn on me.

A couple of months ago, I wrote this:

Remember friendship pins? They were beaded safety pins that you’d give to each other and wear on the laces of your sneakers. Being fairly unpopular at 11 and 12 years old, I ended up making some for myself, not aware that I had a predilection for certain patterns and colors. I fooled no one. ‘NOBODY gave you those pins,’ one popular girl sneered at me, ‘Nobody likes you, and those pins are UGLY.’ From that point on, I kept my head down and prayed for the day I wouldn’t have to manufacture friends.

Yesterday I sat in a backyard somewhere in Andover, Massachusetts, surrounded by girls — my nieces — making these very same friendship pins. They completely accepted that I was there, and didn’t shut me out of their conversations. They told me about their favorite ice cream, which songs their neighborhood ice cream trucks played, why the ocean is sometimes better than the pool, and what they were doing at camp this summer. I reached into one of their bowls of beads and made myself a pin, and none of them stopped me. “Pretty!” “Ohhhh, those are the colors in the Irish flag!” “Cool!”

I wanted to tell them how much it meant for me to just sit there, doing these things that I was told I couldn’t do all those years ago.

Fortifications

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I recently joined Pinterest, even though I really don’t need another social network I have to remember I have (hellllewwww – Google+?). So far, it just seems like a place where I “pin” things I:

  • think are cool, but will probably never get around to doing;
  • think I want, but will probably never get around to buying;
  • think look yummy, but will probably never get around to making.

It’s like creating an alternate version of myself that’s made entirely out of “pins.”  Here’s what I’d wear if I could afford it!  Here’s where I’d write/make music/make art if I had at least one more room in my house!  Maybe that’s not how other people are using it, but this is how it strikes me right now.  An online, visual manifestation of all the things I don’t have or haven’t done.

Pinning or pining.  There doesn’t seem to be much difference.  Just another reminder that I’m fueled by want, but driving around on at least 2 bald tires.

But it’s interesting to go in now and then and see if other people are “pinning” the things I’m “pinning.”  A few days ago I was struck by the sudden need to look at pictures of blanket forts, and sure enough, there are people on Pinterest who also like to look at pictures of blanket forts.

When I was a kid, we had a fairly big playroom in our attic.  This was perfectly suited for sleepovers with our eighty billion cousins.  It was also just the right size for my sister and I to build entire cities of blanket forts.  There were times when we hardly ever slept in our bedroom, in favor of spending the night in our blanket forts.  See ya, Ma…I’m going upstairs to read in my blanket fort.

Blanket forts were incredibly comforting.  At nine years old, I didn’t have the knowledge that this may or may not have represented a yearning to return to the womb, but I definitely understood that being in a small, soft space with my Madeleine L’Engle books was vastly preferable to going out and having to pretend to be normal around other people, which was exhausting.

I wonder, now, why I stopped engineering these ways to comfort myself, and went straight for the sources of self-harm that presented themselves as means of comfort. Probably because these seemed to be more sophisticated, and – well – normal. Alcohol.  Drugs.  “Relationships.”  There’s a reason, I think, that so many of us refer to drinking as “fortifying” ourselves before having to go out there and put on our happy faces.  I could have saved myself a lot of grief if I’d just made blanket forts instead of getting shitfaced.

Over the past 10 years that I’ve been in recovery, I’ve been re-learning those means of creative comfort.  I rediscovered writing poetry, stringing words like blankets around the thing I’m struggling with.

Muscle memory

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Memory (or – more to the point – memories ) is a subject that’s obviously been bandied about our house quite a bit lately.

What Coombsie and I are learning about Alzheimer’s is that the things we’ve done for as long as we can remember, the things that just come naturally to us because of years of repetition, are the last things to leave the building, so to speak. My mother-in-law zips through her gardening tasks like a ruthless whippet: weeding, pulling, snipping. Watching her, you wouldn’t think that just a couple of hours before, she couldn’t explain that there was something wrong with her television set.

I’ve read about people with Alzheimer’s who don’t remember their own children, but can sit in front of a piano and play sonatas flawlessly. It’s muscle memory. My mother-in-law has always been an excellent gardener, and so this is one thing she doesn’t have to be reminded of how to do.

There are many, many things we’re going to learn as we continue to take this journey with her. And we’re going to have to learn to accept these things. Currently, it bothers her when she can’t remember something, or someone. Eventually, that’s not going to bother her. I feel, sometimes, that we’re expediting that process, whenever we try to ease her anxiety over not remembering. It’s difficult to not try and gloss over it, for the sake of keeping the peace. Taking the easy route by telling her, “Don’t worry about it; we’ll take care of it.” I have to remember to acknowledge the frustration. I have to remember to say, “I know this upsets you, but it’s not your fault.”

I cannot fathom losing my memories. I think about this frequently nowadays. So much of what I do from a creative/artistic standpoint is almost entirely reliant upon being able to call up specific memories. When I do any work with Mortified, whether it’s something of my own or something I am helping another reader with, memories are crucial in developing the direction in which the piece will go. I assign value to my closest relationships via the currency of memories. I go out of my way to keep my oldest friends a part of my life, because the memories I have of them are that important to me.

Today I heard a song (link below) I hadn’t heard in years, and it was as if the long-dormant heartbreak associated with that song roared up from a dusty corner in my head. It made the old healed scar on my heart flare up like an emotional charley horse. I audibly gasped at my desk. It was terrible, remembering that heartbreak, but could I ever afford to completely lose it? Because once I regained my footing, it made me think, Jesus God am I glad I’m not in my twenties anymore. It gave me a moment or two of tender reflection on the unholy mess I was at 23. And then I went back to my spreadsheets.

The heart, after all, is a muscle. And it remembers.

I know, it’s all terribly “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I wouldn’t want any of this wiped from my brain, and yet I may or may not have a say in the matter as I get older. Things are being erased from my mother-in-law’s mind, and she has no choice. But for now, she has the memory of weeding, of pulling out what she doesn’t want, in order to protect the things she does. Muscle memory.

Kiss Me, I’m Irish (and sober).

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It’s my tenth Saint Patrick’s Day without getting rotted in the name of celebrating my “heritage.” And yet this is the first time I’ve really sat down and attempted to write about what that means.

It’s funny. My last name is McColgan. My mother’s maiden name is Flaherty. HER mother’s maiden name was Coyle. McColgans, Flahertys, Coyles, and Dorseys are all over my family tree. It can’t be mere coincidence that I grew up to be a writer, AND an alcoholic, right?

Nobody loved to get stinking blotto on Saint Patrick’s Day more than I did. It was a lot of fun, until it stopped being fun. And I never wanted to be one of those people in recovery who sneered at everyone drinking their green beer (although even when I WAS still drinking, I never would resort to that fuckery). I do, now, question the sense in honoring what it means to be “Irish” by promoting the stereotype of the falling-down drunk.

powder

(Google “simian caricatures of the Irish” sometime, and then I would respectfully ask you to think about that before you hit the bottle.)

Last year, around this time, I wrote a poem:


Roud 1173

a toast of jameson at the grave
plastic cups a quarter full of
brilliantine amber all around me
as we sing the wild rover and
for the briefest of seconds I forget
that I’m supposed to refuse the cup
proffered

we usher our dead through
with tears and poitín
and my hand grasps at air
as I stare at blanched ground
thinking I’ve betrayed my own

an old man next to me
elbows my arm
and whispers

sometimes it’s better NOT to drink

and he hoists his empty hand
to the sky – sláinte – and beams

I can celebrate what it means to me to be an American of Irish descent without a pint (or three) of Guinness. I am not “missing out” on anything today. I was brought up with many other values, and absorbed and observed many fine characteristics and talents from my Irish, and Irish-American, relatives. I love a good story. I can tell a good story. In the bleakest moments, I can find humor. I am fiercely loyal to those who have shown me kindness.

Beannachtaí na Feile Pádraig! Be careful out there.

Hello, it’s me.

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Oh.  Oh, God.

I just finished reading Why We Broke Up.  I bought it yesterday.  Yesterday, I bought this, and I finished it about a half hour ago.  I finished it at my kitchen table, sobbing, as Min, the teenage narrator, went through a devastating litany of everything’s she’s NOT.

I’m not a goth or a cheerleader, I’m not treasurer or co-captain…I’m not anything…I have bad hair and stupid eyes.  I have a body that’s nothing.  I’m too fat and I’m idiotic ugly.  My clothes are a joke, my jokes are desperate and complicated and nobody else laughs…I just babble and sputter like a drinking fountain broken…I talk shit about everybody and then sulk when they don’t call me, my friends fall away like I’ve dropped them out of an airplane…I can’t run four blocks or fold a sweater…I lost my virginity and couldn’t even do that right, agreeing to it and getting sad and annoying afterward, clinging to a boy everyone knows is a jerk bastard asshole prick…I’m not a romantic, I’m a half-wit.  Only stupid people would think I’m smart.  I’m not something anyone should know.

I wept, sitting there at my kitchen table with the dishwasher thrumming behind me and my husband in his office mucking around on his bass and my two cats doing that passive-aggressive thing they do where one bathes the other until the one being bathed gets annoyed and skulks off the chair that the bather wanted to sit in, alone.  I am a 41-year-old with a trash compactor and bills and mighty plans involving painting the dining room this spring and this YA novel (that’s “Young Adult,” btdubs) reduced me to a blubbering mess.

I don’t think many of us are ever really that far removed from 16, even as the years, and ensuing responsibilities, pile up and we’re all of a sudden at kitchen tables that we ourselves shopped around for, picked out, purchased, and had delivered to our houses.  I know I’m not, certainly, or I wouldn’t spend so much time getting up onstage and reading my high school diaries in front of total strangers, or assisting fellow masochists in doing the same.  There is always going to be that part of me that goes to parties and sits by herself in the one empty room there is, reading another person’s books and waiting for her soulmate to find her.  Hello, it’s me.

She loves a boy that doesn’t know she loves him.  Or he does, and just doesn’t know what to do with that information.  And it’s at turns icky and frustrating and exhilarating and heartbreaking and on any given day she’s tiny and insignificant, or held aloft on a smile in the hallway.  Christ, who doesn’t remember all of that?  Why would you want to forget it, ever?  I don’t understand my friends who say to me, “God, I could never do what you do.  No, I really COULDN’T, because I threw all that stuff away.”

Me, I can’t lose sight of that tenderhearted thing inside of me, because I want to make things happen for her.  I’ve kept her diaries and her dreams and I’ve even kept most of her friends as close as I can without it being creepy and weird.

And it’s not as if I’m stuck there, really, because – as I’ve said – I own preposterous things like a trash compactor, and just today I had to be a responsible adult and call the administrators of my Flexible Spending Account to explain my late-December eyewear binge.  I don’t spend all my time with her; I just pop in now and then, like a slightly eccentric aunt, checking in on her the way you check in on your past, make sure it’s all still there.  Because without it, you don’t sit at your kitchen table weeping because you remember what it’s like.

Another excerpt from Drama Queen.

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I am trying to explain what it’s like to him, the nonstop maelstrom of words and phrases that swirl in my head. I’ve recently learned what cocaine is, from sneaking peeks at my brother’s National Lampoon magazines. I’ve learned that it makes you hyper, and that adults refer to it as “coke.” Not long after this discovery, the phrase “coke monkeys in bumper cars” spilled out of my head and into my notebook. I was pleased by this; it made sense to me. My head was full of coke monkeys in bumper cars, careening and screeching and bouncing off of one another until I got enough words together to quiet them down.

I don’t tell him this. Instead I ask, “You know the Numbers Game they have on tv? The lottery?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“So there’s this big bubble full of numbered balls spinning around, and then one ball at a time falls into those little slots and that’s how they pick the winner? That’s kind of what it’s like. The words come down in the right order and that’s when I know I can write them down.”

He says nothing, but raises his eyebrows and jots something down on his pad.

I think I’ve said the wrong thing again. But it’s a good thing I didn’t mention the coke monkeys.

———————-

My parents had decided that I needed to speak to somebody. A psychiatrist.

I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified. The fact that I had to go see somebody validated my tumultuous state of affairs, but it also confirmed that I was batshit crazy. I bounced between wanting to tell everyone that I had to go see a shrink, and praying to God that nobody would find out. Because, really, all I needed was to have my classmates discover this additional flaw in my character.

To ensure that I would not be seen entering or exiting A PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE in the immediate area, my mother found someone suitably far away, in downtown Plymouth.

I went every Saturday afternoon. I enjoyed the rides over, listening to Top 40 on the car radio. I also liked wandering around downtown Plymouth while my mother spoke to him after our session was through. There was a diner across the street, and I would sit at the counter and order a milkshake, which arrived half in a glass, and half in the stainless steel mixing cup. The time I would spend in the diner afforded me some ambiguity; I was just a normal kid sitting at a counter and drinking her milkshake. Nobody in the diner knew that I was unpopular, “troubled,” and seeing a psychiatrist.

Other times, I’d visit Pilgrim Hall. I’d immerse myself in colonial history, learning about samplers and hornbooks and whispering sticks, round pieces of wood that would get stuffed in the mouth of kids who were caught whispering.

I found myself longing to have lived in colonial times.

———————–

We sit quietly for a minute, me and the psychiatrist.  Finally he says, “Perhaps instead of writing everything down, it would help to actually TALK when you’re that upset.”

I consider this.  I just don’t know that I have anyone to talk to, anymore.