Mask/unmask

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I came upon this angelic form outside the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing in Los Angeles. Awash in patina, she stood regally on the deserted streetscape. The flowing locks, the wings, the open arms beckoned me to approach. As I got closer I noticed the angel was wearing a mask.

I thought about why this shocked me just a little.

I am a keeper of secrets. A wearer of masks.

This comes from a lifetime of practice.

Having an alcoholic parent, I learned to clean up/cover up/divert attention/lie/gloss over the facts/rewrite history for public consumption.

It goes on from there. A bad first marriage made it  easy to slip back into the habit of  clean up/cover up/divert attention/lie/gloss over the facts/rewrite history for family consumption.

Having sprouted from a family tree whose limbs are heavy with the weight of secrets/lies/cover ups is another big part of it.

It gets to the point where I cannot buy a pair of shoes without wondering if I should say anything to anyone.

I’m trying to unmask a little more. But it’s not easy. Sometimes I don’t know how to defend my own truth. I put something out there and the consequences seem endless. It’s easier to keep it tucked away.

Sometimes, when in the right company, I can just be me. Later, always later, I cringe. I went too far, I think.

Then there are those times when candor  is nothing more than handing ammunition to the enemy. Years ago I revealed to a partner — one to whom I thought I could go maskless —  that I am an abuse survivor. He couldn’t handle this truth. Ultimately, it destroyed our relationship.

I want this to end. I’m aware that every mask I strap on my psyche further clouds who I really am. Not only to others who have nothing other to go on than what they see and hear and read, but also to myself. How can I live an authentic life and interact with others when I am not presenting to the world who I am?

This is one of the many goals I’ve set for myself. I want to unmask a little more and live with the consequences. If someone can’t deal with my truth, I need to let it go.

IRL

Here's a picture of me all by myself in Santa Monica. I do not have a picture of my meet-up with Chris @ Dharma Bum because I am lame like that.

So, who is this person you’re meeting with tonight?

My husband is asking this, in our hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, as I’m slipping into heels and grabbing my cell phone to go out alone to met this guy, whom I’ve known online for the past three years.

Actually, my husband knew exactly what I was doing. When I decided to tag along on his business trip, I had a goal of meeting at least one, if not more, of my California blogging friends.*

Mostly he was teasing me, that husband of mine. The whole reason we were in California was social media and building online relationships.

He wrote a book about it.

He gets it.

Still, this was something a bit different. It wasn’t a blogger shindig or even a small gathering. It was just two people from opposite sides of the country. This was new territory for me.

Preparing to meet someone who up until now was a two-dimensional image, a string of words, an illusion in some ways, was totally unnerving. But also I’m a bit of a thrill junkie, so doing this seemed all kinds of fun and challenging at the same time.

Have fun on your date, my husband says as the door slips closed behind me.

As I wait for the elevator, I consider the dynamic of online relationships. Are they authentic relationships? What is the difference between an intimacy of words across the miles, and  shared space and experience that maybe does not include deep dialog? Is one more valid, more enriching than the other? Do I know some of my online friends better – perhaps more intimately – than the friends I have in real life? You bet. There is safety in distance. Could I have the same one-on-one fun and ease of self in real life with online friends I’d just met, especially without the benefit of a big blogger event? That is the unknown quantity.

When I started a blog almost four years ago, I was on a quest to change the course of my life. I had no idea where the road would take me. Chris’s blog — Dharma Bum — was one of the first few that caught my attention. (Thank you, Foolery. ) He has inspired me in some wildly unexpected, life-changing ways. He continues to do so.

The nature of personal blogging is to share, vent, educate, inform, illuminate — you name it –something with your readers. If I crack open my carefully sealed shell and reveal some things about myself, in return, my online friends do the same and thus if we find common ground, something builds.

So, you ask, how was my Internet date – the first one involving air travel and a leap of faith?

Pretty damn fantastic.

Thank you, Chris, for not being a serial killer or some false persona. Thanks for asking the questions and listening to the answers. Thanks for the inspiration, the motivation, the ideas, and the great dialog. Thanks for feeding my crazy caffeine habit.

I think I found a kindred spirit.

California was pretty nice, too.

*MamaMary Show and San Diego Momma, damn the distance and clogged freeway systems. I do hope our paths cross someday.

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Awake

Random notes from California:

We slipped away in the death grip of pre-dawn, the 13-degree air biting our faces and seeping through our light clothing. I knew that by the time I reached my destination, these same clothes that did little to fend off the painful cold would become sweat-inducing extra layers.

It’s been a wonderful respite to see a dome of deep blue overhead instead of the endless gray blanket. It’s been refreshing to splash and wade in the Pacific Ocean surf at Santa Monica, to feel — feel! the sun on my skin. In the north, even if the sun is out and overhead, it has about all the warmth of a 25-watt lightbulb.

I have not coughed, hacked, blown my nose excessively or had to use any OTC products in order to breathe. Additionally I have not had to repeatedly slather Aquaphor on my hands, elbows and knees.

Is it possible to believe that the drivers here in Los Angeles and surroundings seem nicer than in Detroit? I’ve heard about the traffic out here, and it does appear to be clogged and grid-locked on the expressways. Yet, people here actually allow us to cross a street without threatening to plow us down. Red lights actually stop traffic. Is this an anomaly? Am I hallucinating?

All the walking, fresh air, sunshine, clear skies, greenery and life moving about freely is an awakening. Being a creature of the north who never, ever goes away in winter, I simply grow accustomed  to the hibernation state of the dark months. We stay indoors most of the time, acclimate to the gray dimness and seeping cold. We accept the near-depressed mental state.

For a few days I imagine a different life.

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Going to California

The last time I went away in January was in 2005 for an overnight camping-in-the-snow experience. Yep. You read that correctly. It was awesome.

So going anywhere in January, much less to California for a long weekend, is out of character for me. But that’s what I’m doing. Girl from the East and I are tagging along with the husband to Los Angeles. We have no real plan. That’s OK. I don’t like vacations or even weekend junkets to be too structured. Daily life is structured to death. I’m just going with an open mind, my camera, and of course my computer. I’m guessing we’ll marvel at all things California, which is pretty much as un-Michigan as you can get.

Here is an endless palette of gray framed in cold and bare branches. Not that I dislike these things. I consider winter to be a nesting season, a time to hunker down and deal with the stuff of life. But a body grows accustomed to certain things: heavy sweaters, pale skin, lack of vitamin D, soup three times a day, and the endless darkness. A body just might freak out if it has to switch to a lighter less-forgiving fabric, sunlight, and those big palm trees that soar above the pavement. Did I mention sunshine?

If you see a pale woman reluctantly baring skin, any skin at all, squinting against the overwhelming glare of that big fireball in the sky, and looking like Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in “Mulholland Drive,” it’ll be me.

Fumbling toward clarity

Last spring I started volunteering in Detroit Public Schools as a literacy tutor. Those few months were a warm-up for the challenges of this school year.

This year I am matched with two first-grade girls. We meet for an hour on Thursdays. We read and practice writing sentences. But it’s more than that.

Right before winter break, Girl No. 1 grabbed me in an awkward hug outside her classroom.

“Are you gonna miss me?” she asked, head down but dark eyes peering up, wide and pleading.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” I said.

“Are you my friend?”

“Yes. I am your friend.”

She asks me these questions every week.

Sometimes she throws a curve ball.

“Do you wear panties with flowers on them?” she asks in mock seriousness. I make a face. She tosses back her head, quaking with giggles that make her hair beads click.

Here we go again with this one. She’s smart, but plagued by dark moods and sharp shifts in temperament. I’m guessing these emotional storms get in the way of learning.

“Back to work, my friend,” I say, grabbing the reader. We begin going over long and short vowel sounds.

Girl No. 2 is a different chapter in the story we are writing. She struggles. The alphabet. Words. Sounds. Putting it all together is a major challenge. Additionally, she is almost impossible to reign in. The sighing radiator, padding feet in the hallway, leaves and wrappers swirling about in the courtyard outside all compete for her attention. At our last meeting, I detected the slightest movement toward progress with her. She didn’t ask me if I’d miss her. She didn’t want a hug or even a pat on the back.

Ah, these kids. Some weeks I feel the warmth of pride as they grasp a concept. Other weeks, panic rises in my throat as I hear things that drag me down dark roads: What kind of lives do these girls live? What messages play on their daily soundtrack? How can a young child have so much anger, sadness and resignation?

I know some of the answers. Although we lived on different streets, came up in different eras, these girls and I  have something in common. I had trouble learning. I didn’t achieve my academic potential.  I spent far more time in detention/the principal’s office/ time out than in the classroom. Teachers, counselors and social workers constantly leaned in to ask: “What is bothering you? What is wrong?”

If we stick to letters and words and simple readers, I’m good.

But when I start hearing and seeing the reasons why we are together in this stifling storage room, crushed together in a small wooden corral, in this crumbling building in a crumbling city, I want to run out the door. In the next beat I think I should be here every day for an hour. How else can I make a difference?

I guess this is similar to how new teachers feel. Touching young lives. Making a difference. How many seasoned educators are bitter, burned out, cynical? I know two such teachers who quit the system. They advised me to be cautious in taking on this quest. I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

But I’m doing it anyway, in spite of bureaucracy, politics, cynicism, doubt, bitterness, fear, and every thing else.

Why do I do this? To help them? To help me? To figure out what to do next with my life?

All of the above.

Pie in the sky

“Have you seen a pie anywhere? I can’t find the pie.

The pie? What pie? I did not bake a pie. I did not buy a pie.  We had one-half of a leftover lemon meringue on the counter. This was some other pie that arrived from some other place for some unknown reason and then was lost. No further information offered and none sought.

Through my haze of cold meds and cough syrup and fever, my husband could have been asking me anything: Have you seen a bag of ball bearings floating over the house? Any polka-dotted elephants curled up under the bed lat night? Thoughts inside my head did not make it out of my mouth with any coordination of words and logic. Likewise, statements floating on the current filtered through my brain as nonsensical fragments.

“Have you found that pie yet?”

Twice in the last week I ventured out of my house. Once to go to the doctor’s office and pharmacy. A second time to Target to get “something or other.” Really, it was a test to see if I could be upright and among the living. After 30 minutes I felt the pinpricks in my chest and watched as the buzzing haze descended upon my head. Time to go home.

On the way home, roaring down the expressway at 70 mph, I round a curve and see in my mirror a brownish-yellowish disc rise up in my wake. The object soars above the traffic before it plummets to the pavement in a spray of dough and goop. A plastic container bounces and rolls along the shoulder

What the ….?

It looked like a pizza! Some asshole put a pizza on my car. What kind of jerk would put a pizza on a car? No, wait. That’s weird. Not a pizza. Hmm, what did I buy at Target? Nothing large or round or goopy.   Hey, wait a minute ….

I grab my cell phone and punch in my husband’s number.  ”Honey?”

“Yes?” my husband replies slowly, taking a cue from the rarely used endearment.

“Were you looking for a pie recently?”

“Yeah, did you find it?”

“I think so.”

“Where was it?”

“It was on the roof of my freakin’ car! And now, it’s all over the expressway. Oh, my god. What if it had landed on someone’s windshield? A pie! I’ve been driving around for days with a pie on my car. Oh, great. I went to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, I pumped gas. No one said to me: ‘Hey lady, you got a pie on your car’. No one. What the hell! How does your pie end up on top of my car?”

We think about this together. How does a sweet potato pie go from a loving grandmother’s hands to a car roof? It has something to do with multi-tasking and impatient 5-year-olds and probably a sick, drug-induced wife who did not go to the family Christmas party. It has to do with short-term memory and distraction.

And there it is. For three days this pie rested uncut, uneaten, and unappreciated. It must have jostled about quite a bit up there, while held in check by the roof-rack rails. Or maybe it was frozen to the metal. All we know is that it was no match for 70 mph.

May your new year be free of projectiles.

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