mary’zine random redux: #28 April 2003

THE U.P. GAZETTE & WAR TIMES

Like a snowball rolling downhill, the mary’zine is picking up more and more stories from Back There, the U.P., Wish-Mich, the Land of the Giant Underground Fungus, We-Aren’t-In-Kansas-Anymore-Toto-We-Are-A-Little-Bit-Farther-East-Than-That.

So let us now dip into…

ye olde mailbaggie

First, a correction from my sister Barb, my official source of U.P. news and lore:

I enjoyed [the March 2003 ‘zine] thoroughly, especially the little footnotes. Correction though. The family who lost 4/5/6 brothers were the Theuerkauf’s…. I had the daughter in my classroom, so there’s your relationship. The brothers were overcome by methane gas that had built up in a manure pit [due to weather conditions]. The first went in, got disoriented and couldn’t climb out. The second went in to help the first get out and also got disoriented. The third went down with a rope and tried to get the other two hooked up to get them out, but dropped before he could do anything. And so on and so on. I don’t remember why the first one went down there in the first place….

I continue to be blown away by my family’s embrace of the ‘zine—which is to say, of me. How embarrassing to paint oneself as the Black Sheep, only to be welcomed back into the clan with élan. I’m not whack, I’m part of the pack! Here’s Barb again:

Brian called right after I finished reading the ‘zine and asked what I was doing. I told him and he got all excited, “I didn’t know Aunt Mary wrote stories. I want to read them.” He is going to start with #1. I read him most of this issue. I stopped at the part about War mostly because the kids in the background were demanding his attention. He laughed a lot and enjoyed it thoroughly. I also read [the snow-blowing story] to Bruce and Sheila, and then to Lorraine. So the ‘zine has a lot of miles on it so far. I will be dropping it off to K tomorrow night as I know she is anxious to read it.

Well, it sounds like Brian liked it, but I’m picturing the rest of them sitting through the reading the way our uncles used to sit through my mother’s slide shows of our trips out West—with glazed eyes and the occasional jerk of the head. It’s true that I can’t control how my readers respond, or with whom they share the ‘zine, or how the people with whom they share the ‘zine respond therewith, henceforth, or nevermore. It’s just a little scary to have no control over that.

The next night, Barb reported on the ‘zine’s reception by our other sis and her man.

I went to K and MP’s tonight and MP read it first as K and I were talking. We could hear him laughing in the computer room. K then read it…. She laughed a lot too.

You know, it’s great to hear that my niephlings and nephew-in-law and his girlfriend have joined the expanding tribe of ‘ziners, but there’s something about my elusive, undemonstrative bro-in-law cracking up at my silly jokes that just makes my day.

***
Moving now to the Lower P of the Two-P(eninsula) State Area, as promised in the last issue, I got all the juicy details about my friend KM’s U.P. party. From her dog. Yes, you heard me. I never know who (or what) in that household is going to write to me next. A while back it was Skelly, the plastic skeleton, who came to live on my bulletin board. Now Benny the (newly adopted) Corgi has written to me from snowbound lower Mich. while KM and husband D were selfishly vacationing without him in South Carolina. (He writes that “in a recent call home, K says she can see why the South lost.”) He thoughtfully enclosed a picture of himself under a Christmas tree. Oddly, he referred to KM as his “boss”; I gather he provides security for the household, or at least for her feet under the computer.

In his letter, and in a subsequent e-mail, he conveyed a number of messages from KM, which I will combine for the sake of efficiency (publisher’s prerogative):

First, she said to tell you that your descriptions of born-again-UPdom were wonderful and moving. The first arrived shortly before she and D gave their “14th Annual Black-Tie Pajama Overnight Party” for their four closest friends, one of whom was born and raised in Ironwood. Of course, K’s parents are also from the U.P. Anyway, each year this party has a theme, and this year it was [yes] the UP.

First, D made a replica of the Mackinac [pronounced Mackinaw] Bridge as the table centerpiece—with real working lights. They decorated the house like an actual highway leading to the UP, which was in the dining room behind closed doors. A roll of black paper with a yellow line down the center stretched from the front porch into the house, and they made highway signs and hung them all along it, like “West Michigan Cocktail Exit” and “River Rouge Rest Stop Exit.” On the highway were little logging trucks and a little 4 x 4 with a dead deer—well, a wind-up dead deer—in the back. The four guests had to bring their dolls “dressed UP.” I’d better explain about the dolls. Several years ago K made each of their four guests a doll with a photograph of the guest’s own face ironed on and dressed the dolls in elegant clothes and they were seated at the table when the guests arrived. It was a grand surprise—and very eerie. Now the guests must bring the dolls to each “Black Tie Overnight Party.” This year, one doll was dressed as a fisherhunterperson, one in mosquito netting… and… I forget the other two. But this year the guests also brought two additional dolls with K and D’s faces ironed on them—K was a dance hall girl from Calumet and D was a Finnish radio announcer named Toivo…. K and D were very thrilled to have their own dolls at last.

After their dinner (featuring the Michigan state bird—the Robin—or rather, Cornish hens disguised as Robins) under the Mackinac Bridge, the dolls performed at Da Superior Theatre (a large cardboard box decorated with pine branches). They were given the outline for a play titled “Speed Limit 50” and they had to improvise with their dolls as if they were driving along U.S. 2 in the UP and explain why a Speed Limit 50 sign had a bullet hole in it. Actually, D had found this road sign many years ago and saved it, and it served as the main prop for the evening. I understand that there was so much hilarity that the plot kind of got lost, but in the end, one of the guests/dolls revealed that the bullet hole came about because a young UP girl had wanted to get her ears pierced and her boyfriend did it for her with a pistol on the side of the highway. Well, I guess you had to be there….

In the morning, when they exchanged tuxedos for bathrobes (I’m assured that this is not kinky, just old-fashioned fun), they had PASTIES [rhymes with NASTIES] for breakfast. That’s right—K had some shipped down from Calumet. Oh, she told me to tell you to correct footnote 7 in your publication of 12/02—pasties are always made with beef, at least in her family!

[Ed. note: There’s more, but let him get his own ‘zine if he wants to go on and on….]

Woof, woof, woof, woof,

Mr. Ben Corgi

After I received the first letter, I replied to Doggie Ben as follows:

Dear Ben,

Thank you very much for sending me a letter and a picture, instead of… how can I say this… yourself. That’s how I met up with your cousin (?) Skelly. Just POP—lands in my mailbox one day. I’m afraid you would not be very happy here. This household already has one mangy, hair-shedding animal. And then there’s Pookie….

Skelly—whom I believe you’ve never met, but maybe we will all have a big happy reunion one day—is doing fine. He’s kind of a lookout, like the guy at the top of a ship’s mast watching for Land. He gazes out the window—oh wait, I just checked and he’s looking the wrong way, damn! Never get a plastic skeleton to do a dog’s job, eh Bennysan?

Besides providing security, you appear to be a competent social secretary. I am a little surprised that your mistress would leave her correspondence in the hands/paws of an employee, but I’m sure you’re a part of the family by now, right?

OK then. I appreciate the updates on the new addition to the household (that would be you) and the nitty gritty about the U.P. party. Fitting that it took place in the winter, no? The description of all the special touches was hilarious. Also, I stand corrected on the ingredients of the dreaded Pastie. All I can remember is a  mouthful of mush surrounded by crust. Nuff said….

[Forgot to tell you that when I go back to visit Wish-Mich in June, KM is going to ask her pilot husband to fly her UP to have lunch with me! Maybe I’ll take her to Schloegel’s for Swedish meatballs and pie]

Please tell Ms. K that I would be deLIGHTED and HONored to receive her by airplane between June 14 and 19. I will also be there on the 13th and 20th, but I specifically planned my itinerary to include two fish fry outings with the clan. Why is the perch becoming extinct while pasties keep proliferating? Answer me that. My sister says the perch have been “overfished,” but I’ve never heard of any “overpastieing” going on. I think that says it all, don’t you?

Anyway, it would be SO COOL to have lunch with a jetsetter such as your boss. Not quite the same as flying to Paris on the Concorde, but she will be received like royalty. My hometown of Menominee used to have a nice little airport—I’m assuming it’s still there—that has its own claim to fame. A helicopter company called Enstrom was headquartered there, and two big names from the ‘60s, F. Lee Bailey and Rudi Name-Escapes-Me (the guy who designed the topless dress with the crisscross straps; never really caught on, more’s the pity). I think one or both of them owned the company. But that’s neither here nor there. (Be right back, have to pee.)

yo, pookemon here. shes writin to a DOG now? that takes the cake. I just wanted to give you a friendly warning. STAY AWAY, DAWG. if you come around here I swear ill open up a can of whoopass, you hear me?

Well, it’s been nice corresponding with you. I can hardly wait to find out who’s going to write the next letter for her—the potted plant? hahaha. Have a nice life. If you like Michigan in winter, you’re going to adore spring.

Love,
Mare de la Zine

WAR {??What War??} TIMES (Special Mopping Up Edition)

There are Known Knowns.
There are things we
Know that we Know.
There are Known
Unknowns. That is to say,
There are things that we
Know we don’t Know. But
There are also Unknown
Unknowns. There are things
We don’t Know we don’t
Know.


—Donald Rumsfeld

S.F. Bay Area Car Bumper War News Update

The first and most popular bumper sticker to come out in the weeks and months before Operation Here We Come To Liberate You Whether You Like It or Not was the obvious:

NO WAR ON IRAQ

Then people started to cut the sticker in half to read:

NO WAR

But my favorite one, which I saw only once, is the same sticker cut down even further:

NO W

Of course, W refers to our quasi-elected president.

Then bumper sticker #1 was supplanted by

STOP WAR ON IRAQ

Cutting this sticker down to Stop W would work just as well. You really can’t go wrong putting any sort of negative word in front of W: Evict, Eject, Eviscerate

My contribution to anti-W-war bumper literature is

EMBED BUSH

But things move fast in this time of One Superpower Fits All, so getcher red-hot up-to-the-minute bumper sticker here:

NO / STOP WAR ON SYRIA / NORTH KOREA / YOUR NATION HERE

I certainly hope you enjoyed that little war as much as I did. I know it was fun, exciting and WAY too short, just a teaser really, no contest at all and we’re just getting nicely warmed up, so fortunately it looks like we may be able to make a case for bombing the sh*t out of Syria, so we can do it all over again. Say, why don’t we just make it a lifestyle, we could no doubt create enough enemies to keep the war machine lubed for decades, we are so good at it. We are such assholes. I can see that a large part of my life’s work for the next 10 years will be keeping my son’s ass out of the service. Do they honestly think I suffered two months of bed rest, natural childbirth, two years of nursing, 3 years of coop nursery school and the cooking of 5,379,24 hamburgers I didn’t want just to send him off to get shot at for the sake of Halliburton’s contracts? I don’t think so.
—S. Lockary

Hey, is this thing on? The war, I mean. Geez. You get a perfectly good war-related ‘zine all written and ready to be hauled off to Copy Central, and they claim it’s Finnish. What do the Finns have to do with it? They’ve never hurt anybody, have they? Finland isn’t even in that part of the… Oh, “finished”? … Never mind.

Anyway, pretend you’re reading the following before W proclaimed the Iraqi regime to be “not in existence.”   Dirt in the fuel line… just blowed it away.

my own private Vietnam

In one of our nightly e-mails, I asked Barb if she had participated in any April Fool’s Day pranks, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. She said she couldn’t work anything into her science classes this year, but she told me about a trick she played in Language Arts a few years ago.

I told my students a story about a rabbit taking a trip. I started the story by having one student hold a string. Then as I told the story of where he travels, I unwound the string around students, through chairs, under desks, etc…. until I had the whole class tied up. I told the story 5 minutes before the bell and kept it going until the bell rang. Dropped the string, said April Fools, and walked out.

Now, you may be wondering, what do 25 groaning, giggling, struggling middle school kids who have to get untangled from their desks and each other before they can rush off to their next class have to do with Vietnam? For that matter, what does Vietnam have to do with anything? Aren’t we All Iraq, Al Jazeera, All the Time these days? These are All excellent questions.

I guess what strikes me about the image of the strung-along-and-then-abandoned-to-their-own-devices kids is that, like a lot of people, I’ve been a mass of conflicting feelings about the war. I’m tied up in knots, and W has left the building. I know who the Fool is, but where’s the joke? I’m angry at this self-righteous, propagandizing, Bible-thumping administration. I’m afraid of red, orange, and magenta terrorism alerts to come. Horrified and helpless over the deaths of soldiers and civilians in a cause the rest of the world All Jeers at us for. Afraid of further upheaval in the Middle East and beyond. Afraid for Israelis, Palestinians, for Americans thought to be condoning our government’s actions. Afraid for everyone, really, who is inextricably entwined in this mess. And who isn’t? So anger, fear, horror, helplessness, fear, fear and fear kind of sum up my response.

I’ve had to ration my media attention—I surf past CNN and I’m selective about what I read. I can usually handle the 10 minutes of BBC News that starts off the hour on NPR. (British voices are soothing, regardless of what they’re reporting.) It’s like being on continuous nighttime patrol of the perimeter of my consciousness: I will let this in but not that, not right now. I try not to let guilt take hold, not to despise my privilege, my sunny days, my little pleasures in life. What can I do about other people’s lives and deaths, anyway? Immolating myself in the town square won’t help anyone. If a tank were to come rolling down Bellam Blvd. (out to crush Circuit City?) I might find it in my guts to stand in front of it, like the Chinese student in Tiananmen Square. But I don’t really see that happening. I do notice that whenever I hear an airplane overhead, I hope that it (a) stays overhead and (b) doesn’t drop anything on me. And I think about what it would be like to live with that as a reality and not just a paranoid fantasy.

I’ve discovered I’m past the black-and-white thinking of my youth. Or maybe the world has become more complicated, more multilayered, and even more controlled by the powers that be—One Big Superpower in bed with the Three or Four Big Multinational Corporations. But I doubt that it’s only the world that’s changed. You hear old people say, “The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.” That always seemed curious to me. Like—aren’t you going backwards, dude? But now I know—it’s not that I’ve been rolled up in mothballs and put away, or that I’ve stopped paying attention, or that I haven’t learned anything. I’m not just waiting for death-and-taxes while young people take to the streets in their idealistic fervor. Au contraire. Young people are doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to harangue the rest of us, and I’m learning that age brings a different perspective. It’s not necessarily about losing touch or sticking to the old ways. I’m in plenty of touch, and rather than cling to the old ways, I’m having to dispense with many of them—the old “antiwar-isn’t-everybody?-pro-Mao-pro-Castro-pro-the-victory-of-the-proletariat” ways from a time when it seemed obvious who were the good guys and who were the bad.

It may be that Iraq is categorically different from Vietnam, that 2003 is not only a different millennium but also a different mindset than 1968. But I don’t think so. Some things have changed globally, there have been political shifts, but the human heart is the same. We still try to sort out right from wrong, choose the least of several evils, and in the end it still feels like it’s all out of our hands, like the last presidential election. Politics is a legitimate realm, and those who are drawn to it, especially those who want to counteract the selfish interests of any elite, should certainly take part. But I want to investigate my own responses, go where my inner compass (guide, road map) takes me, find the common thread that connects me with other people in a real way, not just as one head talking to another. Dial right down the center, baby. C-A-L-L-H-E-A-R-T.

Is this typical American—or at least Californian—self-involvement? Maybe. But moving up the food chain to where you don’t have to think about where your next meal is coming from or who’s going to kick down your door and kill you brings the privilege and responsibility of focusing on other things. And that’s what the mary’zine is for me—a way to articulate, shape, and share what touches me, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But let’s move on.

As I write this, the latest news is that Baghdad has fallen, or at least the statue of Saddam has been toppled, yay for our team, and a few Iraqi men are stomping on his likeness, much to the delight and relief of millions of people around the world who want more than anything to believe that it’s going to turn out all right after all, that Arabs and Arab sympathizers everywhere are going to thank us for Operation You Say Invasion We Say Liberation, and radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are going to revert to the kinder, gentler religions of their founders. But we’ve heard lots of stories out of this war that were retracted the next day, so we continue to hold our collective breaths as we go about our “normal” lives—working, taking care of children or ungrateful cats, passing along Internet jokes, enjoying the warmer weather, and wishing, hoping, and praying that the new threat of ground-to-air missiles aimed at incoming commercial flights at SFO is just more media hype.

So now I’m going to honor my inner whatjamacallit and leave the topic of the day to write about Vietnam, or at least about a little piece of that seemingly ancient history that has gripped me in recent days.

I watched a documentary on PBS called “Daughter from Danang,” about a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl who was sent over here during Operation Baby Airlift in 1975 because her father was an American soldier and it was feared that the Communists would kill all those children. She (Hiep, renamed Heidi; I’ll call her H) was raised by a single woman in Kentucky, and her adoptive mother fully Americanized her, warning her not to tell anyone she was half-Vietnamese. (No wonder: She grew up in the town where the KKK started and still has a visible presence.) All her life, H wanted to find her mother, and she finally did. At about age 30 she traveled to Vietnam (with an interpreter and a documentary camera crew) for a 7-day visit to meet her mother and other relatives. She was thrilled and happy, and her mother was even more thrilled and more happy, because of course she had distinct memories of her little girl, whereas H didn’t remember much of anything from that time.

When H comes on the screen for the first time, I’m startled to see that, except for a slightly fuller face, she’s the spittin’ image of my aunt Judy on my father’s side. Methinks her G.I. father must have been Irish. And she has a southern accent, which is also disconcerting. She’s an all-American girl, ex-cheerleader, everything.

In Vietnam she is surrounded by relatives and other villagers 24/7, and her mother never gives her a moment to herself, she’s all kisses and “I love you, I’m so happy,” clings to her hand as if she’s never going to let go, insists on sleeping in the same bed with her. The family is very poor, but they clearly have a strong bond, and family is everything to them—there’s a shrine to all the parents, grandparents, and other ancestors all the way back to… wherever it goes back to. In contrast, H has lived her American life with many material comforts, but her adoptive mother was abusive—rarely touched her except to hit her—and perversely cut off all ties with her when H was in college. So to say she is undergoing a culture shock on this visit is quite an understatement.

After a while, you can see that H is getting more and more uncomfortable with the constant crowds surrounding her, her mother’s unwavering, enveloping attention, the heat, the fish smells of the market, having to keep a smile on her face and not able to speak directly to anyone, because they speak little English and she speaks no Vietnamese. (They keep trying to teach her to say “I love you,” but the syllables are awkward in her mouth.) And through all this she has a camera trained on her! So she starts to crack, starts to question the wisdom of having undertaken her search. She’d had a romantic image of what awaited her back in Vietnam, but the reality is very different. All of the relatives are blunt and unabashed about asking H for money. They seem to assume she’s going to take her mother back to the U.S. to live with her or at least send a monthly stipend to help the huge extended family. H’s eyes widen in increasing dismay as she sits with this family of strangers who have a lifetime of duties and obligations mapped out for her.

I have been drawn into this story from the beginning, and not only because of the superficial resemblance of H to my aunt and my limited acquaintance with Vietnam from my neighbors Kim and Thé and Lee and Trang. There’s a deeper resonance that I can’t explain. I feel like I am H as she becomes more and more upset and finally looks up at the cameraman or the interpreter and says, “I can’t do this.” The family insists that this is the Vietnamese way—if she had been raised there she would never have questioned her family obligations. She starts sobbing over the unexpectedness and impossibility of the situation, like the ultimate Be Careful What You Wish For, and one of the older male relatives says (in Vietnamese), “She cries easily, doesn’t she?”

H runs outside to get away from everyone, and the mother follows her and tries to hug her. Heidi moves farther away. “No! Leave me alone!” The pain on her mother’s face during all this is indescribably poignant. It’s clear that it was the hardest decision of her life to send her Amerasian daughter away to America, and now she’s losing her all over again.

I was initially put off by the mother’s constant clinging to H and her belief that they could instantly return to being the loving mother and child they had once been. She matter-of-factly assumes that she will go back to America with H, maybe not right away, but in time, and they will be “together forever”—she stresses “This is FOREVER, FOREVER, FOREVER” as she stares deeply into H’s eyes. I am getting agitated at this point, just as H is. To her credit, the mother finally seems to come to grips with the fact that her long-lost daughter is now “American” and can’t understand the traditional ways. But she is still visibly suffering and obviously holds out hope for a happy ending.

But H goes back to her home on a military base in Rhode Island where she lives with her American soldier husband (irony noted) and two young daughters. For weeks she keeps her children close by her side and tries to forget she ever took that painful journey back to the past. She can’t even explain to her husband what happened or what she’s feeling.

And having porously absorbed her dismay and inarticulate horror at having “opened this can of worms” (the experience has definitely put her off searching for her father), I feel as if I too know what it means to be an immigrant with ties to the mother country that I reject but cannot reconcile. Clearly, my feelings of identification are very much shaped by my own projections, my “what if’s.” (What if I found out I was adopted and my real mother was Kim next door? How could I possibly think of her as my mother?) For me the documentary goes well beyond being just another sad, interesting, or bizarre story, something that has happened to someone else.

The end of the film shows Heidi 2 years later. Her Vietnamese family have written several letters to her asking for money, and she hadn’t answered any of them. She says she’s closed the door on them—“but not locked it.” It’s kind of shocking that she has simply withdrawn. Despite my identification with her, I guess I still thought she had to do something. But I also know that I probably would have done the same thing. CAN’T DEAL. CAN’T DEAL.

I had therapy the day after seeing the documentary, and I didn’t know what I was going to talk about. There seemed to be nothing to say about “me”; all I could think about was H and her “family.” So I started with that, but it didn’t seem to take me anywhere. I kept thinking I was wasting the session, that I was being self-indulgent. This was H’s story, not mine. Did everything have to come back to me, me, me?

Rambling on to J, starting and stopping, questioning why I’m talking about this, I feel like I’m going in circles, or tied up in that April Fool’s string. Finally, some questions start to come clear, and with the questions come clues to my interest in the story.

What are H’s obligations to her original family?

What is “family”? Is blood thicker than water, or do distance, language, and life experience trump the biology?

Are we all just human with a few cultural differences (you say potAto, I say potAHto) that don’t really mean anything—except when they do? When you’re gay, you cheerfully and gratefully adopt the idea that “family” is not necessarily biology-based, that the family you choose as an adult is your real family. (Actually, you don’t even choose that family, because everybody comes with other ties—parents, friends, ex-lovers—but that’s a rant for another day.)

And what is “America”? Is it the land of the free and the home of the brave, or is that only on game days and the Fourth of July? Are we still dreaming the American dream? Or are we the uprooted ones trampling on centuries of ancient wisdom? Is our diversity our strength, or will it be our undoing? Does multiculturalism add to or detract from our nationhood, our common origin as immigrants, either forced to come here as slaves or indentured servants, or begging to come here for asylum or a better life? What is our responsibility to the rest of the world, much of which we’ve deliberately left behind? What the hell are we supposed to do about Iraq, Vietnam or anywhere else? Are we the world in microcosm, or are we history’s footnote, its next debauched Roman Empire?

As the therapy clock is ticking, and I’m trying to find my way through this morass of questions and abstractions and feelings and the frustration of not knowing what’s going on with me, wondering like the kids in Barb’s class, how did this happen?, 5 minutes ago I was just sitting here at my desk, minding my own business, listening to a nice story about a rabbit, and now I’m “tangled up in blue,” creating by trial and error my own private string theory even though I’m not equipped to do the math… I think I feel the end of the sentence coming on… J is patiently helping me look for the thread/string that will lead me back to myself and untangle me from the jumble I’m in, because the one place we all need to be right now, she says, is in our deepest heart.

Suddenly I take a turn, it’s just like painting, when you’ve been grumbling over how nothing feels right and suddenly there’s a curve in the road and you’re right where you need to be. I find myself telling J that I can relate to H’s story so much because I am intimately familiar with the fear of being sucked back into poverty, back to the place of my traumatizing childhood, back to having to hide my true self and my foreign influences and unholy aspirations from an oppressive regime (Mom); the fear of discovering that my middle-class pretensions and independence were a temporary fantasy, a respite from reality just like college only a lot longer—that I might still disappear back into my upper peninsular fate, my own private Vietnam.

So that’s the unlikely connection that brings everything into focus. I left my “Vietnam” under much less dramatic circumstances than H, of course, by choice and not at 7 but at 17, but there’s something similar about the fear of “going back” and “getting stuck” in a landscape that is viscerally familiar but no longer habitable by my “American” self. I know it seems inflated of me to project myself into a truly momentous story like Heidi’s, but I’m talking about the feeling level, where our childhood fears still dwell regardless of the proof-pudding of “reality.”

And yet… this is what’s so strange, what I still can’t seem to take in… my own private Vietnam has turned out to be the opposite of Heidi’s quest for her roots. Clearly, she didn’t have the best home life in Kentucky, and she had every reason to believe she was going to be reunited with her Shangri-La of a past. I, on the other hand, had tried to put the past behind me to the point where, to set foot on that soil again would be my undoing, as if the Giant Underground Fungus had a magnetic pull that would erase all the data I had stored in me and return me to the land of limitation and obligation. It was as if I were doomed to a fate that had been set in motion at my birth and could not be changed.

So I wasn’t looking to hook up again with the past, as Heidi did, and I didn’t consider my trip back to my homeland last fall to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, as she did, but what I found there… SURPRISE… was the family that had been there all along, in plain sight: the family of my peers and heirs, the past not completely overcome but contained and subdued, shoulders pinned to the mat, no longer the obligation of FOREVER in the doomed sense but the promise of something like Forever, in that way that makes you feel safe and happy, not trapped in a room with the walls moving in on you. Barb and K were always dear to me, but they seemed overshadowed by the looming presence, even in memory, of Mom and her inability to see us as separate beings.

Even a couple of years ago, I would have taken a very different lesson from Heidi’s story. It would have confirmed for me the necessity of migrating to the new country, the land of opportunity, and never looking back. How many times do we have to hear You can’t go home again before we take it to heart?

But I did go home again, and, far from encountering a “Vietnam” of strangers masquerading as my long-lost kin, I found “America” there. Not America as the imperialist, war-mongering, Christian nation trying to impose democracy (so many oxymorons, so little time) on the backward peoples of the world, but the America of the past-and-future double helix, the native-born and the foreign-born entwined, mixing if not melting in the same pot. In my absence my sisters had not only survived but thrived beneath the threshold of my awareness, like that Giant Underground Fungus again, a fungus for good, not an axis for evil, a cross-cultural bridge that could be traveled in both directions, you could go there and come back!

The string of connection keeps wrapping around everyone in my life and every stranger who’s a relative I haven’t met yet—the ‘zine and their response to it, the e-mails a live wire going back and forth, the depth of understanding despite years of distance, the same giggly jokes and memories but with children and grandchildren and great nieces and nephews added on, and blooooood and marriage and child support in multiples of 3 or 4, everybody ending up at Gramma’s (my baby sister’s!) house on birthdays and holidays, a family which, however you slice it, is connected by the strings of shared experience and feeling and sometimes by blood too, but blood is not the main ingredient of those ties. Mother and Father, after all, are not blood, but they form a heart bond just like any other lover and lover, friend and friend, lesbian middle-aged woman and cat, Jewish therapist and nominally Christian Uppity-Midwesterner turned hopeful S.F. Bay Area neo-bohemian type who sits typing this long-playing record in a microcosmic neighborhood of Vietnamese, black, Hispanic and white adults, kids, and trash-talking teenagers of every hue—every person, every family struggling to make a living, to make sense of life and get through the night, the day, and the night after that.

Is this the point?—that we’re all wrapped up in this string together, in the sheer complexity, the insolvability of our differences, whether mediated by blood or culture or injustice, that we must look for the common humanity beneath it all and be as open as we can to the differences and similarities, not taking the flag of our old or adopted country so seriously that we believe we have the right to liberate or kill at will?

Close to the end of the therapy session, I find myself telling J that I have faith in humanity. There have always been wars and there will always be wars, but despite it all, hope and love, so seemingly fragile and easily suppressed, like a jackboot crushing a delicate flower, will always live. How else could she and I be feeling this bond with each other and with the friends, family, and strangers who touch us so deeply? I look at J; we’re both feeling wrung out, like we’ve made a long journey together. It seems a miracle that’s we’ve traversed all that confusion and my insistence on talking about a film of someone else’s life that’s barely suited for the analogy I have thrust upon it. I understand now how therapy can be a place for exploration, for true learning and discovery, not just problem-solving. I feel blessed.

And I continue to walk the middle ground, as J has taught me. I’m Open when I wannabe, Closed but not Locked when I gottabe, maybe even Locked once in a while, retreating to my bed with a bag of double-dipped chocolate-covered peanuts and a good book. I shall traverse to the best of my ability “my” world, “their” world, whichever world I find myself in, until I get called home, or the cows do. Let’s all lose the self-flagellation about our middle-class American privilege, especially those of us who are only nominally m.c., the salt and pepper of the earth, our feet planted in the soil and our immigrant backgrounds. We all have our own private Vietnam, our childhood abuse of whatever stripe, we’re all in the closet about one damn thing or another, whether it’s our ethnic background in a KKK town or our cross-clothing-crisis in noncoastal America. I’m no rah-rah patriot, but I think America truly is the future—America being not the puppeteer government of smirking oilmen but all of us Americans, the immigrants as well as those who were already here when the invading/liberating Europeans came a-knockin’. Our real privilege in this land of the free is to make a life beyond survival, to create a new brew of all the world’s cultures and human endeavors. What that means is up to each of us to figure out. No blueprint, no scroll of rules handed down by the ancestors, except the obvious 10 and the Golden one. America is a contradictory land, with ideals that can be twisted every which way and leaders determined to carry out George Orwell’s worst imaginings. But I believe that we are bound together by stronger ties than the ones we find ourselves struggling against. Like the Giant Underground Fungus—yes!—we are connected at a much deeper level than we know. Let’s use that bond to get us out of this tangled mess and on to the rest of our lives before the final bell rings.

[Mary McKenney]

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