Roy Orbison’s songs defy all standard techniques and “rules” of songwriting. When asked how he composed a song, he replied, “I just start with something I like, and then I go wherever I want.”
It’s strange that with every issue of this ‘zine, I feel like I’m inching farther and farther out on a limb—c-r-e-a-k! Instead of getting easier, the process gets more daunting. The first issues seemed (in retrospect) so easy to write, because it didn’t seem to matter what I wrote about. I was going to be FREE! Now, I feel more and more exposed, like somebody’s going to notice that I think about myself all the time and that my most intimate relationships are with paid professionals. Of course that’s not true. No way. I spend most of my time thinking about world peace, and Pookie and I are very close.
Every issue so far has been at least loosely thematic—not because I chose a theme, but because there seems to be a drive (the opposite of entropy?) toward continually creating order—making connections, bringing things together. Revealing the perfect order beneath the disorder. I couldn’t say what my theology is, but that comes as close as anything. As I survey the possibilities for this issue, I see that it could be a Healing issue, an Anger issue, a Travel issue, or a Mom issue. Well, there’s already been a Mom issue, but every issue is a Mom issue, if you know what I mean. Dad issue is in the distant future, daring me to approach it.
Far from trying to force these threads together into a tight weave, it almost seems as if they need a bit of prying apart. I get paralyzed at times, because everything I start to write about wants to go in ten different directions at once. And yet all the directions are related, all the topics are related, everything that occurs to me is related so intricately (and often indescribably) that sometimes I think there must be a Knot at the center of everything. And that somehow the job of a writer is to keep picking at that knot, loosening it strand by strand. Who knows what’s left when the Knot is gone? Maybe Knothing.
With that cheery thought, I think I’ll just throw Healing, Anger, Travel, and Mom into the Writer’s Blender, turn it on puree, and see what happens.
First, I’d like to share part of a delightful response to the last issue that I got from Barbara (popularly known as B) while she was vacationing in Taos. (That’s where I got the Knot analogy.)
i just devoured the zine… which i thought I left on the airplane and had a big wondering about what life it would take on, passed into the hands of stewardesses or air servers or whatever politically correct terminology they use these days… and maybe the pilots would be reading the zine, instead of paying attention to the clouds and planets passing by… and then, after the next major crash, when they found the black box at the bottom of the ocean, it would be determined that the pilots were all discussing green tea and parallel universes… and of course this info would be kept TOP SECRET… and only I, if I never got to share my spontaneous thoughts with you… would know how it all came to be… m… this was the best zine ever. it took me awhile to enter into it… probably because I didn’t want to read about addictions and deprivations, while eating my own little chocolate universes, but today… in the midst of all the vastness of taos, or maybe it’s the nothingness of it all… no distractions… no dramas, no millions of other lives to dive into, no studio plants to water (having just watered Jani’s plants – I think she is humoring my need to be useful and helpful – and then, there’s always caleb who has an endless ball to throw and chase… so, after all that liveliness… and the sun is already melting all my desires… or maybe it’s the chocolate within me… I picked up the zine… and forced myself to read it… and after the first word I was off and running…and wow… wowwww… wwwwwwwow..ow..oh.. from coffee, to tea, to parallel universes to worm hearts…wow… all in one… with an endless array of Shakespearean might have beens or not have beens… and what have yous and what have you knots.. oh m… what wonderful inspiring writing… wait… I’ll go get some more chocolates from the jar that I filled to make it look like I didn’t already eat half of their chocolates yesterday upon arrival. and to realize it’s all so not the issue, like really, like wow… forget the food… it’s the Knot not b that I’m running from…
I feel like I’m getting a little ‘zine in return when I get a response like that. Let a thousand ‘zines bloom!
I’m feeling slightly better than I did the last time I wrote—in fact, the caffeine dilemma has been reversed to the point where I had to trade in the green tea with its pinch of caffeine for a blend called Easy Now that is supposed to “ease tension and stress.” (I also drink the cleverly named Eater’s Digest to “promote healthy digestion.” I’m a sucker for unsubstantiated claims sold in neat, trademarked packages.) I’ve experienced a tremendous resurgence in energy since I started seeing Hillary, a jin shin jyutsu practitioner in Fairfax. (Thanks to Anna D. for the referral!) So far, my stomach still feels like I’ve swallowed a medicine ball with every meal, but I’ve only had a few sessions. It’s amazing how quickly we forget, though. I e-mailed Diane that I wasn’t sure if I should continue the jin shin because it wasn’t doing anything for my stomach, and she wrote back, “I can’t *BELIEVE* you’re off caffeine due to this. Did I read that right?? Is that accurate? And I can’t BELIEVE you would consider STOPPING the doing of it???? Hellloooooooo? This is helllllllppppping!” And I thought, Oh. Yeah. That. Well, maybe it is helping.
I’ve been through a lot since February (my stomach problems started when I was writing the first issue of the ‘zine—coincidence?). I was really hoping that the Western medicine plan of attack—when in doubt, remove an organ—would do the trick, but now I’m deep in the land of mysterious “alternative” practices. Instead of learning the arcane language of gastric acid reflux and H. pylori, I’m learning the arcane language of energy flow and tension release. Instead of reading pamphlets called “You and Your Gallbladder,” I’m trying to follow the instructions in “Know Myself It Is,” a title I have yet to decipher.
Sometimes I feel like a Jaguar (the car, not the animal)—finely tuned but has to spend a lot of time in the shop. I have a team of specialists working on my mind, my body, and the connection between the two at regular intervals. I could host a conference on The State of Mary’s Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Health. All my helper-healers, past and present, could get together and swap insights and funny stories. Jeremy (dream shaman) could speak eloquently about the amazing dreams I’ve had and the time he uttered the fateful words “wire sculpture” that sent me into a thrilling phase of wire and metal construction. Linda (cranial-sacral bodyworker/chiropractor) could reminisce about our months of work after my mother died, when I had disabling back pain. (I would ask her to read the poem I wrote in her honor: “There once was a healer so blest / She saw that the body knows best / I live in my mind / She said that was fine / But now and then visit the rest.”) Barbara (painter/teacher/center-holder-together) could describe some of the high and low points of my painting process, complete with slide show. Hillary, the newest addition to the team, would be mainly there to learn from the others but would also have some useful things to say about my energy flow.
It goes without saying that J would be the moderator and keynote speaker. She would hold the conference participants spellbound by her presentation of the enormous somatic and life changes that I’ve undergone in my years of therapy.
I, of course, would sit in a special chair on stage—maybe wear a small tiara—and lap up all the attention. It would be like a Friars Club roast, except nobody would make jokes at my expense.
When I saw J after I started feeling all perky from the jin shin, I happened to mention that when Hillary touched me in a certain place close to my epicenter, I became very uncomfortable and kind of held my breath until she moved on. J thought that was “interesting,” so she asked me how I was feeling right then. I said, “Full of energy—like I’m vibrating.” She said, “Do you feel it in your pelvis?” And I said, “What’s that?” Ha ha. I am such an amusing client at times. That little exchange sent us off on an old line of inquiry that I’ve been avoiding for years.
(Dear reader, I didn’t mean to write about my pelvis. I will try to keep it from intruding any further.)
The mind-body continuum is so complex. Every “physical” ailment turns out to be related to the mind. I enjoy mind travel, don’t get me wrong, but when my stomach hurts, I just want to be put up on the rack and have my oil changed and my front end realigned. I do get to lie back for the jin shin treatments, but there’s also “homework”—stuff like holding my right cheek bone with my left fingers and my left inner thigh with my right fingers, then waiting—voila!—to feel the pulses “harmonize.” I have a hard time believing in this stuff. I have no trouble believing in parallel universes, but ask me to feel a pulse in my own body? What’re you, crazy?
Also, I’m discovering that trying to change one little thing in this system is like buying a couple of throw rugs to add some color to a room and you end up tearing out the underflooring and moving walls. Probably giving up coffee was the least of it. But I resist turning into the kind of person who consults medical intuits and engages in monthly wheat juice fasts. I’m too invested in mind-body satisfactions like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
(Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up food again, either, having dwelled at length on that topic in the last issue. Maybe I could have different editions of the ‘zine, and people could subscribe to the ones that interested them. “Give me everything you’ve got on food and cats, but keep your pelvis to yourself—please.”)
Have I ever mentioned that J is a somatic therapist? Instead of sitting back and pondering the mythic meanings of my life, I’m constantly having to locate feelings in my body, intensify them in steps, bring them down, and report on what happens—do I get flooded, do I get more grounded, etc. I sit there, my brain in high gear, trying to come up with the right answer, feeling like I’m failing a body IQ test. As in painting, my biggest fear is that I’ll feel nothing, or at least not the right thing. But doing the work always makes me feel better, because it gets me out of my head. Sometimes I think my life’s work is discovering I have a body. By the time I “get it,” it’ll probably be time to turn it back in.
Before I started seeing J, I had been avoiding therapy for years, because I assumed that I’d never find anyone who was as smart as me. (It’s a burden, I tell you.) I knew someone who had tried 17 therapists and never did find one she couldn’t manipulate or who had anything to offer besides “get a hobby, go for a walk” (at least according to her). I found J through two short degrees of separation—from M. Cassou (oops, forgot to invite her to the conference) to Linda, from Linda to J.
That’s not to say I’m always an enthusiastic participant in the work. I still roll my eyes whenever she asks, “Where do you feel that?” In all the spiritual books I’ve read, the message is, “You are not the body,” but I think, paradoxically, that you aren’t, but you are. There does come a time for an amicable divorce between spirit and form, but while we’re (in) the form, then Bodies ‘R’ Us, pretty much.
To possibly change the subject—but then there’s only one subject, guess who—I’m about to get on one of them there flying machines and go out to visit Terry and Jean in western Massachusetts for a few days. I’m a little nervous about getting on an airplane again—it’s been at least 7 years. And United has had a horrible record at SFO this year. You may legitimately ask why I chose United, in that case. I don’t know. Why do moths fly irresistibly toward the flame? Why did Icarus fly too close to the sun? Wait, I don’t like where those metaphors are going.
“Don’t you ever want to go someplace new?” For a moment, I felt like a creature of dull habit and unimaginative routine.
I’m not a traveler, never have been. It doesn’t help that I get sick on any and every mode of transportation, but that’s not all there is to it. I think I lose my center when I leave my familiar surroundings. And maybe that’s the whole point of travel, but if it is, no thanks. I do better with a center.
Ironically, my father’s family—he was the oldest of 13 kids—were itinerants. There’s one surviving story about my grandfather’s childhood. After the family left Ireland and came to the U.S., my 10-year-old grandfather-to-be, Henry, and his brother decided to hop on a boxcar and run away together. But somehow they got on different trains going in opposite directions. They eventually found each other—after 50 years!
The McKenneys were always restless, wanting to be on the move. The few times my grandmother visited us during my father’s 15-year illness, my grandfather would wait out in the car. When they wanted to get away, they would dump the youngest kids on one of the older, married ones. My aunt Judy, who’s only a couple years older than me, once lived with us for six months. Grandma and Grandpa had been known to start out for a Sunday drive in our small town in upper Michigan and end up in Texas.
Clearly, I take after my mother’s side of the family—sturdy Scandinavian peasants who farmed the land and cultivated rock gardens instead of gallivanting all over creation.
I am not unfamiliar with travel….
My mother herself, however, was a gallivanter, even though she lived most of her life down the road from the farm where she was born. Until my father died and she had the freedom to go off on her own, her only form of travel was car trips with the family—including a camping trip when I was 14 that lasted all summer and cut a swatch from the U.P. all the way out to the redwoods of Eureka, Calif…. then to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair… me with acrophobia at the top of the Space Needle… Seattle not cool yet, except literally… to Yellowstone, where my mother, taking pictures, got between a mother bear and her cubs and shrieked as she made a dash back to the car, throwing wedding cookies toward the bear to divert her from her charge. Me a virtual prisoner in the back seat, car sick and couldn’t care less about the scenery as my mother careened down winding mountain roads. “Wheeee—look out the window, girls, you’re missing everything!” My sisters were young enough to avoid most of the work, so I was Mom’s only help in getting my disabled father in and out of the car, setting up and taking down camp, preparing meals and cleaning up. Sort of like all housework all the time, with no room of my own to retreat to. All five of us sleeping in a leaky tent or in the Vauxhall (small British station wagon) with the smell of coffee grounds and orange peels. Between chores, I couldn’t sit and read, I had to “make friends” with the next-door campers if the kids were even remotely in my age group. That summer I was reading Exodus by Leon Uris. Wishful thinking, no doubt…. Let my people go! No, on second thought, just let me go!
One night in a national forest in Utah, a single male camper in a trailer next to our campsite came over after summer to introduce himself. He looked like your prototypical quiet loner/mass murderer type, except we didn’t know about those guys in 1962; this was before Lee Harvey Oswald. His name was Elver—should have been a dead giveaway right there. After a bit of chat, Elver asked if he could take me for a walk to “show me something.” It was pitch dark, we did not know this man, and my mother said, “Sure!” (She later claimed it was my father who gave Elver permission to take his firstborn into the woods—like a child bride handed off to a stranger by her hillbilly pa.) I was scared to death but afraid to refuse. Elver and I walked through the woods in the dark for an interminable length of time, not speaking, and we finally went up a rise and stood at the edge of a meadow that was quite unexpected in the midst of this huge, dense forest. Damned if old Elver didn’t have a legitimate purpose to this walk after all. He never touched me. I breathed a sigh of relief and made it back to camp in one piece, no thanks to ma and pa.
We were planning to stay at this campground for a few nights, but the next day, Elver did a bit of inappropriate touching of my sisters, who were seven and nine. So I had squeaked by—too old for him—and my sisters took the hit. The next morning, we hid behind the curtains in the Vauxhall, peeking out at Elver as he walked around, wondering where we were. As soon as he went back in his trailer, my mother quickly started the car and drove off, giggling like it was high adventure. Like she was a mother bear with no sense of danger, too full of wedding cookies, perhaps, to sense the harm that had already befallen her young.
She was a lot fiercer when I was the only child. Maybe after 4 kids, one dead—so the unthinkable had already happened—you don’t worry about every little thing. Before my father got sick, he tended to go off on 3-day drinking binges with his army buddies. One night, he brought one of them home, and the guy came into my room where I was sleeping. According to my mother, he was trying to shake me awake, asking me if I wanted a drink. (Am I crazy to find this funny?) My mother came charging in and grabbed him and pulled him out of my room. Since I don’t remember this incident, I wonder what really happened—from his point of view, and from mine. And what did I infer from that raging rescue? If you’re being saved from wolves, that’s one thing, but if the mother bear treats an innocent tourist like the enemy, won’t the baby cub grow up to fear and hate tourists too?
Let’s see, how are we doing thematically? You got your Healing (or at least steps in that direction), your Travel, your memories of Mom… and by golly if you don’t have a little Anger seeping through, like arsenic in the water supply. Imagine that. It has not escaped my notice that I have skewered my mother for two diametrically opposed actions: (1) for letting a stranger take me off into the woods as if the world were a Lutheran summer camp and no harm would come to me—and of course, for taking my sisters’ actual violation in stride, and (2) for furiously saving me from a probably innocent, confused man and possibly setting in motion a lifetime of fear on my part. Is it that she just can’t win in my eyes? Do I keep chewing on that dry crust of grievance so I can remain the passively aggressive victim? Is there a statute of limitations on anger? on blame? Does “angry” always have to be followed by “at”?
I remember being an angry kid—even before my brother was born, before he died, before my father got sick and became a different person. I don’t remember the anger at being displaced by a beloved boy child or at seeing the tiny coffin holding his body being lowered into the ground. I vividly recall, at the funeral, thinking that everyone in the church was laughing at me because I was crying. I was 6 years old. How early our emotional make-up is created, how early our real feelings are displaced for the defenses that never seem to defend against much but give us something to cling to when there is nothing else.
On my desk is a picture of me and my father taken in 1949—pre-brother, pre-illness, pre-death. We’re standing side by side on a sidewalk, and the trees in the background are bare of leaves. He’s dressed for work at Prescott’s Foundry—old pants, workshirt, jacket, cap—with a cigarette in one hand, his thumb hooked in his pants pocket, and a black domed lunch pail dangling from the other. I—Mary Lou, barely 3 years old—stand next to him, looking all pouty in overalls, a striped polo shirt, one of his caps draped rakishly on my head, and my own child-sized lunch pail, like his but with a yellow top. I have a crystal-clear sense memory of my love for that lunch pail, while the memory of my love for this man is deeply buried, hardly accessible even now. (I do know that he’s still alive to me. Maybe that’s the definition of haunting, of being haunted.) In the picture of the two of us in our “going to work” outfits, my father is a good-looking man, a George Clooney type, if George were a working-class man from the U.P. My mother appears only as a shadow, because she is taking the picture, standing with the sun behind her, looking down at the ‘40s box-style camera she holds in front of her. Her shadow almost obliterates the lower half of my body. The symbolism of this part of the picture alone is worth 1,000 words.
When I was 8 years old, my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is an immune system disease. The cause of MS is unknown, but if I had only my father’s hard life to go on, I’d guess that it’s a disease of anger turned inward. I thought of this recently when I had a dream in which my mysterious stomach problem was diagnosed as “AIDS-related complex.” Throughout the dream, I was trying to keep people from finding out about it. In one part of the dream, I bought a house from an angry woman—which is interesting, considering the house can be a dream symbol for the body. Anyway, it was an unusual dream in that I woke up from it at 2:30 a.m., went back to sleep, and reentered the dream 4 hours later. It picked up right where it left off—with me trying to keep people from learning my secret. It was dream overkill, and it makes me think that I was not only keeping the secret from everyone else, I was keeping it from myself—the secret of my anger, my ailment, my whatever-related complex.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, one of my biggest secrets was that I was being molested by my older cousin. But you don’t want to hear about my pelvis, remember? So I’ll leave it at that. When J told me, “Somebody probably got to him, too,” I asked, “But don’t all boys do that?” Shocked, she said, “No!” It was the first time I had ever asked, and her answer surprised me.
I persist in thinking there must have been an earlier, pivotal event that turned me into such an easy target for my cousin, that started the anger seed growing in the first place. I want to identify the original evil deed, chase down the One who started it all, the uncle or family friend who first betrayed my trust. I want to know how I had learned to keep a secret so well.
But that’s a head game, trying to analyze the past, look for motive and opportunity. Colonel Mustard with the Penis in the Drawing Room. All I know is, the anger is a part of me now—growing in my stomach like a nonindigenous weed, displaced into a symptom I feel as anger only when it’s safe. Like when I’m watching a woman in the supermarket dig through the snap peas looking for those perfect few that are good enough for her—or who shucks half the corn in the bin, tossing each ravaged cob aside because the kernels don’t meet her high standards. And I guess that’s how it works—fume at the merely annoying rather than face up to what’s really going on. No wonder so many of us suffer from Road, Air, and Vegetable Rage.
I remember, a long time ago, painting when I was very angry at someone. I painted all the requisite red and black angry slashes, I painted myself killing her, I painted her eating me with a knife and fork. I was shaking with rage, with all the pain she had caused me and how futile it all was, because she would never be what I wanted her to be. Painting is, sometimes, like walking through the valley of the shadow of death. You are never more alone, and never more in God’s grace. I made a great discovery that day—that if you go deep enough inside yourself—which is not the same as withdrawing, it’s more like settling down into your core, your true self—those feelings that seemed so all-consuming a moment ago just disappear into thin air. They’re still up there on the surface, harmlessly making waves and getting sunburned. But down in the depths (swimming in Lake You, as Richard Simmons would say), it’s as if you’re breathing pure liquid oxygen, like the fishes. It’s a benediction.
Anger wants things to be different. It fights reality at every turn, not even admitting to itself what it’s angry about. No wonder the body gets confused—it’s asked to gather its armed forces against a stranger driving a car or taking too long in the checkout line. When the immune system gets confused about who the enemy really is, then all hell breaks loose. So, metaphorically, maybe I do have an “immune” disease of sorts. I want to identify the intruder, the long-ago source of my anger. But I am the source, I am the battleground, I am both warring armies no longer sure of what they’re fighting for. Oh God, don’t get me going on a Civil War analogy.
There are two ways to live—wide or deep….
I flatter myself that I don’t travel in the world because I’m more interested in traveling inwardly. (I know people who do both, but I have no explanation for them.) For all I know, I may not be going that far inwardly, either—I could be treading the same worn piece of carpet, back and forth, shuffling like an old woman from her recliner to the stove for her tea and back again. (Ha! I use tea in a metaphor! I am slowly reprogramming my caffeine-besotted brain!) It’s true that I’m more of an archeologist than an astronomer—but looking is looking. I am, like the Buddha, an Enneagram Five—The Observer. We Observers tend to sit in our little home offices with only our own beating hearts to tell us what’s true. Of course, the Buddha was an Evolved Five, whereas I’m just an old, schlumpy Pissed-Off Five with many hidden compartments—more of a 4.9, really.
You may not know where you are but you’ll never forget how you got there.
—Anonymous radio spot
Maybe the only real lesson is learning to live with yourself, stopping the civil and uncivil wars. Making peace with all your quirks and blind spots, your secrets that may never be told. Your aged anger, like a pricey side of beef or an ancient cheese. Your lack of an intercom system between head and lower regions. Your stubborn refusal to change, and your desperate desire to be different. Krishnamurti said there is no improving the self. I think that’s true. But I do think we’re all on a journey, whether it involves jumping out of airplanes over Mongolia or taking a stroll around the park, deep in thought.
In the third part of my AIDS-related complex dream, I met a young boy who was traveling on his own and who wanted to know how to tell what direction he was going in. I showed him the sun in the sky and asked him which way it travels. He said, “North and south.” Then I asked him which way the moon travels. He said, “East and west.” I knew he could now find his way. I felt so much love for this boy.
My rational mind, of course, wants to make sense of this navigational “error.” Obviously, the sun doesn’t go north and south. But Jeremy suggested that the dream compass points to my uniqueness, to my own sense of direction. And in fact, in this part of the dream, the earlier anger is gone. So maybe the knowledge I’m imparting to the boy has to do with learning to travel on my own terms, remaining true to myself. Not by excluding my fellow travelers but by knowing I carry my center with me. Knowing there’s no real difference between outer and inner, that I can travel inwardly while outward bound, in a body, with other bodies, following my own trajectory even as I share the journey with everyone I meet.
So if the good Lord’s willin’ and the plane don’t fall, I’ll see you back here next time, maybe with lots of fascinating stories about our nation’s airports. And food—that ubiquitous preoccupation—may also make a comeback in these pages. During my last jin shin session, Hillary recommended a book that tells you how to eat according to your blood type. So I bought it, and now I am truly in despair. Basically, everything I eat, all day long, is on the “avoid” list. I managed to follow the diet, pretty much, for one day, and I was quite proud of myself until I realized that I’d have to do it again the next day, and the next. I ate so many vegetables, I dreamed about them that night. It was a scene of pure Vegetable Rage. A woman in front of me in the checkout line was piling vegetables on the counter, and I started putting my vegetables there too. But some of my vegetables got ahead of hers, and she got mad and started yelling at me in a foreign language. So I started piling her vegetables back in her cart, which really set her off. I ended up grabbing her wrist and pressing a certain spot that immobilized her so she couldn’t get at my vegetables. So this dream is like a playlet featuring my rage, my paralysis, my jin shin energy points… my fear of vegetarianism? Another knot to unravel.
The truly bizarre thing about the blood type diet is that coffee, of all things, is considered “highly beneficial” for me. That’s the last straw, now I know the world has gone mad. I will be choking down my tofu and my lentils—and giving up all things eggy or cheesy or meaty or tomatoey (no more BLTs, just Ls)—but I’ll have my old friend back, caffeine pouring through my veins again, making me brilliant in my own eyes. I can’t wait.