Hi. That's me. Baby me. Toddler me. Right about the age my son is now. The seventies, man. My brother had given me a haircut, *just before* school pictures. Mom was pleased. :sarcasm font: I think it worked for me.
1970s... Avocado greens and chocolatey browns and burnt oranges and that putrid vomit-colored maize-yellow. Bell-bottoms. My Mom's disco albums. Yeah, vinyl. I learned to dance the Hot Chocolate from one of them. I learned about (and fell in love with) Donna Summer from another.
I saw my grandparents a lot. I had one grandmother who delivered Avon, knew everyone in town (and they still mention her, to this day) and she lived in house dresses (look it up, they're like mu mus..) I had another grandmother who was a NOW (National Organization for Women) cardholder, worked in the city, commuted in sneakers and changed to pumps at the office, knew all the subways, and took us to see Broadway shows once a year. One was Grandma...one was Mimi. Can you guess who was who?
I loved them both, dearly. But I associated with Mimi the most. Honest. Eye-rolling. Sharp-tongued. A riotous and often inappropriate sense of humor, behind closed doors. She was the one who'd laugh so hard that tears would stream down. I get my fire, my sass, my passion, the marinara in my veins, my joie de vivre...from that side. The Italian side.
My other Grandmother, on my father's side (British/Dutch/Canadian)... had lessons to teach, just in her presence. In her stories. I wouldn't appreciate them until much later. They lived hard through the depression, my father's parents, and they both worked at Grumman. They had four boys, and they both worked, and rarely saw each other. They were scrappy, they had to be. They were thrifty, because they learned to be. My grandmother, boy, she could... make a dollar holler. She hit up garage sales, tag sales, thrift stores, and always gave to others the little that she could. We often got new school clothes from the rag bag (donated clothes that we got from the church in Glen Cove, cheap). So she'd often give us things to help out, even though they weren't Rockefellers, either. She wasn't a barrel of laughs or charm or high-fashion. She was a tough old broad. She got hit by a Mack truck crossing the street and broke a hip, in her... sixties? She was up an delivering Avon again, pretty soon after. That's how she was. Tough as nails. Vocal. Opinionated. In your face if you didn't submit. I get my grit and low-bullshit-meter from her.
My childhood was informed by some powerful women, although I didn't see it at the time. I won't tell you about MY mother, because, well, she's alive and well and reads this and it's just none of your business.
But my grandmothers: one was fighting the patriarchy, working, earning her worth as best as she could, trying to lift that glass ceiling up... just a bit. Caring for herself, putting herself first. She came from an Italian family that let the boys go to college and the girls... learned to cook and keep a husband happy. From the get-go, she said... "this stinks." She just knew how wrong it was, how it didn't align with who she was. My mother's side is where I get a lot of my... resistance to conform into a role. Like Becky Sharp, Scarlet O'Hara, Jo March, and so many other controversial figures of women in literature. I will hardly just go and be a wife... Because this fire burns inside... for more. For passion, for exploration, for challenge, for vibrance, for intellect, and color and travel and excitement. For a LIFE, not a sentence.
And I think, through most of her life, (I have a recording of an oral history I did with her, that I cherish), she silently stewed and let a fire grow inside, that would emerge later. And it did.
They're both gone, now, all of my grandparents are, and I feel it's okay to discuss them here.
So entwined with my current writing, Wild Horses and Mistakes, I set out on an intentional journey... call it shamanic, call it psychology, call it catharsis, call it healing the inner child, call it whatever you want... it's all the same to me, with different labels. We are but a story, and we can revisit our stories and pull meaning out, to inform the present. It's all a big spiral dance, around and around and around.
We go through childhood and collect all these stories, these ideas, that other people make up about us, and if we already feel small... we believe them. And it takes years and years of crawling out of those stories, and becoming our own people.
I can see it now, the whole pattern, as it's taught to us (of course, not everyone follows this):
birth: we're given a name, an identity, and put into the "system"
school years: our teachers teach us to memorize things, and often scold us for our originality or finding our own answers. We're often dumbed down for being resourceful or creative. It must be done their way, or we get "bad marks." So, we must get good marks, and so we conform. And often, if we're lucky, we find those one or two special teachers or counselors, that connect... and keep us going.
college: optional, but many take this route. To... fit the right mold to get the right job, to "be what they want," so they get hired to work for someone else's dream.
then...marriage, kids, two cars, vacations: and so we get out of school, we find careers, we find a partner to play this game alongside us. And for a while it's good, life is good. We played a good game, we got there! We did it! We ticked off everything on the card, look!
And then... those lost embers of glowing imagination, of magic, of dreams, of non-conformity start to bubble up through the cracks and demand change. This isn't what I thought. I did everything right, how come I'm not happy? I have a good life? Enter the mid-life crisis. Sometimes, if they're lucky and already have a healthy relationship, couples ride through it together and they both change. Often, they split because one will not change for whatever reason. Or worse, they stay together, yet grow apart, living a show within a show, for the kids, for the neighbors, and everyone is miserable.
Or... maybe you're still single, and none of that affects you at all, and you just feel like you're in a hamster wheel. Waiting for real life to start. For that ship to come in. For something to finally make sense and give you the unmistakable direction that you've been seeking. We've a got a wacky sort of society that breaks us apart and we scramble to put ourselves together again, later in life. And some of us don't make it that far, we become that system and lose our identities, altogether. (But not really, I truly believe that there is always a spark that stays lit.)
I'm not sure what I'm rambling about today, it feels a bit messy. And maybe that's the point, but it has to do with childhood, dreams, and how our fears and self-esteem are managed. I look at this little bright-faced girl and I wonder how she did it. How did she make it to now? And she can't tell me, because she had no idea. She was a child. Innocent. She just woke up and showed up. it was later that she started hiding and living in made-up worlds that made much more sense.
I've been doing this work, this self-study, this inner-journey for a few years now. And at the outset, it was about the present and the immediate stresses of life. And then it was about adulthood, in general, and then adolescence. And so on. It's like time-traveling, revisiting my life, all the way back to here... to early childhood. I think deep within each of us are these innocent children who want to play, dream, fly, sing, dance, and maybe see outer space. And it doesn't always work out that way, because we start believing in the limitations that others give us, throughout our growing up.
And this... is the mess. The bags, the burdens, the stifled dreams in our backpack, that we walk through life with. Unrealized dreams. Attention not given. Perceptions of love withheld. Mistakes, abuses, pain, trauma, fear. Carried forward, in our bones, in our minds, in our memories. Our...mess.
I first got into this intentional self-development, living with my eyes and heart wide open, fully aware, life-out-loud, hoping to heal. To get there. To that place, where I healed it all. And life would be a walk in the sunshine where nothing caused me trouble anymore, because I did all my work. Yay, I'm fixed, let's go heal the world! :throws glitter in the air:
:insert ironic laugh here:
No, unfortunately. And for me, freedom, epiphany, boundless creativity, inner change and transformation comes not in my ultimate and grand healing... but in deep acceptance that I will always have this pack on my back; my mess. My stuff. That stuff can change, things go in, things come back out. New experiences and joy go in, fear and pain go out. But then with adventure comes risk, and more sometimes more pain, so in that goes. And this, I think, is Life. That pack will always be there, it's my story, it's who I am and where I've been. And stories change... I'm constantly emptying and refilling the pack. But I'm owning it. Seeing it, knowing it, being with it. And traveling along anyway, open and trusting, knowing that pack will always be there. And that's okay. Because we've all got one. And I start thinking more about... searching through each other's backpacks rather than... feigning perfection. Because it's a lie. One I won't buy anymore.
And that little girl? That young, sweet, innocent little Stacie? She's still in there and when she's scared or nervous or overly exuberant or excitable, I just carry her too, with everything else. I pick her up, hold her close, and carry her with me (symbolically, of course). Because I can keep her safe and I can do my best to bring her what she wants. I think that's what all of our anxieties are about, really. That little young boy or young girl that has fears and anxieties and doubts and worries... but also, also... big dreams and hope and resilience and magic and wildness and that wonderful, playful, beautiful optimism.
Hello, heart. I see you. I'm listening.
I thought I had come to California looking for horses. That's what drew me out here; the wide open land given to these majestic creatures; throwbacks to a wilder and forgotten west. I swooned for their photos, I fell into them. The wildness that was still in these creatures, the neighing and bucking and kicking and running into the horizon, manes in the wind. Unbridled. Free. Charging mares, leading herds, tending foals. And perhaps I will still find them when that time is right.
But upon landing out here, I was taken by the water, foremost.
The Atlantic shores are beautiful, but for some reason, these waters...the Pacific...are different. The shores she touches. The stories she swallows, the secrets she holds. Oh, these waters hold so much. They have seen and felt so much. And in that, as a whole, as a body of water, a being in its own right... she is that much more calming. It's a powerful, cleansing presence. A deep healing. Not to mention the sheer majestic and aesthetic beauty of the area; it's no wonder writers and artists flock here over the decades. The vistas are unmatchable.
But Steinbeck. I was first hit as I toured Cannery Row, which is now a giant consumer-wonderland. Which is fine. I bought a souvenir or two, some t-shirts for my son. A refrigerator magnet. I'm a sucker for that stuff, within reason. My first day there, as I was walking up and down the streets, weary from a few hours in the car after leaving San Francisco, I snuck around back, behind a closed shop, to the boardwalk. Or pier, whichever. All the chairs were turned upside-down on the tables; this particular deck was empty.
I considered Steinbeck's writing, his growing up in Salinas, and his visits to this very bay and other points along the coast. And the man, the good friend Ed Ricketts, who inspired Doc. His trouble with marriage and relationships, in general. And the water! Oh, it's impressive. Overwhelming.
I had read a little bit about Steinbeck the night before, because someone in San Francisco mentioned that the area was great for writers, being that it's "Steinbeck-land." Now, of course, I knew who he was, I read Of Mice and Men in school. Grapes of Wrath. I did the assigned reading, but never delved fully into the man that he was: his motivations, his sorrows, his dreams.
As I toured the area and the Steinbeck exhibit in Salinas, and as I read more about the man... I felt such heartbreak. Disillusionment. Internal battle. Here was a man who saw great injustices and great stories and he had to get them out. He had to. And they were good stories with great themes. What I found heartbreaking, nearly tragic, was how his novel The Winter of Our Discontent was received and critiqued, as it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it was more than that.
John Steinbeck was a highly sensitive man, it would seem. A deep, mysterious, brooding, Piscean artist, who felt that the world was spinning off its rails, losing its morality. He saw the coming of the fifties and sixties and to him it was a breakdown in society and decent values. He felt things deeply. He felt his world crumbling and wanted to write about it. Fight it, perhaps. But at a minimum, provide a chronicle. He went out on the road with his dog, Charley, and wanted to revisit and recapture the America that he once knew, after spending time away, in New York and Long Island. he wanted to see real people, small towns, local bars, not the affluence and facade that he'd been living in.
"I nearly always write - just as I nearly always breathe..." - John Steinbeck
And later, when his novel was shunned so hard, despite praise from others, he put his pen down and never wrote another novel. And to feel that kind of pain and humiliation inside, is just heartbreaking to me. And I could feel how soothing those waters were, and must've been, to him. And to so many.
In reading Travels With Charley, just now, being that I was so taken with the man and his story and his need to see the country... I can't help but reach back and pull some lessons out...or some parallels, at a minimum. It's what I do.
Steinbeck came from a family of Republicans, and changed a bit when he saw more of the world and got out his his hometown. His perspectives on Life changed. When he'd returned home, arguments would ensue:
"Let's just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight." And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other.
And so it was, and so it still is. Steinbeck knew he was nearing his last days. He felt his world deteriorating. I can't imagine the ache inside. Well, actually, I can. I think so many of us can, which is why he and so many writers like him are so resonant. Particularly now, in this climate, when the world feels divided and torn up, much like it did then. Those of us who truly do feel deeply want to find things to mend; to help that ache. And it's a humanity-sized ache, a global ache. There is a real and dire need to heal someone, something, anything, everything. Or a touch of madness grows in the absence of that longed-for resolution. And in that madness, oh, does distraction blossom. Numb, numb, numb the ache. With a drug, a habit, a spoon, a television, a drink, an over-zealous need to disappear into something other than what is, rather than live a healthy balanced life. And it's not easy, we've all got our things. Hopefully our addictions don't harm and make us ill.
And how did moderation become such a rogue idea?
We seem to be commanded by a world that favors extremes. Extremes in diet, in entertainment, in lifestyles, in just about everything. Nice, easy, simple living has become a lifestyle choice, something that has to be taught and remembered, rather than...just how things are. We have to be told and reminded with blips and beeps and timers and gadgets to relax and breathe and sleep and eat. I get it, John Steinbeck, I get it. The players have changed, the scenery is different, but it's the same game. And now, we have the internet. And do you know how often you're meme'd John? A lot.
I walked the coast again, and thought, in imaginary conversation with this writer I'd become enmeshed and obsessed with...
Despite the flack you got about that one book, John Steinbeck, I mean... wow, man. You did it. Didn't you? Your books are required reading in schools and libraries. Iconic. Champion of writing the proletariat. Great sense of place and giving voice to the everyman. You are part of the canon, good sir. I wish you could've seen it happen, in the flesh.