Monthly Archives: December 2011

How Snoopy Ended Up in the Oven

I knew something was amiss when my brother, no more than 24 at the time, appeared at my high school in his bright orange Toyota Corolla, mid-week, at the end of the school day. He worked in Manhattan and lived in Queens so his sudden appearance made no sense.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked, always happy to see him, but posed the question with a great degree of trepidation.

“Well,” he said, having to steel himself before continuing, “Mom has you booked on a flight to California. Tonight.” I knew what this meant. I was being shunted to my father’s in Los Angeles.

I have no memory of what I said as I sunk into the passenger seat. I had become numb to certain blows in my life, but this was a big one, bigger even than my mother’s half-hearted suicide attempts I had endured since I was nine. This was her controlling MY life, not her own. This was her taking her index finger and flicking me across the country like a menacing mosquito. Flick.

“I’ve cancelled your flight. You’re going to come stay with me until we figure this out.”

This was all happening way too fast. I was in 10th grade with several weeks until the semester ended. My brother lived a good 35 minutes away and would have to drive me to Long Island and then drive to the city, and then somehow reverse it all at the end of the day. California was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I had an incredibly full life. Why was this happening??

“We’ve got to go to the apartment to get your stuff,” he said.

“Is she there?” I asked with pure anger and fear. “Do you know why this is happening?”

“Yes, she’s there. She apparently read your diary and thinks your using drugs.”

“WHAT?” This was all way too much to process.

“She read something about your friends using cocaine and doesn’t think you should live around them anymore.”

Okay. This was the biggest stretch I had ever heard. I had no desire or inclination, at 15, to try cocaine. I was a really good kid with good judgment who had only smoked pot a handful of times and had absolutely no interest in alcohol.

Our apartment was only about a 15-minute drive from school and in that short time my numbness started to churn into anger. When my brother and I let ourselves in my mother was sitting on our orange couch, in the corner where she spent her days when she wasn’t laying in total darkness in her bed, discolored and worn from her constant presence. I stood across the room from her, my brother by my side, and seethed. I don’t remember my words, but I remember the feeling, an anger so deep in my chest that if I wasn’t human, I would have roared. She just sat there and stared at me.

“WHERE’S MY DIARY?” I screamed.

“I’m not giving it back,” she said with a look of defiance so icy cold that I wanted to shake her.

“Mom, give it back to her,” my brother said.

She said she was keeping it as “evidence” that I was hanging around with the wrong crowd. She said that she also didn’t like the way I was writing things about her.

“GIVE IT BACK,” I said much more insistently.

I’m not sure what finally convinced her, but she went into the kitchen and came back with a singed copy, burnt to a crisp around the edges, the Snoopy cover fallen off its binding. She had tried to burn my diary in the oven.

There were pink square pieces of paper with her name on them marking certain pages. I later had a chance to see what was so compelling, so awful that it made her choose to banish me to an unknown place where my father and his girlfriend had JUST moved in together. Most of those pink squares have since fallen out but most of my teenaged words were typical of adolescence, nothing more incriminating than crushes and the occasional curse word.

How does a 15-yr old process something like this? I went through the motions of grabbing some stuff, not knowing how long it would be until all of this was resolved. I went to my brother’s who, for at least three weeks drove me to school every day, slept on the floor of his bedroom, and who entertained me, with his wonderful roommate, with their rendition of Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd being “two wild and crazy guys.”

With many steps in between, including an amazing surprise going-away party that my friends held for me at a restaurant, I did end up spending the second half of 10th grade in the affluence of Los Angeles. I have never felt more out of my element. The school was HUGE with trailers for some classrooms, where I initially hung around with the misfit crowd in my neighborhood. I met my first gay friend who belted out songs of angst by Linda Ronstadt and Heart. Things got a bit complicated when we met a boy in our neighborhood and found ourselves both falling in love with him.

For my father and his girlfriend (now his wife) the timing couldn’t be more horrendous. They had lived together for less than a month before I landed in their laps. Things were not easy for any of us. The prevailing theme was that I had been sent there to be a spy, a pawn, in my father’s new life. By the end of 10th grade, it was decided, with not so subtle prompting from my father that I attend boarding school back east. The place was my savior.

I took with me years of deep scars and met my peers, some with even deeper ones. We were all a bit beyond our years that had been accelerated by uncustomary life experience and we all were made to feel safe as we transcended the history that came with us, protected by the stunning Berkshire mountains, and, each other.

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
–Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy”

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
– Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird”

This morning in my prison writing workshop, a young woman awaiting sentencing broke down in tears as she shared that she had recently been falsely accused of assault. There is no doubt in my mind that she was telling the truth. The circumstances were more guilt by association and she had the strong feeling that she was judged solely on the color of her skin.

“I’ve never laid my hands on ANYBODY,” she said emphatically and convinced me more than anything I have ever been convinced of in my life.

Usually, when a woman in the class ends up in tears, and it has happened in every class I’ve led, the other women keep quiet for a moment, let her cry and then comfort her. Today was a very different scenario, the women dishing out more tough love than compassion. Even her cellmate, who had grown very fond of her, described it as a “lesson,” one that should remind her to start hanging out with a different crowd. Another said to make sure that in any car she’s in the head and brake lights work, that there are no “works” in the car, and other necessary precautions to keep her from being an obvious target. She continued to cry and said “All I want is to be home with my babies for Christmas, and instead I’m here.” It was devastating and I PRAY that the judge believes her and that all she gets is a slap on the wrist and gets to go home to her “babies.”

After the class there was an “inspirational concert” performed by 9 inmates led by one of the incredible social workers who work in the program. The concert was combined with a “graduation” from the 2-week orientation program and a celebration of a few women who had completed their GED. It took one woman 6 years, but she did it, and when she stood up to accept her certificate, the pride on her face was immeasurable.

Before the concert I wondered what could possibly inspire these women to move them to sing. They were in prison, many withdrawing from drugs, most having had their children taken away, but they still wanted to sing. The first of three spirituals that they sang is called “Precious Lamb of God,” and the message couldn’t be more clear:

When I always didn’t do right
I went left, He told me to go right
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears, Lord
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

Even when I broke Your heart
my sins tore us apart
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

New life can begin
for You washed away, washed away every one of my sins
Whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed
claim You to be the Lamb of God.

One of the women from my morning class had previously said people always assumed she was mean because she never smiled. She sang a magnificent solo and a smile never left her face. The women giggled when they messed up a lyric or when their little dance moves got of sync, but, they were up there, having fun, lifting their voices up to the prison ceiling, the officers in uniform on the stairs above, and I guess, to God.

At the end of the ceremony, an administrator gently acknowledged that yes, the holidays were coming, and yes, they were not in an ideal setting. I had asked one of the staff earlier what happens on Christmas day and she said, “It’s just like any other day.” When the woman said to the crowd, “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,” and the women nodded their heads and said “You’re right,” I understood what she was saying. They could be dead, they could be stumbling through traffic high on meth, they could be jerking off some stranger for $5.00 so they could buy a pack of cigarettes.

We all have our version of “worse,” and we are all so quick to judge women like the ones I spend an hour with every other week. Clearly, this time of year is spun as a time of gratitude but for so many people, there seems to be little to be grateful for. However, if all it takes is to sing to make us feel inspired, and to make us laugh at ourselves for forgetting the words to a song, well, I’ve learned yet one more thing from these incredibly strong women.