G is for Goat

At Chatterton Elementary in 1969, I was that girl. The one who laughed at the teacher’s jokes.   Seated in the front of the class, pencil at the ready, eagerly awaiting the inspiring flow of knowledge that I would record in my marbled composition notebook.  It was the first grade after all and I had much to learn.  Who better to teach me than Miss Ashley, young and pretty with blonde hair and delicate features.  Previous teachers in my NY public school had been boisterously autocratic;  Miss Ashley ruled her classroom with soft-spoken authority.   

We were practicing spelling and penmanship, so each morning after securing your coat and lunch in your cubby, you took a ditto from the pile on the teacher’s desk and sat down to work. I would pick a paper careful not to smear the freshly mimeographed ink and, with sharpened pencil, painstakingly write out the letter and word of the day.  

On this day, it was G.  I grabbed my paper, smiled at Miss Ashley and got to work.  Today’s letter: G.  GGG.  G is for goat.  Goat goat goat.  Hmm.  No, I thought.  Not good enough.  I erased the goats and tried again.  Goat. Goat.  Ugh.  Why are G’s so hard?  I erased the goats again, but this time, the eraser smudged and tore the paper.  Frustrated, I crumpled it up, threw it in the bin, and went to take another ditto.

“What are you doing?”  I heard from the desk.  Miss Ashley peered up at  me from over her grading.  I made a mistake, I explained, and need a new paper.  “Let me see it.”  she responded.  What? You want me to into the trash for my paper?  I wasn’t squeamish, but I didn’t want to have to show such terrible work to my Miss Ashley. I was not however so bold as to disobey an order. 

“It’s dirty,” I complained. “Let me see it”  she responded.  I had no choice.  I reached in and plucked the regrettably clean but crumpled worksheet from the trash.  “Smooth it out and complete the work.  On that ditto.”  She made sharp eye contact with me, then returned to her own work.  

I walked back to my seat convinced the entire class had witnessed my humiliation.  Hot little tears fell to the page as I wrote my jagged g’s and slid the finished paper under the others.  When the project was ended with the Z is for zebra page,  we were each presented with our ABC booklet.  I tore mine up on the way home, stuffing the remnants into trash cans as I walked.  The intervening weeks had not doused the fury ignited by my public frustration.  

Worst of all was the idea that I was forever tarnished in Miss Ashely’s eyes, an imperfect and worse pettish child.  I had shown my true colors and we could never return to her prior affection for me.  All that was left was to wait out the term and start fresh with a new teacher.  

So I bided my time, doing the best work I could, knowing it would never balance out my mistakes.  In fact, no matter how hard I tried, I could never manage to avoid mistakes.  A few years later, my fifth grade teacher, who was no Miss Ashley, handed back a math paper with a cutting “always a 99 and never a 100, eh Margaret.”  

She knew.  They all knew.  I was irredeemably imperfect.   Well, I knew my course.

Thus began an obsession with perfectionism that persists to this day.  More to the point however, is the obsession with the flaw.  Of all those letters, all 26 of them, 25 were perfectly good.  Only one was flawed.  Only the G, but over five decades later, it is the only one I remember in absolute detail.  

Unmade Beds

It was the spring of 1998 and my mother lay dying.

It was her second cancer diagnosis in 2 years and, despite being relatively young, by the time she started treatment she had already chosen her fate.  I could see the difference in her attitude, watched helplessly as she slipped past us, the living.

That is not to say that she went quietly, for Marie went no where quietly.  Nor was she a fighter. No, Marie was more a fatalist given to bitter surrender.  She had surprised me and my father with her optimism during her first diagnosis, proclaiming, “One day at a time!” as she marched to each radiation session.  That response had seemed so out of character that when she refused treatment the second time, I almost didn’t protest.  Almost.  The cancer wasn’t aggressive, the prognosis encouraging.  I convinced her to start chemotherapy, with the inducement of getting to know her two young grandsons better.  

Then the cancer spread to her brain.

It was my birthday and I hadn’t heard from her which wasn’t so unusual that I was immediately concerned.  My own calls went unanswered and as evening settled, I became uneasy.  My parents were only in their 60s but they were already old and my mother in particular did not like to be out after dark.  I called her brother who insisted I was overreacting.  He had seen them a couple of days before and all was well.  

All however was not well.  Marie was in the hospital possibly suffering from a stroke.  She was listing to one side and had fallen and struck her head on the dresser.  I packed up my sons and drove the 300 miles to New York that morning, then dropped the boys at my in-laws to drive the final 100 miles to the hospital arriving late afternoon. 

When the test results returned, it was found that the cancer had metastasized leaving her left side weak and her speech confused.  She had walked into the hospital the day before;  she would never walk again.  

A year prior I had quit my doctoral program to help take care of my father who was undergoing  treatment for colon cancer and to try my hand at being a better mother to my new baby and my 2 year old toddler.  Now, I moved us into my parents’ house and set about making Marie comfortable.  We arranged for hospice, a hospital bed, a wheelchair. She stopped all treatments.  Her moods became erratic, laced with paranoia of which my father was the target.  She accused him of poisoning her, of cutting holes in the ceiling for insects to come in.  She was brutal to him.  

Mind you, despite having celebrated their 40th anniversary in between cancer battles the previous autumn, my parents’ marriage was not a happy one.  Still, Frank was kind and in her illnesses tried sincerely to do things to bring her pleasure.  After a particularly long night enduring her ranting,  my father approached me, his light blue eyes blinking with emotion.  “You have to talk with her, make her get treatment.  She’s not right in the head.”  Exhausted, I stared back.  “Of course she isn’t right in the head,” I snapped.  “She has a brain tumor.  This is as good as it gets.”  I returned to whatever chore I was tending to; he walked silently by me.  

We were both brutal to Frank at times.  

One night, Marie awoke around 2AM in a violent frenzy.  Frank came to the living room where I was sleeping on the couch.  You need to deal with her, he said.  I just can’t.  I don’t  know where he went, somewhere away from the heat and smell of the sick room.  I cleaned her up and gave her medication.  She was on low doses of morphine at this point and the dose had a fast effect.  I hugged her to me to reposition her in the bed.  As I lay her down into the pillow, I cooed, “It’s all right, Mom.  It’s all right”   She grabbed my arms and looked into my eyes.  My mother had dark brown eyes made black and large by the morphine.  “It’s not all right,” she said.  “It was never all right.”

In the midst of the caregiving and the dying, her declaration got temporarily lost.  The end would come quickly, within a month of the diagnosis, a few days before Mother’s day.  With all the nursing and emotions flying around those last weeks, I never had the chance to think about those words, among the last she spoke to me coherently. 

The ineffable sadness of that statement packed a one-two punch.  The first time was a few short months following her funeral as I sat with my brother-in-law.  He was waxing philosophical as older brothers do, and reminding me that we all must accept our fate.  “You look at your life and realize that this is what it is and what it’s going to be for the next 10 or 20 years.  And you need to be good with that.”  A shrill of terror resounded through my body.  Was this as good as it got?  I remembered Marie’s long elegant fingers gripping my arms, “it was never all right.”  No, I decided, no way am I going to my death with that burden on my soul.  If it is never all right for me, it won’t be for lack of trying.  Fear isn’t going to pin me in place like moth on a board.  

In the years that followed, there were plenty of false starts and dead ends.  I tried teaching again and failed miserably.  I tried to start my own business – another financial disaster. Still I kept trying to find something that would keep me afloat, financially, emotionally, spiritually. 

Then my widowed father came out as a woman.  Cindy Lou.  She arrived in bad wigs and high heels, with no sense of boundary, disclosing far more personal information  than I ever wanted to know, especially as concerned life with Marie.  I had lived there too and knew how cruel she could be when drinking, which was most days.  She had known, my father told me, she had walked in on him dressed up during the first year of their marriage back in the late 50’s.  There was no option for them to divorce;  the Church and the shame had them shackled.  They adopted a child and pretended it was all right. 

It was never all right.  I had always sensed that without ever understanding why.  Now that I understood, it was seemed tragic but also galvanizing;  I wanted more than all right, to somehow honor my parents by living boldly, something which would have horrified them while secretly I’d like to think making them happy.   Marie never wanted me to suffer as she did, to live as she had. She wanted more than all right for me, even if that was too frightening for her to articulate or live herself.  

I have started to sneeze like my mother.  I’m not certain when this began to happen, when my delicately discreet sneezes morphed into cartoonish achoos.  She sneezed only in the singular perhaps because they were so boundlessly unrestrained.  Indeed it might have been the only thing about my mother that was spontaneous.  Even comical.  Marie was a decidedly unfunny person.  In all the memories I have, I can not recall the sound of her laughter, but then, I recall few sounds from my childhood.  There was a thick yet fragile silence  that I feared shattering. I learned to walk soundlessly and play inside my mind so as not to disturb the adult world in the next room.  

Nevertheless, my childhood was not without its joys and my mother was the towering figure in it.  We did not play or cook or chat together, but I knew she was there.  Despite the anger and distance, she was showing up as best she could.  And if needs be, she would show up more substantially, just as long as I didn’t get all frivolous about the expectation.  Life was difficult, full of dangers and stresses, her life seemed to say, but here I am, still here, despite not wanting to be, despite the lose of my potential, of my youth.  You make your bed, you lie in it was one of her pet sayings.  How much happier could she have been if she had left her bed unmade a few times. 

Nice Legs

Cindy Lou Who

In honor of what would have been my father’s 97th birthday and transgender awareness week.  

Once my mother, Marie, had died,my father Frank hoarded, buying multiple versions of the same items, stockpiling canned goods and paper products.  It’s been over 15 years since his death and only recently have I finally used the last of the plastic wrap (What?  Was I supposed to throw out perfectly good cling-wrap?)  My adoptive father, Frank, was born in 1926.  The first born son of a depression-era family, he grew up to be highly responsible, emotionally unaware, and fearful of scarcity. 

He’d impressed me in those early post-Marie months with his resilience.  My mother had been the dominant figure, the keeper of the finances, and Frank had always seemed so easily subject to her will.  Once freed from restraint, he went on a shopping spree, bought a boat and a car, fishing gear, and a computer.  He’d even gone to the library for classes on how to email and use the Internet and had started sending me the occasional updates.   

Then, on a summer Sunday in 1998, I opened one such update and gazed upon the small, blurry picture of a mini-skirted, blonde-wigged individual, attempting a seductive pose.  “I’ve always wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe, “ it read. “What do you think?”

My first thought was that it had t be some sort of joke.  Some teenaged cousin must have hacked into the account.  This was obviously a reconfigured photograph from some outside source.  MY father, my silent, 72 year old, blue collar father, was NOT wearing a push-up bra and fuck-me heels.  I dialed the phone.  He picked up on the first ring.  “I guess you got my email.”


“What do you think?”  he asked.  I replied, as any daughter might:

“Nice legs.”

In fact, Frank always did have great gams. They were slender, nicely muscled and shapely, and as a chubby teenager, I was envious of them.  I was never comfortable in short skirts and certainly could never pull off anything like the come-hither glare of that person in the photo.  Nor did that align with the man I knew as my father.  Frank was a demure figure, standing obediently holding bags in the sweltering heat of Alexander’s department store during the annual school clothes shopping ordeal.  He would smile and wave, twiddling his fingers at me, when he would come home from work.  I recall no conversation from him beyond, “how are you, little girl?”  As that little girl, I adored him, until I didn’t, which is a tale for another day.  

The  final 12 years of Frank’s life were lived in larger part as a woman named Cynthia Lou Ann Brown.   Those years were not unproblematic – Frank was an alcoholic and a cancer-survivor and never particularly aware of the emotional lives of those around him.  He was never cruel or cold; he never demanded excellence or affection or anything much really.  Mostly he was oblivious in a wide-eyed sort of way.  And so was she.  Cindy.  My dad. 

Maybe that was a way of dealing with the suffering especially once he stopped drinking: the grief of losing his wife, whom he loved despite the harsh realities of their marriage;  the rejection of his brothers – not because of her transgenderism as it happens, rather one of  the aforementioned harsh realities of  life with Marie.  And then, the Big One.  What kind of existential pain is it, to question something so integral as your gender?  I’ve dealt with plenty of existential crises in my day, clinical and post-partum depression, trauma et alia, but I’m a girl and a girl I’ll always be.  It never enters my consciousness. It simply is.   What does that do to you when it simply isn’t?  Moreover, when it isn’t AND it’s 1944 and World War II is pulling all members of the greatest generation into its maw?  That he drank, and drank heavily, is no longer a mystery for me, nor are the difficulties of his marital relationship.  That he was able to transcend all of that and live as he wanted, as she wanted, is more intriguing.  Frank was not a brave man, but Cindy, she was flamboyant and talkative and social.  What power it gave to that soul, to live in the way it was meant to live.  To sing its unique song as both Frank and Cindy.  She hit upon it without ever hearing about “alignment” or “living authentically.”  She just lived.  

When my father died, we gave her a small memorial service.  It wasn’t what her girlfriend wanted, nor her sister, but once it was over, to me, it seemed perfect.  At its end, one of her friends, an AA buddy named Banjo Jack, whipped out his guitar, strummed its raucously untuned strings and led the small group in Amazing Grace.  The lost soul that was Frank found its home in Cindy.  My father was free.

I am the Worst Swimmer

I am the worst swimmer. 

Seriously, I sink like a stone, despite my fairly compact size. Maybe because of my compact size,  I suffer an excess of density.   Worse still, I tend to panic in deep water.  When I was a child, my mother who grew up in a fishing village and was a very elegant swimmer, sent me for private lessons.  Shy and self-conscious, I hated the one-on-one attention from the instructor. One class he told me he had a cold and wouldn’t be going into the pool with me.  The end result of his self-care was that I found myself in the deep end in a terror.  He stuck his leg into the pool for me to grab onto.  I can still see it, glowing white, a disembodied calf floating towards me.  

I returned for the next several lessons, but I was never able to breath correctly in the water again.  The only time I can, the only stroke I can do for any length of time, is when I’m on my back looking up, floating.  And even then, the tendency to strive is strong, so I start moving my limbs and the next thing I’m turned round, face in the water, thrashing away in a mad woman’s attempt to swim.  

Needless to say I avoid the ocean.  Any shark within a ten mile radius would think there’s some plump baby seal in distress out there ripe for the eating. 

We talk about people floating through life, and I’ve always been one to scorn that sort of thing.  If it ain’t hard, it ain’t worth doing.  There’s a point there, many good and desirable things to take effort.  Strong long-term relationships, new skills, mountaintops, depths.  There is however also something to be said for floating.  For surrender.

I don’t do surrender any better than I do swimming.  You won’t find me on the beach very often. For me, it’s the mountains, cool clear air, the scent of pine, mossy rocks, cairns above the treeline. I love the scramble, knees scraping against the rock, squeezing through splits in the granite.  I arrive at summits glasses foggy, drenched in sweat, triumphant.  

It’s exhausting.  A good kind of exhausting, exhilarating even, but nevertheless, not something you can do day in, day out, literally or metaphorically speaking.

Several times over the years, I’ve worked at surrender.  I’ve sat visualizing myself unloading boxes of stresses and faces to lay at the feet of some version of god.  I’ve ritualized letting go of what no longer serves.  I’ve run great distances to get away.  None of that really works.  Oddly enough, I’ve found all you need do is ask.  Ask and it shall be given to you.  You just need to notice that it happened – pay attention- which is something again I don’t always do.  

I suffer from revelation envy.  You read these stories of people whose lives turned on the dime.  Those grand epiphanies where everything became clear, scales falling from their eyes, paradigms shifting like curtains on a new act in a play.  Maybe we’re not all meant for that. LIke body types that need different exercises and nutrients, we each have different routes.  I’m not a floater and I may never get the hang of that.  It doesn’t make me wrong or less spiritual or farther from Truth or God or anything.  I have my own path.  It’s more switchback going from deep cool sometimes very dark and frightening woods to opening vistas and aback again into the bush.  Surrender also means accepting that, loving it, and being excited to see where it goes.  It might be nice to float for a while, like when you hit a plateau in climbing.  Necessary even – when you hit those vistas, you’re crazy not to stop and drink them in, refresh yourself.  Otherwise you’re not going much farther, not on those shaky legs.   We need to rest, to soak, to take it all in before moving forward again.  Otherwise how will you incorporate the insight that climb has granted you?  

Prufrock’s Well

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

For me there is no more tragic, aching line of poetry than this from the closing of T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  There is a beauty, sublime and magical, out there that is beyond our reach and worth.  The tragedy of J. Alfred and many of us is that we do not bother to listen, because we think we can never hear.  We do not ask the “overwhelming questions” because we fear.  We fear to ask, we fear the responses, we fear what those responses might require of us.  We live in a constant state of treading water, arms flailing, the waves threatening to overcome us.  If only we can get ahead, swim to shore, we’d be safe.  Whole.  Happy.

I have struggled with depression my entire life.  My first bout was as a young child, 5 or 6.  Back in the late 60’s, no one looked for signs of trauma or mental illness in children. My homelife was unstable, wracked with alcoholism and anger, which, while not always directed at me, nevertheless seemed to me to be all my fault.  As an adopted child, I lived in fear of being sent back.  To what, I had no idea.  I had been adopted when I was old enough to speak, but too young to recollect.  As a girl, I would listen at the door of my room for hints that my parents were making arrangements for my removal.  These were my childish imaginings.  My parents never threatened or alluded to such a betrayal.  Nor did I ever voice the terrors that woke me at night for fear that discovery would force their hand,  so there was no way for them to assuage my paranoia and deep sadness. 

Thus it grew over the years, sullen and silently as a teenager, rebelliously as a 20-something.  I gathered to me relationships with people who confirmed my unworthiness.  I sought experiences that would help me to justify my existence.  The outward face of Sister Margaret, shy, church-going, innocent, belied the angry, desolate soul that cannibalized itself in quiet hours.  It would take decades to exorcise that demon and surrender the rage and hopelessness, to overcome the ineffable worthlessness of my being.  

Even now, as I edge toward my 60’s, that well of inadequacy can still start to form around me.  Depression for me is rarely connected to circumstances or a surfeit of any one emotion.  I’m not sad, or unhappy, or grieving. Far from there being overwhelmingly emotion, there is an utter absence of emotion. I’m hollow, numb, amorphous.  Shape without form, shade without colour.

It’s like walking around in a cylinder made of wavy glass blocks.  You know, the ones that populated 80’s kitchens, clear but warped, light comes in diffracted and indistinct.  You can see the people outside; their voices float down from the open roof – we wouldn’t want to be protected from the rain in our funk after all! – but they do not penetrate.  They do not sing to me.

It has been several years since I’ve fallen into the well.  I have from time to time caught sight of the walls forming in the periphery of my gaze.  At such times, there are warnings that allow me to make choices that kick down the upper bricks.  It’s rare for one to spring up fully-formed anymore, but it has recently and with staggering force. The worst part is that you realize you’re not nearly as evolved as you had thought you were.  How dangerous to let those thoughts take hold.  How much more dangerous to fail to examine them from a distance and thus fail to grow.  

I started writing this blog as a travel journal preparing for my spiritual awakening in Nepal.  I’ve meandered through the past year’s pandemic induced maze, touching on this or that, never quite finding a path once Nepal was postponed (2023 now.)  Maybe I’ll just write about climbing out of the well, the small, arduous steps that takes each and every day.  

Step One.  Here we are.  

Nepal 2.0

I began this blog in 2019 as a chronicle of my trip to Nepal.   What preparations would be needed?  How would I train?  What fears or anticipations might arise?  I posted two short entries, test bounces before the plunge.

And then 2020 and the pandemic and numerous cancellations.  I rescheduled three separate times, finally to the March 2023 trek, which is now three months away.  I’ve paid my balance and reserved my tickets. 

It’s happening.

I feel a bit queasy frankly.  Maybe it’s anticipation of the altitude, or the expense, or the terror of traveling alone.  What kind of crazy is it to chose Nepal for your first trip?  I’ve done nothing, gone nowhere.  I’ve been off the North American continent exactly once, 43 years ago, and that with a group of American high school students. Shouldn’t I go first to somewhere closer, more familiar, like some island off the coast? Or maybe Europe?

Then again, when going into chilly waters, there’s no point in baby steps.  Dive in.  Absorb the shock. Come up for air and look around.  It should be amazing.  Right? 

Once again, I’m going to start chronicling my preparations here.  The physical part is straight-forward.   There’s a training program to work on knee stability and balance.  I’ll continue running and hiking to increase my stamina.  Breathing – there are exercises I’ll need to work on there too.  The mental and spiritual preparations will be more slippery.  How do I want to approach such an adventure?  How do you anticipate without the burden of too much expectation?  Is there something I’m looking for? 

Silly question. There are all manner of things, eternities that I am searching for. What will I find, that’s the mystery.