I love work. I love work so much I will make up jobs for myself if I’m not careful. When I was learning to read, I loved the flash cards that my mother had taped all over the house. I couldn't get enough. I especially loved getting the compound words right—toothbrush, bathtub. Starting early, I had an enormous ability to focus on one task and block everything out. I remember being in my high chair, making a low, steady hum while I slowly pushed peas across my plate into a pattern. I’d be terribly startled when I was interrupted.
It was with this singularity of focus that I attacked the acorns the year my father drove off in our car. I waddled around the backyard, squatting and gathering until my pink plastic wheelbarrow with the yellow handles could hold no more. I understood that the seed for a tree lived in each acorn, and also that the squirrels ate them.
I gathered them for the squirrels.
They thought I had stomach ulcers when I was four years old. I’m not sure who “they” were, or what my symptoms were, but I do remember visiting a lady once. My mother and I climbed a long, narrow flight of white stairs, past a window on the right. Once at the top, I was offered a tiny chair at a tiny table. The table had a clear plastic bear with a yellow cap on it, and I was told the bear was filled with honey. I didn’t know what honey was, but I was fascinated by the bear. My not touching it only increased my longing.
I had no idea why we were there, but my mother seemed relaxed. She sat just out of reach to my left, while the woman sat on the other side of the table and tried to start a conversation with me. I decided we must be on a visit, except…this woman was focused on me, which was unlike most visits my mother and I made. She kept trying to pull my attention from the bear. Suddenly, I understood that she and my mother wanted to know something, something only I would know. Only I didn’t know, I didn’t even understand the question. My ribcage tightened, my breath went shallow, and the place where the back of my neck joined the back of my head grew still. I didn’t know what to do, so I began nodding helpfully in response to her questions.
We didn’t stay long. No one was angry, but I sensed that I’d not been as helpful as they had hoped I’d be.
Around this time, water blisters started springing up on the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands. At night I’d scratch until I bled. The gloves and Neosporin wouldn't stay on. I treated my fingernails like the betrayals they were, tearing at their soft moons until I reached the nailbed, in the hopes that, since I couldn’t control the scratching, I could minimize their damage. Besides the water blisters, and the fingernails, there were bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia that made me cough ‘til my breath ran out; I’d sweat Vicks and Dimetapp in my great-grandmother’s quilt while my mother sweetly sang, “Rock-ity-ock-ity-ock-ity-ock.” When I grew too large to rock, and the hospital bills grew too large to pay, my mother grew impatient, and would snap at me if I sneezed.
My body was an enemy I failed to control. I lumbered around in white orthopedic boots for years to no avail. At some point it was discovered that I badly needed glasses. I couldn't swallow my green Drixoral pills, so my mother would crush them between two spoons and pour a little milk in, but still I'd sputter. When my mother started working, she began taking naps. She’d pin me with her leg to keep me safe while she slept, and I learned to smooth my breathing so I wouldn’t accidentally wake her. She’d hold me down on the floor and pinch my face with her long fingernails, telling me to stop crying, that she was cleaning my skin. Because of these lessons in not struggling, I didn’t protest when an allergist covered my back with pinpricks, only to find out I was a little bit allergic to a lot of things.
By far, my biggest failure was my inability to fall asleep. If I were happy, I’d softly sing to myself. Some nights, my mother would tiptoe in, stand over me, and then say, “I know you’re awake. Your breathing’s uneven and I can see your eyes moving around,” the flashlight making bright patterns through my eyelids. Left alone, I’d lie on my side at night and stare through the safety bars at the blurry nightlight that I knew was a witch, while Doggie protected me from whatever might sneak up on the other side. Doggie loved me, but he had no language, seeing as he was a stuffed dog, so I began to have imaginary conversations with a man I called Freud. I had no idea who Sigmund Freud was, but I’d watched cartoon characters lie on sofas and share their sorrows with a gray-bearded man named Freud who had all the answers but refused to share them. He’d listen long after my mother’s light clicked off.
Over my bed was a poster of a little girl in a field of daisies that said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I took the poster seriously, wanting to wake up perfect each morning. I even tried to fall asleep with my hands folded in prayer under my chin, like in my picture books. I wanted to be a nun, though we weren’t Catholic, and I didn’t really know what a nun was. I only knew that I wanted to devote myself to perfection. Unfortunately, each day only brought more and more evidence that I was far from perfect. I couldn’t ever be small enough, and I fervently wished that I’d stop growing. I wanted, needed, to be invisible, and I never stopped trying.
So I began a series of negotiations and agreements with myself that lasted for over three decades. It was a methodical approach involving a series of If-Then statements, designed to improve my behavior through a logical process of elimination.
I was determined to succeed.
i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)