Seventh Grade

Summers were the antidote
For wounds inflicted by the words and silence
Of the cruelest people I know:
Children,
Blissfully unaware of empathy or mercy.

I donned a skirt I’d never worn–
Ill-fitting, handmade, and hand-me-downed–
Perhaps an attempt to play a different role in this year’s performance.

It was inappropriate armor for my return to battle.

On the front porch,
My father tried to coax a smile,
Or at least turn my sullen gaze toward the camera.

From there, I walked alone,
Clutching a bag lunch and a binder
Too grown to admit fear
Past the smokers
And knots of cool kids
To the front doors.

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Hold them very close, then drop them curbside

©2009/2013 Beret Olsen
©2009 Beret Olsen

The moment you announce that the free ride is over, that this parasite had better get out of your uterus, a tiny tyrant emerges, and you wonder if you might possibly cram it back inside, just to secure a few more moments of sanity and solitude.

This wee, adorable creature demands all of your time, attention, energy, and soul. There is nothing and no one else that matters as much. This is why cherished friendships shrivel, marriages are raked over the coals, and newish parents become unbearable. You are suddenly up at all hours of the day and night. You cannot finish a sentence or focus on anything uttered by an adult. Worst of all, the things you smirked and said you would never do, you see and hear yourself doing without apology.

A little shame, perhaps, but no apology.

The boundaries blend. It is not possible to distinguish where you end and where the child begins. You anticipate their needs, and punish yourself when you can’t identify or remedy a discomfort. They are the center of your universe.

And they grow.

Imagine that you are beside yourself  because you are stuck playing Barbies yet again. Each minute stretches into an eternity. You can feel yourself devolving, while politically astute essays you composed in a past life unwrite themselves in your head. You parade a stupid piece of malformed plastic around, babbling the required perky gibberish–all while secretly wondering, “what is the meaning of my life?”

And then, the very next time the Barbies come out from under the bed, just as you are mentally muttering obscenities, your daughter turns to you, and from her lips come the most surprising news.

“Mom.” Accompanying eyeroll. “We are playing in here. Please shut the door.”

A lump forms in your throat. You were already gearing up to feel resentful for the next 45 minutes. What are you supposed to do now?

Toire wa doko desuka?

A mini-post in honor of NaBloPoMo:  National Blog Posting Month.

NaNoWriMo is clearly out of my league this year, but I’m determined to use the energy surrounding the event to squeeze a little writing out of my keyboard on a daily basis.

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Before traveling to Japan last summer, my ten-year-old taught me six phrases:

Toire wa doko desuka? Where’s the bathroom?

Sumimasen. Sorry/excuse me.

Arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so much.

Gochiso-sama deshita! It has been a feast.

Ohaiyo gozaimasu/konnichiwa/konbanwa. Good morning/good day/good evening.

O-kanjo o onigai shimasu. May I please have the check?

But if I had to boil it down to the bare essentials, the top three would have done the job.

While in Tokyo, we had lunch with my brother’s in-laws, wandering afterward to Meiji Jingu, where he was married many years ago. Together, we pleasantly whiled away three hours, pointing, gesturing, smiling, looking at photos, exchanging gifts. It is astonishing how few words can communicate so much.

I suppose we couldn’t discuss the fine points of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, but I couldn’t do that in any language. I’m not advocating for monolingualism–so much of our history and culture is embedded in our words and silences. I am merely pointing out that speaking is not the same as communicating, and listening goes deeper than hearing words.

 

 

Ah, Halloween! Cow parts and unchaperoned children.

small halloween

I wore the same fairy costume for four years running.

My getup consisted of someone’s worn and baggy blue dress, a cardboard tiara, and a star covered with Reynolds’ Wrap and taped to a piece of dowel.

Back then, the time change came earlier in the Fall, so it was nice and dark early on the big night. Unfortunately, it was also ridiculously cold, and because my parents loved me, I had to wear a coat covering my costume. They probably did not recognize this as the great disappointment it was, especially since everyone had seen my costume numerous times already.

I’m pretty certain my sister was asked to look after me, but what junior high student wants a baby sister tagging along with her posse after dark? Consequently, I had free reign of the neighborhood from a staggeringly early age, and my candy was only stolen once. No other tragedy befell me.

I would wander, giddy and anxious, mesmerized both by the boisterous clumps of people I wasn’t sure I knew, and by my paper bag, swelling with forbidden sweets. I would take them home and count them, chart them, graph them. I would eat two or three pieces, then squirrel the rest away, doling it out so it would last until Easter–the next time we got a statistically significant dose of sugar.

Once I got a bit older, I branched out and tried new costumes, always outdone by the girl who lived catty-corner from us. How did she predict my costume three years in a row? My mummy costume was made out of an old sheet torn into strips, and held together by an array of safety pins. It drooped and exposed my sweat pants in embarrassing patches. Julie’s father was a doctor, however, so hers was made out of surgical wrapping that clung magically to her gloating face.

Multiply that stinging feeling by all three years. I suppose I would have developed lingering unpleasant feelings about the holiday were it not for the Halloween party we had in our basement the year I turned eleven.

In my opinion, all basements are inherently cold and creepy, and ours was no exception. Scariest of all was the storage room, with concrete walls and floors, and rickety metal shelving loaded with spider webs and long-forgotten boxes. We shoved a few things out of the way so we could guide blindfolded kids one at a time into its clutches.

Perched here and there on the shelves were a variety of bowls into which we plunged their unseeing hands. One held eyeballs, or peeled grapes, and another brains, which was clammy cooked spaghetti.

Things got weirder.

Once a year, my parents purchased a side of beef, which was cut and meticulously wrapped and nestled in the extra fridge in the basement–the one without a handle, that we wrenched open with a dish towel and a finely choreographed hip maneuver. We had no shortage of strange cow parts in the basement freezer, so we thawed a variety of organs to fill the other bowls.

Given the location and ingredients, I suspect that our haunted house would have been just as creepy without the blindfold. And though this may reflect poorly on me, I reveled in the yelps and screams of our guests, and later, their wide-eyed wonder when we revealed the bowls’ actual contents. I think most of them had hoped that what we passed off as a heart might not really be a heart.

The piece de résistance of the evening was the Ghost Cake with Flaming Eyes, however. I remember so clearly that feeling of triumph when we turned out the lights again and lit the eyes.

Ever since that night, Halloween has been my favorite holiday.

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

I wrote a whole post about my Ghost Cake on LobeStir. Here’s the link–you could make one, too!

Happy Halloween!

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–

Read this yesterday, and it snagged in my consciousness. Both sides speak well and truthfully. I think we have conflated strength and power with their cultural definitions, and it is helpful to step back and rethink. I had trouble posting this, though, and couldn’t get the youtube video to embed properly. The link to the poem’s performance is in there, and definitely worth a watch. It also provides the context for Rarasaur’s essay.

TO THE GIRL WITH THE “SHRINKING” MOTHER–

10/22/2013 · by  · in journals. ·

I listened to your poem last month, for the first time. I know, I’m a little late to the party. Your performance was in April.

It was sent my way via an article that said it explained the plight of women, who sacrifice for men. I’ll be honest. Activism that suggests someone is behind because someone else is ahead bothers me. Feminism along those lines is what makes me reject the label with a ferocity that would surprise most people– given that I am the “breadwinner” of my home, and in most ways live the feminist ideal. This type of activism suffocates me, and angers me, and limits my brothers and sisters alike– and though I didn’t intend to– I listened to that poem without a beginner’s mind. I sought offense, and I found it– even though your poem was great, and your performance was brilliant.

 

I wrote my own slam poetry response. The first parodied yours. Yours played on the idea that men of age are often significantly larger than their wives. Mine played off the idea that women live longer.

“Men of my family have been shaving away seconds of life, for women, for decades.”

The second poem I wrote was structured like yours as well, but along the way led into the idea that my mother is the strongest person I know.

This made me reassess my reaction to your poem, and create an alternate possibility that I’d like to share with you.

You see, I’m nearly 30, and it was just a smidge over a decade ago that I would have scoffed at the idea of my mother possessing any strength at all.

I could barely look her in the eye for a whole year of my teens.  She seemed like such a waste– this stunning, genius of a woman– reduced to a mother with a near broken back, working all the time for other people’s desires.  I don’t know if she’s ever slept more than 8 hours in a row.  As soon as she gains something, she gives it away– whether it was space, or knowledge, or money. Every time I saw her, I feared the same would happen to me.

I worried that I had been taught to drop my achievements at a moment’s notice– in the name of handcuffs created to hold women back– just because of my mom’s dedication to those same restrictions. I was worried that I was born into a kind of slavery.

squigg1And then there was the car accident.

You see, I have 5 brothers and sisters– so not everyone fits in one car.  My big brother had the baby seat, so he was following behind us with my baby sister.  The rest of us were with my mom.  It was a dark night and we were driving back from dropping my father at the airport– down a fast-moving, icy highway. There were black ice warnings out, and I was in the front seat because I could almost always spot the slippery stuff.

It started to snow, in torrents hard enough to push at the car, and then from the side mirror, I saw it. My brother’s car spun out of control and rolled off the road and down a hill. I screamed his name, and my mom– who witnessed the same thing– put her hand out on mine. She sang a song, to keep the kids in the back of the car asleep, and drove steadily on until there was a place to safely stop. There were tears running down her face, but her voice was clear. She parked the car on the side, put me in charge, took off her 2 inch heels, and walked into the dark snowstorm barefoot– bravely towards what could have been the mere bodies of her children.

squigg3I’m not sure on the details, but my brother’s car was started again, and pushed up the hill– and both he and my baby sister were fine.

When I saw my mom finally walking back to me, hours later, the sun was coming up– she was soaked through, and covered in dirt and blood.  She was holding her children– and a stranger– and she was smiling.

It occurred to me then that a passerbyer might see her as a woman down on her luck, in a position of weakness– but it was the most invulnerable thing I had ever seen. The sort of strength many people never get the chance to witness in a lifetime.

It sounds like you might have blessed by the benefit of an equally dedicated mother.

A dedication to sacrificing is such a brittle concept, and can look a lot like weakness– like late night trips to the fridge for yogurt and wine from a measuring cup– but it is more powerful than words or swords.
squigg5

I of course do not know your specific situation, but the next time you see her tucked away in a small space, consider the possibility that it is because she doesn’t need much space to live the life of her dreams, and that she has faith in your ability to do something brilliant with the extra room.

And next time you see worn hands, or a tired back, consider the idea that it is because she has made a priority out of carrying those who cannot move forward themselves.

When the people around her seem to grow at the cost of her loss, lookagain.  Their expansion is her battle cry.  She is victorious through nurture and sacrifice.

It is a power connected to the heart of the universe.  A strength that fueled a nun to care for lepers, and prompted a man to share a dream of equality.  It echoes through every positive change humans have ever seen, and grows every day under the protection of guardians like our moms.

Does that really sound like shrinking to you?  Because to me it sounds like something big enough to expand its way right past the hemmed edges of the galaxy.

squigg4I realize now that I wasn’t worried that I would becomemy mother. I was worried that I would never become the sort of person worth the sacrifices she made.

Snaps to you for showing off your power.  I hope you know that your mom is right to give to you: you are worthy of all the good this world has to offer.  If you can accept that truth, I think you’ll find you’ll stop apologizing for empowerment.  Just do good with it.

With love from a big sister born of the same big power,
Rara

_______________________________

I probably won’t respond to any comments about feminism, because it’s an issue that goes much deeper than my type of blog– but as always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts as long as you play nice.  This post has seen the light of day due to a Daily Post prompt, asking about the post I was most nervous to publish, and what it was like to set it free.  I’ll get back to you on that last part of the question depending on how scary my comment section ends up being.

Have you ever driven on black ice? It’s one of my top fears, even before this night.

To the girl with the “shrinking” mother–.

Separating the weirdly cool from the creepy.

There are plenty of cultural oddities for a whitey round-eye like me visiting Japan.

For starters:

Japanese Vending Machines.

_MG_0531 copy

Did you know Japan is about 500 degrees in the summer? Plus 99% humidity? Me neither. It’s so tidy and cool in the guidebooks. Everyone looks all nifty and suited up and un-sweaty-like. Have they photoshopped all of the melting tourists out of the pictures?

Luckily, every ten yards or so there stands a vending machine of happiness.

I’ve seen vending machines before, obviously, but not like these. They are tempting. They are sassy. And they dispense whatever you might desire: juice, milk, towels, ice cream, sweet iced coffee labeled BOSS. You can say whatever you need to say to that boss for 120 yen. That boss has been canned.

A great many vending machines are chock full of beer. Due to circumstances beyond my control, such nectar of the gods is strictly verboten. I struggled to avoid eye contact with the Asahi machines that cropped up on every other block. Given the weather, a cold beer looked damned tasty, even through the shower of perspiration raining down my face.

Oh, well. The spouse could always roll his cold can on the back of my neck.

Japanese Toilets.

From thejapans.files.wordpress.com
What to do? From thejapans.files.wordpress.com

It was a little alarming the first time I sat down and perused a toilet control panel, too terrified to push anything. What invasive and embarrassing activity might commence? It is a vulnerable feeling to bare your behind and then submit it to the great unknown.

My two girls were not so tentative. I heard them locked in a stall, screaming and shrieking with laughter. Lord knows what was going on in there, so I retreated to the hallway, cheeks a bit flushed.

One finally emerged, breathless. “Did you push the button with a musical note?” she asked. Turns out, it had played the Star Wars theme. If the line had been shorter, I might have gone back to give it a go.

Sadly, in most restrooms, the music button only makes a loud flushing sound, but now that the note button seemed safe, I decided to step-up my exploration.

What I discovered is that many of the options are surprisingly refreshing. In fact, it was disappointing to arrive back in the States and remember that our lackluster commodes do nothing besides give the ol’ heave-ho to a variety of deposits.

And now…a quick word about the seat heater. It might be a nice feature in certain specific circumstances. Like, in the middle of winter…in your own home. But it was downright lurky to sit on a hot public toilet. It made me think of bacteria multiplying, and about the last pair of bare buttocks that had rested on the very same spot.

Pit toilets on trains.

from --------.com
You have to STAND on the bench. Yikes. http://urutoranohihi.blogspot.com/2011/06/toilets-in-trains.html

Pit toilets and trains do not go together.

You may be imagining the pit on the ground, which would not be so bad. No. On trains, the pits are at commode level. You have to step a couple feet off the ground and clutch the safety rail for dear life, trying to maneuver your pants to the ankle area with your free hand. Alternately, you can use your free hand to tuck your skirt into your armpit.

Who decided it was a good idea to dangle your hind-side over a hole while hurtling through the countryside at 240 miles per hour? Avoid. Trust me.

Toilet Slippers.

from ---------
Regular slippers, from japan-guide.com

Never step on tatami mats while wearing shoes. You probably know that.

Here’s where things get strange:

from www.sarahbetheisinger.com
Please tell me that is an “N,” because it really looks like an “H.” from http://www.sarahbetheisinger.com

When you get to the restroom, you have to take off those REGULAR slippers and change into your TOILET SLIPPERS. God forbid you get your slippers confused.

When all this takes place in your postage-stamp sized hotel room, absurdity reigns. Imagine opening the door to your teeny tiny room, removing your shoes to put on your regular slippers, shuffling eighteen inches to the bathroom door and changing your footwear yet again.

Also, it felt ridiculous to have the word “toilet” written on my feet. At least dogs can’t read.

Pickles.

Pickles, pickles, pickles.

What is it with pickles?

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More pickles. Different pickles. Pickles as palate cleanser, as condiment, as garnish, as digestive.

It’s like the Eskimos with their snow, except you have to eat it.

Cat Cafés.

Menu of cats the day we visited.
Menu of cats the day we visited.

Traveling with children means you can’t simply do what the grown ups feel like doing all day everyday. In order to prevent a terrible snit–or worse, mutiny–we had to mix in destinations and activities that would amuse our tiny tyrants. Since we were trying to avoid places like Tokyo Disney, however, we tried to find things that were uniquely Japanese.

About two thirds of the way through our trip, the girls got very homesick, and started waxing nostalgic about our beloved, neglected cat at home. Cat Café, here we come.

The first cat café started in Korea, followed shortly thereafter by one in Osaka,  but the pet rental phenomenon really took root in Tokyo, where they have about 40 cat cafes. Since most apartments forbid pets, these places feed the need to find furry love and a little zen-like escape from the frenetic, crowded urban life. One can also find bunny bistros, dog cafes, and an occasional goat here and there, but cat lovers head to places like Nekorobi, in Ikebukuro.

This was a lovely respite for all of us, except the spouse, for whom one cat is definitely enough (if only barely tolerable). He amused himself around Ikebukuro, which is an interesting little pocket of Tokyo.

In case you are secretly judging me, this was not just a place for crazy cat ladies. People go there and play with cats, of course, but only when the cats are interested. Otherwise, people read, and sip coffee, and work, and do regular people activities.

Best of all, Nekorobi had fancy vending machines. They had cubbies and sci-fi toilets. They had regular slippers and bathroom slippers, bean bags, and wifi. And  cats.

Plus, no pickles or pit toilets. Perfect.

Couldn't read the menu, so I called this one Soul Patch. My fave.
Couldn’t read the menu, so I called this one Soul Patch. My fave.