The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

witching-hour

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

memory-box

Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone

 

Regrets

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I saw a wonderful new play last night, “A Sudden Spontaneous Event” at the Pure Theatre here in Charleston.

The play opens in Heaven’s waiting room and, without spoiling it, it deals with forgiveness and what one big do-over you would do if you got a second chance at life. It’s a beautiful play and I found myself wondering, as I walked home, what my do-over would be.

Of course, there are regrets, large and small. Ugliness and pettiness and betrayal. Things that would make me squirm if I were held to account. Most, I discover, are based on fear: fear of being abandoned, fear of not having enough, fear of being hurt if I didn’t hurt first.

But, if I had to choose, there is one small act that stands out as the first soul-killer.

I was never a bully in middle school. I tried to be nice to everyone, but mostly I felt like a junior anthropologist, observing from the outside what it took to be popular. Kathy rode my bus to and from, and she always sat alone. We talked every once in a while. She always seemed a bit sad, a bit more outside than I was, but I never considered her bullied – bullies were the playground loudmouths who pushed people.

Bit by bit, she confided her loneliness to me. I was different, she told me. I was kind.

Until the day someone did something to her. I don’t even remember what it was. I just remember she found me and collapsed into my arms in tears. Without thought, I put my arms around her. And looked over her shoulder. The commotion had brought the popular girls over, and they were all staring. At Kathy, but also at me.

I caught the eye of the most popular. And, over Kathy’s shoulder, I rolled my eyes. And betrayed the sobbing girl in my arms with just that careless, thoughtless gesture.

Kathy never knew. The popular girls opened their circle to me and Kathy gradually took the hint and stopped seeking me out. I ignored the puzzled, hurt looks she would occasionally throw my way on the bus.

There are worse things I have done in life. Hateful, angry things I wish I could take back. But none haunt me with the poignancy of that very first betrayal, the one that can still make me cringe when I remember. That would be my do-over.

Undo

Cool to Be Kind?

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Maybe it’s the election cycle; the politicians seem to be taking that whole “bully pulpit” thing literally.

Or maybe it goes back to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said the quote later attributed to sharp-witted writer Dorothy Parker: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Whatever the origins, it’s no longer cool to be kind. It’s more important to be clever.

Listening to the political ads, you might think that it’s all about survival of the fittest, and being fit means being unkind. Is it instinctive?

You might think so, except for some recent rodent studies.

We all have seen the wordless sympathy dogs can display when we’re down in the dumps or sick. With a soulful gaze and a head on our lap, dogs offer comfort.

But apparently, this instinct for kindness goes all the way down to rodent life.

A recent study at Emory University found that prairie voles would console one another through grooming, especially if they were from the same family. The study looked at the voles’ brain chemistry and found that fellow voles in distress caused the release of the same chemical – oxytocin – that is related to maternal nurturing and social bonding.

So if our more complex brains are similarly hard-wired for compassion, why do so many resort to bullying? Does that feel better than being kind?

Not if you believe the authors of the book, “On Kindness,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor.

They argue that kindness has become our forbidden pleasure.

“In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

I’m not one for self-deprivation. So, at the risk of no longer looking cool, I think I’m going to try a little more kindness. It may not get the laughs at parties, but I’m not sure that kind of laughter is the best medicine anyway.

Be Kind

The Right to Be Forgotten

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Google is battling France and the European Court of Justice  for the way it keeps data on individuals, especially if the data is out of date or inflammatory. People would be allowed to scrub their names from Google search results under something called “the right to be forgotten.”

I find the phrase so charming that I wondered whether we should all have that right?

There is, of course, the online record of our behavior. The booze-drenched photos, the flippant Facebook comments, the snotty email on a bad day.

But wouldn’t it be lovely to have the ability to erase the offline record as well?

The young girl who dressed in shiny polyester and blue eyeshadow? Gone, and I wish forgotten! The young woman who thought the highest compliment anyone could give her was to call her sexy? Gone and maybe just mothballed until I need to bring her out as an object lesson.

The times I said something insensitive or was less than my best self? Anyone whose heart I broke when I was young and insecure, or older and still insecure? I wish they would forget the transgression, if not forget me.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all had the right, when we wished to exercise it, to be forgotten?

Gone and Forgotten