The South, and who you are

Yesterday was a big day. We packed up the family and the luggage yet again and drove out of Indiana, down through Kentucky, to Tennessee.

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We watched as the landscape thickened and greeted into dense ivy covered forests, and as the sky thickened and drew close. The freeway was wide, the interruptions few, and four hour’s later Kenty was behind us.
I didn’t expect it to feel different, but it did. Indiana is the Midwest, but Kentucky, the next door neighbour down, is the South, and it felt it.
I think it was the ivy. It covered everything, the trees, the power poles, anything that sits on the ground for too long finds ivy growing up it. It felt lush, fertile, boundless in history and collective memory.

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I didn’t photograph them, and I don’t really know why they were there, but on two different spots on the side of the road there were large white crosses, a big one in the middle, maybe six foot, and a smaller one on either side. No flowers, no sign. The thought came to me in a flash that we were driving into territory where, not all that long ago, they killed people simply because they were black. That’s the sadness those crosses reminded me of. It saddens me deeply that there are people still here who think like that

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The Grand Ole Opry, Nashville TN

The crickets and cicadas here are so loud you’d need earplugs to sleep outside peacefully. It’s so humid it feels like you’re breathing under a blanket. All the women wear cowboy boots. Everyone you meet goes to some church or another. In short, this place is so different to anything we’ve ever experienced at home.

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My kids feel it too, the difference, but in a different way. I sat quietly for a while last night and thought about the South, the lynching, the civil war, the landscape, the history, the collective memory and the largeness of the day. And then I read my four year old son’s diary entry. He’d written (or dictated) this:
We got a new house…we got a new car because we drived there. The new car was blue. We had pancakes and I bought a fan…before we left the hotel we had breakfast and it was a help yourself breakfast and we had some of the help yourself breakfast. In the shop I got my fan from there was a tap that had a lever that I thought made the water come out but there wasn’t you just put your hands under to make the water come out and the water comes out.

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I’m sorry Kentucky. I’m sorry Tennessee, and sorry to all those who died in the civil war, and all who died tragically in these lush green surrounds. He’s four. I cared. He just cares about the motion sensor taps.
It just goes to show, what you perceive is all about who you are.

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350 Million Americans Can’t Be Wrong…

When I was a very, very little girl, so little that my mind was super-malleable and everything that I was told I believed, and so little that I still though that the half-hour break in TV programming between Sesame Street and Playschool was endlessly long, something happened to shape my thinking forever.

It wasn’t a bad thing, this isn’t some kind of true-confessional “this-happened-to-me” time, just…a thing. A thing that, because I was so little and my mind so malleable I can’t shake.

Some people came to visit.

I don’t remember their names, and as they’ve never visited since I don’t think I’ll bother dredging them up. There weren’t small children for me to play with so they didn’t interest me too greatly, and if there was a man he in my memory he’s dissolved into the background. There was a woman though, and because I remember looking at the photo in the family album for many years after their non-eventful visit I remember that she had black hair and a blue dress and glasses, and looked a little like a friend of ours, but she wasn’t.

But I remember the accent. Oh the accent! She spoke in a voice that was rich and beautiful, a voice I’d only ever heard on TV before, and because of that voice I wanted to sit on her knee and fall into her and listen to everything she said, because she was obviously famous and wonderful and exciting, and her sheer presence in my house made me, by default, famous, wonderful and exciting as well.

You’ve got to understand, you see, that I’d never heard people talk like that down here in Tasmania. Down here everybody used the same slightly nasally whine and flat, nasally vowels that I’d heard every day, the same stretched-out voice that I had. Not the Blue-dress lady though. She was beautiful. She was from the Television!

I was four. You have to forgive me when I say I was incredibly disappointed when my Mum told me that she wasn’t from the Television at all. She didn’t live on Sesame Street. Sesame Street wasn’t real. The Blue-dress lady was from Canada.

Not America. Canada.

Sesame Street Isn’t Real.

Ten years or more happened before I ever heard that accent again in real life, and by that time I’d got pretty solid on the truth: Sesame Street Isn’t Real. Not America. Canada.

Okay, here’s the true-confessions part. Please don’t laugh. Oh, okay, but laugh quietly, all right?

It was only a couple of years ago that I realized that America-Isn’t-Real-Not-Sesame-Street-Canada had taken root in my brain for more people than just the Blue-dress lady. I’d somehow started applying it to everyone I met with a TV accent. They couldn’t be American. TV isn’t real. I worked for a year with a lovely “Canadian” lady, and…ouch-this-hurts-to-admit…it wasn’t until I reconnected with her via Facebook and read her blog that I realized she wasn’t Canadian at all.

Nor were the nice people who came to the Wednesday night meetings. Nor are the lovely harpist girl and her family, or Susie Finkbeiner.

America IS real. I KNOW this. I am an intelligent woman. I read books. I study history. I watch documentaries, and I do know enough about the US of A to know that yes, it DOES exist. Except…

Except sometimes old thoughts are hard to break, especially when they happen when you’re very young, or particularly vulnerable.

I’m butting up against a few thoughts at the moment, more serious cases when I’ve believed something that someone’s said and then applied it to every area of my life. So here’s my thought of the day:

Not Everything You Believe Is Necessarily True. Sometimes you need other people to help you get some perspective. After all, 350 million Americans can’t all be wrong…

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Something that I used to know

Apparently, I know everything. Apparently. According to my kids.

Well, I used to, anyway. Back when I was young my scope of knowledge was so incredibly vast that I knew-because-I-knew that getting to the end, to knowing truly Everything, was not so far away.

I’ve learned a lot since then. A. Lot. And I’ve had three children, which, one would presume, would qualify me now into Knowing-Even-More-Than-Everything, except for the slightly odd fact that the exact opposite has happened.

I am NOT forgetting things. Well, I’m not forgetting the important things, like pi and the Battle of Hastings and the words to all the Duran Duran songs (I can’t honestly say I’m not forgetting trivial things, like we-need-bread-and-milk, or oh-darling-are-you-taking-the-car-to-work-today?), but as I’ve pushed my head deeper and higher up through the ceiling of adulthood I’ve realised that outside the nursery walls of childhood are a billion other, different nursery walls (all painted differently, and some not painted at all), and above my small head are other, still-taller-than-mine heads, and beyond them are histories and dreams that stretch beyond my own space, and beyond that the face of a God who sees it all. In short, and because I am old enough to remember when Hogan’s Heroes was on TV (okay, the reruns at least), I can honestly say “I know NUTTINK!”

My kids, on the other hand, especially the smallest one, know everything. Well, almost everything. They know that there’s a small amount of things in life that they don’t know, such as what’s-that-man’s-name-in-that-car-next-to-ours? and what-does-the-Easter-bunny-do-in-October? but they presume that one day they too will know everything, like I do. Apparently.

Here’s the thing though, the thing I now know: the more that I talk to my much-older-and-extremely-wiser friends, the more I learn from them, and the more they tell me that they don’t think they know much at all. It’s a Mork-from-Ork (because I’m old enough to remember when Mork and Mindy was on TV…or at least the reruns) scenario, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we are born old and knowing everything, and we die young, knowing nothing at all.

Here’s one thing I DO know, though: I will keep learning, and keep learning, until I can say as much as my extremely-wisest friends: that truly, I know so little it isn’t funny. It seems to be the best way.

You’ve Got Mail

Once upon a time, a very long time ago when my first bras were still quite new and my teeth were newly straightened, I was given a big parcel of words. Most of them were quite nasty, in a neatly clipped, ordered kind of way, and the words “ungrateful” and “selfish” appeared quite a few times. They were (for me at the time, because I was probably very selfish and quite ungrateful) completely out of the blue. I had no idea such a parcel of words existed, and I had no idea that they applied to me.

These words were delivered, one by one, on a drive that took a little longer than an hour, and finished in an angry silence and the last, dreaded words “So you should be crying.”

I had no idea I was that bad a person. Nobody had ever told me before. I’d thought I was okay. After the drive the parcel-deliverer delivered me to my mother, and while I sat crying on the bus he unpacked the parcel again for her in the same, neatly clipped, ordered way, and I sat watching her face turn from warm to cold and angry as she took the parcel from him and unpacked those words over me again, one by one in the hour it took for the bus to get us home.

Well Megan, So You Should Be Crying.

By the time the bus got to our stop and we walked home I was exhausted and all cried out, and, at my mother’s behest, I called the parcel-deliverer, apologized, and was forgiven. I never really forgot those words though. I kept them close to my chest, because the one thing that I knew was that I never ever wanted to do that again, or have words plastered to me like that again. I used the parcel as a shield, if you like, to filter my interactions with people, to ensure that I never did anything again that would cause people to say So You Should Be Crying, or plaster me again with words like Selfish or Ungrateful.

I realized, as I grew up, the huge amount of stress that the parcel-deliverer must have been under at that time, exacerbated by the presence of an extra, talkative thirteen year old in the house, and magnified again by a bus that didn’t come and having to make a two-hour round trip to deliver said child back to her mother. It can’t have been easy for him. Every time I pictured that car ride, or the waiting at the bus stop, I forgave him again, or tried to, anyway.

Some things don’t go though, no matter how hard you forgive people. Some memories not only linger, but come up with alarming frequency sometimes. This one has been. I’ve learned a lesson now that I’ll hopefully remember for the future: when memories are thrown into your face unbidden and against your will like that one has been for me, maybe it’s because it’s trying to teach you something. Maybe it’s time to take out the parcel and unpack it and see what it says.

I did that. Last night. I opened the parcel I’ve been carrying around for all these years and looked at those words as an adult for the first time. I saw the tired, stressed-out-of-his-brain man who delivered them, and I realized for the first time that that parcel that I’ve been clutching so close to my chest for all these years wasn’t really mine to begin with. I didn’t need those words. Maybe half a dozen, perhaps, but not a whole hour’s worth in a parcel. They were his words, his feelings of the time that got dumped on me. I didn’t need to carry them forever.

I just got someone else’s mail.

The Me That I See

This is me.

Well, it’s a painting of me from about a hundred years before I was born, which probably makes me over a hundred years old, and if you click on my Gravatar picture you’ll see just how well I’ve aged, and why I should now be a candidate for one of those Facebook side-bar advertisements, see-this-130-year-old-woman-who-looks-like-a-regular-person…
Oh…whatever.

The reason it is me is because it hangs in our bathroom, and because most of the pictures on our walls are family pictures, for my kids the connection is obvious. And yes, it looks like me. I’ve been fielding questions about this picture since my eldest was old enough to talk:

Mummy why are you wearing a table cloth in that picture? What did you pick up? Where is the pearl now, do we still have it? Why did you wear shoes on the beach? Did the sand get on your feet through the gaps?

For a long time I patiently tried to explain that it’s not me, that it’s a painting of a lady who looks like me, and that we just liked the picture so we hung it in our bathroom. The older two kids get it by now, but the youngest…he’s a different sort all together.

My three-year-old believes exactly what he wants to believe, and woe betide anyone who tries to dissuade him. He doesn’t listen, and he keeps asking until he gets the answers he wants. I’ve given up trying to tell him the truth in some cases, and in regards to the picture I tell him what he wants to hear. I wore a tablecloth that day because I couldn’t find my bathers and I didn’t want to get sunburned. Yes, the sand was hot so I kept my sandals on, and I didn’t mind too much if it stuck to my feet. And yes, I kept the pearl, and it’s the same pearl that’s on a necklace in my jewelry box.

It’s easier. And shorter. He’ll learn one day, I hope.

It makes me wonder though, how much stuff in life have I filtered through my own perceptions? What have I believed because it was what I wanted to believe? What have I disregarded because I’d already made up my mind? We all do it, but It’s still a scary thought. Sometimes we need to sift through the evidence and the memories and open our minds to what may be a different kind of truth, one vastly different to what we’ve understood before. It’s a brave place to be.

My son came in to my study just now with his toy singing chicken and asked me who gave it to him. I told him the truth, we bought it at Ross (a little historic town) in January. He tells me “I like Ross. He’s my friend!”

Great, son. I’m glad Ross is your friend. Maybe we’ll take him with us next time I wear my tablecloth to the beach.

The Experience of Monsters

My friend Sonnie had the coolest house ever, because it was up in the bush with 100 acres (like Winnie the Pooh) to roam around in, and wallabies and possums (cute Australian ones, not those scary-looking American ones), and her Mum cooked the best mashed potatoes and her Dad’d light the fire and the whole house would feel toasty and cozy, AND she had an electric blanket, even on her spare bed, so I’d leave it on full the entire night even though I ended up kicking off all the blankets because I was too hot to sleep.

I loved Sonnie. She was like, my best friend, or one of them, anyway.*

I loved staying at Sonnie’s house, but I got nervous every time, because of the monsters, and I really couldn’t do anything about them either.

There were five of them. Hairy, running thing, with teeth. In the house. With me. I tried not to act too frightened around them because I knew they fed on fear, but I made sure I kept close to Sonnie, and didn’t let my guard down, and especially, didn’t run.

I still loved going there. And it helped that Sonnie didn’t at all think of those monsters as Hairy Running Things with Teeth. She just called them “the dogs”, and she patted them and ran with them and kicked them out of her way when they tried to nuzzle up to her bottom and said “garn” in affectionate tones (“Garn” is Australian for “please leave me alone”). Sonnie eyed my fright with care, but with complete lack of understanding. And that, in itself, helped.

Sometimes, but not that often, Sonnie came to stay at my place. I didn’t have a spare bed so she had to sleep on a mattress on the floor, and I didn’t have a wood fire or an electric blanket. And…she was scared of my cats!

What’s with that? Who is scared of cats? They’re cute and fluffy and purry and warm and snuggle in your lap, and…and Sonnie thought of them as Jumping Things with Claws.

Sure cats jump, and sure, they scratch too. I’ve had cats all my life and I’ve been scratched – and bitten – more times than I can count. That’s okay, it’s not terrible or anything. It’s not like dogs can do.

Oh. I should tell you here…I’ve never actually been bitten by a dog. Once, though, when I was five, a black snarly dog ran at me, and he ran so close he nearly got me and I only got inside my house and the screen door shut by barely a whisker. And another time when my Mum was walking with me and my friend-from-up-the-road in the dark suddenly my friend screamed, and when my Mum asked her what was wrong she said a Dog had bitten her. There was Blood. I saw. Dogs are Dangerous.

Now here’s a thing, an important thing that I’m learning right now: Sonnie and I live in exactly the same world, and the dogs in my world are exactly the same as the ones in hers. Experience colours our perception, especially early-childhood chased-by-snarly-dog experiences. Or people coming to school with cat-scratches on their arm experiences.

It Doesn’t. Mean. We’re. Right.

Get what I’m saying? It’s kind of big.

I’m realizing I’ve CHOSEN to believe certain things, and, to make things worse, I’ve chosen to remember and focus on the things that agree with that decision (remembering the bad dogs), and ignored the evidence that doesn’t agree (all the friendly dogs who never once bark at me).

Are there things that hold YOU back in life? I know what they are for me (one is talking to people). Maybe it’s time for a mental spring-clean.

Care to join me?

*she still is one of my best friends. Except she’s not on Facebook and doesn’t read blogs so she has no idea I’m talking about her. Hi Sonnie! *waves* And she still has dogs…but these ones are nice 🙂