When I was around 11 years old I had a friend named A that lived just a few houses away. Though she was a couple of years older than me her artistic, kindly and shy manner gave us enough reason for friendship had our neighborly proximity not already paved the way. A was an only child and time spent at her house was markedly different from my own, or likely any home I had experienced thus far and because of this was often fascinating and also sometimes troubling. Her mother was a Pentecostal charismatic whose head would lean back just before she would start to shake and speak wildly in tongues. This paroxysm, or glossolalia as I now learn it is called, seemed to overtake her without warning and was startling to behold. Her father was seemingly always angry with a crimson red face perhaps from all the rage he held in and the exertion of speaking furiously. Even their beautiful long-haired cat Judas seemed possessed, turning from mellow layabout housecat to violent claw extending beast in the bat of a paw.
The capriciousness of this environment left one feeling guarded, e.g. Do I dare say hello to the mother? Is it safe to pet the cat? And the feeling it was obviously best just to avoid the father altogether, but the unpredictability also lent it a certain allure. It was really, really scary but you kind of hoped to see it again.
My friend A, though not immune to this festival of chaos around her, seemed somehow unperturbed by it all. I did my best to follow suit though there was always a measure of relief upon leaving their home as the uncertainty of the world outside seemed much less than that which was contained within.
At that time in life I swam, played soccer and tennis and participated in Junior Lifeguard at Southern California beaches in the summer. I’m grateful for the pretty wide open doors of my nature, which allowed me to find friends both within sports and also without, sometimes with those on the social outskirts or without any identifiable groups of their own. My mother once said to me that I was the Queen of the Underdogs, a title I take some pride in. I encountered my own bullies here and there, but perhaps as something of a “free agent” and with humor taking the lead I was able to bridge the chasms between all of these sub-groups, forming small collectives along the way.
Cattails seemed a peculiar meal. Cattails picked from down the street where they had encircled a pond full of tadpoles were then taken home and rinsed, sautéed and served up with butter. This serving was from my friend K’s mom, a woman I remember as quirkily funny but also kind, and who’d had her jaw wired shut for a couple of years to lose weight, which rendered the fuzzy pond vegetation off her menu, as well as most other foods, unless they were puree-able and able to be sucked through a straw. This was in the country, and K and her family lived in a rustic cabin not far from the pond. Her father smiled a lot but he spoke rarely and when he did it was hard to discern the words as they tumbled from his mouth in a mumbling stream. He worked for the Park Service and he very much looked the part of a mountain man, quite resembling Jed Clampett actually, right on down to the moustache and hat.
In summer months he had K and I gather sacks of pine cones, which could then be sold back to the state parks for replanting after logging. I entered this world after the swimming, beaches and glossolalia-prone mothers of my previous life, and had tadpole-headed aliens abducted me and taken me to their tailcat ponded, cone pined, straw-sucking planet, it surely could not have left me feeling any more, er, alienated from reality than what the real world was already offering forth.
The alternation between dour confusion and the catching threads of helpful things learned like remembering gratitude and getting in the moment and not wallowing is by no means a stable state. More like rock climbing without ropes or carabiners above a gently flowing river. With each new handhold, momentary amnesia ensues, (How did I get here? What plan did I have for the next foothold?) the sky is darkening, storm clouds racing in. As the climb to panic heightens, I am struck by lightening and fall back and down into the water, an induction and baptism of sorts to these wiser ideas learned. Breaking through the surface of the water find I am back in the sunlight and start the climb again. This goes on over and over and over…
Apart from the general humanity of his works, one reason Kurt Vonnegut always appealed to me so much was his ability to reveal characters that you were able to love in spite of their insanity. I felt love and gratitude for his contributions and humanity. Maybe love and gratitude are one and the same, or inseparable, or reflections to one another. Not sure if his characters were modeled in some way after people he knew or wholly made up but in either case there was an objective acceptance of them and their exposed vulnerabilities. In moments when characters encountered in one’s own life seem cruel or crazy, the oscillating effect on the room, on self, the world outside the door, the world itself, and life to the extreme can feel altered and for me this turnabout is sudden and unforgiving. The whole of existence seems a mockery and entirely unnecessary. Cultivation of and an appreciation for the absurd the pathway back to finding and holding on to my humanity.
After showering I squeeze the moisturizer tube towards my arm and out squirted a dollop that was the exact symbol of pi. This life is nothing if not totally weird I kid you not…
Weirdness take two – as I peel a cucumber the last tiny peel falls to the cutting board green side up in the shape of, you guessed it, the pi symbol! Holy cow, is pi the elusive mystery formula to finding my way out of the paper bag? Could the gods humor be so warped? Offering a mathematically inept girl impossible to understand obliquely formulaic directions towards freedom? What next? Will my breakfast banana peel fall to the floor and take the shape of pi so I can slip on it, hit my head and then suddenly have the ability to solve complex math theorems? Sheesh. Weird. But good. And it only took me 3.14 seconds to recognize that…