Monday, February 28, 2011

From a Distance

“The city is like a girl with a bad complexion: Pretty from a distance.”

I don’t remember what movie that’s from but it’s a line that has stuck in my head even if the title of the movie fell out somewhere along the way. I knew what that was like though, both the city and the complexion problems. Sometimes, when things are not completely in focus, they appear to be so beautiful, their blurred edges like a glow.

Over the Christmas break when I was in 6th grade, we moved. We sold the light blue house with the water meter toad trap, the carport where the rat cage and the snake cage had been, the old-fashioned wringer-washer that was so entertaining, the tree one of our dogs liked to climb, and the azalea hedge in the back where I meticulously plucked dozens of blooms to make my mother a surprise Hawaiian lei to her great dismay. We left the never-finished swing set frame my father had had Pappy the Plumber build for me out of salvage pipe on my 7th birthday. We left the sandbox where my brother buried me and finished the job with a shovel-full of sand in my mouth. We left the avocado tree whose branches had broken every time we tried to climb it. We left the backyard that had spawned puppies and kittens, earth-moving projects with toy trucks, and kumquats which only my father could eat.

The movers packed our house and my mother’s enormous antique shop. We had filled two moving vans and another trailer that shipped by train. We took my new Persian cat Dickens and my mother’s poodle Pierre and my brother’s dog Beau, half poodle, half beagle. We piled into the two cars, the matching Oldsmobiles that were blue for my mother and brown for my father, and drove to a place we had never been before, leaving, in spite of the cars and truckloads of stuff, nearly everything familiar behind.

Victorian Trade Card Tarot
(c) copyright 2010 Marcia McCord
 We stopped in Georgia, lost the cat, found the cat and drove on. We stopped in Texas, marveling at the never-before-seen snowfall, its beauty and wonder and possibilities beyond our imagination. Just as quickly as we leapt from the car in our newly acquired soft-soled moccasins into the Texas snow, we bounced back into the car, howling because it was cold and wet. The snow blew away behind us as we chugged westward toward New Mexico and on a sunny cold afternoon, we entered my new town.

“Is this the bad side of town, Daddy?” I asked, looking at the unlovely faux-stucco walls with chicken wire showing through at the edges, dust covering everything to create a uniform color scheme of reddish-gold without sparkle.

“No,” my father braced himself. “This is the town.” This was the inauspicious beginning to our next seven plus years.

Our new house was on the edge of town in a new subdivision. It was, we soon realized, the worst house we had ever lived in. There was a weed growing up through the floor and baseboard inside my bedroom. The house was small. It was poorly built. It was decorated in the same colors as the dust outside. I began to hate the color brown.  There were no trees, only the flat, dry landscape visited occasionally by thorny rolling tumbleweed. We tackled the heart-wrenching, body-slam that was unpacking the house and the antique shop. More bad news: The movers had flipped one of the moving vans in the snow in Texas, starting a months-long lawsuit to settle the claim. The shop was smaller than what we had had in Florida too. The screaming and fighting had begun again, the echoes of my early childhood when my parents had battled so terribly and terrorized us.

I started the second half of 6th grade in a new school and tried to play on a playground hard as pavement and covered with a thin coat of dust and tiny gravel the size of BB’s. I was in the nurse’s office every other day, picking gravel out of newly scraped knees, wondering if they would ever completely heal. I started to get an idea why there were so many sad country songs.
Somehow, I found something positive along the way but it wasn’t easy. My brother had given me his old Stingray bicycle when he had gotten a new one and I began to ride through the winding streets of our subdivision. That bicycle was my magic carpet, my time machine, my spaceship, my angel wings. I learned to ride it without hands, to stand on the pedals with my arms thrown out or crossed, steering by speed and angling the bike with my knees.  I could do tricks on the bike and sailed past my new house with one foot on the banana seat, Arabesque.

All of a sudden, the world was prettier on that bike. The houses rushing past my eyes were almost the color they had been painted instead of being muted and daubed with the incessant sandblast that took the color out of everything when I stood still. Lawns seemed greener instead of patchy and dead. The families in the houses looked happier the faster I rode and the taller I stood. I could see farther. And because I could, instead of focusing on the details of the weed that grew through my bedroom floor, or the scratches in the sand-blasted window glass, or the cars and houses that would never seem clean if you looked at them closely, my perspective changed.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had found some small way to exert some control over my life by changing the way I viewed it. Sure, the dust was still there, but my world had color again.

As in the 3 of Wands, a project is often most promising at its outset, when you strive to see over the horizon and imagine the wonders beyond. The goal is pretty from a distance. It is especially so when you cannot see its flaws, grow bored of its sameness and regret what you left behind. As I launched myself like my own ship, first on a bike, then that summer through voracious reading of everything I could get my hands on, including the entire city public library, I began the time in my life when all things “out there” become more attractive than the sameness of what I already knew too well. I set my sights on what was beyond my current vision, having learned that I was capable of leaving part of myself behind to begin something new.

My world was pretty from a distance now and I worked toward that distance so I could once again marvel at the beauty of the imperfect world up close without disappointment. I set off to learn new things, wonderful things, to feel new sensations, to see with different eyes, even if there be dragons.

Best wishes!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods

When we last left my teenage self, I was in the back seat of my father’s car on the way to Grandmother McCord’s house in Alabama.

You have to remember that my husband has concluded I was the only person in my family with a sense of humor. I beg to differ, feebly. To his point, though, I was convinced growing up that I was some kind of genetic anomaly. Optimist, I think they call it.

We had crossed the Mississippi long ago and crossed the Tombigbee River, deep in the pines of Alabama when we arrived in the tiny town where Grandmother McCord lived. Dad had said the land where her duplex was had been a plantation, so I was expecting Tara with Grandmother standing outside as a stern, blue-haired Scarlet O’Hara. That was fairly inaccurate. We turned down a kudzu-infested road and then onto a dirt drive that wound around to a small white concrete-block single storey structure built in the 50’s. That’s 1950’s. There were large trees hung with Spanish moss and a small garden patch surrounded by a high wire fence on the left side of the structure.

We piled out of the car, relieved to be standing and walked the narrow walkway to the wooden screen door. I knocked. Grandmother opened the door. “The better to eat you with, My Dear,” echoed in my head. I had not worn red just in case. Grandmother looked me up and down.

“Oh,” she said, obviously disappointed. My smile froze. “Oh, even you are taller than me!”

I was relieved. At least if my reputation had preceded me, it was the “short one in the family” as opposed to, well, I could think of at least a dozen things that would send her into orbit, just from the letters we had exchanged for two years. I had attended Catholic school. Mother was an antiques dealer. My brother and I are part Gypsy (Rom) on my mother’s side. I shaved my legs (I wasn’t really sure that was an orbit-launching point but my mother had been so upset about it that I thought it might possibly be a Kansas thing, so I held it in reserve as a disqualifier). I was her youngest grandchild. I was the last child of her once-favorite son who had become the Black Sheep of his generation. I did not live and had not ever lived in Kansas. And dear heavens, there was the tarot, dreams and palms thing. My list was longer, but it was such a relief to be disappointing for my towering height, my 5’1” to Grandmother’s 4’11” that I relaxed immediately and hugged her. I think she was startled but she seemed to be pleased.

My father, brother and I came in to her small white living room. We sat and spoke politely as if I were being delivered to a boarding school, all hopeful that the trip was not wasted. Grandmother led us solemnly to the first bedroom down the hall, a cool, dark, white room with a dark Victorian bed, crisp white sheets and a white chenille bedspread. My brother left my suitcase in the corner. We stood a moment.

“Very nice,” I said with the extravert’s need to fill the gap of silence.

We returned to the living room. We accepted cold drinks, lemonade, I think. My father and Grandmother spoke a while. And then, my father and my brother left.

“And this is Peanut,” Grandmother said, indicating the tubby black and tan terrier in the low basket near the kitchen door. Peanut wagged his tail hopefully. I jumped at the chance to focus on someone easy to talk to. “Cute doggie!” Peanut and I were off to a good start at least. Grandmother set about preparing for dinner. She sliced some fresh tomatoes from her garden with an old knife, toasted some bread in an old-fashioned toaster and heated some cream-style corn from a can. We had sandwiches and Peanut wriggled hopefully at my feet while Grandmother explained what a naughty little doggie he was to beg at the table. I slipped him a treat.

Grandmother, it turned out, was thrilled to have me as an excuse not to go to her fellow mother-in-law Mrs. Owensby’s church the next morning. Grandmother thought that church was a bit too neon-sign, roll-and-foam for her and she preferred that God and His Creatures be just a little more dignified. Happy to provide a service, I followed her around, admiring her vegetable garden and flowers, cooing over the dog, dodging the fire ant hills and listening with profound interest of the time when Grandmother was attacked and nearly killed by ants. I helped her change the curtains in the living room. We looked through family photos, including my father’s mysterious first family, my seldom seen uncle and aunt and never-before-seen cousins and admired the family pieces in Grandmother’s china cabinet. We talked into the night.

Apparently satisfied that I had been exposed to etiquette sufficiently to display to others, the next day Grandmother set out with me to go shopping in the tiny downtown. I met my cousins’ cousins, delightful people who took to me immediately. They were the owners of the big grocery in town and were, thank heavens, optimistic, talkative, happy people. We made plans for a pool party. I pushed the grocery cart while Grandmother proudly led the way, each time a little louder and a little more confident than the next, “And this is my granddaughter.”

Back in the car, all the fears of not being accepted within my own family welled up in me. I fought back tears and at the same time relished this small time in a small town with my tiny and ferocious Grandmother. I said nothing, realizing that my point of view was so utterly foreign to this woman who had lived through so much. She had confessed that her main emotions when my Grandfather had killed himself were shame and anger. She was mortified when my father divorced his first wife, forever tarnishing her name in their Kansas town. She was helpless to convince my uncle to let her stay in Kansas, a prisoner of circumstances. Even later in my stay, she would hand me a fabulous cut glass bowl, a family piece, saying, “When I’m dead, your uncle and aunt will make sure you get nothing, so take this now.”

But at that moment, we drove through the bank’s drive through to get cash, our huge load of groceries in the back. The teller greeted my Grandmother’s familiar face. Grandmother smiled at her, turned to me and smiled, then said to the teller proudly, “And this is my granddaughter who is visiting me.” I smiled and waved. News apparently travels very fast in a small town. The teller sensed the importance of the visit.

The 3 of Swords can be a difficult card in the tarot. When all conflicts and sorrows and truths however cruel pierce the heart, the heart is not completely broken. The swords of conflict and truth are perhaps blunted just a bit. But the heart remains larger than any truth, stronger than any fight, more lasting than any hurt.

Along with the cash and bank receipt in the drive through drawer was a cellophane-wrapped lollipop.

“Green,” I said. “My favorite flavor.”

And we laughed together at the nonsense of that, not Grandmother and Granddaughter for a moment, but just two girls together, bound by life. I unwrapped my treat and savored the grandchildhood I had missed, making up for it in one good lollipop. I sat a little taller, love towering over my family’s legacy of sad hearts for a moment that lasts forever.

Best wishes.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Potion No. 9

Valentine Greetings from No. 9! That’s my town, Vallejo, California, just named no. 9 in the Most Miserable Places to Live list recently published on a web page near you. OK, it’s raining today but other than that, honestly I’m not in agreement with the survey results. I think I’d know if I were miserable.

Picture Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord
Of course, I am a big proponent of people being able to create their own version of happiness. One of the happiest sights I’ve seen in my life was in the middle of what this survey would likely call a Most Miserable place to live. My father, brother and I were driving from Missouri to Alabama. I was going to stay with my grandmother for the first time ever. I was 18.

You’d have to know something of my family dynamic to understand why I was finally getting to visit “Grandma.” She would roll over in the plot if she thought I really called her that. Her name, I was told by everyone including her, was “Grandmother McCord.” Doesn’t sound like a term of endearment, does it? I was visiting her based on the assumption that no one on the planet could be as evil as she was made out to be in my family mythos.

There was, of course, a little history to go along with the reputation. Our first encounter was years earlier. She came to visit us when we lived in Florida. I was 5 or so, before our neighbor told me I was going to hell for lying about my age on television.

My brother and I were terribly excited about getting to meet her. Our idea of a grandmother was something like Mrs. Santa Claus, cookies, hugs, happy to see us, tell us stories, interested in our art projects, that sort of grandma stuff. We all turned out at the airport to pick her up. I was in awe of her. I looked up. She did not stoop to greet me. She did not hug. She did not smile. She had blue hair, a popular affectation among the grey-haired beauty-shop goers of the time (the alternative was pink which I don’t think would have suited her).

My brother, older by a year, stepped forward to offer his hand and greeted her, “You’re looking lovely today, Grandmother McCord.”

Grandmother McCord looked down at him, tight-lipped, arms still crossed, and said, “You are well coached.”

He wasn’t. He was trying to be nice. We were articulate children which in comparison to our contemporaries sometimes made us appear monstrous. He never expected that our Grandma-person would disapprove of a polite greeting. That whole visit turned out to be something of a lose-lose scenario and we didn’t try it again.

I didn’t put all the pieces of the puzzle together until just about everyone involved had died but apparently there were a few unresolved conflicts that remained forever unresolved.

Still, I was hopeful that Grandmother had gotten over her case of annoyance at our existence. I had been writing to her every week for a couple of years, initiating contact out of the blue. She was my only living grandparent after all. I figured if she actually got to know me, she’d like me. By the time I was 18, I had been invited for a visit and I was very excited. My mother declined the opportunity for a road trip to deliver me, saying she had to mind the shop. Actually, she was pleased never to speak to her mother-in-law again. My father felt he would need at least some kind of reinforcement and insisted my brother come, too. I’m not sure how long it had been since my father had spoken to his mother.

Against her wishes, well, most of Grandmother’s life events could start out that way. It seemed like a good start. She was nearly a child bride to an older man whom she apparently loved. My father was her first child and by all accounts as cute as a bug. He was like a baby doll for her. My uncle Max was born a couple of years later and by then the whole drudgery of taking care of children had soaked in. No one was as cute as a bug to Grandmother any more. But still it was pretty clear that my father was her favorite. My grandfather, for reasons we will probably never know clearly, killed himself when my father was a young adult. In her grief, Grandmother called for my father and specifically not my uncle, confirming their sibling rivalry. Grandmother had enjoyed playing bridge and golf at the country club in their town in Kansas, but was forced to go to work. Years later, my uncle moved her to live in one half of a duplex on a former plantation in Alabama, a place Grandmother considered heathen and primitive. It was officially “Not Like Kansas,” tantamount to the expulsion from Eden.

I was unaware of the details of the fury, jealousy and anguish that lay within the family. So many things are not spoken of although sensitive children always know something is wrong. And yet, I reasoned that whatever it was, I had not done it, so that I might strike up some sort of relationship with this elderly woman before she died. So there we were on the road and I had the whole backseat to myself to mull over the years of bad feelings and isolation in my family.

It was nearly evening and we were driving through fields and woods in Mississippi. I had marveled at the changes in countryside when I noticed a wooden house with no paint, no glass in the windows and a rusted tin roof. There were no power or telephone lines. There was no car. There was a man sitting in an old rocking chair, rocking rhythmically and singing at the top of his lungs. By all I had been told about our places in the world, I should have been afraid of this man, afraid of his color, for he was black, afraid of his poverty and even afraid of his joy. But I watched him sing, his few teeth showing browned by snuff or tobacco, and watched him rock in his rocking chair. And I waved and smiled. And he waved back and kept singing and smiling.

He lived in what was then likely to rival that year’s 9th most miserable place if they had had such a survey. Yet, he had the secret that eluded my family, the secret of the 9 of Cups. He understood that he might not be able to change his poverty or other circumstances. But he could figure out how to be happy himself with a rocking chair and the setting sun.

So, I have to push back on that No. 9 thing they just put out there for my town. Sure, our town is known for its famous bankruptcy, but we actually do still have running water, electricity, elections, church spaghetti feeds, school reunions, and quite a few restaurants. I have nice neighbors and interesting friends. I don’t mean to say there haven’t been hard times, but I’ve seen those hard times all over. And yet, like that happy, happy man in the rocking chair, it is possible to find joy, even in good ol’ No. 9.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mama Said There’ll Be Days Like This

“Why does life suck?”

One of the teenagers in the high school art class to whom I was about to make a presentation made it known that this was her question of the day, maybe of the decade. She was at the back of the classroom and didn’t make eye contact. Her question got no rise out of her classmates. That did not really signify anything. Silence could mean agreement with her statement. It could also mean ennui. It’s quite possible that her classmates were tired of her observation, sensing a theme.

But it’s a common cry among her age group, so I went with it.

“Interestingly enough,” I pointed to the next slide in the show, “I anticipated your next question. This is the 4 of Cups which is sometimes called the apathy or boredom card.”

I went on to explain that at least one of Pamela Colman Smith’s invaluable contributions to the tarot world was her insightfully illustrated pip cards. So, instead of just four cups as in Marseilles-style decks or even our regular deck of playing cards with four hearts, Pamela or “Pixie” Smith showed the meaning of the cards in the minor arcana through her drawings. Here was our young hero, sitting beneath the tree with three cups in front of him and the Universe handing him yet a fourth cup. Mr. There’s-Nothing-To-Do-That’s-Any-FUN sits with his arms crossed and his legs crossed.

His stance is passive (seated) although he could be dressed for action. He’s perfectly capable of getting up and pursuing the cup or other delight of his choice. But, faced with a bounty of wonderful things before him, like the three cups at his feet, even when the Universe brings more opportunity or love or goodness or even intuition to him, he doesn’t even look. He’s too busy looking down and luxuriating in the moment of being in a foul mood.

The number four signifies stability that can drift over into being just plain stuck. Certainly, our pal in the 4 of Cups is stable. Nothing seems to be moving him from his spot under the tree. You could guess it might even be a sunny day, but he picked the shade. Doing nothing is a kind of stability and refusal to accept the positive can possibly seem lower risk. If you never hope, never take the chance to try, there’s the sense that you might lower your odds of getting hurt. But our guy doesn’t look too happy. So his non-involvement theory isn’t really working.

If you look at this card, you’ll see the sky is blue, the grass is green, the tree is tall and straight, the cups are upright and there’s a gift from out of the blue, well, ok, out of the grey, meaning uncertainty, of yet another cup. The only thing “wrong” in the picture is the guy under the tree who is pretty clearly saying, “No.”

I put “wrong” in quotes for a reason, though. Saying, “No,” isn’t always wrong. Sometimes, everything can look great but you just have a feeling about something and have to say no. Sometimes you can’t take even one more thing, even if it’s a good thing. Knowing your own limits and the fact that they change from time to time is a good thing. There are people who can’t say no. Our buddy in the 4 of Cups is the contrast to the clear spring day; he’s the one who isn’t bright and sunny.

My inner Muzak turned on while I was giving the talk to the high school class. My topic was actually the process of creating a work of art, in this case my tarot decks, and what I used to get from a foggy concept to produce a specific and tangible result. Sometimes the Muzak is helpful and the song playing in my head was suddenly The Shirelles’ 1963 hit, Mama Said.

The funny part about that songtrack was that I was also reminded of the story of the travelers on the road who asked an old person they met along the road what the people were like in the next town. The old person asked them, “What were the people like in the last town?” The travelers said, they were terrible and the old person said they would find the people in the next town much the same. Another set of travelers met the old person on the road and asked the same question about the people in the next town. Again the old person asked, “What were the people like in the last town?” This second set of travelers said they were kind and generous and funny and wonderful. The old person said they would find the people in the next town much the same.

So I smiled at the kid in the back of the classroom, realizing that I didn’t know her whole situation and may, upon complete, if unlikely revelation agree with her. But on the surface, I saw that she seemed healthy, pretty, well-dressed, allowed to study art in her teen years instead of having to work for a living to fend for her family, and attend a school that actually charges tuition and has an admissions policy rather than a “free” public school. I could see a few cups set in front of her. And yet she was beset by that bane of restless teen years, a sense of boredom, impatience and annoyance. She wanted the world to take her somewhere but hadn’t connected that she must get up from under the tree and head in the direction that was right for her, whatever that was. I had to give the kid a break, too, though. After all, not yet out of the comfortable nest, she was still in the process of learning what it means to be human. She can turn down the gifts given to her freely if they don’t fit. But it’s not life that “sucks” if she doesn’t then do something to pursue the things she truly loves. It won’t actually be life that sucks; she will just be stuck.

It doesn’t hurt to make your wishes known because like the travelers and the old person, you’re likely to get the energy you put out there. It’s pretty simple. If you’re grumpy, people will likely be grumpy with you. If you’re pleasant, they’ll likely be pleasant with you. And one of the biggest secrets of the universe, especially in teen-age angst, is that seriously, no one is thinking about you more than you are. They are all really worried about themselves. It’s part of the human condition.

Oh, sure, I can cite instances of life truly being awful to people. No one in Miss Nancy’s art class has been executed for saying life sucks. That does happen in other places. I wish it didn’t, but there you have it. And people can put on a completely “sunny day” exterior as a protection from thinking or feeling what is truly going on behind the scenes. We have a choice, in spite of the worst circumstances, to adopt gloom as part of our inner being or use our energies to make things better, even in just a small way.

Sooner or later the kid in the back of the classroom will realize that life will "suck" just as long as she lets it. And, because I wish her well even though I never met her before that day in her classroom, I hope it’s sooner.

Best wishes!