After having a wonderful gig in Woodstock last weekend, I am now looking forward to Halloween, one of my favorite holidays and another gig that morning Below is my latest memoir piece that I read at the Pine Hollow Open Mike a couple of weeks ago.
I have always loved Halloween. Growing up, it was one of my favorite holidays. Even my parents joined in the fun, helping design and make handmade costumes, coming up with great costumes for themselves as well. Dad had been in theater in college and had some stage makeup he liked to use. Mom read all the women’s magazines with the great costume ideas. I once was myself on television. We took a cardboard box and turned it into a TV with a curtain all around the bottom covering my legs and leaving my face showing on the screen. I loved coming up with an idea and watching my mom figure out how to make it work. But I also loved my parent’s enjoyment of Halloween and all the fun that went along with it.
Mom dressed as a Native American one year, but back then, she was a stereotypical “Injun.” She sat cross-legged on our front lawn, her face painted, a headband with one feather and an arrow going through her head. She waited there completely still, wrapped in a blanket, not moving a muscle as two older boys made the long climb up our very steep two flight set of stone stairs. They stopped at the first landing to catch their breath. One of them said, “Hey look! They have an Indian on their front lawn.” The other one replied, “Let’s go touch it.” Mom lifted up her left hand and grunted, “Ugh! How.” They screamed and ran off while she sat there on the grass, laughing until she could barely breath herself and Dad made her come back in. Then one year, during my freshman year of high school, they came to pick me up from a party with Dad dressed as Superman and Mom as a beatnik with three inch long eyelashes, a long straight black wig and long cigarette holder. That might have been the only time I felt embarrassed by them. It was also, unfortunately, the only party I ever went to in high school. And I still loved Halloween and loved them for being themselves.
As I grew older, I loved Halloween even more. My former husband and I came up with our costume ideas together, often based on puns. One year he was the “Nun of Your Business” wearing a light blue wimple from a nun’s habit that matched his standard business suit. He even shaved that year and looked quite saintly – a rare occurrence. I was a “Japanese Beatle.” I wore a Kimono and had taken a hamster cage, pasted photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo on each side and wore it over my head so that it rested on my shoulders. The cage could turn so that I could be any Beatle at any time. Another year, I put a tennis ball inside of some nylon stockings and sewed those to the outside of the same standard business suit to create "E.T. the extra testicle, a business man with more balls." That year I was a "Nuclear Family," my head a deformed and grotesque family of four. For years we went to Halloween parties annually where everyone had put a lot of thought and effort into their costumes. Then the parties dwindled and the masquerade fun was forgotten for a while, except for the kids. We decorated the house, I helped them make costumes and I always threw them parties and took them Trick or Treating.
A few years ago, I started getting back into the holiday spirit for myself. I started having small Halloween parties, starting with a party for the younger crowd with Halloween themed food, some games and a Haunted House and followed by the adult bash. Then three years ago, I decided to hold a themed Halloween party. The theme was “Come as a favorite musician and sing or play one of their songs”. The first year, only a small number of people came but we did have Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Gillian Welsh and Bob Dylan. As long as I wore my shades, I could totally be Dylan. I felt like Dylan. I even sang a little like him. I could feel myself change character as I put on or took off his dark glasses. I don’t remember what songs I did, but I loved being Bob.
Last year, I was John Lennon. Again I wore special glasses but this time they had pink lenses, so that I saw the world through rose colored glasses. Just like the year before, I could stay in character with the glasses on. When they noticed that I dressed as a man both years, and did it well, I teased my gay friends that I like to dress in drag on Halloween. As John Lennon, I got to jam with John Denver, Dolly Parton, Nancy Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens, and Sandy Denny. This year, I will not be in drag. I am trying to pick musicians who have had a big influence on my music or on me as a musician. Now it’s time for one of the women. This year there will be no glasses. Blind as I am, I hope I can see well enough to navigate my way around. But maybe it doesn’t matter because honey, this lady can sing the blues.
I've been writing my memoirs for the past year after having joined a memoir group. It has been wonderful and challenging. It's sometimes hard to know what to write about or how to say the things I want to say. Though lately, I have been on a writing streak. I've had pretty low self-confidence when it comes to my writing, so sharing it has been especially difficult. However, I've been getting a lot of wonderful feedback from family and friends and now even from strangers.
I decided to go to a poetry reading a couple of weeks ago, to support a friend. It happened to also be an Open Mike that accepted prose, so I decided to read. Suddenly, I noticed that there was a theme for the writing - puppets. Puppets?! Now what ? I thought I was going to go read an already finished piece. Being a good raised Catholic girl, I sat down to write and managed to write to that theme. I finished it about an hour before I was to leave, feeling intense pressure - unnecessarily. I sometimes just get too caught up in rigid expectations, probably my own. Anyway, my piece was very well received, surprising and encouraging me. I've decided to post it here. Lately, everywhere I go there are themes popping out at me in little bits of overheard conversation or things friends randomly say that kick up a memory. I've been a writing demon and loving every minute of it.
As hard as my family tried, I would never agree to be a puppet. Don’t even try to pull my strings, you won’t find any. Nope, there are no strings attached here. I am not even that fond of puppet shows. Why would I ever agree to be tied up, tied down, and jerked around? I have certainly been around a lot of puppets, though, non-thinkers who depend on others to do for them, to think for them, to care for them. But is that really caring? I don’t think so. I've always loved Pinocchio, ♫ “I've got no strings so I have fun, I'm not tied to anyone. How I love my liberty, there are no strings on me!” ♫
Because I was never allowed to think for myself, not even to buy or choose what clothes to wear, to choose my own friends or the music I listened to, I insisted that my daughter become independent. I was a young mother, struggling to figure things out on my own and struggling to find my sense of self. I was determined that she would grow up to be a strong woman. And man, did she ever. I probably went a little overboard when, at age two, I insisted that she go by herself to ask for more ketchup for her fries at a fast food restaurant. I can still see that little toddler trying to peek over the counter and get someone’s attention. But I let her go, and she did it. As a child, I was never allowed to leave my parents’ sides, and I wasn't going to let that happen to her.
But free thinkers are usually a threat to puppets. My parents tried to beat it out of me with little success making me sneakier and more and more frightened. My teachers tried to teach it out of me with even less success, watching me fail year after year. My peers tried to bully it out of me causing me to stop eating and to hide out as much as possible. I wanted to be invisible. Did I want that for my daughter? No, I did not. But, did I want her to be a puppet? No, even less so. So, what to do now?
Her dad and I had hitchhiked our way across the country in 1975, landing in a hippie commune in the warehouse district of San Francisco. After she was born, we lived in a variety of places, in a park in Santa Cruz, CA, in a VW bus, in a tree house, in a trailer park, and way too many houses and apartments to name. Eventually, we made our way back across the country and landed in Albany. I had already been trying to navigate the various school systems across the country, to help her avoid “puppetdom”. I was saying things like, “No, you don’t have my permission to spank my child if she misbehaves in school.” “Wait, Good News Club is Christian education? Then why is it offered in public school?” and, “ No, she cannot sign away her soul to God at age 5.” So, we tried homeschooling.
That worked for a while, and then she needed more socialization, and I found alternative schools. They were a great fit for both of us. I was able to teach, and she was a great student, thriving in her new found educational freedom. But we soon found that even free thinkers expect a certain amount of conformity in a non-conformist setting. And now I was saying things like, “Why can’t she do worksheets, if she wants them.” “Please give the girl homework when she asks for it.” And, “You can’t make her go to the protest if she doesn’t believe in it.” But we both survived and she eventually moved back into public school.
In 9th grade, when her math teacher insisted on teaching each week’s lesson on Monday and burdening the students with nothing but worksheets the rest of the week, both in class and for homework, my daughter offered a compromise. “How about letting me take the test on Friday without doing all the worksheets and homework”, she said. “If I pass the test, I can do the same the next week.” That night, I got a call from the teacher asking my permission to let him teach her a lesson by agreeing to her plan and letting her fail. I chuckled to myself and told him to go right ahead. After a full school year of no homework or worksheets and getting an “A+” for her final grade, this same teacher called back to apologize and tell me that he was reevaluating his teaching style. After accepting his apology and hanging up, I did a victory dance. That man had cut some of his puppet strings. And now I go out into the world every day trying to help cut more strings wherever I can.
♫ “Hi-ho the me-ri-o, I'm as happy as can be. I want the world to know nothing ever worries me.” ♫ Thank-you, Pinocchio.
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