I was listening to Tom Petty this morning, sad that he has passed away at a relatively young age. His music immediately pulls me back into the past, growing up as a teenager in Iowa. It reminds me of parties out in machine sheds in the middle of nowhere, of awful first dates, and coming of age when getting booze and pot and avoiding pregnancies were all that we worried about.
It wasn’t a great age of innocence. We were still in the Cold War. Someone tried to assassinate the president. Terrorist attacks were happening around the world. In 1983, 299 American and French service members were killed when their barracks in Beirut were bombed by Islamic militants. HIV was finally in the mainstream conversation.
Life at my house was disastrous and tense. And everyone in town knew about it.
But I could find refuge in the middle of a cornfield, where life didn’t seem so scary. There were some irrigation ponds several miles outside of town. My best friend and I would drive out there, sit on the hood of my car, smoking and watching the orange reflections on the water as the sun went down. We’d have philosophical discussions about anything and everything. She had a mentally ill parent, mine were drunk and/or dysfunctional. Home was never where we wanted to be.
She introduced me to cigarettes and booze and pot. And I listen raptly to her stories about boys. She was one of those girls who attracted them like flies. More so when she started putting out. Her parents thought, as parents often do, that their child was a good kid. They thought I was a bad influence. It wasn’t the first time in my life I took the hit because I was a poor kid from a messed-up family, so it didn’t bother me.
My friends and I would drive to the closest university town on weekends to hit the frat parties. My car was a jacked-up 1972 turquoise Monte Carlo that I bought for $500. It had shiny wire rims and no car stereo. I had a boom box and a need to tear away at stoplights, as if I were always in a drag race. We’d load up, stocked with cassette tapes, cigarettes, hash brownies, and a mixed gallon jug of Everclear, orange juice and 7-Up.
A gaggle of teenage girls were always welcome at parties. No invitation needed. Over the course of the evening, my friends would gradually disappear with one polo-shirted guy or another. I ended up sitting next to a giant bong talking about the nature of the universe with some kid in a War Games t-shirt. I never did know how to flirt, but I could talk Cold War politics until everyone around me had passed out.
My junior year, while others were diligently working on college applications, I was running and doing push ups and counting down the days. I had decided to join the Army. I made decisions like this very quickly. My instinct about what I needed to do always preceded long thought processes. I knew I needed to leave and I knew I wanted to go to college.
I decided that way about a lot of things, including my virginity. It wasn’t valuable to me – it was just this thing that meant I lacked life experience. I found a boy older than me and got the deed done. It was not as interesting as I had hoped. And there was no point in pretending that it was love.
My true love was a popular, acne-covered boy who I’d loved since 8th grade. I wrote him anonymous love letters, blushed whenever I passed him in the hallway, imagined glances and smiles meant for me. Our sophomore year, his girlfriend was killed in a car wreck. It gave him a tragic air that was like catnip to a teenage girl. I loved him from afar all through high school. Many an excruciating poem was written on the basis of that love.
It was a small school, so his girlfriend had been a friend of mine as well. It was the first time anyone I’d known had died. These days, I can never attend a funeral, without that sickly floral smell of too many sympathy arrangements, and not think of her, lying there, porcelain and pretty in her casket, her manicured hands folded around a rose.
I spent most of high school working at a small cafe in town owned by a married couple. The man was a chainsmoker and coffee addict with glasses that made his eyes look Pokemon enormous. His wife was a tolerant woman and kind. While the police and social services were becoming more frequent visitors to my house, I found sanctuary at the cafe. We’d close up at two on Sundays, after the church rush and the four or five of us working that day would sit down for lunch.
While his wife would tally the day’s receipts, the boss would challenge me to Ms. Pac-Man, a giant video game in the front corner of the cafe. He’d grab quarters from the till, refill his coffee, light his next cigarette off the last and we’d play for an hour before I went home. If I needed money or a ride or a place to stay, they were always there, offering.
It was these strange, unexpected kindnesses that saved me. And they are sometimes the easiest to forget. So often my intense need to burn bridges, to put the past far behind me, makes me forget the people, the music, the memories that provided solace and refuge and helped me grow to be a better person than my experiences might have allowed.
We learn to see ourselves a certain way, to remember our pasts and define our character in the same way for years. Psychologists talk about re-framing our experience which I always understood as being something different. I was repulsed by the idea of revision, of rewriting the painful chapters.
Remembering only the bad served a need in the story I told myself. For me, it was how I could get away, break a cycle, leave behind a life that would not serve me well. But that was thirty years ago and that story no longer serves my needs.
It is why I am stuck as a writer. I keep telling the same story over and over, in one form or another. But it’s not the whole story. I am not the sum of miserable parts, but of parts equally happy and funny and poignant – those girlfriends from long ago, the kindnesses randomly offered, the gangly boys, the music that reminds of me of long, humid summer nights leaning back against the windshield, watching the sun go down.
18 thoughts on “The Waiting is the Hardest Part”
A beautiful poignant post Michelle, and a glimpse into your past, that drew me in ’til the end. I too clung to the story of all that was “wrong” over and over. It took forever for me to forgive others, and myself, so I could see everything in a different light. Such a liberation.
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Thanks, Alison. These stories are now in the forefront of my mind, because how I viewed the past is now an impediment to growth in the present. We all have our personal myths and it’s worth taking the time to see if what we believed was true or if we omitted parts of the story. The liberating piece for me is getting beyond just survivor-ship with the aim of allowing myself to be whole and happy. It means noticing what made me happy then – those moments, interwoven with all the bad stuff.
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Reblogged this on Dog Leader Mysteries and commented:
Never was much of a fan of anybody in music, loved tons of Joan Baez and, of course, Bob Dylan. Other than that I loved folk songs. Yet
Yes, poignant indeed Michelle. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize those kindnesses when they are being offered, and it’s always good to look back and realize how much of a difference those small acts made in our lives. My family life was a little messy, but there was a lot of humor that got us through and there was forgiveness, which is huge. You tell your stories so well, I hope you continue to do so and continue to find revelations even in the rehashed ones that play inside your mind.
Thanks, Ilona. I think, too, it helps to balance the perspective about what created a person. It’s easy to fall into the victim/martyr mentality when all you remember is the bad. And forgiveness is a huge part of that. It’s taken me a long time to realize how my frozen memory was impeding my writing. It’s all connected – who we were/are/becoming to what stories we tell and how we express them. I feel things opening up a bit.
This post grabbed me and held me down until I finished, leaving me breathless. I saw it during a break between two classes and couldn’t stop, and now I keep rereading it. The way you describe these events is, to say the least, gripping. Haunting. You say you told yourself a story because it served a need: survival. These words resonated with me most, as recently I have been working out that same issue, where I kept telling myself how I’d never be good enough for anyone or anything due to my past. It was necessary to survive, a lie so I could keep going, but now I see that lie in a different light. I’ll never be good enough? Then I can work harder to reach it. It’s not the reshaping that does it, but rather the change of perspective. Not all in the past was bad, as you so beautifully described. I think this is a very valuable idea to keep in mind.
What surprises me most is that I had this idea that I was completely powerless, a victim of circumstance, but if I look more closely, I see evidence that I took steps to protect myself. I found people, sanctuaries, made decisions that made my life better. That’s very powerful – when you learn of your own resiliency. It changes how you view yourself and gives you strength to move forward in your present life.
The “not good enough” script plays in a lot of our heads and it’s important to ask ourselves how and why we got that message, in order to find our own truths. So often, if we open our eyes, we see it was the perspective of someone else that we absorbed and believed in the absence of positive messages, but there is always room and opportunity to change that. Best wishes to you and thank you for your thoughtful comment.
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Killer piece of writing there Missy, almost unlike anything I’ve read by you, is that possible? Felt less structured but went on a nice, well designed riff of sorts. Like you let the Petty thing trigger this intimate retelling and then came back to where you are now as a writer. I love that. And I watched every bit of that video, which I rarely do…hadn’t seen that one in forever. He reminds me so much of Dylan, and has, but especially here. And does that jangly guitar thing like McGuinn from The Byrds. I’ve had a few drinks. I’m going to bed. The waiting is the hardest part. Bill
Thanks, Bill. I like the idea of riffing in writing. Perhaps that’s what makes a piece compelling to read – when it seems like this effortless improvisation, even if it’s taken four hours to write (cough, cough). There are two singers that whenever I hear them, I am immediately a to-the-bone midwesterner – John Cougar and Tom Petty. Then it’s all PBR and gravel roads and corn fields.
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You have identified your next step and taking it will move you on to the one after that. Go well.
Thank you – yes, this recognition about perspective and memory is an important one, especially when it comes to writing.
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It’s so weird—what we resist and how it ends up being the THING that’s most needed.
I’ve found that my Old Story is just another pattern, selective perspective that may be skewed as well as incomplete. Loosening my grip allowed room for forgiveness, which I’m finding to be an organic, shifting state. It’s partnered with mindfulness in a Practice that just keeps going deeper.
I think I’ve mentioned this on one of the other posts, but it reminds me of the Chinese finger trap. You put a finger in each end of the tube and when you go to pull them out, it pulls tight and you can’t get them out. The harder you pull, the more tight it gets, but if you let go, you are free. The more we resist changing our perspective, the more it takes a hold of our psyche.
I like the phrase “organic, shifting state” – it’s an apt description of re-framing one’s memories. I’m currently reading a book referred by another blogger: “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana which has been useful for furthering a practice in mindfulness, as well as learning to incorporate it in my creative life.
Thank you for sharing your life with us. You held my interest all the way to the end, I think I ran short on air a couple times. I have always said truth is much stranger than fiction and I will always believe that. A few times I felt sorry for you in your story, the things you had to go through. I also came from an alcoholic, dysfunctional home, the bad times can be quite educational as long as we don’t continue to copy them. I thought drinking was a thing that had to be done every day for a large part of my life. We can make our own choices at a young age, it sure is important that we make the right one. Thanks for your post. I will follow you and read more later.
Thanks, Leland. It’s funny. I turned 50 this year and still those events are pivotal ones in my life, even if I refused to acknowledge them for the longest time. It all starts at the beginning (that sounds like something Yogi Berra would have said). I have been very fortunate along the way to have met adults who were kind and friends who were generous. It would be sad to remember only the negative things that shaped me and not the wonderful things that made a big difference. Best wishes to you.
Sad about Petty. These deaths send us spiralling back, don’t they? I had been listening to old Petty this summer but couldn’t find Southern Accents on Spotify. This week I dug out the old cassette. It’s far from his best album but it takes me to a place and in particular an old friend of mine. Those are good triggers, and this is a lovely piece. Do you notice how softer your tone is here? Less self-accusing. That’s great! As for writing the same story over and over, Van Morrison has been writing the same song for decades.
Music is probably one of my biggest sensory triggers (likely for a lot of people) – it can send me time-traveling rather quickly. I read somewhere that writers write the same story over and over, trying to find resolution for themselves, even if they’re unaware of it. I feel fairly aware, which is why I’m stuck in a fifth novel draft, trying to tell a good story and not just tripping over my own story.
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