Month: January 2020

Moving up – part 2

             I hoped to slip past other areas of inexperience with subtle inferences and knowing looks suggesting more practice and maturity than I actually possessed. What had once been the golden insignia for a ‘good girl’ now felt like a blistering brand for uptight attitudes or just plain undesirability.  But on the very first night on campus I was bluntly questioned with no way out of a yes/no answer.  “Are you a virgin?”  I almost lied to create a guise of sophistication.  The Pill, along with the expectation that accompanied it, was readily available.  The arrival of AIDS was a decade away.  It seemed the only reason to say “no” was for moral values that had been deeply charred in the fire of free love.  Rectifying this state was high on my to-do list.   But my feet stumbled at the threshold of a door thrust wide open, even though my brain screamed: “just get it over with!”  I was getting better at exchanging glances and the casual “Where are you from?” conversation.  I practiced that little tease in my voice and eyes.  But progress always came to a halt further down the line when the deeper attraction I needed to pull me forward was missing.  A long term relationship was not part of the plan.  I had just attained freedom!  But I hoped for a ‘first time’ that could at least be fondly recalled. 

            My best friend from High School was attending college in New York City.  She was the person who knew more about me than anyone else in the world.  We had grown into the turmoil of the late 60’s and early 70’s together.  We had struggled to grasp what was taking place in the world around us: Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the hippie culture, free love, flower children, the Woman’s Movement, clothing and hair styles, drugs and music, Woodstock.  Where did we fit into this explosive time of change?  We had been on the fringe, not quite old enough to actively participate, yet knew we were heading to the front line in a world with rules that were rapidly changing. We listened and pondered and speculated about our futures.   Which, of course, included sex.  New permissiveness pressing against old limits along with the hormones racing through our bodies fueled conversations that led to both dreams and nightmares.   

            As important as having a friend to sift through the barrage of confusion was, she also played another critical role in my life.  She believed in me, inspired me, helped me unravel the knots that threatened to tie me down.  She was the one who pushed me to explore who I could become, to step away from the confines of the known and stretch into my imagination.  Her route was more clear cut, included family expectation and encouragement, had been traveled by her parents and older sister.  She helped me find my way to entrance exams and through applications and even took me to visit the college I was now attending.  A family member was a senior there and we stayed in her off campus apartment.  I remember the constant flow of people in and out the door, the intense conversations about politics, couples disappearing behind closed doors, rice fried with vegetables and soy sauce and white lumpy tofu.  I watched and listened but don’t remember saying a word to anyone but my friend.  Everyone seemed so hip and cool and mature.  I had never met people like this before; was terrified they would all start laughing at this silly quiet girl who sat in the corner and knew nothing of the world.  I was relieved that my friend barely left my side.  When we visited the campus I was struck by the modern castle of concrete created by Edward Durell Stone.  Arched columns three stories high reached upward to support a massive flat roof that connected the open spaces to the buildings that bordered the rectangular main campus.  It was the largest structure I had ever seen.  I felt like I had landed on another planet.  I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to go, this was where I wanted to plant new roots and escape the small enclosed house in the woods.   



Moving up – part 1

         The length of a vast plateau of cement spread before me.  Four square towers, far taller than any tree I had ever seen, guarded each corner.  The harsh sea of gray may have seemed uninviting to some, but my heart drank in the wide open space, the light flowing from every angle.  A tall slender bell tower stood at the center, surrounded by a shallow pool of sparkling water.  Around the water’s edge students gathered in small groups talking and laughing or splashing in the water as they dived for Frisbees.   Walking to the edge, checking briefly to see if anyone was going to stop me, I slipped off my Dr. Scholl’s and stepped in.  The chill of the water rose up my legs, waking places I had kept silent for so long.  Closing my eyes I took in a deep breath of freedom.   Excitement and hope grew to vie with more familiar fear and worry.  I would be okay here on my own.  I could do this.

            Patches of bright green grass were precisely placed and tightly cropped.  A few trees were scattered across the open spaces, some isolated in huge pots.  How odd it felt seeing a full grown tree restricted within concrete boundaries, almost as if we had traded places.  Each tower was surrounded by a perfect square of three story low rise dorms.  Four suites of six students were located on each of the tower’s 21 floors.  The occupants of one quadrangle outnumbered those of my entire town by hundreds.  The elevator swept me to my dorm room located on the top floor of one of the towers.  Moving from window to window a view of the entire campus opened beneath me.  I was on top of this new world!  I would be sharing this corner of the floor with five other young women. Two of them were from the south, a place called Long Island.  They laughed when I asked where it was, but not the kind of laugh that made me feel small or stupid, the kind that conveyed simple amusement and wonder at our differences.  One was from just twenty miles away and another from the city only thirty miles south of my small town – although it was quickly evident our lives were separated by far more than a few miles.  And one was from a town as tiny as mine but much further north.  She would last only one semester and then be replaced by another.  Little did we know that four of the resulting six, along with one added in the following year, would form a central group of five that stayed connected not only through our years at school, but through the future challenges of marriages, children, careers, and beyond.

            There always seemed to be someone available and eager to talk or explore.  The tug of companionship soon overtook the sense of safety I found in my corner of my room.  Despite our differences we all seemed to be looking for a place to fit, for a direction to aim, for acceptance within this mass of peers.  Cafeteria chatter buzzed like cicadas in the woods and the bustling energy seeping through my skin fed my deep yearnings.  Endless opportunities for drinking and dancing, and derelict behaviors if you chose -and it seemed almost everyone chose – filled the weekends.  Absence of parental restraints released an array of choices that could, and did for some, lead to disaster.  Temptation sat waiting around every corner.  I partook in some. But my inherent fears merged with a determined focus, mapping new boundaries in this unexplored territory.

            Skills honed for most of my life proved helpful.  My ears collected words and tones of voice while my eyes monitored facial expressions and body movements.  These observations fed a brain that connected the dots and sketched a framework that shaped my behaviors, all in an effort to disguise the ignorance I feared flickered around my body like a neon sign.  What to wear was the easiest: bell bottomed jeans, tight fitting t-shirt or leotard topped with a baggy flannel shirt, and work boots or clogs.  Sometimes I felt like I had invaded my father’s closet!  Hair, for both sexes, was long and straight and parted in the middle, often framing wire rimmed glasses.  I hit a bullseye on that one without even trying.  There was a broader canvas here to paint our differences on, yet everyone seemed to want to belong to the bigger sameness.  Looking like the others was one thing, socially interacting was another.  Conversations about music, politics, or religion returned me to the safety of silence as I retreated to the nearest corner, trying to force rigid muscles to look relaxed.  I had no clue about the different cultural references I heard, not even enough to know if they were positive or negative.  There was nowhere to go to quickly gather bits of information, no World Wide Web, just eyes wide open.  I quickly adopted smiling or laughing, especially laughing – of the machine gun variety when really nervous –  as acceptable  interactions requiring no words, no real commitment to thoughts or ideas. 

–To be continued      

A different tune – part 2

We lived on the outer fringe of a large centralized school district comprised of several small towns and extensive surrounding rural areas. The few close friends that I walked to classes with and met for lunch were only seen at school. The late bus didn’t travel as far as my house and I was not permitted to walk the mile from the closest drop off point, eliminating after-school activities.  Invitations to sleepovers were met with the routine “no” even when other parents offered to pick up and bring home.  Our phone line was long distance from the rest of the district so telephone conversations were not even a consideration.  The closest kids in the next house two miles down the road attended school in a different district.  Every window in our house framed the same landscape – trees, and more trees.   Walls of isolation, both manufactured and naturally provided by the acres of woods that surrounded our home, kept me locked in from the time the bus dropped me off until it picked me up again.  Control was easier in a world kept small.

            Discussions, about anything, were rare.  When they did occur they were one way – my father’s.   It wasn’t surprising that plans beyond high school graduation were never mentioned.   Unspoken assumptions placed me down the road married with kids.  How that was supposed to happen when I was not allowed to date, or even go to school dances, was one of those unknowns left dangling like a half broken branch, waiting for a gust to come along to determine which direction it would fall. 

Friends started talking about the colleges they wanted to attend along with possible careers.   New yearnings took root in the territory of my unease, grew beyond my habitual silence and blossomed in my mind’s eye as one word – FREEDOM!  Winds from a bigger world began to whisper possibilities in my ears, then began to howl until that was all I could hear.  I did not want to miss this bus, not this time!  I wanted to run for it, let it take me somewhere, anywhere.  A plan germinated in the rich soil of my academic success.  Somehow, I would find my way to college, use education to escape, draft a different life.  There was no family path in this neck of the woods, but I was fortunate to have friends to help me navigate the way.  Education equaled independence and independence equaled freedom. 

            One night at dinner as I asked for more potatoes I also blurted out “I’m going to college” before my jaw clenched.   My father simply responded between bites with: “No you’re not.”  “Why not?”  “Because I said so.”  Mom and my brothers sat wide-eyed and silent. College had never held a place in the family plan.  I finished eating, then left the table accompanied with the flavor of failure.  Could he really stop me? 

            I had never asked for help, never asked for anything.   My throat tightened and the dreaded flush traveled up my neck as I made my way to the guidance office.   I sat on the edge of the chair, spine sagging and books clutched to my chest as the counselor described financial options I hadn’t even known existed: grants, student loans, work study jobs.  A flicker of hope started to ignite a possible plan in my buzzing brain – until I was handed financial aid papers for my parents to fill out.   They laid in my closet for days before I finally set them on the kitchen table.  “There are ways to get money to pay for college”, I sputtered.  My father picked them up, ruffled through them with lips pressed firmly together and that crease between his eyebrows I had learned to dread.  Our eyes met for one sharp glance.  “None of their damn business how much money I make!”  “But I can’t get any help if you don’t fill them out.”  He just walked away, playing the power card from the hand I had just dealt.  The deadline approached, I asked one more time with silence as my answer.  My power card was knowing I would leave one way or another.  Then, without my knowing, the papers arrived in the guidance office.  My bewilderment was only exceeded by the realization that I had been given wings to fly away, above and beyond the tallest trees.  I never asked how the papers arrived there and they were never mentioned again.  After all, that’s how things were done.

A Different Tune -part 1

       I watched from the study hall window as they laughed and shoved their way onto the bus, then closed my eyes as it pulled away with the entire school band onboard – except me.   I tried to act as if it was no big deal.  I would probably have been a nervous wreck anyway, not knowing how to act or what to say at another school filled with strangers.  But I had not been allowed the chance to find out.  It wasn’t that the required ‘audition’ hadn’t gone well, but I was certain they all thought that was the reason for my absence.  Just me, the only one not good enough to participate.   My parent’s answer had been “no”, even when the music teacher had called and promised to look after me and let me stay with him and his wife – another teacher.  My mother’s strained voice drifted from the kitchen: “We just don’t want her to travel that far away from home, something could happen.”  Yes, something could. I could get a taste of what life was like for other seventeen year olds; see a world beyond the trees.   The blade of disappointment struck a place inside me already frayed from frustration.  Strands of obedience and fear began to unravel as threads of courage and conviction started to weave a new picture.   But the muscles in my throat stayed strong, on guard, kept my voice quiet despite the surge of emotions wanting release.

The trip was never mentioned again, never used as a “you never let me…” in the heat of anger.  That was not how things were done.  There were no tears.  I was not a cry baby.   I had learned well from my mother, learned to keep the peace, not rock the boat.  Maybe it was inherited; this ability to stay silent while air was trying to get in at the same time a scream was trying to escape.   Maybe my birth in the back seat of my father’s new Plymouth had been the first practice run.  The local doctor, upon seeing my quiet gray body gravely stated I had not survived – but mom had insisted: “she cried – once!”, and the story goes that he swept me into his office, then rubbed my small body so hard with alcohol “it seemed my skin would come off” until I cried again, and then turned the rosy hue of determination.

      The band returned from the exchange trip with tales of a common experience I had not shared.  Years of “no” and excuses of “safety” had been used to construct rigid boundaries that kept me in and others out.  Over protection had been fed into my veins diluting any sense of who I was.  Fear of steely blue eyes throwing blame my way, or of crossing an invisible line that would close my father’s heart, silenced protests, questions, and even the simple act of conversation.   I practiced being a good girl day after day but was never quite sure if I passed the test.  The practices followed my every footstep: skirting eye contact, constant monitoring of the atmosphere, trimming down the words I spoke and retreating before the rapid flush to my cheeks gave away my vulnerability.  I hid in the shadows while at the same time I desperately wanted someone to shine a light in my direction.  I quit band despite making all-state, despite the way marching with precision in a parade added confidence to my steps.   Eliminating the need to ask for a ride to an event, and then listen to the sighs and grumbles before they reluctantly provided it, was the first small snip in a cord of dependency that threatened to strangle me.

To be continued….


Happy New Year

Striding across the threshold of time into a new year changed things; or at least the concept of things.  The span of a single second transported me from the bottom of the dark page of December to the top of a new decade where hope sat next to promise.   The wants and wishes of just one week ago shifted towards the more solid push of plans and goals.  My practical brain said nothing had changed except the numbers, but the flutter in my heart whispered of endless possibilities!                                        

I have staggered through years of rigid resolutions, including those where I resolved to make none!  But today I am traveling with a lighter step and a softer grip.   I will continue to put in the efforts to equip my intentions.  But I will also seek the hand of the unknown to escort me towards adventures waiting in the new year ahead.  Happy New Year to all and may your adventures take you to places you didn’t even know you wanted to go!!

My stories will continue next week.