And I decided to share the challenge across this platform and the Facebook from whence in came.
Here’s the tough part for me – the thing that makes this a challenge: I have tried numerous times to write something vaguely similar to an autobiography, but I get to a certain point and I feel like no one would believe any of it. I mean, I get that a lot, even with my diligent fact-checkers. And then there’s the problem that there’s just so much to write about. I mean, what do people want to read about? What’s really interesting to them?
So, I decided, at least for the course of this exercise, to share one interesting fact and/or short short story from almost each year of my life. It won’t always been the most important thing, or the biggest thing, but it will, I hope, be interesting.
Age 0: I have a very distinct memory of being held on my mother’s shoulder, looking over her shoulder out of a window and being able to see just a little sliver of ocean. There is an old man there with very white hair and bright blue eyes, and he and I talk all the time. He makes me giggle and is just the nicest, kindest fellow, and when he smiles, it feels so warm and wonderful. (I came to find out some time later that this memory was probably from a time before I was 4 months old because we moved from that garage apartment in Saint Petersburg, Florida, at that point. And there was no one living with us there, though there had been a man there before who had died. This was not unusual since Saint Pete is basically one huge retirement community, and it would explain with the rocking chair sometimes rocked on its own.)
Age 1: We live in Texas City, Texas. My dad is in the US Navy, and I believe that it was somewhere during this year that Uncle Ronnie might’ve shows up. He is a confirmed alive roommate, and he has the brightest red beard ever. I cannot conceive of any human being bigger than him.
Age 2: I have an imaginary friend named Lucy. She always has a cigarette in one hand that changes colors (the paper part) and an amber drink with ice in the other. She teaches me how to stack blocks, and she is always kind but also kind of sad. (I found out years later that Lucy was my biological great-grandmother. No one in my immediate family knew who she was since my great-grandfather had divorced her and remarried before my mother was born. Lucy died at 42.)
Age 3: My first sister is born. Before that, though, my dad comes home from being at sea, and we’re celebrating something, I think. I’m dancing, and my foot catches on a cord. The cord is connected to the lamp, and the lamp falls and breaks. My dad is angry and yells at me for breaking the lamp. I’m hurt and confused (and still a little scared because LOUD CRASH SOUND!), and I try to tell him, I didn’t break the lamp! “Break the lamp” means to maliciously pick up the lamp and throw in on the floor. My concept of causality has incomplete, I guess, because I do not articulate that I tripped on the cord, not “break the lamp”. He accuses me of lying to him – “I saw you do it!” – and I get more upset because he now he’s lying to me. He couldn’t have seen me break the lamp because I didn’t. This is allegedly the first time he spanks me. I’m still pissed off about it.
Age 4: We’re living in San Diego, California, now. I’ve been reading for a while by the time I start kindergarten, but I didn’t realize that it was actually reading. The gentlemen at the Officers’ Club think I’m just the cutest thing, and the visiting fellows from the British Royal Navy have a blast teaching me the alphabet and sounding out words. Everyone’s trying to get me to sound out words, but it’s not until the first week or so of school that anyone tells me that what I’m doing is reading. Mrs. Pavlovic lets me read instead of doing alphabet time.
Age 5: I have a brother now, and we’re in Dallas, Texas. My dad is still driving back from California with all of our stuff, and my mom and siblings and I are staying with my maternal grandmother. Grandma and I have tea parties after she waters the plants, and she lets me choose which miniature teacup I can use. I pick the one with roses on it. It’s not the biggest or the smallest or the brightest, it’s just my favorite. I was made in Occupied Okinawa just after World War II.
Age 6: I’m in first grade at parochial school, and I start having nightmares again. I don’t want to sleep, big black-and-white monsters are endangering my family and hiding something bright from me. The bright thing is home – it feels like home – but they’re keeping me away from it.
Age 7: I realize that you don’t wear costumes to normal birthday parties. Also, I’m in therapy to deal with the nightmares. When I tell the therapist about the nightmares, I lie about what I actually see in them – there are somethings that you’re not supposed to talk about – but the story is close enough that she gives me a little bit of positive advice.
Age 8: My grandmother dies. She is sitting on the end of my bed, looking just like she did when we were having tea parties, and she is telling me to be a good girl and that she’ll watch over us from not-her-body anymore. This makes perfect sense to me, and I’m not really sad. That I’m not really sad seems to confuse my mother, and I feel a distinct shift away from our closeness. My next sister is only two months old when this happens.
Age 9: I started another new school this year. (This makes five schools I’ve been to so far.) I’m in the TAG program, and I feel stressed out all the time. There is a distinct disconnect between “smart” and “do more work”, and I can’t make them meet. I start to realize that I do not understand what people actually want from me.
Age 10: My youngest sister is born, and my mom is sick all the time after that. She tries to go to church a lot, but that makes her sicker. I try to take care of the baby as much as I can. I’ve been changing diapers and making bottles for years now, but this is the first time I feel connected to the outcome.
Age 11: The greatest joy in life is bringing the flag down from the pole after school. The janitor, Sam Houston, lets me do it often. Then one day, he grabs me and tries to kiss me – a big nasty wet kiss on the face and mouth. I wrest myself out of his grip and run from the room panicked and scared. I don’t tell anyone because everyone seems to like him so much, and I’ve been accused of lying so many times that I don’t think anyone will believe me. I spent the rest of the sixth grade avoiding him and suffering mild panic attacks when I see him.
Age 12: I met a girl last year, and she is my everything. She is funny and clever, she introduces me to amazing music and fashion, and she likes to hang out with me. We are both worried about the world burning. I realize I have fallen in love with her, and at the same time, I realize that she isn’t like me and probably would never love me back like that. That’s okay, I tell myself, I’m too young for a “real” relationship anyway, but I pretend sometimes that it’s real even though I’ve never even held her hand. In my mind, all real relationships should feel like this.
Age 13: I’m having nightmares again, only worse this time. There’s more tension in the house. My mom has kind of gotten better after the surgery, but there’s more stress. I have a very rich fantasy life to which I escape when I can’t bury myself in books. I want to be an artist, but I expect that I will be discouraged. I have never really felt supported, I’m not sure what that feeling means, except by the Girl. I don’t want to compete with her, though. Next year is freshman year, and she’s going to the Arts Magnet. I want to go, too, but I don’t believe I can be good enough and I still want my parents to like me, so I apply to the Business Magnet. I get in.
Age 14: I’m cast in a movie. It’s a ridiculously awesome movie about the robot dinosaur exhibit, “Invasion of the Robot Dinosaurs”, and I’m playing a 9-year-old girl, “the Dream Girl”. I have to tape down my breasts with ACE bandages, and the day we start filming – Valentine’s Day, also my youngest sister’s birthday – I start my first menstruation. Miraculously, there are no disasters despite wearing white tights and a white dress. Interestingly enough, one of the best parts was discovering scalp massages when they had my hair done.
Age 15: I hit a bad patch. Bad things happen. I fight with my parents a lot because they don’t like the Girl, they think we do drugs together. (I find out later that I always come back from her house smelling like pot and incense. Her mother is the one smoking out, neither of us do that.) She is still not my girlfriend. A really bad thing happens and I run away from home. I’ve met another girl, one that does like me back, but she’s very, very broken. Eventually, I go home, and I know I’m not as broken as she was, but I don’t really think I’ll be okay again.
Age 16: I can’t walk. There’s something wrong with my right femoral hernia, and I can’t walk. I can sometimes mostly feel my leg, but it’s not always attached. Sometimes it hurts and aches, sometimes it feels like it’s on fire. I can feel things crawling on it, and I can watch my toes turn blue. I’ve dropped out of school because when I can actually get there, I’m so high on pain medication (that doesn’t technically work) that I don’t retain anything. I still make a 1275 on my SATs, but I forget while I’m taking the test that I’m taking the test, so I miss my personal goal of 1400. I’m still pissed off about that, too.
Age 17: I re-read “the Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein for the thousandth time. He doesn’t talk about girls liking girls yet, or boys liking boys, but he does talk about multiple husbands and wives and such. This is probably why I don’t feel bad about introducing the Girl to my Best Friend (a guy) and them hitting it off famously, immediately laying claim to each other. I don’t feel bad about it, but I do feel a little jealous – of both of them. But who am I to talk? I’ve fallen in love with Another Girl who is also not into girls, but I will do anything in the world for her, including actively dating a guy. He’s a great guy, I like him a lot, he has a lot of clothes… but I’m emotionally compromised, and the pain drugs don’t help. I make a mess of things.
Age 18: I’m living in Austin. I share a house with a boyfriend who introduces me to adult comics – not pornographic comics but rather comics of an adult nature, like Sandman and Slutburger and anything from Drawn and Quaterly. He is aloof yet caring. I’ve developed a man-crush on our roommate who makes dolls.
Age 19: This is the pivot point of my life. I am pregnant, terrified, angry, and fighting everyone, it seems, in the right to make a decent decision. One of my brother’s friends finds me one night when I’m thinking the worst things, and he tells me that I’m made of love and that I will choose the best thing for everyone because that’s what and who I am. He dies a short time later in a car accident. I vow to name a child after him, and I eventually do.
Age 20: I am stronger now than I ever have been, and yet I am still eaten alive with fear and anxiety every day. I have to force myself to do even the smallest things, especially with other people, and I hide the exhaustion from this effort by forcing myself to keep doing things. I take a hobby and try to make it a career. I want to build something amazing. I do not realize that I have riddled the foundation with holes by not being brave enough to ask hard questions. I gave away my heart, I do not believe that I have a soul. I think about the baby every day, but I can’t tell anyone. No one cares to listen again. I bury that feeling in my work.
Age 21: I have a grand opening for my business on my 21st birthday. I am wearing a custom-made black floor-length fishtail hobble skirt with a high-collar Victorian-style jacket. There is a decent-sized gathering at my loft in Deep Ellum, and after the second band goes on stage, I hobble down the street to the first bar I find – a half a block. I order a rum-and-coke, just because I can. I have one sip and then leave it there on the bar.
Age 22: What part of “don’t take my baby out of the room” did you not understand?! No, don’t cut that! What the hell is wrong with you people?! Bring her back to me NOW! No, I don’t want any drugs, I told you, I want a natur—
Age 23: I fear I have made a horrible mistake. And yet, how could it have been any different? It doesn’t happen that often, after all, and surely other people have it worse. Now’s just not a good time to try to talk about what’s really going on, what’s really bothering me. “Equal” is a word that men use to justify being more equal, it seems. On my daughter’s first birthday, she asks for a baby brother. That night, I get pregnant. I sincerely feel the sensation of fear that I will never get away enough to be okay again.
Age 24: My son is sick. He won’t get better, he doesn’t respond to Tylenol or Motrin, and he just won’t thrive. I can’t take him to the doctor because there’s no money for it. My daughter was playing and then became very quiet. I come into the room, and she has found a blue marker. She has drawn a dragon on one wall, right over my then-husband’s head, and she tells me that it’s a dragon that’s going to eat her brother’s sickness. Opposite the dragon are glyphs running over walls and doors. She tells me what they say, but the words, though heard, cannot be retained. I ask her to repeat it, and she does. It is exactly the same sound, but I can’t retain it, even at that moment. Twenty minutes later, my son’s fever breaks, and he doesn’t get sick again for several years.
Age 25: I run away from home. I take the kids, and I take the offer of a close friend, and I run away from home. Things like that don’t get better, the abuser has to acknowledge that there’s a problem in order for it to get fixed. No such awareness happens, so I run. I try to do it right – get a straight job, pay rent – but I have a vagina, and there’s no way to make enough money to take care of everything, there are not jobs that pay enough, even in Austin. I get back to my Other Career on the side, and that helps a lot, but I realize that I can’t maintain it, it’s just too much, and I do not have good help.
Age 26: I run away from home again, only this time, I can’t take the kids. I have no means financially or emotionally – he’s made sure of that – and what little I can manage is wrapped up in survival. I run far away to San Francisco by way of New York and Los Angeles. My fear and anxiety are so massive that I have constant tremors, and I barely weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. I force myself to face every day and keep going, thinking that it will get easier. It doesn’t.
Age 27: We are driving across Kansas, and the tornadoes are chasing us. We can see a number of them hovering in various places across the open plain. The kids are watching them through the back window of the pickup truck. The cloud ahead of me looks like a man, the face distinct, arms outstretched. I cannot tell if he’s trying to stop me or help me. I am trying not to speed too much, but I’m also desperate to get to hillier ground. I hear there are no tornadoes in Wyoming.
Age 28: Pick up the phone. It’s me, Dawn. Pick up the phone. I’m so sorry. It is my father’s birthday, and his only sister has been killed in a car accident. I drive down to the Houston area for the funeral, my boyfriend and his parents keep the kids. There is Scotch and pot and stories and laughing, and my second-youngest sister goes into labor. My aunt never did like Catholic Mass, we figure that was her little joke. When I get back, I realize that he is a wonderful man, and that I am not the right woman for him. Before the summer comes, I have reconnected with a friend, and I have a good reason to let the wonderful man go. I know that it’s going to be a very bumpy ride for me.
Age 29: I do not want to have another baby. I am getting too old, I already almost died once, I really don’t want to compete with… okay, fine. Baby. And getting sick. For nine months. Constantly. I will go to enormous lengths to not vomit, and this period of time strongly tests that resolve. Also, I can’t walk again because the baby is pushing on the femoral nerve.
Age 30: Yay! Finally, a homebirth of my very own! And an immediate relocation via ambulance to the hospital because I’m bleeding out badly. I told you this was a bad idea… but then my little bodhi with the Om birthmark smiles at me, and it’s going to be okay. I’m doomed.
Age 31: One moment, I’m on my knees, having dug a hole for the rose bush, and the next, I’m leaning against the car, talking about how my older son should be a forward, he doesn’t have enough mass to be a goalie. I remember the act of opening the urn, pouring in the ashes, taking the second cremation tag out, but they are disjointed, like scenes that were cut from the final film, beads left over after the necklace is strung. I am shaking, I am angry, I am hurt and grieving and the pain is almost too much to bear, and at the same time, I can feel the numbness coming, the mask, the hiding place, the lie. The rational self is silent, it cannot speak now. This is not the time.
Age 32: State of Virginia, I am in you! I flew in to perform the ceremony. The bride is gorgeous, glowing, the actual meaning of radiant, and well she should be: she’s pregnant with twins and about to marry one of the sweetest, most intelligent and compassionate people I have ever met. I am a little jealous of their love, maybe envious. I want someone to look at me the way he looks at her and know that they’re actually looking at me and not at what they want to see.
Age 33: I am sorting through my mother’s things. She’s not dead – she’s standing right there – but she has learned too late that she was not trained for the world she tried to live in. It all seemed great on paper, but that pesky human element ruined it for everyone. I come across a very old photo of a very beautiful woman. That’s Lucy! I say. Yes, she replies, but how did you know that? This is my imaginary friend, I tell her, with the cigarettes and scotch-on-the-rocks. She tells me the real story of the drugs and alcohol that were supposed to help her cope with her feelings of dis-conformity, and how it led to the divorce and ultimately her death. My mother did not find out about this woman until just a few years before. The photo was never seen in anyone’s belongings.
Age 34: I will give up every birthday, every Halloween, every Thanksgiving, and every Christmas if you will just live. Be alive and real and hug my neck and cry in the night. Say my name, say anything at all. You can be whatever you want to be, you can be a bum or a lawyer or an artist or a i-don’t-care, just, please, live. I can’t lose you, too. Please. Live.
Age 35: My then-husband is asleep in the cabin. He has spent most of this “honeymoon” asleep, and at least not being intimate. I am realizing that we are not a match and that I am not doing him any good as a wife. Fine, whatever. I can have fun on my own. I find a sheep farm and learn to spin wool into yarn (I’m naturally very good at it), and I very nearly buy a singing sheep. All I’d need is a fence and a shed, and then I realize that I would have no help keeping that sheep, so what’s really the point.
Age 36: I have given my mother away. She found a wonderful man who is stubborn enough to bull through, and they are both quirky enough to help each other love and grow. Of course, it’s going to be rough going for a bit because relationships are hard, and with my parents’ marriage as a point of reference, there’s a lot of learning yet to be done about how to do it well. I know it will be hard, but it’s the right thing for both of them. I don’t remember if I told her I would miss her, but I know I told her I love her. I didn’t want her to think that she needed to stay with me, with us.
Age 37: I am back living in Dallas. I have an adorable two-bedroom townhouse in Oak Cliff, and I don’t know how to fit my life in half the space I had before. My youngest son gets the shivers and doesn’t lose them. They get worse. He starts crying all the time. He is miserable. I call my doctor back in Wyoming. We try so many things, and we seem to have it handled. They were seizures, but they have stopped now. And then he is playing and jumping on the bed – the mattress that is sitting on the floor – and I’m trying to grab him before he falls. I miss, he stumbles and hits his head. The seizures return and have not stopped, and he has not said his alphabet since.
Age 38: The issue of my personality quirks come up again. I have stopped eating wheat based on previous testing, and the possibility of autism is addressed. I wake up one day and realize that I do not have a pit of anxiety in my belly – and that I’m really just hungry. I start looking more and more into this condition, finally willing to accept the reality, and it makes my life make so much sense. It also terrifies me because I have spent my life believing that I was just not trying hard enough, not smart enough, not friendly enough, not enough in general, and it turns out that I simply do not fit in the mold. I seem broken compared to the rest of the world because I am not designed to work in that context. I am a high-end creative suite written for Mac that is trying to run in a Windows environment.
Age 39: We are in the backyard of his mother’s house. His brother is officiating, and I am terrified. I have so many doubts about my ability to do this, to be a good wife… but I have always been a good wife, just maybe not for the people I was married to. What if I’m not a good wife for him? What if this is all just being swept up in a romantic notion, girls proposing to boys, who does that?! And then he is standing there, and he does not look at me like that other groom looked at his bride. He looks at me differently, and I don’t know what it means. It’s a good thing, right? I have come to realize that there are many things that I thought I understood that I don’t, but isn’t that the definition of life? I’m standing there, and I’m trying not to cry with anxiety and joy and panic, I have had so much practice at this that almost no one knows how bad it is. I read my vows. The voice in my head says, “After the beginning, it will be fine.” It is so certain and so clear that I cannot question it. I’m not sure how, but I will do this, and it will be glorious. The voice in my head is the thing that I focus on, and I make the most important choice of the day: to believe every word he says, and to mean every word I say.
Age 40: I am waiting at the end of the bar. This is a different kind of fear, a different kind of nervous. I have never felt this before. I have finished my drink, and I am chatting with a stranger mostly so that I can stay distracted and not just vomit from sheer nerves right there, and then I turn around, and I am looking in a mirror. I am looking into the past at my 20-year-old self, and I am the most beautiful, soul-stirring vision because this is not me: this is my daughter. She looks a bit like the Girl I loved all those years ago, as though I took the spirit of the best of her and put her into that baby, but those are my eyes, and that is my smile, and those are my words and my music and my style. She has taken all of these things and made something completely different with them, though, like a really big set of LEGOs. Screw the instructions, just use all the pieces and see what happens.
Age 41: The story is still being written. It is scary sometimes, and it is deeply fulfilling most of the time, and there are quiet times in between. I paint and sculpt and draw and write, and I have a fantastic dog and a wonderful husband. I knit and I build things and I cook. My best story for the Age of 41 has not happened yet, I’m pretty certain, but I will let you know when it does.