My blogs these last few months were inspired by illustrations from my Weepy Memoir trilogy. I keep writing it. But it keeps being true. My former high school student Michael Swearingen created chapters illustrations for all three books. The covers too.
I’ve been glancing through the books as I’ve blogged. I like the trilogy’s symmetry. I’m turning to the second book now. If Shot Across the River Styx was a funeral ceremony for my friend Nick, then Determined Weeds is an eulogy for my mother.
The image above is the first illustration in the book. It is a childish scribble. A cat with a goofy smile tending a garden of weeds with bleach. The sun is smoking a cigarette. It’s wearing sunglasses and a stoic smile. How does this picture connect to Determined Weeds? I’m not Michael, but here’s my interpretation:
A cat in a field of flowers beneath the sun is an innocent image. As innocent as a mother’s love for her son. But the the illustration above is twisted. The sun isn’t smiling. It’s smoking a cigarette. The natural world is dangerous and indifferent in this picture. It is toxic and polluted by chemicals. The flowers aren’t flowers, they are weeds. The cat isn’t watering the plants, it is spraying them with bleach. The toxins in this picture, the bleach and the cigarette, lead to death, not life. The picture takes what could be a childish, pastoral scenes and darkens it with something menacing. Certainly, this evokes something of my experience with my mother.
Mom loved me very much. And I loved her. But, as I grew older, I began to learn that my mother’s love was dangerous. To herself and to others. Her love was polluted by vodka and pills. By narcissism and something heavy. Processing that love, as I do in Determined Weeds, twisted my most innocent, childish impressions of the universe. Writing the book twisted me, too. I still cry when I read the end of the book. In fact, I read the final words again this morning.
Cried like a baby.
These blogs are a return to what feels like an important writing project. Important in what way? Important in that I felt compelled to make something. And I made it. A kaddish of sorts. An eulogy to Nick, to Mom, and to my life as a high school teacher. A move from innocence to experience and beyond. I link to Allen Ginsberg and William Blake because the Songs of Innocence and Experience were in my mind as I wrote these books. I was an English major. Sue me.
Determined Weeds is, in part, about my loss of innocence. The prologue is introduced by Michael’s illustration above. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
“Heavy clouds rolled in over the mountains as the afternoon turned into evening. A storm was coming, and wind howled against the building that housed my office on campus. I braced for that was coming next, determined to make my way in an enormous, complicated universe” (p. 5).
There’s nothing innocent in this paragraph. Storms are dangerous. The morning always turns into night. Eventually, children learn to brace themselves from the painful things that are coming our way.
And painful things always come our way. We can’t avoid it. No amount of privilege or money can keep us safe from the powerful insecurity of being a human being. That knowledge, for me, is part of what comes as we move towards experience. I think we can move past these harsh impressions of the universe, but the story of my mother led me into that heaviness and the writing allowed me to spend some time there.
Better to acknowledge the shadow if you want to make peace.
Mom always told me I was a peacemaker. There was never peace in my family. Mom, Dad, and my sister were always at war. My childhood happened against the backdrop of screaming voices. I did my best to make peace between these voices, but I was no match for addictions, mania, and the energies derived from the toxins that polluted the people I loved so very much.
Solomon has been a terror this past month. He screams and hits. He can be cruel to Katie and I, doesn’t listen, and demands the universe on his own terms. Solomon can be so stubborn.
I’m sure, in some way, his behavior recalls some of the trauma from my childhood. My childhood happened against the backdrop of screaming voices. My adulthood too? I’m frustrated by Solomon, but accustomed to the powerful energies that are alive and well in my creative, sensitive son. I need to do better to understand how his actions trigger my distant past, my shadow, if I intend to make peace between us. And I do. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that I want there to be peace.
People can be so cruel to each other. But they needn’t be. There’s healthier ways to live. And I learned that, in a large part, during my childhood as I was forced to figure out healthier ways to live against the backdrop of screaming voices. Of people spraying weeds with bleach underneath an indifferent, sometimes cruel sun.
Determined Weeds is a heavy book. But it also captures the complexity of my very real love for Mom. I was reminded of that this morning.