I have a big, plastic green footlocker filled with words. That's all. Words, my own words, sometimes the words of someone I loved who didn't love me back - not enough.
It's time to let go of all that. Let go of those shells, those ghosts, those losses. Let go of all the broken pieces that I can't put back together. Husks. Once I thought those journals held me, who I was. Some essential part of my soul. Something I was afraid I would lose if I didn't hold it tight between the pages. Something dear and yet in constant terror. My Self.
I remember the covers of those journals. A pale yellow folder full of notebook paper. A hardcover, black. Steno pads. Big thick spiral notebooks. Handmade, handsewn books with stamped covers. Journals made of recycled paper, journaled on one side, scrap paper on the other. Journals written entirely in green ink, a fountain pen. Journals in pencil. Journals with date after date after date written at the top of each page. My chronicle. My calendar. Proof that I was here.
All my life, I knew I would disappear. I knew my presence here on earth was so tentative that if I didn't keep writing, I would be devoured, absorbed, disappeared.
So from the time I could hold a crayon, I scribbled. I scrawled. My hand grew cramped and tired, calluses formed on my fingers from holding a pen, a pencil. Gripped so hard my fingers hurt but couldn't stop. Couldn't stop writing, because if I did, I would disappear. Everyone I loved had disappeared. But if I could keep telling the story, if I could keep making words on the page tell the story, then I could hang on.
OCD? never heard of it till much later. But I lived it. I was compelled to record my feelings, experiences, injustices for which I had no voice in the larger world. Journaling was just as much an obsessive compulsive behavior as any counting, touching, ritual. I kept my journal close to my body, as close as possible. In my hands, or later, in my backpack. At night, I kept it under the covers with me, or under my mattress, or beside my bed on my desk, under a pile of other books. It was never much farther away than that. An extension of my body.
Once in sixth grade a boy grabbed my yellow journal away from me and ran into the boy's bathroom. I was torn between the Rules of not crossing that gender line, and an absolutely hyperventilating panic attack. My cries caught the attention of a teacher. I managed to somehow communicate my dilemma to her. She charged into the bathroom, retrieved the journal and boy, whom she lectured at length while I seized my darling journal and clutched it against my gut, where it belonged.
That was one of the most terrifying few minutes of my life, when that journal was ripped from my hands and taken where I could not go. The core of me had almost been stolen. And yet I didn't stop writing, didn't stop keeping a journal. Having someone else read it - even the threat of such a thing - made my heart stop. Made me vulnerable, gave the world a way to control me, hurt me. And yet not writing was worse. Much worse. If I didn't write, I would disappear. I was sure of it. Writing was all that kept me tied to reality, to thingness, to a world where I had no place, no assurance of home, no guarantee of protection. Writing protected me. Formed a shield around me.
It wasn't that my world was full of emptiness and nothingness. No, my world wasn't barren. That might have almost been a relief. My world was too full - of violence, abandonment, a mother who didn't come home, fathers who kept disappearing, siblings who were there one day, gone the next. Homes disappeared. Neighborhoods, friends, schools, teachers, friends. Everything in my life disappeared all the time. Why should I be any different? Why had I not disappeared? It was only a matter of time. I knew it.
I remember the first word I ever wrote. On a brown paper bag, with a red crayon. D E B Y. I sat at my grandmother's kitchen counter in a red cabin with white trim, high in the Tehachapi mountains. How can I put this in words you'll understand? Armageddon had already happened before I was three years old. My father had been incarcerated at San Quentin for a sentence of eight years. My mother had run away. My two older siblings were put into foster care. I had been taken from the apartment we lived in, and never saw it again. I never saw my babysitter again. I never saw our furniture, our dishes, our silverware, again. Every single familiar thing in the world had disappeared.
Except for my grandmother, my grandfather, and this little red cabin up in the mountains. And even that, my bedrock, my haven, would soon be taken away when I was legally sent to live with my aunt and uncle. I didn't know until I was 30 years old that although my grandmother wanted to keep me, my grandfather said no. Even at 30, I learned people could still disappear.
I held the paper bag out to my grandmother, who was at the sink, washing up. We had probably just had lunch; I was allowed to eat sandwiches at the counter, but dinner was always at the table. Tepa wasn't there; maybe outside working on the boat, or the trailer, or the garage, or his fishing gear. It was safe in Mommer's kitchen. The pine paneling, the sunshine streaming in, the mountains all around us, holding us. As a sixth month old baby with chicken pox, my grandmother had bathed me in that stainless steel sink with cool, baking soda water, held me in her hands, far away from chaos and calamity.
I showed her my name, written in big shaky proud letters. D E B Y. That was how my mother had spelled it, that was how everyone spelled it. That was how I'd learned it. Little red sticks and a few shaky curves, lined up in the right combination, in the correct direction, each one performing a necessary task.
I'm sure my grandmother was proud of me. I'm sure she praised me. I'm sure I'd been practicing. But that moment: that's when I made a transformative leap in my understanding of being. It was as if, when I wrote those letters, made a written record of my self, my name, my existence, those letters grew roots and plowed down through that formica countertop, into the wooden floor, beams and concrete foundation of the cabin, deep into the heart of the Tehachapi mountains themselves.
I had staked myself to this world. I had created a space for myself. I had claimed my fierce life in four little letters. D E B Y.
And the potency of those letters was that even when I was far away from this peaceful place - highways and stopsigns and backseats and long hot naps away from these mountains – the waxy strokes of those letters, my name, the ability to muscle my way into reality, into existing, came with me. Always connected me to that mountain, that cabin, the pungent sage on the mountainsides, the sandy earth, dry heated winds, scorching sun.
From that day on, every time I put pencil to paper, I recreated that moment when I came into being. I learned how to carry myself in the world even when nobody else could. It was powerful magic for a little girl. It could have carried me off. Under other circumstances, such power might have burnt me up to touch. But I needed this magic. I needed every single ounce in order to survive what had already happened, what was to come.
In that cusp of time on the mountain, I had to learn fast. Every single thing I loved had disappeared. The world outside the mountain was a tar pit, a black hole, and my entire family had been swallowed up in it; right down to the last black bobby pin on my mother's head. I was the sole survivor. And although I didn't understand why, and although I grieved silently for all that I had lost, I did not want to follow. I wanted to live.
I have always been drawn back to that mountain, to that brown, stony land. I have dreams in which I simply stand on the porch, look up into the black mass of mountain that stood behind the cabin; and above that shadow, the piercing white constellations of summer.
There is a kind of physical strength that comes to people in moments of extraordinary need – the ability to lift a car off a child, push aside obstacles, pull someone back from a cliff. Fueled by adrenalin, desire, need, often the sudden surge of strength is gone as soon as the emergency is over, never returns again. I think writing came to me like that. Power came to me in those mountains. Power was visited on me. Power was given to me. And at the same time, I called it. I reached out to it. I found it. Because I was searching. Because I was desperate. Because I knew that black hole was oozing up behind me, was lapping at my heels, coming to swallow me up, too. Unlike physical “hysterical strength,” however, writing never left me.
D E B Y. When I lifted my red crayon from the paper bag, I had earned the magic. I didn't understand it, I hadn't mastered it, but I had touched it, tasted it. And it was good. I could breathe again. I knew where I was. I knew how to keep myself there. I knew how to beat back Disappear.
That red crayon: my wand, my staff, my paint, my ocher, the material that made it possible for my voice to materialize outside of my body. I knew how to say, "I am here." I knew that as long as I kept writing, I would stay here.
This magic has worked for over 40 years now. I have a big green plastic footlocker padlocked shut, filled with words, testimony, glyphs, chronicle of those years. I have hauled that footlocker, in various forms, back and forth across the North American continent several times, up and down the West Coast, needed those journals for something, some validation of my continued survival. Along the way I have married, born children, buried both grandparents and mother, lost my father again, divorced, been in love, found sisters, battling the disease of disappearance at every turn. If I’m not a good wife, I’ll disappear. If I’m not a good mother, I’ll disappear. If she doesn’t love me, I’ll disappear.
I journaled my way through it all, and I still do. This essay started in a journal.
But I am ready to let go of those old journals now. They are just words. No matter how I try to preserve them, the words will fade. Lead markings will soften, ink will lighten. Paper will crumble. Water will seep in, soak apart wood fibers, bleed colors. As with the ancient petroglyphs of my Esselen and Chumash ancestors, my journals are subject to wildfires, floods, lightning strikes, vandalism, time.
And I am okay with that now. I am no longer dependent on making a mark on a piece of paper to know that I am alive, not disappearing, not swallowed up by the horrific unknown that once pursued me. It was good power that I learnt, but there are other ways to use it than to just hold on. It kept me alive, but now I want to sing, to paint.
I am what is behind the markings on paper. I am painting my sunburst on the thin wall of a rock shelter, transferring my power from my body to a symbol. Creating a thing from no thing. But I am not the sunburst. That is just the part of me I am able to share.
And then I am releasing it, walking away, leaving it there for you to find – a bright handprint, or faded shadow, or just the hint of spirit animal. I’ll wear away, too. Rock faces flake and chip, mosses dissolve pigment, rain releases minerals that streak and stain. I’ll return to the elements that created me. I’ll transform. I know now that nothing truly disappears. I know now that I don’t want to last forever. I just want to have a voice while I’m here.
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