"I felt compelled to tell you something. You have an absolutely breath-taking... heiney. I mean, that thing's good. I wanna be friends with it. "
I just got back here yesterday after spending a week in Texas with my brother (Motu), his wife (Skinny) and my nephew (Boo Bear). As much as I love being with them, it feels good to be back in this place that I call home now. Being around them is great because they're so at ease and in love with each other, and that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Plus, Boo Bear is without a doubt the cutest effing kid, EVER.
So it's been a month since I posted and everybody says "where the hell have you been? Write more!" The truth is that I haven't posted because writing comes easier to me when I'm unhappy... and I'm not. It takes effort to write and I haven't been making it. Sorry. I'm doing so now because I feel that it's important for me say that earlier part again: I AM NOT UNHAPPY.
I am content with my life. I've lost 40 pounds and just bought a bunch of clothes two sizes smaller than what was previously in my closet. Work is really busy and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to do my job. I'm taking classes for something I'm passionate about and have always wanted to do (and you'll all just have to wonder about that for a while, because I'm not sharing yet). I've made friends at work and I have fun with a lot of the people there, and I flirt constantly, my favorite hobby.
Nobody panic! Life is good, and as long as I have books to read and people to flirt with and my dog to snuggle with I want for practically nothing. I'm free to be as lazy, as passionate, as joyful and full of verve as I like, and that is a life worth living!
"They sent me away to boarding school. Sent me away makes it sound like they sent me to an asylum. There were no straps involved."
Yesterday Mame and I got to do something that we'd only dreamed about for ten years. Mame went to college in WV, and when I would go visit her we would drive out to Weston so we could drive by what was then known as the Weston State Hospital, an insane asylum that was still operating up until 1994. Why were we so fascinated by a rundown insane asylum? Well, besides the obvious "neato, an asylum!" factor, the place is absolutely fucking GORGEOUS, and we often bemoaned the fact that it was left to the elements. It had been condemned and was not open to the public, patrolled only by two security guards, which considering the size of the place was not enough to keep vandals from breaking in to steal things or have paintball battles in the abandoned hallways.
So this weekend Mame and I met up in the area, and we were completely stunned to find out that the place was now open and conducting tours. We immediately drove over and forked out a pretty tidy sum to take the full four-floors tour of the entire grounds (though I must say that Mame, true to form, absolutely refused to entertain my desire to come back at night for a flashlight tour or to go through their "Haunted Hospital" tour).
First off, Mame and I could not BELIEVE that we were actually on the grounds, standing on the steps of this beautiful building that we had always admired. After five, count 'em, FIVE false starts to the tour (because they were shorthanded and people kept showing up, they kept stopping to wait for those people -- thus Mame and I had the entire first 10 minutes of the tour memorized by the third try), we finally started walking through the building.
Let me give you some history: construction on this building began in 1858 and took 20 years to complete, which means that parts of it are actually older than the state it occupies (WV became a state in 1863). The place is made mostly of hand-cut stone taken from the surrounding mountains. It is the oldest hand-cut stone building in all of North America, and in the entire world is second only to the Kremlin. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
Also impressive was our tour guide Cathy, because she started working at the hospital in 1970, and in fact was still employed at the new facility that was built on the back of the property and which all the patients moved to in 1994. Taking a tour with someone who had actually worked in the place for 24 years was just amazing, not only because of her history with that location but her experience in the field of mental illness for such a long period of time, over which an amazing transformation towards treatment of those people has taken place.
The condition of the interior was appalling, with peeling paint and plaster everywhere, but Cathy assured us that when they left in 94 the place was in good shape; because the building is stone it absorbs moisture, which did quite a number on the interior in such a short span. Did I forget to mention how FUCKING COLD it was in the building? It was 65 degrees outside, but inside it was probably about 40 or so, and the tourguide advised everyone to wear heavy jackets before we left.
All I can say is that Mame and I were in a state of awe for most of the tour, simply because we started talking about getting inside this place a decade ago. To imagine something for so long, and then to have it come to fruition, is breathtaking. To walk through a place where so much happened, where so much pain and heartbreak and sometimes even murder occurred... there is just no way to convey such a profound experience to other people.
It's also disturbing to learn about how people with problems they couldn't control were treated. Our guide tried very hard to make us understand that until the 1950's there was NO SUCH THING as medication, and mental illness was not at all understood, and so they often treated the symptoms and not the disease. Nowadays we have Prozac, Lithium, Zoloft, Halcyon... but back then they had hydrotherapy, which could be anything from wrapping you in towels soaked in icewater to scalding baths. Extremely crude lobotomy existed using a tool that looks EXACTLY like in ice pick (I won't explain how it was used -- suffice it to say it was disturbing).
Our guide also pointed out to us that often people would get institutionalized for reasons that seem completely stupid today. Wives would get locked up by their husbands for reading novels and thinking for themselves (actually, right now I can hear my dad thinking that there's nothing wrong with that). People with problems we recognize today as legitimate diseases, like alcoholism or depression, coming to that place and living their entire lives there. So much sadness in such a beautiful place. I couldn't help but think how many people I know could have ended up there 100 years ago, myself included.
It speaks so much for the tolerance that exists today, and it saddens me that within that tolerance there is still so much INTOLERANCE for things like skin color and sexual preference.
Walking through one of the floors, I put my arm through Mame's and put my head on my shoulder. What would I do without the tolerance of just this one person, who has made such a difference in my life? I wish everyone in the world could have the blessings that I have, among them a friend who's known me forever, understands me implicitly, and thinks going on a tour of an old lunatic asylum is a great way to spend an afternoon.
If you wish to learn more about this incredible place, you can click here for their official website or here for the Wikipedia entry. Also, the TAPS gentlemen from the SciFi show Ghost Hunters explored the building and officially declared it haunted (Season 4, Episode 9), but unfortunately it is not available for viewing online. If you find it, send it to me!
The problem here is that most of the people who walk through the world have no sense of self awareness. They don't know what drives them, why they react, why they feel the way they feel. They cloak themselves in self-righteousness and arrogance to mask their fear and doubt and shame, because to look within themselves and face those things is so much more terrifying than living the lie. If they believe themselves to be prosecuted, then it must be true. If they believe themselves to be victims, then they are. If they feel that you are to blame for all that has befallen them, then you are. Such is the strength of perception.
I refuse to be defined by anyone else's perception of me, because I worked very hard to see myself in a brighter light than most people. I know the workings of my own machine, and it isn't always pretty but it feels more real to me than the fake face I used to wear growing up and through the early years of my adulthood. I am proud to be able to defend my self-perception with logical argument, and if I had a single wish for the world it would be that we could all enjoy that sense of inner peace.
It is this faith I have in myself that keeps me strong. It lets me know that I cannot be cowed by fate when I am true to myself.
In other areas, however, there is a semblance of sanity; or at least what passes for sanity to me (which I’m sure differs incredibly from the textbook version). The people in these areas give me hope that this place is not entirely a lost cause, and for that I am grateful. I don’t need to make a huge amount of friends; I just need to find a little niche of good people with open minds.
I think it’s a shame that most of this country still cannot embrace what is different. This entire nation is made up of different people who came from somewhere else, usually fleeing ignorance in their own home. Walt Whitman called us “the nation of many nations,” and it’s something that demands respect. Without such a vibrant pallet of colors, races, religions and creeds, what would this nation be? It would be a gap-toothed, tobacco chewing, ass crack showing ignoramus sitting in the back of his pick-up truck talking about white supremacy while scratching his balls, that’s what it would be. I don’t think that’s the image I want representing me. I’d rather be a quilt, made up of different fabrics and colors, of different textures and stitch patterns. Something made by many different hands, a collaboration. When I’m cold I can wrap myself in its warmth, and when I am weary its vibrance will lift my spirit.
I am so often frustrated by those who define themselves by who they exclude. I choose to be someone defined instead by who I include, because I think I’ll lead a richer, fuller life that way. If the only people I exclude are those who are stupid, ignorant and can’t find a way to be open-minded, well… I’ll still make out better, because the people around me will be so varied in interest and scope. We might disagree or even fail to find compromise, but we will learn from each other. That’s the beauty of open-mindedness, to see your point of view from another’s perspective. Maybe their perspective will change your mind, or maybe it will only reinforce how you feel. The point is that you’ll know another avenue, another road, even if you choose not to take it. That’s the only way to really enjoy life’s journey – to know all your options, and take the path most exciting to you. To only know one route and follow it because that’s what everyone before you did without question… that sounds like one of the circles of hell to me.
Nowadays I have a nice little desk, with a chair and a lamp. It wasn’t always that way. Most recently I worked in a retail pharmacy, and I used to have to pace aisle after aisle of industrial grade, perpetually stained carpet, sniffing out shoplifters and opportunists. I always hated the carpet. Once it was a week old it looked like crap no matter how much you vacuumed it, and it was always the first thing your district manager would jump all over you for.
You got to know the type after a while. Packs of teenage girls were an automatic flag. For them, shoplifting is a girl group activity that ranks right up there with sleepovers and going to the bathroom. If they headed towards the makeup aisle you made sure to be there, too. In the early 2000’s you had to start stalking emo groups of teenage boys, too, who had no problem wearing eyeliner but were ashamed to buy it, much like condoms. You also had to keep an eye on old people in the vitamin aisle, because supplements are expensive and they are on fixed incomes. More than once I would find an empty economy size bottle of geriatric vitamins that someone had dumped in their purse as they kept moving.
The people you interacted with were actually the best part of the job. I never have the opportunity to call the cops on people like I used to. I’ve nailed people for bad checks, bad credit cards, bad scripts, shoplifting, harassment and assault – both customers and employees alike. There’s nothing so exciting as working in a retail environment, believe me. Where else can you have the cops arrest a 90-year-old man for assaulting employees with his cane? Those were good times.
You have to have a pretty thick skin to pull it off, though, because people will treat retail employees in ways they would be ashamed for their mother to see. I’ve had people scream at me and call me rather colorful names in the middle of the floor because their item didn’t ring up at the correct price and I’m robbing them of ten cents. I had a woman tell me to my face that I’d be so beautiful if I just lost some weight, and then go on about it for twenty minutes in the most nonchalant fashion, as though we were discussing the weather. I’ve been hit on by men older than my grandfather who would rather explicitly describe the good time they were going to show me.
I’ve been thinking about my most memorable moments from every retail job I’ve ever had, and I think this would have to be my list.
Fast Food Chain: There was a homeless man who frequented the place. Some nights he would be very polite, and he would collect trash and trays from the dining room area and clean it up for us, so we would hook him up with a free meal. Other nights he would haunt the drive-thru, picking up loose change and masturbating while unsuspecting people sat in their cars waiting for burgers and fries.
Bookstore Café: If you’ve been to any of these you know that they have an area with tables and chairs, and that throughout the store are usually other chairs scattered about. It gets really, really busy on the weekends, because you can sit as long as you want reading the paper and eating your scone at a snail’s pace. One Saturday I had a woman get indignant with me because the place was so crowded, and she demanded to know how to get to the “additional seating upstairs” because she couldn’t find the sign. Maybe that’s because this is a one story building, and what you see is what you get. Instead I told her that the Garden Veranda was closed for renovation. I often wonder if she’s still looking for it.
Sporting Goods Store: There are so many things about my tenure here that it’s hard to choose just one, but I think I would have to go with the Phantom Shitter. This person used to hit the bookstore, too, but I never had to deal with it as often because we had a daily cleaning crew there. This allegedly female person would come to the store, take a dump, and then smear feces all over the stalls and the fixtures. There weren’t many women working there, and those who were didn’t get paid much. They would refuse to clean it. Can’t say I blame them, really. I was the only female manager, so guess who got to do it (even though I was paid much less than all the other managers)? If I was off the day it happened, believe me: it was waiting for me when I got back.
Car Dealership: I had a kid show up with his parents and his girlfriend who wanted a Mustang. This kid had a car that was one of the most disgusting things I had ever seen. Not that the car itself was bad, but that inside it was utterly filthy and completely filled with trash. I could not believe how hard his parents were working to help him get a really nice car that would just end up looking like the dumpster he drove onto the lot.
Retail Pharmacy: I worked at several different locations during my tenure with this company, but the most interesting was a 24 hour store in this really nice, moderately wealthy area of suburbia. On my first night my job was to keep the overnight supervisor and the head cashier in the building at all times, because corporate loss prevention were coming at 5:00 a.m. with the police to arrest them both for theft. That’s not even my favorite moment. That would have to be the day I noticed a suspicious car in the parking lot. Out of state plates, car parked askew, motor running, blinker on, and middle aged shirtless white guy passed out behind the wheel. I called police to report it, because I thought he needed medical assistance but was wary about approaching the vehicle. It turned out that the car was loaded with crack-cocaine, and that was more excitement than the police force in this snoozy town had ever seen. They had off duty cops showing up just to watch the proceedings, and clap me on the back for making the phone call.
In light of all this excitement, can you see why sometimes I just miss it? Nowadays I sit and wait for things to happen at work. When they do, it's really great. When they don't... I can't help but be nostalgic for the days when I could have people arrested.
The hardest part for me is that I keep thinking about the person I wanted to share all of this with. Every time I see something incredible my first instinct is still to tell him all about it, and I have to remind myself that the only reason I'm enjoying any of this is because he made it clear that he would never commit to me. Given the choice of loving me forever or losing me forever, he chose to lose me. No amount of beautiful landscape has made that knowledge easy.
I don't mind so much being alone. I enjoy my own company, and being alone has never really bothered me. It's the sudden absence that unsettles me, and I need time to get used to it again. When you've had someone in your life for four years who's been your lover and your best friend, it's hard to reprogram yourself so quickly. In so many ways, it feels as though someone has died. You can make comparisons to that without even trying very hard, because what has passed away is the person who used to love you. The person who looked at you in such a way, who fit to you like spoons in a drawer, who made you laugh, who held your hand... that person is gone. In it's place is someone else that you don't know, a stranger who wears your lover's face.
I know that time will take care of that, will smooth away that pattern in my life like waves on the sand, but it's amazing how slowly time moves when you're in pain. So I find distractions and try not to think about Smaug, as we'll call him in these pages. Why Smaug? Well, in The Hobbit, Smaug is a dragon who sits around hoarding his gold and smoking. It seems like a fitting moniker for the man who told me marrying me would lead to him losing all his "amassed personal wealth," and who instead opted to replace me with a girl who found the 420 lifestyle as awesome as he does.
Strangely, I'm not sorry for what has happened. I did the right thing breaking up with him after he told me that marrying me would ruin his life. I did the right thing taking this job and moving out here. I would do those things the same way, because I believe that we all get what we deserve. So I get to be coddled by my company and live for free for at least a year in a beautiful new place, and Smaug gets to revert to the life of a frat boy, getting stoned every day and letting his house fall apart around him. Somehow I think I'm making out better.
In my head I think of her as Bible Accessory Barbie. We can just call her BAB for short. By the way, BAB does Holy Yoga, because regular yoga is, you know... Hindu. You know that part in St. Elmo's Fire where the people around the dinner table whisper bad things during conversation like "cancer," because saying it aloud might make you get it? It was kind of like that.
Now, I meant what I said about BAB being a nice person. She is very, very nice. She also seems to be very, very narrow-minded the way most overly religious people are -- she automatically assumes that everyone she talks to has the exact same beliefs and doesn't think anything about talking freely to them about how much she loves the Lord. I mean, I loved the Lord once, too, but he wanted a commitment and I was just way too young for that; then he couldn't accept that it was just a fling and oh, the phone calls just wouldn't stop... where was I? Oh yeah. Narrow-minded.
Now, I'm not exactly in the deep south here, but I'm south enough to be able to get sweet tea wherever I go, and that means that we are in the Bible Belt. So no one here thinks that it's at all strange to have a company mission statement hanging up on several walls that contains the language "With God's Help." No one finds it at all unsettling that our boss forwards religious blog posts to the entire department with the message "God will help us on our way for he is Good and Great" or some drivel of that nature. Seriously, I'm not making this up.
I have many friends of many different religions. Religious people don't really bother me. It's people that are in your face with their religion ALL THE TIME that get on my nerves. Is that honestly the only dimension you have? It's like homosexuals that are ALL ABOUT their homosexuality 24/7: guys in assless chaps walking down the street wearing a rainbow vest with a big triangle on the back screaming "You go girl!" in some lispy high-pitched voice at every person with an ounce of fashion sense who crosses their path. They are the ones who give normal gay people a bad name. (Enrique especially will know what I'm talking about, because we ran into these people every Friday night at Woody's, and yes I am specifically talking about the twins, among others. I know you remember the twins.) I absolutely love gay people, they are the best people I know. I just don't need them to remind me every 10 minutes that they are, because I like them to relax and be themselves.
What I mean is, have some depth and think about your surroundings. I am not even a Christian, and this fact has not even occured to BAB. It hasn't even crossed her mind that I might believe differently about things, and that it would be respectful for her to consider that. Her automatic assumption that I am a bible thumping hymn singer is actually more offensive to me than the fact that she seems to have a stranglehold on the Good Book. It also bothers me that she is my supervisor and thinks absolutely nothing about bringing this into the workplace as though it were appropriate. It's actually a pretty severe violation of human resources guidelines, and I just have to shake my head.
All things considered, I'm enjoying my time there so far. It's kind of slow but there's certainly more work to do than there was the past couple of months in Jersey. The slow period allows me to learn their data entry system at a pretty decent pace. There is, however, a severe lack of individual expression permitted as far as my computer goes: I cannot change my desktop background, and am forced to look at the company logo and screen saver ALL DAY LONG. Internet access does not exist except to visit three company approved websites. Web surfing is just something people talk about in whispers over by the water cooler. I'm forced to use Internet Explorer for those three approved sites because they won't permit me to have Firefox. Basically, I am DYING because the boss can abuse company policy by sending me religious emails and I CAN'T CHANGE MY FRIGGING BACKGROUND to my Bioshock wallpaper. Is nothing sacred???
Friday morning I made the journey from the old life to the new. I said goodbye to my mom before I got in the shower, and when I finished packing up my car I said goodbye to my dad. I gave him a peck on the cheek and a clap on the back, the way a son would. I did not get upset or weepy, because Pop considers that a sign of weakness, and he hates weakness. I managed to keep that up for about an hour into the trip, and then my cousin Gwyneth got to me.
She made me a road CD that was the first thing I played once I got in the car. Abba to Bon Jovi to Counting Crows to Disturbed and then the Cranberries… well, it actually sounded a lot like a couple of mix CD’s I’ve made for myself over the years. Everything was pretty carefree until I got to Track 12, and it caught me off guard as though I’d reached the bottom of the staircase but thought I had one more step to go. We watched a movie together Saturday, and my favorite Joni Mitchell song is on the soundtrack. I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear it, but when the first notes from “Case of You” came on that was it, and I cried through the whole song.
I don’t think it was weakness. I think it was mourning for all the things I’d dreamed that did not come to pass. Mourning is a necessary act if you want to start moving forward, and I’m moving on with my life in the most literal way possible.
On my way out of Philadelphia I noticed the way the Comcast building disappeared into the morning fog; the windows melting into the mist like a painting, incomplete on the canvas and longing to have its whole form. It was like that all day on the journey from old to new, and I saw some of the most incredible things on the way. I shed the places I knew like an old skin, leaving the Schuykill for the Turnpike and heading to points west.
I took the scenic route, and savored the things along the way as though I was enjoying a new wine. Without warning I came upon fields and fields of sunflowers, lining both sides of the highway, golden and unexpected like beacons of sunshine along the asphalt for over a mile. Mountains rose in the distance, a skyline new and unfamiliar, cloaked in fog and mysterious. As soon as I hit Maryland I could smell the most incredible barbeque, and Puppy woke up from his nap and started frantically sniffing the air looking for the heavenly source.
I turned onto this twisting highway that brings you down through the mountain, past a campsite and through the most breathtaking countryside rising up on either side of you. The foliage is so close to the road that it’s like an embrace, a caress of green and gray and brown with mist weaving its way through the leaves like a sentient thing, bright and shining off the headlamps like moonlight. This is how I came to be home. At that moment I felt that I would never leave this place.
It was the shower that sealed the deal though. The water pressure in my new apartment is so incredible that the act of cleansing is like a religious experience. I felt like the embodiment of “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa.” If I’d known any hymns, I would have sung them. As it was the tile had to settle for “Seasons of Love” from Rent. I do what I can.
Mame came in for a couple of days to help me settle in. I took her to my favorite restaurant here (hey, I find all the important shit first), and found that they had customized our menus to welcome me to the area. Classy. They gave us copies and I hung mine on the fridge. Mame forgot hers, because it takes a lot more to impress her so she really didn’t care to keep it. Okay, I was kidding about that part.
The best thing about having Mame here is that the place automatically felt like home. She helped me rearrange some furniture and unpack some boxes, but it was really her physical presence that gave the place what it needed. Friends bring what you need to where you are. Friendship, like family, isn’t a place but a feeling.
So here I am, day three of my new life. So far, I love it here. I walk Puppy and everyone I meet is very kind, and I look at the mountains off in the distance and marvel at the view. The neighbors offer me tips on what’s around and how I can find important things, like the library and the hospital. Now I’m sitting in my new apartment looking out the windows, excited to be here right before the leaves begin to change, so that we can be in metamorphosis together.