Yellowstoned

And it was a shapeless voyage. Underplanned; underfunded. Like that time in my twenties when my boyfriend and I camped up and down the California coast. Freezing our asses off, we’d been whipped into submission by the frigid ocean wind, and—guided by whims— moved east, north, then back toward the coast in a zig zag of unrepentant spontaneity. We landed once in a campground a few miles off I-5 that was so dusty it’s dirt had never heard of rain and yet none of it mattered, being such a small fare to pay Life in order to feel free and unencumbered.

For our original Yellowstone itinerary had to be scrapped because of an unexpected June blizzard, but somehow the girls, mom and I get there and it’s morning—June 15 2008 (Fathers Day)—when we’re stopped at the side of the road watching a grizzly bear eat a baby elk. The snow had melted into the pasture and the bears fur blew in an imperceptible breeze, and as the tiny carcass (certainly still warm) became christened as the backdrop for our first trip after daddy moved, 6 year old Livy cried softly—“I bet the mommy elk is looking for her baby right now!”—in the tender, knowing way that was her trademark.

Because on that day, grief had pierced us. The whims of a man—my husband, their daddy—living 2000 miles away with his coworker and her toddler son reflecting back to us the rejection all humans are petrified to feel.

And I’d withstood the tears of my self and my girls from a year of events that cut the soul. Him using lawyers and anger to abuse my future; using callous words asked of children–“why can’t you stop being selfish and just be happy for me?”–to relieve himself of the shame of leaving his daughters. The girls hyperventilating in anxiety that mommy would also disappear; sobbing into my shoulder, “I miss my daddy” during PE classes full of classmates who could smile in the full privilege of being free from excruciating truths.

There are evacuations from disasters; floods, fires; where nature beckons us to face emotional foes via the tactical dances of physical structures; where something can kill you but it’s not personal, it’s merely the cost of doing business on a planet from which we also eat and survive.

And there are evacuations via tactical dances of psychology. Holes unrecognized moving dads into cold selfishness. Evacuations where something is threatening us, and nothing we can say or weep makes any difference, and we’re forced to accept that it is personal and the landscape of our emotional lives is altered via killing not just our way of life but also our desire to survive in this newly barren landscape.

And watching that field, my little girls and I felt rooted to those truths. Stuck by the still-knife of temporal events which repeatedly wound us until we remain inside them, as if walking beside the ghost shadow of ourselves.

Where the world has stopped being emotionally concerned in the slightest and wields “uncaring” as an emblem announcing they’re proud to be so.

So on that day—on that Fathers Day, on that first trip at the end of a dark year; on that slight hill, next to at least a hundred other spectators—I briefly joined Livy in wondering about that mama elk. And about the world that Mama and I live in. Wondering how we can see this harm and yet still carry it. Wondering about the inherent indifference of it all and how those of us who still care can find the strength to survive this world.

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The 1988 fires of Yellowstone twenty years before had made scars that settled into the landscape. In that 1988 summer, thirty-six percent of the park had burned—trees falling like sticks on each other to rest, afterwards, in permanent homage to the dignity of their past. That year, new aspen groves—waning in the park before the fires—sprouted up miles from their burnt foremothers. The seeds for the shoots had been carried on wind and water and popped up out of soil only days after the fires, so to now—in 2008, on our hasty sojourn through Yellowstone—they could grow proudly beside their ancestors like a lesson. As if Time is a benevolent gift which purposely withholds wisdom for a reason.

Standing near me, my mom—visiting from California for this voyage—lifted Julia in her arms to look at the bear. A pragmatist, mom had sprinkled the year with her visits, rounding out the too-obvious empty spot at our dining table, offering comforts for the day to day life that had kept bigger holes from forming, sharing platitudes—“God never gives you more than you can handle”—she didn’t know were set to the tune of a year with me curled up in the fetal position convulsing in sorrow. For not everyone feels called to answer the same questions about an uncaring world. Not everyone’s 7 year old with a red, puffy face will ask them, “But what if that baby just couldn’t run fast enough?” Sometimes God DOES give you more than you can handle. Sometimes God gives you more than you can handle and then calls you to make it palatable for the little being resting on your hip watching a bear eating a baby elk.

And this baby on my hip was heavy. Seven years old now, holding her stuffed panda Bibble who spent the last year going everywhere with us. Before this baby on my hip was born, I was afraid I wouldn’t love her as much as I loved her older sister. I couldn’t understand how it was possible to do so considering that her older sister had pulled me into desperate things from which I rose up to grow steadier. But this child on my hip would be born in sight of a mom fully in love, parenting myself by soothing my immature worries, evolving towards a better self I didn’t even know I could be. A better self informing my worries of their impermanent nature; a better self that rises to answer hard questions using the magic of knowing there are sights and sounds yet to behold if we can persevere through the agony.

And in the bright sunshine of that June day in 2008 that bear’s fur blew in the breeze, floating in air I didn’t even know was moving. The heaviness on my hip and in my heart cloaking the lighter qualities of this existence, qualities which fall under the spell of the great mystery of why we’re even here at all. Was it God? The Big Bang? The Big Bang being on of the greatest mysteries of all. If that event had obeyed the currently-accepted laws of our physical universe, it would’ve created matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, so condensed as to annihilate one another, leaving only energy. But that’s not what happened.

And my feet were standing on All of the unknowns. Near burned aspen groves that were direct clones of groves mammoths and camels had (probably) grazed on 10,000 years before. Under the worry and the dizzying brutality of a world we can’t deny exists. Unable to utter platitudes about God to placate via falsehood.

And suddenly Julia climbs out of grandma’s arms and crunches gravel to come closer and whisper to Livy, “Maybe that bear is also a mama with babies to feed.”

And I smell my baby in my arms. See the dirt of this planet under her fingernails.

And Livy’s looking down at her sister, and her red eyes give pause. Her small hands clutch her ratty, stuffed panda bear as her agony slowly opens the gift so generously offered by the sister she adores.

And it’s Father’s Day 2008 in Yellowstone, and we stand in a tree-filled meadow of green (under the morning ease of our effortlessly-generous star) within earshot of strangers, and foreign languages and motor homes, and tripods, and park rangers directing traffic, and wade through tangible experiences of predation, holding gifts of love for one another and our concern for our world now poignantly growing together inside the shadows of a burned landscape where groves of trees were now in full bloom.

Baby Blue Dresser

On October 17, 1989, I was riding my bike home from my Clinical Psychology class at UC Davis, looking forward to watching the Bay Bridge World Series Game 3—San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland A’s—on TV with my boyfriend, when the earthquake struck. The Loma Prieta earthquake. I didn’t even feel it.
 
The 5:35 game hadn’t started when the quake hit at 5:04, and so the many TV cameras recording pre-game excitement at Candlestick Park actually televised the earthquake to millions of people. It would, in fact, become the first large earthquake ever to be broadcast live.
 
Right after the shaking some fans assembled at Candlestick let out a cheer believing it was a sign that the series battle between two teams from the same metropolitan area was now christened by unseen forces but when power went out, murmurs of confusion rippled and within minutes, players were gathering their family from the stands as people were told to leave the park. Only about half the fans were in their seats at the time of the quake and had there been any more seated, their weight on the structure would have made the concrete less able to retain its integrity.
 
The earthquake hadn’t been centered in San Francisco though. It had been centered in the Santa Cruz mountains, where our home was. Or where our home HAD been, before my parents’ separation a few months before. During my first year at college—‘88-‘89–things had somehow crumbled and I’d come home on weekends over the course of the year to see dad crying in the living room and intervened on his behalf only to be informed that I wasn’t welcome to come home if I couldn’t support my mom’s decision to divorce. Then that summer—of ‘89, months before the quake—dad moved out, and my mom went a bit bananas—obsessively making my 13 year old sister do the Ouija board— until one day, shit exploded and my sister ran off to the neighbors house where dad came to get her from and we didn’t see or talk to her again for almost a year. In the interim, mom moved out of the dome on Hazel Dell Road—the last place we’d all live as an intact family—and I moved my stuff to Davis to live with Steve, while Dad and my sister (and brother, who was in and out) were living in the Hazel Dell dome.
 
When the 6.9 magnitude quake hit, my sister was in the house but my dad was up the road, at the well which was over a hill and not visible from the house. The earthquake rocked our geodesic dome so violently that it slid off it’s foundation and made the deck which encircled the entire span of the home’s exterior break away from the house. Once it was over, dad ran towards the house and screamed at seeing it, knowing my sister was inside but in trying to get in to find her, discovered he couldn’t because the back door we always went through wouldn’t open anymore. Everything had shifted, and was twisted in different directions, so the door was still a rectangle, but the door frame was a rhomboid, and wouldn’t budge. My sister was fine having found a doorway to get into but stuff was everywhere, windows broken, the house cracked and a complete wreck. Dad and Alex left—having to obv move out—and Jeff squatted near the dome for a few days but left to go somewhere and after that the house sat there alone, dark, broken and eerie.
 
The divorce wasn’t yet final so one weekend soon after the quake, my mom, my moms friend Mary, myself and my boyfriend Steve went to see it and retrieve things of ours that might have been left behind, one example of which was our family pictures and baby books, which were still in the ruined house inside the drawer they’d always been in when we lived together.
 
The smell of the house is what I would remember most for years after. The refrigerator had been slammed forward, and tipped and door open, was laying on the counter. The food that had been inside had been flung out of the fridge and lay rotting. The odor of this rotten food was mixed with the smell of my sister’s smashed fish tank—gravel, broken glass, Angel fish on the floor of her bedroom—and her broken bottles of perfume, creating an aroma of rot, and fish, and perfume that bled into the carpet and the walls.
 
The floors were sloping and rising, and almost spongey—clearly not on solid ground—and the house groaned and creaked.
 
One surreal thing I saw that day besides the physical destruction of a home I’d loved was a baby blue chest of drawers that my parents had put under the deck of the house to store. It had been my younger brother’s changing table and then his dresser but put under the deck of the house when it wasn’t needed anymore. The shifting of the house had caused the deck (still mostly attached to the house) to land on top of the dresser, and when I took a picture, one ten inch deck joist is visible and denotes just how heavy the entire deck itself was even while this baby blue dresser held steady as if in a strength beyond rationality. I’ve forgotten much of the intense/scarring feelings from that time but am glad I listened to the feelings that day because now I have this picture as both an emblem of our family history as well as evidence of the surprising resilience of forgotten ordinariness.
 
In the end, the insurance company (my parents somehow had earthquake insurance) eventually decided to lift the existing damaged structure back up and onto the foundation rather than demolish and rebuild. Geodesic domes are known for being earthquake resistant and in some ways, that was accurate. The home is still there—visible on Google—but they named the driveway/road something specific and when they did the address of the house changed too.
 
[On a side note, after the house was fixed and my dad and sister were moving back in, a tow truck driver bringing my dad‘s beloved ‘57 Chevy (that didn’t run but was his dream project that we’d moved around to all our various cities for 20 years) up the hill to the dome, ended up somehow not setting his emergency brake(?) and after he got to the top of the hill, the truck started rolling backwards with the Chevy still on it and flipping over in the field, destroying the Chevy.
 
I ended up with those family pictures, and still have them. Mom had them for many years after the day we saw the dome but when I moved to Virginia and James and I bought 6348 Tisbury Drive, she asked if I would take them because I was at that point pretty geographically settled and she wasn’t. Fast forward multiple decades—about three—and I’d (accidentally) find out that some came to believe I had the pictures for Different reasons which I won’t detail here but which is indicative of the misunderstandings that often accompany broken families. I’m certainly not hoarding these pictures; much of that life honestly feels like it didn’t even happen. It’s now just bits and pieces, enmeshed in a larger much-more complex experience]

Rainbows

Last night at the theater watching Mamma Mia again, my youngest, Livy, reached over the seat in a poignant part to grab my hand and in the dark I looked to her and her mouth moved in words of gratitude, telling me that, as a mother, I’d always been there for her. And as the screen splashed fiction, we sat there and held hands, sharing our real story, and her eyes were misty and so were mine.

It hasn’t always been wonderful for my girls. One of the most painful memories from my life is after my divorce in 2007. Their dad had moved to VA (to live with Sarah and her young son) and the sudden revocation made both girls insane with anxiety—petrified that I’d somehow just vanish into thin air—until at one point Livy, then 6, wasn’t able to go to school without sobbing for me until she was gagging.

So I started sitting outside her classes to help her ease into stability and she was starting to feel more confident until, one random day, her first grade class were playing a game for P.E. when suddenly Livy broke off from the group, ran over to me—falling into my arms—and in the broken gasps of uncontrollable feelings, barely got out through her hyperventilating, “I (sob)…miss…my (sob)…daddy.” And in the seconds after, her little body convulsed with all the grief I’d lived to protect her from and somehow became embedded in my own, as if forcing me to learn about pain in a way I couldn’t ever understand otherwise.

And some moments stay with you forever. Are designed to. For at that time, on that day, in that gym, patting my baby’s back, telling her “I know you do baby. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry”—my own heart broken—I would have done anything to deliver her from that pain. Because I know the doubts that creep in to hurt us when the lights are out and my heart that day descended with her into all those nights. Into The Great Loss, where we become bound to an event simply because our hearts are too injured to allow expectance of anything better. Into the experiences which don’t leave, even when you ask them nicely, and are a good and “perfect” little girl. When fear shines like a search light, Discovering all the little pockets of emptiness, all the wounds, and tells that story over and over of running to mama because we can’t do this; there’s too much pain.

But There are secrets to life that the intervening years told the truth about.

Because that same child sat next to me in the theater last night, whole, intact, emotionally available— even at only 18 years old—and feeling and expressing realizations and resolutions, while not wasting any time living her authentic self and the consistent nurturance she has for this world. And that these two memories exist within the same life experience—within the same 12 year span—reveals that there are stories which resonate more deeply than The Great Loss.

For in the shadows of heartbreak, doubt, abandonment and running to mama, there lives “help me” and someone rubbing your back, until the colors of this existence are shades of rainbows and fall leaves that in the contrast creates the entire more-beautiful experience. Where Life waves at us as if from the shore and we calibrate to protect ourselves until blindly against rocks we’re hurled and from the chaos—stretching out and towards our love for one another—we get to rise Into and then out of the great loss into another story.

And I did not know that then but it’s been a magical unveiling I can see the irony of once wanting freedom from.

For from spontaneous unwritten moments and the shine of a movie screen, pain and heartbreak now can illuminate the story of deep love and empathy. The story where Livy and I hold hands in the potency of misty-eyed remembrance then, after, normal life continues, and as we drive home, we hum the same song in the breath of a summers night.

 

Crazy/effective

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I boogied home from a pet sit this morning before DD1 and her BFF embarked on their camping trip to Moab because I wanted to give them my pep talk about personal safety (gathered over my almost 48 years of being personally safe), but we hadn’t seen each other for a few days so when I got home we were all laughing and being silly, and Julia was complaining that she had probably broken her toe and I told Ellen that it wasn’t looking good for Julia’s survival so she had my okay to abandon (or snack on) Julia if it came to that so I got distracted and all I could remember was to give them a hunting knife, Continue reading “Crazy/effective”

The journey to “Amy Brook”

 

Pic: My younger brother Jeff and I circa 1971; I was about 3.

According to the birth certificate tucked inside my baby book, I was born October 1, 1968 at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View California and my name was “Amy Brook Palleson”. I don’t remember any of the other fluff on it—height, weight, etc.—just that the birth certificate paper was black with white printing and hard to read and that the book itself was a mess of white out and scratch outs and corrections.

We can fast forward now, through memory lane, through years, through the solidification of who I was—Rose and Martin Palleson (dads parents; “grandma and grandpa”), Leeroyce and Deck Hogin (moms parents; gammie and gampie); through aunts and uncles and cousins; through my brother Jeff born in early ‘71, my sister Alex in ‘75, and Clancy and Cindy, my father and mother—Fast forward all the way to the couch in gammies living room where I lay quietly crying at age 13 (or 12? I can’t even remember) because solidity is often invented, and my real dad was dying, asking to see me and only knew me as “Sophie”.

In the way of regret and guilt, I’ve often been to that place where I must explain my choice, that day I learned Clancy wasn’t my dad and that the real one I never knew about was dying. For that was the year I was mercilessly bullied—had started high school, young for my grade; afraid to turn corners; lost all my elementary friends—and would the next year change schools because of it so I was mixed up and scared and insecure and didn’t have much to hold onto right then.

But the bigger truth is that children know what’s expected of them, and that secret was supposed to be kept. That’s why when I was one year old and she left him, Mom had changed my name, that’s why she crossed it all out in my baby book; changed my birth certificate, had Rose and Martin/my dad‘s parents officially adopt me and never mentioned anything. Because that was the new life she’d wanted and I loved her and was supposed to let her live this life. So in a heart bigger than my self, I knew she’d feel betrayed if I went to see him and I never wanted to hurt her—lived my life to protect her—even if that meant hurting someone else (and myself) instead.

And of course he died, and so then did his only memories of his daughter, Sophie Stuckey, the name under the white out.

And there are times when I’ve looked upon that day with judgment of myself for not going to see him. Because it is not like me to extend myself into such seeming-cruelty. To deny a man about to exit this life the chance to see what he had offered this world; deny him a chance to experience closure for a chapter which may have haunted him through health and illness, happiness and hardship.

But when my own child turned 13, I met my world from a different place.

For I didn’t know until then that one choice always speaks many languages. And that the guilt and regret of a young girl who didn’t know what to do was actually the wisdom of a human being caring for another. The wisdom of a human who wanted more for her mom than for her own self, who in so acting, would let her mom then live always inside the world where she doesn’t have to confront anything but the memory of her one year old baby with a new name and their brand new life together.

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Sometimes in saying my own name— ‘Amy Brook’—I can hear my mother defining that new life, and the new hope she had for her and myself.

For that name means ‘beloved by the stream’ and in iterations of selves both past and yet to come, I believe that much of me has lived to bear out the truth of such a name. Beginning in earnest that day on the couch as a 13 year old girl.

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Post script: In yet another facet of this, I have realized in these later years that I was also afraid she wouldn’t love me anymore if I went to see him. Because in the years after I found out Clancy wasn’t my dad—long after Harvey Stuckey had passed—mom would say things like “you’re just like your father!” when we’d argue. Of course I’d never met him so had no idea if what she said was even true but that she was talking about someone I never knew who was dead and who she had left when I was one it was messed up. I think mom had a lot of abandonment issues and that after I knew about my dad, I never really felt like I was just hers anymore, and it made her vulnerable.

Anyways, Please don’t do that to your kids. Say things like “you’re just like your father!” when your kid knows how much you despise their dad. Even if they ARE acting just like the other parent and it’s egregious, give them the space to self-correct and remove the language of shame so that they don’t struggle with the feeling that they aren’t loved or lovable.