Summertime Blues

Hello Friends and Allies,

It’s summer! Or maybe I should say, it’s summer. Summer blues were something I noticed about ten years ago. For unknown reasons, I felt defeated in the abundance of sunlight, and when family events loomed ahead on the calendar, my anxiety increased with every passing day. I looked for excuses to not attend my mother’s birthday, or to skip out on a family reunion with my two sisters who visited about once a year.

What kind of daughter/sister was I?

My sentiments made me a horrible person. In theory, family occasions were opportunities to reconnect and relive the time that had passed from our last visit with stories of adventure, work, parenting, and all the other day-to-day humdrum components of our beautiful and unique lives.

Instead, I left these momentous occasions feeling unwhole and rejected. A stranger would have garnered more interest from my relatives—questions would be asked, curiosity would be piqued—but me, I tended to dishes of pasta salad and veggie plates with an armory of stories shuttered in my mind. It soon became apparent that my family didn’t know me. Their disinterest proved the disapproval I’d convinced myself of deserving for as long as I could remember.

Childhood grief lingered long after I had grown up. It surfaced every time I felt obligated to attend family events. I anticipated the sting of rejection. It felt like a racing heart wanting to escape the stories long ago imprinted like record grooves in my emotional memory. Summer was a time of freedom—no school, no schedules, and no supervision. This created a horrendous circumstance for my child-self to navigate.

Summer vacations meant my psychological needs underwent a heyday of mockery. The voices were not in my mind, but parlayed by my family through sibling violence that went overlooked. It’s laughable, right? Girl fights, pssshhh. But my older sister, put in charge whenever our parents had obligations, turned aggressive and overbearing. At age eleven, she hit, punched, kicked, yelled, and screamed. At thirteen, she manipulated her friends into bullying me. At sixteen, she went to Homecoming with the boy I tried dating. At seventeen, she was in the room while a guy from school sexually assaulted me. Was this a girl fight or was it abuse?

This was my home. This was my safe harbor. Luckily, when I was seventeen, my sister left home. My body unraveled with colossal relief, and I spent the next two decades believing I could win back my parents’ affection, if only I played along that we were a decent family.

Years later, I wondered why I felt anxious about going home. I wondered what I’d done to be rejected, why I felt unloved. Having two daughters, my needs were based on their needs. A daughter needs a mother who can validate their emotions. By the time Aileen (the oldest) was thirteen, I had a breakdown. I was not OK. Abuse of a child was not OK. I came to learn that my experience had names: scapegoat, abuse-by-proxy, neglect.

These were big stories to own. F-ing huge stories to own. Healing begins with living in your worst nightmare. Betrayals were toxins in my body that made me aggressive, distrustful, and short-fused—as would be expected when reality hits like a freight train. What was I supposed to do with these stories?

Get them out. Get them out. Get them out.

My body had been telling me for years that going home was a bad idea: the paranoia and dread, the sense of defeat. Every time I went home, I returned to a victim’s playground. Summer equated to abuse, a simple math problem. But I estranged myself. I had a blind spot. I couldn’t see what was familiar—the lack of perception that had allowed my family to enable such treatment. It was not until I hammered my family story into my own framework that I began to believe my truth: principles were more important than family picnics. I needed my own permission to address the conflict: family vs self. I had self-erased for decades, but what came next? What does a person do in this situation? What would you do?

WHAT I’M READING:

The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich. In honor of the James Welch Native Lit Festival this weekend, it’s obligatory for me to read and advocate the importance of books written by native authors. Through oppression, assimilation, displacement, and horrendous abuses, native voices have been erased far too long. It’s time that we listen.

MY WRITING:

I’m currently surrendering a narrative arc to my work-in-progress to explore and dig deeper into themes that have emerged throughout the process. It’s a chance to be free from a singular parameter while also adhering to constraints that will define areas that need more depth or exposure.

Also, I’m revising a long-form essay that I hope to one day submit for publication. The goal-switch from completing an 80,000 word project to a 5,000 word project feels much more manageable. It involves a true crime, taking the full-time spotlight off me. Sometimes, a person just needs a break.

RELATED NEWS: The Montana Book Festival is September 15-18th. I’ll be hosting a conversational panel: Trauma as Backbone; Strengthening Communities of Adversity with Creative Writing. I’m honored to be joined by the following panelists who will represent populations afflicted by child trauma, the houseless community, and justice-involved youth:

  • Sheryl Noethe; 2x Poet Laureate of Montana, Founder of Missoula Writing Collaborative, TEDx speaker, and author of many poems and chapbooks.
  • Barry Maxwell; Barry earned his MFA in nonfiction at the University of Montana and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Social Work. He is the founder of Street Lit Authors Club-Missoula, providing books and workshops to Missoula’s underserved communities.
  • Nicole Gomez; Nicole is about to transition from Executive Director of Free Verse, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering incarcerated youth of Montana through literature and creative writing. She holds an MFA in fiction form the University of Montana, and a BA in International Relations and Italian Language and Literature from Stanford University.

If you think creative writing is not important, think again. These incredible people are changing the course of people’s lives by giving them a pen and saying, “Write your story.” The conversation will be a moving and eye-opening exposé of what happens when the silenced are empowered to claim their voice.

WELCOME: Anna, The Hairy Truths blog, and The Introverted Idealist blog. I am so glad you’re here.

MISCELLANEOUS:

A question about lake swimming sparked quite the conversation on Twitter.

When a commenter sent me a video of how bacteria in water infected her with a rare breast disease, I felt compelled to share her story. Watch here.

After hearing the warnings of bacteria and toxin-infested water, I learned to not take the clean lakes of Montana for granted.

RANDOM BEAUTY:

FLATHEAD LAKE, MONTANA

Thank you dear friends for hanging in there with me. I appreciate your support. Have a safe and happy summer, and be true to yourself.

Love, Barbie

The What’s Up

Happy holidays to all my friends near and far!

December is nearing an end and the New Year is right around the corner, meaning transitions, new outlooks, and new opportunities. As a writer, I have been lurking in the background for quite some time, reading and thinking about how to write, or more truthfully, why to write. Sometimes, the meaning behind the motive is the most perplexing giant to tame, and years can go by with that giant remaining a shadow over the entire process.

View of the Mediterranean Sea from the Château de Roquebrune, France

November provided me with a much needed reprieve when my husband and I travelled to France and Italy, ending our vacation with a visit to our daughter in Florence during her semester abroad. With distance from home, and in the heart of foreign spaces, I was able to re-envision who I am, what I hold dear, and where my weak links falter. A stubborn son-of-a-gun, I have a hard time letting go of my perception of things. I like to call this The Narrative of Death. Holding onto a story so tightly that it strangles our own well-being is typically an indication that we need to evaluate our own psyche.

I carried The Narrative of Death for decades. I was not smart enough, capable enough, dependable enough, worthy enough, brave enough. Looking back, I held some important values at the heart of myself. Society, however, didn’t feed me the line about finding meaning in these values. Society wanted me to erase myself, be thin, beautiful, compliant, and readily convinced of my own unworthiness. If you didn’t already know, society has a very powerful Narrative of Death against women, and the LGBTQ+ community, and people in BIPOC communities, and anyone who falls outside the mold of white male.

Emotional deaths are just as traumatic as physical deaths. Relationships forged by an erasure are impossibly hard to navigate because obedience to a power over the Self forces an individual to lose sight of her own heart values. In this same way, my writing has lead me astray more than once, taking my creativity into a dark cave where I couldn’t see the wall just ahead of me until I smacked into it, stumbled backward, and rerouted myself.

This is to say, I have a relationship to my writing that feels as spiritually significant to me as my human relationships. At the risk of sounding morbid, death has rooted itself as the context of my writing. Flathead County, where I was raised, has experienced eight suicides in the past sixteen months, only one of them from outside the school district I had attended as a teen. It is one of our nation’s hot spots for suicide deaths. This is relevant to me as two of my high school friends took their own lives, and suicidal ideation was also a shadow lurking over my own life as a teen.

Anyone is capable of being pushed over the edge by The Narrative of Death. I persevered as a girl, and feel fortunate to live my life outside of this shadow. To spin away from this subject, let me assure you this context adds heft to my writing, and this heft gives me pleasure in that I have a foothold of meaning and purpose to my writing that previously remained elusive. One step further is the only way to proceed.

I’m taking more steps next year. At the end of January, I have signed up for a Proposal Critique class led by a professional literary agent. A proposal is a book’s marketing face, the shine and polish of a project’s desirability to attract a publishing company’s commitment. Because money seems reductive to the purpose of my writing, I like to think of currency in the form of readership, those in my sphere of intelligent and beautiful humans like yourselves who are committed to the value of my work. I applaud your presence and attentiveness in ways you’ll never know. You absolutely make the difference in a publishing company’s decision to accept my work, but more than that, you are keeping a literary world alive.

The polarity of life and death now is a daily context. Empathy is an urgent need, crucial for survival of the body, but also for the collective spirit of the mind. I thank you for your minds and wish you joy and safety in this world that feels so violent and dangerous. It is people like yourselves that truly make a difference.

Love, Barbie

Wednesday Wisdom: Family Ghosts

Many gaps exist in my family story. In trying to piece together my parents’ younger years for my memoir, I am befuddled by the complexity of mistaken timelines and the absence of information. One example that surprised me was the fact that I had always believed my mother was twenty-three when I was born. I have done the math. She was twenty-four.

What difference does this make? A lot. The mind relies on every bit of information as one navigates the world. My stories have built me and I process life through the filter of my understanding. Finding an error in what I have believed to be true means I must recalibrate my truth to a different and unfamiliar understanding. Seeing things differently forces me to step back and question my own beliefs and preconceived notions of how I fit into the world.

With more gaps than I had previously realized, I have to question how much I know my family. As I’m seeing it now, it seems to be very little. The more I delve into photos and years and events, the more wary I become of my relationship to the people who raised me. Certainly, if I don’t know a lot about them, then there must also be a lot they don’t know about me. It is evident to me now that many of my childhood struggles circulated around the feeling of ghosted by family.

Writing is a process of discovery. We write to learn about ourselves, but finding the truest meaning of ourselves also means discovering the truest meaning in our relationships. Merging into this territory is dangerous, difficult work. Now, I am able to do this because I have a strong support network which has taken years and courage to build. My husband and the world of creativity are the backbone of my emotional health. It has taken commitment to my own well-being and letting go of previous truths to undergo this process, and I am so grateful to have people to hold me up when I want to crumble. My fortitude has grown with the belief that my story matters, because even with loneliness, no person’s story exists in isolation.

Perhaps I was called to writing because I never felt understood. Or, maybe I always wanted to be known on a deeper level. Humans need connection. Like so many of us, all of us, in fact, the layers of identity are deep and tragic and uncertain. Loneliness is a trap we can release if we take the initiative to identify what we seek. Generating creative work provides meaning in an otherwise shallow life and illuminates our blind spots. Still, I am realizing that the gaps in my family story were never there to be filled, but to be examined. It’s through the existence of an incomplete that I see myself more clearly as my parent’s daughter. Stubborn. Hard-pressed to finish what I start. I’m finding my connection to them as I write. Present or not, they are here with me.

My paternal grandfather, Robert Wallace. A grandfather I never knew.

Wednesday Wisdom: Creativity

I’ve created good writing the past two days, shirking off exercise and other balancing activities that make me a mostly well-rounded individual.

Creativity requires stepping away from the world to dive deep into the needs of the project. Much like a newborn baby, art demands its needs without a language.

It isn’t until you’ve spent hours and hours agonizing over the possibilities that you begin to understand a project’s needs. Sometimes, the writing wants a detail, the color red to call attention to this spot here, or action, an explosive shift in the plot’s direction there.

I know the struggle and joy of being pulled toward my writing. When we burrow into art, we burrow into servitude. The ebb and flow of creative work requires strong communion with our state of being, opening ourselves to a place of potential and possibility, trusting that we’ve created a sacred harbor for self-expression, no matter how limited in time and space, within our immediate world.

Building the sacred harbor takes courage. You might have to push people away, people who bring toxic and negative energies that deplete you. On the other hand, that space will soon be filled with support and respect for the art that only you can make. Giving ourselves permission to feed creative impulses becomes not just a want, but a need, to engage in communion with our emotional and spiritual landscapes. Often, we are afraid to admit these needs, or, we don’t know how, because we haven’t learned the language.

The art will speak for you. I was forty-two when I began to write. When I allowed my voice to fall onto the page, my world transformed from fear to courage, hate to love, shame to pride. It’s never too late to reinvent a lifestyle based on art or to adopt a new way of living in service of your needs. It only takes courage to try.

Wednesday Wisdom: Identity

Often, our childhood conditioned us with negative messages sent from well-intentioned parents, relatives, teachers, siblings, friends, and acquaintances. Immersed in the world with small bodies and minds, we absorbed the unseen coda via behaviors and patterns that garnered repetitive responses.

“Be quiet” was a common command that came from adults in nearly every arena. Sometimes, it was delivered as a reminder, but most often, as an order.

As an adult, I’m aware how the delivery of our words provides the meaning. I can’t remember the last time somebody verbally told me to be quiet, but usually I’m present enough to follow social cues. Being present is awareness of the setting, tone, and expectations in a given situation. Failure to respond at an appropriate level results in social deviance, or the lack of conforming to social norms.

This lack of conformity implies that the person is seeking attention. A child. I know now that we are all children in the process of growing up for a lifetime. Our unmet emotional needs portrayed by our social skills evolve and change to the breadth of our experiences. Remaining sheltered and holding onto an identity does nothing for maturity.

When I began writing memoir, I had to release myself from the inner child who felt afraid. My childhood years sent me the message of incessant threat, a factor delivered by many people, adults and children alike, who failed to see their own behaviors as hurtful, and myself, who practiced self-destructive behavior as a response to depression. Moving beyond my child-self was an excruciating process, done with therapy and intensive self-care, until my parent-self earned the trust of the inner child.

Often, we are afraid of the world when it is ourselves that we fear. In order to trust ourselves, we must display the emotional and physical attention we would offer our own children. The first rule in medical practice is Do No Harm. Self-talk and toxic energies are often the most destructive barriers to our wellness. Meditation and limiting my exposure to toxic people have improved the quality of my life, and writing has offered me a safe place to voice my experience.

Many avenues exist for finding inner harmony. Former identities don’t have to define us for a lifetime, and we are free to pursue the person we want to be. Respect comes naturally to those with authentic personalities and who have braved the waters of self-reflection with honesty. Change is hard, but it is our adult responsibility to carve away the set-in-stone ideas that hold us, and our children, from achieving our greatest potential. We are more powerful than we know.