Monday, November 19, 2012

Bluebird No More

audio file / podcast

The fall that Rod Stewart’s top-40 hit, "Maggie May," hit the airwaves was the same autumn season that marked the beginning of an inexplicable sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and an overwhelming sense of dread, mixed with a kind of transfixed paralysis: Lot’s wife in the process of looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah, slowly (or not so slowly) transformed into a pillar of salt.  That’s what you get, when you look back, right?

But, I do not recall looking back at anything.  What was there to look back at with any sense of longing? I had loved being a Bluebird, with our crisp white short-sleeve shirts, navy blue button down cotton vests, and red neckscarves.  I chose being a Bluebird over being a Brownie simply based on the uniform. It made me feel happy and cheerful, and I loved the days when all of us wore our uniforms to school, then raced to the home of the mom whose turn it was to come up with activities for restless, curious, and easily enthused (and saddened) little girls.

During my mom’s tour of duty (about six weeks, as I recall), we went craft crazy, fashioning puffy pompoms of yarn, stringing beads, painting coasters and hot plate holders. When it was Mrs. Collier’s turn, we made plaster casts of animal tracks left behind in sand and clay.  I was intrigued by an especially big canine paw print, which I not so secretly hoped was from Bigfoot. Perhaps it was – now there is an annual Bigfoot Festival just a 50 or so miles from were we made those plaster casts.

I played my favorite pop songs on the record player (45 rpm) we had in the formal living room in front of the massive Victorian armoire, beige carpet, watered silk wallpaper, dark carved overstuffed sofa with watered tapestry.  I loved “Jingle Jump” (that came with a mini hula hoop for your ankle and a ball on a string that you could rotate and jump over … I know I’m not doing a very good job describing it), Georgy Girl, My Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music), and Minuet in G by Bach, Sonatina by Clementi, and other pieces I was working on after school for my biweekly piano lessons with Mrs. Crow, and then Mrs. Hunecke.

Fly, fly, fly, little Bluebird! Bluebirds and the concept of being a Bluebird shaped my sense of self. We lived on the edge of farmland and a long, snaky creek, and birds chirped day and night. I had a light blue cloisonn̩ Bluebird pin that I always affixed to my vest, and a cute little tie ring for my neckscarf. When I wore my navy blue skirt, navy blue knee socks, and little saddle-Oxfords, I felt very snappy and well put together. It was satisfying to see the other members of my unruly, noisy little flock Рwe chirped, hopped around, and poked around for cookies and snacks.

The times were not as innocent as all that, though. After all, we were in the throes of the Cold War. Did anyone notice that our red scarves were more or less equivalent to those worn by Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers? I am sure my mother did not see they irony. She was a big Goldwater fan, and a John Birch Society member. My sense was that group was proto-Tea Party and intensely against a command economy, and a surveillance society that cohered only when a critical mass of the citizenry regularly ratted out each other, and where mental hospitals were charged with drugging and lobotomizing the “enemies of the state” (non-conformists). Ironically, we lived in Norman, Oklahoma, where the top two employers were the flagship state university (The University of Oklahoma) and the flagship mental hospital (Central State).

My mother, whose depression would engulf her in a few years, right about the time she lost her mother, perhaps never saw the parallels, or if she did, she viewed it as proof positive that we were the “heads” side of the coin; the positive side of the binary relationship that placed one side (ours) as shiny truth-warriors, and the other side (theirs) as chthonic robotic tools, crushing to the human spirit.  Years later, after seeming to have conquered her depression, my mother sat on the edge of the sofa, listening to televangelists and tapes of Bible studies. She filled notebook after notebook with longhand notes. After she passed away, I tried to find the notebooks, hoping for pure gold that I could transcribe and publish as a book of daily devotions, a legacy of sorts. I envisioned something like the notebooks of a mystic, say, Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe. It was not to be, however. Sadly, the few notebooks I was able to salvage had nothing in them but hand-written copies of Bible verses, repeated, over and over with no accompanying thoughts or insights…

The experience of reading my mother’s notebooks (page after page of absolute emptiness) was exactly the same as the one of talking to my mom and looking into her eyes – it was like looking through glass bricks and seeing a distorted set of color blocks and contortions that echoed the human experience. You knew there was a person there, and you could see the big, bold gestures, but it was hard to connect through so much intervening glass and air. 

West Junior High School was not Monroe Elementary. For the 14-year-old, it was a different universe. Girls at school had stopped being nice to each other somewhere in the second nine weeks of the sixth grade, just after Thanksgiving and sometime when Santa’s workshops started to appear in the local department stores and shopping centers.  if I did so, I am sure I would feel a bit of sadness. It would be the last year that the girls I went to school with were nice to each other.

The leaves had changed color early that fall. I was second chair in the first violin section of West Junior High orchestra, and I took two private lessons per week – one with Mrs. Keith, whose husband was something of a local celebrity at the University of Oklahoma, and one with Mrs. Powers, whose son had an explosives fetish and ended up being a brilliant geophysicist working on the North Slope in Alaska, and who herself, changed directions entirely, and flung to the side her career as a music educator and orchestra teacher in the Norman Public School system and decided to return to school to become a registered nurse.

Was she? No. She had to deal with the consequences of having been an impractical idealist, and being foolish enough to think that one’s violin prowess would mesh well with the exigencies of middle class life, and being a divorced mom of three feisty sons.

I loved taking lessons from both Mrs. Powers and Mrs. Keith. Their personalities were utterly different, as were the pieces they assigned me to learn.

Mrs. Keith was delicate and refined in a “faculty wife” kind of way. Mrs. Powers was thin, but in a wiry, un-made-up, scrappy survivalist sort of way. I was never convinced that either could play their instruments more competently than their students, but I have to say I love the way that Mrs. Keith’s technique chilled me with the ravishing tones and the perfect pitch, not to mention intense coloratura. Mrs. Powers was more utilitarian – no drama in her interpretations of the classics. Her performance and delivery screamed “I’m practical!” “I’m utilitarian and proud of it!” – technically proficient, her interpretations were divine on some level, but it was hard to engage the affect enough to make her listeners passionate, riveted, filled with raw desire for music produced by wire, horsehair, and thick, hot rosin.

But, I’m digressing, obviously in order to avoid the painful subject of my own raw, inflamed, chapped, and incapable of gripping anything with any sort of fervor at all.

I want to tell you about the passion(s) that everyone feels.

There is the passion for life, the passion for chrysanthemums in the fall, and for seeing under the surface, and into the great, deep heart of memory.