My New Tat–let’s get this conversation started

My New Tat–let’s get this conversation started

There go my hopes of becoming Young Women’s President. But seriously, it’s my first, and only ever, tat (Truthfully, I don’t want to be president of anything). I can’t imagine coming up with a reason to get another one, but to be honest, up until the last few years, I never thought I’d find a good enough reason to get this one. But I did come up with a good reason, and it has a whole lot to do with my recent absence from the blog scene. Come to think of it, it also has a whole lot to do with my recent absences from church too. Mostly though, it has everything to do with suicide.

I first got the idea for the tattoo after I took  my oldest grandchild to live with his father in Utah, and threw my daughter out on the streets. It wasn’t as cold-hearted as it sounds, though. I knew how much it hurt to have her son taken from her arms, and I knew the dangers she would be facing as a homeless female. I was at my wits end, and so was she, and I knew, just as she did, that hitting rock-bottom was a necessary step if she was to ever recover from alcoholism and drug abuse. Just before I helped her pack her bags in my Illinois apartment and board the plane to the streets of Utah where should be near her son, I prayed, I cried, I consulted with her father (my ex-husband), and then she and I talked about her suicidal ideation and the fact that she would need to address it if she were to come out of the upcoming chapter in her life alive. It was tough on everyone involved, and as a mother, I was terrified for the well-being of my only daughter. She was so lucky that the baby’s father was willing to give her the opportunity to have regular contact with her son. I knew that she felt her son would be better off without her in his life at all, but being able to see him regularly helped keep her going.

During my daughter’s tenure on the streets, I discovered Project Semicolon. As a writer and an English teacher, it was pretty easy for me to see the metaphor of myself as the author of a sentence that could have been over by adding a period, yet furthering the idea by adding a semicolon and going on. I thought of those times just before my divorce when I truly felt that dying was preferable to staying in an emotionally abusive marriage. I understood how my daughter felt, so I didn’t even hesitate. I called my daughter and told her, “We have to do this.”

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When she was finally on the path to sobriety, she was quite clear with me about the relationship between childhood molestation, religion, drugs and alcohol, and mental illness–all leading to her suicidal ideation. She was molested by a male cousin mere weeks following my separation from my first husband. This was about the same time that she was baptized, and her attacker was double her age. Although she was coerced, she went for years feeling as if she should have been able to stop the attack, so she told no one. At church she was taught about the importance of sexual purity and chastity, and of course, she was told that only those who were “pure and chaste” could enter into the temple to be married for time and all eternity.  In her young mind, she was doomed. It was no wonder that she frequently begged to go to Relief Society with me, instead of attending her Young Women’s classes. By that time, she had completely given up on herself, and reasoned that since she was already “impure,” she had no reason to keep up the charade. This was about the same time she began to joke about “going to hell,” and started smoking. I began getting regular calls from her school, too. She was skipping classes so she could sleep in after sneaking out at nights (she’d wait until she could hear me snoring–remember, I was a single mom). Of course, her nightly escapades introduced her to drugs and alcohol. She became severely depressed; who wouldn’t after all that? Her family knew what she was up to, and so did all the kids at school and church, so she developed social anxiety as well. She began avoiding everyone but her drinking/drug buddies.  Street drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes became a sort of treatment for her depression and anxiety; it was a vicious cycle leading to addiction.

Recovery from addiction is an uphill battle, especially when you have no supportive family nearby. By supportive, I mean physically, financially, emotionally, and morally. Alongside my husband, my daughter is my very best friend, but for the past few years she has lived more than 75 miles away from me. Her recovery was spurred by the discovery of her second pregnancy, just months after she’d gotten herself off the streets. Before her baby was six months old, she divorced her new husband who was ardently headed in the opposite direction from her new path.

Being a single mom is never easy, I know that, having done it with four kids over a period of ten years, but she had complicating factors on top of those previously mentioned, including post-traumatic stress, no high school diploma, no car, a part-time job, and ADD exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. To make matters worse, she pointed out to me, studies have proven that even marijuana can cause permanent brain damage in adolescents, and who knows what damage has been caused by other drugs?

Despite the fact that she had gone back to high school, and gotten a job and counseling, she fought immense guilt. Day after day, as she struggled to get herself out of bed, put food on the table and diapers on the baby, find time for homework,  make sure her bills were paid, and get her daughter to daycare and herself to work (both without a car),  she heard that little voice in her head screaming, “IF ONLY . . .”

She was drowning in guilt, and I knew she was suicidal. In fact, she told me, she’d have committed suicide months ago, if it hadn’t been for her solid belief that no one would care enough to check in on her if she just didn’t show up for work or answer her phone one day, and that her baby could have been alone in her apartment for days before her mother’s body was discovered. It was devastating for me to contemplate this, but her daughter’s presence was the only thing keeping her alive.

I couldn’t stand watching it any longer, and despite the fact that I am not in the best of financial or living circumstances, I drove to her home (I moved back to Utah after finishing grad school in Chicago, so I could be with my kids and grandkids), and told her to pack up her things. She needed physical and moral support, and I was the only one willing to help; no one else has yet been able to accept that she is serious about giving up her past, including most of the bishops she’s had to deal with. The first thing we did was to get our tattoos.

Tattoos

It was a bit difficult for us to find an open tattoo parlor that looked clean and trustworthy. After all, despite the fact that I am a Democrat, I’m still a good Mormon girl, remember? We settled on Garage, Tattoo in Ogden, Utah. I told Thad, our artist, that we’d give him a shout-out, but more importantly, it’s a place where we were not questioned or harassed because of our religious preference, and Thad was friendly, understanding, and professional. As you can see, he did a great job. My daughter’s tat is on the inside of her wrist, where it is not visible to anyone but herself. It tells that there will be better days, and I hope the fact that it matches mine will remind her that I’ve got her back.

Mine is on top. I chose my quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”  It’s a bit of good advice from Papa Polonius that I did not follow until well after my divorce, and I am a much happier person now that I am doing things not to impress others or make them happy, but because it is the right choice for me.  It is on the outside facing me, where I see it constantly. I wanted it to be where my daughter could see it constantly as well, and know that no matter what, I’ve got her back.

I’m the ward chorister, so everyone at church can see it if they actually look up from their hymnbook while they are singing. I wanted it to be visible, because I want people to ask me about it. Unfortunately no one at church has, and I was afraid of that. After all, tattoos carry a very strong stigma at church. But I want people to understand how pervasive suicidal ideation is. I want people to know that the way they handle tough situations such as finding out they have a gay member in their ward, or learning that their teen daughter is pregnant, or even just reacting uncomfortably to someone because they are different, can contribute to suicidal ideation. I want everyone to understand that suicidal ideation is actually a normal response when bad situations feel inescapable and when people believe that no one understands, or wants to (especially at church). We have to be ready and willing to listen to another’s story without judgment and with compassion. We have to get beyond that religious stigma telling us that suicidal thoughts come from evil deeds, and we need to learn unconditional acceptance of others who make different choices from our own.

I LOVE having my little granddaughter and both of my best friends in my home.  Things have become a bit crowded and messy, but there’s a lot more love and laughter, and my daughter makes me get out and go on walks with her on a regular basis. She’s getting out of the house when she’s not at work, and I’m getting healthier. Most importantly, she’s got access to the things that are keeping her happy and functioning: people who will listen to her story and love her just as she is.

 

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Idiolect: Not Just for Idiots

another way to say personal linguistic quirks

Idiolect?  I honestly did not know that I had one.  It never even occurred to me that I might.   I mean, I have been to other countries, and I always enjoy people who speak differently from me, but I have been idiocentric about my speech. I assumed that only American populations on the fringes of the main population had a dialect of Standard American English that was different from my own; most specifically Southerners and New Englanders.  And yes, there are other variations , such as African-American Vernacular, but I always thought of African-American Vernacular as its own language—not so much a dialect.  I guess you could say that I have somehow managed to convince myself that I am the perfect example of Standard American English, and that every other dialect is a variance of my own.

But then I got to thinking about it. First of all, where, oh where, did I get the idea that Standard American English is the international ideal that all other language groups aspire to?  Is it because English is the international business language? If so, who is to say that Standard American English is the internationally accepted business English dialect? (Some say it’s Oxford—oh say it’s not true!)  And even then, business English is only universal to international businesses, so what makes it right in Chicago neighborhoods, greater Illinois, or anywhere else in the United States? Continue reading

Confessions of a Third-Grade Bigot

My father often tells a story about an event that happened when I was quite young.  And while the story has nothing to do with me, it has everything to do with my understanding of literacy, and so I tell it too.   It seems that a man came from out of town on business. Dad met him at an informal reception in the workplace, and upon learning that my father was Polish, the man began telling Polack jokes.  This particular situation can be easily compared to the same man visiting, and upon meeting a particularly beautiful blonde colleague; he begins telling dumb blonde jokes. My father might have laughed at the first basically benign joke, but as the jokes continued, and as time went on, became more distasteful and bigoted, my father was no longer smiling.  Dad knew that he could have just left the room; instead, he waited for a lull in the barrage, and asked pointedly, “Do you speak Polish?”  When the man answered negatively, Dad asked “How does it feel to be dumber than a Polack?”  This put an effective stop to the jokes.  This particular story has stayed with me throughout my life.  My dad tells the story often, always in response to some particularly bigoted statement by a family member or acquaintance.  I think the story stays with me for the same reason. I mean, how can a monolingual individual possibly be more intelligent than one who is bilingual? But I think now, too, of the gender-related as well as stereotypical issues with dumb-blonde jokes.  How can we use language, gender, hair color, skin color, or country of origin as a measure of worth?  Why do we?

A similar story is told by my mother, always in response to the assumption that she must be bilingual.  Both of my maternal grandparents were immigrants. My grandfather, an illegal German immigrant who jumped ship from a merchant vessel when it landed in California. My Grandmother came as an Austrian refugee of the Holocaust.  The two met and married in California, and spoke fluent, albeit different, dialects of German in their home.  When my mother was born, local school officials suggested that speaking two languages, one at home, one in public, would confuse my mother (despite the fact that her two sisters, both more than a decade older than her, were bilingual). So my mother was raised speaking English-only.  I feel that my mom was deprived of some important linguistic skills that could have opened so many doors for her.

I think of the general attitudes and discourses regarding literacy today, and I can see how closely related they are to the attitudes and discourses regarding the first languages of my grandparents, and the value they placed on learning English as direct evidence of their worthiness to become citizens of the United States.  Grandma spoke a dialect of German commonly referred to as Platdeutsch (Low German), while Grandpa spoke Hochdeutsch (High German). Grandma, being painfully aware of the disadvantaged classification of her dialect, made every effort to adapt her skills to accommodate the more privileged dialect of Hochdeutsch.  She knew how this advantaged categorization of language affected the way others classified her, so she reverted to her Platdeutsch only when arguing with my grandfather as a point of irritation.  Grandma’s painful awareness of the privileging of dialects led her to insist on the use of “proper English” at all times, just as she insisted that my mother never leave the house without gloves on.  Both modes of communication, the one verbal, the other visual, were distinct determiners of status in the eyes of my Grandmother.  Much of this insistence on “proper,” albeit arbitrarily defined behavior, is still evident in the values expressed by my mother today, especially when it comes to language.

As a child I came to adopt these same values, insisting that there was just one correct way to communicate, and that “proper” English must be used as a method of maintaining societal integrity.  When I think about those attitudes in relation to my own life, I think most specifically of a field trip that I participated in when I was in the third grade. This particular field trip was significant to me at the time, and has stayed significant as part of my growth as a literate woman. In retrospect, it has become even more significant to me as a way of understanding differences in backgrounds and cultures that contribute to the growth of a literate America.

This was the year my family moved from a middle-income neighborhood in “white American suburbia” to a rented home in Lark, a tiny defunct mining town that housed a

variety of elderly widows, Mexicans, Navajos, and single-parent families.  My parents were attracted to this location because of its low rent, and more importantly, its proximity to the property they were planning to build a new home on in an exclusive gated community.  In my new school, I was among the minority—a child from one of only two intact white middle-class families in the whole town. We only lived there for two years, but those two years shaped my early attitudes about reading, writing, and communication in the English language. Continue reading