There is no need to dwell on the exterior cliche of an injured soldier, the propaganda is superficial. Civilians have only plastic green men, heavy dusty movie set costumes, and Army-of-One heroes to populate stereotypes. Keep your images larger than life, no use touching up a paint-by-number. Mine was banal, foolish, and 19; enough said.
One fence is the fraternity itself, the next is brain injury. No other way to understand but be there. A Solid-American-Made-Dashboard cracked my forehead at 45mph.
Crumpling into the footwell,
unaware that the flatbed's rear bumper
was smashing thru the passenger windshield above me
the frame stopped just shy of decapitating my luckily unoccupied seat.
Our vehicle's monstrous hood had attempted to murderously bury us under,
but the axle stopped momentum's fate and ended the carnage under dark iron.
Shards of my identity joined the slow, pulverized, airborn chaos.
Back, Deep, Gone.
Unconsciousness is the brain's frantic attempt to re-wire neurons, jury rig broken connections, the doctor's desperate attempt to re-attach, stand back and say, good enough. Essential systems limply functioned, but unessential ones were ditched. Years later a military doctor diagnosed an eventual triage: Hypothalimus disconnected from the Pituitary Gland, Executive Function damaged, long pathways for emotional regulation interrupted.
I woke up still kinda bleeding, crusty blood in my hair, a line of frankenstein stitches wandering across my forehead. My sense of self had literally dissolved into morning dust floating in a sterile hospital sunbeam. My name was down the hall, words and the desire to speak were on a different floor. Life became me and also a separate me under constant renovation, a wrecking ball on one half, scaffolding and raw 2x4's the other.
Waking up in the hospital, I realized I needed help to get the blood cleaned up. A nurse came in, largely glared at me in disregard, and quickly left… for an hour. She returned and brusquely dropped a useless ace comb and gauze on the blanket over my feet and abandoned me again. This was my introduction to the shame of a VA hospital. I minced my way to the bathroom, objectively examined my face in the mirror with shocking stitches above one swollen eye. Gingerly rinsing my hair, the water ran pink in white porcelain. I remembered the sound in my skull between my ears when a doctor scraped a metal tool across my skull, cleaning debris before stitching. I recalled that in the ER I was asking Is he ok, repeating it like a broken record, knowing I should stop but I couldn’t. There was also perhaps a joke about an Excedrin headache.
It was morning, and since there was no such thing as time or purpose or feelings anymore, I wandered to the hall with my only companion, the IV pole. One side was a wall of windows, and I was, what, 10 or 12 stories up from the streets of a much larger city than where I crashed. The hall was warm and sunny. I wheeled my companion to a blocky square vinyl chair to sit next to a pay phone. I didn’t have any thoughts at all, or care about it. After about an hour my first name floated up from the void, then with some effort my last name. It took the rest of the morning to remember I had a brother. After lunch we resumed our post, and I spent the afternoon in concentration piecing together his phone number. God had pushed the reset button.
Thirty years ago the doctors didn't understand head injuries; they only recognized the physical symptoms. At first there was good reason to be permanently admitted to the hospital. My blood pressure was unstable, sometimes so low that drawing blood for tests caused my veins to collapse even with baby needles. My thyroid had shut down completely, only jump-started again with six months of Synthroid. I had to learn to live with crashing blood sugar and fluctuating appetite. For years afterwards, any stress would cause arrhythmias, my heart filling and skipping out of sync, blood pressure popping my skull. Will the clock stop this time?
There is always at least one momentous event in every person’s life that becomes punctuation, before and after. The other side of Before the accident truly was a different me. I have a vague recollection of who that person may have been, and occasionally get reminders. Before, I was getting recruiting letters from Ivy League colleges and MIT, a high school senior at sixteen. After, I couldn’t balance a checkbook or even care about a savings account in the first place. Before, I had aced the military entrance exam only missing one question, even including the speed math section. They told me I could chose any rating I wanted, so I chose Air Traffic Control. Twenty years later, I thumbed through old high school yearbooks at a reunion. I saw a picture of me in the Shakespeare Club, not recalling what that could have been about. On finding a picture of me in the Ski Club I thought, Wow, I guess I know how to ski. A yellowed small-town newspaper article noted I was one of two National Merit Scholars; and in another there’s a mention of a part in the High School Musical.
This side of After, I kept mixing right with left, was dyslexic with numbers, and occasionally stuttered with word soup. Focus became separated from willpower, concentration was like herding cats. The world had become intense.
(chapter 1 continues in memoir)
I've washed up on desert island sand
with only a few things in a satchel, and this game to keep me busy.
"the one most valuable thing, what would it be?"
Intelligence is handy, no doubt, just like a Swiss Army Knife.
But put to the test it's usually insufficient in the real world.
Too small, too dull, falls from fumbling hands in a pinch.
A false security, Guaranteed to be lost when really needed.
Health? Tenuous at best.
Doctors' throwing educated guesses at me in little pills like a game of darts.
Besides, my Every Single Cell is re-made by every 7th year, a brand new me.
Just a reflection of DNA, choices, and environment,
health's appearance is up to daily fate.
Faith? in what, exactly, this book? I know I'm lost.
My Creator feeds me or breaks me whether I will or not.
by definition Greater than me, whatever name or persona that would be.
How can I constrain Him or Her to a pronoun, into my own limits, to keep
a tiny symbol stamped in metal, an impossible shield.
In other words, faith in my Savior comes with breath.
Memory? small fading pictures, receipts of illusions cluttering the present.
And anyway, friends to share them hopped a different boat, swam to other islands.
Perhaps a set of footprints will lead to Saturday, but for now its just me.
Looking in the empty satchel,
then fingers checking the corners,
I find a little gem:
Not big enough for confounding hubris,
too small to burden seriousness,
it's bright enough to light hope's path,
and light enough for awe.
Creative thinking in a pickle,
like wishing for three more wishes;
Whimsy is a smile or even a laugh,
compassion hand-in-hand with gratitude
and acceptance comes along too.
I'll keep this.
(chapters in the book:)
Part 1- Match Girl
1. Disabled Veteran, Traumatic Brain Injury
2. the Best of Them
3. Incriminating Proof
Part 2- Assembling the Pieces
4. Presence of Mind, Awareness
5. the Facade
6. Presence of Mind, Coping Skills
7. The Art
8. Two Wheels
9. the Value of Scrap Mettle
10. Brain Injury Still Feels Like
Part 3- Maui Tamed the Sun
11. Presence of Mind, Acceptance
12. Finding my Soulmate
13. Finding Home
14. PTSD still Haunts
15. Between Horizon and the Sky
Rewind this memoir back to my first foster home. I’m reclining on the couch in the living room watching Superman, a whatever's-on-tv-saturday-afternoon-movie. "Give A Little Bit" played from the soundtrack. The Supertramp song reached out from the screen and into my own complicated teen-aged life. Oh the words of that song blindsided me, hit me hard in the chest with a sad yearning, an emotion I had ignored forever like that elephant in the room too big to push out the door. Because life was so hard, too hard, and lonely on and on, and the world gives only just enough that you keep breathing, but you wonder why. Yes, please someone give just a little....
But at the time I hadn't known anything else and I just stuffed that overwhelming sad lonely feeling. Too much need wears out a welcome in someone else's home. It seemed most everyone else had family, security, some money for perhaps things like a pair of cleats to run in school track if you have the desire. Its called belonging or opportunity and I was acutely aware I wouldn't have it.
Fast forward 25 years; business for my glass art studio is rewarding. I live in Cleveland, or what I called Purgatory. I like the city though; I think the motto should be "Its Not That Bad." A tough steel town, unpretentious to a fault, tenacious, it inspired the Clean Water Act because the river was so polluted it caught on fire. People who live there just don't quit, except that the biggest export is young people. The streets are eerily empty, the quiet steel mills are epic sculptures of rust. But its not that bad. Now they make a tasty beer called Burning River. Sometimes they gamble on unconventional ideas because they've reached the end of status-quo. One can even surf there, when the wind blows a Nor'easter in the fall, just before the lake freezes. The wave break is nicknamed "Sewer Pipe"; one can imagine why.
I biked with a club there; cycling part of my life-blood. Life was pretty good, blessed with measures of contentment and happiness and family, even through so many challenges. Except I'm stuck pedaling a trainer in the basement most of the long winter. It was during an endless, gray February that I was inspired by an idea: a Velodrome. Its one of those banked tracks people in America only see during the Olympics. Cover it, and people could have a bicycle park all year-round with palm trees in the winter, in Cleveland. Its a blast of a sport with serious American heritage. A velodrome is a place where all a kid has to do is show up and with enough heart he or she can make it to the Olympics. They wouldn't need money, just 100% heart. It would be the kind of opportunity I didn't have when I was a kid.
So I decided to take on the responsibility to build one... not to be afraid of the price tag, or how to do it, or let a label like "disabled veteran with a head injury" daunt me. I figured my role was to get the project started and motivate others to do other parts. I decided not to discuss my shortcomings, introduce myself with that label, or use it as a disclaimer. As many times as I wished I had a chalkboard sign around my neck saying, Please excuse the mess, I had to tell myself it was not an excuse.
There would need to be many others; but the fact that I knew only a dozen people on the planet didn't stop me either. Two people inspired me. Kyle MacDonald had a dream to barter a paper clip for something better, trading that for something else, anything else, until he had a house. I thought I could start with an old laptop, a couple thousand dollars, and my idea. I'd work to leverage each bit of progress, not knowing what they were yet. Thats how anything gets done, right? Erik Weihenmayer is a blind alpine mountain climber, conquering even Everest. He didn’t let anyone convince him what he couldn’t do, and didn’t let impairments keep him from his goal. He didn't let blindness, the fact that he couldn't see the top as well as others, make the goal any less enjoyable for himself. Also, there’s no way he could have done it without help.
There are no business plans for a Velodrome or someone else would have built more of them already. I'm good at figuring things out, what with having to relearn things all the time. I don't quit because that has never seemed to be an option. Resourcefulness is my middle name, having to put my life back together every year or so. Certainly the project was eccentric but as an artist I've never really cared about what others thought. I certainly didn't have a reputation for sanity to maintain. Professionally, I’ve had experience with so many factors of development: from paperwork at the back end as a Project Assistant, to designing it as a Mechanical Drafter, to constructing it as a Steel Detailer. I understood this project.
Every time I discovered something needed to be done, I'd figure out how to do it. I took an online tutorial and put together a website, attended communication seminars for better speaking skills, learned how to recruit a Board of Directors, took classes for fundraising, won a few grants, and started a non-profit. I had to buy a couple of suits for meetings. I kept hoping someone who knew what they were doing would take over, but that never seemed to materialize. What I thought would be a few months turned into several hard years of work, learning new things on the fly like politics, business etiquette, computer programs, how to understand and write financials and business plans for stadiums.
It felt like cramming for finals, taking exams for classes I never attended. I didn’t just burn my candle on both ends, I was torching it in the middle too. Every challenge I had ever gone through seemed like it was a preparation for this one. Many times I wondered if it was all for nothing; so many dead ends and frustrations and years where the project was barely on life-support. Mistakes and wrong turns making people mad, losing faith in me. Would it ever really happen? I kept imagining what my bike wheels would look like under my handlebars as if I was ridiing on the track, listening to the same particular songs on my ipod for motivation.
A small tangent here, a digression back to the fifth grade and my favorite teacher. He was about as tall as his students. Mr.A (our nickname for Mr. Anderson) was a barrel-chested little person but I didn't notice it till years later because he was so cool. He was the first teacher, the first person actually, who encouraged me to be myself. I was a little kid, a couple years advanced and bright enough to be skipped again. Tthat would have been ridiculous since I was already too small. I would get my work done early in class, and he would let me spend time doing whatever, encouraging my creativity. I distinctly remember making little scale models of parks out of construction paper. I would start by making a rectangular tray, and then fill it in with ponds, benches, and oval or figure-8 tracks for bicycles, elevated roller-coaster paths for walking. It was my way of creating a whimsical place that felt good in my difficult life. No lie, I was building bicycle tracks when I was 9. That memory faded away until I was several years into the actual Velodrome project, trying create a light-hearted park on the edge of a ghetto. This was my life's ultimate Art Project; made with wood, steel, and tenacity. It made me wonder about a life's purpose... still just a what if... but cruel if there wasn't anything to it.
There is a necessary role for the dreamer. Visionaries help to break status quo, introduce new solutions. Sorting through the banal with unique perspective, the random is reassembled into intriguing newness. What is creative nature? Is it obsession to improve things, the need for approval, resourcefulness within limits, or perspective outside boundaries? Is it tenacity to the point of obsession, focus to the point of selfishness?
Thankfully, a few devoted people did take over after a few years and worked hard to raise the serious money. In 2012, Phase 1 of the Cleveland Velodrome opened to the public. Presently they are raising funds for Phase 2 to cover it. By chance I was there the day the track was finished and got a chance to ride it. All I wanted to do was one thing: listen to those songs on my ipod and see my wheels under the handlebars on the track... in reality. I didn't want to race or be recognized at some celebration. I just wanted to ride a few laps, happy just to have a role in building it. In less than a year there are already training programs, youth cycling classes, and teams competing. Through community grants and volunteers, its all free to anyone under 18.
Not to be forgotten, some thanks should go to one supportive teacher who helped a scrappy kid dream. Schools measure math and science so valuable, for good reason. But this favors one brain’s side of thinking. Initiating and working for the construction of an urban renewal project and improving a neighborhood is traceable to the exact same idea assembled with clumsy school scissors, white glue, and construction paper, during 5th grade free time.
I can't wait to hear the news of some tough kid from East Cleveland getting to the Olympics.
This poem is dedicated to my brother!
He is a disabled special little boy but i love him no matter what he looks like.
I love you and I wish you were home,
It hurts me to think you're so alone.
Its not the same without you here,
I remember when we were little and we played in the yard,
then we'd go sit inside and watch TV.
You'd look at me and smile,
your smile used to stretch a mile.
When I had a bad day you were the only one who could make me laugh,
its like you were my other half.
It hurts me to see what your going through,
it hurts even more because there's nothing I can do.
I just wish I could make it all OK,
but all I can do is pray.
Sometimes its like you're still here,
I look at the door and wait for you to appear.
Then I realize you're not home,
and I go back to feeling so alone.
I love you so much you just don't know,
no matter what you'll always be my little bro.
When I tell people
My therapist’s name is Maria
They assume she’s Latino,
Ask me if Gonzales or Lopez is her last name.
And I say, actually, she’s Lebanese.
Sometimes they ask me if she’s fluent –
That’s all they say and I want to ask in what language
But I know they mean English. That’s all anyone cares about.
I say, English is her first language and when they ask about Arabic –
What about her native language? – I shrug
Because I’ve yet to meet someone who is fluent
In the language of their body and their mind
I’m not talking about syllables I’m talking about feelings
A language I am just beginning to learn at age twenty
When my vocal therapist asks me how do you feel
And I want to cry because I don’t fucking know.
Sometimes I think language is overrated
The same way people think labels are overrated
But I’ve never had someone strip me of my agency based on my accent
and the people who think labels are overrated
have clearly never struggled to find where they belong.
My mother hates it when I bring up her age,
Says things like Julia, fifty four isn’t that old
Or, can we not use the o word?
I want to tell her that to me
She is a miracle
She is a work of art
She is something I want to be more than anything – old
Because I never thought I’d live past sixteen and now I’m twenty.
I tried to tell her this but she patted my hand and said that’s not how she looks at it
And I’m beginning to understand that identity is two-fold:
What it means to you, and what it means to other people.
When I say recovering addict I’m afraid all people hear is ‘useless, worthless, obsessive, fuck-up’ when I mean someone who has been sober longer than she was an active addict, someone who is a success story.
I hate saying recovering addict and hearing failure in it’s place.
When I came out to my mom as pansexual all she heard was ‘pan means all’ and deduced that I was into animals
when what I meant was that
I want to love someone based on who they are
not their presentation or orientation.
When I came out to my sister as pansexual
she decided that meant I was a sinner and a slut.
I am still trying to decide what I prefer:
A sinner-slut or someone who fucks their dog.
When I realized I was disabled I got a lot of sympathy
But all my father heard was lazy
Sometimes that’s all I hear too
And then I remember that my PTSD has left me with adrenal fatigue
incapable getting out of bed everyday or going home or being around my father.
When I tell people I’m disabled they look for my wheelchair
And I don’t know how to tell them that I am a complex trauma survivor
That CPTSD happens when someone is traumatized repeatedly over a period of time in an environment there is no escaping from,
That it’s still valid even though I’m not a soldier or a torture survivor
If you want me to fucking enlist then you better be willing to give me a medal.
The only two identities I never had to tell people were white and woman.
Light skinned, English rose, the all important moniker of privileged
And I’m not denying that
But sometimes I wonder if I’m white or if I’m a walking billboard for colonialism.
My mom tells me I’m Italian and I think about how Rome colonized England;
My Dad tells me I’m English and I remember how England colonized Wales, Scottish, and Ireland
My mother tells me I’m Welsh, Scottish, and Irish
I think about how the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English colonized America
My parents tell me I’m Powhatan and Cherokee
I think about how I colonized myself, how I’m still colonizing myself.
My mother tells me I’m Dutch and I think about how the Dutch colonized The Congo;
She tells me I’m Swedish and I think about Sweden colonized Finland.
My father tells me I’m German and I think about the genocide I’ve committed.
I look at my skin in the mirror and I’m so pale I glow in the dark;
the blue of my veins makes me look like a ghost;
I think about how much blood has been spilled by my ancestors’ hands and wonder why I’m not red.
Daughter, really. Sister. Niece.
I think this is my most complicated identity, because:
Feminist, because I was abused, because my mother is still in an abusive relationship
Feminist, because the patriarchy I am trying to fight is a symptom of the colonialism I am a direct product of
Or is it the other way around, I’ve never had to think about it before.
Power Femme, Hard Femme, because feminine isn’t anti-feminist
But feminine isn’t anti-queer.
Woman, because my genitalia has become a symbol of survival and all I want to say is that I was never weak in the first place.
Survivor, because that seems to be another word for woman, and queer, and disabled, and addict.
Survivor, because I am a miracle.
Maybe identity is a language I don’t know how to speak
Maybe all these words really mean miracle
Maybe that’s all any of us are – miracles
Living, breathing, beautiful machines
That keep waking up, day after day, even when the sky is bleak.
tw: discussions of trauma and colonialism
It may be just another famous prescription name to you, but for her, her medicine is a lot like glue. It’s the only thing that keeps her together. She suffers day in and day out; I guess you could say she’s permanently under the weather.
She had been a waitress her whole life, and when she was my age, I’m sure she never imagined that due to a careless accident, her life would forever be changed. You see, what happened that day was in someone else’s hands, if they had listened to the request; her life and body wouldn’t have to go on in such distress.
They should have cleaned the water up, they should have been more cautious. Coming through the doors that night, her back smacked onto the ground; it was in that moment she knew something was terribly wrong, for her back made a disturbing sound. She got up and carried on. She figured she would wait to have it checked out; hoping by morning the pain would be gone. She worked through the agony, because no work meant no money.
Turned out the damage was worse than she thought, the bad news turned her stomach into knots. Doctor after doctor, they all wanted to operate, she didn’t want to, afraid of the end results, but several different doctors told her she really shouldn’t wait. They said it wouldn’t be easy but with steady hands, a new tailbone is what they could create. She should have never let them touch her.
Ten years and nine surgeries later, her life and family have been changed forever. Not to mention, her back looks like a zipper.
Something like this may not seem too serious, but try having your life slowly stripped away from you. Being limited to everything you’re allowed to do. You be told you can’t ever work and provide for your family again. You live most of your life having to lye in your bed. She can walk just fine, but every single step is a reminder of all the pain and suffering she can never leave behind. Each movement reminds her that even though she is able, on government documents she is not only 45 but also disabled.
This isn’t the kind of life anyone would imagine his or hers to be, but with her family and good company, she smiles through the day and reminds herself that everything will be okay. She must get by for her daughters; she tries so hard not to lot let the pain get in her way.
This woman is my mother. We may not always get along, but I will always love her like no other. She is so strong and brave; I pray everyday that God can make her pain go away. Praying isn’t ever enough. It’s not fair for someone so good to have a life this rough. I pray that she always continues to pull through, even when it seems impossible to do. Mom, I love you.
There's a man I know
I'd name him, only,
I'm not sure it's my place,
he views the world in music
music as the voice of angels
the language of the heavens
he's an old snowball of a guy
his black skin cracked at the lips and fingers
and white foam coating the corners of his leathery lips
He reminds me of my late grandfather
a soldier who fell to Parkinson's
He had been playing flute,
and conducting since the age of five
I bought two CD's from him for seven bucks
and shit it was pretty damn good,
and I don't even listen to that type of music,
I found out he lives in a group home
mentally disabled in some way or another
he said he dreams of owning his own house
and his own car,
he dreams that one day,
everybody will have heard his music,
and I hope he reaches those dreams
if anybody ever deserved to
it's the music man
I am so confused,
I grew up christian,
I knew we were all sinners.
We are all equal,
Drunkards, Smokers, Trans, Disabled, Murderers, Gays, Children, Sick, Bullies, Rich, Prostitutes.
Today we interpret words of a culture-book
Its words weren't wrong, but maybe the people who've explored the text are misguided.
I believe the bible can't be taken as the final verdict to our lives,
because we change, culture changes, life changes!
Maybe Jesus wanted us to explore the bible as an ongoing conversation
which begs us to join into the discussion.
Don't stand by,
The preaching of pastors or priests, just because they teach you.
Explore the bible,
See what the bible says,
Then make a decision,
Will you be apart of the conversation?
Life is too short to except a path of relativism,
We are both right,
"Agree to Disagree."
Find out what you believe and back it up and argue it!
That is the only way to find truth.
So maybe God does love
GAYS, LESBIANS, or TRANS.
Maybe he doesn't.
Come to that conclusion yourself,
and not through someone else.
Losing my sanity in a place that's no longer reality
A place of all profanity
Endless waves of struggle
For nothing more than a quick kiss,
Recreational use of poisons
Or medicine to achieve fake bliss
The unstoppable pendulum
Ever moving forward and back
The useless tests and useless fact
To see wrinkles form
And loved ones leave here disabled,
Unable to comfort
The loss of ones inner soul
That safe place which you once knew
The arms of someone that knew you
The ultimate penalty and pain
The regret and the shame,
You thought you knew what it all meant
But then everything is now backward and bent
Motionless, the stillness a melancholic confirmation
Your harness is gone
And now your spiralling,
Above and beyond.
following is a list of evocative baby names. the least you can do is wait for it. wait while my brother donates the blood I loaned him. while my sister decides to believe in war. believe because she is finally allowed to fight. war because my brother is dying. dying even though he has money enough to cover his inheritance. a disabled twitter account. that I often quote. quote from inside my different sex marriage. where I’ll meet my wife. and her only child.