Where I Am From: A Tough Girl Memoir (Part 3)

I am Tough Girl. (Snap!) Shrewd and candid, I don’t enjoy pretenses or affectations for the sake of social accord. I don’t “beat around the bush” or “mince words” or “play the game” just so appearances can be kept, or to help secure everyone else’s sense of conformity. (Snap!) I am disobedient, defiant, a demonstrative deviant, just like my mother. I am a fighter, just like my mother. I disrupt the order of social contracts. When I am expected, like all others present, to follow protocol or instructions even if I strongly disagree, I dissent convention without hesitation, and I act without shame or guilt, just like the monster who tortured me as a child.

Though I am well-educated and humble, well-dressed and sophisticated, fun-loving and spirited, generous and compassionate, open-minded and imaginative, all you have to do is peel back the top layer of my coating, and unconditioned, whistle-blowing, truth-seeking Tough Girl will be revealed, her reflection bearing a strong resemblance to my mother’s willfully defiant visage.

Tough Girl is unafraid of letting sunlight on the beast behind the curtain, even if that beast is herself. (Snap!) Whenever she is needed, Tough Girl bounds through, edgy and street-wise, fearless, and unashamed to say what no one else is saying, be what everyone else is scared to be, take a shovel to the mountains of humbug that others are accustomed to passing back and forth between themselves – not because the rules and customs of the bureaucracies make sense, morally or democratically, but because blind conformity is easiest. She obstinately secedes from, or revolts against, associations circulating platitudes full of obfuscation.

Her intention is to expose the true nature of situations and stories in order to improve quality of life, rather than remain subordinate simply to appease those who subtly impose unequal standards, deliberately distort the truth in support of self-serving agendas, and sanction corruption on the premise of maintaining order. Tough Girl sees through the darkness, never fleeing it, always peering through it to expose a light barely visible.

(Snap!) My head is on a swivel: I constantly survey my surroundings, use my extrasensory skills and hyper-vigilance to detect the slightest maladies or perilous elements, ready for war against marauders, perpetrators, crooks and corruptors of justice at any moment. I simply have no room in my cloak of characters for “ignorance, allied with power, the most ferocious enemy justice can have” (Cornel West quoting James Baldwin, CD). Thick skinned, Tough Girl can take criticism because she willingly attacks her own imperfections in order to improve, to become the very best version of the real me, and I will not allow others to keep me shackled to their agendas just because they do not appreciate being challenged, and because they do not want to learn from criticism.

Tough Girl reaches inside my mind, into my core convictions, urging me to believe: “. . . to overcome that kind of ignorance, we must be open to the force of criticism” (West, 207). Unfortunately, I do believe that my mother’s actions, no matter how mentally and physically destructive, originate from an audacious spirit, similar to that of Tough Girl’s core principles. I do believe that she wished to become a heroic figure, one like Tough Girl, though my mother battled self-contrived conflicts and self-fabricated adversity, as if she were performing a lifelong role of a me-against-the-world tragic hero, like the vengeance-seeking, havoc-making, Satan, from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m afraid that I may have created dynamic Tough Girl in my mother’s fierce, unrepentant, and unforgiving image.

This heroic character in me has always refused to be beaten, and I stand up for any character that experiences injustice, too. This deviant character, who looks like me, but talks like someone else, like my roughneck mother, or a gang member, only with a little touch of feminine sophistication and poetic eloquence, did not surface until all others began to diminish in their effectiveness, not until I finally realized that I had no other choice but to be my own advocate, my own rescue warrior, and let go of the other personas keeping me safely “well-adjusted to injustice,” as Cornel West aptly states in his book Hope On A Tightrope (9).

Some version of me had to rise up, take up arms, in order to free myself from the self-created compartment that kept my true nature subdued, and my artistic visions of the world documented on paper, silent to a world which I was desperately trying to respond to authentically, earnestly, lovingly. Yet, that version is, boiled down, the spawn of my greatest oppressor.

My mesh of chainmail, wrist cuffs, and iron plate shin guards never come off. I am always prepared to win a battle with a gas station attendant who tries to refuse me reimbursement for payment of gas that I do not receive because the pump was broken, or cause the neighbor lady to tremble when I catch her taunting my dogs by maliciously spraying them with a water hose, or make a doctor apologize after he made my deaf friend feel stupid when she couldn’t understand what he was saying. This guardian of the oppressed and soldier of justice character manifested just before high school when everyone would suddenly discover that I had no patience for injustice.

After I noticed that one of the wealthier boys was stealing pizza from the cafeteria, where I worked for my tuition voucher, I announced to the entire class that he was a thief and he should be ashamed of himself. Once, I refused to take a social studies quiz, telling the teacher in front of the whole class, “You haven’t taught us a thing from this book. All you’ve done is talk about coaching football. I don’t care about football. I care about receiving the education that I’ve paid for, and I’m not taking a quiz that I’ll surely fail because you’ve chosen not to be a teacher.”

The classrooms always fell silent, teachers surrendered, nuns shook their heads, and Father Tom, the principal, never heard my complaints because I was never sent to his office, since none of them could deny the truth that I was telling, or maybe, they were embarrassed for me, because I was clearly an outsider to the well-bred, socially sophisticated people around me. No matter, I don’t have time for non-sense, for lies and keeping up appearances, not even then, though it would be easier to fall in line. It could always be easier to pretend that I don’t see an abused dog cowering underneath a car, terrified of her abuser lurking nearby, provoking her to resurface.

It would be easier for me to leave her there so I wouldn’t have to see the gaping wounds on her neck from having been choked on a line in her owner’s backyard. My life just might be peaceful, or as ordinary as everyone suspects, if I could just look the other way. Maybe, the abuser would put her back behind the privacy fence where I wouldn’t have to see the look of desperation and helplessness in her eyes, and then I wouldn’t have to bother with the smug Animal Care and Control man who would tell me that her owner would be charged with animal cruelty, but it would be easier if I just took her with me because cruelty is hard to prove. If I could just drive on by, with my mind on dinner and drinks or the beach, then I could avoid hours of troubling conversations with neighbors and rescue workers. If I just didn’t mind injustice and cruelty, if I could have been remained content with playing the role of pretty and popular Andrea, then things might be alright for me, but once Tough Girl began to play her part, no amount of costume changes could keep her hidden and voiceless.

As much as I needed her to pull me through, pass me the flashlight of words to help me demonstrate bravery through the language of my personal power, be the relentlessly raw writer me, the one that Tough Girl broke open to a magnificent and vile world, being Tough Girl can sometimes feel like living in the skin of a monster, the monster that created me, who taught me, by way of experiencing life with her, that “it is the nature of people to love, then destroy, then love again that which they value most” and “all human actions are motivated at their deepest level by one of two emotions – fear or love” (Walsch, 15).

My greatest secret is that Tough Girl is a product of agony, self-denial, insufficient parenting, inadequate development of personal identity; because I didn’t learn how to speak for myself, Tough Girl manifested out of the narcissistic, defective, and pathetic behavioral patterns of my mother. Tough Girl isn’t always tough. She cannot take on the world alone, as mighty as she may be. She is self-reliant, precocious, and clever, but she masks a fragile interior, a vulnerable, sensitive, little girl, still staring into her doll’s glass eyes in search of hope.

I want to deny that Tough Girl was born from adversity, born from anger, frustration, long, black nights stretching the distance between love and hate. I was born from love and fear, as we all are, but Tough Girl exists because I feared my own self-propelled process of absolute erosion. I was terrified of becoming “a rat that has been kept in a cage and when somebody opens the gate to let him out he just sits there like he’s afraid to do anything. Maybe he hates that cage but at least he is used to it. He knows what to expect in there, as described by Dennis Drury’s essay, “Good Time” (Kingston, 77).

I feared the fade to blackness, and I think my mother did, too. The only difference, though painful to reveal, is that my mother represented the blackness, and I strongly believe that her intentions were to pose as the direct opposite. I sometimes wonder, am I, unknowingly, blackness, too?

I tell you my secret in confidence. My diaries don’t give a damn what you think of me, but I do. My stories are what they are. I cannot hide them anymore than I could conceal my bones after death, but Tough Girl dies with me. Maybe, read this post-mortem. Maybe, read this while drinking alcohol or using other recreational drugs, so you won’t remember the shame that I harbor for loving Tough Girl. The worry that she is a symbol of my mother’s wickedness brews inside subcutaneous me, poet-activist me.

I fear that I am like an orchid whose tendrils shoot out tiny pods containing poison instead of nectar. Tough Girl gives me the velocity and potency that I need in order to pierce through the biosphere where love is without my fearful gases igniting and obliterating all of my delicate, life-loving spores. Tough Girl dislodges the fear so that I can flip the light on every time I enter a darkened, slow, mud-flowing scene , yet the fear of her definition presses on the edge of my love for expressiveness through language. But then, Tough girl is needed to combat or diffuse the hypocrisy and prejudice infecting the space and people populating my scenes.

My wife needs Tough Girl’s bravery and leadership to handle her homophobic, extra-Christian mother, who believes more in the tyrannical and prejudicial words and teachings transcribed 3,500 years ago, instead of the portions of the Bible which encourage unconditional love and tolerance. Her mother would rather invest in her own righteousness, and believe that she is among the special souls that will be saved from hell, even though she is human, inherently sinful; and rather than behaving with compassion and respect toward her first born daughter, she commits as many sins as my wife, save for her sexuality.

What I know of people, what I’ve learned from wearing my own masks and performing astonishingly brilliant illusions, is that no one is above criticism. Everyone is capable, creative, and imaginative enough to conceive of a false version of themselves out of fear and an inability to resist the temptations of a counterfeit harmony residing within the bounds of conformity.

My wife’s mother is no different from all other characters. Though I may know more about theology, especially the Catholic canon and the Bible, than my wife’s mother’s Christian persona purports to know, who am I to disrupt the sanctity of her relationship with God? I can, however, support the better parts of the Bible, and tell her that her judgments will not save her. Her bigotry is her kryptonite. Her egotism is the forbidden fruit of the creation story. If she believes in resisting sinful temptation, but still wants a relationship with her lesbian daughter, then she could try reviewing the temptations that she allows herself the pleasure of entertaining, like her gambling habits, her judgments of others, and the lies that she tells people in order to conceal her daughter’s sexual orientation.

Tough Girl effuses my dignity, inspires my courage, believes in the goodness of the Bible, the compassion, the generosity, the flagrant sense of oneness emanating from the New Testament stories of Jesus. Tough Girl befriends the least of his people, forgives them their trespasses, accepts all versions, the lowly to the righteous, because God loves all of his people, and so do I. But I will not allow a person to freely personify the merciless, inflexible, and obstinate Pontius Pilate. Tough Girl will always show fierce objection and protestation toward any corruption, injustice, inequality, the carefully crafted genocide of any living order. She’s the only version of myself that I am incapable of completely concealing, though I’d rather you not know that I struggle with the thought that she haunts my life, like my mother.

Tough Girl liberated me from silent oppression, but her fierceness aligns with my mother’s madness, as if my mother struggled to release herself from her own cocoon, yet her Tough Girl revealed a truth of her that wasn’t so forgiving of the trials and traumas of her life. Instead, her version of Tough Girl created a cave of forever blackness, a place where she cannot know the light, though she desperately concocts insane versions of her own, errantly wreaking havoc in opposition to love.

I was told by a family member that my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia just before I was born. I disregarded this claim because I was preoccupied with my stories; I didn’t want anyone to know who I was in relationship to her, in any way. If you want to know me, and not her, if you want to know the love and not the fear, me outside of my pod, my Tough Girl and all of my underlings who have mitigated the awkwardness of being who I really am, in order to truly understand where I come from, you’d have to pick up the other end of the line connected to the antique candlestick telephone. Scratch the surface of my shell, if you dare. Visit me in the middle of my grandpa’s back field, the only other place, besides my diaries, where I have ever felt completely free.

You’d find me and my round cheeks, my floating arms against the backdrop of green, and grandpa riding his mower in circles. You’d feel the spin of my ballerina body, muscular and light, dancing pirouettes in the center of his lawn. You’d want to touch the thin, slow streams of sweat like dew on the supple curves of a tulip’s petal collecting on the nape of my neck. You’d stare with me at Grandpa as he makes the tricky turn near the walnut tree, his eyes turned downward, careful not to get his tire stuck in between the roots like rumples protruding from underneath bed sheets. Do you want to join me in wondering about how his lawn mowing habits seem more like spiritual rituals, Native American ceremonies in worship and praise of the grass he chops and spews through the shoot?

If you want to know who I really am, you’ll pick up walnuts with me, the ones still in the hard, green covering, like earth’s original golf balls. You will peel away at the casings when they start to become soft and brown, and stare at them for hours trying to understand what they are, why they are in your hands, staining your fingertips, interrupting Grandpa’s steady mowing ceremonies. You’ll break one open, notice how it smells like rotten wood when you get up close, press it to your nose, lick it with the tip of your tongue. It is rotten, you think, but it is good for the squirrels that watch you laying in the middle of the field with your jeans rolled to your boney knees and your hands holding the ball of green directly between you and the sun. Like E.T., when you put the walnut directly between your eyes and the sun you’ll feel an ethereal connection, the shimmer and glow of light bouncing off your fingertips straight back toward God.

With me, you will think you hear God talking to you through the sun’s energy transference while you lay on your back, moving the ball of green in swirling motions. And you’ll stare at the tall grass wondering if it goes on forever, taller and crisper where lawn mowers can’t reach them, wild and free.

The ants will begin to nibble and cross the tips of your toes carrying their dead back home. They’ll use the calloused ball of your foot as a bending bridge, and you’ll give them the time it takes to traverse your bare belly, though their pin sized clawed feet tickle your smooth abdomen. We’ll offer them clearance to climb the silk blond hairs of our calves, and search for food inside the creases of our belly buttons. They will use their mandibles for digging, investigating your own emerald green ball of walnut wonder, though they already know what’s inside.

You will slide inside a cool casing of your own, looking at mine for inspiration. Together, we will pray for someone to sink their teeth into the crusts, gnaw and scratch, find out who we really are, sniff out the goodness in us, love our slick black oil gliding down our arms to greet the ants. Rolling across the middle of the ant mound, you’ll begin to let the world inside. And you’ll wish the ants well as they dig back out from the cold earth. You’ll tell them how amazed you are to know that the tiniest creatures carry 100 times their own weight, and live inside the greatest casing of all.

You and I will throw our walnuts to the squirrels living in the Alders, Birches, and Oak trees lining the end of the yard. We’ll stand up, spin around in a dozen circles with our arms held lightly at our sides. Feel the swirl. Breathe in the moment of peaceful summer air and fresh cut grass. Hear the humming and chuffing of the motor moving around you.

Get up! Run across old man Dexter’s vegetable garden. Crush a tomato or two. Let the clear juices splash and sink inside the white canvas of your shoes. Run! Let your long sandy blond hair ride with the wind behind you. Stir up some noise, cacophony for the robins. Tell them to nest in your grandfather’s awning even though he hates it. Tell them to watch you flying, diving, twirling like they do. Let them in with the ants and the grass and the golden sun.Run to where Wes’s dog cowers inside his makeshift dog house!

When you get to the dog, lay in the dirt. Breathe in the stench of feces and piss. This is what loneliness smells like. Rest your head in a tuft of grass. Lay your wrist between you and him. Ask him what he knows about God. Let him tell you what he knows about bearing more than his fair share of weight. Rip his chain from the wooden walls of his den. Kick the walls in. Scream out: “God, please help me!”

Pick him up. Let him in. Rush back home and hide inside the dusty, mildewy attic of the garage. Stay there until the whole neighborhood goes searching for you, and when your grandma finds you laying across the hole in the floor, the Cocker Spaniel curled in-between your chest and folded arms, she’ll stare in silence, in wonder of what to do. She will know that it takes courage to break out of your shell. It takes courage to be you, do what everyone else is afraid to do. She will know you are special. God’s messages to you are all true. She’ll pick up the receiver and say: “Take your coat off, baby girl. Let grandma love you like you need to be loved. I’ve got a fast car and you’ve got a ticket to anywhere.”

It really is the only way that you can know me, unless you know how Tough Girl rescued me from my mother by choosing to be locked inside the detention center at the age of thirteen. Unless you know that I really didn’t have a choice, though the Sherriff told that me I did. Unless you know that I spent a week in Clark County Juvenile Detention Center because the Sherriff was afraid that my mother meant to kill me, and if she hadn’t been capable enough, I would’ve killed her instead. Because I was despondent, mostly unresponsive, rocking back and forth and mumbling to myself on the blue sofa in the living room, while my mother screamed profanities at me and the patrolmen, and they couldn’t convince her to let me stay away from the home for a while, I told them to cuff me, do whatever they had to do. Because showering in front of strangers and wearing orange jumpsuits, sleeping next to a steel toilet, staring at the courthouse clock with my shoplifting cellmate until it was time for recreation, and meeting a girl who told me that she tried to kill both her sister and mother by setting the house on fire was better than being locked inside the fear and pain that provided the overarching narrative of my childhood. And because if I hadn’t, I would’ve disappeared inside the center of a walnut and been eaten by the squirrels.

Stay tuned for Part 4

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

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