Thursday, October 15, 2015

My Tree Book Chapter 8 - My Hiding Place - In Which I Learn How To Have Secrets

Here my tree stories start to get a little spicy - just skip by them if you can't relate. I've decided to just be me cause I find that sharing brings a lot of comfort to a lot of people, surprising - but that's what I'm all about.

As I navigated my middle school years, I hit some bumps along the way like everyone, and one of them was when I decided, in my infinite adolescent wisdom, that it could be useful to start smoking. Because I’d lived overseas with my family for a large part of the first ten years of my life, I’d missed the chance to form enduring friendships in childhood, and by the time I landed back in America at the age of 11, most of the kids in town I should have been cultivating had developed elite cliques which were very hard to break into. New Jersey, close to beautiful New York, was not an easy place to grow up.

The area in which we lived was composed of various neighborhoods that reflected their inhabitants. There were pretty strong boundaries in those days. There were the "rich kids," the Italians, the Blacks, and the rural people. I didn't know better than to love them all, since I had travelled and experienced many cultures - I didn't have any understanding of the boundaries that I found myself surrounded by in middle school. And I didn't have allies either.

After being pushed down the stairs at school a few times by one of the racial groups, shoved around the hallways by others, I realized I needed to gain allies as fast as I could. I was a lamb among wolves. "Kids" can be very, very mean, and somewhat dangerous at that age, between 13 and about 16 years old.

I once went with an Italian (boy) friend to a bowling alley to play, but found I had crossed unacceptable boundaries in building a friendship with him, and when we went out to the parking lot to head home, we were stopped by several dark haired, dark skinned, gum smacking Italian females. There is nothing so impenetrable as a group of females who can trace their ancestry. I was a mutt, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, the hated WASP.

After surrounding us, one of the girls got into my face and was bullying and teasing, and she made the mistake of touching me. She picked up my wrist, upon which rested my watch, and said something about me needing to be home on time, and after all the admonishments of my parents to "turn the other cheek," I saw red. So I shoved her hand away and told her not to touch me - she got even handier, and I fought back. Wow I learned a lot about myself. I'd been taught NEVER to fight. ("Ladies don't fight, and you're a LADY," said my very Southern mother.) But I'd had it with the bullying and fear, so after this lovely little fluff started getting truly violent, I bit her and drew blood. I grabbed a handful of hair and removed it from her head. And I kicked her very hard in her shins. She retreated.

I was shaking all over and angry as hell and my (boy) friend had stepped back during this whole episode, not helpful at all. I think he might have whistled, as they do at boxing matches. After she and her friends retreated, he drove me home and quit flirting with me forever. And the girls NEVER bothered me again at school. So much for turning the other cheek. I learned that sometimes you need to speak the language that other people understand. And class isn't relegated to "race," it's all about behavior. I didn't start it but I sure as heck finished it.

I was very grateful to learn that inside myself was something strong and protective. Don't mess with me. Just don't. Many a story has been told of the father who beats his son getting his comeuppance once the son grows stronger than he is, well this is my Warrior Princess chapter. It was wicked, but I survived.

After a couple of years of little success at friendship building (finding allies), I discovered that cigarettes could bring immediate recognition between the smokers in middle school and myself - a shared, forbidden pleasure, a bond. A group of us would stand in-between the trees by the stone wall of the church next door to our school and puff our way into the mornings before classes started. The cemetery across the street made no impression on us then. We'd also meet in the restrooms during the school day, gossiping and whipping our cigarettes back and forth in the stalls so the smoke didn't have a chance to rise. We had a code word for when a teacher came in so we'd all know to flush them in order to avoid getting caught. At the time, it seemed a good and very necessary "club" to belong to.

So at this tender age of 13, I started tapping my parents’ stash for cigarettes to practice with, which were always in ample supply. With a fresh pack of Mom's Virginia Slims in hand, (You've come a long way, baby!) I would sneak out of the house in the afternoons and over to the park, heading away from the houses down towards the end where a puffy little white pine tree grew.

I’d duck under its branches and sit with a sweet, cold bottle of apple juice in the open space underneath, where the ground was covered with thick layers of thin red pine needles, scattered with pine cones, soft, fragrant, and glowing in the dappled sunshine. I’d light up and puff away to practice smoking.

Eventually I started buying my own - my favorite was Marlboro back in those days – the red and white box with a pack of matches tucked under its lid would last me a couple of weeks. Nobody paid any attention to age regulations. Cigarettes were available everywhere and the shopkeepers would sell to practically anyone, child or grownup.

I can’t imagine what the neighbors might have thought if they had looked out and seen little clouds of smoke wafting out from under the puffy little pine tree. They never bothered me; I got my cool on without interference: me, my apple juice, and my Marlboros, and developed a kinship of sorts with all the other young smokers. I survived middle school and learned to cultivate allies. Sometimes you don't have much choice in the selection of allies, but smokers have been, to me, for years, so very wonderful. Rock on. And don't be too quick to try to correct what you perceive as a failure, or a death wish, or an addiction, or a "problem." When you learn the backstory it might help you to take a look at your own glass house. Ah yes, my sweet little puffy pine....

And by the way, one of the countries I lived in while travelling with my family was beautiful Italy. We lived in Bari, which is very close to Rome. We had a very loving Italian housekeeper who saved the little plastic dwarfs out of the laundry soap boxes for my sister and me, and she cooked and cleaned and hugged and her eyes twinkled and sparkled. The air smelled like grape lollipops from all the pine trees, and the light was golden all the time. We visited some of the greatest museums on earth and I developed a love of all things Italian, including the beautiful, loud, ever touching, celebratory people, which endures. My classmates were not this.

Isn't it interesting that the one thing you choose to help you survive challenges at one point in your life can turn out to be the thing that can kill you at another point? If we're smart we learn to let go of things that no longer serve us. Still working on that.

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