Elizabeth Bachner: Bedtime Stories, Halloween

 

I am scared to write about how rough things are, because maybe then that will mean it’s true. I’m scared to write truthfully, because now I have a daughter and my stories could hurt her. The things that made me myself, that made me happy—my practice of honesty, my hope—are imperiled now.

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MY DAUGHTER’S FAVORITE HOLIDAY IS HALLOWEEN. FOR THE YEAR SHE WAS THREE, SHE ONLY LIKED “SCARY BOOKS,” AND NOW THAT’S SHE’S FOUR SHE MAKES HER OWN “SPOOKY BOOKS”—BOOKS ABOUT MONSTERS AND WITCHES AND ZOMBIES AND GHOULS.

Her books are filled with squiggly lines meant to look like writing, and with pictures, and with stickers, and now sometimes she makes other kinds of books too—animal books, a Halloween map book, a journal, a cookbook with a lemon on the cover. When she says the word “spooky,” it sounds like “fruity.” At night we talk about how the shadows aren’t ghosts, they’re just shadows, but my daughter needs a light on and, truthfully, our house is spooky. I’ve frozen up as I walk over to show her that her bedroom is safe. There have been almost one-hundred years of tenants, here down the street from the graveyard. My daughter often says, “I’m not afraid of anything, I’m fearless.” But actually she’s a person with intense fears, and the high-pitched nighttime screams to go with them.

There’s a teaching from the mystical Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to have no fear at all.”

I’m scared of heights. If I have to cross a narrow bridge, it needs to have high guardrails. If it doesn’t have guardrails, I can’t do it. I hunch at the beginning trying to stay as far as I can from the edge. If I’m hiking, I have to turn back, not finish, never see the summit.

I love reading my daughter’s homemade books, the ones that don’t have recognizable words in any language. They aren’t in her own, invented language, either, the way some of my homemade books were when I was small. The meaning of each squiggly line is fluid, it changes every time we cuddle up in bed and read. It’s reassuring, because after years of writing, I understand that telling stories conjures things. It brings things into being that weren’t there before. When it’s nonfiction, it fixes truths or imagined truths into place so that they turn into history and can’t be changed or moved again. If you want to change them or to move them, you have to write a different book.

My life has felt like a nightmare since I became a single mother, not in the sense that it’s so bad—I love part of it, the “having a daughter” part—but because of the ways it’s confusing and shocking.

There’s that sense of being completely alone, and realizing—even though the hassle level is nonsensical, too-large teeth tumbling nonstop out of your mouth, sudden public nakedness, a mess that keeps growing and can’t be cleaned up, tsunamis engulfing the beach, graduation ceremonies you can’t attend because you missed an exam that no one told you about, false moments where you dream you’ve woken up, caving ceilings—that no one is going to help. There’s the impossibility of figuring out jobs and job interviews and childcare, the wrongness of labyrinthine custody laws and health insurance problems. There’s the haunting revelation that the whole society is set up as if no one has ever done this before, been a mother I mean, let alone a single mother, even though 100% of humans on the planet are here because some woman was their mother.

There’s the dreamy (not nightmarish, but otherworldly) surreal surprise of having my unexpected daughter. The fear that I won’t be allowed to take such a creature with me back into waking life, if I ever wake up.

My life was easy before I had her. I haven’t figured out yet how to do this with her by my side: to have a day stretched ahead of us that makes us happy. To know we can afford what we need. To feel safe, even knowing that human life can’t always be safe.

This morning, every morning, I tried to step up and get into the moment and be the mother I needed to be. I got us dressed (her writhing body, freaking out because of some issue with the sleeve of her sweater, my tired body), I fed one of us yogurt with honey and apples, I got us to the preschool without a hassle (even though she weighs less than forty pounds, she’s so wiry and strong and strong-willed that I can’t physically wrangle her). She’s been so happy in class this year—wonderful teacher, wonderful friends–but today, she got upset when it was time for me to go, and finally I left her there crying. It’s supposed to be better to do that, better for the preschooler, I mean. She’d wanted to stay home all day and play ponies. I remember hundreds of days in my childhood, stretched out one after the other, where I wanted to stay home with my mom and play and instead, I had to go somewhere I didn’t want to go.  Then finally I was an adult and I didn’t have to live like that anymore.

I haven’t been the mother I wanted or needed to be. I’ve been depleted, unstable, and full of rage. Here’s a nightmare, more confounding than frightening: one of the last things I ever would have wanted for a child was to have her parents split up when she was two, like my parents did. Another of the last things would have been to have her raised by a struggling, overtaxed, low-income mother. But somehow, even though I was a grown-up, powerful, vibrant, trying-to-be-conscientious person, full of excitement and hope, here I am, here we are, here it is.

After my daughter falls asleep beside me, I sneak downstairs and reread Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs and Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, books that explain how oppression feeds on itself, how it thrives and self-replicates. I read Monique Morris’s important Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which looks at the layers of ways (from subtle and insidious to blatant and obvious) prejudice and injustice can poison, dehumanize and victimize bright, lively, innocent people.

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I reread Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and think about how Shulie died alone after years of being institutionalized, the subject of her beautiful final book Airless Spaces. She never had a daughter. I talk with friends about how we do and don’t relive our ancestors’ bad patterns, how we repeat scary scenarios and get trapped. Monique Morris writes about legal scholar Kimberlé Krenshaw’s argument that “there is no hierarchy of oppressions. Each identity intersects with the other to generate a more complex worldview than the one that would exist if any of us were ever truly able to walk through life with a singular identity. Oppressed identities further complicate this experience.

The assertion—that no single form of oppression is more important than any other—is key to understanding and combating the harmful and dehumanizing experiences faced by all manner of human beings…”

It’s so wonderful to read by myself. I want to read and read and read and then I want to sleep, to sleep until I wake up naturally, and then to sleep again for ten nights or thirty nights or the rest of the nights of my life. I want to wake up rested, with a day ahead that’s full of happy possibilities, and wander out to a coffee shop and drink the delicious coffee. But I only have a few hours left for sleep or job applications.

I look into becoming a medical writer. An article from last year on MediaBistro says: “According to an American Medical Writers Association survey, the mean salary for a woman with a bachelor’s degree in the field working full-time was $73,522, while men earned $90,640.Having a master’s gets you even more dough, according to the survey: Women with those degrees earned $77,339, and men got $86,240. Advanced degrees such as a PharmD are the big payouts: females with advanced degrees got $91,797, and men earned $101,872.”

It’s wrong to think of myself as oppressed, with my blue eyes and long years of education and not-too-leaky rental roof and my organic noodle supper, my (former?) knack for landing well, my healthy body and my beautiful, healthy child. Except that it isn’t. Except that it’s all relative, and there are so many people who have it worse.

When I was my daughter’s age, my mom asked me, “Why do you expect life to be fair?” I have tried not to ask my daughter that question.

I am scared to write about how rough things are, because maybe then that will mean it’s true. I’m scared to write truthfully, because now I have a daughter and my stories could hurt her. The things that made me myself, that made me happy—my practice of honesty, my hope—are imperiled now.

51lb9TkcqEL._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_We’re counting down to Halloween. My daughter has found the holiday section of the library, and we have a big pile of scary books on my bedroom floor. Her favorite is A Big, Spooky House by Donna Washington, illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers.

In the story, a big strong man who isn’t afraid of anything goes around picking fights with people, “just because he knew he would win. He never walked away from trouble, because he figured he could always battle his way out of it.” The big, strong man goes off to join the army. A neighbor offers him a ride in a cart, but he says, “I’ll walk.” He passes an inn, and the innkeeper tells him it’s going to rain that night and offers him a dry place to stay, but he says, “I don’t care if I get wet.” When it’s pouring rain late at night, he lets himself into a spooky, haunted house. “Most people would have stayed away, but not him.” He finds a delicious hot meal in there, and eats it. He settles in by the fire.

A black cat appears. It has blazing red eyes and its fur is matted and dirty. It jumps into the middle of the fire, picks up a burning coal, and starts to lick it. It looks straight at the man and says in a slow, screechy voice, “Are you gonna be here when John gets here?”

The big, strong man stays for another hour, and then another cat shows up. This one is the size of a Doberman pinscher. It has a slow, snarly voice and eats a burning log. He says,  ”Are you gonna be here when John gets here?” The big, strong man keeps pretending he isn’t afraid. In another hour, a door opens and in walks another cat, this one the size of a large pony. The illustrations are terrifying. The pony-sized cat eats both of the other two cats, licks the fireplace clean, looks at the man with its glowing red eyes and needle-sharp teeth and says in a slow, deep, gravelly voice: “Are you gonna be here when John gets here?”

The big, strong man finally gets it. He finally admits he’s afraid. He races out of there. And then the story ends–we never know exactly what happens to the big, strong man, and (to my daughter’s endless disappointment) we never really come face to face with John.

The best thing about nightmares is the relief. That moment of waking up, understanding that the bad dark thing that took over your life is gone, that it disappeared into some other world, not yours. But if it’s not really a nightmare, if it’s just life, if it’s just some fixed, final ending to the story, then there won’t be any relief.

Right now there’s a narrow bridge ahead of me, no guardrails. What’s at the end?

Another good thing about nightmares, about scary stories too, is that sometimes all that darkness and horror is exciting, sometimes there’s a flip side to it—it lets us see the secrets creeping underneath the surface of waking life. It exposes truths. It can increase the depth and range of our understanding, if we let it. And even though that isn’t happening yet, even though what’s growing is my confusion, my fright, I still think it will. I still think I’ll find some great meaning from ending up here, some important reason for all of it, something that will change shape in the daylight when I wake up, something I can teach my fearless daughter that will bring her freedom.

 

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Elizabeth Bachner is a writer and sociologist whose essay, Gravity, was a Hip Mama contest winner. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in the Wreckage of Reason anthologies, and her work has been cited and praised in The New York Times MagazineThe Paris Review Daily, The Millions, and The Rumpus. She lives in New Jersey with her four-year-old daughter.

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