09 July 2010

Why "Captain Blackbeard Did What?"

I know it’s a rather odd title, so here is my explanation, as best I can put it…

There’s a chickenish stubble, and fish belly skin
On that face, once so blazin’ and brave.
Now no one is fearing his look or his lash
Or his threats of a watery grave.
Since ol’ Captain Blackbeard shaved.

    I was raised in bookstores. Not the loud, corporate, superstores of today, but the small, local, muted versions that were scattered around the towns of America a few decades ago.  When I was three, my dad would bring me to an old used book store in Seal Beach, right on Main Street, with rows and rows of used books stacked to the ceiling. The owner kept the children’s books in a small room in the back that had one of those plastic children’s slides to entertain the kids.  I found stacks and stacks of books to thumb through and never once took a ride on that slide.  The smell of a used book, to this day, immediately brings me back to that place.
    When my first bookstore closed down we migrated to another, Dodd’s Book Store in Long Beach.  This one had a well defined kids section in the very back bounded by one solitary shelf.  When I was a bit older my dad would drop me off in the back while he perused the rest of the store.  It was here that I first met Shel.  In the midst of the cacophony of color of the children’s books was a white book, plain and simple, with a great hand drawn picture of a boy with a house for a head. It was goofy enough for me to pick it up and begin to read. The first page spoke to me in a way I understood, a way that I valued, a way that I had never been spoken to before.  I read the next page and then the one after until I had devoured the whole book in one sitting. When I finished, I turned it back to the front cover and ran my hand over the drawing.  I had for the first time met someone who had a mind like mine, one that appreciated the bizarre and one that enjoyed twisting reality until it no longer resembled anything I had seen before, but, was still so familiar.  One who found humor in simple things and one who piqued my imagination.  I had found the first of a small group of people I could call kindred spirits. And in this I found comfort. I no longer was a weird freak who thought about things that weren’t taught in school and who would spend hours lying on my back staring at the clouds and considering the strangely impossible.  For the first time in my young life, I had someone to ponder with, someone to bring up new questions, and someone to laugh with at the tiny peculiarities of life.
    When Dodd’s went the way of all small bookstores of that era, we moved further south on Second Street to a bookstore that had the most wonderful find ever, one that, I can see now, forever shaped the direction of my life.  One day as my dad and I were taking our usual walks down the street, he stopped just as we had walked past the store and said quietly, “Erin, there’s something I want to show you. Let’s go in here.”  We walked quietly down the aisle until he stopped, pulled a book off the shelf, and slowly turned a few pages in.  He ran his finger down the page as if he was looking for something in particular.  He found it. There about two-thirds of the way down the page it said Basketball Bribery Scandals, 1947-1951 by William Roberts.  My jaw dropped. That was my dad’s name next to an actual published book.  A book so published that it was written down inside another book that had been published. In that moment a whole new world had opened for me.  A world where a normal, everyday person could write something about what they were interested in and what had meaning for them and it could be published and people they had never met could read it and have it shape the way they thought and perceived the world.  His thoughts were out there.  He was part of the discourse.  In that moment, I knew that it was possible for me to join in the discussion, too.  I just needed to find what it was that interested me and what would hold that meaning for me.
    In these bookstores, over the years, I thrived. Their rules were ones I loved. They required quiet voices and eager minds, both of which I was cursed with.  I grew up a hushed girl, not ever saying too much, not once mentioning to another how I felt.  I would quite often tell anyone who would listen what I thought or how I figured, but, to let it slip how I felt, was not a mistake I would make.  I found out when I was a bit older that ‘slow to speak’ was a curse rather than a blessing, but, it was one that could be broken when I was left to myself with a good deal of time after any particular incident to think and let my emotions cool.  When I was left alone to write, what was so hard for me to find words for to speak, became easy to dispense with if I could write it out.  I felt like Rousseau when he said:
    "Two things, very opposite, unite in me, and in a manner which I cannot myself conceive.  My disposition is extremely ardent, my passions lively and impetuous, yet my ideas are produced slowly, with great embarrassment and after much afterthought.  It might be said my heart and understanding do not belong to the same individual. A sentiment takes possession of my soul with the rapidity of lightning, but instead of illuminating, it dazzles and confounds me; I feel all, but see nothing; I am warm, but stupid; to think I must be cool. What is astonishing, my conception is clear and penetrating, if not hurried; I can make excellent impromptus at leisure, but on the instant, could never say or do anything worth notice.”

         Over the years, my quiet ways began to be read by others as hardness, as a callous shell. I was someone who never let people in. It was my poker face, ‘once so blazin’ and brave.’ And then one day, just like Silverstein’s version of Captain Blackbeard, I did something completely out of character; I got the wild idea to start writing about my life as a diabetic.  To take all the thoughts that had been so jumbled and pushed down for so long and begin to make sense of them and to let them out in a way that might contribute to the discussion.  The experiences that are universal to people who are dealing with Diabetes, to people who are dealing with any sort of chronic diseases, and, more universally, people who deal with adversity of any kind became interesting to me and became the thing that held meaning for me.
           And so I wrote. And as I wrote I could see the hard exterior begin to fall.  And people were no longer afraid of me.  Just like “no one is fearing his look or his lash, Or his threats of a watery grave,” I could no longer keep people at bay with my stoicism and I no longer wanted to.
    Still in person I am naturally shy, but in writing I have found my voice.  I have found a voice for all that I have learned through diabetes, to share with those just starting out on this journey. A voice to speak all that has built up inside my mind over the past thirteen years.  A voice to speak of the friendships that last a lifetime and shape who you are and how you live.  And now that I have found a voice for all that’s been running around in my head, my mind is finally free enough to take on new challenges, to actively pursue those pipe dreams that have been my escape when I wasn’t able to speak; to sail off into the sunset.