Speaking of transitions, there's another more subtle one that happens to me sometimes when I smell something, which seems to physically transport me back to another place and time. Proust had his madeleine, but for me it's not taste, it's smell. Today after yoga class, I walked into a 24-hour store (shop) that advertises Halal meat and is run by Indians on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, and the smell was precisely the same as a store I used to go to when staying at a cottage on Peaks Island, Maine.
I went to that store many times throughout my childhood and teens, and it signified to me some kind of safety and continuity in an otherwise fairly scattered life. So, when I smelled that smell, which has something to do with the weather, slightly humid, the aisles being just so and there being the right mixture of bread and meat and I don't know what else, because honestly I've never smelled this smell anywhere else in London or even until this day in this shop, I felt unaccountably happy and safe. There was no one visible at first in the store so it was an odd sensation, like I had stumbled back in time to a store on an island in Maine. When I did see the younger woman and older man who worked there, they seemed almost like angels to me. It was like being in Dr. Who's Tardis or something. I was also coming from yoga, which means I was breathing properly and able to see instead of just being in my head worrying about what I was about to do next or where I was to go. Though, having said that, I did walk back and forth in indecision about whether to walk towards home or not, probably flipping coins to help me make the decision (something I do way more than I'd like to admit)...and then was very glad I had walked the way I did and had that experience.
The cottage in Maine, which sadly has since been sold, had been owned by my third father along with his half-brother and sister, and has a kind of talismanic significance in my life. I saw it first when I was about 3 years old and my second father was the supply pastor (i.e., minister temp) at the Methodist Church in Peaks Island. He was invited to cocktail parties there by David's (third father...not yet of course) mother, Betty (I think her name was) and apparently I was there too. This cottage was built right on the rocks (in a place that is no longer legal to build) and looked out onto Long Island (Maine), a small island called Pumpkin Nob (for obvious visual reasons) and then the Atlantic Ocean...which if you kept going would hit Spain. It had come into the family via David's great aunts (about whom he wrote an excellent play and screenplay: The Whales of August - which stars Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and Vincent Price...definitely worth a viewing if you haven't seen it already), one of whom was alive thanks to the fact she missed the Titanic. And if that isn't a tale of 'you don't know what's good or bad in the moment' I don't know what is. Imagine her distress and aggravation at having literally missed the boat, and the curses she must have rained down on herself, etc. and then, what, when she heard the news that the ship sank? Survivor's guilt, amazement, relief? All of the above?
The cottage had a sun porch where I slept as a child (and about which I have written many times, though not in any published form...but that is true of so many of these memories...), and as the windows were large plate glass, I could stare up at the stars of which there seemed millions, see the light of the moon refracted on the water, look at the lights across Casco bay in the houses of Long Island (only a few then, but many more now...) and wonder what was happening in them, count shooting stars, which now I think may have been satellites...and listen to the waves crash against the rocks or lap up against them depending on the tide and the winds. The only time I had nightmares there was after the psychopathic babysitter experience, and I remember David's sister Barb appearing to comfort me. Mostly, I just felt safe.
One week I spent up there alone, age 19, and went through some pretty serious fear about axe murderers and such the first night alone, which was silly, but I did. However, I sat through it (no phones then, by the way or internet access, etc.) while for some Godforsaken reason was reading Being and Nothingness... but the next day I remember this extraordinary sense of freedom and I decided to walk into the woods naked and run around, but my idle amidst the pine needles and moss was cut short by the sound of a vehicle coming down the dirt road and the dawning realization that there were workmen about to start building a new house within sight of the cottage. So I crouched in the woods, no longer feeling free but instead feeling stupid and vulnerable and, well, naked. At some point, I decided the coast was clear and made a dash for the cottage. I don't know whether the work men saw me or not.
I don't remember what else I did that week, except for some vague memory of David's half-brother Rick and his wife Cathy taking me to see ET at one point, I think it was my birthday. But what I do remember quite vividly is on the last night crying my eyes out on the porch - the open porch, breathing in the sea air and feeling it would all go away. I was aware at the time of environmental concerns so this was how it manifest, a sense that even this beautiful place would be taken away. What I could not have known then is that that would be my last night ever at the cottage, but somehow I must have known. This goes back to the weird time travel thing. I really believe we somehow know more than we know, and time is not linear. I have no way of proving that and can't even comprehend what it means, but it has been my experience more than once...
Do I tell you about this now I wonder? Should I tell you about the time - this time I'm 24 or 25 and I'm standing at a bus stop and suddenly I was shot out of the universe, like the last scene in 2001, a space odyssey - all the stars whizzing past me and then I was outside of it all for a moment and then just as quickly I was back...standing, as I had been the whole time, at the bus stop, in San Francisco, seeing a mother yelling at her son and knowing that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be, even that disturbing scene - though in my head I was arguing the point. That scene too is described in Word To Your Mama (I'll start a publications list soon in case you're interested in any of my published stuff...). It comes up now again because it saved my life. From that moment on I didn't have to drink myself to death or battle the compulsion to do so. There was no Jesus or anyone else in particular, but it was real and changed me forever. I then proceeded to forget this had happened and act as if other people could save me, one in particular, and that was a bad plan, as anyone who has tried that particular dance move knows only too well...
But back to the experience in Maine. The next day, I had to leave the island, and one of the first places I went before getting on the ferry was the store with the smell that started off this post and that store and all the people in it seemed very strange to me. I had found something of myself that week in the cottage (which was normally cut off from everyone, aside from the strange workmen incursion) and had no idea how to integrate it with other people. I've always kind of associated that experience with the Zarathustra moment of coming off the mountain and wondering what the fuck? Who are these people? Except I was only 19 and certainly had no systematic philosophy to back me up, though I had just read Nietzsche at university along with dropping a lot of acid so of course thought I knew everything, but I don't that counts as 'enlightenment'...I think we can easily file this under 'typical.'
So what does this have to do with transition? I don't know. Perhaps something about experiences that have moved me from one place to another and places that have continuity and even those being taken away. True embarrassing tale: I watched the Royal Wedding. The fact I did that truly shocked me as I studiously avoided the whole spectacle and then when the day arrived, I thought, oh OK, I'll just see a little bit of it and then I could not tear myself away...for the preparations, the wedding, the carriage ride, the fly over, the balcony kiss, the Whole Thing. What struck me, aside from being aghast at myself that I was watching it at all but somehow physically unable to move, was the continuity of the monarchy here. Now, I am no monarchist, I'm an American for Christsakes and a left-wing fruitcake at that...but Still, as the BBC breathlessly intoned that monarchs had had their coronations at Westminster abbey since 1060, and Kate's walking down the aisle and everything is gold and red and kind of beautiful, I thought Wow. Wow. It's been here for So Long. And I got it, the emotional attachment to the monarchy, for the first time. Here they were doing this all-too-human thing of getting married in public in this place and it's like we're all invited and one big family celebrating this down to earth event together. Of course it's a massive illusion, but somehow it doesn't matter. I don't know what on earth to make of this response of mine, it goes against everything I think that I think, but I'm committed these days to being honest with myself even if it is embarrassing, and in my case it usually is.
I spent my whole time on scholarship at fancy schools (from age 13 through university) feeling like the awkward emotionally sappy somehow never cool enough one...and before that at public (state) schools feeling like the odd one out because I was considered a 'brain', always had the wrong clothes (moved a lot) and was crap at sports, etc. Plus the stringy hair thing, not a good look. And so here I am now for god knows what reason putting all this out here in public. I've written about all this stuff over and over again for myself, pages and pages of it, drafts upon drafts from age 19 to now (47) and it's never seen the light of day and now, now I'm babbling all over a blog. I guess it's a way to let out the awkward, weird kid and stop hiding. Or stop trying to fit in or whatever...
Which reminds me that today when I was thinking of the 1970s, I thought about poor Amy Carter. Now those of you who aren't old enough, you won't remember this, and if you're British you probably won't either, but Amy Carter was the pre-teen daughter of President Jimmy Carter (1976-80). Now those of us who were around her age and looked about as awkward as she did, we all cringed for her. She had stringy blonde hair too, and was placed in a public (state) school in Washington, D.C. to make a political point for her father (she was not to have a privileged schooling) and so was at an inner city school with Secret Service agents surrounding her, immortalized as satire by Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray as Secret Service and her played by Lorraine Newman in the then-new cult hit Saturday Night Live, a live comedy sketch show (for your British and other folks who don't know it). So, this poor girl not only was as awkward as me, but she had to be so In Public. And so I just want to say, this blog post is in honor of Amy Carter wherever she is now: hero child, a fellow no-good-on-camera, not-ready-for-celebrity human being who somehow survived it. I hope she did anyway, I think she has...will check that...
But that was the era in the 1970s, a lot of kids being sacrificed for political points, no one knowing what these experiments would bring about and the sense I had, and I know a lot of other kids did then, too, of wow, what do we do? Where do we go? Is there any there there? Maybe this was just a small minority experience, I don't know, perhaps like finds like, and my friends, like me were all the weird purple-headed pointy kids (metaphorically mind you...) and we somehow sent telegraphic signals to each other. That could be. I heard David Foster Wallace on an interview talking about his generation (and he was only 2 years older than me before he tragically hung himself) being given everything in terms of material things and support, etc. and wondering what next, and when I was listening to him, I thought: huh? Really? Where was that? But probably that was the experience of the many kids I went to school with who were not scholarship kids and did fit in to these fancy schools, etc. But then again, I'm still alive and DFW is not. So not sure who got the better end of that bargain.
I do remember even at the time in boarding school seeing a lot of the rich kids wandering around in a kind of haze it seemed to me, sort of rootless and purposeless. They usually said things to me like "chill out, man." Because, for their tastes, I worked far too hard and cared Way too much, which meant that I looked like I worked too hard. The idea was to do very well without working or perhaps working but appearing not to work and definitely not to care. I was so not cool enough to figure that out. Plus I knew I had to keep a scholarship that was keeping at me at a school, which was far safer than where I would have had to live otherwise, as this was a time of a severe downward spiral for my mother and it was not pretty. She would be the first to admit that, by the way, as I am glad to say she turned that all around later on down the line.
At the time I was a workaholic, straight A, drama geek basically. I knew I wanted to understand the pale skinned boys who wore black and loped as they walked and listened to records from such exotic locations as CBGB's, but I did not get it. I stood there in my immaculately put together little outfits wide-eyed and dumb as a board when it came to the social scene. E.g., One term I spent Saturday nights in my room drawing copies of Michelangelo sketches while listening to classical music. I would crank Debussey to try to drown out the seemingly never-ending loop of Neil Young's 'Our house is a very very very fine house' that my next door neighbors were playing. I also wrote sonnets that were rejected by the very cool literary magazine, run by the same students who wore black, look depressed, etc. It took me until the end of my time there to begin to almost crack the code, but I never really did. I just cracked it enough that people not from there might think I was but not enough to not be sniffed out by one of the natives.
So, all hail Amy Carter...my sister in mid-late 70s awkwardness. I bow down to you now, and let us have a moment for geeky teens everywhere, that they will never know this shame and will transcend the slings and arrows of outrageous gossip and somehow have the courage to own their awkward selves without shying away, attempting to crack the code or otherwise compromise themselves. This is my humble prayer.
P.S.: I just checked: Amy Carter became an activist as a young woman, getting arrested with Abbie Hoffman to alter CIA policy in 1986. (I brought Abbie Hoffman to Wesleyan University to speak in 1982 right after he got out of prison, so: check). Then, she married the guy I assume she's still married to, had a child and works for the Carter Center (which does excellent social justice work around the world). When married she was not 'given away' because 'I'm not owned by anyone.' Love that. And what I forgot is, when asked, as a child in the White House if she had a message for the world's children, she said "No." Which is kind of great.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.