This chapter dedicated to Ziggy Stardust who inspired me to see my persona as magical, mutable, and mouldable like clay.
Harold and I learned some good things at the “Change Your Life” seminar — primarily what self-sabotaging assholes we were. I take issue with these “fix your whole life BUT only if you do all the things we tell you, plus keep buying books, coaching sessions, and attending seminars!” weekends. These programs, and the people who run and profit from them, acquire a list of your deepest fears, blocks, and secrets then reassure you that the tools to resolve and clear them away are in their hands — Scientology does this ingeniously — and with your fragility in their clutches, you’re locked in. In the dispersed fray that has become our modern spiritual lives, they’re essentially doing what religious and philosophical doctrines (and their institutions) have done in some form or another for thousands of years, now just throw in new age brainwashing, some convincing psychobabble, a bit of Zen philosophy, mention the soul, and voila! in just one weekend you can turn your life around! If only, right? But then, maybe.
There are many different kinds of people who attend these seminars —self-help junkies, a lot of women, people who have come on the behest of born-again partners or friends, Pollyanna Midwesterners and bitter New Yorkers, or people who are simply searching, like I was, for a lubricant to move through the sludge of their unhappiness. I believe if you’re looking for answers you’ll find them whether they’re handed to you on a piece of paper at a paid seminar, or at an AA meeting, or in a church sermon, or in a book, or while out walking the dog, because if you’re brave enough to travel into your pain, or even your joy, and figure out how you picked 'em up, and you’re wiling to trace the origins of your life with open eyes like a marvelling traveler, then you’ll inevitably arrive at the sticky points, and if you’re willing to be loving, you may unstick those memories, reshape and reform them, and even love them for what they’ve offered you.
Gather them all up like dense clay and smooth into the shape of a seat, like at the beach when you pull wet sand in around your hips, the material no longer an impediment or weight; you stop trying to run across the sand or through it, but rather sink into it and make it your own.
After Harold and I had our conversation at the donut shop about our illicit lovers, he decided to be honest with the seminar group and change his tune about why he's there.
“You know, I initially came here to save my business but I’ve realized that I’m here to get honest about an affair I’ve been having with a younger married woman...” The crowd squirmed in their seats, some looked down at the floor, the women seemed especially perturbed. He looked so vulnerable standing there, his mouth sort of half open, his big, blue eyes searching for validation of his honest confession. I exhaled a long sigh on his behalf.
A few hours later, Rachel the seminar leader gave us our “good trait” and our “bad trait” in front of the group. Harold got his before me and I kind of laughed: his good trait was “trustworthy leader” and his bad trait was “slimy liar”, the theory being that your essential bad trait was the inverse of your good. The word “slimy” did not sit well with Harold and he stuttered out a response, “Um, well, I mean, I know I gotta change but she’s really such a great girl and this connection we have…”
Rachel cut him off, “Integrity, Harold! Integrity in your relationships and in your life will bring you integrity in your business — become a trustworthy leader again and you’ll have success!” Boom. Words are so potent, like low-level sorcery, and in these sessions you’re wide open to hear the simple truth. But these hard-hitting one-liners are reductive which is why they follow them up with a longer sales pitch: “This is just the beginning, guys. You’ll all need one-on-one coaching for at least two more years.”
One of my worst, oft-repeated errors is injuring and/or protecting myself with words, misusing them. What were those rhymes we learned in grade school to ward this off? “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you”, or “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. If only.
I’d gone into the seminar being super honest about the affair I was having, and all my shitty substance abuse, and it wasn’t because of the man or the obsessions or any specific qualities of the stuff I was engaged in, it was the patterns I felt desperately locked into. I geared up for my bad trait: was it going to be “snaky sex goddess” or “heartless hussy” or “desperate other woman”? Rachel looked over at me, “Carmen, it’s your turn, hon.”
I was born right in the middle of two families, after girls and before boys. I’m the oldest, I was briefly the youngest, and I’m also the middle child. If you value the significance of birth order, I’m basically everything. I’ve managed to have relationships, or least some contact with extended family on both sides and that's no easy feat: we grow up, we drop off, we make our own families, and eventually our own worlds. But in this way, I often feel like a visiting family diplomat which is a nice self-appointed position to have, especially as a writer because I love the histories and personalities of both sides, the Capulets and the Montagues, their legacies and downfalls -- that shit is rich learning material. Pride and addiction are certainly woven into my family, but so is talent and adventure, so are flour bombs from Cessnas at events called “fly-ins” (Kings), and my small town’s first family orchestra (Murrants).
In rural Alberta in the 1950’s and ’60’s, an organization called The Flying Farmers, a group of farmers who owned and flew planes, would pick an airport and host a fly-in. This was basically an excuse to fly their planes and have a big party. In 1959, they coordinated the Rocky Mountain House fly-in with the local rodeo — my Grandpa King being the brazen, fun-loving man that he was, came up with the idea of a flour bombing contest. They poured a giant three-ringed target in the middle of the grounds (also made of flour, this being the golden era of cheap commodities) and with three runs each, planes would fly in with sacks of flour and try to nail the bullseye.
My 10-year old dad rode in a Cessna 140, holding the sack of flour out the little window to launch it. On the first bombing run he got closest to the bullseye, on the 2nd he missed the bullseye and hit the windshield of his uncle’s ’59 Buick and went clean through. As he says, “When we got back they told me ‘You won the prize but you also wrecked your uncle’s car’ — they drove back to the city with a 6-inch hole in the windshield, the interior of the car covered in flour.” Living out loud those Kings: easy targets. Eugene King, an introvert who drank to quell his shyness, became a menacing, boisterous personality who filled a room under the influence. So is the power of the snakeskin. With no filters, and no respect of boundaries, both he and my father became easy men not to like.
The most beautiful times of my childhood were spent at my Grandma and Grandpa’s small farm just outside our town. Daring, intelligent, and a dashing man of his idyllic era, my musically gifted Grandpa Murrant, born and raised in the Maritimes, moved his wife and five children across Canada in a train to the West of cowboys and promise. His children were also musically gifted—my mom and her siblings played various instruments and started a little family band which became the very first orchestra in Rocky Mountain House, now an established group who still performs at Christmas concerts and plays.
As soon as I could talk, I sang and danced while Grandpa played the piano, then later my grandparents would take me out to the barn to pet the horses, or gather eggs. A nurse, my Grandma was at the hospital when I was born. Life in their house was a celebration with neighbours, family and friends, laughing and drinking and dancing and music. When I wasn’t joyfully singing or dancing, I was being lovingly passed from adoring relative to adoring relative. Life at the farm was grand and the Murrants were fun-loving, and like most of their post-war contemporaries, they were also stoic and stubborn, the kind of people whose shame was much harder to see. They died with their stubbornness intact.
“Carmen, I’m afraid you’re the only one in this group who’s lucky enough to get TWO bad traits —are you ready?”
“Bonus! Yeah go for it.”
“Dramatic brat and disconnected victim...”
The first one makes sense to me but the second one is bewildering: “Really? Disconnected victim?”
“Yeah haven’t you noticed how you shrink inside yourself and disconnect?”
Bullseye. I’m right in the middle.
"What's my good trait?"