Nobody tells the truth about childhood. Not even me, though I will try. As a child I recall writing a story about First Nations, about a caribou hunt and a girl who pretended to be a boy so that she could hunt. These days that would be considered cultural appropriation and no doubt wrong, but at that time it was actually the assignment, to write a story like the one we had just read in class. I believe I still have it somewhere; the teacher wrote, “Nice handwriting!” at the top, and “Excellent work! Where do you get your ideas?” at the bottom in bright red ink.
What did I know about being an Inuit? What did I know about hunting? I may have already turned vegetarian. I want to tell you that even as a child I knew that my story was plagiarized but this is unlikely true. A girl pretending to be a boy was certainly not original, though I can’t remember if this was before or after Mulan. From Shakespeare to Mulan—girls wanting the freedom of being boys is pretty universal.
There are moments of childhood that all of us gloss over, you know the ones. The places where the ideas come from—the real ideas. The ideas about what it means to have a body, of girls and boys—parents, voodoo dolls, prayers, the newly discovered internet—I’m not even sure my memories tell the truth, forcing themselves into the beginning-middle-end framework we have all known since childhood. Sometimes I think the only way around this is to go backwards, to take a long train ride where each stop represents a year. But I don’t think that any train rides are long enough.
The point is—I feel the same about my own stories. That they are also cultural appropriation—in psychological terms this would be called a dissociative state. Waking up from this state was the most exhilarating and terrifying thing I had ever experienced, possibly because it was the first thing I had actually experienced. Everything in my life was plagiarized.
How envious I used to be of those with stories I thought the world wanted, the traumatic stories that fit into nice boxes. In hindsight this was incredibly naïve and condescending to those who I envied. How easily I forgot how much I loathed those who envied my trauma. Those who wanted to steal my story.
“I feel like I’m in a book,” I once said, sitting on the curb at about 4AM near the McDonald’s.
“You are,” the—what shall I call him? In hindsight, stalker. But at the time?
He called me Soldier. I had a stalker who called me Soldier. No wonder I thought I was in a book.
“Don’t kill yourself until you write a book,” he also said. And I have been putting it off ever since.
Is that theft-worthy?
How we romanticize the stories that do not belong to us, covering all of the words they have for snow as if it’s magic to have a culture that’s not white. Pretty condescending, if you ask me. But don’t ask me, ask somebody who sleeps at night.
I’ve known several addicts to play slots without money on their old PC’s, just staring into the void, never actually winning or losing. Perhaps they have the truth. Certainly more so than those who claim we are spirit beings in human form? I’m sorry, I’ve been reading too much David Foster Wallace and smoking too many cigarettes and am growing tired of the pseudo-spiritual connections found in AA meetings, cafes, cults and clinics.
Do you ever consider that our adult beverages, entertainment, cubicles and clothing are just a way to distinguish ourselves as adults? But you wanted the truth. Or at least I offered you the truth. Quite the offer. Really, what do I know? For all you know I’m sitting at a cubicle as we speak, though you have probably caught on that this is not that type of story.
Nobody tells the truth about trauma either. The hero or the bad guy are usually the star—the victim is the prop. Even the victim’s insistence on not being a victim is a prop to put the story of the hero forth. Sometimes trauma feels like a place where the audio and visual do not connect. In movies everything connects too well. The first song of every Disney musical is called the “I want” song because it’s basically always the exact same song. Protagonist wants. Protagonist meets some conflict. Protagonist succeeds.
No wonder the world has so many shoplifters.
Some things are merely too forbidden. The truth would have to be surrounded by bright yellow caution tape. So I collect cigarette butts and toy cars I find on the beach. There are often dead fawns on the side of the road. Nature offers no trigger warnings.
And I pray that tonight I sleep well—sleep safely. That I find the place far from the caution tape and carcasses. I hope that I remember to turn the light off and brush my teeth, that I am able to prepare instead of acting as if sleep will never come in order to prevent it. Prevent the place where the audio and the visual connect.
Perhaps you want the trauma now, with or without the warning. Perhaps you’ve grown to expect it. Perhaps you would like to be triggered only to then point a finger at me for having done so, the way I used to jump when the overly sensitive camera at the ferry terminal would warn me that I was trespassing. I’m warning you, that won’t happen here.
I read some advice the other day to write about what others care about. Pretty obvious. But I wondered, what if I don’t want them to care? What if they care more than I do? What if they care so much that they steal it?
I always had the right fabric but the wrong pattern. Trauma will do this—will confuse time. I was so desperate for a pattern that made sense. I would rather get a ferry to hell than an unknown destination. How else would I know when I had arrived? People who say the destination doesn’t matter I have little faith in. Whatever spirit form they have I do not have. I am pure skin, bones, fat. They found their destination in platitudes. They pirated their pattern and stole their fabric from Value Village.
It’s raining hard. I have always hated umbrellas, never used them myself, would rather be soaked. The drops on the window looking out into the Pacific Ocean look like a Van Gogh. I am starting to think this is one of those days when I am too broken to write, even this short note makes no sense. At least it’s true. So look for a pattern in words that are in human form and I stare to the side with a half-smile, there are photos of me doing this since childhood. I suppose that to other people I look excited. I know that I’m searching for ghosts. I’m looking for the place where the audio and visual connect.
I used to want to chop off huge random chunks of hair because then I had officially lost my mind, but never could go through with it. In hindsight I did much worse things, but true madness means you’re unaware of the madness you’ve created. Is madness an absence of truth or an excess of it?
I haven’t actually told you the truth about anything I suppose, but I haven’t told you about caribou or Mormons or Hollywood or other things I know nothing about. Sometimes we first have to unweave. The truth is, my life was much easier when it was stolen because I could always just return it.
I’m on the ferry. The water is its own dissociation, putting us all to sleep in-between stops we find trivial because we are no longer children. Waiting for another hit of caffeine, a weather report, book reviews, or anything that may belong to us. I used to live in the director’s cut of a movie. I lived in a world where people were chess pieces. How to leave that world as a master to enter the world where people are humans in human form—that I never intended. I never lived anything I couldn’t write the ending for before it happened. So excuse me if this note is bits of rags that don’t match up. I’m doing my best. Perhaps you would prefer something stolen. Most people would.
The advice said to write what you know but I’m no longer sure I know anything, except I really did want to be a boy and I wish I could’ve told my teacher where that idea came from.
Now I’m getting ready to head into that trauma office and say that I’m ready to speak. Nobody tells the truth about childhood, nobody can, but this pattern is mine.
How many words are there for healing?
How will I know when I’ve arrived?
It’s quite possible that this story—the story that I cannot write—must go backwards. Healing ends with the “I want” song.
How many melodies are there for healing?
Does it happen all at once, as the sound of rain on a bright yellow umbrella?
Jill Talbot’s writing has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain, The Tishman Review, The Cardiff Review, PRISM, Southword, and others . Jill won the PRISM Grouse Grind Lit Prize. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.