As we entered junior high, Stacie and her family moved to Amherst, about 25 minutes away. We kept in touch for years, but we could no longer ride bikes to each other’s houses, or spend all our weekends together. The physical distance took a toll on our friendship. There wasn’t really heartbreak for me when she left, just a pang of loss and the feeling of not having. This was not for lack of connection; I guess it’s just the nature of being a kid, living in the moment and not understanding what “gone” truly means.
Life went on, and my focus shifted. My friendship with the girls Stacie had introduced me to had been growing in her absence. There were five of them, all living on the same street within yards of each other, about a mile away from Coburn Woods. Lauren, Erica, Jen, Sarah, and Boo. I ended up spending so much time with them that Dad took to calling us The Rat Pack. For a couple years, we spent whatever free time we could muster gathered together in one house or another.
We were entering the age of Trying All Things. At first, nothing was off limits or felt like too much. We smoked cigarettes in the woods outside Lauren’s house, went skinny dipping in the Coburn Woods pool at midnight, unironically smoked pot right before DARE dances.
As much time as I spent with them, where I lived threw a wrench into the ultimate goal of connection. They were always near each other; I was outside. They were close enough to gather together within 30 seconds, but my participation took more planning. They tried to include me whenever it was possible, but I was never just a stone’s throw away. To alleviate this sense of disconnection, I walked the mile there and home every morning and afternoon during eighth grade just to take their bus. It wasn't a very sustainable plan, but I made the attempt because I naively believed that always being included would make me feel more whole.
As time went on, I was left out of activities with them more and more often. It happened fairly often, as was understandable with a larger group; it was difficult to plan outings for six girls no matter the generation. But the sting lingered when I was left behind for concerts, sleepovers, or day trips. Someone would accidentally let slip that an event was happening, forgetting that I wasn’t in on it, and I would feel betrayed. Their response to my pain and anger would often be, “See Erin, we didn’t tell you, because we knew you would react like this,” which usually made me doubt my rationale and create more feelings of disparity.
The truth was, I just wasn’t an integral part of that crowd. I made the attempts at connection because of feelings of isolation, but I realized that I wasn’t meant to be a staple in the Rat Pack. There was a lot of infighting, teen girl cattiness, and cycling through which one of us was on the outs because everyone else was irritated with her. It was emotionally draining, and I wanted to find deeper connections.
I was never satisfied with “normal teen life”, because I never felt like a normal teen. I was odd, outside, apart. I felt a yawning gap between me and other people. Why did I feel so foreign? Did everyone else feel this way, too? I took to spending a lot of time watching humans of all ages. I would sit quietly near a busy street, or in a hallway at school, looking at people, searching for flickers of the strange brand of budding self-awareness I felt within myself. I noticed their mannerisms, their attempts at fitting in by muffling their own natures, and I thought about how perfectly silly it all was.
So much interaction was simply reactionary. People seemed so devoid of connection with each other that their brains had gotten masterful at tuning out all the surrounding energies. The lack of eye contact, the inherent mistrust, the oblivious manner in which people placed their cars, shopping carts, or just their bodies; blocking the flow around them, utterly unaware of their impact on others. I watched conflicts occur and opportunities for genuine connection pass by. People were so wrapped up in their own internal dialogue that they were constantly choosing disengagement and not noticing what was happening around them.
It made me feel like we were all missing something big. I wanted people to WAKE UP, to take off the blinders and really see each other. I wished they could all share my sense of wonder about the world and its immense intricacy. We were all connected at the deepest of levels, but we weren’t connecting. I wanted company on this journey.
I attempted to open up to one or the Rat Pack girls about my feelings of singularity. In my fumbling explanation, I must have sounded more like a narcissistic sociopath, because what I was hoping would be a cathartic conversation rapidly descended into a drawn out fight. She ended up thinking I was an egomaniac who saw myself as more evolved than other humans, and I was furious at her for being so closed-minded and not understanding a word that I said.
So I didn’t tell anyone how I felt for a long time. I went even deeper in my head, alienating myself further from people, until I felt so removed from them that I regarded myself less and less as human, and more as some strange exception to humanity.
My book reading started branching into the occult as I searched for answers about self-awareness and the universe, and around that time I started to discover that the attention I was seeking was in the art of shock value. I enjoyed shaking things up. Pulling people out of their daily reveries became a crusade for me, and I soaked up all the new experiences that came my way as a result. This is when things started to really amp up.
In my time with Stacie, we developed a predilection of finding strange places to sleep. In our minds, we were keeping things fresh and having grand adventures while doing so. Blanket forts in the living room , a pile of pillows at the bottom of the basement stairs (Why? 'Cuz.), closets, bathtubs, under tables, attic corners. Stacie once even had the misfortune to be awake when my Dad came downstairs for something from the kitchen, buck naked in the middle of the night (sorry for the PTSD, girl). She was embarrassed for months. Dad had no idea.
Dad drove a 1983 BMW E28 at the time, which eventually rusted from the inside out. The car trunk was just as viable as any other spot, we figured. So late at night we piled all our blankets and pillows in it, climbed in, and eventually went to sleep. It wasn’t until the sun rose the next morning when I decided to close the trunk door on us. I don’t know what I was thinking. A part of me knew we would be locked in, but I did it anyway.
This small action, unbeknown to me at the time, defined the essence of my own heedlessly willful spirit as a child and well into my teens and twenties; a pocket-sized glimpse of my disregardful, tenacious approach to life. “Hmm, this sounds like a terrible idea. Let’s do it.” The thought arose, I grabbed the latch, and pulled it closed.
And in the darkness, I said, “Oops.”
I think I wanted to know the feeling of being trapped. I wanted to experience intensity, even though I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, and childish foresight knows no consequence. We have to learn it. So we pounded and pounded on the trunk door above us, panicked and desperate, while Stacie became increasingly convinced that our air supply was dwindling and we were going to die of asphyxiation. After about a half hour of screaming ourselves hoarse, Dad finally heard us and set us free from our self-made prison, irritated and highly confused about our choice of beds.
What was the point of experiences like this? What did I learn from this grand and moronic adventure? It certainly wasn’t “don’t do dumb shit.” I hadn’t yet even dipped my toe into the warm, inviting waters of Dumbassery. I still had time to build up to that.
The familiarity of the woods remained there for me; a small conduit to something greater, something forever home for me, but my humanity still demanded that I make connections with my own kind, and explore outside my small family circle. I loved other children, and often came off as rather intense and overly forward, which alarmed some kids. Often their reaction to my overt friendliness would be a shutting down- a withdrawn glance when I wanted to connect, a backing away when I wanted them to come closer. This was hurtful to me, and spawned a sense of mistrust and bewilderment, which soon snowballed into social awkwardness and self-consciousness.
Realizing that you are not actually the center of the universe is a harsh lesson. Every child eventually confronts this reality, but for only children, the lesson comes a little later, a little more painfully. I suppose by then we’re pretty well established in our self-centeredness. We have settled into the comfort of having the belief; “It’s all about ME.” When we see our effect on others, the internal dialogue changes. When I realized that I was weirding out other kids, I became suddenly aware of the effect I had them. Suddenly, the opinions of the world began to matter. And the opinions hurt.
For whatever reason, my social intensity and nerdy, awkward blundering didn’t scare off Stacie, a girl who was assigned to sit next to me in fourth grade. Stacie was a pretty girl with curly light hair, a sparkle in her eye, and an infectious laugh. She was popular and easily liked. Where my interactions with others were often artless and floundering, Stacie seemed to get along flawlessly with kids from every social circle. She could laugh and chat, perfectly at ease with any group of people, and somehow she was able to charm the pants off of both children and adults. She was a natural social virtuoso.
I wasn’t sure why she liked me initially, but over time our friendship grew into a solid sisterhood. Stacie helped me to be somewhat less of a blundering dork, and helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin. She suggested clothes for me, did my hair, and taught me how to French roll my pants in the neon, white-washed denim age of the early 90s. We knew each other down to the very bare bones of our personalities. There was no bullshitting between us. We were attached at the hip, as my whole family became used to calling us.
Stacie went everywhere with me. Her home life was tumultuous, so she practically lived at my house growing up. If it was a weekend, she was sleeping over. She came on family trips and vacations with us for years. She coached me through my graceless social interactions, introduced me to her friends, and modeled picture perfect manners around adults, but behind closed doors we gleefully threw away our masks and let our dirty, obnoxious, hilariously raunchy true selves shine.
Our shared passions included seeking out extreme experiences to alleviate boredom. We were wild women in the making. We plunged into the icy Maine ocean waters in April, screaming from the rawness of it. We went on “night walks” and terrorized neighbors by ding-dong-ditching and stalking people in the shadows. We shared becoming women together, and played on Dad’s Xerox machine, taking photocopies of our asses for hours on end, laughing hysterically and hiding the evidence deep in the backs of closets. He never asked what the holy hell was happening to all his copy paper, bless'im.
My friendship with Stacie caused a huge shift in my perception of my world. She was the first person who I really bared my soul to. We fought like rabid cats, screamed obscene insults at each other, then met up to play Monopoly for 16 hours straight. I got jealous when my family seemed to like her better than me. We were sisters in all ways but by blood.
Stacie’s friendship and guidance allowed me to begin to relax, and stop trying so hard to say and do the least objectionable things. To my surprise, other people had started to find me charming and funny, even when I was being my usual intense and generally offensive self. My newfound acceptance by the other kids ironically made room for me to be more myself. I stopped second guessing everything I thought and felt, and began to let things fly off the cuff, saying things I felt like saying without filtering it all in fear of offending others. This fresh lack of pretense resulted in a general likability that I didn’t have before, snowballing my confidence further when it came to speaking my mind. I decided that I was going to be me, despite what others thought, and that was a decision that would set me up for incredible struggle and harsh trials later.
I knew this going in. I set myself up.
I slowly became someone who had no fear of consequence. The fear I had held before had paralyzed me, and I was learning to slough that off and plow forward. It’s not that I had no thought of the repercussions of my actions - more that I wanted to experience the consequences. I was willing to feel life’s pain and experience the struggle as much as I wanted to dive into life’s pleasant things. I wanted to feel the feather and the razor. I wanted to fly. I wanted to plummet.
I grew up an only child in New Hampshire, in a 220 unit condo complex of Nashua called Coburn Woods. Each hilly cul-de-sac of houses was surrounded by tall, skinny pines, interspersed with small ponds and surrounded by trails to the outside. The community was safe enough for my parents to let me wander at a young age during the early 80s, so there was a comfort, even an enjoyment, in getting hopelessly lost. I would trail-blaze in new directions just so I could find myself popping up in a familiar place, hours later, covered in burrs and scrapes. These wanderings consistently widened my mental map, until I eventually knew miles of the surrounding woods like the back of my hand.
This was my nativity. The tall pines and the soft orange carpet they laid, the bright greens of the deciduous ashes, maples, elms and oaks that would morph into the most stunning myriad of brilliant glittering reds, yellows and golds that caught the sunlight and opened my soul. My stomping grounds are emblazoned in my memory, and I knew every nook and crevice of the surrounding land. I was home when I was in those woods. I still am.
I have a very distinct memory of a summer afternoon in 1989, when I was 8. My wanderings had led me into a grassy clearing, where I lay on my back on a small hill, watching the clouds pass slowly in the warm sun. The crickets in the grass trilled their high pitched mating songs, and a small engined plane droned overhead as I lay there, hands tucked under the back of my head. It was a moment of pure awareness of being.
Something about the way this memory is imprinted in my brain has changed my perception of certain sounds, especially engine sounds. Any time I hear a Cessna or other small plane passing above me, I am transported back to that sense of freedom and contentment. More often than not, I will pause whatever it is I'm doing to close my eyes and soak in that sound. It has been like a wormhole to my hippocampus, where memories are stored forever in a special little binder of wonders, always accessible with the right smell, the right sound, the right trigger.
(It really is all about memory, isn’t it? This theme pops up throughout my life, in so many ways.)
These memories are the abiding ones; the deeply etched remembrances that my neurons won't let me forget. The bad ones may cause me continued suffering beyond an initial shock of pain when triggered, while the good ones brighten our days as I go about life. But what is the most overlooked, and by far the largest collection of all stored experiences are those in-between moments: the short term memories which our brains deem forgettable, expendable. Those middle of the road, everyday incidences that seem to hold no use in the present as worth retaining. These are the vast majority of the human experience, and they are lost more often than not.
The loss of memories, big and small, troubled me as I realized the pain of forgetting. There were some parts of my life I refused to release into the whirlpool of lost memory. What was the point of living if you had to keep relearning lessons? Why bother going on if we couldn’t function beyond the small fishbowl we were trapped in, consistently being surprised at our surroundings?
If I kept forgetting things, personal evolution couldn’t be possible. Awakening, true knowledge of self - this was out of my reach if I couldn’t remember all the pieces I already had acquired in order to put the puzzle together.
So, starting fairly young, I journaled. I didn't want to lose any events, chance encounters, struggles, adventures, or passing observations that my brain might executively label as “Unnecessary for Retrospection.” I came to realize that my brain was doing a supremely crappy job with memory storage on its own, so I had decided that I would take charge of what was ultimately worth remembering.
My first real journal, besides the scraps of paper and unused small address books, was a composition notebook in fifth grade. Drama with friends, waffling about my feelings about boys, passionate venting about teachers, parents. These were all experiences I felt too important to be swallowed by the Great Pit of Forgetting. My next journal, a giant binder filled with handwritten folded notes, newspaper cutouts, cherished candy wrappers from a boy, and written paper of varying sizes and rulings, was a depository for all things Worthy of Remembrance from 1994 to 1995; my first taste of being a teen.
As I evolved, so did my journals and their contents. It was the chronicle of a lifelong transformation. Over the years, my pile of Remembrance grew rapidly: I filled journals in weeks and then days before I started buying larger and larger ones. I expanded my chronicling to other mediums as well; I was given a single lens reflex camera and eventually a tape recorder which I used to ceaselessly document experiences, conversations, moments, and thoughts. I practiced and began to master realistic drawing; I was terrible at drawing from imagination, but I could recreate very closely any image from a photo. I was a Memorialist - my entire existence revolved around the archiving of thoughts and events.
By the time I was 18, my whole life could fit onto a bookshelf of journals, photographs, mini-cassettes and portfolios. This was the culmination of Me, a manifestation of my life in physical form. I was incredibly lucky that I was never a victim of a house fire. So much paper defined me. So much potential for total destruction, a life of kindling just waiting for a spark.
I had no reason to be a troubled kid. My childhood was full of love and joy. My mother created a home with an antiquey, warm ambiance and threw small parties for holidays and special occasions, and I had an attentive father who was deeply enamored with me. Christmases were magical. The house was often full of laughter and love. I rarely remember my parents fighting, but that may be because they made me feel so secure, so safe and treasured, that the arguments never stuck in my memory. They would sometimes pick me up together, us hugging in a ring of three, and we would trade kisses; dad to me, me to mom, mom to dad. My childhood was full of hilarity and tickle fights and being tossed around merrily like a sack of potatoes.
There was no clear outward reason why I struggled as I did. I was an only child with a decisive lack of social skills, so I spent my days with my stuffed animals, reading science and fantasy books, and wandering in the woods. I had a deep connection to the land, which was something my mother nurtured. She was a woods girl, born on the coast of Maine in the 1940’s, having her coming of age in the heyday of hippie culture. Even her politics were Earth-centric. When I first began asking questions about how my parents leaned politically, she invariably said, “I always vote for the environment.” She explained to me our connection to the energy of the planet, how it nurtures us and can hug us back when we wrap our arms around a tree; how we can open our hearts to the infinite source they are a conduit to.
I loved that connection. It was an early experience of something all-encompassing, some force of perpetual love that put small troubles in a revealing light as something conquerable. I got a book at one point from the school library about space and the cosmos; a kids introduction to the magnitude of our surroundings through the lens of science. The book hoarded my attention for hours at a time. Coming to understand the vastness of our world and the universe it occupies, realizing our size in context with the immense macrocosm around us, blew my mind. In such vastness, I thought, surely everything is possible, and anything I can imagine most likely already exists.
Holding such a broad understanding could have been the key to so many doors in life. This understanding should have added up to a motivated, fulfilled and applied life. I should have grown up to be a focused and well-balanced professional, or perhaps a successful artist or some kind of positive influence in my community. I had everything I needed. I was given the right tools, the best opportunities, and plenty of love and support. I was given a perfect, shiny compass, complete with all the lessons of the generations that came before me, and their timeless wisdom and guidance. All I had to do was pick a path, and follow it.
The point of the compass is negated if you refuse to heed it. Turns out, I was more of a meandering kind of girl.
There is a major shift in the consciousness of each person as we grow out of our first environment. As our viewpoints expand from the beginning of life, we leave the comforting nest of connection and belonging; mothers womb, mothers arms, exploration of all we can reach. We learn to toddle and walk, not because it is written in our genes, but because we are compelled to reach further and explore beyond what we know. We are driven by the need to expand the map of our awareness. We must touch our world, experience with sensations, identify, research and report back to our brain what we make contact with. In this literal feeling out, we realize just how vast our world is, and in turn how small we truly are.
My compass has always skewed a bit in the wrong direction. I wasn't drawn toward the things that would improve my life or circumstances, but toward experiences that would peel back my protective layers and expose me to the real, raw intensity of life. All the pain of it, all the pleasure and agony and confusion and awakening I could find. Through it all, I wrote about it. I photographed it, and sometimes I drew it or created art in other mediums. I have so many notebooks that I no longer have room for them, so I continue to write digitally. I feel now that if I don't get these musings out and into the world, they might disappear into obscurity, and I want to be sure that everything I did actually existed, even after this life is over.
My compass has always skewed a bit in the wrong direction. I wasn't drawn toward the things that would improve my life or circumstances, but toward experiences that would peel back my protective layers and expose me to the raw intensity of life. All the pain of it, all the pleasure and agony and confusion and awakening I could find. Through it all, I wrote about it, and I am sharing it here.