What Doesn’t Kill Me Is My Actual Life by Miriam Sagan

Two schools of thought disagree.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger
And there is a lot of current psychological thinking that trauma makes a person weaker.

Either/or thinking isn’t famous for its accuracy–or helpfulness. And there is no aphorism or theory that fully explains character, or resilience. And that’s a good thing–even an entertaining one.

I’ve certainly experienced trauma. And many blessings. Periods of upheaval. Years of a quiet pleasant life. I could define myself as a victim, or deny what has happened to me, or anything in-between.

Luckily, however, life is not a TV movie. I don’t have to choose a stance and stick with it. I can complain, transcend, obsess, start fresh. In fact, I may have met the overarching goal of childhood–to just do whatever I want.

The mainstream culture of United States–in our pandemic world–still seems to be so afraid of death that we can’t even acknowledge it. To be so afraid of a direct experience of suffering that we either sugar coat or label it unendurable.

I have no idea if suffering has made me stronger, or weaker. Probably a mix. I don’t care. And that is because I’m quite sure it hasn’t made me stupider. Or afraid of life.

The Stupid Man Club by Miriam Sagan

I’m not exactly Proust–heck, I can’t even manage to read Proust. But I do like to remember. The act of writing seems in and of itself to stimulate memory. Was The Stupid Man Club my first foray against the patriarchy or my incipient life as a writer? Most likely it was a weird project born of boredom and creativity–a hallmark of my way of living even now.
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The Stupid Man Club

My parents decide to install fire alarms throughout our three story house at 153 Dwight Place. The house is white shingled, with a wrap around porch. It’s a lovely house. The formal dining room is graced with Corinthian columns like something out of a British novel, but it is otherwise unpretentious and pleasant. Large, to be sure, with four bathrooms. But old-fashioned, with 50’s style fixtures. The basement is sprawling and damp. I dream recurrently that a pharaoh’s tomb is located off one of its twisty corridors. The roof leaks over certain spots that can never be fixed, no matter what my father does. The plaster just peels. My mother has papered the ceiling above the children’s bath tub with a blue sky studded with white clouds.
Men come to install the alarm system. My sister and I follow them around every day. Observing and recording their stupid seeming behavior in a small notebook. I’m the eldest, so I do the writing. Once they are finished, we find other stupid men to observe—repairmen, garbage men, gardeners, mail carriers, and more. Even the doctor making a house call with his black bag.
My father also appears to come and go more than he does to actually live with us seven days a week. He works half a day Saturday and Thursday night until past our bed time. He comes home on week nights well after we have eaten supper. I can’t remember if his doings are recorded in The Stupid Man Club’s notebook or not.

Hunting La Llorona by Andrew Lovato

My colleague Andy Lovato has published several books and contributed to more. Here he is writing on the perennial favorite supernatural La Llorona. If I ask a class who has seen her when they were children, a few hands always go up.
This is from his collection “Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: Vignettes from the Life of a Santa Fe Muchacho” and first appeared in “Green Fire Times.” Enjoy!

Hunting La Llorona

Dark lady of tears
Weave the spell that stirs my soul
But wander not to near
 
During the glorious months of summer, the kids in Elvis’ neighborhood played hide and seek, tag and invented elaborate games. One game that they never tired of consisted of boys chasing girls and holding them captive inside a jungle gym at the local park. The girls pretended to be horses and the boys played the role of cowboys with the most successful hombre being the one that possessed the largest harem of stomping and snorting ponies.
After the sun went down, the favorite pastime was telling scary stories. Elvis and his friends never became bored with the recycled tales. They sat in circles on the green grass of a host family’s lawn as the nightly ritual commenced. Girls shrieked and the boys laughed nervously when the story-telling began.
Ghosts and witches were popular topics of conversation along with devils and graveyards. However, as far as terrifying characters were concerned, none rivaled the queen of terror, “La Llorona.”
La Llorona was a name that evoked fear in the hearts of all Santa Fe youngsters. Her legend had several variations but the basic theme went as follows:
La Llorona was a beautiful woman who married a rich nobleman. She was very happy and she gave birth to three radiant children. One day her husband left her for another woman and she was so consumed with rage that she took her children and drowned them in an arroyo filled with water. After she realized what she had done, she went mad with remorse and drowned herself. Since that day her ghost had wandered the arroyos of northern New Mexico wailing for her dead children.
The story went on to warn that if any child happened to be near an arroyo at night and was unfortunate enough to run into the weeping ghost, a horrible fate would await. Some storytellers claimed that her victims first saw a mysterious red light that hypnotized them. These unfortunate souls were not able to move and La Llorona did away with them like she’d done with her own children. If she felt merciful, she might take an unlucky child prisoner and lead her captive to a demented fortress where she made the poor creature her eternal slave. These prospects were unnerving and youngsters cringed at the idea of running into the weeping woman.
Needless to say, kids took special precautions to avoid arroyos after dark which pleased their parents greatly and there was little done to discourage the legend.
In a twisted way, getting scared was so much darn fun. Elvis never felt as alive as when his heart was pounding and he was peering around nervously looking for a glint of supernatural light or the sound of a grieving woman in the distance.
One typical summer evening in late July, as dusk fell and the stars began to peek out over the horizon of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, all the kids in Elvis’ neighborhood grew weary of tag and kick-the-can and headed over to Floyd’s front yard to see if they could muster up the thrill of delicious fear one more time. Of all the neighborhood kids, Floyd told the best stories.
“If you look in a mirror while you hold a candle in a dark room, and you say three times, ‘El Diablo is my Padre,’ the devil’s face will appear over your left shoulder. I’m telling you the truth. You can try it yourself but remember when you see his face, make the sign of the cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, be gone!’ If you don’t do this right away, the devil will go down your left shoulder and into your heart and you’ll have a heart attack and die instantly and go to hell and become the devil’s slave for all time.”
The terror-stricken troop sat quietly contemplating this fate and not a sound could be heard except for the incessant chirping of crickets.
“Let’s call the devil tonight,” Ramona impulsively suggested.
Floyd seemed startled at the challenge but then he upped the ante. “Let’s call La Llorona instead. We can head over to the arroyo and do a ceremony to make her appear.”
Floyd had done it again. Elvis felt a familiar cold sensation crawling up his spine just when he’d thought he was too jaded to have it happen once more.
The adventurers’ numbers quickly began to diminish as soon as it was determined that the plan for the night would be conjuring up La Llorona. Several kids remembered that either their parents wanted them home early or some mysterious chore was still left undone and needed immediate attention. In the end, there were only four foolhardy madcaps left; Floyd, Elvis, Rudy, and Ramona Jaramillo who was never afraid of anything.
The nearest arroyo lay across the neighborhood park, near the school. The night was pitch black so Ramona ran home and returned a few minutes later with a flashlight and the brave troop began its quest.
“Did you guys check out the moon?” Rudy asked.
Elvis looked up and it was a thin, silver sliver in the dark sky.
“It’s a witch’s moon” Floyd whispered. “It’s a sign for sure that she’ll be out wandering around the arroyos tonight.”
They trudged silently in a tight pack following the slim ray of the flashlight that shone on the grass until they had crossed the park and had reached the bank of the arroyo.
“What do we do now?” asked Rudy breaking the silence in a solemn voice.
“We wait,” said Floyd. “We wait and listen for the sound of her sobbing. Ramona, turn off the flashlight. We’ll sit in the dark and ask her to come. If anybody hears crying or sees a red light that means she’s here.”
Elvis suddenly felt sick to his stomach and he had an unbearable urge to jump up and run for the safety of home. The only thing that kept him sitting there was the stronger fear of leaving the company of his friends and exposing himself to the evil spirit somewhere in the blackness of the empty park. He shut his eyes tightly and his breath came out in short, shallow puffs.
Floyd continued, “Remember not to stare at her red light or you’ll become paralyzed and you won’t be able to run away when she comes for you. Stick your fingers in your ears so she doesn’t hypnotize you with her voice and make you fall asleep. Just make the sign of the cross and say Hail Mary’s as loud as you can so she can’t possess you. It’s your only hope.”
Ramona responded to Floyd’s warning in typical Ramona fashion, “I’m not afraid of no pendeja, La Llorona. If she has the huevos to show up, I’ll shove this flashlight down her ugly boca!”
Somehow Ramona’s bravado did very little to reassure Elvis. He looked over at Rudy who was holding his head in his hands and moaning softly. They sat on the edge of the ominous arroyo for what seemed like forever and waited for their impending fate. The minutes dragged on but nothing out of the ordinary took place other than a couple of wandering dogs that came by and sniffed once or twice and went on with their business, whatever that was.  Rudy had calmed down and as Elvis’ eyes adjusted to the dark, the terror he felt began to ease away.
Floyd let out a fart and Ramona exclaimed, “Damn, cabrón, that smell is the scariest thing that’s happened tonight.”
Everyone laughed in relief as they realized that she was probably right and their reputations would be greatly elevated when they returned to the neighborhood in one piece. Already they were each privately elaborating their experiences in their own heads to make it seem like they had escaped from the evil clutches of the weeping woman by the skin of their teeth.
Elvis and his gang scrambled to their feet anticipating the warm tortillas and soft beds that were awaiting them, when an unmistakable wailing sound arose from the dark arroyo. It was the most mournful cry imaginable. Rudy let out a terrified whinny and for the first time in Elvis’ memory he heard a tone of vulnerability in Ramona’s voice as she cried out,
“Mama, mama, I wanna go home to mama.”
They stood frozen in terror. Floyd grabbed the flashlight and pointed it waveringly in the direction of the heart-rending shriek. The courageous lot held each other tightly, contemplating their doom when suddenly out of the darkness a pair of glowing eyes appeared and rushed toward them. Then another pair of iridescent eyeballs flew out of the arroyo. Near their feet, two huge alley cats tumbled in a chaotic ball of flying fur and exposed claws.
Screaming at the top of their lungs, the terrified kids ran like the wind across the park and straight to the safety of their homes and families. It was several days before anyone brought up the subject of that night and by consensus they all agreed it was best forgotten.
 
 

Bored Bored Bored

Boredom

I recently saw an article about how being bored over the summer is good for children. I couldn’t agree more. Boredom is most definitely the mother of invention. And childhood boredom gave rise to some of my most creative—if goofy—projects.
As the eldest of four, I had bored subjects upon which to experiment. They were pretty compliant, so when I instructed my younger sibs to spin until they fell over they were happy to. This amused us for a while, until I stumbled upon a kind a deranged mantra to expand or consciousness. I picked the composer “Bach.” We didn’t listen to his music, we just said his named over and over…and over. Until we collapsed in hysterics.
Projects were also experimental. I made tiny pops of fruit juice in an old fashioned ice cube tray. With a berry frozen in each section. Just FYI—neither honey or maple syrup freeze very well.
I also grew mold. To do this, just get some grass clippings, add a spray of water, put in a closed plastic container, and leave in a dark closet. Soon—voila! Gross mold. I did this first by accident, then replicated it.(Later on, I was a botany major for a while in college).
Best of all, was the following elaborate event.
It takes two people.
One—the fed—closes eyes and opens mouth.
One—the feeder—gives an elaborate description of what food will be placed on the fed’s tongue. Crunchy salty peanut butter on a thin crisp cracker.
Then…
The feeder serves something else—a piece of melon maybe.
The fed’s sensations go wild!
Trust me, this works.

Maybe it was overdetermined that I become a teacher of creative process…