Demon Number Three: I, Hermit!


Alone in My Room

Miss O’ reflects on Demon #3, from her Summer Series

When I was born, my Great Aunt Lora (whose name I thought until about six years ago was spelled “Laura”), my mom’s mother’s older sister, made me a quilt. It had red and white squares in a pattern not quite checkerboard, but like that, over-embroidered with swirls of red thread, white thread quilting it together. It was measured for my twin bed, and included a pillow sham and a sham to roll an extra blanket into. I wore out the entire right side of the coverlet by sitting on it to stare into my mirror, the frame of which was painted red to match; and the mirror sat atop a quilted dresser scarf with a ruffle outlined in red, resting on a dresser that was also painted red. My walls, which began life in mint green and then robin’s egg blue, a color scheme from the 1950s, were finally painted white at some point. The room, about 7’ (maybe less) by 8’ (probably a little less), would be unsuitable for even an HGTV master closet today, but it created a nest for my dreaming ways. Though mostly red and white, including a clown lamp with white shade covered in red polka dots, and a red smiley-face rug, I remember my room in Technicolor.

Room Collage Memory, with apologies to Van Gogh and the Stones

I was the only sibling of my parents’ four kids (my older half sister and brother, from my dad Bernie’s first marriage, lived in North Carolina with their mom) to have her own room. My three younger brothers shared the third bedroom, one that included bunk bed plus trundle bed, three dressers, and shelves, in a red and blue color scheme. We thought nothing of this crowding (until it came time to wash sheets, and then dear GOD, the gymnastics), seeing as my dad slept in an attic with his brother (two of eight) back in Iowa in the 1930s, so shut up already.

My room in our small house was a sanctuary from television noise and Lego fights, and I was put in mind of that cozy feeling again today, as I always am, when watching a TCM black and white classic movie from the 1940s—when a middle class (and inevitably white) character goes upstairs and retreats to her small but very pleasant bedroom to grieve, or dream, or scheme. Everyone was so clean in those films, and the rooms were so tidy. I still find it comforting to watch—they are so safe there, so loved. I’m not a nostalgic person, but I take my comforts where I find them.

I guess it’s not surprising that I had a reputation, if brothers are to be believed, as a hermit. My strongest memories from childhood are not really in my room, though, but outside playing, and yet when I reflect, I know I spent nearly all my time in my room reading Humpty Dumpty magazine for children, and, later, Scholastic books and Nancy Drew mysteries; listening to The Partridge Family, rearranging my little objects—a music box, a few dolls, a little ceramic bust of Mary in prayer (what else?), and my makeup tray-turned-bar (a decanter of my mom’s, filled with water and red food coloring flavored with cinnamon, and a glass for “sherry”)—drawing pictures (mostly copies of the cartoons my friends drew), and writing little poems. I loved getting a little desk with a blotter when I was in 4th grade. I still don’t know how all of it fit in the room, but it did.

Meet the Welcome Wagon

In my neighborhood in the 1960s and early ’70s, with our town situated between two major military bases outside of D.C., and this being the Vietnam War, we saw a lot of military families coming and going on two-year stints. Other neighbors, mostly young families, stayed only a short time and moved away to larger homes when they began to do better financially, or to trailers when the opposite happened. I remember my neighborhood, as a young child, seeming very empty of activity, and then wild with it, trucks to work on, cars and their radios, teenagers–all those potential babysitters.

Whenever a family with young children moved in—and this habit of mine began when I was in 2nd grade or so—I took it upon myself to be the Welcome Wagon I heard about on TV but never actually saw. Naturally watchful and shy, I simply SHONE when in the company of NEW PEOPLE. “Hello, new people,” I would say, “I am Lisa O’Hara.” I befriended the kids (teachers sensed this knack, and always put me in charge of the new kids in class), introduced them around (as best I could, given that I wasn’t “cool”), and played with them even though most were much younger. I liked looking at all their stuff. Then they’d move away: Michelle (who had a collection of dolls from Korea), Sandra (who had a lot of board games I’d never heard of), Teresa (who stole my allowance from my bunny bank), Dawn (who invited me for a sleepover and whose parents kept us up watching the creepy Charlton Heston movie Omega Man on ABC’s Friday Night at the Movies), Jimmy (who taught me the expression, “Finder’s keepers, losers weepers,” which I thought was hateful), Tommy (an early crush, and his parents were real-and-for-true hippies with a “Never trust anyone over 30” poster and a “Save water, shower with a friend” poster hanging in their basement). A lot of other kids stayed around for years, though, and we’d see each other in all the schools from first grade to graduation, on college breaks, in the store, but I remained close with only one or two people I grew up with in the neighborhood. I was always more comfortable helping all the new kids—a lifelong habit—than I was in maintaining friendships in situ, as they say.

How many friends was I close to for merely a few weeks or months of a school year? Surely I wasn’t the only one. Were other people like this? When I was in high school, my mom, Lynne, gave me a copy of Truman Capote’s memoir, bound in a lovely case, called “A Christmas Memory.” It’s the brief story of his childhood with his cousin, Sook Faulk (not named in the telling), and their Christmases together, including the baking of fruitcakes. They mail the cakes to friends: “Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.”

This sentiment hit my heart just right, and so did this: “Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.”

I am, by nature, an itinerant friend, but through great good luck and the energies of others, I have a wealth of friends kept over the long haul, people who don’t seem to tire of me after a month or two once I’ve helped them into the world, showed them the ropes of the work ring, or they’ve shown me; or simply moved to a new place. It’s a little miracle. I say this because one big down side of me, Lisa, is that I tend to put the feelings of complete strangers ahead of people I am close to. Once, a new boyfriend dumped me when, because our meal came late and the boyfriend was vocally critical of the service, I made a comforting joke to the waiter. Things like that. All the time. Somehow I feel it’s my job to take care of the feelings of strangers I will never see again in all my life. I have no idea why I do this.

I think it’s this habit of being—of being itinerant in my acquaintances and at ease in fast friendships—that made teaching a natural fit. I like meeting new people, working with them, and letting them go at end of term. I like moving on to the next people. Or rather, I did. At 52, much as I really love chatting up strangers here and there, making new deep friendships isn’t something I look for. I am so grateful for the ones I have. So lucky.

I must also note that I tend to inadvertently hurt new acquaintances because I create the feeling of ease and intimacy so quickly: They assume, these New People, that they have this new best friend, after the simplest of compliments or a casual funny remark, and sometimes there’s really no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. “Hi,” I want to say to them, “I am Lisa Oakland.” And I feel bad about it, but not bad enough to protect feelings that might turn into “glomming,” as in “glomming onto me” for some kind of therapeutic reason or something. “No, really, I am Lisa Oakland.”

Dance, Ballerina

Oh, the sweet silence of my room. The pleasant feeling of walking into my very own room. It never gets old. In the silence of my room…I used to talk out loud, acting out scenes as if writing them, except out loud—and little, if anything, made it on to paper. After performing many of these scenes in the 3′ x 2′ of open floor space, I might, perhaps, dress up in one of my mom’s glamorous dresses from her swinging years as a naval officer in San Juan, and humbly, graciously accept my Academy Award. I would also accept offers to dance, or accept a date from Errol Flynn or David Cassidy. Games of my imagination felt very natural in the safety of my room, but outside playing with the kids from my street, any game other than kick ball or tag or racing on bikes would have made me feel foolish.

Above all, I remember that I spent hours staring into the mirror. Who am I? What will I become? What’s in a face? Why can’t I see my own eyes without a mirror?

Somehow, I turned inward into outward, walked through or past the looking glass, and tried out for plays. I wrote parodies of books, or musical versions of our dramatic efforts, such as Dracula set to the music of The Wizard of Oz.

 Weeeeeeeee’re OFF to see Count Dracula,

The count is a really bad guy!

If we don’t stab him in his coffin,

Then we all will die…”

Followed by: “Crosses and garlic and sun, oh my!”

I dreamed of being fabulous, glamorous, witty, and cool. An actor, a writer, a dancer, a dazzling interview guest on Dinah!. I also dreamed of being a school teacher. No one knew this. No one could have imagined how my imagination lit up while crooning along to Sinatra or Nat King Cole on my record player, performing Peggy Lee-style to the face of my clown lamp. I may have been a hermit; maybe I missed out on a lot of action out in the world. Who knows? And how to explain that being up on a stage, or in front of a classroom, feels just as safe as being alone in my old room? It’s the oddest thing.

I still live alone. A few roommates aside, I mostly always have. Was I right to play like this, live like this? Play at being a teacher to my dolls, being a performer for my stuffed animals—giving my all, all of me, once more with feeling, all for strangers I’d never meet, and later to perfect strangers? As Truman Capote might say, I think yes.

Miss O’, ca. 1976



Demon! Number! Two! Second in a Summer Series

Demon Blog #2 July 16, 2016

In my continuing summer series based on the encouraging work of cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry in One! Hundred! Demons!, I bring you Miss O’s Demon No. 2:

Miss O’s Demon #2

My Big Fat Mouth

It is in the small moments that I do it: Walking through a derelict section of town, a dust bowl, a collection of tall weeds and small multicolored houses from the 1930s, probably, now in decay, but still inhabited; a dirt road, maybe the last on this side of the county, runs its short length. My brother Pat and his friends always called it Carney Town, after their classmate Jimmy Carney, who lived there. They were being mean, in that thoughtless way little boys can be, but I wasn’t naturally mean, so I didn’t realize it. I thought the name was real, like a place named after its founder. Our grown older brother Craig was visiting, so Pat said, “Hey, can you walk us to the store?” We took “the path,” a supposed Indian trail behind the housing development where we lived, which ran through woods along a creek over to the elementary school, ending at Blackburn Road. We crossed the paved road and began walking the dirt road that led to the loading docks behind the new grocery store, a short cut. As we walked in the summer sun, I was feeling so free, just us kids hanging out and the dust blowing from the road; I announced to Craig our location, like an asinine tour guide.

“This is Carney Town!” I exclaimed, smiling.

Pat said, whispering hard, “God, Lisa, don’t say that out loud!”

“Why not?”

“It’s a JOKE. That’s Jimmy’s last name. We just call it that.”

“Why do you call it that?” I asked. Pat just shook his head.

And then I got it. And I wanted to die.

Collage response to Miss O’s Demon #2

I have done this sort of thing as long as I can remember. Sometimes I have the flair of a comedian, and the older I get and the less stupid I become, the more I manage that identity most of the time; but sometimes, especially in my youth, I might just humiliate myself, and everyone around me, with the casual gaffe. It’s my gift—the riches of embarrassment.

It’s a knife-edge I walk between funny and destructive over the shit-road leading outta my mouth. My brain makes a shift from surprisingly thoughtful to you did not just say that in the trip of a tongue. Here is a typical moment: Once, in high school, my friend Jason’s sister tried to commit suicide by taking twenty-two aspirin tablets. Jason was kind of a kook, troubled in many ways that would become apparent in later years, but he was wildly funny in a sarcastic way, laughing sometimes too loudly at the antics of others, or saying something bitingly nasty while serving you homemade cookies. You just never knew. One Friday night a group of us got together, all of us knowing what had happened to Jason’s sister, who had survived her suicide attempt and was in the hospital. We were all eating popcorn, sitting on the basement floor, I beside Jason. Someone shared an anecdote and remarked at the close, “I could have died right there!” to which Jason said, “Next time take twenty-two aspirins.” There was a silence, and I said, “Twenty-three.”

A beat.

And Jason collapsed with the most full-bodied laughter I’d ever seen. It was disturbing, but it gave the room a release—a terrible joke that came off, a blend of the situation, the recipient, and the timing, balancing on a knife-edge. I am haunted by the big fat mouth portion of this story, in any case, because I later learned about many problems Jason had, and how close I was to having it all go wrong. For example, not long ago, one mutual friend reminded me of a time that he, Jason, and I went to the mall, Jason driving, and that Jason later told the friend that he’d intended to kill himself on the highway that day, and take us with him, but that we’d made him laugh so hard he forgot to do it.

Is the story true? Did Jason really mean to do that? Suppose I’d said something that sent him careening into a guardrail while doing eighty? How could I have known? Did my big fat mouth, after all, save us?

For Living Out Loud

I live in New York City, where I take mass transit most every day with a hundred strangers on any given car and more on the streets, and somehow I still find myself talking out loud. Yesterday, for instance, I was saying something out loud on 7th Avenue by the Uptown 1-2-3 subway entrance, when a woman coming around to the entrance from the other side looked at me quizzically, and then said, gruffly, “Go ahead,” and used her arm like a maître d’, though she was closer to the entrance. My eyes widened, and I said, “No, please, go, I was just talking to myself.” I laughed. And she began descending the stairs, saying over her shoulder, “Oh, I do that all the time, too,…”. And you see, she was black, with an afro, and Obama had done this race “town hall” on ABC that afternoon, one that had turned into whites saying in essence that black people need to learn to behave and “comply,” with so little talk about the need for new training of law enforcement that it’s become a national humiliation, our racism—and I have no idea what I’d been saying, while talking to myself, I don’t know what she heard, or thought she heard, that caused her to assume something “entitled” about white me. But somehow, in being present to her, in simply saying the honest thing—that I was talking to myself—and laughing at myself, we figured out if not an intimacy, at least some kind of stair bond to get us to our trains.

Would You Mind Not Posting about Politics on Facebook?

F*#% you.

I say that with love. And often in print.

Guts and Glory: I Dream a Mouth

Listen, it’s not just talking to myself in public or loudly exclaiming my politics in social media and at the office that makes me unattractive. When I was in fifth grade, I said to Lori Grimaldi, “I hate your guts.” I’m not necessarily always a nice person, is what I mean. Sometimes I’m also a rat. Once, when I was around that same age as when I told off Lori back there, I told a fat old lady in a sleeveless house dress who was complaining about “these kids” that my brother Pat was one of them, and she said, “I’m calling the law.” And she was as good as her word, first calling up our house asking for my father. I’d answered the phone and then lied with “You have the wrong number,” and hung up. But she called again, and this time my dad, Bernie, answered. My face burned. I ran upstairs. The world was over—everyone was going to go to jail, Pat was going to jail, all because of my big fat mouth. But as it was, my dad talked the fat old lady down by threatening to countersue her “for calling those kids names,” and she shut up. “How did she get our number?” my dad asked me. Search me, I said. But I could never lie well, and his stare blew a hole through my heart and out my mouth.

I got over it.

I kept talking. I could keep talking about incidents like this, I gotta million of ’em, but I think you get the picture.

Where I worry most about the consequences of my big fat mouth, where my regrets run in mind mazes of torment, is when I try to get to sleep nights and begin recalling my life as a teacher. I’ve written blogs in the past (feel free to read them here and here) about particular students or classroom examples, but the truth is I don’t know how many times a smart remark or a naïve exclamation has ruined the days of how many people. Poor kids, I think to myself. God knows what I’ve said to let them down, because what I recall myself is most likely but a little spittle in the life spittoon.

Where do I still find the courage to talk? To crack jokes? To yell about injustice? To write and publish, to go out into the world making casual remarks on the subway hoping for a laugh? To tell a son of a bitch to calm the f*#% DOWN already? Where does anyone find it?

Red faces didn’t stop me. Braces didn’t stop me. The possibility of a smack upside the head still doesn’t stop me. Even the threat of the law, I guess, won’t make me shut it.

All I really want from this mouth of mine is either to make someone think or to make someone laugh.

Make my day.

Miss O’ announces her braces, ca. 1976.





One! Summer’s! Demons! With gratitude to Lynda Barry, though this is not her fault

Demons of Miss O’

This summer, inspired by my dear friend of 26 years, poet Jean LeBlanc, I am rereading her gift book to me, One! Hundred! Demons! by artist and writer Lynda Barry. When I first read it a year ago, or was it two, I enjoyed it. I was on a bus returning to New York City from Jean’s home (shared with husband George, retired school teacher and bead artist, and also a friend of 26 years) in western New Jersey, and the book was perfect for a two-hour ride; it was diverting, but at that time not wholly inspiring. I thought about the book, the art, the stories. I shelved it. I spent another year being depressed and creating nothing. Still in need of inspiration, obviously, after a year, I finally found the THING at a poetry workshop this past June, arranged by Jean, with poet and dancer Katrinka Moore (coincidentally a former colleague of mine in educational publishing). Through the processes of “erasure” and “augmentation” (do Google this, and the poets, too—must I hyperlink? must I?) with assorted pages of text, I felt I’d found a way to reconnect to the written word. And moved into rereading Lynda Barry’s book again by reading another Barry book, set out for me as Jean and George’s guest, What It Is, I realized that all of us go dry, aren’t sure where to turn—creatively or personally or life-wise—and that that is what art might be for.

So I have begun this past week listing my own 100 Demons, which is not the process Barry models at all—she models painting them out, an empty mind open to discovery and surprise, the traditional Buddhist way. My paintbrush, as it were, tends to be my eyes washing over the masses living in New York, and they inspire demons to appear before me so fiercely that I have to write them down. And since I can’t seem to locate the necessary Asian art supplies and really want to start, I’m beginning by using what I have at hand. In this blog this summer, I’ll be laying the resulting demons out and commenting on them in terms of teaching, which seems to be what I do and who I am, no matter what dreams I may have to the contrary or to the more glamorous. Dammit. Another demon.

Demon #1 PRAYER Demon

Photo 1: My painting using calligraphy practice paper, dried up India ink, water, and nearly-dry gold paint, all stored in a cardboard box where I keep 25-year-old calligraphy stuff, a gift from my parents back when I was a young teacher with dreams of lettering, and brushes I bought back in college for making watercolor renderings in set design and costume design classes. To the DEMON.

Demon Art #1 by LO’H


Photo #2: My story, in brief. Curtains up on the…

Demon Story #1 by LO’H

 Miss O’, Teacher, responds/elaborates/queries:

In first grade, my mom, Lynne, had me wear a little gold cross to dress up my velvet multi-colored-stripe dress for picture day. This was a very expensive little necklace, very fine and delicate, and was only for special occasions. It had been a gift from my godmother, I think. So nervous was I, I guess, about hurting it, that I took it off for recess, putting in on the little tray just inside my school desk. When I returned with the rest of the class, the necklace was gone. That moment is amazingly vivid for me—the taking off of the necklace—and all my life since I’ve had to endure the premonition problem, that knowing that I am damned if I do, and if I don’t. (I’ve always known, when lending an item, whether or not it will be returned. I have not been wrong, and this is scary.) I remember that I told my mom but nothing else about it, and years later, when looking at pictures, she told me always regretted making me wear that cross. She blamed herself, though of course it was the sneak thief and his or her parents. My mom was always very fair to us that way, owning her choices.

That summer, though, or maybe the summer after second grade, my mom became troubled that I had no idea who Jesus was. “Who is Jesus? Why do kids keep talking about Jesus?” I asked. One day, I found myself crammed into a station wagon with the Hollisters, Jimmy and Teresa, as well as other neighbor kids, for an adventure in Vacation Bible School. I lasted one day. “We cut out pictures of Jesus and put him on popsicle sticks to carry around. Why are we doing this?” I demanded of my mom. I remember being disgusted, standing there on the yellow and beige asbestos kitchen tiles, wearing a tidy dress of some sort when I ought to be in shorts from Sears Roebuck. Strike two for Christianity.

But it was in middle school that the real “you need to find Jesus” or “you need to find God” pressure started. All the girls at lunch, the white, tall girls from the posh section of our suburbs, who’d been bused in from their overcrowded middle school, went on and on about God. I couldn’t help noticing that the people who most professed the need for God and the love of Jesus in my state of Virginia were either poor and black or rich and white. If you were working class or middle class, and not aspiring for riches so much as hoping to maintain a decent status quo, God was sort of a fact of life without the proselytizing.

And in college, some of us would try an occasional midnight mass. Our parents’ religious upbringings or personal beliefs notwithstanding, I and most of my friends enjoyed the American right of freedom of (and from) religion, and we enjoyed it with grace.

A few years ago, on a visit to Iowa and staying with my mom’s cousin, Denny, a longtime deacon in the Catholic church, I came downstairs to find him standing, eyes closed, hands against the wall, and he looked up. “You caught me in my morning prayers,” he said quietly, and then grinned. He became serious again. “Do you pray?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought about it—not since the Passion of the Plane Crash ca. 1979 (I think it was, and I am learning that I don’t need to Google this event just to prove a date, because really, is that even the point?)—and was surprised to hear a golden truth come out of my mouth: “Uncle Denny, I’m never not in prayer.” He regarded me and nodded. He’s a man who sees a truth told. “Wanna go to the cemetery?” he asked. And we did that.

Prayer for me is a private act. It’s not something that can be coaxed from me, nor advertised for on social media, nor requested on the phone. It’s an act performed at the oddest times and places, and that’s all I’ll say. To ask for prayers seems to me a kind of violation of basic etiquette, like telling me to send you a present for your birthday. Prayer for me is above all an expression of love, bestowed upon those I love, and some I don’t, freely, with real heart, and truly.

And finally, it’s not a little cross necklace worn on picture day, or Jesus on a stick.

But your way of praying is your way, and just as valid if it gets you through the chemo, the surgery, the childbirth, the deaths of parents. I wouldn’t take it away, though I may not answer in the way you want or at all.

I pray that with love.

Miss O’, ca. 1970