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

Author: Miss O'

Miss O' is the pen and stage name of writer and performer and spinster Lisa O'Hara. Miss O' was an American high school English and drama teacher for 15 years, and she appreciates her freedom to leave it behind for a new life in Queens, NY. Her eBook, Easier to Live Here: Miss O' in New York City, is still available, after ten years, on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Her stage show, The Miss O' Show Teacher's Edition: Training Pants, will someday arrive in small works-in-progress venues to be announced, maybe; and in the meantime the work continues.

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