Goodness, after this CoAnQuMo post, I just have two more before the month is out! Any ideas for a blogging challenge I can do for December? Post below if you have an idea!
Alright, here’s today’s deep question:
How and when did you first realize that you were so sensitive and intuitive?
My own memories (and the stories my mother tells me) take me back to being four years old.
Here is some of my writing that encapsulates my first obsession with (and worry about) death, injustice, and cruelty:
* * *
by Courtney E. Putnam
I say it’s my first memory, but I may not remember it at all.
I see a four-year-old girl who I recognize as me. I see her with fuzzy edges, as if I am looking through milky glass. At first it looks as if she is smiling—her eyes squinting, watery glints pooling at the creases. Memory is tricky this way. But this is the story I wish to tell: the one where I have a lovely trip with my family at Glacier National Park. I watch mountain goats, elk, bald eagles. I eat smores and hot dogs. It is fun.
But let me try again:
I am four years old and walking through a mountain lodge with my mother at Glacier National Park. There is wood paneling or maybe it’s actually a log cabin, trees stacked sideways, forming a square. It’s dark inside, dimly lit. Maybe a few streams of sunlight illuminate the space. Men with big, round buckles and cowboy boots head toward the bar, and a woman behind the counter sells turquoise jewelry and postcards of glacial streams and wildflowers. And there are jars filled with hard candy selling for ten cents each. My mother buys me a grape-flavored candy cane. It tastes sweet and sticky and stains my tongue deep purple.
Or yet again:
I sit in the lobby of a mountain lodge, while my mother asks for directions at the counter. My chair is made of deep-brown suede. I stroke the arms and feel the tiny skin fibers change direction with each swipe of my hand. The hairs on my dad’s arms do this when you rub them. On the coffee table is a moose-shaped ashtray, butts lining the edges, and the fireplace is empty and cold. Above the fireplace, I spot a pair of eyes.
But this is really what happens:
A mountain goat is staring at me. He stares at no one else. Those big-buckled men walk by and he doesn’t flinch. And I stare back into those clear, brown eyes, wondering why he isn’t afraid of me. Just this morning, on a walk with my dad, we spotted mountain goats on the hillside through our binoculars. Someone shot a rifle in the air just to see them run. I lean forward a bit, then stand as if to approach him to see if he’ll move, but he remains calm. I see now the edge of his mouth curled just a bit, revealing the glint of a back tooth. His fur is an even mixture of white and gray and two curved horns stand proudly atop his head. I trace the contours of his face, neck, and torso with my eyes, hoping to see him move, just an inch, but he is still. I follow a patch of white from his neck to his chest and then hit the wall. Fur then wood. I try again: antlers, eyes, nose, neck, chest, wall. And again: eyes, neck, torso, wall. Eyes, chest, wall. Eyes, wall, eyes, wall, eyes, wall. I hold my stomach with the sting of this lie—the first lie.
This is what my body remembers:
My mother finds me breathless in my suede chair, transfixed on the wall above the fireplace.
“What is it?” she asks, and I can’t say anything. Tears start to come. For a moment, I think I see his eyes welling up with tears, too.
“What did they do to it, Mommy?” I cry. There are no legs, there is no back, there is only a wall to complete him. My back stiffens imagining being cut off from the waist down. I cannot avoid his unblinking eyes that are so real—wide and proud. My mother assures me that the goat felt no pain, and then I taste the second lie, which falls gently upon the first like a blanket. There is comfort in her words, the way a bandage covers a wound, hiding the gory scene, pretending that it doesn’t exist.
* * *
From a very young age I had questions about death. Not only was I concerned (and confused) by death in general, but I was witnessing illness and the possibility (and inevitability) of death, too. Most of my memories of my paternal grandmother include her fragile body in a hospital bed in the Putnam family farmhouse in Spokane with a loud oxygen tank murmuring away and tubes flowing into my grandmother’s nose, feeding her what emphysema was taking away.
Suffering hurt. I felt it. In me. How does a little girl even begin to understand how to work with this sort of visceral empathy? My method of choice? Having deep conversations with my parents about death and dying. A lot. When I think back on it, did my parents think I was a disturbed child? Did they worry I would become so worried and obsessed with suffering that I would forget about joy and play and levity? I guess not, because we had our talks and then I went off to play. And they even endured the phrase we had to say to each other every night before I went to sleep: “I won’t and you won’t and everything will be fine.” (Fill in the blank after “won’t” with die and you get the picture.) This ritual lasted for years.
In my tween and teen years I watched Holocaust films, re-read Anne Frank several times, watched Apartheid movies, and at 13 I became a vegetarian (which I remain today). Of course, I also was a teenager doing teenagery things like going to dances and teasing my bangs and listening to Top 40 radio. But more often than not, on a weekend, you wouldn’t find me at a party with friends. You’d find me at the Crest Theatre watching a $2 foreign film with my parents or crying in my mother’s lap, inconsolable, after seeing Sophie’s Choice for the first time.
Writing all of this makes me especially grateful for my parents right now. Thank you mom, of this world, and thank you dad, of the spirit world. What a harrowing job you had with me — what with every loss so big, so deep, every witness to suffering so heart-wrenching. When I was in my early 20s, my mom once said to me, “Your sensitivity is your greatest gift, Courtney, and it is also the hardest thing in the world.” I broke down into a pool of tears on the floor. Amen, mom. You got it. And you still get it.
When my husband reads this post, I know it won’t surprise him one bit, and he may notice that I haven’t changed much since I was that four-year-old girl crying over the stuffed mountain goat. He knows empathy runs through my bones. He knows I still cry.
with sensitivity and strength,