Saturday, May 29, 2010

How I Narrowly Escaped Death by Massacre in My Freshman Year and Became an Honorary Steel Magnolia

In 1969, I arrived at my small, Southern college. I don't think I can adequately describe the cultural disconnect between the life I had led--in the metropolitan New York area--and the slow, placid, humid way of life I found in South Carolina. The emphasis was on civility and the Ladies' Rule Book was truly scary, with caveats like "no double dating at Lake Greenwood," "over-display of affection will result in punishment," "girls wearing slacks must exit by the side door only," etc.

Ever the editor, I edited my behavior, then watched and waited. I learned not to let my impatience show when waiting 20 minutes for a fountain drink, not to balk at the strange food (okra!grits!), and to withhold judgment about the level of sophistication of the residents. I had to remember that I was a guest in a strange land, where the people were different and I was completely uninformed. I took the required Freshman Bible course, bided my time, and adapted. I even acquiesced to Freshman hazing, singing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song and wearing a stupid beanie. It all seems so innocent now. It was kind of like summer camp, extended into the fall.

Because I didn't want to be "that horrible Yankee," a label I heard attached to another girl from the North, I was probably more willing to accept the eccentricities of our house mother, Miz Frazier. Of course, the Miz had nothing to do with liberation--it was just the way Miss was pronounced. I think Miss became a firm Miz once a girl had passed the years of spinsterhood and meandered into a kind of girlish crone state. Clearly, she had not forgotten her former debutante glory; she had never grown her wardrobe into adulthood. Miz Frazier and ruffles were good friends.

Miz Frazier lived in a "suite" on the main floor of the dorm, and monitored the comings and goings of the girls like a trapdoor spider. She could hear a pin drop from a half mile away, I swear, and if she caught you passing, you were invited in. She served iced tea and delighted in instructing girls on cosmetics application. You could always tell who had gotten caught in Miz Frazier's web that day, because they looked like puppets, with coral cheeks. Coral was Miz Frazier's chosen color, selected when she was a girl herself, and she never deviated from her colorpath. Miz Frazier was a practitioner of schadenfreude--she appeared to commiserate with girls who were guileless enough to share their boyfriend troubles, but in reality delighted in these youthful disasters.

Each night, Miz Frazier rolled her hair up in rollers. She used exactly five rollers, purple ones, with a cover that snapped over, giving each curl a permanent crease when removed. There were big airy holes in her hairdo, and she didn't always feel that washing the hair was required. Some nights, she used a dry powder spray instead of shampoo. Afterwards, she slathered on her cold cream and made her rounds, rollers wrapped in a hideous scarf. She had a well-worn frilly nightgown and robe and purple fuzzy slippers. She covered all three floors of the beautiful old mansion, checking on us and making sure we weren't planning a hippie revolution. Then she would gather us out in the hall, where we would sing "Now the Day Is Over," and some other clapping song. After that, we were usually free to pop some popcorn and get on with our evening.

One night, however, the routine changed. We heard her coming around the dorm, around 11 p.m., as usual, but her progress was marked by the sound of hammering. When she reached our floor, we observed her nailing the huge hallway windows shut.

"What's going on, Miz Frazier?" we asked. "Why are you nailing the windows shut?"

"Oh, my poor dahlings! The most awful thing has happened. Miz Jeanne Dixon has issued a prediction this day. She has predicted that theah will be a massacre at a small southern college! I am having palpitations. We must prepare for the worst. We are so vulnerable heah, with these big windows and all you innocent children at risk. But don't give it another thought, I have made us all safe now."

"But Miz Frazier, we all have big windows in our rooms."

"Well, you must nail your windows shut then, and push your steamer trunks in front of your doors. Remain in your rooms and wait for morning. If we get to morning, we'll be safe."

Now, at this point in my life, I was aware that Miz Frazier wasn't quite all there, but this was still an edict from an authority figure and neither I nor my friends were able to quite ignore the possible danger.

So we nailed our windows shut, pushed all our furniture in front of our doors, and armed ourselves with long bamboo spikes that we had kept as souvenirs from the temporary fence that had been one of the decorations at the Formal Freshman Soiree. We looked like a psychotic group of natives, half of us with rollers and green face masques, tearing the furniture away from the door and running into the hall at each strange sound, spears at the ready.

One girl, a charming southern belle who knitted all her own clothes, was especially disturbed by the rumor. (I'm not kidding, she knitted everything she owned and made afghans, slippers, scarves, etc. for presents. I never saw her without her knitting. She knitted her dresses, for God's sake. I think she had some kind of ADD or something; she could only think while knitting.) Anyway, at one point there was a big thump on the roof, and we all ran out of our rooms, crowding into the hallway. But here came Knitting Girl, and she had a RIFLE! A loaded RIFLE! Apparently, her dad wanted her to feel safe, and insisted she keep it in her closet.

"You idiots!" she screamed. "This is just what they want! They make a noise, and you just come out of your rooms like lambs to the slaughter. Then they can kill us all at once! Get back into your rooms and STAY THERE!"

Well, we did stay in our rooms after that--because we were afraid of getting shot by Knitting Girl. And the poor boys who had gotten wind of the rumor and were up on the roof trying to scare us were lucky they didn't get massacred by Knitting Girl.

Well, of course, the night passed; dawn arrived. We were alive, sleepy, older, and wiser. Miz Frazier was sheepish, but unbowed. "We must nevah forget, girls, that we are southern women, and as such, we are expected to handle any emergency and still be ladies."

I listened to Jean Shepherd on the radio for a lot of my childhood, and sometimes I could even hear his broadcast all the way down at college. I know Jean would have loved this story. I always wished I could have told it to him.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Man Who Came to My Door

I have had two mystical, unexplainable experiences in my life. There are a couple of other close contenders for miracles, but that's a story for another day. Today, I'm going to tell you about the first of my top two: The Man Who Came to My Door.

When I was first married, my husband and I acted as superintendents of a small garden apartment complex, getting free rent in return for managing rentals, taking care of hiring people to do repairs, managing the staff of part-time staff who cleaned the halls, landscaped, and plowed in the winter. We were the people who arranged for apartments to be painted when they were vacant, or helped the seniors who couldn't manage carrying groceries, or called the plumber. I got pretty good at fixing the boiler, which had a room of its own and was the size of an SUV, and as temporamental as an opera diva. The things I said to that boiler, honestly, I'm ashamed. Once, I remember, someone who hadn't been in our apartment before jumped about 3 feet into the air when the boiler came on in the adjacent basement area. I had become accustomed to "Bertha's" noisy eruptions, but for those unprepared, her noises could give quite a start.

Anyway, the strangest thing happened one afternoon. The doorbell rang, I answered it, and there stood an elderly man, slight of build, with the most amazing hair and eyes I had ever seen. His hair was white and downy, like a baby bird, almost blue-white in the sun. He actually seemed to glow. And his eyes--to this day I can't describe them. They were a blue that doesn't exist in eyes, a kind of luminescent cobalt and intense light blue that seemed to see right into my head. They were laser eyes, but kind and good. He radiated kind and good.

His clothes were clean but well worn. The thing I remember about his long-sleeved shirt is that the sleeves had been shortened in an odd way, with just a seam up around the bicep to make them short enough to fit him. Why I remember this detail--I don't know. Our entire interaction couldn't have been more than 30 seconds, but that stuck with me.

He asked very politely if I was Alyson Stone, née Button. That's what he said 'née Button'." I said yes, thinking that he was someone who wanted to rent an apartment. His gaze sizzled across the doorjamb. "I have been sent to give this to you." And with that, he handed me a dogeared, yellowish paperback book. I looked down at the book long enough to absorb the title; I looked up again to talk to the man. The man was gone. Simply gone. I went outside and looked around. Gone. Impossible. Gone.

The book was a manual on how to meditate. It described a process for imagining yourself going down a flight of stairs to an anteroom, sort of like a museum with showcases, then down another flight to a room of your design, furnished and outfitted in any way you wished. There should be, in this room, the book said, a comfortable chair in front of a screen on the wall. There were instructions for projecting healing thoughts, comforting thoughts, toward people you had come across in your daily life. There was an elevator for "guests" or "consultants" to appear. (I never know who will show up in that elevator, it's often a complete surprise.)

Of course I couldn't help but pay attention to the tenets of the book; I have used these techniques ever since. The book was not popular, not mainstream, not even traditional for meditation techniques. I would never have considered reading such a book. But the main reason I paid attention is because I alone knew the truth. That something impossible had happened to me, that the man who brought the book was magical in some way that I couldn't understand, but was willing to accept. The way I got the book made it easy to step into the magic; it gave me a rational reason to walk off the path and into the woods.

Before The Man Who Came to My Door, I worried constantly about things I couldn't do anything about: plane crash victims, droughts in Africa, poverty, starving children. I wasted my time fretting about things over which I had no control. All my worrying was just a purple haze around my head, serving no useful purpose.

Around the same time I read a simple statement that someone wrote in an interview in one of the women's magazines. The person said, "I try to take what God puts in my path--and act on it with grace." It struck home with me suddenly: I can't do anything about Somalia or a plane crash in Nepal. But I can spend the night sitting up with Mrs. Goldstein in 4G when she is scared. I can help her feel safe. She is in my path. Let me just put one foot in front of the other on this path.

So that is how I moved forward. I did my "concentrating," "my blue light," "my meditating," --I've never really settled on a description that is really accurate. I do no harm. I do not know if what I do helps, but I don't think it can hurt. The purple haze is gone. I try to imagine my thoughts like the gaze of The Man Who Came to My Door--a laser beam of blue, directed outward to the universe.