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Fun Downey FactsorWhat I Learned at the Family ReunionNiece Courtney is a writer. She’s published two novels. She didn’t talk about her writing when I saw her, but Cousin Allen—her dad—told me she enters (and wins!) writing contests. She does NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Only serious writers do NaNoWriMo: write a 50,00-word book in November. Courtney’s a quiet one, and you always have to wonder what the quiet ones in the family are up to. Now I know...
Fun Downey Facts
What I Learned at the Family Reunion
Niece Courtney is a writer. She’s published two novels. She didn’t talk about her writing when I saw her, but Cousin Allen—her dad—told me she enters (and wins!) writing contests. She does NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Only serious writers do NaNoWriMo: write a 50,00-word book in November. Courtney’s a quiet one, and you always have to wonder what the quiet ones in the family are up to. Now I know what Courtney’s been up to. While everybody else is thinking about Thanksgiving turkey, she's writing a book. Courtney Downey is a word goddess.
I’m the runt of the litter. My sister Michelle and I have been the same height since we stopped growing. Five feet three. The rest of the family shot up to six feet, give or take. (Except big brother Michael, who stopped around five nine.) Being the same height as my big sister has been a point of pride. We’re members of a club nobody else in the family can get into. So there. This week, some busybody asked Michelle how tall she was. She said, “Five four.” How could she abandon me? I’m seeing my therapist tomorrow.
Brother Bill’s the story-teller champ. It’s not fair, really, because Bill’s traveled around the world, and he’s a pediatrician. He covers all angles. Erudite historical-geographical stories. Or cute kid-patient anecdotes. I started to report on seeing the musical, Hamilton, which I figured my entire family would be jealous of, yay. But right after my opening, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Al had to check their phones. Michelle moseyed to the kitchen for a glass of wine. Michael wandered off to bed. Bill started talking about some baby with a bent penis, and they all sat up, rushed back in, and alerted the media. I don’t know which is sadder: having your story peter out, and nobody even notices. Or shouting your story louder and louder and still getting no attention. I went with both strategies. My story-talking was pitiful. Which is why I write.
Cousin Allen is my hero. While he was patting burgers into shape to go on the grill, he said, “I always love it when you come to town, because after you visit, Courtney writes.” In one sentence he encouraged two writers to keep going. His daughter Courtney. And his cousin Dawn.
Cousin Allen is my hero, part 2. While we we were eating those burgers at his dining room table, I tried another story. I should have learned. Sure enough, the first words out of my mouth reminded Uncle Al of a story he had to tell just then, and I have to admit, it was hilarious. But here’s the thing, after we all snorted pop out of our noses and passed around the potato chips, Allen said, “Dawn, what were you saying?” Cousin Allen is now my favorite Downey. Sorry, Uncle Al.
Michelle makes it quiet. My cousin Roberta was in the process of moving. Her cute little apartment was a chaos of half-packed boxes that we climbed over, around, and through to find the couch. Michelle and Roberta ended up facing each other from opposite sides of the living room. Conversation was jumpy, the way you feel during a move. Michelle looked at Roberta, down past her face, all the way into her heart. The apartment stopped jumping. Michelle asked, “Are you okay? How are you doing since Lynn died?” Only a few weeks ago, Roberta’s sister—my other cousin—had died. What’s wrong with me? I hadn’t even offered condolences. I hadn’t even remembered. On top of that noise, my brain was busy predicting that Roberta would answer fine, I'm fine. My brain was muted by the silence that stretched between Roberta and Michelle. My cousin’s heart floated over to my sister like a dust moat caught in a beam of sunlight. Then Roberta said, “I don’t know.” Something I should learn to say more often.
Safe travels, Roberta.
Mice in the House
I avoid the basement for a month. I see droppings at the top of the basement stairs, and inside the garage door, but getting rid of mice requires first convincing my husband that rodents have invaded. He, like any sane person, will not be happy to learn about the mice. He will frown. Seeing his frown, I will wither and die.When I was a kid, you got chewed out for reporting bad news. What the hell did you have to complain about? It was safer to keep your mouth shut and your head low.To avoid my...
I avoid the basement for a month. I see droppings at the top of the basement stairs, and inside the garage door, but getting rid of mice requires first convincing my husband that rodents have invaded. He, like any sane person, will not be happy to learn about the mice. He will frown. Seeing his frown, I will wither and die.
When I was a kid, you got chewed out for reporting bad news. What the hell did you have to complain about? It was safer to keep your mouth shut and your head low.
To avoid my husband’s frown, I avoid the basement.
The washer’s in the basement. We run out of clean underwear.
Logic tells me avoidance works in favor of the enemy. The mice are reproducing. Shitting. Chewing. Eating away the resale value of our house.
If I live through my husband’s frown, I’ll have to put myself in close proximity to the droppings in order to point them out to him.
“Honey …” (Honey … is my stall tactic, which gives me time to build up the nerve to say whatever comes next.) “I think we have mice.”
I point out the droppings.
In the ring of light thrown by the flashlight, he doesn’t see what I see.
I have to go into the basement. Where cobwebs hang from the ceiling, and boxes hide demons from my childhood nightmares. The concrete floor smells damp from the last rain, the air clammy. A faint odor of decay clings to the back of my throat. I shine the light behind the furnace. “Over here.” I stifle the quaver in my voice.
When I was a kid, you got slammed onto the sidewalk for being afraid. You ran away from a fight? Get the hell up out of my sight.
“And here, in front of this shelving unit.”
I shine the flashlight on the unmistakable evidence. He takes the flashlight and traces the trail along the wall.
I wait for him to say, Oh my god, sweetheart, what a nightmare you’ve been living through. I’ll drive you to a hotel and come get you after I’ve called an exterminator and killed every mouse within a hundred miles.”
He says, “I’ll get traps at Lowes and set them out.”
I ‘m disoriented. His solution is too simple, his voice too calm. The house is a death trap. Threats are crawling up my legs and dropping from the ceiling into my hair. Winter is coming. My husband is my last line of defense against undead wights, and he is suggesting mousetraps.
The traps catch a mouse. He’s elated, a boy who just caught the biggest fish ever. “Great news. I got one.”
I feel faint. One dead mouse means 500 alive. I search pest-kill dot com for reasons your traps aren’t catching any mice. After twenty hours of online research and two hours rehearsing an anti-mouse speech, I become suspicious the mice have mutated from nuisance into obsession.
“Honey … I read the mice might have moved to a different pathway, that we need more traps, that we need fresh bait.”
He replenishes the bait and runs to Lowe’s for additional traps. Relief washes over me, as my full-body clench relaxes. While he’s gone, I restore a sense of control, by cleaning the kitchen.
On his return he says, “Show me where you want these.”
I will not survive another trip to the basement. My real self collapses into my socks, leaving a shell of skin that looks like me. My surprised socks wonder what’s going on. Why is my real self running for her life? What’s chasing her?
My husband says, “We’re a team. Battle!”
The battle cry ignites a tiny spark of power. Retrieving my shoes from the bedroom, I fan the spark by striking a Warrior II pose. “Battle.” I’ve got to be quick. Warrior II confidence will last only ten minutes.
(When I was a kid, the basement was the dog’s outhouse. If you complained about the stink —. Hell, you didn’t complain about the stink.)
My husband sets traps. Near the washer. In the corner. Along the wall. I point to shelves in our crypt-sized storage room. I’m light-headed. My heart races.
“No,” he says, “there’s no reason for them to be on those shelves. They wouldn’t be in—.”
“There’s one right there.”
An inch from his foot lies a dead mouse.
A riptide sucks me out to sea. I’m drowning, trapped in the undertow. The ocean churns me end over end. Pushes me into the depths. Sky vanishes. Legs and arms fight for the surface. Which way? Lungs scream for oxygen. Don’t scream; don’t breathe; don’t open your mouth. A wave spits me onto the shore.
My husband finds me on the patio. I’m bent over a flower pot, pretending to putter. But I’m choking down sunlight and fresh air. My real self is curled into a fetal position.
He says, “I got rid of the mouse. It’s great, it was dead.”
He is speaking to me as though I’m a grown-ass woman, as though we’re homeowners handling a household situation. He’s completely fallen for my act.
“Honey ….” I clench a handful of soil in the pot, but there’s no strength to hold it. The soil slips though my fingers. “I think maybe …” God, he’s going to ridicule me. “I don’t know what …” A shame-induced migraine pings to life in my left eyebrow. “Something really bad, something about mice, must have happened to me when I was little.”
He wraps me in his arms. “Yes.”
At last, I’m safe.
Compassion Fayetteville Report
My Fayetteville Arkansas trifecta has passed. Three events in which the little college town showed its kindness and sense of inclusion.On Saturday I attended a dinner for the supporters and partners of Compassion Fayetteville. I got to set up a vendor table. Sitting at a vendor table is one of my favorite activities. I never sit. When someone wanders over, I have automatic permission to say hi and then get all in their business. One customer told me about his grown children living in a suburb...
My Fayetteville Arkansas trifecta has passed. Three events in which the little college town showed its kindness and sense of inclusion.
On Saturday I attended a dinner for the supporters and partners of Compassion Fayetteville. I got to set up a vendor table. Sitting at a vendor table is one of my favorite activities. I never sit. When someone wanders over, I have automatic permission to say hi and then get all in their business. One customer told me about his grown children living in a suburb of Kansas City. He knew more about my city than I did. Sometimes he visits without telling his children he’s there. That way he can be in the heart of the city visiting the Nelson art museum or taking in a show at the Midland. Talking with him, I got a new appreciation for Kansas City. Oh, eventually we got around to my writing, and he bought a book.
On Sunday morning, I was the featured speaker at Unity of Fayetteville. Church. I’m a dedicated sinner, and I don’t like going to church. But, darn, what am I supposed to do when somebody dangles an audience in front of me? I was a bit nervous beforehand, so I went out to the parking lot and went through some of my voice teacher’s exercises. I felt like a real pro, an opera star warming up. Added benefit: focusing on voice exercises diminished the stage fright. The sanctuary was filled with friends who’ve let me read them stories for the past fifteen years. When I delivered the punch line, one of them shouted, “Amen!”
A number of folks who were in church came to my benefit reading Sunday afternoon, in a friend’s living room. There’s something magical about the intimacy of a living room. The audience a few inches away from me, close enough to pat on the shoulder. As I read, we looked each other in the eyes, and we felt the same emotions. There were tears. A lot of laughing. Moments of silence. After the floor was opened to questions, our hostess, Dian, mentioned race. She said I wrote about race in a way she’d never heard before. And we were off, the living room energized by a fantastic conversation about how in the world white people and non-white people might get through this tension-fueled quagmire. And how the quagmire relates to Dawn Downey’s Four Steps to Oneness.
On Monday morning, I wrote a check to Compassion Fayetteville, half of the book sales I’d earned all weekend. As a child, I’d wanted somebody to wake me from my night terrors, as well as the day-time life that fed them. I’m moved by Compassion Fayetteville, because here’s an organization that’s rescuing people from their nightmares. As a writer, I want my words to do good out there in the world. When I wrote the check, it meant my words had contributed something tangible.
Fayetteville, thanks for including me.