Guest Post: Tiny Superstitions

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This is kind of a ghost story.

It’s about memories and magic, and it’s about all the ways my mother taught us to believe in small bits of wonder. It’s about hoping for the best while facing the worst, and it’s about pattern-seeking behavior. I lost my mother to cancer on December 29, 2017, after eight years of battling colon cancer. I have been trying to write this personal essay since March 2016.

This is for you, Mom. I will always leave the rocking chair rocking if you’d like to come and sit.

I have always been drawn to ghost stories. I have always been drawn to any strange or unusual story, any bump in the night that would have me. While this isn’t altogether unusual — who doesn’t love a mystery, or a sense in a world beyond what we see? — I have started to suspect I am drawn to them in a different way. So often, we are taught to be frightened of the unknown. Cautionary tales flourish in this genre, small words to protect us from our own darkest natures. Don’t go into the woods alone at night without a lantern. Don’t eat things a stranger gives you. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times.

I find in these stories solace, rather than terror. Not that we tell them, but that they exist at all. I think being drawn to the unknown comes not solely from a destructive urge to gaze into the abyss, but from the thrilling notion that we can challenge everything. Not every secret is known, and not every outcome is written in the stars. If there are things beyond what we can see, then there are things we see right in front of us that might be part of something big and mysterious, too.

The unknowable thing in my life for nearly a decade has been the cancer in my mom’s body. I have spent my adult life holding lantern in its wilderness, the shadows cast around me scattering fear and hope tangled endlessly into the brambles. I am not an expert in anything, not grief nor medicine nor other people’s stories. But I have clumsy hands and a clumsy heart, and if I can add a story to the string of tales that have brought me comfort, I might as well try.

We are, as humans, inclined to seek patterns in the day-to-day. My mom was no exception. Her combination of Biblical knowledge, a Farmer’s Almanac approach to weather, and allegorical stories of a childhood in the deep, deep South have created a bevy of tiny myths and superstitions in my family. It’s the kind of miniature magic you don’t think about very hard while it’s happening. A handful of these include:

1) Bubbles in your coffee mean money’s coming.

2) Eating greens, pork, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day ensures a good year.

3) Leave your pumpkins lit all night on Halloween, and your Christmas lights lit all night on Christmas Eve.

4) Never rock an empty rocking chair, or you’ll invite a ghost to sit in it.

5) Seeing a cardinal is a sign of good fortune.

I told her all the time that she was superstitious. She laughed or rolled her eyes as I tempted fate a thousand times a day.

“It’s not superstition,” Mom said, “It’s wisdom. And at any rate, even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t hurt anybody.” This comment was often accompanied by coffee or prayer. Or both.

I often marveled at her quiet determination in all these tiny rituals. Even as I grew to be an adult, it seemed like she held the understanding of the universe in her long fingers, somehow. I realize, of course, that some of the things I consider rituals are just things she liked and did over and over, so now I revere them simply because my mother did them. Some of the things she did were precisely because she was a mother.

6) She served spaghetti and grapes on Halloween. “Brains” and “eyeballs” to spook us a little, but also a very sneaky way to carbo-load her children so they didn’t get sick on candy later in the evening.

7) She rang bells on Christmas morning to wake us up.

8) She did the laundry in a complicated array of batches based on color, water temperature, usage, size, and the weather.

9) She gathered us together before a big trip, no matter what time of day or night, to hold our hands and pray for our safety.

10) She pointed out fairy rings in the yard after hard rains.

I’ve developed my own superstitions here and there over the years, and I see signs and patterns in lots of things, too. I made my own kind of miniature magic, though it closely resembles hers. I have jewelry for good luck, and I have quiet mantras for certain days of the year. I try not to upset the order of the universe too gravely by trying to pretend I understand the future or second-guessing rainy days.

I guess this wasn’t a ghost story so much as it was a memory story. Though what’s a ghost but a memory so strong you can feel it moving through the world? It still stands as a cautionary tale, though. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times. Create your own tiny rituals, or borrow someone else’s until they feel real to you. Hold hope in your heart no matter what’s happening around you. If my mom hadn’t taught me that lesson, I am not sure how I’d carry on now without her.

I have one final bit of magic to share with you. It’s just a pattern, but that doesn’t mean it’s not big and mysterious in its own way. On the morning after I found out my mom had cancer, it snowed hard. It was early October in Iowa, and it hadn’t been in the forecast. I didn’t own a car in Iowa City since I lived downtown, so I trudged to work in knee-high boots and cried. I am convinced the snow was trying its damnedest to hide my sorrow as I crossed the last intersection to work.

Later that day, an old friend called me, and in the course of that conversation, we arranged for him to come visit from my hometown. He was an old boyfriend, another film school junkie who stayed up too late and worried too much, but he knew my mom and he knew me, so it was good to be able to share that time together.

The day before my mom passed away, it snowed. It was a light snow in late December, but the forecast had missed it by almost a week. That old friend was with me again — now my husband — as we held hands, because he knew my mom and he knew me, and it was good to be together.

 

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Sarah Caputo is an artist and teacher working in Oklahoma City. Her most recent creative focus has been on representations of memory, love, and folklore. Sarah posts her drawings, comics, and other misadventures frequently on Instagram (@tiny.revelations). You can also contact her at sarah.tinyrevelations@gmail.com.

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Essay: Sad French Movies

Publicly sharing my non-fiction is literally what my nightmares are made up of. But in my constant fight to open myself to new possibilities and to grow as a writer I have to actually let me writing be read. I am starting a writing class next week on Narrative, taught by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Chloe Caldwell. Since I had to submit a piece to be accepted and this one made the cut, I figured it was safe to share.

SAD FRENCH MOVIES

There is a night you take me to see a Sad French Movie. Catherine Deneuve is in it and every line of the movie is sung. It’s like a musical, but more so. It’s about falling in love and how life then pulls everything apart piece by piece, like the unraveling of a sweater by each thread. You are always taking me to movies at Film Forum, and you are always forgetting the card that gets us discounted snacks. So we never get snacks. I watch a lot of snackless movies there in those old musty seats.

The movie ends at a snowy gas station and the couple can’t be together because they’re married to other people. They’re all so sad but they’re still singing every word that leaves their mouths. Still singing in the snow. Still singing even though their love failed. The ending makes me sad too, but I guess that is the point of a Sad French Movie, to make life feel very heavy.

Though I am feeling very down, you must be feeling romantic because we walk for three avenues to find a place to have a bottle of red. We never do stuff like this, but we’ve been broke since we got together so we don’t know how to do stuff like this. As soon as the first glass hits my bloodstream, I am weepy. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I feel stuck. Where am I supposed to go? I forget how weepy red wine makes me. The restaurant is Argentinean and we are the only people not eating.

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Tales of Directionless Personal Branding

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If you’ve been following my blog for awhile you’ll notice that I have re-branded three times, changed the content twice as much as that, and fluctuated between writing every day and once a month and well, never. Running this blog has been a strange journey and I am constantly re-evaluating it and trying to determine what it can be.

The only thing that keeps me going is that every once in awhile, I write something that resonates. That moves someone. They write to me and say, “Wow, that really helped me.” Those tiny moments fuel me forward even when I have no idea what I will say next or do next.

If you didn’t know, my day job is spent branding and marketing independent hotels. I do know how to brand. I do know how to market a brand. But branding and marketing myself? I find it impossible because I change and grow and even sometimes, decline. I strive to be authentic and truthful about who I am and what I’m doing, so maintaining a brand that is no longer who I am, or just a piece of who I am feels fake and painful.

I am so impressed with the millions of bloggers out there that brand themselves so well and are so honed into what they want to share and do. I am impressed every day. And I think about the time and energy they put into managing their brand and get tired. People do manage to create authentic brands based on who they are… it’s just embarrassingly hard for me to do so. I also struggle daily with the idea of becoming a “lifestyle” blog or brand. While I LOVE and ADORE my life, because I’ve built it piece by piece, I hardly think the masses would be impressed and envious of it. But who am I to say?

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IG: @CheapCourage

 

Of course the irony of all this is it’s nearly impossible to be alive in 2017 and not have a personal brand. Social Media requires all of us to brand ourselves whether we know so or not. What news stories we share on Facebook, the jokes we tell on Twitter, the filters we use on Snapchat… these things become our respective brands. Obviously we are editing, to a degree, what we choose to SHOW about our lives and what we choose to HIDE about our lives. And in turn we all judge each other based on these very small shared pieces of ourselves.

Some of us are very good at branding ourselves, some of us are not. Some of us can monetize our lifestyle, and some of us can not. So if I am to look at it that way, as I should, it isn’t that I don’t have a personal brand, it’s that I do not know what I want out of it. That is where my confusion, my fuzziness, my lost sense of online self comes from.

So a few Sundays ago I sat and thought about it. Why was I unhappy or confused with my personal brand? If I was simply happy to interact with friends and family and occasionally spark a political discussion or make a joke, then I’d be all set. But that’s not what I want. If I wanted to be known for photos of my outfits or my makeup or my fitness regimen, I would switch gears and feature only those types of images, leave the other stuff out, and focus the lens. But that’s not what I want.

What I want, and what I too often lose sight of is this: I want people to read my writing. I want to share my writing. I want to influence people with my words. The goal of gaining followers on Instagram or WordPress or even Facebook is to funnel more readers to my work and to engage with them. And I’m not talking about my blogs, I mean my essays and my poetry. The things I write and write and write and never share because of fear. (My god I’ve written about fear on here more times than I can count.)

And so for me to build a cohesive brand that serves me… I’m going to have to start sharing some writing. I am terrified to do so. Baby steps of course… but it is possible. And all I had to do, and what I would strongly suggest to anyone going through a hard time with a creative project, is repeat to myself over and over again, “What do I want out of this?”

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IG: @CheapCourage

6 Books To Make You Feel Strong

Can you hear that? That’s me sighing so deeply that the roof is rattling. The past two weeks have been trying, tiring, and… good for my character. Two weeks ago I received a promotion at my day job. This was a position that I had been chasing for two years relentlessly. And now it’s here. And now it’s mine. And now I am hella tired.

Adjusting to my new role has, on the surface, been alright, I feel like I am where I need to be finally… however, I come home exhausted, I work later, and my balance of life has been thrown for a loop. It’s amazing how small changes affect our entire being.

At the same time as my promotion I really hurt a tendon in my left leg and had to stop training for my half marathon. I am unable to run. Running is my main source of stress relief so not only have I found myself coping with new issues but I do not have my usual coping tools available to me. It’s been a weird September.

I found myself going back to my bookshelf for comfort. Reading books I read a decade ago for the first time, to help relax me. I wanted to find a center and I hoped it would be in those pages. I read Kerouac’s On The Road, Hornby’s High Fidelity, and I’ve been eyeing my Fitzgerald collection (I own all of his books) with a hunger I usually reserve for pizza.

As a result of using texts to soothe me, where I would normally use my body, I’ve put together a list of books that have made me feel strong in the past and that deserve a re-read. I’m hoping you too will pick up on of these books and feel strong and centered.

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Create a New Story & Live It

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I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about meditation, mantras, and visualizing goals. I keep reading about mental blocks and holding yourself back from the things that you want and the things you deserve because of patterned thoughts and “stories”– the things we tell ourselves to keep us from going for something. We tell ourselves that we will never have money because we’ve always been broke or we’ll never find love because we’ve never been worthy or never had it before. We take the same paths over and over again because we don’t believe we can take another. It isn’t always about blazing a trail but simply taking a left instead of a right.

I get asked a lot where all my energy comes from. How do I get up early, how do I write at night after work, how do I have a dog… etc. etc. And while I sometimes thought I was just a high energy person by nature, I realized it’s really because I believe I am a high energy person.

Did I lose you right there? Wait! Stay with me.

I know this stuff can sound weird and can scare the living hell out of you but listen… just stop and think about the things you have always just assumed about yourself “I am just a nice person”, “I am just a lazy person”, “I am a math person”. Where did those things come from? You made them up! Or someone told you were good (or bad) at something and you believed them and created your story from it. We naturally want to do the things we are good at and avoid the things we are “bad” at, I get it. Life is easier that way. But what if the you you are now, is based on a series of stories that you wrote for yourself?

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To prove my point I’m going to break down a couple of my stories, both good and bad.

I Am Not A Math Person. Numbers bore me.
This is a story I started telling myself in the 7th grade. What’s funny is that I was in the “gifted” math group in the 5th grade, but it took just a couple of years of consistently being told I was a great writer, that I’d publish a book one day, and that math was my weakest subject, to reject the whole thing all together. No one explained to me that though it was my “weakest” subject, I was still very much “good” at it. I believed what I was told and leaned into my writing and let my math muscle deteriorate. Combined with two unhelpful middle school math teachers who laughed at wrong answers, and of course, puberty, I rejected the whole notion that I could ever be good at math or science and by the time I hit the 9th grade I lived in perpetual fear of it.

And then I had a wonderful Chemistry teacher who was TOUGH on everyone. She was this way because she believed we could do anything we worked for. I spent hours after class with her going over formulas again and again until I could do the most difficult problems she wrote. I worked my ass off and got an A. Because she believed in me, because she made me focus, and because she made me work as hard as she knew I could.

It still took me some time after that, years and years of undoing the bad story, but here I am, working at a company, doing math, handling my own finances, figuring shit out. The stories we tell ourselves are sticky but they can be unstuck if we focus and move past our setbacks.

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I am high energy. I don’t require sleep.
When I got to be about 16 years old and was forced to work my ass off at boarding school (a school that I was getting a free ride to and thus was in perpetual fear of getting tossed out) I told myself that I required little sleep. I worked a part-time job, I stayed up late doing homework, I had a boyfriend, friends, extracurricular activities, started playing sports…I jam packed my days and found that if I pushed outside of myself, the energy was there. The same went for college, I pushed my limits, always feeling a heightened awareness that college was going to end and that I needed to soak up as many experiences as I could. I went to parties, I took lots of weird classes, I worked as an RA, I said “I can do it all” because I truly believed I was that type of person. If I pushed, I found the energy for it all just outside my comfort zone.

Flash forward to me as an adult trying to do as much as I did in college but adding in new responsibilities: rent, a dog, full-time job, bills, navigating NYC, cleaning my apartment… At times I would come to a screeching hault all of a sudden and realize “Maybe I can’t do it all.” But I had always been that person, I had always told myself I could do it all. And the moment that belief faltered, so did my ability to do the things I wanted to do.

It took me a few years (yes, years) to right this ship. It took learning a new way of doing things and getting things done to get there. I went through months and months of stress and of simply doing it all wrong. I tried to apply what I knew in college to my new life and that failed miserably. And now I do believe I can do it all, just in a different way.

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I absolutely know what you’re thinking right now. Really! You’re thinking that this can’t possibly be true, that there are things standing in your way but just remember, someone who was born with more than you has fallen and someone born with less than you has risen. It’s all a matter of perspective and of creating stories for yourself that fit. If you secretly wish you were “A Morning Person”… Tell yourself you are, set your alarm like you are, GET OUT OF BED like you are. If you wish you were kinder. Tell yourself you are, do kind things, enjoy the feeling that comes from doing kind things!

I’m not saying this cut and dry and I am not saying it is easy. It actually kind of sucks most of the time. Re-writing your story is HARD. But like… what else are you doing with your time here?