Curiouser and Curiouser: My notes say “boobs” but I know that’s my way of reminding myself to ask about your tattoos…
Tracie Morell: Everyone asks me about my boobs. They are quite lovely and purposeful. I did nurse my children and would whip out a tit anywhere when my little ones were hungry. But I think you aren’t asking about my mammary glands function. The tattoos have a beautiful story, not as beautiful as breast feeding, but close.
Across my chest are two lotus flowers and a Chinese ideogram for “courage.” The ideogram came first and years later I had the lotuses etched into my skin on both sides of the ideogram. When my oldest son was just a little baby (he’s 18 now), I went to Florida to stay with family for a while after a nasty and abusive breakup with the baby daddy. There was this amusement park called “Old Town” not far from my relative’s house which I was staying at, and I would take my son for walks there almost daily. There was this neat little shop there called “The Black Market.” They sold all sorts of unusual things and I enjoyed looking through the trinkets they had. I befriended the woman working the cash stand. She was an unmarried, pregnant Chinese woman. We became friends and we would share our troubles with each other. She was really the only friend I made while I was there. The time came when I was ready to return home, so as a parting gift she wrote a haiku for me titled “Courage.” She wrote it in Chinese, so I had to have her read it to me. I was so moved by the poem that I told her that I would always keep it close to my heart. Later that day, I had the title tattooed on my chest.
Years later, I had the lotus flowers tattooed on either side of the ideogram. The lotus symbolizes the beauty which grows out of dirty stagnant waters. I like the metaphor. Life is hard in Erie, and I felt like I needed to have a constant reminder etched on my chest to make me remember the beauty that emerges from the muck and filth of life.
I have several tattoos and most of them have a literary reference. On my left arm I have a full sleeve which is imagery based on Paradise Lost and Duino Elegies. But my favorite tattoo is the title of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College—“This is Water.” I am a huge DFW fan, and that speech offers such sound advice on how to approach daily life that I felt tattooing it right below my collar bone would force me to remember the key points in that speech. Unfortunately, he didn’t heed his own advice…maybe if he did, we’d still have him today.
C&C: I love Wallace, too. I think the medication fiasco sort of turned his situation and made him unable to see his own way out – but that’s an entirely different conversation for a different day. As far as medications and psychological disorders, fetishization of doctors – what do you think about the current obsession with pharmaceuticals? There’s a pill for everything. Western medicine has it all figured out….
TM: That is a complicated question. In some ways, I think that the pharmaceutical companies are evil and the need to take a pill for everything under the sun is ridiculous. I did peace work in South Africa in my early 20’s, and I could tell you some horror stories as to why big pharm is just evil, but that could be a book. At the same time, I have suffered from severe depression all my life. Well, at least I thought it was severe depression because that’s what the doctors told me I had. Last year, I had a break-down and admitted myself in a crisis residential unit for a week, because I was having chronic panic attacks and couldn’t tolerate them any longer. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and began medication just for that. I was skeptical because I had tried a litany of antidepressants over the years and nothing seemed to work or they would cause more problems than anything, so I refused to take anything for years and years, but once I started being treated for the anxiety, my depression disappeared.
I honestly believe if I could live the life I dream of (owning my own yoga studio, spending my days doing yoga and writing, with a garden in the back to grow my own food) I would have no need for medication, but at the moment, that is not a possibility. I have very strong coping skills for these panic attacks that plague me, but it isn’t always possible to drop into a hip opener (all anxiety and emotional pain is stored in the hips, and it is almost impossible to have any anxiety or sadness if your hips are open) every time my heart skips a beat or my breathing becomes labored. Yoga and meditation is the best medicine I have found for all mental health issues. At the moment, I am medicated only for anxiety but I don’t think I will be medicated for the rest of my life, because I know how to self soothe through my yoga practice. I know what I need my life to look like in order to manage my anxiety and panic. I just don’t currently have the means to shape my life into what I need to keep the level of calm I require to avoid triggering my anxiety. But I remain optimistic that I will find a way to get there someday.
Anxiety is misunderstood by many people. I’m not haunted by nightmares, self-loathing, or chronic depression (well, at least not now that I know what I am dealing with). Anxiety manifests in very real physical reactions to stimuli. It’s not one of those disorders that people say “is all in your head.” It’s in your racing heart, in labored breathing; it’s in tremors through your whole body, until it escalates to a full-blown panic attack, where you literally feel like you are going to die. Sometimes, you can figure out what triggers you and learn how to avoid the triggers as much as possible, but there are other times where a panic attack can hit you while you are sleeping and you wake up ready to call 911 because you think you are having a heart attack. Anxiety is a very physical ailment.
In many ways, I think our culture of “more, more, more” contributes to the vast majority of people suffering from psychological disorders. I’ve learned talk therapy is the best way to cope, but sometimes people just don’t have access to a good therapist or they just don’t know how to find a good fit with a therapist. I’ve been a therapy junky pretty much all of my life. I was sexually abused as a child, and in fifth grade I was hospitalized in a children’s mental health ward, which is where that all came out. That began my lifelong love of talk therapy. Over years and years of therapy, I have learned how to identify my triggers, understand why I react in certain ways to certain stimuli and so on. I guess that I’m lucky in that sense. From all the therapy I’ve done, I understand myself more than the average person, I think.
Living in a culture which is clearly in decline, I think the people who own their mental health issues are at an advantage over the people who seek happiness through material gain, social status, constant need for instant gratification, and/or denial. From what I have observed, every single person I have met struggles with their mental health. I mean, since we live in culture that is so clearly sick, how can people be mentally healthy? If people were able to change their lives through meditation, yogic practices, and connection with the earth, instead of pill popping, our culture would turn around.
C&C: How is the refrigerator project coming along? Do you trick out a lot of the furnishings in your house?
TM: At the moment, the project is at a standstill, because I didn’t make sure I had enough supplies to finish it. I tend to jump into my projects without prior planning, so sometimes I have to collect the supplies to finish. Yes, my husband and I like to make our furnishings our own. We have a lot of “outdated” hand-me-downs, so we like to customize them. He and I are both the creative types, so we like to recreate everything in our home, which is a 100 year old cape cod that needs a ton of TLC. We like to make or refinish all of the furnishings we have in our house. Most of my bookshelves are made from found items that I repurposed. My mother-in-law used to joke that we should take pictures of the stuff we redo and send them into Sharpie because we use Sharpies in all of our projects…except the refrigerator, I haven’t used Sharpies on that project. I also crochet and knit, so my house is loaded with old lady doilies and lacey curtains I’ve made.
C&C: Do you have pets?
TM: If the countless teenagers who are constantly streaming in and out of my house don’t count as pets, we have two cats. Buffy the Mousey Slayer is a muted calico. I’m her human. Being the type of cat who likes to get you comfortable with her so you think she loves you and then she scratches your face off, she is kind of an asshole. We also have a tortie that is the sweetest little kitty, so we call her Little Kitty. She likes to talk and sometimes she will talk and talk and talk for hours. My husband, Rich, is her person, so she always snubs me the second he walks into the room. She the type of cat who freaks out if a tenth of the food is missing from the dish and she will follow you around meowing until you fill it back up.
C&C: What do you have in your pockets?
TM: I don’t have pockets. I live in yoga pants.
C&C: Do you remember your dreams?
TM: I have very vivid dreams. Sometimes I can remember them, if I write them down immediately when I wake up, but generally they are lost within the time it takes to make my first cup of coffee. Here’s a dream that I wrote down: Kris Risto, my friend, the surrealist painter who illustrated all of my poems in Matilda’s Battle Waltz kidnapped me and dropped me off somewhere in the middle of Seattle and told me to find my way home. On my journey across the country to get back to Erie, Kris would throw these enormous parties for me, and force me to play the clarinet (I played clarinet for 12 years when I was a child and I was always terrible at it). I don’t remember all of the details, but it was bizarre and surreal.
C&C: You seem to have a lot of pride in the art community and historic significance of Erie – tell me a little about this place from which you come!
TM: Ahh yes, Erie is an amazing town. We’ve recently been dubbed the “Little Detroit” because of our sky-rocketing violent crime rates and gang related homicides. That makes me sad, because all of that is just a symptom of poverty and bad planning on the part of local government. Prior to the onslaught systemic poverty and constant brain-drain, due to the lack of gainful employment in Erie, it was a fantastic place to live and raise a family. My home town is a place with a rich history and defining landscapes. The Battle of Lake Erie was won in our waters during the War of 1812.
I went to Perry Elementary as a child and that is what really instilled my pride in local history. Perry Elementary is named after Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry who commanded the naval fleet who took down the British which ultimately lead to us winning the war. Since my grade school was named after Perry, the students had the rare opportunity to participate in several events for the city and the Flagship Niagara (which incidentally was not Perry’s ship rather it was under Jessie Elliot’s command, but when Perry’s ship the Lawrence was severely damaged Perry as Commodore took over the command of the Niagara…I didn’t know that until I was an adult and found it interesting that the whole city celebrates Perry as commander of the Niagara when he really was not, but I guess that is kind of typical for Erie to do that sort of thing).
I do have love/hate relationship with Erie. It has this unbelievably beautiful landscape with these morbid names like Misery Bay, Graveyard Pond, Axe Murder Hollow, and so on. I really do think landscape defines the people in this town. We have severe weather patterns with exceptionally long brutal winters. There are however five seasons in this region not four. Like everywhere else we have winter, spring, summer, and fall, but we also have the season of snow and mud. The fifth is the most important to everyone who loves pancakes because the season of snow and mud is the only time of year that maple syrup is made, and the majority of maple syrup is produced in the Great Lakes region.
There’s a children’s novel Miracle on Maple Hill written by Virginia Sorensen about one of the local maple farms Hurry Hill Maple Farm. The novel won a Newbury Award, so the maple farm was turned into part museum and farm. It’s really a cool place. The arts are vibrant in Erie. I think it most has to do with the fact that for six months of the year we are buried under layers of snow and ice and the short time we aren’t buried our landscape it incredibly beautiful with a good mix of urban amenities and natural beauty. There is nothing more beautiful than a Lake Erie sunset (any time of year), and the beaches here roll on for miles.
It seems as though Erites have a thirst to create beautiful things paying homage to the beauty around us. We have everything you could imagine a larger city would have when it comes to arts and history. I’ve often referred to Erie as the Mecca of the Arts because artists are drawn to Erie. Not to mention we are smack in the middle of three prominent metropolitan areas: Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. It really is astounding how much art is created here from theatre to visual arts to poetry. I’m proud to live here and do my part to help preserve the heritage of my home town. I think the arts will indeed save Erie from the blight the politicians have allowed to happen here.
C&C: What’s the best job you ever had? Or the most memorable?
TM: I’m sort of a chameleon. I have has so many jobs in so many different fields. I guess the best paying job was being in Health Care Administration for a nursing home. I was paid more money than I knew how to spend, but I hated every second of it, so when I went on maternity leave, I just never went back. Being a mother is the best job I ever had, and I love every second of parenthood, but I think you want to know about employment.
My favorite place of employment has to be this garage I worked at as a grease monkey for a couple years. I loved it. You’d think being the only woman working with a bunch of mechanics would be uncomfortable at times, but it was like being the only female in a family (which I am very familiar with seeing that I have two sons and my husband at home). There was an ongoing joke among the guys that I was “the manliest man there.” I loved it there and would have stayed forever, but there was “corporate restructuring” and the bigwigs decided to give the axe to all the vaginas and brown people. I’m still a little bitter about it, but that’s the way corporate anything goes…I loathe Corporate America.
C&C: What was your favorite toy as a child?
TM: I really don’t know. We were pretty poor when I was a kid. My dad split when I was like 4, and we never really had much. I had toys, but I was more interested in climbing trees and playing in the mud. I was a real tomboy. My favorite things were my books and journals. Ironically, the man who abused me gave me my first diary. I’ve kept every diary and journal I’ve written, but I don’t ever look at them. Maybe someday I will dig out the box from the basement to read my old journals and diaries, but I haven’t felt the need to do that. Growing up was tough, so I just kind of like keeping them safely boxed up in the basement.
C&C: Do you remember writing your first poem? Or one of your first?
TM: I don’t remember writing my first poem. I know I started writing poetry in second grade, when I got my first diary. It’s strange to think about, but the man who abused me when I was little would write “Roses are Red” poems to me, and that was where I first learned about poetry. I wrote a personal essay about that which instead of sending out for publication, I just posted on Facebook. In high school, I had some of my horrible, angst filled, poetry published in the school’s literary journal. I did have a flare for the drama and wrote some funny pieces too. My favorite bad high school poem is “Ode to Green Jello.”
Matilda’s Battle Waltz by Tracie Morell