I am not, in the strict sense, any kind of celebrity. While, like any writer, budding filmmaker, activist, singer, preacher, and business person I will probably have a facebook fan page soon, there are no tabloids chasing my car. I can usually go out in my town without fear of paparazzi, even though it still unerves me a bit when I am the victim of a drive by camera shot.
I watch this world, study seemingly random things, and then write or film stories about them. I sit in the corner and occaisionally rise up, ask a question aloud that is perplexing me, and then end up in long discussions with large groups of people about just what the answers might be. I turn the feelings and thoughts in a lesion filled mind into poetry, take a single gospel verse and find twenty meanings, and twist my own unique voice and meaning into that song you heard on the radio.
All of this means that just about every status update I make on facebook is seen by, according to what passes for stats on facebook, anywhere from 200 to 2500 people. I have been out of the closet about being a mental health consumer and a retired mental health professional for years. Thanks to my recent engagement and Pinterest I have been exposed as having a serious thing for Steampunk culture. I can only imagine what awaits when my youtube channel goes live.
Thanks to MS, I pretty much haven’t taken my clothing off by myself since about 2006. There are currently over 30 health care providers with my records.
I have pulled out my “God Stuff” bag and prayed with or ministered to hundreds of people since becoming a lay Franciscan religious in 2006. I don’t remember how many services I have presided at.
I have given speeches to groups from 10 to 500.
I have real life fans of my singing.
But I am not a celebrity, completely.
What I am is a public person. A sort of proto- celebrity, the kind of person who you know that each time you meet me, I will be somehow in the public eye or ear. This is something I came to terms with many, many years ago so that now I am more surprised if I go out and no one notices me than to be concerned if a total stranger in Orlando knows what I ate for dinner last Tuesday.
I generally do not seek the spotlight as I go around my day to day activities, but I certainly do at kareoke. I was a musician. Or perhaps I still am a musician, of a sort. I studied clarinet starting in 4th grade, mostly because my father owned one and I was fascinated by the mechanical actions of all those shiny parts. Only my parents know when I started singing…it has been a part of my very being for as long as I have memories. Both of my parents love to sing, and I grew up listening to 1970’s pop singing along with the radio. In the car on a weekend ride I would join my Dad as he belted out lyrics like “But there’s a HOLE in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza” or “Jerimiah was a bullfrog”. It was from his small collection of albums playing on my Mom’s 1950’s stereo that I first heard The Ink Spots and learned about his growing up in the city of Motown. There were a dizzying amount of tv shows with music including Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Americqn Bandstand, Soul Train, and of course regular attendance in our living room for The Lawrence Welk Show .
From school choruses I bounced into folk groups at church and school, a music oriented Explorer Post concert choir, and high school drama club musicals. Along the way my high school music director, a very young Thomas Kessler not only created an entire department out of a hot, nearly windowless abandoned room attached to the gymnasium and a closet of old forgotten marching band stuff, but also recognized and nurtred my talents. He encouraged me to consider being more than a lawyer and politician, and my parents to invest in a voice coach. I began studies under the Grammy nominated Randy Coryell and fell more and more in love with both jazz and light operetta. Both men stood solidly behind me when I surprised everyone by deciding in the middle of my senior year to go to college as a music major.
The cards, however, had without my even realizing it been dealt. In the early 1980’s my mother, some of my friends, and I joined the Explorer Post Concert Choir. The choir had been formed in part to showcase how Explorers (a co-ed program run by The Boy Scouts) could bring both adults and teenagers into scouting. Another reason the choir was formed was because a wunerkind young musician was scoring and conducting Berlioz’ Funeral March. The Berlioz Concert was also going to feature the teen in the Wind Symphony interacting with adults as the 39th Army Band was to join the symphony on stage to create one very large spectacular classical music performance. It was during the final week’s joint rehersals and the weekend of the shows that my path crossed that of a young alcoholic addicted to painkillers that would become the monster. By my senior year I was already convinced that he had indeed gotten his cousin the Bishop to allow us to get secretly married. I was as naive as just about any catholic school girl who wasn’t part of the “in” crowd could be.
My very first day at Hooksett’s Fred C. Underhill elementary school, I found a girl who was quiet like me, but also really tall and strong. We bonded over tramping around the edge of the woods by the playground, and became best friends. Soon, we had our own little group of girls and spent recess having the time of our lives. Then came that first snowy stormy day that we had to stay inside. When I look at my Jr. High yearbook, I cannot match a face to the memory of that first nasty cutting remark about my best friend being stupid, dirty, ugly. Of all the things I can recall, I have no idea which little boy heaped upon that girl’s tirade by pronouncing me fat and ugly. I do remember how soon a small cabal was joining in, creating an unholy chorus of taunts and put downs. The next day, it happened again. Then the next, and the next.
In small New England towns in that day, I later discovered, it was no longer permitted to just pick on the black kid (and of course, there was only one). It was still those days when the disabled were packed like Holocaust victims at Laconia State School or shuttled to Easter Seals out of sight of polite society. While the usual level of boy-girl teasing occured, it was nothing compared to the abuse heaped on one group: the poor. There were other kids who, like my friend, had already done a year of first grade, but who had so much difficulty they were held back. They did not get picked on at all. My friends, smart or not, were different and only had one thing in common. They were poor. Since none of the spoiled rich kids or the middle class ruffians bothered to look into my financial state, I was painted with the same brush, and subjected to the same harsh words, usual pranks, and cold shouldered exclusion from the interesting swings or other amusements on the playground. In reality, my banker father and nurse mother created a household that was fairly well off. I didn’t appear to be rich due to my parent’s belief in not obnoxiously showing off, and the fact that the social circle they kept didn’t include the other parents but instead had nurses, accountants, computer nerds, and an ever expanding extended family.
I was as put out as any first grade child could be. However, unlike my peers, I had a Dad who used to ask “Hey, what’s the difference between the Black ghetto and the Polish ghetto in Detroit?” and both me and my brother would call out “The food!” The sheer fact that as a 6 year old I knew that ghetto was the poor part of town where the government made people who were different live was simply one more data bit in the expansive things my parents taught me when we all watched the nightly news on tv.
So there you have it…the kid who purposely sided with the poor, the unpopular, the kids who were different ended up….well, different. After escaping from the monster I had 2 small children, a 10 year old car, and labels like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Battered Women’s Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia. The abuse was less physical but much more institutional and emotional. There is nothing quite like pulling up to a stoplight to find your ex waving his mistress’ handgun to make you a heck of a lot less afraid of just about everything else in this world. By the time I was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis I had done all sorts of things, some of which my son Charlie has written slam poetry about. At the time, no one really imagined I would be alive in 5 years, never mind lauching yet another career. Who knew that I would find the same peace in my soul from speaking up as singing out?
Why on God’s green earth wouldn’t I speak up when someone with a mental illness is suffering? I have been in those shoes three times – as a consumer, as a mental health professional, and as a family member. Why would I choose to be silent as certain politicians steal elections and push the poor down? I have been both poor and one of those upper middle income people who can waste money without even skipping a heartbeat. Why would I decide that using my conscience and promoting dialogue between people of faith wasn’t my job? It is my church! Besides, I have either been married to or parented more variety of believers and non believers than I can honestly remember. Might as well use that experience somewhere.
Do people gossip and spread rumors about me? Please, my unofficial nickname at my church is “Crazy Brenda”, and some of the newer members act like I am made of kryptonite! I love them anyway. One only has to check into my group, Not All Catholics Are Roman, to see just how quickly assorted clerics will hammer me over theological misteps and/or bad grammar. Many of them have become good friends anyway. have had everyone from politicians to pimps call me worse. None of it will matter one bit when I stand before God and say “Well, there it is…did my best….what now?”
I have never hid the fact I made mistakes, trusted people who let me down, and sometimes put God and truth over convience and comfort. In the end I have no real authority – something that I think actually helps keep me from forgetting that at the end of the day I am just Brenda, just another servant out there stepping along the path Francis blazed. I may be a public person but I am not unique at all. There is a difference between the fame of Lady Gaga and the comforting familiarity of a woman with her sleeves rolled up, creating. It more or less explains why my name is mangled so often.
Since the Snowdon debacle all of America is atwitter over something that I just assumed was true all along: the government and the internet know pretty much everything I have ever done and said. Big whoop. Most of it I wouldn’t change if I could, none of it matters when I am doubled over in pain just me and God carrying my cross. All that matters is that I get up again, apologize for whatever it is that you didn’t like, thank God for whatever time I have left, and go out and love. Since most of the time that compels me to speak up, ask questions, debate, discuss, pray, proclaim, wonder, and sometimes preach or teach, then why should I be averse if people read, listen, argue, dismiss, put down, or just casually observe what I say, think, or do? Some of the most amazing miracles in my life have come from those exchanges!
So far, God has blessed me with so many riches…people, places, events, and experiences. He set me on the path, so I walk it. Always the court fool saying things that others don’t dare say, always out in a ghetto, or crowd, or country club striking up conversations with complete strangers, praying with people, lending a hand to hold, and writing about what I see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel. If only for amusement there are an ever growing number of people who watch, read, and listen. Someday perhaps, history will judge if I was a wise woman, a curiosity, or just another public train wreck. Or, perhaps history will pass right over the crippled half nun from New Hampshire. I am leaving that in God’s hands. Tomorrow my fiance is having a medical test, and I shall be shut up in a hospital waiting room for several hours. Time to pack the neccessities: pillow, blanket, food, drink, tablet and phone, paperwork to do, and most important, the bag of “God Stuff”. Inevitably, I always end up using it all, writing about something that occurs, and getting a message or three back asking for more.
No, I am not a celebrity. But, yes, I am a public person and so far at least, God seems to like it that way. Who am I to say no?