Tag Archives: jess mullen

I am on a hillside.

My, but I have struggled with this theme.  Then again, I’ve been struggling with this idea for a while.  So often one is told to “be here now,” but there was a time when I needed help leaving “here” for someplace better, calmer, in my mind.

I was afraid, terrified, of the dentist.  With children, dentists often try to hide what’s really happening in children’s mouths with the hope of getting the job done before the kid even knows what’s happening, and as a kid I knew that.  As a result I was painfully anxious at the dentist’s, constantly asking questions that were taken for distractions and delays.  In fact, I just liked to know exactly what I was getting myself into before surrendering to the picks, the needles, the dental dams they called “raincoats”.  Pediatric dentists aren’t really into that.

One time I gripped the arms of the chair so hard my hands began to sweat, and gradually they slid down until I almost lost my grip altogether.  I jerked my hands back, the rest of my body stiff as a board, trying to catch my grip.  What my dentist said was partly true: I did hit him.  He could have hurt me with whatever instrument of torture he held in my mouth.  He yelled at me.  He lost it.  I really must have been a trial.

On another day, after I spent some twenty minutes writhing in the chair, crying, calling to my father as he sat in the room, helpless, twisting his magazine into a tight roll, my dentist asked my father to leave.  Naturally this made things worse for me – who would protect me from the anguish of getting a cavity filled?  My dad tapped my knee with the magazine and said, “Be good, kiddo,” before I let out another wail.

A few weeks later it was decided I needed to go to therapy for my dentist anxiety.  I had gone to play therapy when I was very little, while my parents were going through marriage counseling.  I didn’t like it.  They would tell my mother I drew a witch and said it was her.  They would tell me that I couldn’t see white crayon on white paper.  What was the point?

Still I went to see Dr. Noonan, who I know I would recognize if I saw her.  I cannot for the life of me describe anything about her.  For the most part we played Battleship and chess, trying to unearth some reason for me to react to the dentist as I do while part of my mind was occupied with strategy.  It didn’t help.

Later she recommended I listen to music – the Beatles, of course – but when I tried to bring my discman into the dentist’s office they were not pleased.

Back in Dr. Noonan’s office the following week, she asked me if there was anywhere I liked to go for fun.  At nine years old, there was nowhere I went alone.  “Is there anywhere you’d like to go?”

“Ireland,” I said, without hesitation.  I had never left the country.  I was obsessed with my Irish heritage.  To me it had everything I thought I could want: horses, rolling hills, Sinead O’Connor, an ancient language that you could still hear sometimes, age.  Dr. Noonan asked me to lie down on the couch.

She told me to close my eyes, and I did.  I did everything she said.  I concentrated on my breathing, which made me feel short of breath.  I felt the weight of my arms and my legs grow heavier, but as she spoke I could almost feel myself lifting off the couch.  She told me to imagine Ireland, what I saw, what I smelled.  She told me to put myself in that place.

And at first what I saw was a vast green hill.  I saw myself lying with the grass growing up around me, all different shades of bright spring green. I saw another hill rising up beyond.  And as I let myself go I could see nothing, but I knew what was there, as I felt the grass tickle my neck.  I was present in this vision, the sun was warm on my face, and I could feel every freckle get darker on my nose.  The grass felt cool, it smelled cool, and sweet.  I heard birds and I saw things fly over my closed eyes as the light changed – perhaps they were birds, or butterflies.  A light breeze blew my bangs to one side, then the other.  My arms were outstretched in Ireland, as if to welcome it all in, to fill myself with this image, this feeling, this crisp taste in my mouth.




“Now open your eyes, Jessica,” she said, and I awoke to find the dingy ceiling tiles.  I rolled over a bit and saw the grey carpet, my sunken battleships, some dismantled Cooties, and Dr. Noonan.

She suggested I try this at the dentist.

When I was old enough to make my own dental appointments I took a long time to get back in the chair, and even then it was because I was looking for a dentist who sedated their patients.  With the laughing gas I can deal with the whole experience much better.

Around that time I learned that my childhood dentist had suggested that my father abused me.  He had seen the rolled-up magazine and the warning to be good and thought that I was beaten at home.  That was why I was in therapy.  Self-hypnosis or whatever you might call my mini-vacations to that Kerry hillside were a last resort because Dr. Noonan was supposed to unearth some confession of abuse.  But there was no abuse to confess.

It boggles the mind that a person whose job it is to stick sharp metal objects and vacuums and mirrors into people’s mouths can’t imagine that they are capable of frightening a small child who  is holding onto the last shred of control she has.  Doubtless I was the worst patient he had ever seen, but I couldn’t have been the only bad one, could I?

At least there’s that.


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Just come down already.

ImageI  am at a playground in Brookline and I am perched atop the slide, as I often am.  It is hot.  The vinyl seats of my dad’s green Duster made my legs feel like they were melting, in a bad way. We remembered to leave my Charlie the Tuna towel draped over my seat so I don’t cry like I did on the way over.  I have been on the slide for about ten minutes, or an hour, I don’t know.  I look around, and I see the rose garden.  I see the swings – the bucket ones are for babies, so I don’t go on them anymore.  I’m not a baby.  I am almost three.

I liked going down this slide the last time we were here but now I feel like I am miles away from the ground, like anything can happen.  I am taller than my parents.  I feel like I do when I put on their glasses – this is the view for grownups.  This is how far it is to the ground.  From here I can see everything, but I am also dizzy.  And a little afraid.  No – petrified.  There is an unspoken rule that you cannot go down the ladder once you have reached the top.  The only way down is to slide, which is fun, for that one moment that you barely have a chance to enjoy before you run up the ladder and go again.
On another day, in another playground, my parents would take turns riding down the big fat yellow twisty slide with me, like a family train.  When I went with them, the yellow slide didn’t shock me with its static.  When I went alone I was afraid I would be electrocuted and die, maybe in the tunnel part, and no one would know how to find me.
On the silver slide, though, I am always alone.  It is narrow, and on hot days like this I stick to it, melting onto the hot metal.
And now I sit, immobile.  My parents have been calling to me from the ground, at first the words were contagiously gleeful, then progressed to encouraging, then questioning.  Now they beg for me to just come down already, but I am distracted by a fly that has landed on the small bumper next to my knee.  It is green and shiny, with red eyes.  It is mesmerizing.  It is TERRIFYING and I scramble to my feet.
I am taller than I was, and I kick at the fly as I hold the railings, looking around at the small people forever away, kicking at the sand. Did they see that?  It could have eaten me.  Flies.  Not as bad spiders, but scary enough for me.
I hear a clanking behind me, and turn to find my neighbor climbing up the ladder.  The little grown-ups call to me that I have to share, that I have let go and slide so that other kids can, too.  And I know they’re right.  And my face crumples a little before I make a determined face where my eyebrows and mouth and chin all squinch together to meet my nose in the middle and I show that slide who’s boss.  I whiz down with reckless abandon and my face opens, I am laughing, gulping in air and lifting my arms from the bumpers they’d clung to so desperately before, and I land with a thud, in dirt, copper ringlets turning to a nest around my head and I say, “Again!”  And I run around just in time and clang my way back up the ladder before I can forget how wonderful it is to let go and slide.
My name is Jess Mullen, and writing is what I love to do more than anything in the world. And maybe this is a heavy-handed metaphor for my writing life at the moment. And in my own writing practice I can putter around and get scared of a blank page, but when I am writing it can be as exhilarating as flight.  And yes, sometimes it doesn’t always go as I want, but it’s all part of the experience.
I’m hoping that this year I can take more risks in my writing, commit to doing what I love more, and stop being afraid of whatever lies at the bottom of the slide.  And okay, I think the responsibility of working on this exciting collaborative project with other artists I respect will give me the kick in the pants that I need, even at the eleventh hour.
I have two other blogs that I post in, rather sparingly, called Jess Writes Every Day and I Prefer Saturnalia.  At present I have two memoir projects in the air, but which might be relevant to this Kindred Collective as the weeks wear on.

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