Ink, Blood, and Tears

I got off the bus at my new school and saw the parking lot filled with cars. This was nothing like my  former crowded, noisy, urban Philadelphia high school with the dark stairwells and constant police presence. I’d never seen so many Ford Tauruses in my life. Some even had monograms on the doors. I didn’t even have a bike. I had a skateboard. A skateboard. I couldn’t even do an ollie, but for me, my board was transportation. It had worked in the city.

Out in the suburbs, I’d tried to skate to the mall but only got about four blocks away when I encountered a county road. With a 55 mph speed limit. I tried for about 15 minutes before I gave up. This was a real-life game of Frogger I was not willing to play.

I was 17 and had lost too many places to count: foster homes, schools, churches, playgrounds. But this was the worst so far. I’d made this move alone. Three weeks before, I’d had a family, my own room, my chair at the dinner table, my hook on the coat rack. But when they discovered I was cutting, they sent me to the hospital. My foster family of 7 years felt they couldn’t handle me anymore, a social worker told me. I wasn’t going back. My parents couldn’t even tell me themselves. They’d gone on vacation.

I was too old to tammyperlheaderpicplace, and I was going to age out of the system soon, so I was assigned a bed in a Supervised Independent Living facility managed by the children’s home handling my case. It was in a suburb of Philadelphia, an apartment with a roommate and a Residential Adviser. I was supposed to be learning life skills like banking, shopping, getting a job, making a budget, cooking for myself, doing my own laundry. I wasn’t great at most of those.

You’d think I would’ve reveled in this staged independence, but I didn’t. This was just another address I wouldn’t even have for a full year, and it felt like a punishment after my psych stay. I was removed from the home I’d lived in for middle school and junior high and taken from the city I loved. I would spend my senior year of high school, and my last year as a child, with strangers.

One afternoon a week I took the R2 train into Philadelphia for my counseling appointment. I don’t remember the building or the therapist. What I do remember is wandering the streets of Old City after my appointment, getting a soft pretzel and Pennsylvania Dutch birch beer at Wawa and just walking.

I would head toward the Delaware River and pass through Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch, where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence were buried. It was usually deserted except for tourists throwing pennies on Franklin’s grave for good luck. The earliest legible marker is from 1723. It was the perfect place for a suicidal teenager to spend hours alone. My time there didn’t make me want to die, in fact, it had the opposite effect. I felt at home there, comforted by a sense of permanence and presence.

I didn’t have much in the way of family or stability or even a future, but I had cobblestone streets, colonial flags, comforting row homes, historic markers, marble stoops with ornate cast-iron boot scrapers and hitching posts. And it wasn’t just the beauty I saw that made it home, it was the ugliness too. The empty lots, abandoned houses, broken windows, Free Mumia graffiti, and the box cities under the highway were the landscape of my heart. The soundtrack that sung in my head was the rumbling, shrieking el trains and the sparking, clattering trolleys. I claimed it for myself and it was all mine. Even Ramona Africa and the houses firebombed by Mayor Goode during the MOVE tragedy, consuming almost 4 city blocks, killing 11 people, and leaving 240 people homeless. They became a part of me, seared into my brain by flaming buildings seen on a cast-off motel TV with a tuning knob.

What little estranged family I have left in Philadelphia decreases by the year, but it’s not the people that draw my thoughts and my heart there. It’s the land–baptized by Franklin’s printing ink, revolutionary blood, and my own tears.

And William Penn in the distance, watching over it all. He prayed for his city to be preserved from those who would “abuse and defile thee, that you mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm, that thy children may be blest of the Lord.

Tammy Punnamed (1)erlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog Raggle-Taggle. She is the founder of The Mudroom, a collaborative blog making roo
m in the mess. Tammy writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Mike, and daughter, Phoenix, who has been called “the most interesting girl in the world.” She is the force behind Tammy’s blog series: “
Life Along the Spectrum: Weird and Wondrous Tales of Everyday Autism.”


Photo is by Michael Perlmutter.

A Place to Belong

I didn’t cry when my parents dropped me off for college. And I didn’t cry when I went to sleep that night or the next day or the next. I wasn’t sad, I was just excited. I didn’t cry about leaving home because I didn’t feel like I had left home. It felt like the times I had stayed at a summer camp, or a youth rally. Even when I started going to classes and managing my own food, it still didn’t hit me that I was not home.

It took until the first Sunday that I cried. I walked across the campus and into the church that mother had gone to when she had been on the same campus years before. I walked into the unfamiliar place, and suddenly realized I had no idea where to sit. There were lots of open chairs. The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t a place for me to go; the problem was that I didn’t already have a place to belong.

Back in my home town, my family had gone to the same church my entire life. My parents still go there. I am intimately familiar with the brown brick, the blue carpet with pink and turquoise speckled into it. I know the way it smells and feels when the lights are off and you are the only one in the echoe-y narthex with the tall ceilings.

I know the history of every inch of that building, and I never had to learn it. The church building grew up with me. The seemingly random brick wall in the lobby is a weight baring wall that was the first entrance into the church. The fellowship hall used to be the sanctuary, and for years the floors weren’t carpeted and the congregation would move the chairs to the side after the service and have a square dance or a dinner or anything really because the floors were so easily cleaned.

I played tag through the walls that were not yet dry walled, and picked up weird looking nails as treasures when they built the education wing. The original members had wanted a new sanctuary, but put it off because they saw the necessity of the immediate future. The nursery had been overflowing for quite some time. The original nursery is now the kitchen, the education wing has tripled in size, and the congregation finally did get that beautiful new sanctuary they were promised. I was singing in the choir next to my mom the first day it was used.

Throughout all of these changes, my family had always sat two or three rows in from the front, stage left. There were no official rules or seating, but that is where we always were. Perhaps this was because my mom was more often than not in the choir loft and she could give us “the look” from there if she needed to. I just knew that roughly three rows in, stage left, was where I belonged.

When, at eighteen years old, I walked into that unfamiliar church and did not know where I was supposed to sit in the sanctuary, suddenly I realized that I was not home. I did not have a place that I belonged in this building, in this sanctuary, in this church body. I sat down stage right, still sort of near the front, and I cried throughout the entire service. I never went back. It just didn’t feel like home.

It is hard to sit in a place when you are not sure where you belong.

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Abby“A Place to Belong” was written by Abby Norman. Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She swears a lot more than you would think for a public school teacher and mother of two under three. She can’t help that she loves all words. She believes in champagne for celebrating everyday life, laughing until her stomach hurts and telling the truth, even when it is hard, maybe especially then. You can find her blogging at Accidental Devotional and tweeting at @accidentaldevo. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies and literally burning lies in her backyard fire pit.