Jo Scott Coe, April’s second feature, is a remarkable educator and author. I’ve known Jo some time now, originally through mutual friends and through SoCal’s writing scene, where she stood out as an author of uncompromisingly powerful, and at times emotionally challenging works of nonfiction. In her writing Jo explores a range of human experience, from her own time spent in the classroom, to her reflections as an observer of some of the darker facets of humanity. What really amazes me about Jo is her steadfast courage in exploring these “darker” sides of life (some of her work examines themes such as mass shootings, domestic violence and suicide) within the guidelines of nonfiction. Whereas some writers might shy away from these themes, or only delve into them while shielded with the protective veil of “literary license”, Jo challenges the reader to face and reflect on some of the uncomfortable realities of our world.
Jo’s books, Listening to Kathy (Big Jacaranda Press) and Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), are both available for sale from Amazon. She has just finished a new book, titled MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest.
She is a fearless, sensitive, creative author of the not fictional, and I’m proud to say, a good friend.
My Place for Misfits
by Jo Scott-Coe
by Jo Scott-Coe
An altar is a place to tend, wait, go to ground. I choose and arrange and sometimes switch the elements: wax and flame, loose coins or pins, torn paper, perhaps a flower, always faces. Not saints so much as allies—partners in commiseration, failure, a lost translation. There are always signs: Cracks in the gesso surface. Three holes in the back of the head. A missing arm. Sloppily formed plaster hands that were molded in the statue factory—a blob of paint over fishstick fingers—or too-perfect vampire eyes atop a stiff neck.
Here is my place for misfits, where the only certain symmetry is an opening for me at the table. Messages scribbled, returned to, read aloud, discarded. Not a sanctuary consecrated by anyone else. Not commanding an entire room. (An invitation, oddly, even to ignore.) Instead: askew, smuggled, an envelope of treasured space in plain sight, where there is also dust and rumpled carpet and a metal trash bin that needs to be emptied.
Such a space allows a quiet so different from silences I absorbed long ago—in closets, in wincing-light basement apartments, in discarded cardboard boxes out by somebody’s garage. Silences came from things that were done to me, said to me, shown to me by other children I thought must be friends simply because they were there. These were things I had no desire for or words for and didn’t know how to refuse or respond to, things that did not end me but made me feel ugly at my core for a very long time.
Around age ten, I made a small altar in my bedroom for the very first time. I set aside one surface of a vanity bureau that had no mirror anymore. I placed a small plastic statue of Mary there, with a blue prayer book I wore to the bone. There was or was not a votive. I remember a white doily. I understand now that this ritual was not piety but desperation—I was dying to telegraph elsewhere, to borrow whatever words I could find to reach out through the security of a space I marked as sacred.
I thought for a long time that I could make bad events go away if I recalled them as sins to repent for. That was the only way to name certain parts of my experience—by locating the fault in me. But I see how the making of that first little altar marked a parallel, simultaneous awareness that has endured in a healthier way. I feel the instinct now of that child I was, who wanted to orient herself to a clearer reality by setting up a physical space where she could imagine a different world. I understand how the altar was made for connections that could be chosen rather than inevitable, where a girl would no longer be done to, by others who must have been done to (and shown to, and told that), other children who were themselves smudged little creatures pawing for comfort wherever they could, and who did not know what they were doing.