I recently took an online training course on recognizing and reporting child abuse. I could not help but think of all the horror stories I’ve heard during my career as a psychiatric technician and residential counselor. One of my jobs involved working with women who were abused over a large part of their childhood and their early teen years. The abuse was so severe that they developed multiple personality disorder. This is a type of dissociative disorder that allows the victim to create multiple levels within his or her psyche in order to “hide” from the abuse, or somehow slip away while it is happening.

I was so blown away at the time that I was able to work at the job for only about a year. It was exhausting. I felt a certain degree of rage toward the abuser. I had been writing poetry for a short period, and was able to relieve some of the tension by creating the following poem.

Mother calls.
Shadows fall on bedroom walls.
The neighbors yell.
Time stalls.
Your father bellows
Hey, who’s in my yard?
He screams and shouts.
He wails and yelps.
Thank God
No one knows your special place.
Keep your silence.
Let time race.
Pay the price with lonely patience.
And just remember to disappear.
No one knows if you’re here.

© 1990 Steven Barto

That’s Crazy

A cat that can find a bell under three metal cups and poke at it with his paw. He hears the bell and knows exactly where it is. A bear that can twirl a tree branch, throw it in the air and catch it. A large line of trees that are bent permanently by sea breeze. A ten-year-old child that can bake a cake from scratch without a recipe. A one-hundred-year-old man that rides a bicycle to his girlfriend’s house. A moon so low on the horizon that it appears ten times larger and ten times closer than normal. A teenager that can jump in the air and flip as a car drives under him.

Referee, The Poem

I haven’t written a lot of poems in the last year. My most prolific time was in the late 1990s. I had just gone through an unexpected break up with a girl I was nuts about. She was an art director and a writer. I was working in rights, clearances and intellectual property at the same company where I met her. We traveled together, went to a lot of movies, and would often lay on her bed writing.

At some point, I became star-struck regarding New York City and wanted to move there to work at a television network. We broke up by default. We were in love, but our relationship could not weather the distance.

I wrote a lot of journal entries back then, and was often moved to jot down a poem. The following was written in 1997, while I was sitting in a one-room apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ, just a short bus ride from downtown Manhattan.

The pain of loneliness and the excitement of adventure argue,
Each convinced of its position mutually exclusive of the other.
To what do I owe this honor?
A front row seat to the fight of the century.
As blows are struck, drops of sweat fly in my face.
Poignant reminders,
Rude, salty, definitive.
Whom do I root for?
Is that even a sensible question?
Shouldn’t I be hoping for a draw?
I cringe with each punch;
On the edge of my seat,
Stomach in knots,
I look for the referee.
My eyes roam the room for the time clock.
I listen for the bell.
What round is it?
Who’s calling this fight anyway?
The room is spinning;
I can feel the pain.
I can sense the desperation of each fighter.
In a dizzying moment of clarity
I realize the referee is me.

© 1997 Steven Barto


I’ve been less than connected to others during much of my life. I often felt dark inside. Unable to receive light. To use it in any way. Such as to cast meaning and clarity on a situation. To show me a direction. To give sight where it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s a singularly lonely feeling. There is an inability to latch on to others in any significant way. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one in the room in spite of the cast of thousands swarming around you. You can’t even hear others breathing. Eye contact is not possible. The gaze of others is so bright it causes you to squint and guard your eyes. All that content, coming at you all at once. Blinding you. Confusing you. Causing you to shut down. Which makes it all the more impossible to go outside of your self. Which, of course, lends itself to cold, blanketing, deep isolation from others.

I felt that way a lot. Communication was painful. Nauseating. I was fully shut down most of my childhood. We moved a lot as a family, which made my antisocial behavior commonplace. It wasn’t just about girls. I liked them. Obsessed over them. Oh, their lips and their curves. I was aware of every girl in the room. Not that I believed they were attainable. I had too many problems dealing with people in general. Add sexual tension, and I was frozen in place.

I think that’s why it’s so fascinating that my first best friend was Lynn. She was cute. Not gorgeous. She had a fast reputation as a young woman. Unique, and otherworldly. Lynn definitely danced her own way. She did things she wanted to, and she had no real sense of restraint. Her eyes were bright. Wide open. Telling. Funny thing though: I didn’t need to squint when I looked at her. The brightness I shied away from in others was warm and subdued in Lynn’s gaze. It was beyond a gaze, actually. It was a gentle peek inside. There was nothing threatening or overwhelming about her contact. I felt warm and alive when she looked at me. I felt aroused. Nothing too deep or complicated. No rules. No agenda. Just a slow sucking in. A natural feeling of compatibility. A very special feeling.

I didn’t quite understand what was going on between Lynn and I. We were not officially dating. But we were joined somehow. It was as if we’d been gliding on a pathway that led to discovery and comprehension. No one ever understood me before Lynn. Freak that I was, I couldn’t make friends. I couldn’t behave long enough for my parents to be proud of me. They certainly didn’t understand me. I was lost even to myself, and so I couldn’t explain it. I had no respect for the feelings of others. You were no more than an object for me to use for my own ends. My ends were justified in my mind. There was only one way: the way I chose to go. I saw no other paths. I considered no consequences. Certainly, it was no concern to me how my behavior would effect someone else. This was, of course, the very root of my lack of friends. Even when my mistakes were pointed out to me, I couldn’t see them.

Except when they were pointed out by Lynn. She was gentle about it. It was as if she wanted me to learn something about myself that would lead to a happier life. She understood my isolation and hoped to teach me of its source. She knew it wasn’t of my own doing. It was because of things that were done to me. My isolation was because of others. Lynn didn’t want me blaming myself for my lack of friendships despite my bad habits and bad behaviors. She knew the egg in this case came before the chicken. My personality was hatched, in other words. Who I was and how I acted was a byproduct of how I was treated. Things were done to me that affected me deeply.

Some days I wish Lynn were still here. She died of ovarian cancer ten years ago.

Saying Goodbye

Today was the funeral of my father, Charles. The viewing was the hardest part. It was bad enough seeing dad lying in his hospital bed after he passed away. It was worse seeing him in his coffin. He was always a larger-than-life figure. He could fix anything. He gave sound advice. He loved people unconditionally. He was a Christian man who loved his country and absolutely worshiped his wife. I stated in earlier posts that he saved me from total destruction by taking me in to his home, driving me to A.A. meetings and counseling sessions and doctor’s appointments. He motivated me to take stock and had me prepare a written game plan and a life-saving TO DO list. So, yeah, seeing him lying there today was hard.

The funeral home put together a slide show of dozen of pictures showing dad over the years. One of my favorite photos was of dad holding me on his lap when I was a baby. He was only 20 years old at the time. I always said my father had to grow up rather fast. He was thirteen when his dad passed away. (I remember dad saying to me once, “You would have loved your grandfather.”)

Dad’s memorial service was very nice today. My grandmother’s pastor officiated. Grammy passed away one year ago this past August. After going to the cemetery, we all gathered at the church for food and fellowship. People shared many good memories about him. My oldest son Christopher was there, along with my ex-wife Antoinette. (I came to realize today that my ex-wife does not hate me, like I always believed. Nice, huh?) Cousin Sonny came, who is 84 years old. Cousin Eileen was there. She was very upset. She and dad used to play together growing up. Dad’s history teacher from Montgomery High School, Mr. Deffenbaum, came. He is in his 90s. He said, “Charlie was one of my boys.” He said he tries to get to as many funerals of his former students as he can. This was very sweet of him.

Mom was very upset today. It was hard seeing her cry. I have always been blown away by the relationship between her and dad. They got married in 1958 when she was fifteen and he was nineteen. I was born a year later, on their anniversary. Mom and dad weathered many a rough patch. Thing is, dad treated mom with tenderness, love, respect, and admiration. He once said in a letter to her on her birthday that she was the glue that held everything together. He said he was very touched by the way she handled us kids.

When our male cat Smokey got out of the house early this fall, dad was so upset. Smokey was his “buddy.” The cat would come into his bedroom every night and spend about ten minutes rubbing against him, purring, and saying goodnight. So dad was really sad when he thought Smokey was gone. Smokey came back later that night. Mom went outside one last time to look for him, and there was Smokey on the back porch. Mom started crying tears of joy. The next day, dad made mom a certificate calling her “The Hero That Saved Smokey.”

It’s really easy to miss someone as special as dad.

The Five

Some time late in the 1990s, there was a very bad accident in a city park in Allentown, PA. Five young men were crammed in to a two-door car traveling approximately 47 miles an hour down a park road that had a posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour. As the car approached a 90-degree curve onto a bridge exiting the park, the driver lost control and hit a wooden post and wire guardrail. The car was vaulted into the air, landing upside down in a water-filled canal. The young men ranged in age from 14 to 19 years old. All five had been drinking and smoking marijuana. The driver was found to have been legally drunk at the time of the accident. All five young men drowned in the car.

I wrote the following poem in 1998 in remembrance of the five young men and that fateful night.

Five boys looking right,
Traveling like lightening through the night.
Could it be?
Would these five boys go
Down the gamut of death
On one final flight?

© 1998 Steven Barto