It’s been another perilous week here in Lake Snow-be-gone, my new home. We have been literally—if beautifully—house-bound for a week. Almost two feet of unplowed snow on steep, winding roads has made driving too treacherous even for a Subaru owner who spent years living and driving comfortably through mid-winter both on Donner Summit in the California Sierras, and in Omaha, Nebraska. After a decade of laughing at Pacific Northwest winter drivers, I must finally concede that our fluffy but wet, icy, always slippery snow is nothing like that of truly colder climates. Internet communiques brought us daily news of roll-overs and worse from Orcas’ icy destruction derby. Five days in, I shoveled off the car and managed to toboggan all the way down our road to the main artery where our mailbox huddles with those of our neighbors’. It took me almost 20 minutes to make the normally three-minute drive back. If I’d had less snow-driving savvy, the car, at least, would likely not have made it back at all.
Happily, we had a lot of food and firewood laid in, and the power stayed on. So we just worked at home, stopping now and then to gaze out at a fairytale world, or venture out to refill all the bird feeders to accommodate the panic eating that ensued from dawn to dusk as snowfall stretched on and on—as it virtually never does here on Orcas. Second time in 18 years—or so we’re told. At least a hundred birds made camp full time this week in our yard—including Dumb Bird who showed up once to stand beside our frozen solid pond—his feathered crest blown back like Trump’s comb-over—staring down morosely, as if some fish might dig its way up through the ice just for his convenience. There had been snowy deer tracks across the middle of that pond for days. No fish would be forthcoming.
Looking at those deer tracks on Wednesday, I finally realized that all the cattails I’d been meaning to boat out and cut back there before spring might be far easier to harvest now while the pond was still solid. I could just walk right out and cut them off! I suited up, put on my shin-high rubber boots, and went out to test the ice—cautiously, at first. But it seemed plenty sound, and soon I was walking over open water, slashing off cattails left and right. Within 20 minutes, at least half of them were cleared!
Do I really need to tell you that I found a patch of thinner ice at last—the hard way? No, I didn’t think so. Such a bath is every bit as invigorating as those Nordic Polar Bear bathers say it is. Still can’t recommend it though. Water’s not just freezing, but foul as hell this time of year. Black and sulfurous, not to mention difficult to scrabble through toward shore with ice still snapping off beneath you all the way.
We canceled long-awaited dinner guests who didn’t dare try reaching us. But when Catkin Cafe out in Olga postponed the special, single-seating Valentine’s Night Dinner we’d so been looking forward to, Shannon and I just made an even better meal here at home. Thick, tender pork loin chops a friend brought us recently from America, slathered in an herbed pear, cranberry, apple and red wine pan sauce we whipped up—with a splash of lavender shrub—served next to fresh, homemade pesto over pasta with coarse-shaved parmesan cheese, and paired with cocktails of St. Germaine and one of two remaining bottles of our wedding champagne, all topped off with homemade almond cake, homemade lemon curd and fresh blueberries for desert. ... I’ve suffered through worse crises in my time. :]
Yesterday, at last, the forecast was for higher temps and RAIN! ... Which came even earlier than predicted—as snow. The biggest, thickest flakes of snow we’ve seen all week just dumped and dumped all afternoon. A new half inch by dinnertime. Then, at last, it turned to blessed rain. Today, we made it all the way to town—through seas of slippery slush even worse to drive on than the snow—where my inquiries at both hardware stores about the possibility of buying a snow shovel were just greeted with hilarity.
But you didn’t come for this stuff, did you.
Okay then. Back into the woods...
I don’t know about you, but I’ve already learned so much more than I thought I knew three weeks ago about why well-adjusted people don’t do what I have foolishly set out to try here.
To begin with, I see now that one cannot just amble up a hillside in this forest, to some convenient vista point, gesture at a handful of obvious landmarks, draw a few connecting lines, and say, ‘Le voila! My Dark Woods. Now you understand. Shall we repair to lunch?’ No. If that were possible, I guess I’d never have been lost here for so long to start with, eh? When I first decided—with surprisingly youthful naiveté (French for ‘cluelessness’) –to show you around my ‘vast, dark’ and ‘tangled’ forest, I clearly still did not really understand that not one thing here is unconnected to every – other – thing by a nearly impenetrable mat of roots... And yet, I still don’t know how to talk about the ways I’ve mishandled ‘so many things,’ or how I hope to better manage ‘all of that’ now, without giving you some clear idea first of what ‘all of that’ means.
So, yes. I learned to fear the dark—and my father, I’m sure—and probably missteps of self-expression in general—well before I learned to talk. That matters some. In part, because things formatted before one learns to talk are much more difficult to identify, let alone address, later on when everything one ‘knows,’ thinks, feels, or consciously remembers is defined and accessed—externally and internally—through symbolic language. One cannot apply words—and thus conscious thought—well to what there were literally no words for at the time. It also matters because lessons learned ‘pre-linguistically’ can end up much more globally applied. An extremely early experience like, for instance, ‘Get too close to the kitten, and you may get clawed,’ absorbed without any of the limiting qualifiers and dividers of structured language may not end up formatted as ‘data about kittens,’ but as ‘data about THE WORLD:’ ‘Too close—[to anything]—GET CLAWED!’
As I learned to crawl, a strange new habit developed. When my parents put me in my crib at night, I would rise to my hands and knees and rock, forward and backward, banging my head into the crib’s headboard over and over—for half an hour or more at a time—hard enough to move my crib well across the room. Still annoying to my folks, perhaps—but much quieter than crying, no? I’ve been told this kind of behavior is observed in some autistic children, (not that anyone but specialists had heard the term ‘autism’ yet in the late 50s), and also sometimes in children suffering other kinds of distress. But never until decades later did it occur to me, much less to my parents, to associate my behavior with distress at all. To them, it was just another in my rapidly flowering collection of odd, sometimes irritating foibles. To me, it was just more comfortable than lying still—well into my adolescence, in fact. I continued the almost daily practice of physically ‘rocking’ for hours at a time, in various forms,—if only when alone—well into high school.
None of this behavior made life—or me—easier for my father, or my mother, to deal with. And, though I had no conscious way of knowing it then, they were, I think, barely surviving the struggle with a host of other large, painful issues in their marriage, in their wider families, and within themselves—all without, as I mentioned last week, any sense of permission to safely turn for help to anyone including their own families, or, in many ways, even each other. My mother spent the first few years of my life just this side of a nervous breakdown—in the literal, clinical sense. My father shined like the sun as an outstanding teacher, department head and master teacher during the days, but, I also believe, dreaded coming home each evening to a life shaped by depression, escalating marital distress, and a more and more obviously ‘damaged’ child, where there seemed no way for him to shine at all.
My first younger brother came along about a year and a half after I did. My father was readier this time. Keenly aware—if perhaps only in a glancing way—that he had blown it last time, he threw himself into welcoming this second son. But two infants are not easier than one to deal with. Soon my mother was crying almost as often as I was—often behind closed doors. My father became withdrawn, suppressed anger I had no way of understanding always simmering just below the surface. They were difficult to please, and easy to upset—not that I gave this a single thought then, having neither had, nor seen, any other parents to compare them with. My brother (well and quickly bonded to my father), and I (bonded to my mother, the only ‘safe’ parent left me), began to have the fights by proxy with each other that our parents dared not have themselves directly (none of which we understood then either).
As I grew older, my fear of the dark increased, as did almost nightly, wildly creative recurring nightmares. I associated this fear not at all with my father—nor with any other external cause I could have named then. In fact, the fear that defined me then was so ubiquitous and dissociated, I doubt I was often conscious of being afraid at all. Yet I began to cry more and more often for reasons I myself could not identify, much less explain to others. Nothing at such moments seemed any different than it had been all along, and I still had no experience of any other world to compare my own to. I understood myself no better than anyone else did. In fact, I was quite sure that my parents—and everyone else—understood me far better than I did. (Perhaps because they were convinced of that too?) They had clearly gathered all the right answers, somewhere. All I had was confusion and shame, and worse things that grew from those.
To everyone we knew, our family seemed a shining example of happy, healthy intelligence, talent and functionality. But at home, alone with ourselves and each other, our house often seemed a slow, thickening stew of ticking, if vaguely defined bombs, any one of which might explode and destroy us should it be touched carelessly—or at all. And so, every day, all day, no matter who’d just been yelling or crying, spanked or spanking, sulking or rocking or screaming in another room behind closed doors, we told each other—and ourselves—with fierce conviction—the story on which our very survival as a family depended: ‘Everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along...’ And we believed it! Every one of us. Was this not, after all, the very story our whole country—perhaps the entire developed world—was telling itself back then? This was the era of Leave It To Beaver—and duck-and-cover drills—after all. I doubt that my family were all that unusual. Unusual were the rare few families out there somehow untouched by this great zeitgeist.
But that’s all different today, right? :] I mean, at least we can talk about it now... Yes?
Another thing no one in my family could have told you then was that, having fled my father and bonded with my mom instead, I was, in all sorts of utterly unconscious ways, modeling her interests and behaviors as other boys my age might have modeled their dads’. By the time I was six or seven, my father felt all but certain I was homosexual. …At six or seven. One of the ways his depression sometimes manifested was vivid, often overblown or unlikely fears that, once conceived, could become obsessive. He never said a word about this particular fear to me, of course—well aware of how much harm that might cause me. But one more thing none of us understood then was that within any system as intimate as family, one may be able to keep secrets from being known consciously by other system members, but nearly everything that’s going on is likely very quickly known unconsciously to everyone. Perhaps you have learned something ‘unthinkable’ about one of your own family members, which, nonetheless, felt strangely less surprising than you’d have expected? The best a family member can usually hope for is to keep some or all of the others deeply confused about what they sense but are unable to make sense of. This is where I think my father and I were when he took me, at the age of eight, to see our family doctor for a “Buccal Smear.”
A Buccal Smear is a simple procedure used to collect DNA samples from within someone’s mouth. A popsicle stick, in this case, was used to scrape the inside of my cheek. All I was told at the time was that I was being tested for strep throat—though I had no sore throat at the time, was not sick, and knew of no one at school or elsewhere with that illness. I was eight. I believed whatever doctors told me. It took five minutes and it didn’t hurt. What did I care? Yet, sixteen years later, when I was finally told I’d been tested for a YY chromosomal pattern as a child, because in the dark ages of 1964, some within the medical and/or teaching professions still believed that such a chromosomal pattern indicated homosexual orientation, I immediately replied, “The strep throat test.” Sixteen years later, I still recalled a five-minute doctor’s appointment. Within a family, even what we cannot know, we know, if only subconsciously. I knew, before the age of eight, that my father was aware of something very, very wrong with me. That I was, in some mysterious way, already failed as a boy. Though he never said as much—and it never consciously crossed my mind to me to ask.
When the Buccal Smear failed to produce that dreaded YY chromosomal pattern, my parents decided to take me to a therapist. By then, it had become very clear—to my father, anyway—that much of the pain our family had been struggling with for years was being aggravated, if not caused entirely, by his first son’s obvious, if mysterious, ‘problem.’ The distress injected between us at birth had evolved until, at last, I became the identified owner of my family’s dysfunction. Or, at least the lion’s share of it. That therapist—destined to become a lifelong friend, and an honored guest at my wedding fifty years later—saw me for two weeks, and saw my parents for two weeks, then told my parents that if they would agree to see her for a while, there might be no need to see me. My father, I’m told, made it equally clear that his son had ‘the problem,’ and that he truly hoped she could help me.
Despite her many attempts to make me understand that we were not working to address something ‘wrong with me,’ but only on how best to navigate what was troubling my family, it took me at least ten years with her just to hear that—much less begin to understand the statement’s implications. A child’s survival seems—and is—so dependent on its parents that even to suggest there might be something ‘wrong’ with them constitutes an existential threat. I would wager that few very young children will find any such message survivable—and thus, simply cannot hear it—no matter how clearly it may be delivered. There were so many things I had no permission to know consciously back then. Things I did not believe I could survive knowing—consciously—any more than my family believed they could survive knowing them. There was no problem—except for Mark’s, of course. And he was getting help. So everything else was fine. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.
Our survival depended on it.
Once I finally learned to survive understanding things like these, I spent many years struggling with resentment. More recently, though, I have come to understand instead that shoving me into a therapeutic lifeboat as they battled fire aboard our family ship was perhaps the best thing my parents were equipped to do for me. Regardless, the day I met that therapist was one of the luckiest in my life. I’ll talk later about why. But, once again, I’ve kept you longer than I likely should have. So just one last thing before I go:
Flash backward—if you will—to my earlier post about grown-ups angry with me for the way I used my fork or held my pencil or did things at my own pace in my own way, adding jokes to a speech, or just using ‘fancy vocabulary’—without permissions I kept failing to realize I’d even needed. I know that for many other children these would likely just have been frustrating, distressing, possibly even shaming or frightening experiences—in the moment. Nothing more. But for the child I have described above, I suspect they were more like recurrences of a global, yet completely inarticulate terror—absorbed in primal, wordless infancy—of bewildering monsters any misstep might conjure without warning in the dark. if I am correct in suspecting that I often reacted, not just to the event before me, but to a world of traumatic associations visible neither to others, nor even, more than vaguely, to me, then my responses, even to routine conflicts or reprimands, were likely far more skewed than I ever guessed. As I said earlier, half of any forest is underground, where seemingly distinct and distant things are all tangled into one – huge – mat. I must have seemed a very strange boy—which may explain some, or even much, of the unlikely treatment I recall drawing from others. Some patterns tend to feed and amplify themselves.
And because even the smallest shift in trajectory early in a long journey will mean more and more radical course change as time and distance extend, things just kept getting stranger from there.
But that’s for later.
Right now, if anyone with influence happens to be listening, I vote for rain, please! No more snow. At least, not until I’ve had the chance to buy a better snow shovel.