Post 11: Negative space

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The things we tell may be no more telling—

—than the things we don’t.

Yeah, yeah. Late again. It’s been another crazy f*#^ing week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. But Shannon’s medications have really helped control her pain, and the increasingly ridiculous, (as distinct from radiculous), computastrophic drama continuing to unfold here is, I am ecstatic to report, entirely eclipsed by the arrival of SRING—replete with blooming crocuses and little fuzzy black and orange caterpillars and six million miles of suddenly urgent yard work, and...

And I’m not going to get into it this week—at all. Let’s just sum it up with—if this is about karma, I must have been Genghis-frigging-Khan last time around—or maybe even Joe Goebbels. One classic device of effective comedy is repetition—and, happily, Shannon and I have reached the point where each new thing just gets us laughing harder than the last one!

But if I’m really so determined to drag us all through this dang dark forest of mine, then I’ve really got to stop interrupting that exploration with all of this week’s impossibly improbable and utterly unscheduled little imbroglios, yes? Yes! :D

Right then! To quote that marvelous witch from Sondheim’s musical, ‘Into-to-the-WOODS!’

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I believe we left our intrepid narrator broaching the topic of storytelling—as a lifestyle and a core feature of basic human nature and survival strategy.

So, among other things, storytelling necessarily involves structuring an often massive and numbingly complex supply of raw material. To forge a story out of ‘objective chaos,’ one must decide what to put in—and what to leave out. All those choices are themselves part of the story, in the sense that both what’s put in and what’s left out are ‘telling.’

This week, as part of my own ‘discovery process’ in this endeavor, I went back and read—at a single sitting—everything I’ve written since Post One—for the first time since I started this blog. After crafting each of these posts, (and rest assured, each of these posts was carefully crafted), I have posted them, and then purposely never gone back to read any of them again—until today. I did this because I wanted to give myself enough time to ‘forget’ the details of what I’d crafted here before going back to read a larger swath of the story I’ve told, and see what struck me—about what’s there, and how it’s presented, and what’s not there at all. (Believe it or not—however it may seem—I actually have left some things out) And today’s first big read-through offered me some interesting results. Here are a few of the things my inner-storyteller did not choose—or even think—to include in my tale so far:

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To start with, I have said almost nothing about my mother’s struggles—and failings—or their impact on my childhood. Not a small omission—as she herself would all too willingly confirm. So, because what I choose to leave out of ‘my story’ is at least as telling as what I choose to include, here are some quick samples of this rather major omission:

My mother—like my father—is as likable, caring, honest, and good-hearted a woman as you will find anywhere. I love and enjoy her a lot—as does almost everyone she’s ever met—and she has always loved her family and friends just as deeply. None of which made her any more immune to tragic missteps than my father was—or the rest of us are. During the very same conversation, years ago, in which my father tearfully related his grief and shame about those nights after my birth, my mother told me a tale of her own—also in tears. (Yes. Something was happening that day which prompted these momentous conversations—but I’m going to leave that out for now too.)

My mother told me that one day, when I was still less than a year old, and alone at home with her in our kitchen, strapped into my highchair to ‘eat’ lunch, I pushed some of my food onto the floor—as babies will—instead of pushing it into my mouth, or onto my face, or down the front of my onesie. I will tell this next part in as close to her actual words as I can.

                “The next thing I knew, I was somehow up on the ceiling, looking down at myself, lying on the floor, beating my fists on the linoleum, and screaming,” [this was where she began to cry], “as you sat there, staring wide eyed at me, from your highchair. I can’t imagine what you thought...how you must have felt. ...You just pushed some food off of that tiny table... That’s all. And I...screamed and screamed...”

Psychiatry has a name for the kind of ‘out-of-body’ experience she was describing, though I can’t recall it now. But this was the level of distress my mother—and my father, in his own, different way—were navigating at that time—without, I feel compelled to say again, any of the therapeutic resources and vast social permissions I and my generation would have access to in coming decades to help us explore, understand, and resolve such struggles. In addition to whatever else she was dealing with, her periods were horribly punishing, and the blessed Church would not give her permission to use birth control pills—even medically—which were the primary treatment in those days for the tremendous monthly pain and illness she suffered the whole time I and my brothers were growing up.

She often sobbed behind her closed bedroom door, only to emerge later with a blotched face and a stiff smile, as if nothing at all had happened. She could also fly into a rage, and was, on a few occasions, more physically violent than I can remember my father ever being—to me, but even more often, I think, to my next younger brother. Once or twice, she drew blood. In very small amounts. But still, blood.

She was also kind of a monstrous control freak. I couldn’t do a single chore I was given except precisely, to the smallest detail, as she’d have done it herself. I couldn’t just water the garden. The hose had to be held just this way, at just this height, at just this degree of flow, for just this long, over each plant, one by one—in precisely this order. I couldn’t just vacuum the living room carpet until it was fully covered and clean. It must be done in just this pattern, at just this speed, starting at this end of the room, at this spot, holding the cord up just this way, and proceeding in just this order to finish at just this spot. And she’d follow me around, literally taking hold of my hands or limbs at times—as if I were a Thai shadow puppet—to make sure I didn’t deviate from the one correct pattern in any detail. It drove me crazy—at least, in the moment.

Of course, she did no end of kind and generous things too—just as my father did. Hell—like so many moms, she cooked literally tens of thousands of delicious meals for us, did our laundry and most of the shopping, cleaned our home, drove us to countless appointments and activities, read us stories, made us special treats for all our special occasions, helped us dye our Easter eggs or get our Halloween costumes, and so much more, usually without a word of complaint or resentment. It’s heroic—every dang day—what mothers do! Most men I know would be psycho, homicidal, or both after just a couple months of it. But when she reached her breaking point—which happened not infrequently in those days—she could become Kali in an instant.

I remember coming into the kitchen one afternoon on someone’s birthday—I can’t remember whose—and finding the chocolate birthday cake she’d made and left sitting on a counter, with little candy hearts pressed into the peanut butter frosting—all knife-slashed in a big angry X across the top. ...That was my mother, in her dark aspect. She is not—at all—that person today, nor has she been for many, many years now. I may touch in some later post on her later transition away from such things. But she still carries—as did my father—a dreadful burden of grief and guilt about those times that is painful to see when it appears.

So why have I left her and all this so much out of these posts, while focusing on my father’s missteps instead?

Because the wounds I received from my father were the ones that drove my story. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ran early from my father—into the arms of my mother. She became my parent. From that point on, the things my father got wrong have driven my story forward. The things my mom got wrong...well, drove me out of my mind, as I have said—but only while they were happening. Then, they just rolled off my shoulders, because my story was never about—or driven by—the wounds she inflicted. She could, and sometimes did, behave just as badly as my father ever did. But I just didn’t care in the same, deep, enduring way. I let go of the wounds she gave me, because in my story, she was my parent. while in my story, Dad was my antagonist.

So, you see, our stories are not just shaped by events. Events are as often shaped by our stories.

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My middle brother’s stories were largely shaped and driven by the wounds our mother—not our father—inflicted on him. His parent was our father. For that reason, the wounds he received from our father—however painful in the moment—just ran off his shoulders in the long run, as Mom’s ran off mine. As I’ve suggested before, that’s a large part of why my middle brother and I fought so fiercely for so many years. He and I were Montagues and Capulets. (Not Romeo and Juliette, though—I mean their relatives—always killing each other with swords.) Servants of antagonistic masters. We both see that now, though we never dreamed it then.

And my brother’s story, I guarantee you, would be entirely different from the one I’m telling here—yet every bit as real and true. Our stories—mine, his, or yours—are not just about ‘what happened.’ They’re about what those happenings meant to us. So, in one way, my brother and I grew up in the same house with the same parents, through all the same events. But in another just as real and legitimate way, we had entirely different parents, in a very different house, experiencing entirely different events. Neither my mother, nor my father were the same people with him that they were with me. The places in our home that were scary or angry stage sets for me meant entirely different things attached to completely different experiences to him. Every event I’ve described in these posts is, to my best knowledge, as verifiably true and factual as possible. But my brother had few, if any, of these same experiences. His life, and mine, and my mom’s and dad’s were all entirely different—in the very same spaces at the very same times. This is not delusion. This is honest and legitimate life experience generated inside as well as outside of inherently, inescapably, self-centric observers. Ask any policeman how likely it is that any two participants in, or witnesses to, the same event at the same time in the same place will have the same experience.

So, whatever I end up writing here, I will not even try to tell my middle brother’s story—or my mother’s, or my father’s, or my youngest brother’s story either, because I am not remotely equipped to know and understand their stories, much less entitled to tell them. I have barely eked out and made any sense of mine yet. So, yes, I will be omitting nearly everything of their tales here—because I’d be a presumptuous fool to do otherwise.

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And speaking of omitted stories, how about that youngest brother I just mentioned—for virtually the first time! My youngest brother was born when I was eight years old. I told you all about being taken to a therapist that year. I’ve reported all manner of trivia about what happened in the third grade, and the fourth, and fifth. Yet not a word about the arrival in our family of a fifth person—my youngest brother?!

How and why?

Well, he didn’t figure much into the story I am working through here either. My youngest brother was another complete surprise to my parents, but they were so much readier this time--unsurprisingly. He was adorable—and beloved. By the time he was born, many of the worst ‘family fires’ were already burning lower—now that a cause for them had been identified—and sent off to a therapist for help. The biggest battles over who would end up being made to hold that hot potato were resolved. I would. As you may or may not have noticed by now, I had come to accept—even embrace—that outcome as fully as anyone else in my family—then, at least. For any physicists out there, there was a damping rod in place now, (me and my ‘problem’), and our reactor—though still far from cool—was in less and less danger of imminent melt down.

In fact, the battle for my youngest brother’s affection became one of the most frequent causes of fighting between my middle brother and I. We threw him parties, and made him gifts, and played with him endlessly, each of us secretly—if unconsciously—hoping to win him for Vader—or for Obi Wan. I’ll let you guess which of us was who. :]

Though even my youngest brother didn’t escape our secret train wreck entirely unscathed, he took a far more glancing blow than the direct hits my middle brother and I had already taken by the time he was born. I will likely have more to say about my youngest brother later—as we journey to different parts of this story that struggles to make sense of my dark wood. But for now, I will simply point out, once again, how powerfully the life stories we are always forging—once they have attained sufficient focus and momentum—can edit the events from which they sprang.  My story has, so far, edited out the arrival and existence of an entire younger brother—without even noticing—until just now. ... Interesting, no?

Still, that’s quite an omission. I may go back and revise the appropriate post to—er—correct that one.

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So, what other omissions?

Well, conversely to omitting my mother’s darker aspects and impacts, I have also largely omitted—or at best minimized—my father’s many generosities and tremendous contributions. Far more often than he taught me shame or self-doubt, my father—just as much as my mother—also taught me—by word and by example—most of the virtues I most value in myself these days: the importance of courage—though we all failed to find it on occasions; the paramount importance of honesty—though we all unconsciously deceived ourselves and/or each other about a lot of things. My dad couldn’t stand a knowing, intentional lie. (‘AND,’ my friends. Almost never ‘either/or.’) He taught me to value hard work, for sure. No one worked harder than my father when there was a task before him—until the task was done as fully and perfectly as possible. Nothing less than that ever impressed him. My fairly robust sense of humor—to this day—is largely of his making. He shared the beauty and inestimable value of the natural world with us as joyfully as I ever saw him be. Those long summer camping trips—to truly wild places—did as much to build up the best of who I am today as other aspects of our dynamic ever did to tear some parts of me down. My dad taught me to fish—an activity which delighted him. He took me up in the planes he so loved to fly, to see the world from above the clouds. He bought me my first marine aquarium—no small investment—and took me on day-long trips out to the coast to collect specimens to keep in it. If I have made more than grossly general mention of all this in previous posts, I cannot recall exactly where. These facts too do not seem to have served the aims of my inner storyteller here. And yet...

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And then, there are even things about myself which my inner storyteller doesn’t seem to have deemed worthy of inclusion. (Oh yes! Though it must seem I can’t have left a single little thing about myself out of this story—anywhere yet—I have, in fact, barely scratched even that surface. ;])

To begin with, there are my rather telling boyhood hobbies:

Hours—even days at a time—spent utterly absorbed in making obsessively detailed miniature houses, castles, graveyards ‘snakes and ladders’-like mazes out of paper, cardboard, plastic packaging and other household junk—in which to live imaginary alternative lives even more obsessively elaborate. More hours—or days—lost in the equally obsessive arranging, packaging and cataloging of my many vast collections: shells, minerals, insects, bones, ‘treasures,’ animal body parts...(I’ll...explain that later...). Every item carefully stowed in its own hand-constructed, tissue lined cubbyhole within some large cardboard clothing box. And, of course, all the living ‘pets:’ invertebrates of all sorts—both aquatic and terrestrial, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and even some small mammals—most found out in the yard, or in the huge grassy hillside pastures that surrounded our neighborhood. All placed lovingly in jars or boxes or aquariums obsessively landscaped with dirt and moss and rocks and sticks and little plants, where I could sit for hours watching all the little creatures I loved even more than people crawl and hop and swim and perch—until they died there. They always died—most sooner than later…

It was many years before a single, relatively small event, which I will omit for now, would finally bring my conscious attention to the fact that I was incessantly gathering up the creatures I loved and confining them in miserable little jars to die. Once recognized, this practice stopped—on a variety of levels. But this part of my life seems somehow to have been ‘skirted’ here too.  (Hmmm... Maybe it’s good I never had children of my own. Can you imagine their blog posts—if they lived long enough to post them?)

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And then, there were the chronic allergies and illnesses—also, oddly missing thus far: Allergies to grass that made the whites of my eyes blister and swell up like powdered sugar donuts, until the blue jelly at their centers was all but hidden in the donut hole. The allergy shots—every week for seven years—more of a pain for my mom, who had to drive me to the hospital every week, than it was for me, I think. I’ve never much minded needles, but the antihistamines I had to take—years before ‘non-drowsy’ versions had been dreamed of—made it all but impossible to remain awake at school for so many years. And then there were the allergies to fur and animal dander that made it impossible for me to have normal pets—like cats and dogs. Though I did have a white rat once. For several weeks—until it died of a cold after being accidentally left beneath a rain spout out on our back deck, where I had to keep it because of those allergies. And there was the chronic bronchitis that made it necessary to sleep, in my chocolate brown bedroom, with a vaporizer running for months at a time—and mid-night awakenings, when my father would run in to scoop me out of bed and carry me to the bathroom to be held, face down, over gushing hot water in the bathtub, so I could breath the steam that I was told would help me keep breathing. And even the eyeglasses that I only needed for some reason for about five years between kindergarten and the fifth grade—when my vision suddenly turned perfect again—spontaneously...

I am still not sure how many of these ailments were—um—entirely ‘real,’ and how many were outgrowths of my father’s depression. But they certainly helped define me as constitutionally unequipped to be ‘robust.’

Little things. I know. Tiny things, perhaps. And yet, whole beaches, even avalanches, are made of tiny things...

And, while I’m at it, the fifth grade was certainly not just about wetting my pants one morning. Among other fairly large items I still choose to omit here, that was also the year I started drawing things—like really drawing. Burning castles. Goldfish in bowls, butterflies, dragons,...all fully rendered surprisingly well for a fifth grader. A rather defining development for me to this very day. And yet—my inner story teller didn’t think to mention it.

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Now have I finally told you everything that mattered? Not even close. Nor will I ever try.

Oh—but here’s one last even bigger and more important omission, I guess: my own oblivious cruelties as a child. (I mean, besides capturing and killing all my little animal friends). Allow me this one last really painful snap shot—of me—that also seems to have been omitted somehow from the story I have struggled to relate so far:

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One of my recurring childhood dreams—(I had a lot of those for some reason)—stands out for having not been a nightmare. Quite the opposite. It involved me and a group of other boys in colorful satin superhero costumes, with capes and everything. In the dream, we were not just playing. We were always working to do great things. Super things. As a team. A team to which I belonged. Truly and completely. That dream always felt great to have! My long-ungranted wish—like Pinocchio’s—to become a ‘real boy’ would not be articulate for many years yet. But it had been there, lodged inside me, all along—unnamed, and thus consciously unrecognized. Unconsciously, however, it was always, always shaping me and my behaviors. One day, very early in my grade school years, this wonderful dream made a monster of me—for a moment. Every bit as fully as any of my parent’s id-born torments ever made monsters of them.

I was at the park, just downhill from my family’s house, playing in the sand box with two other boys on a cold, overcast day. They were real boys. Not like me. Lean and tough and thoughtlessly sure of themselves. A short while into our activities—whatever they were—three girls entered the park and approached us, wanting to join in. They were, as I’ve mentioned, girls—one of them extremely fat. My two companions were real boys—who instinctively went tribal and began hurling insults, and actual sand, at those girls—who, to their credit, just stood their ground and yelled at us to stop.

I so wanted to be a real boy too—to belong—really and fully—so much more badly than even I quite guessed yet. So, instead of donning a superhero cape and doing something great, I picked up a handful of sand too—and joined the frenzy of real boys gone tribal.

And for a minute, I did belong. Fully.

My god, what a buzz.

That park was right up against a huge pastureland—full of cows—and cow flop. It was just a short run to the wire fence, as little as ten feet, and, conveniently, (for the devil is big on making ugliness convenient), there were large sheets of wax paper—likely from someone’s bag lunch—drifting all around the sandbox. Didn’t take those real boys ten seconds to put the pieces together and level up our ‘defense.’ They each grabbed a sheet of wax paper, ran to the fence and scooped up a big wad of soft, slimy cow-poop—careful not to get any of it on their hands, ‘cause who’d want that, right? Yuck!—then ran back to hurl those at the three girls. So—I did it to. We were, after all, a team.

The first bomb hit one of the skinnier girls, who was already turning with her friends to flee, though I don’t think they’d realized yet what we were throwing at them. My throwing skills were not as keen as those of real boys, so I threw my wax paper wad of poop at the retreating fat girl. Bigger target. Easier to hit. What a satisfying mess it made all down the back of her long winter coat.

Only then did those three girls seem to smell and understand what we were throwing—onto their nice coats and sweaters. I saw and heard the fat girl burst into tears as they began to run back toward the park entrance to escape. I can’t remember whether I had sense enough to feel bad then, but I suspect I didn’t. I was likely still just reveling in that awesome—and comically mistaken—assumption of full belonging at last.

Just a few years later—in sixth grade—those same real boys would be standing in a circle in that same park, jeering as one of them straddled me on the ground and punched me in the face, over and over again—for so not belonging.

But I’ll tell you this, cyber-friends. Whatever I felt that day, I’ve had no trouble ‘getting it’ on countless days since then. I am still periodically halted, at work or in the dead of night, by the memory of that poor, fat girl, sobbing as she fled a park she’d doubtless just come to for a moment of fun with ‘real girl’ friends she probably wanted to ‘belong’ among as much as I wanted to belong among ‘real boys.’ I have never ceased to wonder what ‘story’ she brought with her to that event. What self-esteem issues, or history of other abuses were attached to, and inflamed by, what I did to her—for no reason she could possibly have guessed—except maybe that her figure or something else about her had somehow caused this bewildering cruelty. I have never stopped wondering how that doubtless traumatic event may have changed her whole trajectory in life. I can’t help shuddering at the possible answers. The shame and remorse that memory rightfully brings me has never softened with time. It just gets sharper every time it surfaces.

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By the time I was eleven, Therapy had begun to make me aware—for better AND worse—of ‘story’—and of the power of using story to alter things by altering my story and myself.  But I was still only aware then of my own story. It would be many years before I fully realized that other people might have story too—and began to puzzle out the ramifications—intended and unintended.

I will have more to say about that next week.

For now, I will resist the urge to apologize again for the length of these ruminations. If that matters to you, I suppose you quit reading many posts ago. Instead, I will just thank you, once again, for your company on this ramble through my evolving journey and its hints and lessons.

Until next week, then, I wish you spring, in all its glories, large and small.

G’night. :]

Mark FerrariComment