Post 19: The trouble with telling ‘TRUTH’

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Three blind men were asked to examine and describe an elephant.

You know what happened then.

It was another fairly peaceful week here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home. Things may finally, really be slowing down a bit for us. There were so many large, protracted ordeals happening in other states last spring and summer that the season here happened largely in our absence. Already, we are really enjoying just actually living here through this beautiful time of year.

Speaking of which—happy Mother’s Day—all you moms out there! My own mom is here sharing the weekend with us, and, as always, we are enjoying her company immensely. Friday night we all enjoyed dinner out on the wisteria-covered deck under a lovely crescent moon floating in the warm twilight sky—our first outdoor dinner of the year. Dragonflies and butterflies have returned in force, and the birds become more numerous and colorful each day. Shannon is now refilling our four humming bird feeders at least daily—and boiling gallons of sugar water, as it’s become too expensive to feed our voracious hummers the commercial mix anymore! I keep expecting them to lose interest in our ‘fast-food’ now that carpets of blooming clematis and wisteria—their natural food sources—are filling the backyard with their heady perfumes. But…no.

The mountain ash tree in our front yard is in bloom as well, dappled in clusters of lovely white flowers that perfume the air there with the scent of…rotting meat. The whole yard smells like a pit toilet, and the lovely tree itself is covered in a swirling, buzzing shroud of flies—its preferred pollinators—which its distinct scent is manufactured to entice.

The front yard pond grows lovelier each day too, but we’re spending a lot of time in the backyard this week. We’ll resume our tradition of afternoon cocktails by the pond in a couple weeks when all those lovely white flowers on the ash tree have become the bright red, and scentless, berries that will dapple its graceful branches through fall.

And our island even has a bear, suddenly! It swam here—two days ago—from the last of several San Juan islands it’s apparently been touring like the ursine Michael Phelps! Happily it came ashore and is still currently frolicking at the other end of the island—where state officials with clipboards and tranquilizer guns are trying to capture it for return to America. I wish them God-speed: they say it likes bird feeders! There seems no end of interesting surprises here in our lovely woods.

And speaking of woods—and surprises—about those telling omissions I mentioned last week…

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 As I’ve looked back at that last big chunk of junior high jungle to see exactly how I framed the story, just what story I’d framed, and what its parts—present and absent—might tell me about the sleight of hand always being performed—by me—behind my own back, for the benefit of…I’m not sure exactly what audience anymore, what I found was…despair, of a kind. I’m beginning to see how impossible it is just to tell the story I am trying to tell—much less make better sense of it all.

At the Orcas Literary Festival, in which Shannon and I participated a few weeks ago, I attended a panel of celebrated authors who all write fiction based on or inspired by real people and events. One of those authors spoke about the pervasive—perhaps inevitable— ‘dishonesty’ of ‘non-fictional’ memoirs. I see now, even more clearly than I did then, how right she was.

Some memoirs, of course, are consciously distorted or outright falsified to validate an agenda. But that’s not what this author was talking about—or what I find myself struggling with in this series of blog posts. She was simply acknowledging the inevitable impossibility of containing the ocean in a bottle, the full and objectively ‘accurate’ experience of a nation, a city, or even an individual in a ‘history.’ Have you, by any chance, ever spent a week in the Grand Canyon—or someplace else of similar stature? If so, what did you bring home with you—if anything? And what, if anything, did you tell others about the trip?

I just spent a week in the Grand Canyon. Let me show you.” (lays ‘souvenirs’ out on coffee table). “It was these three colored stones, this feather, this dried donkey turd, and this photo of me pointing at a fossilized dinosaur footprint.” The Grand Canyon. Right?

Have you ever tried to tell someone—I mean, really tell them—about your life? Not Gandhi’s life, or Michelangelo’s, or Genghis Khan’s. Just your own, little, nondescript, indistinguishably forgettable life. If not, I recommend it. Your eventual, inevitable, abject failure to capture anything you’ve been through fully, correctly, or even certainly, could teach you lots of other very useful things about the larger nature of ‘everything’—and your place in it.

…If nothing else, it’s an awesome exercise in ‘letting go.’ 

Nonetheless, before running off to join the circus of high school at the center of my youthful jungle, I cannot escape the compulsion to add—in passing—a few additional landmarks and snap shots from the three quarters of those two, pivotal years in junior high school completely—and ‘unintentionally’—excised from the account I’ve given you to date:

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At the top of the list—my family—seems to have virtually ceased to exist there. You may be saying, ‘Hey, everyone’s family ceased to exist as we moved into adolescence’s supercharged, bottomless narcissism, didn’t they?’ Fair enough. But as I wondered why I had suddenly ceased to think of them now—through four weeks of posts written by someone presumably no longer lost in the adolescent narcissism I’ve been describing, I realized that there may have been other more revealing reasons for their vanishing act at this point in ‘my story.’

To some extent, adolescence is a ‘home-leaving’ for everyone. It’s the point at which we cross a boundary between utterly dependent childhood and a more and more independent maturity ‘out in the world.’ This metaphor was made even less abstract in my case by the fact that, having attended elementary school virtually in our backyard, I now literally ‘left home’ every day and walked two miles away to a junior high school elsewhere. But, for me, there was another, large, looming, yet oddly invisible element at work: my role—at home—as the family astronaut.

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You see, the moment I’d been identified—back at the age of eight—as ‘the source’ of my family’s problems, and packed off to a therapist instructed to help, not my parents as she’d suggested, but me, I had become not just ‘the one’ with ‘the problem,’ but also ‘the one’ assigned to ‘go out’—literally as well as figuratively—to resolve ‘the problem’ elsewhere.

During all the years after being ‘sent off’ to accomplish that mission with my therapist, it astonishes me now to reflect on how vanishingly seldom my therapeutic work was ever acknowledged aloud at home, much less discussed. I went off to therapy ever week—for years. No one at home ever asked about it—not even my brothers. It never occurred to me to bring it up. It was my work, not theirs. I understood that too deeply to think about it. If you’d asked my parents why, I suspect they’d have answered—with complete sincerity—that they were respecting my privacy, and were reticent, perhaps, to risk seeming intrusive or making me feel awkward. And, at some level, these reasons were all true. But, in hindsight, the rest of the truth was that my family had not just sent me out of the house—and the family—to do this work. They had sent the work itself out with me. I was our astronaut—launched into the great unknown—and forbidding—ocean of potentially unsurvivable questions—to find the answers I—and only I—needed found. The unsurvivable questions themselves were supposed to leave with me.

‘Cause if there’s a great big scary bear at the mouth of the family cave, what makes sense but to send your eight-year-old out to deal with it, right?

Not that I’m bitter…anymore. :]

And I’m equally certain—now—that I assumed, somewhere down below conscious knowing, that when I’d found those answers, I could come home again—bringing those answers back to the family who’d sent me out to look for them.

The term ‘scapegoat’ is derived from ancient religious rites of sacrificial absolution from sin, in which a perfect, unblemished animal—often a pure white kid (and for a rather disturbing collage of definitions for that word, look here)—was selected and slaughtered as an offering of atonement to God. In these rituals, the sins wanting forgiveness were written down and physically nailed to the sacrificial animal’s back. Then the injured animal was driven off into the desert—smelling of blood—to bear all those sins away with it. Assuming the blameless and unblemished sacrifice was acceptable to the god it had been sent to meet, the people who’d driven it off—having sacrificed something pure, and of value—were now cleansed and absolved.

Like most lasting religious constructs, I think that ritual did embody something very real and ubiquitous about basic human nature and experience, though I suspect it didn’t always work as well as advertised. Many penitents likely left this cleansing ritual much the same as they had come to it.

I have no reason to believe that my family’s goat averted much of their own suffering—in all sorts of ways—from the painful puzzles we shared. But they didn’t have to own that suffering in quite the same way I did—nor go out to wrestle with its causes and meanings as directly either. That…was my work. And they respected my ‘privacy.’ Fiercely at times.

I lived at home just like the rest of my family. But I was not a member of my family in the same way those who’d been absolved by sending me into space were members.

Perhaps a snapshot:

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My father was driving me to some event at school one afternoon when I was in the eighth grade. I don’t know what we were talking about as we drove, but I remember that his sudden change of subject seemed—to me, at least—utterly unconnected to anything in our conversation. He turned to me, rather fiercely, and said, “Some boys expect their fathers to be their buddies. Well, I’m not your buddy. I’m your father. Do you understand that?

I had no idea what to make of this bolt from the blue, but all I felt at that moment was an urgent desire to demonstrate—immediately—that I had certainly not been silly enough to make any assumption so foolish. “Well…sure!” I sputtered. “Of course you’re my father, not my buddy. I get that. Why would I expect you to be my buddy? I’m just a kid. How could adults and kids be buddies?

“…Okay.” To my relief, he seemed mollified. “I just wanted to make sure we were clear about that.

I can’t remember any of our conversation before or after that exchange. It ‘erased’ everything around it in my head—almost immediately, I suspect. There was certainly more said, and if we could play it all back now, it might be obvious what—if anything else said there in the car—had led us there. But the interesting thing—for me, at least—is the complete absence of any umbrage in me—at the time. I really was concerned only that he know I wasn’t a fool—like those other kids—and that my assumptions were, of course, perfectly—and wisely—aligned with his. Yes, his sudden protest had caught me off guard, but that seemed only a bit confusing to me, not strange in itself, much less inappropriate, or hurtful—at all.

Looking back, however, the message was loud and clear. And, consciously or not, I’d already gotten it long before that day. ‘I’m your father, damn it. And I will meet or exceed expectations for every one of a father’s responsibilities when it comes to providing what you need, and preparing you to live in the world. But, emotionally, you are entirely on your own, son.’

I am virtually certain he had no such conversations with either of my younger brothers—who were much closer to him from the start—or felt any need to clarify these issues with them.

In fairness, my father had been struggling with profound, chronic depression for years by the time this strange talk of ours occurred. I have never quite been able to encompass what it must have cost him to stay at his post—for a lifetime—giving and doing whatever was required by his wife and children—often cheerfully, always well and fully—while coping all the while with the horrific drain of energy, hope and buoyancy that such depression causes—without anyone’s help, therapeutically or otherwise—whether from fear of coming nearer to his demons or not. Maybe his admonition to me in the car that day was simply a necessary warning. ‘Find company elsewhere, son. That’s beyond what I am able to provide.’ Perhaps his fierceness had more to do with how he felt about himself at that moment, than how he felt about me. I will never know. My father let very little out—ever—and wrote no series of blog posts like this one for me to find and refer to later…

His death a few years ago spoke deeply to the part of me that may still be trying to come home, even now, bringing answers with it—and helped that part of me to understand that neither of these goals is ever really going to happen. Nonetheless, here I am…still…

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Which brings us back to that junior high school boy pouring all his energy into fixing and perfecting his story—struggling to reconfigure its elements into a ‘brand’ that would ‘work.’ I spent last month trying to describe what I was doing in junior high. But, until I began to reflect upon the strange absence of my family from those accounts, it had not occurred to me to wonder why I might have been doing it with such intensity. The ‘normal’ mission of everyone’s adolescence—to reinvent one’s self—was much magnified in me, I think, by my mission at home—to reinvent us all.

In elementary school, where I’d still been virtually at our house, all day, every day, my separate status had been harder to perceive—or easier to ignore. But as I—the eldest child, and first to ‘leave’—went off to junior high school, miles away, my ‘set-apartness’ at home became more concrete. Though I was utterly unconscious of it then, I was ‘going off’ to pursue ‘my mission’ in a new, significantly more tangible way. I’m pretty sure my quest to invent a new, perfected persona that would ‘work’ better than previous ones was part and parcel of my greater mission as the family astronaut. And as I got deeper and deeper into that great work, physically farther from home, my family became literally and psychically farther away as well. They really did ‘exist’ less for me as I went off to the junior high jungle than they had before. I may have left them out of last month’s accounts because they really were ‘left behind’ at that point in my life.

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One result of this new distancing, perhaps also of interest, was that my presence at home became as performative as it had at school. Back when my whole life had played out ‘at home,’ I had just wandered along, finding contentment where it could be found and suffering through the rest as any creature who’s never known another world suffers—helplessly, without much theater. But as I became so much better at playing for effect at my new school, I started doing so at home as well.

Another snapshot—for clarity:

One day in seventh grade, I was in the bathroom (our house had only one, right next to my parents’ bedroom) getting ready for some dressy family event we were about to attend. I was at the sink in my best clothes, combing ‘goop’ into my carefully parted hair. I can’t remember the brand, but it was one of those cheap syrups still popular for kids in those days, that combed in like honey and dried like shellac.   

My youngest brother, John—who at eight years younger than me, was about five or six then—walked in as I subdued my hair, and asked if he could use some of my goop on his hair too. Well aware that my parents in the next room would hear everything we said, I replied, “Sorry, John, but this is greasy kid’s stuff. And you’re not a kid yet.” I knew very well how and why that was funny—and I ‘delivered’ the ‘line’ to elicit the laugh that came, just as I knew it would, from my parents’ room. John was bereft, of course, but I hardly noticed, or cared. At that moment, he was just a prop—in a performance for someone else—and I had just scored.

Both of my younger brothers—more than ever in a different world and a different family than mine—were more often than not just extras now, in my play: one an antagonist, the other comic relief, as I tried ever more obsessively to get my story right. In that way, I had left them all behind.

Can’t imagine how or why I left all that out of last month’s story, eh? …Maybe I was tired. ;]

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And the list of what I ‘neglected’ to include in my true account of this neck of my woods goes on from there. I said nothing about my growing involvement in our local church during those junior high years—or the burgeoning role of RELIGION and GOD (even then, not at all synonymous in my mind) in my deepest dreams and daily plans. Nor did I mention the blooming awareness of physical sexual sensation which arrived during this same time—though that was to have, at very least, no less an impact on my trajectory than it did on anyone else’s. As I’m sure you can imagine, these two were not to mix well in the nearing future. I will leave them for now, as they figure so prominently in posts just around the corner. But to have given them not a thought—anywhere—in these past four posts? Hmmm…

Neither was there a mention of the whole life alone with my imagination in the vast, wild pastureland of ring neck snakes and arboreal salamanders beyond our back fence that occupied so much of my time whenever I was not building my brand at school. I completely remodeled creek beds there for nonexistent fish—just before the creeks quit running, and explored mysterious dumps full of fascinating ‘antique’ artifacts, unaware that they were buried there during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, by the large hospital just downhill. I stood right in a fault scarp hunting frogs one day—during an earthquake. I got stuck up in a pepper tree full of ants after narrowly escaping a stampeding herd of cows, which meandered beneath me for hours as the sun grew lower. This life, communing with nature, acting out imagined dramas, and fermenting the illusion of endless, magical wilderness that colored even my dreams, played as big a part in my formation as anything I’ve described about perfecting my brand at school. One day I came home from that pasture unable to see very well—through eyes blistered like powdered sugar donuts around their nearly swallowed irises. Made my mother scream when she turned around in the kitchen and saw me. That day launched the allergies that defined so much of my ‘sickly boy’ identity at home for years afterward, and brought the drugs that left me struggling not to sleep through school for months every spring. None of this made the cut last month! Or so much as crossed my mind.

Oh—and the antiwar movement with its Berkeley riots just 20 minutes north of us. Watching footage of these events on the evening news at home, I thought they were happening at colleges on the east coast somewhere—because I was that protected. The insane over-protectiveness of my parents that had already shaped my life by then will become so important to the next few years of ‘my story’ that I’ll leave that topic for later as well. But it was such a pervasive element of my journey already in the years I’ve been describing that its absence too seems really odd to me now.

All this. And so much more. On the cutting room floor. You can bet I’ll be sorting through that jumble of refuse for clues quite carefully for a while—quietly here at home, where you won’t have to read along.  

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So, everything I’ve said in these posts is ‘true’ as far as I’m aware—and as far as it goes. But last month, I clearly ended up following just one deer trail through this wide jungle—to the oblivious exclusion of so many other trails I could have chosen instead—any one of which would have conveyed an entirely different story about this part of my life—every bit as ‘true’ as the one I chose. The telling of such stories, I am coming to see, defines the story itself—as it’s being told. The age-old problem with both memory and ‘history.’

Not only have I no hope of telling ‘the whole story’ here—or anywhere, but I can’t even be entirely sure of ‘the truth’—with any certainty—about what I do tell. Dates—for instance—have been as accurate as I am able to make them—within a few years. This will become only more and more true as my tale picks up steam now. One example to illustrate the full extent of the problem:

My mother and I get along famously these days. We love and enjoy each other all the way down. As I mentioned, she is visiting for the Mother’s Day weekend as I write this, and we’re having a great time. But, as I have also noted elsewhere, there were times earlier in life when my mother was having a much harder time surviving her challenges—inside and out. In those days, she could become furious in a flash—and lash out physically as well as verbally. On one such occasion of fury with me, she actually drew a little blood. That was unusual. In fact, singular. I will not describe that brief ‘attack’ itself in any greater detail because there is neither need nor benefit in doing so. But the circumstances under which it happened are instructive:

I was a teenager, perhaps 14 or 15. She had insisted that I stop what I was doing—at a very inconvenient moment—to empty all the household waste baskets. I was complying ‘in a huff,’ and as I tossed the emptied, plastic yellow, tulip-shaped waste basket in her room back into its place, it fell over, and I kicked it back upright. She was there to see me do that, flew into a rage, and attacked me. I remember that event very clearly. It has always been one of those defining snapshots for me that doesn’t fade with the rest—even now.

Mom remembers that attack as well—every bit as clearly as I do. It happened one afternoon when I was in the fifth grade. Our whole family had just been through a true and terrible trauma during a family road trip. A young man had been killed by a pair of drunk drivers, his body left lying across the middle of the road, late at night, where we’d found it in a very horrible way while driving home. I did not mention this event earlier, and will go into no further detail now for all sorts of reasons.

What’s relevant here is that I was absolutely forbidden to say a word about it to anyone before going to school the next day—for all sorts of extremely important reasons, some of them legal—and, being a ten-year-old boy, I could not resist the urge to talk about it with someone anyway. By the time I got home from school that afternoon, word of my disobedience had already reached my parents—who were waiting, and very, very angry. During the confrontation that followed, Mom flew into a rage, and the very singular attack we both remember so clearly—even after all these years—occurred. Or so she recalls.

Neither of us has ever forgotten that moment. We both agree that such an attack happened only once—ever. And both of us remember it in vivid detail—under two entirely different sets of circumstances at least four or five years apart. My mother is getting on in years now. But we discovered this radical—and still unexplained—difference in our memories of this singular, important moment over a decade ago when we were both still young enough to have clear minds and generally solid memories about everything else.

Which is all to say that while I remember all the defining moments described in these posts very clearly, I must concede that, more often than not, I am just doing my best to deduce exactly when they must have happened. At a mere 62 years old, I am fond these days of telling people I have things pretty well sorted into past, present and future—but that it doesn’t get a lot more specific than that anymore.

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So, I’ll take whatever I can learn from what I piece together here—finding as many clues about the meaning of this story in my choices as in its content—and invite you to do the same. But I am increasingly resigned to the fact that I won’t get my whole first night in the Grand Canyon down here, much less the entire trip. And with that disclaimer clearly stated, we will—really—go to high school, next week.

Unless something else happens.

Have a lovely week, cyber-friends. As always, thanks for your company.