Friday, January 14, 2011

Memoir Supplement - Chapter Four - The Longing Way Home

Again, it's been a while for reasons I won't go into. Tardy though it may be, here I am again whether you missed me or not. All I can say is that trying to write a book is equal parts inspiration and pain-in-the-ass labor. And sometimes it's just pain, period, brought on by the prospect of labor without any inspiration. But since writing is probably as much, or more, for the sake of the writer as it is for the reader, the time comes when I, presuming to be a writer, have get down to it before I feel up to it. So, I'm parking my pained ass in a chair and starting to work. My hope is that inspiration will begin to trickle in from the muse, or down from the mind or up from the heart, then out onto the empty page in the form of words. So, let's see. Here we go. Give it your best effort and I'll do likewise. Blessings. Ted

Years ago, a friend passed along this quote: "People put their best foot forward when it's the other one that needs the attention." I'm not sure where he got it, but the observation makes a provocative point. Plus it helps explain why Mark Twain, among others, insists that no one can write an honest or complete autobiography which, reviewers say, Twain proves in his recently published effort. In that, he's like the rest of us, wanting to hide faults and failures, those things and times in life we're ashamed of and want to keep a secret. So we keep our best foot forward while keeping the other back and out of sight even though that stance is unsteady and makes it hard to move except in circles.

But the rest of the problem is that more often than not, it's hard to know which foot is the best and which isn't, and how do we really tell the difference. Is best about performance, making impressions, conforming, popularity, avoiding risks? What, exactly does best mean? What's so inexcusably bad about the other foot, or the outspoken, bumbling, irritating, sometimes mean spirited, confrontational, earthy, creative, experimental, even objectionable part? Without pressing the issue, which was Jesus about doing? Best foot forward in our terms would never have dumped over any pots of hypocrisy or given a hot foot to any injustices. It seems to me, the best foot could be either foot, best experiences at the moment might not be recognized as such, nor the worst really turn out that way. In any case, here is an attempt to share some of that mixture about my life.

Turning eleven years old marked the beginning of an even more intense period of anxiety and bewilderment in my life. Probably it was not completely unlike the adolescent season of most lives but this was my life and not all the changes were inside my body and mind. Those few years were strewn with challenging changes around me as well. That combination haunted me for what seemed an interminable span of days and nights. It still haunts me in some ways.

In 1941, close to my actual eleventh birthday, we moved across town in Huron, South Dakota, to the first home my parents had ever owned. The house needed many repairs but it was theirs and they determined to make them. It was a momentous step for them. So we moved from 1315 Illinois Street to 640 Idaho Street. For me it was like moving from the state of Illinois to the state of Idaho, totally new town. I felt upset and helpless. Why did we have to move again?

It meant saying "good by" to the house I loved and could navigate in the dark. It meant "good by" to my old buddies and leaving the alleys and short cuts, the vacant lots for games and the hiding places of the neighborhood I knew like the back of my hand. It meant a tearful "good by" to the red brick building with the big windows and gaveled playground just three blocks up the street called Lincoln School after my favorite of all presidents. It meant "good by" to the band of students in different grade levels but of the same school brand; "good by" to dear teachers, the surveillance of George Washington's unblinking eyes from his picture over the blackboards and pendulum tick-tocking of the classroom clocks; "good by" to the low ceiling of the gym where we had to learn to shoot baskets without much arc on the ball and to the spicy smell of the dust compound the janitor used to sweep down the halls. It meant a self-conscious "good by" to girls I'd gone through the first five grades of Elementary School with and who lately had become much more interesting and appealing than they'd been before.

It meant having to start everything all over again and really not knowing how, or what, or who, or why, or if I could. I wondered if I'd ever have friends, or teachers I'd like or if other girls in a different school could or would be interesting in that different way or if I could make the sports teams in the new school so I could become a high school football and basketball player which I dreamed of being before the move when where we'd lived only two blocks up the street from the high school football field and maybe five blocks the other direction from the gym where the basketball team played and practiced. Suddenly, all my certainties and dreams seemed as far away as Idaho Street seemed from Illinois Street. It was all disorienting. I didn't know where I belonged, if any where. And yet, it was just the beginning of the world changing radically for me and for everyone.

The big State Fair was held in Huron every late summer. Most of the time, I went to it with my parent. Both of whom grew up in small towns in the farm country of Nebraska and liked the exhibitions of cattle, pigs, horses and seeing which in each category won Blue, Red or White ribbons. But one day that summer of 1941, I went to the Fair alone to just wander around. There was a section called "The Midway" which had lots of games of skill in which contestants won prizes of stuffed animals or trophies of some kind. There were also a section of rides, my favorite being the Ferris Wheel from the top of which you could see for miles in all directions in that prairie territory.

That summer day I got into an argument with one of the men who ran a skill game by my contending it wasn't possible to toss a circular wooden band from the edge of the booth toward a display of prizes in a table in the center of the booth and have the small band settle over the major prizes on blocks of wood only slightly smaller than size of the band. In anger, he ordered me to leave and flipped his lighted cigarette at me. It hit me in my eye and the pain was intense. I found a water fountain and ran water into my eye to help with the pain, and that turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

Never-the-less, the injury to my eye was serious. My cornea was badly damaged and the doctor didn't know if I would be able to see out of that eye again. There was no guarantee. I felt very frightened and alone. Every day for a week, I laid on the old couch in the new living room while every few hours my Mother lifted the bandage and put drops in my eyes. I couldn't read, which I loved to do and worried if I'd ever be able to do again. I listened to hours of soap operas on the radio and wondered if the people in them would ever get through their terrible problems, or I through mine.

During those days, I began to realized more sharply and painfully how fragile and vulnerable things are, we are, I am, life is. I was also felt overwhelmed with how complicated everything is, even though I didn't have the right words to express that feeling. I never forgot that feeling or those insights even though my eye recovered with only minor lasting damage that didn't compromise my sight.

Actually, I think that experience deepened my already melancholy nature as well as triggering a tendency to hypochondria which has plagued me all my life. For at least two years after, I worried about my vision, especially whether the eye injury would jeopardize my athletic chances. I'd nag other kids to devise tests to determine whether they thought I had any problem seeing clearly. I needed constant reassurance, but I realized much later, my need was really reassurance for something deeper than my eye sight, something more than I could know or name about myself at the time. No one ever could, or can, make the fragility or vulnerability of life go away, or the eliminate the risks living involves. It was a lifelong, slowly learned lesson with profound implications beyond the grasp of an eleven year old kid. The feelings remained embedded in my psyche.

In September, I started 6th grade at Jefferson School and I really don't remember much at all about my year there which is perhaps a symptom of my trauma over the change. Then, came an event that changed the world for everyone and added immeasurably to my fear as well as that of the country that was beginning to emerge from the ravages of the Great Depression. On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and World War II began. We all wondered whether an invasion would follow, or attacks on mainland United States. Uncertainty prevail. What would we do as a country, as a state, as a family?

The Japanese went on to invade the Philippines, driving the small number of American troops there into the peninsula called Bataan that was the last bastion of our little army, precipitating a battle our soldiers fought heroically and vainly to protect against overwhelming odds. The battle was lost at a great cost of our soldiers and ended in what was called the Death March of American survivors. General McArthur was evacuated with a few of his staff as he made his historical promise, "I shall return." It was a dark, scary time. I had trouble sleeping for weeks.

In the Fall of 1942, I started 7th grade at the Junior High School to which I walked a dozen or more blocks to yet another building. The most vivid and searing memory of that year's experience was the late Autumn day a U.S. bomber crashed in a field at the edge of town near my old 1315 Illinois St. house. Growing up, I used to play baseball with my buddies on that field. We crowded around the big school windows and watched black smoke swirl up in the distance. After school dismissal, I walked with a lot of kids to see the crash. Wreckage was scattered everywhere and the stench of burning metal was heavy in the air. No one had survived and we spotted what we thought was a smoking body or two amidst the debris. Motionless, I stared at it for a long time. It all seemed unreal, yet very real. No one talked about it much then, or afterwards. But the scene is seared in my memory along with a welter of questions and feelings. Why did it happen? How did a playground become a killing ground? What was it like to die? The world was suddenly very threatening. What did it all mean?

To further unsettle and disorient me, just before Christmas in 1942, my father was transferred again. This time to another town, Aberdeen, South Dakota., about 90 miles north of Huron. He had to start his work a week later,on January, 2, 1943. My parents decided that he and my older sister, Rosemary, take residence in a hotel room in Aberdeen so she could finish her Junior year of high school and become introduced to kids and integrated in the school as the best way to prepare for her Senior year to follow. My mother and I were to stay n Huron where my Dad and Sis would visit on weekends as often as possible. One of my jobs was to be in charge of the coal burning furnace, putting coal in, banking the embers to last through the night, and shoveling out the ashes and clinkers. I felt both grown up and continually overwhelmed.

The arrangement seemed very strange. The reason for it was the house had to be sold before the entire family could move. Then, almost miraculously it seemed, some rich man from out of state who liked to hunt pheasants in South Dakota came to look at the house. Fifteen minutes later, he peeled off $2,200 from a wad of bills in his pocket. In late March, we all moved into a rented house on Kline Street in Aberdeen. I finished the last couple months of 7th grade in a Junior High only a couple of block down the alley but full of kids I didn't know and who, quite understandably yet callously showed little interest in getting to know me. Their friendships and alliances were already set.

Actually, the only good thing about the move at that point was that Aberdeen had a YMCA across the street from the Methodist Church we started attending. Guess which one I liked better. I spent hours in the gym, shooting, dribbling, playing pick-up games with whoever was there, even older guys. But in spite of that, I remained terribly homesick.

That summer, 1943, the war was going better for us but lots of things were rationed, including gasoline which meant no visits to family in other areas of the Midwest. It was then I started obsessing about finding a "best friend." Of course, there were many tributaries to that river of preoccupation: being new in town, feeling lonely, living in a strange house, and possibly. though sub-consciously, the fact my Mom had given still birth to two potential brothers. I didn't know why I was so focused on finding a "best friend" and I didn't much care. I just wanted one more than anything.

To help me get acquainted with more kids in Aberdeen, my parents enrolled me (read required me) to attend the Junior Youth Fellowship at the Methodist Church. I felt like a fish out of water there because everyone quoted the bible and we held candles and sang soupy songs and it felt sort of phony to me. The kids were nice, maybe too nice, I learned things I was glad I did and I along well enough. But there was no "best friend" in that group, friends, maybe, but not best.

My parents also signed me up for Boy Scouts, which I didn't like because the Scout Master acted like a top Sergeant ordering us around and telling us stories about his war experiences. In July I went to Boy Scout Camp where I felt even more lost since we slept in a tent invaded by clouds of mosquitoes and everyone was working on merit badges to become Eagle Scouts, in which I had no interest. Not only that, but out door latrines we had to dig weren't too appealing plus we were camped on what was euphemistically called a "lake" but actually was about two feet deep with another foot of mud under the water and you could walk across it, after which it was just a swirl of muddy water. I was desperately homesick. There were no best friends in sight in that venue.

To top the summer off, my parents signed me up for YMCA Camp which sounded more promising, and was okay for the first week. The Camp had an asphalt basketball court and we were assigned to play on teams. My team won. That part was fun and I was so good that one of the counselors who coached a high school team in the area asked me to come to live with his family and play on his team: heady stuff, but the very idea scared me.

Everything went downhill from there. Other boys had their pre-camp buddies and, outside of basketball, I was pretty much alone, even in group activities. Shortly after the second week began, I went off by myself and cried for a long time. Finally, I went back to the main building and told the Head Counselor I was sick and they sent me home with someone going the 30 miles to Aberdeen to pick up something for the camp. There was no best friends in that setting either.

When I got home, I cried intermittently the next few days. I felt wrong for lying to get home, for being a baby, a coward, a failure for not sticking it out, for embarrassing my parents, and myself, since I was sure other kids would make fun of me when school started again. I sat with my head in my arms, sobbing, telling my Mother, "God must have put me on earth to show other people what not to be." Melodramatic? Probably. Part of the trial of puberty? Maybe. A passing trauma? No, not close to that. Those boyhood feelings of inadequacy, of being wrong, of shame, can still shudder me like the whack of the wind and the choke of dust storms on those Dakota prairies.

So what's the point of this, other than a rigmarole of remembering? Well , I think there are several points, not just one. The first, and before any other, is that most of us have variations of my experience because it is part of being human and transitioning from childhood to some degree of maturity, which is really, a lifetime process. Looking back on it, I realize that there was a tenor or sense of a kind of homesickness or better, a sickness for a home beyond mine, beyond imagining, like the way off in the distance note of a flute, the indecipherable message of it and the eerie feeling it evokes of something or somewhere haunting and beautiful, beyond reach, yet at the same time, inescapable.

Okay, talk about indecipherable, that attempted description of my experience probably fits -- too florid, convoluted, murky, whatever. But somehow I wonder, I trust, that if you scrape down through your long trashed childlike feelings, those you thought you'd buried or dismissed as ridiculous, irrational, outgrown; perhaps way, way down under the more manageable, acceptable, supposedly rational religious profile you've projected, down, down to something --
memories, feelings, there's A LONGING, an elusive but insistent part of you, your psyche, your spirit, your soul, your "self." There, I've said it. I'm writing about longing as a kind of sickness for a "home" of which any we know as finite beings is at best a fleeting glimmer.

Another point is that being lonely in some deep sense is an inescapable part being human. It's not the same as being alone. It's commonplace to be lonely in the midst of a crowd, or a small gathering, even more disturbingly, in an intimate twosome. Perhaps we feel it more at certain times than others, but it's always lurking, as longing, at the edge of the hustle, habits and worry, of the one more task of our days, or the mind race, play-over, toss-turn, wrinkled sheets nights. It's in the nibble of an inchoate hunch that something is missing in it all, so if we could just figure it out and get it right, everything would be fine. After all, isn't that what magazine articles tell us and self-help books and TV ads and, sadly, too often politicians, even preachers?

But when all is said and done, we feel lonely because in some essential way we are finite, limited, and yet unique; the only one who will ever be you, or me, or whoever. Best friends are precious but they don't cure being lonely. They just help confirm and help define longing as a resource and existential reminder. It took fifty years for that truth to dawn on me.

Yet another point is how easy it is to feel sorry for yourself. But self-pity shouldn't last more than ten minutes, max. The world record is probably ten years or more. My personal record was closer to two intervals of maybe three months each with both being expunged because of my inexperience at the time. Yet, as I said earlier, those feelings still blow through me for ten minutes every so often. Now I recognize them pretty quickly and don't wallow in them.

Here's the issue: self-pity is often presented and interpreted as humility. It isn't. It is not! You are not the only hurting one in the world. To think that is perverse pride. It's pride in disguise. It's manipulative and hypocritical. I know about and have indulged in those distortions a few times to my own determent and the injury of others.

I stopped decades ago when I returned to therapy I because of a devastating blow from someone who betrayed me in a deeply personal way. The psychiatrist, who'd worked with me for years and knew me well, listened as I cried and complained. Then he asked, "Ted, what's broken, your heart or your pride?" I knew the answer immediately: my pride.

It had been a long time learning and came as a great relief and release. It wasn't easy to move in another direction, to accept myself and experience the healing challenge of a fundamental truth and the freedom of it. It took courage and a heavy dose of real humility. It was a gift of grace. I've never forgotten the question and have had many occasions to ask it of myself as well as others.

It's one you can ask of yourself. It's about honestly accepting your own imperfect humanity which curiously makes you more human, not less. Less is what we become pretending or trying to be more than human. Pay attention to your longing which abides even when desire, dream, accomplishments, hopes, goals, expectations are met and stored away. Real humility bears scars but is the beginning of peace within.

The final point is this, or has been the point all along, so in a way is rather a summary. What this section of my memoir is about is longing. It's the longing beneath the struggle of those early years of my life and I had no clue to it. I think recognizing the longing in our lives may come only in the biblical sense of the fullness of time, the right moment when we are ready. Or maybe it never comes because we mute it with all our self-justication, our denying something in ourselves, about ourselves, we try to hide or disguise and forget until it bites us in the ass, or conscience, or soul.

The "bite" is the truth that we are just finite, mortal beings. None of us is perfect, or close to it. The "there" we are so hell bent to get to is really out of reach and it's okay. It's a resource to accept that, to heed what it tells us about ourselves and what it is to live as a human being. It tells us we have a core, a strange essence we name as a soul. It tells us the pursuit of perfection is a fantasy. We are not perfectible. Let go of that illusion and relate to others honestly as just other human beings, precious but imperfect just as you and I are. To expect or demand perfection of yourself or others, is to live under self-imposed tyranny. Don't duck away from your longing. Pay attention to it. Accept the mystery of it. Heed it as something claiming you beyond all you can see, or understand, but can trust and live with in increasingly free ways. Trust the God in and behind it.

Have I done that? Obviously, not always, or even often. But I'm trying. How about you?

Think about it. Pray about it. Try it.

With longing, Ted


  1. I just wanted to offer a note of appreciation, and I am sorry to do this a comment not directly related to your post. I was introduced to Guerrillas of Grace about Ten years ago while attending the Candler School of Theology, and I have treasured this resource for prayer and insight off and on ever since.

    I moved to a new parish last summer and have struggled here for a variety of reasons. Yesterday, between services, I found myself alone in my office struggling with a decision that has been troubling me and needing to be addressed. I sat near my bookcase praying about this, and found myself drawn to look up, reach out and pick up your book. It immediately opened to “Pry Me off Dead Center.”

    These works spoke profoundly to my circumstance, the categories I was thinking in, and the longings of my heart and calling as a pastor. Like rich wisdom, they did not give me an immediate answer, but guided me along the way.

    I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your honesty and wisdom in offering this prayer, and tell you that that your ministry of companionship and guidance is helpful to my ministry.

    Thank you, and may God’s friendship continue to bless you and the ones you serve now.

    Bert Cloud

  2. Ted

    I too am not posting directly to your latest blog, but rather to my latest discovery of your book, Guerrillas of Grace. A new friend brought it to a gathering of women (we meditate and discuss spiritual issues weekly). We all have a copy now and it sings to us in deep and connecting ways.
    We are as different as each leaf on a tree, yet whenever we read from your book it resonates with poetic power and insight. Thank you for gift and for sharing it with us. We are all looking for ours ! susan w reynolds