MEMOIR SUPPLEMENT - CHAPTER SIX - THE LONGING WAY HOME
Since reading it, I’ve been mulling over a line in The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s creative novel in which one character says to another: "The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.”(1) One obvious application of that statement would be the distortions and limitations of memoirs and autobiographies which leaves important things about the person unknown because our spoken as well as our written versions of ourselves are inevitably selective and skewed.
But why that’s the case with us is the the deeper question Kingsolver is raising here. Her assertion implies that the important thing we don’t know about someone is probably the same thing we don’t know about anyone, even ourselves. So, what could be "the most important thing about a person" we don’t know? Of several possible answers the one I find most basic at this point is this: The most important thing we don’t know about anyone, as well as ourselves, is what compels us to do or say, or not do or say, the things that cobble together our identity and shape our lives. ambiguous
Yes, I know that’s neither a clear nor concise answer to Kingsolver’s provocative observation as it involves the vast, complicated maze of genes, infant impressions, family influences, personal motives, emotions, objectives, thoughts, needs, learnings, limitations, vulnerabilities, beliefs, flaws, injuries, illusions, values that make us human. So, No, we can’t ever completely sort all that out and come up with a just one reason for what we do or don’t do.
And yet, we are not determined or controlled by any one, or a constellation, of those factors. Within our mortal limitations, we still have choices. We still make crucial decisions. We still have a significant degree of self-determination. We are given the capacity to share in our own creation. So the challenge isn’t the complexity of things; it’s the will, effort, courage, honesty to continuously examine what it means to most fully realize our humanity and to make decisions and choices accordingly.
Recently, I read Karl Stevens’ review of Robert Jay Lifton’s new book, Witness to and Extreme Century: A Memoir. (2) As you may know, Lifton is a psychologist, a self-described “spiritually committed nonbeliever" who has spent a lifetime studying all kinds of holocausts from Auschwitz to My Lai in Vietnam, and instances of human resistance to evil or what he calls “totalism.” He defines totalism as "attempts by political or religious groups to exert complete control over peoples minds ... taking what is good in a society or religion and amplifying it to the exclusion of everything else until it ceases to be good and becomes monstrous.”(3)
We could certainly elaborate and give examples of such totalism with which we’re familiar these days but instead, let’s get to the relevant point here. Stevens condenses Lifton’s work as discerning “a link between the capacity to be self-critical and the capacity to resist evil.”(4)
I believe the the process of faith involves the capacity to be self-critical as the way to wrestle with our tendency to totalism which is really idolatry, the allegiance to false gods. We have that self-critical capacity as it’s integral to our humanity however adept we can become to ignoring it, denying it, perverting it into judging and blaming others. To pray, to honestly examine what fuels what we do and say, or don’t do or say, is how we exercise self-criticism. That’s how we move toward integrating what we believe and value into what we do and say. That integration is what it means for our lives to have as much daily “integrity” as we can bring to them.
Of course, that is a process never completed. Acknowledging and accepting our limits is what humility is. However, humility is also to acknowledge our gifts, ideas, views, talents, wisdom and to courageously risk employing them in trying to love our neighbors as ourselves. In his review Stevens says that the antinuclear weapons witness of a Japanese man who once supported Japanese imperial efforts helped Lifton to “... articulate one of his alternatives to totalism: radically expanding one’s sense of community to that it includes not just the group you belong to or the comment you serve but all of the people you are able to encompass in your moral imagination.”(5) I hold that such expansion of our view of neighborhood and neighbors is at the heart of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
With that prelude, I return to the continuation of this section six of my memoirs. I do so with Kingsolver’s own slightly altered but deeper assertion: “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.”(6) That expands the mystery inherent in the life of every person to the mystery of life itself. In my view, it incorporates the mystery of God’s ways in our human story, ways we not only don’t but can’t know for certain, and yet are invited to trust none-the-less. That’s the implicit start to finish assumption of each supplement of my memoir.
It was on my 14th birthday in 1944, during World War II, that we left Aberdeen, South Dakota for Milwaukie, Oregon, a town that touched the city limits of Portland. The curious gift of that particular move was that it expanded my exposure to a variety of neighborhoods and neighbors. The culture of the Midwest of our country was quite homogeneous racially, primarily protestant and church going, politically conservative but open, generous, friendly, culturally centered in high school athletic teams, concerts, dramas, essentially an agricultural economy, and hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl which tended to draw people together. People shared their hardships, struggles, views and personal life styles.
That Oregon was different was evident in its natural, physical appearance as in mid-July we drove the last leg of our trip down the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon-Washington state border and into Portland which was situated at the convergence of the Willamette River, which flowed North through the state, and the Columbia River, which ran West, on its way to the Pacific about 100 miles away. Oregon was green! It had hills and mountains, big rivers, an all kinds of flowers blooming everywhere.
As we drove along the Willamette through Portland and on south about 8 miles to Milwaukie, we saw two or three huge shipyards along the river run byKaiser Corp. Dad, who had gone to Oregon early in January to start working before returning to Aberdeen to assist in our move, told us the shipyards had shifts around the clock to build Liberty Ships which were huge vessels used to carry troops and materials to war zones in the Pacific as well as Europe. The shipyards accounted for the large influx of people from around the county to work in them. Near the edge of Milwaukie was an area called Kellogg Park, named for a creek that emptied into the nearby Willamette River. It was one of the several clusters of standardize, barrack-like units built to house the shipyard workers. Supposedly temporary, Kellogg Park lasted long after the war ended and blue collar families live in them. Later I discovered later that several of my high school friends lived there.
Since we didn’t have much money and housing was hard to find, my family lived for over a year in a rooming house in a residential neighborhood on one of the hills surrounding Milwaukie’s small business section located down on the river. My Grandfather had lived in a rooming house since he’d come to Oregon in the late “30s so he had a major role in getting us in.
Our “new home’ was on the second floor of a large house and consisted of former bedrooms, one larger one converted to a combined small dining-living room with just enough space on one end for a small table, four chairs, with a "kitchen” with a hot plate tucked in a side closet, and on the other end was old convertible couch and a couple of well worn stuffed chairs. Two halls intersected outside that room, a short one which served as a landing for the stairs as well as the entrance to a small bathroom with a tub that we shared with two other families. Down the other longer, narrow hallway, was my Grandfather’s bedroom which he liked because he could sit on the edge of the bed and reach everything in the room. Across the hall were three equally small bedrooms for my parents, my sister and me. It would be an understatement to say it was a tight fit. So our life in Oregon began. We felt like strangers in a strange land.
The first months were a something of a blur. It didn’t take long for me and the rest of the family to discover that Oregon was not only green but gray, It would be more accurate to say it was green because it was gray. There were long days of gray skies, gray haze, gray rain and the gray moods which are now labeled SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Obviously, the gray was the price of the green: the evergreens, the lawns, roses (Portland was called the Rose City), azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and dozens of other flowers. Oregonians considered it worth the price but it did take some getting used to. Of course, there were many bright, sunny days as well, especially from April through most of October, though never got as hot in South Dakota.
For us the Oregon wetness was starkly different from the familiar dryness of South Dakota. The l annual rainfall in Oregon may not have been much more than fell in the hard, driving rain, hail, lightning and thunder storms of the Midwest but it took a lot longer to come down. Dust was replaced with mist but Oregonians didn’t seem to mind much. After all, mist didn’t ruin crops and there were always roses around even if you couldn’t eat them.
I remember once when my Mom touched a camellia blossom and said to me, with the obvious amazement of someone who’d lived all her prior life through the droughts and dust storms of the plains, “Teddy, can you believe this? In Oregon, I think you could put a stick in the ground and it would grow. In Nebraska and South Dakota everything we put in the ground seemed to turn into sticks.” She had graphically summed up the radically different environment of our new home. It did take getting used to, and I’m not sure I ever really did.
Another difference was the diversity of the population. My Dad and Grandfather’s office was next to an Italian family tailor and dry cleaners shop. Around the corner was a pharmacy owned and run by Italians. There were several Italian family cultivating so called Truck Farms along one of the major roads near town and there was a large Catholic Church and high school about a block from the public high school, both serving a significant population in the area. Plus, there were people from many different states squeezed together in the metro area working in war related industries and patronizing stores in Portland and environs.
Yet there was a war related shortage of workers for some type of jobs, so even though I was only 14, a week or so after we arrived, I got a job in the Milwaukie Safeway stocking shelves, bagging and carrying out groceries as I had done earlier in Aberdeen. In the process, I met all kinds of different people with unusual habits and attitudes different from those I’d encountered before. Even the war seemed more threatening in Oregon if only because of the shipyards, the blackout rehearsals and the fighting in the Pacific area being geographically closer, as well as families of Japanese people in the area being sent to interment camps for being possible enemy supporters.
To complicate our transition even more, my Dad had been suffering stomach problems for a year or so and that summer they intensified. Finally, an old, widower doctor with a reputation for drinking too much, diagnosed Dad’s problem as an infected gall bladder and sent him to a hospital in Portland. Apparently, it saved Dad’s life since the surgeon told us his gall bladder was on he verge of rupturing which would have spread the infection all through his body. Our visits to a hospital in a strange city, in a location to which we hardly knew the way, ending up in a hospital room with a groggy Dad with tubes running out of his body was very scary. His obvious vulnerability was totally unfamiliar and disorienting. I’d never experienced him that way before. I prayed without being at all sure how, or for what, only that I wanted someone to do something beyond my power or knowledge to name or do. I think it was a longing for a Dad, or home, or family free of fear or threat or loss even though I knew that was beyond reaching for me, for anyone.
When he came out of the hospital, I had trouble processing the fact that my tough Dad was sick, weak, incapacitated. One day in his convalescence, I was with him when we met the guy who owned the rooming house and been abusive to my Mother. The guy started berating Dad and Dad challenged him about Mom and told him he’d beat the hell out of him if that ever happened again. By then I was pretty big physically and though the guy knew Dad was recovering from surgery, I think the guy thought the odds were against him and he backed off. It occurred to me that Dad had counted on that and it made me feel closer to him, as if I was somehow important to him. It was a happy revelation for me because Dad was very important to me and try as I did, I never seemed able to please him until I became a prominent athlete in high school and college.
The way the old couch in our main boarding house room converted into a small bed involved lifting up the seat section to lower the vertical back section to a horizontal position against the wall of the room and the seat section to a vertical position away from but parallel to the wall. That created a kind of cave with the wall on one side and the elevated couch seat out in the room. To complete the conversation, you pushed the couch seat section toward the wall which released a catch and lowered the two sections into a level area to comprise a bed. But my trick was to stop the conversion at the “cave” stage of the process, crawl in, sniffle and day dream while feeling hidden from the world.
I think now that strange practice of mine was a way of expressing the deep sense of loneliness that shadowed me over the years. It wasn’t that I didn’t make and have friends, or was anti-social or reclusive. It was a loneliness that prevailed in spite of that. I interpret it as a form of the longing I’m trying to point toward as being the pilgrim’s urge and God’s beaconing.
When our first Autumn came my vivacious, gutsy, lovely, enormously talented, pianist sister, Rosemary, went off to the University of Oregon in Eugene, 90 miles south, and I went off to Milwaukie Union High School, three blocks away. Emotionally, it was a huge step for both of us. I’d learned to be talkative, humorous, gregarious as a way to cover my sense of inadequacy, insecurity and anxiety. That was my strategy in high school and it became a lifelong disposition. I didn’t, and don’t, consider it deceitful because both dispositions are true of me. I always have known that and struggled with it.
The struggle is that while covering one disposition with the other disguised my loneliness, it didn’t eliminate it. I keenly felt the sting of criticisms people leveled at me for whatever reasons and yet was unable to share my weakness and vulnerability. That’s a predicament I’ve lived with all my life and shared only with a few people I trust. However, it was also one of the factors that led to my later emotional breakdown and therapeutic reconstruction because the anxiety and insecurity I tried to cover were attributable in large part to my long held assumption that I had to be perfect (and tried in anguish to be) or I would never get the acceptance or love I longed for so deeply. That’s an obvious bind, or dead end, that many of us experience in one way or another. It took a long time after high school and a terrifying breakdown for me to seek help and begin addressing the bind that nearly strangled me. High school only helped tighten the bind, not because of school but because of my own disposition. For me, and I suspect for most of us, memories of high school years are less a linear narrative than a collage of experiences and events. Here are some of my most notable ones:
- Late in my freshman year, my parents bought a house on a hill between the Willamette River and the major north-south highway from Seattle to L.A. and near the southern outskirts of Milwaukie It was a modest house set up on a crawl space but with no basement with three bedrooms, two on the second floor for me and Rosemary when she was home, one bedroom and bath on the first floor, a dinning rom with a big glass picture window. The house was on a sizable lot surrounded by a low rock enclosure and filled with tall pine trees. It was to be the home they’d longed for and moving in eliminated the any sense of the impermanence or transient nature of our move to Oregon. We were now officially Oregonians. Somehow that ended my lingering dream of playing ball for my revered Aberdeen Eagles and seriously but sadly focused my attitude entering Milwaukie Union High School.
- Sports were a major part of my high school experience. As a freshman, I played Junior Varsity football and basketball and got a big taste of Milwaukie’s athletic tradition which I felt was not as impressive as Aberdeen’s. But a small of friends decided to enter the State Golden Ball Basketball Tournament on our own which meant riding an hour on public transportation to a gym in Northeast Portland. With no sponsor or coach and only 5 players. we won two games and barely lost a third. What as amazing is that at the end of the tournament, I was selected as an All Star and went by myself to the Award Ceremony which included other guys from around the state. I was totally stunned. What followed was playing Varsity football and basketball as a Sophomore, Junior and Senior and being an All State selection in both sports. My Dad, who attended all home games, was proud of me while my Mom worried that I’d get hurt. Strangely, the recognition and accolades added significantly to my anxiety so I was often sleepless the night before games worried about not playing well enough in the next game, the next game, the next game through the very last games of my high school career. It was a constant test that diluted the fun of playing. Even though I was recruited to play basketball in several big time university programs, I chose a small university one, believing I wouldn't be good enough. It turned out I was wrong as my college team beat some of those big time teams but my decision was right for educational reasons.
- I was President of the Junior Class but I lost when I ran for Student Body President. That was an emotional blow and cruel disappointment. When I told my parents about it and how much it hurt, my Dad said, “The man worthwhile is the man who can smile when things go dead wrong.” Apparently he didn’t know I was already good at that strategy and and had honed it over the years. In fact I’d been doing that all day at school after the distressing news came out but it didn’t change how I felt, the ache of disappointment, the sense of failure, the question of why the student body didn’t like me, the increasing worry that something was wrong with me or missing in me that lead to that result. That became an abiding worry in my life. Only years later I did I realize that my Dad, and probably my Mom as well, had been smiling when things went wrong all their lives, too. I think it contributed to Mom’s constant worry and insecurity and Dad’s constant stress, anxiety and outbursts of anger at me when I messed up. Taken together it made it difficult if not impossible for us to share our true thoughts, feelings and experiences until very late in their lives. I regret that, but even more, I regret that as a Father, for far too long, I mindlessly inflicted the same damaging mistake on my own kids. I’m trying as hard as I can to rectify that, God help me.
- I did well academically but I’m not sure how. Maybe high school wasn’t as difficult then as it is now or maybe I studied harder than I remember. I really don’t know. I did have some wonderful teachers including, among others: Miss Reed in English under whom we carefully read Tale of Two Cities and I learned how to understand and appreciate literature and composition; the young, vibrant, pretty Ms. Obertoffer who made algebra intelligible, interesting and almost as appealing as she was; Mr. Sutherland who was another story as was geometry which seemed as staid, stuffy and boring as he was as a very proper Scotsman who must have forgotten how to laugh or relate to students years earlier; Ms. Winter who taught Latin was an enigma, a middle-aged bleach blond who always seemed to be doing something out of sight at her desk while running the class through the conjugation of Latin verbs, impressing us with the origins, complexity and power of words, and sending me to the Principal's Office for talking and cutting up in class; Ms. Grace Oliver, speech teacher who helped us develop some continuity of thought and expression in dealing with weighty subjects and who, in my Senior year, coached me in preparation for a district speech contest. My speech was on Paul Robeson, an All- American football player at Rutgers, a superb singer and Shakespearian actor who was an African American who fought for civil rights and was accused of being a Communist. This was in 1948! I was shocked not to win the speech contest. That’s how naive I was and when I realized the odds against my winning with speech on such a subject, I was proud of what I’d done. In any case, it turned out I was the Salutatorian (at the time I didn’t know what that was but was told it meant I was second in my graduating class of maybe 175 or so) which meant I was to deliver the student address at the Commencement Exercise. I didn’t mention Paul Robeson in that speech. I guess some burrs of lessons learned do stick to anyone who trudges through the tangled stretches of high school.
- Finally, the social issues of those Oregon High School years from 1944-48. Primarily, that meant discovering, learning about and experimenting with the wonders, power and confusion of girls and sex. I liked and made friends with a lot of girls in high school even though in many ways I was awkward about dating. I those days, it was common to “go steady” with one girl, or at least one at a time. For me, there was a certain security in that though I’m not sure why. I think it was the fear of being rejected if I had to keep asking different girls for dates even though I can only remember one such request being turned down. There were lots of school dances, and during every lunch period, there was dancing in the school auditorium, almost exclusively involving girls dancing with each other. And there were movies to attend, rare parties to go to and most relationships involved double dates in order to have a car to travel wherever we were going and to share the challenge of asking parents to let you use the family car on a Friday or Saturday night. Usually dates involved progression from holding hands to kissing, to clumsy petting or touching breasts through blouses and sweaters to putting hands as high on a thigh as you could get without being shoved away. Heave petting meant touching and caressing private parts directly and exploring how they felt and worked. Actual intercourse was rare and fear of pregnancy was a huge deterrent for both parties. My personal experience was a whirl of powerful attraction mixed with frightening guilt and that covered both any sexual contact with a girl or the fantasies involved in masturbation, the latter bearing the supposed consequence of damaging the brain. My parents were very puritanical about sex so I was terribly conflicted about it, strongly attracted to it and then acutely ashamed, anxious and terribly guilty about it. Judging from brief conversations about sex with friends,In those years, I think in those years my experience was common though probably less intense and debilitating than mine. I remember with strong regret one experience of heavy and serious petting with a girl friend followed by my lecturing her about how bad we were and pressuring her never to do that again with anyone. Some date I was, right?My early sexual experiences were a mess and my development painful and confusing. I was a good socializer with a good sense of humor and a wide ranging capacity to discuss any subject, some trivial, others personal, others serious and substantial. By the time I graduated, I had a lot of friends but unfortunately, none who were very close. I remain a lonely loner in many ways but who knew about my struggles, anxieties, guilt, or even my beliefs and longings, except me? No one and it wasn’t because of them.
How was it for you and how is it now? On to college years next time.
(1) Barbara Kingsolver - The Lacuna - HarperCollins Publishers - pg. 218 & 277
(2) Karl Stevens - The Christian Century - February 22, 2012 - p 49 ff.
(6) Barbara Kingsolver - The Lacuna - HarperCollins Publishers - pg. 494