Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is This the Future I was Hoping for?

If you’re like me it’s difficult to find yourself in the moment. How do you keep yourself from sliding into the past or worrying about the future to the point of distraction. Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And the older I get the more true that line seems to become. Everything that happened in the past has left an indelible scar on the personal timeline, yours and mine. When I was very young I used to think of it in terms of the good and bad that had been done to me, but now this exercise of self-examination has been turned on its head to include the things I have said and done and often, usually, what I find there is not so noble.

What’s wrong with now? It is a cold afternoon in January. I let the dog in. I hear her nails clicking as she leaps across the floor in little joyful skips. She licks my hand when I stop petting her. There is that rank dog smell that reminds me when it warms up again that she will need a bath. I sip my lukewarm coffee. It’s Folgers, nothing fancy, but it’s good and has all the good qualities of familiarity. The furnace has kicked on. All is well. For the moment.

See this is when it gets tricky. What Natalie Goldberg called “monkey mind” takes over. Distractions enter the picture. Anxiety begins to rage at the feet of expectation. How long before I find a job again? Will I teach again? And when I do will there be any real content beyond busy work and merely satisfying course objectives which I believe comes from the instructor more than the best planned syllabus. When will I finally write that narrative, story or novel, that will be everything I hope it will be and what others will also recognize? Will I be big enough to be the kind of father I should be to my kids? Will I ever be the kind of man my wife expects me to be? Will I run out of time? God, I hope not.

So when I look into the past I see a blurred vision; in the future there’s a warped reflection of the past made into flesh. The cardinal I saw flittering from branch to branch of the cherry tree in my backyard like a bloody teardrop looks like every red bird I’ve ever seen as if it had been reborn again and again or made of papier-mâché and animated by some alien force for an ulterior motive I may never fully apprehend.

If I sometimes struggle with the words, thoughts, and deeds of others and even more myself I know I have to have some faith in the struggle itself. Count this intention as equal parts obedience and faith. I can change. I can evolve. Emerson wrote about this idea of expansion of circles in life, “If the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over the boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with intent again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to intense and innumerable expansions.”

Inside me always is a boy who felt abandoned at times. There was a time my father had a new wife and son. My mother was searching for herself out west while I lived with family here in Missouri. The timeline of my childhood is so tangled with comings and goings that I can’t even put it in order now. I remember longing for my mother with an intensity that sometimes we fail to give children credit for. I remember certain family members that might by definition be considered distant becoming the people that mattered to me. Hard times breeds a closeness unlike other experiences.

We moved around the country, within the state, and back and forth in some of those towns. I remember watching my mentally handicapped brother standing in a green playpen leaning against the side for balance because one of his legs was a bit lame from birth as he hit one birdlike hand with another as if he were punishing that hand for its sin while a Jacob’s ladder of light poured in the living room window illuminating him as if he were a saint. I had this notion that one day I’d be able to communicate with him telepathically someday and have a normal brother. I used to look into his eyes and speak to him in my mind while he chanted his childish “mummumumum.” I remember later we had to take him to the hospital in Sedalia where they could take care of him better when he was about six years old. I thought he’d always be with us. We would visit him in institutions across the state as the years went by. I always wondered why I was so lucky to be normal and why this had happened.

I remember my great uncle who was a cook at Gasper’s truck stop who decided to become a charismatic lay minister in the seventies. He would often take us all, my aunt, and two of my cousins to nursing homes around the state where we would have church services for them. Sheila played the piano and we sang The Old Rugged Cross and In the Garden.

The sound of my aunt’s incredibly high voice. The dutiful expression of Sheila’s face as she played the upright. The incredible glow my younger cousin Bryan had at age four wishing so hard that he would no longer have to endure being the youngest--and most loved. When we pestered him too much Aunt Vivian would always say, “Leave that baby alone.” I said, “He’s not a baby, he’s four years old.” She said matter-of-factly, “Well, he’s my baby!”

The faces of the elderly lighting up when my uncle would tell us at a certain point in the service to walk through the audience and they would touch us with their feeble hands with an inexpressible joy as if we were performing miracles just by the power of our youth. It was the hand of the woman with the issue of blood who reached out to touch Christ for healing.

I suppose what I was searching for was family. The feeling of not quite belonging has been like a stain that I thought everyone else could see. It was hard not to feel like an intruder into other people’s lives. This feeling became a reality. I embraced this idea that I was some sort of rebel. I withdrew. I lost the ability for a time to connect with people. This problem sometimes rears its ugly head every so often. I become the angry kid who retreated into silence and became an observer and wanted to avoid the pain of being seen. I tried to avoid showing my emotions so that no one could criticize my sorrow or anger. I kept those things hidden. It was what we did then. I worry that though I have some measure of control of things now that I give myself too much leeway to the other direction now. But this feeling of not belonging, wishing I belonged persisted. Emotionally and intellectually this thought had become an unseen reality—a trench, an open wound, that would not allow me to navigate life without embracing this truth which had somewhere along the way become a lie. It was an untruth I was not ready to surrender. I was incapable of giving it up. It was the narrative I’d used to define myself by. If it wasn’t true anymore then I’m not sure I’d recognize myself.

I touch my wife’s shoulder in bed. The bedroom door opens and our daughter comes in complaining about a nightmare. She spoons up to Cassie. My four year old, Finn, hears us murmuring and comes in full of life and clambers on top of the mountain of family and lies across Cassie and me with a blissful smile on his face. I realize both of these children are remarkable in their own way. My daughter is the mercurial and sometimes mischievous rebel without a cause. My son already has the charisma of any ten men I know and I sometimes think must be bound to be both popular and loved. The four of us crammed together in a knot. I understand something for a moment. I already have something I thought I was missing. I have a family. I’m part of it. I’m still here and we do our best to love each other. One thing I’ve already achieved that no one achieved for me when I was a boy. I don’t think that the boy I was would hold it against his parents or anyone else if he could see me now. He would be envious of what I have and remind me to appreciate what he doesn’t have. Maybe this is the future I was hoping for.



  1. Sounds to me like you're on the right path my brother!

  2. Gut-wrenching and beautiful, your honesty is to be emulated.