Sunday, January 16, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 238: Biomythography - Note 15, Not Now

A Biomythography - Note 15
by Secret Hippie


Yes, Now

It was the spring of 1987. The underbrush in the woodlands around me had turned green. The tree branches above hung bare but they had started to bud. White, cabbage butterflies had made their first appearances. Girls in the neighborhood were trying out skirts despite the blustery day. Some of the guys strolled into their yards in their shirts, no jackets. One of them kept his jacket on with a collar up against the gusts of wind.

I drove up past a few houses in my car, a metallic blue Mustang, with a young woman by my side. I'd been living Western Massachusetts for a few months. This was only the second time I'd had a woman over as a guest. In this case, she had invited herself to my apartment. She had insisted. I'd felt embarrassed by my place although it was nice, a room in a house that I shared with a former college hallmate. He had decided to settle in town.

He was dating someone local. Now maybe I was, too.

"This place is bigger than I thought!" The young woman gave me a sly smile as we strolled through the front door. "Nice kitchen. You kind of talked it down."

My roommate, Michael, strode up with a smile.

"Who is this beautiful lady?" he asked. Sometimes he could be awkward but, more often, he was genial and charming. He seemed pleased that I was starting to have a social life at last. As a roommate, he worried about me.

Soon after I made introductions, Michael got a call. He had started two small businesses. They kept him constantly on the phone. In fact, he was the first person I knew to own a cell phone. He kept two cars leased, each with mobile phone consoles. When he took his call, he waved goodbye and wandered through the living room into one of his offices. That's why he rented an entire house, so he could run his businesses. Immediately, the young woman took me by the arm and asked to see my room.

"Huh. Mattress on the floor." She put her hands on her hips as she stood in the doorway. "But how is it?"

"It's a futon," I replied. It had been my major expense upon my arrival in town. "I kind of like it."

With a smile, she threw herself against it. She pounded the pillows for good measure. We fooled around for a while, flirting and more. Then she asked me to get up and lock the bedroom door. When I returned to the futon, we got more involved.

I didn't have much sense of time passing. Mentally, I was occupied.

So it came as a surprise when Michael burst into the room. He stood there, mouth agape, for less than a second.

"Not now, Michael!" I yelled. And I raised my left arm to wave him away.

His face turned beet red. He stepped back and closed the door.

"Hah!" Fortunately for me, the young lady laughed. "What was that about?"

"Later." I put both hands on the futon again. "Later."

Although I felt focused on the fun we were having, later eventually arrived. I put on a fresh shirt, pulled up my pants, and meandered out to the kitchen to get some water.

"Sorry!" Michael strode up to the sink next to me. He was trembling. He could barely hold his phone.

"It's fine." I had already forgotten the interruption. If he hadn't reminded me, I might not have thought about it. "Sorry if I shouted. I was, um, surprised."

"Normally, I do knock. You probably should lock the door, though."

"I thought I did." I mused over my glass of water. For a moment, it felt like the glass had been dirty. Maybe there was something wrong with the water. After a few seconds, I realized that actually I was having a problem with the air. "Michael, what's that smell?"

"Oh." He took a deep breath. "The house was on fire."

He had burst into my bedroom in a panic. He'd meant to scream that we needed to evacuate. Instead, he saw naked bodies, got embarrassed, and left. That meant he had to do something about the fire. He had been running around, frantic, unable to think straight or find an extinguisher. His red-hot cheeks and the fact that I and the young lady were busy - and not listening to him - made him reconsider.

He had seen flames from the electrical panel. They were spreading to the window sill. But he had a fire extinguisher somewhere in the house. He knew he did. His embarrassment proved stronger than his fear or panic. It made him search again. This time he found it.

Over the span of a few minutes, I got the whole story. I'm still not sure of the cause of the fire beyond that it was in the wiring panel.

I leaned back against the kitchen counter. We looked at each other for a moment.

"I put it out," he said. It was an understatement.

Later in the evening, I tested the latch on my bedroom door. In his initial panic from the sparks and flames in the cellar beneath us, Michael had pushed through the strike plate without noticing. The lock bolt had shoved the plate forward. He hadn't ripped it out of the door frame but it was a close thing. The wood had splintered. I unscrewed the strike plate and screwed it back in so that it worked again. The door never latched quite right after that, though.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 237: Biomythography - Note 14

A Biomythography - Note 14
by Secret Hippie


Fear of Heights

When I was five, I fell out of a dogwood tree.

When I was six, I fell out of a locust tree. That's what comes from climbing trees and rough-housing in them. The next spring, in my front-yard willow, I fell so far and hit so hard that I lay there on the ground for a minute. No one had pushed me. I had just slipped. My body tingled. The back of my head ached and I watched swirls of color in the corners of my vision. My friend, Joe Wood called my name. He clambered down from his branch. Eventually, his younger sister Rebecca jogged over. My younger brother ran up to look at me, too. I hopped back to my feet, embarrassed.

"Can I play?" my brother asked.

"Yeah, but let's not climb the dumb tree," said Joe. "Let's find something else."

I'm not sure when my fear of heights started. It may not have begun with that fall. Heights had caused me prickly sensations and fits of panic before. But about a year after the big willow tree fall, which was followed by falls from playground equipment, I started to get a sort of terror about heights. At that point, I was only eight and didn't know that I could do anything to fix the problem. I had to tough it out, as far as I could tell.

What made the problem seem sort of serious, even at eight, was that I could see my trend. I understood that the phobia was getting worse, year to year. When I was nine, I could climb the lowest branches of trees. By the end of that year, I stopped. I didn't tell anyone why - but I knew the reason.

At ten, I climbed up the ladder on the high dive at the pool and almost passed out over the concrete. I steadied myself, grabbed the aluminum bars tight with an adrenaline rush and visions of death, and pushed on. Maybe that's why my body waited until I reached the end of the diving board. There, I froze up and dropped like a rock. As if from a distance, I heard a loud smack. A spark of electricity lit my body. I was in the water. I could move again.

Burning with shame, I turned over onto my stomach and swam to the edge of the pool. I expected lots of pointing and laughter but only my younger brother was doing that. The lifeguard, in contrast, had turned rigid in his chair. The woman who had been chatting with him stared at me in open-mouthed dismay.

"You okay?" he called. He scowled as he noticed that my limbs wouldn't quite obey me. I had to take a second try at climbing onto the deck.

"Yeah."

"Right." His lips looked pale. "How about you don't go on the diving board for a while?"

"Okay."

I'd always loved bouncing over rocks or scrambling up and down muddy slopes next to a stream. By the age of eleven, I couldn't walk across the fallen trees over the water. I had to crawl across like a baby. My terror of heights was starting to get in the way. Soon, even standing on a tree stump made me dizzy.

This was getting intolerable. I knew I had to do something.

At the age of thirteen, the act of hopping over a foot-high rock was uncomfortable. My anger at myself over it had reached new depths, too (not heights, I guess). I had been getting worse for years and had thought about trying to do something but still, I hadn't.

At home, I'd read about exposure therapy. In the psychology textbooks of our family library and in the science and education magazines on our table, there were paragraphs, sometimes whole pages, about how therapists coached their patients to touch spiders or to ride in elevators. There was even a paragraph on therapy for acrophobia. I decided that exposure was the solution.

Visualizing New Heights

My start was not impressive. Mostly, I lay down and imagined being up high. Later in the process, I stood on rocks and pretended they were tall and unsteady. My commitment level was good for a thirteen year old but my real-life exposures, my self-hypnosis sessions, and my other forms of practice were as inconsistent as you might expect from a teenager.

Sometimes, I would be trying to fix myself but get jolted out of the process by someone who would ask me why I was standing on a rock or stump. I never had an answer. Usually I would mutter something evasive like, "Just wanted to," or "Why not?" or "Nothing, dummy." Then I'd step down and never repeat it around them again.

My visualization sessions were important because my exposures were so inconsistent. I didn't know it, but the process would take me six years. I'm sure it would have been faster if I'd been competent at the method. Nevertheless, it produced enough good results in the first two years that I started working at other problems in parallel.

I used the same visualization techniques on basketball, karate, emergency responses, and on letting go of desires. Of course, I actually practiced the sports, the tense situations, and letting go of desirable possessions, too, so the real-world experiences were essential. Visualization helped, though.

Hmm, I said six years. But after five, maybe a little less, I had no more functional problems with my fear of heights. What I wanted, in my sixth year of exposure, was a celebration. That’s how my self-imposed therapy ended in a static-line parachute jump.

Making the jump felt over-the-top, even to me. But it also felt completely right.

Letting go of desires was fine, my paralysis in clutch situations had been replaced with a lean into them, and I could walk on a balance beam. And jump from an airplane.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 236: Biomythography - Note 13

A Biomythography - Note 13
by Secret Hippie


Deciding To Be The One

The decision to have a purpose in life is not the same as a decision to take responsibility for others. When I made the latter choice, it was about becoming 'the one' in my own internal terminology. It was a determination about family, at first. Then it became more.

Family History

The decision started out with my awareness that I had to become a wage slave for the family. It wasn't an instant realization. I was reluctant to admit it. But the choice to go along with the concept seemed inevitable and it gained strength from my awareness of family history.

On my mother's side, three sons of the Stocketts sailed over to America in 1658 to claim their land grant from King Charles II. Two of those brothers died. One lived on with some success. In the next generation, three sons grew to adulthood. Two soon died. That again left one to carry on. The Stocketts kept dying, as a lot of American colonizers did, but they also kept having enough children to maintain themselves and spread out. In the line I'm descended from, however, they lost their family farm to taxes.

That meant my great-grandfather and grandfather spent their generations getting by with less. My grandfather had things especially tough, since he had epilepsy. At the time, epilepsy was treated like a contagious disease, so he found himself often shunned. And he went 4F in the draft. But that was okay. It meant that he could work in the shipyards during the war. For a while, he could afford a family. When the war ended, though, the Navy let go of their 4F men (along with the shipyard women) and my grandfather immediately became desperate for work.

He had never been able to afford a house or land. He had moved onto a patch of his uncle's property that no one was using. It was separate from the rest, which was good because this was the uncle who was cruel to everyone. He killed kittens, apparently just to put children in their place about their pets, and he killed his eldest son by pushing him off the roof during an argument. He had influence in town, too. Taking his land by simply squatting on it, even when it was left unused, was a risk.

My grandfather felt he had no choice. He built a house on the vacant lot by raiding the town dump for lumber and parts. Then, for years, he flattered the rest of the family as much as he could. He named his eldest son after the murderous uncle to whom he was indebted. Eventually, he got a grudging approval to live there. He continued to raise his family and farmed the neighbors' land because they weren't using it.

For a while, he got a job with the phone company. That was great but they kept sending him to work during storms. He followed orders because he was epileptic and everyone was sure he couldn't get another job. As a result, he repeatedly got hit by lightning while up on the poles. The first three times, he got away with it. Finally, he took a bolt so strong that it knocked him off the pole. The company retired him. My grandfather supported eight people in his house living on one disability income. Naturally, he kept farming. It was the source of most of their food.

So my mother grew up in decent circumstances. She had a home, enough to eat, and a large family. True, her father opposed her going to college. He said he couldn't afford it for a girl and that seemed likely enough. My mother's parents had also arranged a marriage for her when she was a child. To their surprise, she refused the marriage. She applied for scholarships, instead, and managed to get so many that she could return the ones she didn't need and still go to college. So she left Annapolis for good. When she graduated from University of Maryland and got a job as a teacher, she attained a genuinely middle class life for herself.

That was a significant achievement. Her siblings followed, too. Her entire generation took the family in a positive direction. They got back to an ordinary level of prosperity.

On my father's side, we never learned much about the history. We know that his Irish grandfather, George Earl Gallagher, came to America near the end of the famines in Ireland. He had an American child, my father's father, and then died at the age of forty-three. His son remarried late, fathered two more children, my Aunt Jenny and my father, and died at the age of forty-two.

June Pond Light, my paternal grandmother, grew up in an orphanage before her marriage. When she left, she lived in Philadelphia for a while. Then she married and became a Gallagher. She discovered that her husband had divorced his first wife. Since he was Catholic, his church didn't recognize the divorce. That meant Robert Gallagher, my father, and his sister Jenny, weren't recognized by the Irish side of the family. They refused to talk with June or her children, so our Irish history was lost. In addition, my father's younger brother Jack, always their mother's favorite, inherited everything from her - the English money, such as it was. Other relatives mentioned it to me on a few occasions, always bitterly, and that's how I knew. In their ways, both of my parents had descended from several generations of not inheriting anything, often because there was nothing to be had. They were the people who did not get the house. In some cases, they did not even get the tea set.

Why the One

It was in that context that I read books about how successful people achieved their status. In nearly all of them, they started from stable, upper middle class or wealthy, owning-class families. Those families provided the springboards for their dive into success.

When the time came to make my decision, I understood that I probably couldn't achieve a high level of material success. But maybe, just maybe, I could still be 'the one,' that is, I could become the somewhat anonymous and dependable provider for a family. I could accumulate enough advantages for the household that someone in the next generation might succeed better in material ways.

At first, I thought this meant I had to,
  • grow the clan
  • watch over it
  • protect it
Soon I saw that it meant accepting I would be a person who gets taken for granted, who is a wage slave, dependable and thoughtful of others. The 'one' may number more than one, of course, since there could easily be a handful in a family - really, there should be - but each one of them is someone to whom a grandmother can go for help, to whom cousins and nieces and nephews can get guidance, and to whom caretaker chores may be given, whether for child care or elder care.

It is an ordinary decision.  Many people make it.  But I felt it was lacking in my immediate family.  And every tribe needs members who take on responsibility for others.  Maybe, in fact, it is the sort of ordinary decision that separates long-lasting families from broken homes.  It is a decision that extends into professional life because it can lead into a career.  The consequences can spill over into hobbies because, apparently, taking responsibility is a habit.  You can find yourself banging a gavel for the Loyal Order of Water Buffalos one day, wondering why it happened. 

Taking responsibility will, likely enough, affect your group of friends.  After all, sometimes even among casual acquaintances it's necessary to make the decision to be responsible, to gather people together, to feed them, to look out for the weak, to assist the strong, and to make the group a success.

The group's success might not belong to 'the one.'  It won't be seen as yours.  You might not get credit at all.  That's what happens in groups.  Sometimes the youngest grandchild goes out to take the bows as a famous artist even though most of her success is due to her grandmother.  It happens.  But her grandma is not a child.  She does not demand attention.  She made her decision to be 'the one' long ago.  She can bask in the success of others, nowadays.  And sometimes those others will understand, just a little, that they have depended on people who decided to be responsible for them and their welfare.

Those people made the decision to care and to act on their caring. For an entire lifetime, everyone around them feels the benefit.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 235: Biomythography - Note 12

A Biomythography - Note 12
by Secret Hippie


Deciding on a Purpose

You have to have a cause.

If you don't have one, you will be swayed in every direction. You might spend your efforts on many goals without giving enough to achieve a single one. Also, you won't understand one of the most important parts of life. Stoics understand. Daoists, too. There is a special experience that is available to people who are driven to fulfill their calling.

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
Some people: oh no, my good shirt

The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
People with a calling: that has nothing to do with why I'm here

If your cause is Buddhism, Stoicism, Daoism, or a similar set of beliefs that emphasizes non-attachment, it's even easier to not have setbacks. You can let events slide away when they don't matter. You simply re-focus on your goal.

When I was fourteen, I read a book on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It was supposed to be a psychology text, I think, but it read like philosophy. That is, it relied less on the pseudo-science common in most psychology texts of the period. (There were a whole lot of assertions about human brains back then that were untrue but if you complained, especially in high school, you were told that you didn't really understand because you weren't an expert.) Maslow had some ideas that I liked, including "self-actualization," which sounded close to many ideas I had then about enlightenment.
  1. In the first stage, take care of your physical needs.
  2. In the second, stop worrying about your future or your safety.
  3. Third, fulfill your senses of love and belonging.
  4. Fourth, achieve some goals. Those will lead to a sense of esteem.
  5. Fifth, reach a level where the first four stages seem insignificant.
Stories about self-actualized people seemed compelling to me. Historically, everyone knew about individuals who could be kind to others beyond all reason, who would give away their food when everyone was starving, run into a battle to rescue the wounded, help victims imprisoned with them in a concentration camp, or who could tend to the sick during a pandemic. Those people had become self-actualized. They could and did ignore their physical desperation, their safety, and the harsh opinions of others in order to better the situation of humanity.

(Maslow came up with his hierarchy due to his visits with the Blackfoot tribe, apparently, and he left off stages that the Blackfoot members considered vital:

Sixth, grow a community in which tribe members help one another self-actualize.
Seventh, expand the self-actualized community.

Maslow possibly thought of these last stages as bordering on sociology. Therefore, they were not fit for him to write about in the field of psychology.)

The concepts of self-actualization, sainthood, and enlightenment all seemed to point to what kind of causes a person might have that would allow for transcendence. They are not mundane ones. For instance, a passion for collecting model cars is not the best type of cause. Neither is making paperclip art, even though it may be very good art. However, making paperclip art that makes people laugh, cry, or inspires them with fantastic ideas, passions, and compassion - now we're getting somewhere. That's close to the sort of cause necessary. Intent matters. The whole process matters.

After testing ideas about transcendence against the historical anecdotes, I guessed there were basically two requirements for a driving cause that is fulfilling. They are,

1) It has to represent something bigger than an individual
2) It has to help others

There might be a third quality that's important as well. Personally, I chose a huge cause as a teenager: help everyone. But I found myself often implementing it by writing articles or stories as well as creating nice things for my friends. For many years, writing was closely connected to my primary cause. In retrospect, I wonder if the creative element led to a different result. For instance, when you decide to start a soup kitchen, you are making something. You may not think of it as inventive but, if you pay attention to the details like a sculptor, engineer, dress designer, or painter, it may give you (and the people around you) the same sort of benefit.

3) It should be creative

Adding this third aspect to the chosen cause requires the person choosing it to understand that they are being creative - that if you are arranging special trips for terminal cancer patients or repairing appliances for people who have no money to pay, you are still creating things (even if they do pay something, I suppose). At the very least, you are touching the hearts of people with a uniquely prepared moment like any other artist.

Intent is always key to the results, as there is no real separation between them.

What happens if you change your cause? That seems possibly dangerous to self-actualization but, whether for good or ill, I found myself doing it. My first cause was great for me but I had to adjust it when I started a family.

Technically, devoting yourself to a family meets all three requirements above. But, as you can immediately see, there is a fragility to having a smaller, less overarching cause. When things go bad in your smaller cause, it affects your world more strongly in proportion. Fortunately, the re-focusing was a natural process for me. It's not like I gave up on helping humanity in general. All of my choices, even when guiding my employment to provide for my family, were informed by the grander humanitarian purpose. I did pay more and more attention to my immediate relatives; young children have a way of forcing that to happen; but I was not too far thrown off by the death of a pet or a family member or a dear friend. When you expand your spirit and reach out to humanity itself as a cause, it keeps your world from being too small and your perspective too narrow.

That leads me to another important aspect.

Practice Letting Go

Periodically, you have to let go of your cause.

When I was twenty-one and very much a true believer in the process of enlightenment, a friend of mine, Richard, gave me a book by 'The True Believer' and told me I needed to read it. I did.

He was right.

Although it feels good to have a purpose and to let it give your life and other lives a direction that makes things better, that's not enough. In order to avoid the traps of being a 'true believer' you have to stop, occasionally, as if letting go of thoughts while meditating, and live without your cause for a while. Even if your chosen purpose is a religion or a philosophy, you have to let go of it. I'm sure devotees of Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism will see the irony. Still, it's true. You need to back away and gain some perspective.

Let your life sway freely from event to event. Look back on your cause and judge it. If it's not worthy, pick another. More likely, of course, your previous goal is still fine. But you may use your perspective to adjust your grip as you re-attach to the world in this way. This is a deliberate step, an emotional and mental and nearly physical skill. You should be able to repeat it, from time to time. Let go and pick a spot in the flow of life where you want to grab on again.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 234: Biomythography - Note 11

A Biomythography - Note 11
by Secret Hippie


On the Existence of Families

Sometimes my father, a philosophy major, raised the question explicitly: do societies exist? Or families and other groups? Or are there only individuals?

When I was a teen the obvious answer was individuals. In some ways, it was a very American response. But it was also due to how my father hadn't grown up with access to a big, extended family. His mother had been raised in an orphanage, far away from most of her blood relations. His father died when he was two. The result was that, except for his sister and an uncle, Jack, my father's family connections didn't exist.

For my part, I had also read about cultures in which entire families were punished for the transgression of a single member of their bloodline. That seemed immoral and it still does. So I came down hard on the side of individuals mattering, never groups.

For instance, years ago a limousine convoy of Orthodox Jews in New York City hit and killed an African-American toddler. They fled the scene, which made their conduct unjust not only because of the moral crime during the accident but also after, from their evasion of personal responsibility.

When a gang of teens later that day isolated and beat to death an Orthodox Jewish boy in retribution, that was an immoral example of group justice. They killed an innocent as if the murder were equivalent to killing the person responsible for the toddler.

When the police responded to that incident by arresting African-American teenagers, they tried to assure the public that they had found the people responsible. That is, they needed to assert that they were not perpetuating injustices to individuals in the name of justice for groups of people.

Every step of this process seems like an example of how justice needs to be determined at the level of individuals. Yet a series of books and examples from my life led me to understand how group identities endure regardless. They are persistent and will always cause problems for perceptions of justice. What seems like a weak, almost tenuous, level of existence-by-agreement is actually tough to eradicate and it may be unwise to do so. Shared imaginations like "I'm part of a religious tribe" or "I belong to this corporation" are harder to end, in fact, than the people who compose them.

As everyone knows, when a worker in a corporation dies, the corporation hardly notices. That's even if we're talking about the death of the most influential leader of the organization. Many corporations, religions, fraternal organizations, and even hobby groups survive such events. Families do, too.

On one hand: our country exists in our shared imagination, so if everyone woke up thinking that it didn't exist, it wouldn't.

On the other hand: our country is going to outlast everyone reading this. Just because something is a shared imagination doesn't mean it isn't robust. That's a weird thought to many teenagers, I know.

Our families are smaller, more fragile organizations than countries. Unless you are the final branch of a narrow line, though, your little clan is going to outlast you. Even if you feel that you are the last, someone else counts you as part of their tree of relatives. Others have adopted you, mentally, even when you don't know it. The existence of your family is stronger than you. Really. And always.

Siddhartha - Nothing Exists

When I was twelve, I read a short novel by Herman Hesse based loosely on the life of Siddhartha Gautama. It's fiction, not biography, and it tells a story of enlightenment within the context of rebellion against state religions. Moreover, it describes a belief that nothing exists and shows how that idea can change meaning when seen from different viewpoints.

“How deaf and stupid have I been!" Siddhartha thought, walking swiftly along.

"When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and a worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters. I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened.”

In a key transition point, Siddhartha moves from despising the impermanence of the world to adoring it, from hating the impurity in himself and others to realizing that love is the main thing.

Maybe it was due to growing up in a house full of philosophy texts but I read quite often about the impermanence of material things. In many Buddhist books, the authors assert that nothing exists at all. The sensual world is completely an illusion. Our bonds of friendship and family are parts of a dangerous snare. Such attachments to other people lead us into having even more desires and heavier sorrows.

Siddhartha, though, doesn't trust the lack of sorrow that has been promised by emotional detachment. Raising a son brings him frustration and unhappiness, as he had foreseen when younger, yet it brings him greater understanding of people and a stronger love for them.

Friends Exist

Unlike families, societies, countries, and other organizations, I never had any doubt about friendships. They are the most powerful influence in my life and probably most other lives. Unlike families and nations, though, friendships can't outlast the lifetimes of the participants. At most, they are part of a human web of friendships and can pass on part of their spirit.

Also, love does not need to be returned so there are no people who need to be my friend in order for me to be theirs. Often enough, there's a bond of affection from both sides anyway. If it's not zen to be so attached, then it's not. We can give up part of our joy and freedom to love one another in our impermanent relationships in our imperfect ways.

Friends in Theory

Since I've mentioned how literature affected my perception of organizations, including families, I think it's worth mentioning the smaller influence of literature on my concept of friendship.

Most books demonstrate the basic rules of our affinities with others by focusing on the practical aspects. For instance, friends share adventures together. Or they sit in silence, happy. Or they give gifts to one other. They might come to the rescue. They might suffer together. In A Wrinkle in Time, the three main characters do all of these. In adventure books, friends protect one another more or less constantly like in the Hardy Boys, The Lost World, The Forgotten Door, and the Chronicles of Amber. When I think about friendships in story form, though, I keep returning to The Lord of the Rings.

Meriadoc says,

"You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends."

He blurts out this sentiment at the beginning of their terrible adventure. Then he holds true to his words. The story he lives is informed by war. Tolkien wrote to this mindset because, after two world wars, he accepted it as natural: never abandon a friend; never leave anyone behind. Although in real wars we do sometimes leave behind dying friends or dead bodies, humans do try to stand by the members of their tribes. Because they are our friends. And we are theirs.

Le Morte D’Arthur - How Brothers Exist

Brotherhood is more troublesome than friendship but only because siblings are raised together and are more defined by one another than friends, especially friends who meet after childhood. But my brothers are how I developed an intuitive sense of family. The are the reason I kept thinking more and more about what family means.

"Meanwhile Sir Launcelot watched from his ambush and just as they were leading the queen to the fire, shouted the word of command, charged with his followers through the spectators, and assaulted the guards.

In the tumult that followed, many of the guards were killed ... lastly Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, both of them unarmed, and whom Sir Launcelot killed without recognizing."

Before this part of the book, Sir Gawain had been the character that made the most sense. Unlike many others portrayed by Malory, he was fully human. That is, Gawain was not particularly virtuous but he tried to be. He made peace with King Arthur, his uncle, despite Arthur killing Gawain's father in battle. He aimed to be a responsible older brother and set a good example for Arthur's knighthood. When his younger brothers surpassed him in their achievements, he cheered them on. This was a character I understood. He seemed to live in a type of family I knew.

Everything about the revenge of Sir Gawain upon Launcelot and about his care for his brothers rang true thereafter. Brotherhood demands loyalty. It is bigger than individuals. It is bigger, perhaps, than families. It extends across political and religious tribes to even murderers like Launcelot, whom Gawain forgave as he lay dying from wounds inflicted by his brother knight.

It was my brothers who first taught me about families despite my father's lack of family tradition and despite his opposition to close-knit clans.

The Godfather - How Families Exist

Close-knit clans took some reading to understand, for me.

Even though I had grown up with glimpses of family structures, I didn't really comprehend the gulf between growing up without them, as my father had done, and living in them the way my mother had. In a stable clan, the cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, and upward and outward for multiple generations, can take one another for granted. They can even be annoyances to one another. When I talk to people who have grown up in normal, reasonably close families, they never grasp all of the small interactions that would go missing without their relations.

All the friendships before, all the books, all the examples of families in my life led up to this book, The Godfather. It must seem odd that a book, not a family reunion, not a text about Chinese history, not a genetics class, nor a discussion in sociology, no, a particular piece of crime fiction gave me the emotional clues I needed. That's because, to me, The Godfather was a story about families.

How many times does Don Corelone talk about family? He talks about it even when he's playing up the idea of strong friendship. He says to his godson, Johnny Fontane, a singer who is losing his career,

"Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendship you wouldn't have to ask me to help."

He emphasizes the importance of fatherhood even to an enemy,

“Tell me. Do you spend time with your family?”
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

When his adopted son asks why he has to be the one to say 'no' to members of the family so often, not the great Don Corleone, Don reveals,

"You cannot say 'no' to the people you love, not often. That's the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a 'yes'. Or you have to make them say 'no.' You have to take time and trouble.”

Most of all to his sons, he emphasizes the need for togetherness. It's not just something that makes people feel comforted. Or rather, it is that but it is more. Unity in a family is a practical thing. It can be a life or death advantage over others.

"We are a family, and the loyalty of the family must come before anything and everyone else. For if we honor that commitment, we will never be vanquished - but if we falter in that loyalty we will all be condemned.”

So Don Corelone understands that it is all about family. Later, his son Michael comes to the same understanding. As he ages, he sees more of the uncaring world and compares it to the loving attention it takes to raise his household.

“Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity, but he, as a powerful and prudent parent, would most certainly keep a wary eye on that general family.”

Michael comes to an understanding of a family loyalty that is separate from but nearly the same as the loyalty of friends. He sees that families can be defended like brothers. Naturally, he intends to grow his clan and to keep safeguarding it from harm.

Years after reading about it, I found myself entertaining the idea that it was possible - that I could nurture and grow a family.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 233: Biomythography - Note 10

A Biomythography - Note 10
by Secret Hippie

Enjoy Your Work

"What are you doing?" I asked Tucker in disbelief. A stack of split wood lay tumbled to his right. Ten feet further, he had made a neat, long stack of firewood. It was his second row. The back row, already enough for two years at the rate they burned, stood as high as my head. He was adding depth to the family stockpile.

Tucker took another swing of his axe and finished splitting the log.

"Doing what I have to do," he replied.

Tucker's father had commanded him to split wood as a preemptive punishment. The order hadn't made sense. Tuck hadn't done anything wrong even according to his parents' strict standards. His family had already laid in too much wood. Some of it would rot. Even though I'd been mad at his father for the capriciousness of the command and the insulting manner of it, I hadn't taken it seriously for those reasons. It failed to occur to me that my best friend would, as always, serve his punishment because he'd been told. That's how he worked.

In a continuous manner, I had failed to understand for two years. Now it was the summer when I was sixteen and taking an order seriously simply wasn't what I would have done, not when it made no sense. I was struggling to understand Tucker's family dynamics.

"You were so mad," I said. I had seen Tucker protest the command, which of course led to his father yelling, which eventually led to Tucker telling me I should go. His father had lowered his voice to agree that I should leave and that I would be welcome back when Tucker was done, a small politeness.

"I guess I was," Tucker allowed with a smile.

He picked up another half-log. Then he turned his back, took aim at the center ring, and swung. For a minute, I watched him work. Tucker returned to his singing. That was a habit I think he had picked up from me. He was making it his own, though. Instead of a mournful chant like the ones I used for manual labor, Tucker sounded almost joyful. No, there was no 'almost.' He was happy. Distinctly so.

"Why are you suddenly pleased with yourself?" I asked.

He paused, gave the matter a bit of thought, and replied, "It's not that sudden."

"You're being punished. For nothing. How can you be happy?"

"Hey, man." He took another swing. The log split. One side fell over. The other, smaller piece traveled six feet before bouncing to a stop. "I know I'm going to have to do it anyway. Why should I let him spoil my day?"

I put my fists on my hips and I thought about it. I'd never heard anyone tell me anything like those words before. For my part, I stayed angry even while doing things that were my decision. I had recently fasted for two days, satisfied with myself spiritually but angry at my life. I had gutted through extra workouts recently, too, determined to reach my arbitrary goals. There were a lot of things I did as joylessly as possible.

"Haven't you noticed that he only gives me this chore when I'm happy? This is my punishment for smiling or, worse, for laughing. He always punishes me when I laugh at something."

"Yeah." The observation was straight on target. His father's instinctive anger at seeing his son being happy was part of what made the relationship seem abusive.

"Honestly, I think it drives him crazy to see me having fun chopping the logs for the woodpile. It's supposed to be my punishment. But I sort of like it. Come on, I know you like chopping wood. You said so."

"But that's me." It was accurate but something about it seemed unfair. "You said you hated it."

"I don't know how it is for you. But I take this attitude whenever I can with my chores now. You just find the part, whatever little part there is, that you like. Then concentrate on that part and let it make you happy. Man, you can be happy about any damn thing."

It had not occurred to me that I didn't have to be miserable just because someone else was making me miserable.

Tucker returned to chopping wood. After a while, he radiated so much joy that I started to smile. I stood there for five minutes, watching him finish. While I did, I tried out the idea of being happy about a chore that I had to do. It seemed to work for Tucker. I helped him lift the last log into place.

When he got down to the last quarter-log, Tucker stopped singing. He seemed sad that his punishment chore was almost over. I returned, mentally, to the idea of finding some part of a job to like - any job, any likable part - and I tried to imagine what it might do for me. And I hummed a mournful tune to myself as he took another swing.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 232: Biomythography - Note 9

A Biomythography - Note 9
by Secret Hippie

Normal Punch and Tumble

When you grow up in a neighborhood with older kids, mostly boys, you're going to get knocked around a bit in the maulball games.  At least, that was how it went for me in Maryland in the late 1960s and 1970s.  If you're bowled over in good spirit, though, in a game where your opponent picks you up and says, "Nice try, kid" the physical sting disappears. 

In fact, a lot of rough-housing in our neighborhood was like that.  Bigger kids could be mean, of course.  One kid in school had his eye cut out by an older boy with a knife.  Mostly, though, bullies used their fists.  If they lived in the neighborhood, they couldn't go too far with their aggressive behavior.  There were factors that held everyone back, namely 1) basic morality of a sort, 2) enforcement from older brothers who would take revenge against the bullying of their younger siblings, 3) parents, and 4) a hidden factor: practicality.  

The practical aspect was felt by bullies who picked on smaller kids but then needed those same kids to play in football, baseball, or kickball games.  They would end up begging from house to house.

"Why doesn't anyone want to play with me?" was the whine from a handful of boys, most of whom eventually figured out the answer.

In the midst of this comparatively weak level of childhood roughness (compared to earlier generations), my parents raised me in a mostly gentle way.  Theirs may have been the first generation to begin to break away from the "all stick, no carrot" approach of molding behavior.  Still, my father believed in corporeal punishment.  My mother suspected that it mostly wasn't necessary but of course it was an option. 

In my family, as in many others, the order of events in a conflict usually was:

Talking
Hitting
Shouting

This wasn’t a matter of philosophy. It was simply how things evolved. A level of communication took place through slapping and hitting.  Shouting, both with friends and in the family, was for emergencies.  Therefore, raised voices were treated more seriously and as a more violent gesture than a gentle "don't touch my knitting" slap on the wrist; that was nothing.  

Still, don't touch the knitting.

This was why I found it difficult to deal with people who skipped from talking about a problem to shouting about it. That felt like cheating plus it raised the issue, whatever it was, into emergency status, an elevation it never deserved.

I've got the same reaction nowadays to political fighting and other sorts of name calling.  As a child, I learned that those things were ungentlemanly.  It was better to fight and lose than to resort to cowardly tactics.  Yet all of the currently acceptable tactics now are cowardly ones (as seen from a viewpoint in the not-too-distant past).  Cowardly name calling is extolled, in its way, because physical fights are unacceptable.  Or just difficult across the Internet and across cultures.

Violence, except in self-defense or defense of others, really is unacceptable all over the world and in all or nearly all societies.  The definition of violence, though, seems to have gone astray.  For some people currently, violence could mean any sort of physical contact.  That seems unhealthy to me although I'm out of the mainstream now in that view.  There is a moral difference between poking the cat away from the dog's food, which is really a form of communication, and an action that does serious or lasting harm.  

And I think there's more harm caused by the name-calling than people realize. Demeaning others may be a form of violence that is more destructive than most rough-and-tumble contact. In a maulball game, you can lose and be hurt but never dehumanized.  Nice try, kid.

In a name-calling game, all sides can come to be seen caricatures, not people.  That's how real human beings could seem unworthy of respect and reverence.  That's the harm; that's the excuse for destructive violence. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 231: Biomythography - Note 8

A Biomythography - Note 8
by Secret Hippie

How I Discovered Affection

We were raised in houses with no hugging. Other families did it, too, a widespread group of us in our time and place invested in a stoic or puritan sort of tradition.

Past infancy, we received no contact except for moral correction. Episodes of discipline usually consisted of a slap or a spank to discourage toddlers from playing with wall sockets or ripping up books. Some parents in the neighborhood were physically tougher than others. Some were tight-lipped and bestowed no praise.

Once, when I was about five years old, I locked myself in a closet and cried for a while, about half an hour. My mother came looking for me but I couldn't stop crying. A few days earlier, I had been spanked for crying without a reason. I was crying without a reason at that moment, so that may have been why I didn't want to come out even though I heard her calling.

She found me anyway, eventually.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Then, patiently, she waited a few minutes for my body to calm down so I could talk.

When I finally answered, I was aware that I had my mothers attention. What with her job, her second child, husband, and extended family, having her full focus was an unusual thing. I didn’t want to tell her that I was crying because life is pointless and I hated myself. Instead, I deflected her line of questioning.

“Mom, how come no one ever says they love me? How come you don’t say it to dad? How come he doesn’t say it to you?" The questions poured forth while she gave me a stern look. "Other kids' parents say it.”

Her expression softened.

“I don’t like those words," she said after a moment in thought. "I don’t trust them. People say them but they don’t really mean them. Don’t expect me to say that I love you. I do, but I'm not going to say it. You'll know because I'll show it.”

She talked to me like I was almost an adult. She put a hand on my shoulder as I considered her words. To me, the idea of showing love being better than saying it was a new concept.

"Show me how?"

“Well, you have to look. That's how you know love is real. Not because of what someone says. Watch how they act. That’s how you know. If someone loves you, they'll look at you a certain way. They'll do nice things for you. You'll know."

Two years later, she ran into a student at her school who was lonely, a foreigner without many friends in Maryland. His name was Vit Babushka. She asked if she could bring him over to play with me.

"He's got a funny name," I thought aloud.

"His family is from Czechoslovakia." She and my father exchanged looks. They launched into a brief discussion about war and politics. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Russians. Vit's father, a scientist, had participated in an academic movement in Belgrade. When the Soviet troops arrived, he had been forced to flee.

The details were beyond my understanding at the time but Vit's family had left their home and made it to the United States, eventually, with help from the American government. Fortunately, America had a fairly high demand for physics professors, especially ones breaking ground in lightwave experiments. Vit's father was able to land a job as a physics professor at the University of Maryland.

For me, though, my focus was on the new kid. I had entertained a few of them before, thanks to my parents, but not one who didn't speak English. Apparently, he didn't know many words or he was shy, maybe both.

"Does he like baseball? Tennis?" Any kind of game was fun. In a lot of them, you didn't need to speak.

"I don't think he knows much about baseball, yet." My mother had known I would ask because I tried to organize pick-up baseball games every afternoon. She shook her head. "You'll have to ask him what he likes to play."

One day that week, she brought Vit home after school. He was a tall boy, my age but thinner. He moved slower than I did but with grace in his body. His hair was lighter than mine. His teeth, when he smiled, showed a mix of sizes due to how his childish incisors and canines were falling out to get replaced by permanent ones.

"The ball is very hard," he said when he first caught a baseball that I tossed to him underhand. I could tell he didn't like it. "It did not look so hard before."

Amazingly, he was a boy who didn't know how to play baseball. My parents had warned me. Still, it knocked me back a little, mentally. Absolutely everyone played baseball. For a while, I tried to teach him how to throw and how to swing. I hit him grounders. One popped up from a pebble and caught him in the shoulder. He grunted.

"Do you know football?" he asked. When I pointed to the football I'd brought, he shook his head. "Not like that. Round. You kick it?"

"A kickball? Red?"

"White, I think. Or white with black spots?"

"Soccer. That's soccer." We went and dug a soccer ball out of my basement but we struggled to keep it inflated. I had never really played soccer. Given the state of the cheap ball I owned, we both lost enthusiasm.

"I have three tennis rackets," I volunteered, although one belonged to my younger brother.

"You know tennis?" Vit asked. All around the world, tennis was the hottest sport. Rod Laver had brought glamour and fame to it but his career had started to fade. Arthur Ashe and a host of international stars were rising; they were generating interest across the globe. Likewise, Margaret Court was still the greatest of her era but Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, and others were rising to compete with her.

"I had lessons," I answered. At the recreation center, I had gotten at least one lesson in everything. "Sometimes I hit against that wall in the park."

"This sport, I want to learn."

We fetched the rackets, the only can of balls, and headed back to the park. We spent a long time on tennis, hitting balls against a wall. Vit got decent pretty quickly. Even so, we got tired of it, set our rackets down, and played on the playground and in the creek. We found ourselves just talking for a while.

After a couple of hours, I heard my mother calling. We grabbed the stuff and headed home.

"Does he have to go?" It hadn't taken long for me to know that Vit was pretty great. I liked him a lot. "Can't he stay tonight?"

"No. His parents want to see him." She gave me a wry smile. Later, after she put him in her car, she asked me, "Do you like him enough to play with him again?"

"Sure. I'd play with him any day." I meant every day, actually. Vit's quiet, accented way of talking let his wit shine. I knew that he was smart and funny. "When can we see him next?"

“I don’t know. But since you two had so much fun, I’ll find a way. I’ll work something out.“

It wasn't long before we had another play date, then another. One day, my mother announced that this time, I was going to travel to Vit's house.

"You don't mind, do you?"

"He says he wants to play chess." I shrugged. "But he has other games, too."

When I arrived at the house, Vit rushed through the door and onto the front walk to greet me. He gave me a hug, which seemed weird, but he was foreign. He thanked my mother politely, which made her smile, and waved as she drove off.

"Now, you meet everybody," Vit said. He walked me up to his front door. "We have a tradition. First, I hug you at the door. Then next."

The door opened. My eyes went wide in surprise. What had been revealed was a line of people. Vit's father, who had opened the door, turned away immediately and headed to the back of the line.

Vit turned in the doorway and clasped me by the shoulders again. This time, I didn't return the gesture. I was too stunned. All of this friendly touching seemed overwhelming. Anyway, he seemed to have hired an angel to take the next spot in the row.

"This is my sister," he said. He bowed slightly.

"Oh, he looks adorable," she murmured. But I barely heard her. She was tall, almost like an adult. She crouched down to me. Her accent was heavy and her voice was so soft that I didn't completely understand her words. None of that mattered. She could have cursed at me softly in her slavic tongue and I would still have heard a heavenly host singing the chorus behind her. When she hugged me it was like floating in a sea of blonde hair, honey, and flowers. Then she stood and said something in another language and followed it with, "Welcome."

She stepped to the side. Her mother stepped up. To my shock, she hugged me, too. It was getting to be too much. She smelled different. Her dress was rougher, a little cheaper. She laughed as I squirmed. Then I relaxed.

Again, she said something in another language. She stood and said, "I am glad to meet you. You are welcome."

When she stepped aside, Vit's father shuffled forward. He seemed like a giant of a man but he had lost the honor of seniority during a whispered argument with his mother, apparently. The older woman had pushed him forward in the row.

"Vit says you are a smart boy and nice," he told me. His accent was thick but his words were clear. It seemed apparent that he spoke English every day at work, unlike his wife or his mother.

"T-Thank you," I stuttered, not knowing what else to say. I looked to Vit for help. He tried to encourage me with a nod and a smile.

"We must seem very strange to you," Vit's father continued. He bent and gave me a quick hug, as if he knew how awkward this all seemed. He was right in that I couldn’t ever remember being held like this, not by another boy or girl, not by a grownup, nobody. At that point, I hadn’t hugged a dog. The big man smelled like foreign cologne. Fortunately, he backed up. "But it is our tradition to welcome you." He spoke a few words in another language and said, in English, "You are welcome."

Finally, Vit's grandmother stepped forward.

"She doesn't speak English," Vit blurted. His sister, mother, and father all uttered English and slavic phrases in agreement.

"It is fine," said Vit's father. "Just step forward and let her welcome you."

Her hair was so grey that really it was white. Her expression seemed solemn except for her eyes, which twinkled with a sort of humor that reminded me immediately of Vit and his sister. Those eyes took an amused view of the world.

When she lowered herself for the embrace, her dress felt rough but her body, soft. I sensed that I was almost adjusted to the amount of touching. The closest thing I'd had before was when the cats slept on me or when my brother had a nightmare and got into my bed along with the cats. This was different and better. Vit's grandmother smelled of spices, butter, and fresh bread, too, as if she had been baking. She had. I didn't know it but I was about to sit down to one of the best meals of my life.

The white-haired woman said a few slavic words, released me, spoke with Vit's father, grabbed me again, shook me, squeezed me and laughed, and finally let me go and stood up.

In a thick accent, she said, after a prompt from Vir's father, "Welcome."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 230: Biomythography - Note 7

A Biomythography - Note 7
by Secret Hippie


Growing Up Irish (Black is Beautiful)

As a child in College Park, other kids called me black. That seems strange now. They called each other weird names, too, and they did it at times when emotions were high in the midst of a game. They weren't talking about the color of my skin. That was never the thing. I'd be playing kickball or cowboys and indians or walking in a gully with other kids and someone would say it. They meant it as an insult but, because they didn't understand it, the term had vague meanings even for them. It always seemed to come from kids repeating the bad words they got from their parents.

One of my friends suggested, "I think it's like when you're a bad guy. You have to wear a black hat."

"Like in cowboy shows?"

"Yeah." In the movies, the rustlers wore black clothes, black hats, or rode black horses. That's how you knew they were bad.

There was an older child who knew a little more. After he said it, he explained, "I mean your soul is black. It's ugly."

This felt similar to when I had the term 'pinko' explained. That was another phrase that didn't really have to do with skin color, at least for me. As confusing as 'pinko' and 'black' seemed, though, only one of those terms was also caught up in describing a group of people by appearance. And for them, it referred to skin color with the additional baggage of wearing a black hat in a western gunfight.

For most of the years as I was growing up, the polite American term in matters of race was 'colored' and the corresponding derogatory term was 'black.' My awareness of the situation started dim and it grew brighter only gradually. Often enough, the stories about our American situation didn't seem to make sense. My mom said that Harriet Tubman was a hero and I devoured the books on her. (There weren't many but the stories were great.) Other folks thought she was a hero, too, so how could there be any argument or stigma attached to her because of her skin? To supplement my reading with experiences, my parents went out of their way to make sure we left our neighborhood at times and had non-white or foreign friends. Some of those friends, like me, seemed oblivious to any historical reasons to not be neighborly. We were just kids together.

In any case, amazingly, almost miraculously, in America our Black is Beautiful movement came along and changed the language. Even now, it seems like an astounding cultural feat. By the time I was nine, the slur of blackness had become something respectable, often something good, and moreover, the change lent a bit of freedom to everybody's talking and thinking. We could finally hear 'black' more as a reference to a color from a palette and not a value judgement.

Although I was, of course, mostly oblivious to the cultural events of the nation, I can see that the adults at the time were acutely aware of their local ethnicities. In fact, they were almost delusional about them. They differentiated between Scottish and English, Mulatto and Colored, Spanish and Italian, Dutch and German, Jewish and Christian, Armenian and Serbian, and more, as if they carried around maps of Europe in their heads. This is how I grew up Irish even though that doesn't make any sense. Adults acted as if we all still belonged to those distant Eurasian tribes that wandered the plains and mountains somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean. If you were French, even though you were actually American, you were supposed to hate the Germans, even though they were actually American. Sometimes this stuff led to fistfights which are, in retrospect, a little hilarious.

"Those damned Armenians," I heard an adult say, once. I asked him to repeat it. I'd never heard of that group before. Some of them had protested about genocide in front of an embassy, apparently, which put them in the same category as 'those damned hippies' to the adults.

Likewise, my neighborhood adults told me:
  • Irish were black
  • Irish were low white
  • Poles were dumb
  • Poles were low white
  • Hispanics were white, except some of them
  • Italians were colored
  • Jews were colored
  • Mixed marriage was a sin
  • Irish were guilty of marrying Italians, which was precisely the sort of mixed-marriage everyone should be concerned about
"What about the Lovings?" a woman added once as a group of adults stood smoking and chatting on the street.

"Ah, that stuff don't matter," her husband retorted. "He won the right. That's not the same as other people joining in."

"We'll never see that, not in our lifetimes," a different woman cackled. They were talking about Mildred and Richard Loving, who won the right to be married despite the laws against it in our neighboring state, Virginia.

Later, I remembered their name and found out who they were. Their case made me feel like America was making progress and that civil rights success, for everyone, was inevitable. It wasn't. In some ways, it had barely begun then. But it did give me hope in fifth grade, when I got up the nerve to tell my crush what she knew anyway, which was how I felt about her.

She came up next to me as I was drinking at a water fountain outside our reading class. She smelled good. Already I knew that she was as bright as the sun as seen through a magnifying glass. She was too beautiful to describe. I felt hypnotized by the way she moved and spoke. It made my stomach feel light just to be close to her.

"You know, I love you," I blurted out.

"You mean that you like me." She leaned back.

"Okay, I really, really like you." I felt myself shaking. "A lot."

"I, uh, really, really like you, too." She grimaced. A moment later, she blushed. "I love you."

It took me a moment to process it. I stepped back and held the water fountain for her. She politely took a drink.

"Can we hold hands?" I asked.

"Um, I'm Jewish."

"Right." I had no idea what that had to do with anything but it was something that I understood in my limited way. She had mentioned it before. She took a minute, then, to tell me more about it and, after a while, she reminded me that I shouldn't call her a Jew. It wasn't polite.

"Okay."

"I know that you don't know what it means. But try."

"Okay." She was right about me not knowing the context for any of this. The conversation seemed to be leaning in the direction of holding hands, though, and that was plenty enough for me.

A few days later, after we had held hands in a fluttering way, once or twice, she marched up to me with her textbooks in her arms like a shield. After a confused stammer, she said,

"Now you can call me a Jew."

"Why?"

"I talked with my dad about you. He said that we're taking back the word Jew. It's okay now." In a sing-song voice, as if she'd memorized the phrase, she added, "If the Afro-Americans can say Black is Beautiful, then Jews can say that a Jew is beautiful, too."

And they did. And she was.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 229: Biomythography - Note 6

A Biomythography - Note 6
by Secret Hippie

How I Found My Color

In the back of my mother's blue Ford Falcon, I rode to visit her elementary school. The day was bright and warm, a Saturday near the end of summer. My mother had to prepare for her next week of work. I was six years old.

"Do you want to come in?" she asked as she stepped out of the car.

"What are you going to do?"

"Prepare lessons." I knew what that meant. It wasn't anything interesting.

"Can I stay and read?" I asked.

"Haven’t you already read those comic books?" she said.

"Yeah."

"Well, if you get bored, come in and find me."

She walked away and, for a long time, I sat reading and rereading a pair of ten cent Dell comic books starring Peanuts characters. In years later, I read them to pieces. But when I was six, they were almost new. One had a forest green cover with Charlie Brown and Snoopy looking at a book. The other had a blue cover with the same two looking at a box camera.

After I finished both books, I set them down in my lap and stared out the window. My eyes took in the green shadows and the light through the trees. For a while, I daydreamed about having a dog like Snoopy. Then I picked up the magazines and started reading again. Around page five, I heard a tapping on my window.

I turned and saw the top of a child’s head.

The kid's fingers looked thin to me. They made an awkward fist and rapped another time with two knuckles on the window.

“What do you want?” I unrolled the window to hear the answer.

“Do you want to play?”

“Yeah!”

After I got out, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I learned that he was “Charles but everybody calls me Charlie. I’m thinking Chuck is better but my sister won’t let me.” Charles or Charlie or Chuck was five, so about a year younger than me, plus he was a haircut shorter and skinnier.

“What were you doing in there? Sleeping?" He had apparently kept watch on the car after my mother got out.

“Reading comics."

“You have comics?" He bounced on his toes. "Can I see?"

I got out the comics, gave him one, and we sat down on the pavement to read side-by-side. After about five minutes of turning the pages, he told me, “I can’t read.”

“Huh.”

“Can you read this one to me? I like Peanuts. Because his name is Charlie. But it is really Charles. Like me.”

So I read him one comic and then part of another until he got bored. Then we threw pebbles at the trees for a while. We talked and realized that we both knew freeze tag. So we played that. But freeze tag isn’t so great with only two players. The game waned along with our interest until we both sighed and stopped. We kicked dirt and wondered what to do next.

“Are you colored?" he asked.

“Sure.” It was the end of summer. All of the adults in my life had been commenting about how dark brown I had become.

“Really? Because you have yellow hair. I never met anyone who was colored but had yellow hair.” Then Charlie backed up a step and rolled his eyes. “Except for my aunt. She has yellow hair. But I know that it’s a wig."

“Do you have a color?”

“Sure, I’m colored. I know that I am kind of light but everyone tells me, I’m colored. If you are not colored, you are white. Does anyone tell you that you’re colored?"

“No."

“Then maybe you’re white.”

No one had ever said that. It seemed preposterous.

“Maybe?“ I said, trying to be agreeable. The idea was stupid, though, and it seemed worse as I mentally compared myself to the colors in my paint sets at school.

“But I never met no white person who was darker than me.“ Charlie took my arm and put it next to his. We looked at our skin. To me, our arms looked a lot the same but he was thinner. He had the skinniest fingers. That's what I found myself staring at. He said, “See, you are darker than me."

“Oh, yeah.” I noticed what he meant. My skin was a lot browner than his.

“Look, even the hairs on your arm are yellow. Are you colored or not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you are mulatto."

“What’s that?"

“That’s when your mama is colored and your daddy is white or the other way around. Is your mama colored?”

“I don’t know. Her hair is dark but her skin is lighter than mine.”

“So maybe she is white. But maybe she is colored and just light like me. How about your daddy? Is he white or colored?"

I had an prickling, almost uncomfortable realization. My father's skin was so white that other men made fun of him. Even I had sort of done it when I commented on how pale he was in the middle of summer. His skin shone a little at night, so he was always the first person I spotted if I got lost while we were camping. His face was visible by the light of the stars when there was no moon. During the day, I could see the blue veins beneath his skin.

“My father,“ I realized. “is white. He really is white."

“Okay,” said Charlie. He was not the slightest bit fazed by what for me, had been a huge revelation. “Then probably your mama is colored. Did your mama go into the school? We could ask her.”

We wandered around the school for a little while until we found the front doors. Charlie wasn't in first grade yet so he didn't know where things were and I didn't remember anything about the building from the year before. When he saw the doors, Charlie put his arm on me to hold me steady.

“We can’t go in," he hissed.

“Why not?”

“Those three, the big girls? They’re mean.”

On the steps of the entrance to the school, we saw girls playing jacks. They looked tall and tough, third graders at least, maybe fourth. I had graduated from first grade, though. I tried to move forward but Charlie kept his grip.

“Don’t do it,” he whispered.

As if to back up his point, one of the girls elbowed another girl during the game of jacks. That was cheating. And the other girl, just as big, hopped up, grabbed the bouncing ball and threw it hard at the girl who had cheated.

The cheater said something that I didn’t understand.

“Oh, so you’re going to kick my ass, huh? Here.” The stronger girl gave an evil smile. “I’ll make it easy."

She turned and presented her behind to the other two girls.

“Go ahead. You kick it and I will pound you into the steps right here. Go ahead. Free kick.”

The cheater mumbled something and backed down the steps.

That is the moment I chose to walk forward. Charlie tried to drag me away by my arm for a second or two more but then he got so scared, he couldn’t stand it. He let go of me and dashed behind a tree.

“Hi,” I said.

“What do you want?" snapped the girl.

“My mother teaches here. I have to go in.”

“Oh you do?”

“We have to find out!” Charlie shouted from behind the tree. “His daddy is white. But he don’t know about his momma.”

“Charlie is that you?” she called. "Your sister said you ain't supposed to come here."

“We gotta find out if he’s mulatto. Don’t he look mulatto?” The boy burst out of hiding, he was so excited. But he remained fearful of the bigger kids. He took position beside me and, a moment later, crept two steps back to take position behind my left shoulder.

The big girl leaned to one side and gazed at me doubtfully.

“You’re momma’s a teacher?” She folded her arms. “What’s her name?”

“Mrs. Gallagher.”

The faces of the three girls lit up. They beamed at me. Over the span of a few seconds, they all relaxed. The effect looked sort of dopey on them.

“Mrs. Gallagher is your momma?” one of them said, almost breathlessly.

“Uh huh.”

The strongest one fluttered her eyelids.

“She is so nice. She is so smart. And so pretty.” She wheeled to the other girls. They backed off. Then she gave Charlie some side-eye. “And she is white. She ain’t no colored lady. She might be the nicest teacher in the whole school. But she’s white.”

“Aw.” That little voice came from behind me. It was Charlie.

“Don’t you know that you’re white?” the girl demanded. She focused on me.

Helpless, I shrugged.

“What if I was going to slug you?”

“That’s what big kids do.” I shrugged again. “Go ahead, I guess. I still gotta go in.”

“I ain’t gonna slug you." She laughed. "You go and say hi to your momma. She is so, so nice.”