Wednesday, August 07, 2013


The Sam Strachan Family

What appears every day on this blog is only a small part of what goes through my head all the time, which is a wandering torrent of idea, sensation, memory, print, and echoes from others, though I don’t use social internet and have dumped out whole search categories, like “Montana writing,” which has dwindled to nearly nothing anyway.  Blackfeet are still part of my life, but they don’t consider themselves “Montana” and neither does “Montana.”  They are a semi-sequestered semi-sovereignty.  In the meantime, posting my notes from acting class in 1957-61 has unfolded into a possible manuscript.  These are only examples.

There is one overwhelmingly powerful relationship that has wakened my consciousness more than I ever anticipated and that pushes me to my limits of skill.  It has also challenged the very idea of “publishing a book.”   The point of my move to Valier was to concentrate on producing “Bronze Inside and Out.”  The response to it revealed what publishing had become: something like Hudson’s Bay’s trading posts on the prairie: little outposts that exchange beads and alcohol for the blood and skins of many animals, including humans.  But that's not what I'm talking about.  

I got one amazing response, from Paris.  It was a video, which would mean nothing if you haven’t read my book.  I’ve been remembering the vid wrong, which gave me a good post about crowding Bob Scriver out of his clothes, because I remembered the sound track as “Honey, Can I Put on Your Clothes?”  which is usually a woman’s song.  But it was actually Bruce Springsteen singing “I’m on Fire.”  Here are the lyrics:

Hey little girl is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire
Im on fire

Tell me now baby is he good to you
Can he do to you the things that I do
I can take you higher
Im on fire

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley
Through the middle of my soul

At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the
Middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire
Im on fire

Sam and Beulah Strachan with Bruce, their Great Hope

The group -- it was a group of boys, Cinematheque Film -- could not have known that my father’s name was Bruce.  They were thinking about my much older husband, the sculptor with whom I built a foundry, as powerful a source of imagery as the landscape around here.  (Google the Rocky Mountain East Slope.)  Over the years since, the boys -- who have been developing faster than I am -- have done nothing to cool my fire but have shaped and intensified mine with theirs -- parallel, not together.

But why did I misremember the song?  Because I was dodging something.  My father.  It’s not that I was really abused, though he did “spank” we kids too much and too hard and after I was so old it was almost sexual.  Then my mother stepped in. She put me through college and ended up supporting the family by teaching.  No divorce, no separation, increasing frozenness.  I have never understood why and how my father was such a failure: so out of touch, such a clown, so unfocused, such an accumulator of books he never read nor turned into an education.  At the time of these graduation photos he was all promise and virtue.

Oregon State College.  Thesis:  "The Price of Potatoes"

Closed skull brain trauma is only recently beginning to be understood.  A brain can’t be studied easily.  You have to cut a trap door and even then it just looks like a bowl of jelly.  In 1948 if you were in an auto accident and your skull was cracked, so long as there was no bleeding or swelling associated at the time, you were thought to be all right.  He wasn’t.  But you couldn’t tell.  Maybe my mother realized how much his personality had changed, but his job was on the road all week.  Not until the Fifties was he obviously short-tempered and grossly obese.  The wholesale co-op where he'd worked for decades didn’t find a reason to fire him until the Sixties,  a few years before he died of a massive stroke.  It’s a family vulnerability: his brothers also died of strokes.  It wasn’t just a matter of care or trauma: the youngest brother was a TWA pilot, carefully monitored.

But that’s too simple.  My mother had an "inner command" to save her own father or at least compensate for him but ended up quarreling with him.  He also was on the road as a contractor when she was growing up and he was hot-tempered.  I don’t know whether he ever had a head injury -- I think that was just his real temperament: Protestant Irish.  

Back to my father.  His grandfather, Archibald, had been a contractor and was so prone to rage that when in old age he came to stay with my grandfather Sam's family, Sam asked him to move on.  He died alone in a boarding house in Minneapolis.  It was Archibald who had moved the family from Scotland to Dakota homestead lands from which the BrulĂ© Sioux had just been displaced. By immigration Sam had finished his education.  I do not know what Scots degrees he earned.  I didn’t know any of this until I set out to do research.  I have inherited the hot temper of both sides, but no blow to the forehead has broken the constraints on it.

Northwestern University, BS in Speech (really) 1961

No one in my family ever wrote a book and I never exactly intended to write a book -- I just wanted to write.  And I do.  But where does that need come from?  Worse than that, where did books go?  I mean, books are now just lovely artifacts, like the fountain pens my family valued highly.  We got more use out of the pens than we did out of the books.  At the Sam Strachans' height of prosperity, in Brandon, Manitoba, they bought the writer Martha Ostenso’s lovely big house.  She made her reputation with a book called “Wild Geese”  (1925) about a tyrant father whose dominance was finally broken by a boarding school teacher.  Also a movie called “After the Harvest” (2001) in which Sam Shepard plays the tyrant.  I'm the only one to read her books, but my cousin went to visit the house.

It was my high school teachers who wanted me to write.  They were mostly spinsters (because the men were killed by WWI), bourgeois, accepting Edwardian values because that was the age they were born into, unsophisticated, settling for a decent income and community respect but secretly worshipping “genius”.  None of their other students, so far as I know, ever wrote a published book, which in those days meant a sort of diluted Brit approval from tweedy gents.  They really didn’t know much about writing, nor did they have very good backgrounds in the humanities.   Still, in our sophomore year we read modern poetry, my epiphany about metaphor.

My dramatics teacher steered me to Northwestern University, the theatre department.  It was not about writing, but about oneself as an instrument and what I might call the architecture of narrative.  (“Writers as Architects” by MATTEO PERICOLI )  Quite a bit more complex than narrative, since so much theatre is the interaction of the characters and their times or location. 

Mercilessly, I used the Unitarian denomination as access to a "real" education at the University of Chicago, famous for its brawny intellectualism.  I went in through a seminary mousehole and found myself in a lofty Gothic labyrinth where I learned to fly to the rafters, so now I am a bat.  Or just batty.  Capable of echolocation.  The hidden observer.  Oh, I paid my denominational dues, serving at the edges where no one else would.  I like the edges.  I like people at the edges.  I try not to attract attention, but I DO have a lot of books.  The difference is that they are working books: not status symbols but tools.  Rafters.  Where I roost to write.

Now read the Springsteen lyrics again.  Don’t look at the metaphors.  Look through them.  That’s what Cinematheque Film is about.  Me, too.

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