I remember the point in my childhood when I was just moving from adrenarche (9 to13 or so) into adolescence. It was the point when one has graduated to what are now called “chapter books” and at school we began to pass between classrooms because the teachers were specialists in single subjects —arithmetic, “language arts”, and what was then called “social studies”. In those days we took art and music, as well as “gym.” I failed to learn to somersault and loathed sports. While my mother was ironing — which meant she stayed in one place — I sat at the dining table and quizzed her about our categories.
What political party were we? She said Republican but it certainly didn’t mean what it means now. We were Eisenhower Republicans who were dismayed when an Eisenhower son married a Nixon daughter. What “class” were we? She said “middle class,” because we had a lot of books and my father had a master’s degree. (His thesis was predicting the price of potatoes.) Were Presbyterians the same as Christians? (I had a Catholic best friend.) OF COURSE. What was our annual income?
At that point she became angry and made me go outside to “play,” whatever that was. I never understood the verb unless it had an object. One could play “guns” or “tag” or “paperdolls” or ride a bike, which was not play.
At about that time my teachers began to look at me speculatively. By high school they began to have opinions. Too atypical for conventional success — maybe a writer. Forget marriage. How good a college? (I was careful not to be a straight A student.) I was careful to be in the top group, but at its bottom which was relatively safe. My choices seemed to be Portland State (then a college specializing in Korean War veterans using their GI Bills) or Reed (so liberal it verged on being whacko but local so I could live at home.)
At about that point money started to matter. Not to me, but to my mother. In those days women and children helped to bring in the local harvests of berries and beans, so we did. Other than that, there was baby-sitting. I was the worst baby-sitter on the planet. It still gives me the shudders. Going into strange homes, being expected to do housekeeping chores I didn’t know how to do (scrubbing cast iron frying pans with handsful of salt), and expecting kids to behave which they never did.
The world is a mystery. The great thing about my college education was that it was theatre: person-by-person (characters) traveling a structured path (plots). Also, I began to study religion and realized it was all negotiable. By this point I could avoid anything athletic (I was supposed to learn to swim but sank like a stone) and was prevented from taking physics by lack of math, given to understand that I probably shouldn’t take biology. (Looking back, I probably should have.)
The next ten years were in Browning, Montana, where the tribal people laughed a lot (esp. at whites) and the whites were snobs. But I was seized by my own biology while riding horses, chasing buffalo, hunting high on the shoulders of the Rockies, casting bronze, and taking writing much more seriously. I had a total retread. Much of it was based on youth, so when I got to thirty I couldn’t “hack it” anymore and didn’t much want to.
At some point in that decade I abandoned the project of protecting my life. I accepted the possibility of death and decided — consciously — that I would no longer be bullied by the threat. I skipped over the prospect of suffering and expected that death would be sudden, simply obliteration. I did not believe in an afterlife or reincarnation or any other folderol of the sort. Nevertheless, I enjoyed church and Bundle Opening ceremonies.
My recklessness made me a good animal control deputy sheriff. I went into drug houses, kinky transvestite colonies, motorcycle clubs, and individual households where it was hard to tell the animals from the children. The ones I dreaded were the college professors and the spoiled women. Studying about dogs — their categories, dynamics, and usefulness — I couldn’t help applying the same distinctions to the humans: fear-biters, devoted companions, one-bitch puppy factories. The idea of categories was never discredited, but it was elaborated until the boundaries became situational, shifty.
Then seminary. Some of us were honorable, a force for good, and some were childish, conventional, but had long unchallenged ministries. The transparency of ministry — revealing depths of people who had any — was accompanied by the transparency of books that claimed to be what they were not. By now, whole disciplines seem to have been based on nothing but the power of some classes of people to define them as important and to demand that they be paid to elaborate on philosophies of speculation that weren’t even supported by math.
Now I’m within barking distance of death and complaining distance of “small-s” suffering. I eschew the ceremonies of the wheel of the year that my present community loves. My mind is always reaching for what is still just out of reach, the inchoate forming concepts like the gases of the cosmos that condense into stars. Emotion is quiet in the daytime when mostly the skinny feral cats rush back and forth through my amusement and irritation. At night it is an ocean. When science told about a huge body of deepest water under the north Atlantic that never surged nor mixed but was always just there, I recognized it. I don’t enter it.
Few of my clothes need ironing and I don’t iron the ones that do. Fleece melts under a hot iron. Sweats have no creases that need to be sharpened. At 2AM the most daring cat, who orienteers while I sleep, jumped on the metal ironing board and rode it screeching and clattering down to the floor. I took the sudden awakening and the shot of adrenaline as an opportunity to write, but when I woke up in daylight, little of the writing made any sense. This isn’t it.