Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Operation and the Quest for Truth: the Beginning

The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.

~Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways, 1965

I have been a seeker all my life; seeking God, the truth, understanding of myself, others, and answers to almost anything else. Once I had heard the 1970's adage : “Question Everything” it settled into my soul and remained there.

That was a little later though; it hardly seemed like I had any thoughts of my own until late adolescence -- aside from fears, fantasies, and daydreams. For the most part I did what I was told and what was expected of me. I think, now, that I was somewhat depressed even then. As a teenager I always had a sense, in the back of my mind, that I was going to die young. Thus, when it was finally determined that I needed major surgery, my shadowy thoughts were more or less validated. I had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. Left untreated the deformity would eventually become worse, to the point where the rib cage would be compressed and breathing difficult, perhaps one day impossible.

For several years I knew something was wrong with me, but when I tried to tell my mother she dismissed the notion. One day she finally noticed I was crooked and I began going to doctors. My mother: this was the same woman who would get angry with me for losing so many pairs of glasses - which I had to wear from second grade onward (once I saved up lunch money for months to get a new pair, so she wouldn’t know I had my lost my glasses yet again). I had been reluctant to cause my parents any more problems but once the operation was scheduled Mom was there, every day.

I was in the hospital for almost a month, and in a body cast for nine months - the cast was changed every three months – so that the fusion of my spine could heal. I took this all in stride; I suppose I was glad for the attention, because my mother was always around and my father was the one who drove me to the doctor’s visits. My grandmother called me a “little trooper”. I don’t recall feeling much in the way of physical pain or discomfort, with the exception of an allergy to the bandages.

It may seem odd but I look back on what could have been one of the most difficult times of my life with fondness. Because of my situation I was noticed at home and received some sympathy, although once the next school year started (my junior year) I walked a lot and did almost everything I used to do.

Back to ‘normal’ life after the cast was removed: I had a curvy figure, a new haircut and new clothes and I began to have some experiences with boys. I continued my involvement as a member of the crew for theatre: helping build the sets, running the spotlight and anything I could get involved in (except being on stage).

When did I begin to question everything? I think a few things did enter my mind after the operation but it wasn't until after high school and the beginning of a love/hate relationship with alcohol and drugs that my search for truth really began. I have written elsewhere about this and how I became involved with juvenile delinquents the first time around. My rebellion against authority began in earnest when I tried to think for myself. It was adventurous but not very pretty.

Everyone's life is a fairy tale written by the fingers of God

- Hans Christian Andersen

When I was a child, I had light blonde hair, and my mother called me her “blond princess”. I never felt like a princess though, I had freckles and prominent front teeth for which there was always the threat of braces, and I was the middle sister of three girls –Still, as young girls do, especially those like me who loved to disappear into books, I dreamt of being Rapunzel or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty one day. I believed in happy endings with no clue of the beginning or the journey ahead.

So when I graduated high school with no real direction in my life I began to drink, use, drugs, and to think about why I always followed the rules or did whatever people told me to do. I began my wild drunken exploring, acid, discovery, questioning years. I also began years of going to dentists, having teeth pulled, root canals, crowns and bridges installed - this has continued until this day. You could build a city with all the effort and money spent on my smile.

The freckles have faded, blond hair has long darkened – now with silver strands, the eyesight has worsened, and the back problems have also. As I wrote about myself not long ago: “There was no prince charming, and she was no longer the blond princess. Her hair had turned to brown, and princesses don’t have crooked spines, root canals, or wear glasses.”

And yet God, or whatever greater power that exists in the universe, is not, I believe, entirely random. This power has indeed created some tales for me to tell. I have to supply the words, and some interpretation.

Will there be a happy ending? Each episode, so far, has had something resembling happy, or at least "OK". I have survived, even thrived. Really, to me it’s been more like a soap opera than a fairy tale. And as such I continue to question the answers I have found – and they always lead to more questions.

Friday, August 8, 2008


God gave us memory that we might have roses in December

Recently, I was made aware of this quotation for the second time in my life. By the same person. I had forgotten it. I have forgotten many things from my youth; often what I do recall are the small details and nuances of my life…

………. The orange-brown carpet in our house, worn and dirty in certain areas; the chill of the basement floor, the cool sensation of grass under bare feet, the smell of clover, making clover chains, watching ants in the ground march into their tiny craters of dirt. Living in a young suburb, there was nature abundant, including a dirt road that led to adventures of the imagination. There were wild roses in the summer, violets covering the wooded floor; in the tall fields were black eyed Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace, tiger lilies…

………I remember playing by myself with little dolls, blocks, cars, and creating stories in my mind. I recall crossing the soybean field – one row at a time - as a shortcut to school; breaking in the window downstairs if we forgot our keys, while Mom was still at work. I remember the smell of mothballs at grandma’s house, and the long staircases; the colors and taste of homemade Christmas cookies, scent of pine from the tree; the crisp air of the first cold snap and bright stars in the vast December night sky.

These are elements of my childhood, imprinted in my being. There are other elements, other memories, but most of my interactions with people are blurred -- this in spite of my two sisters, little brother, and family vacations full of new experiences and sensations. Of those trips, the event I recall the most vividly is a walk in a pine forest, the feeling of warm sunshine filtering through, the soft blanket of brown needles underfoot, and a light summer breeze. I had the sense that I was by myself but most definitely not alone – it was pure magic. To this day, I cannot smell pine without feeling a slight twinge of recall, that, coincidentally or not, is the same as the scent of a Christmas tree.

December is the nighttime of the year, the closing down, hibernation if you will, of much of nature. For me, it is a time for remembering and a time to prepare for and celebrate both old experiences -- and new beginnings.

While the childhood memories, like roses in summer, seem bright and colorful, not all my memories are pleasant; many are quite the opposite. Roses have thorns, as it has been pointed out often. I am not going to get into the philosophical reasons why something that represents love can also cause pain. Better minds than mine have tackled these subjects; I have my beliefs and some of them may come out in the course of telling my stories. For that is what I feel compelled to do. Many are quite thorny and have been painful to live through. I am also very aware that others have more dramatic stories; more tragic, painful, and more transcendent.

Yet I can only write what I know. And I know that there are valuable conclusions I have drawn, so far, from these painful episodes. A great deal of what I’ve learned, especially in more recent years, comes from experiences with other people and I will be telling some of their tales as well, where our narratives intersect.

One could argue that it is not good to dwell in the past. I would argue that our stories are all we have, the only valuable thing - certainly the most human thing – that we have to share. I do not wish to dwell in the past but I hope some of my memories may be of use to someone, maybe even inspire others to tell their stories.

I also hope to regain some more lost memories; connecting with my high school friend brought back events and qualities about me that I had no recall of. It has helped to bring that picture of myself and my youth a little more in focus. I think during that time of my life, adolesence, when I began to experience a new kind of freedom, I knew those experiences would never come again and they should be treasured. It is therefore ironic that I should forget the quote I liked so much (so much so that I gave my friend a bouquet of roses, she said) and other events during that time. What is even more peculiar is the source of that saying – J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan", subject of one of my favorite movies: “Finding Neverland”.

The story of a boy who did not want to grow up! While I cannot say I relate to that sentiment any longer, there was a time when I did not want to be a grown up, no, not at all. I knew it was a frightening world. I would have preferred to stay in that child’s world of little toys and big dreams, fantasy, color, sounds, sights, and smells; the comfort and safety of the small things, the magic in nature and in stories. Yes, I do believe a part of me is still in Neverland.

Thanks to Google, I know I’m not the first to use the Peter Pan metaphor, and certainly won’t be the last. Yet there’s a reason a good tale resonates with so many, for so long. It speaks to a truth. I hope my stories do also, and that the roses will balance out the thorns.