I think it’s a toss-up between God and my mother. I missed the breasts which never fed me. Lately, I’ve dreamt of my mother every night, but my conscious mind buries the dreams before morning. My ego is of my mother’s making. I bear the residue of the Oedipus complex. It colors my relationships with other women. I hate my mother and I love her.
God is similar. I spew heresies, yet I thank God for my creativity. I hate God for the suffering which is a part of It. I discredit arguments for Original Sin, putting us at fault. I almost lost my mind trying to understand God. I gave up. I’m a human and I’m physical, I decided.
Now, if only I could accept my mother.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Over dinner recently a friend commented on what a powerful defense mechanism a belief in life-after-death is.
She had a silky complexion, dark eyes, and a transparent spirit. Her father’s death always overshadowed her presence for me, like a third party hovering just out of her sight, chained to her history, bound by her determination to swallow this “grown-up” pill, to “face death” bravely, with no childlike faith in a future, for dead people. She declared him dead dead dead and her imagination’s abilities to detect essence, formless essence, conscious feeling-thinking-aware essence turned in on itself, caught in her decree, and festered around the thorn.
It was wrong to touch her with words, to volunteer my certainties, most charismatic stories, my personal power with every proof paraded for the cynic, my destiny to preach fumbling for a convert now. When I push, I feel like a fake. So I sat there feeling a little like a Pole hearing a Polish joke but unwilling to embarrass the bigot with a revelation of my true identity.
I thought about imagination — the “I”, the “mage” — the imagination that leads my life as I live in many bodies, only one of them flesh and blood, the others coming and going with an unconscious spontaneity, explorer scouts riding fast and furiously across the desert called death, like one of many landscapes which do not call for form.
The vast universe which creates my context, my emotions, my peace, my power, the “I” and the “mage,” does not occupy the small space inside my skull.
Only when I open to this vastness do I feel ready to die.
She was wonderfully round and soft — always in silky spotted dresses, always with her arms open to me, always gentle. My Grandmom, always with me, even now.
Weekday mornings she would take me to the church down the block from her rowhouse. Grandmom would bless me with holy water as we’d enter the church. We would clean up after everyone left mass, then she would let me light a candle at the foot of the Virgin’s statue. We’d sit in the front pew watching the stillness and smelling the candles.
A lot of our talk was about heaven, something we felt we had in common: I had recently come down from there and she hoped soon to be going up. She taught me about my guardian angel, a wonderful being who took care of me while hovering above my shoulder, and would love me forever and take me to heaven when it was time.
Grandmom used to powder my four-year-old bottom and push me through the park in a stroller, though we both knew I was too old for that. With a new baby in my house I needed to be babied. And Grandmom, ill and afraid, needed someone to baby. So we conspired to be happy during a time which could have been very unhappy for us both.
In the afternoon Grandmom and I would sit on the stoop and watch the big kids coming home from school. I’d watch with envy and she’d tell me that I had plenty of time to grow. For lunch she would always give me spaghetti while she would eat baby food out of a jar. I didn’t know then that baby food was the only thing her body could handle.
One Sunday my parents put my sisters and me in our best dresses and took us downtown to wave at a hospital window. A few days later they told us Grandmom was dead. She had died saying she was going to see sweet Jesus.
Since those days, through all my sadness, anger and fear, I’ve always had a place inside that felt safe and happy. That place was shown to me by my Grandmom as she ate baby food and cleaned the church while waiting to go to heaven. I think that place is my guardian angel.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I used to say that all I got from my Daddy was good wishes and some worn-out genes. But I’m aware of him giving me so much more than that. He was born in the mountains and raised on the land. You see the earth differently when you live your life mostly in direct contact with it. He had to work hard with his hands and grow to be a carpenter. Daddy learned from his life that you do what you have to do, and you decide for yourself what you have to do. He was complicated by virtue of his simplicity. Because he was surrounded by the riches and power of nature and not by the riches of man, Daddy learned to live in his head — his body always had work to do. This turned out to be one of his gifts to me. He gave me a head full of ideas and he taught me how to dream. Daddy was more awed by what he didn’t know than by what he did, so he taught me to respect the unknown. However, he also knew and taught me the most important lesson we can know: he felt he was no better than anyone else on this journey, and he also felt he was no worse.
I’ve grown from his seed and nurturing lessons, gone on to study and practice psychotherapy. His lesson of being no better nor worse than anyone else has been the source of what curative power I take into therapy. The hope I take into therapy with my clients is that they too can feel worthwhile, otherwise it gets very lonesome for them. Having a worthwhile identity permits us to distinguish between pain and suffering. During our life we inevitably have to experience pain, but we certainly don’t have to suffer. Suffering comes from a sense of weakness and failure; we don’t even feel we deserve the good things in this life if we don’t see ourselves as being worthwhile. My Daddy’s lessons have the paradoxically dual nature of being both essence and goal. They are lessons that require constant discovery. His teachings have made my therapeutic work enjoyable and much more simple. I only wish I had rediscovered them earlier in my career.
The most significant influence on my life was my reluctant decision, two years ago, to see a therapist. I knew I could use a helping hand, that I had poor role models for parents, a stress-producing line of work (real estate investment), and lived in a consumer-oriented environment. I wasn’t the man I knew I was ’spozed to be.
This woman therapist helped me get in touch with my own worth that had been negated, peel away the masks, reestablish values, relate to myself and others with respect, joy, compassion, love, honesty, and humility. I now understand so much more and forgive so much more, in myself and in others.
Most importantly, I have the tools to explore life’s ultimate meaning, the sharing of love with a significant lover. I never understood before why all my relationships with women ended so fruitlessly. I always knew I was a good guy. I learned that goodness has nothing to do with it. Our society, parents, teachers, and heroes never teach us HOW to love, and they surely don’t SHOW us. I now understand how I created all of my unhappiness by my fears and my inability to look at them.
But a therapist is not a magician. The insights I gained were a result of much painful exploration, much emptying out. I worked my ass off. But I wouldn’t have done it without her pushing me.
Research Triangle Park, N.C.
I began writing about my most important influence a few days ago. I decided it had to be just right: compelling, succinct; every word carefully thought out (you’re tough, Sy).
Two paragraphs into my piece, I put the notebook down. I knew what, or rather who, was most important. I had no idea how to say it.
A loud snap hit the front door or storm window. My husband and I jumped out of our respective trances only to hear five more snaps. Firecrackers? BB’s? Slingshots? Kids? Laughing? Cars? Quiet once more. We reported it, just in case. They found a bullet hole in our window. They left. We went back to our thoughts and books and called it a night. I was worried about our new/used Volvo with the new/used tape player in it.
I was awakened by my three-year-old daughter telling me there was a body in the yard. My husband got up and looked at me. I had said the word “Yancey” upon awakening. He was thinking unfaithfulness, perhaps. I was thinking death.
My sister came in after the three-year-old and said that there really was a body in the yard across the street. I peeked out the window and saw a steady stream of cars passing slowly and police with ropes and the neighbors walking their dog in below freezing weather. I knew why I had said Yancey’s name.
Death is inevitable. Bodies are bodies. Our souls are what we are really about. My intellect knows that, but all the ideas and rationales in God’s universe cannot erase emotional pain. You can block it out, file it, numb it, ignore it or laugh at it but it’s still there; like a splinter, it will surface eventually.
My splinter was embedded, and hurt for several days. My acquaintance, my neighbor, had been in his yard, face down, for 12 hours. That thought is what caused my pain. My eyes hurt for two days from holding back tears that I knew would cleanse, but hurt. I spent three years in psychoanalysis learning to deal with pain. I was a champion. I still could not cry.
The point? The influence? A dead man? No. The influence is not death, or life, or profound statements by enlightened folks about either. The influence is simple when you wade through all the complexity. The influence is right before our eyes but we don’t see it. The influence is all around us but we ignore it the way we ignore pain with pain killers, death with life, emotions with intellect. Death is as much a paradox as life.
My most important influence was reinforced at the funeral of my neighbor last Sunday afternoon. I entered the church with a long-time friend who was in as much pain as I. When we sat down, a large choir was singing. Then everybody stood and sang together. The presence of my influence was overwhelming. The singing was cleansing and my eyes were relieved. My emotional pain was transformed into strength and joy. Yancey’s parent’s wrote a eulogy that a youth minister read to us. His parents knew him as he was and respected him. The entire congregation respected Yancey. These people had joined together to pray and forgive the murderer. I had not felt such strength and kindness in years. My influence has always taught me to love and respect my neighbors and myself. He wasn’t talking about the people on my block and that’s all. The pain I carried around was exhausting and when I let go of that bitterness, I felt love. Love is many things to many people. Love, to me, is the cleansing of my pain and hurt. My influence gives me that ability by his death. It’s a simple concept, really. It’s an old concept. It’s so simple I ignored it most of my life. I wanted a creative, tough, profound answer. I wanted to find my truth in my VW Bus in the mountains or the plains. I wanted to find my truth in a bar, drinking 17 beers a night and having nearly as many lovers per month. I found my truth in a little frame house in 1974 on a Tuesday night. Hokey as it sounds, I was saved that night (for lack of a better term) and I haven’t felt that kind of love since that night. Until Yancey’s funeral, I had given up hope of finding that love again. (It isn’t hip to be a Christian; I’ve always had trouble relating my belief to my peers). Well, you just don’t know what’s behind that wall until you look, do ya? I found my truth in a 2,000-year-old man. Figure that one out, folks.