This time of the year typically involves reflecting on the past. Part of it stems, of course, from facing a New Year and looking ahead, as well as the news from distant friends in their Christmas and Chanukah cards. Part of it also arises as we hunker down in the long nights around the solstice. It’s more than just looking back over the previous 12 months to get a sense of what we what or need to do next. Sometimes, it reaches back much farther. Or what we’ve lost.
Back on November 4, I blogged on “Returning to high school and its misery” and so much emotional baggage I thought I’d left behind 57 years ago. That post was the first time I could honestly admit that the period was essentially miserable for me – until now, I had maintained walls of denial. My elder daughter, hearing of this, was incredulous. Seems everybody her age and younger knows those years are supposed to be miserable. Eradicate any indoctrination of they’re being “the best years of your life,” unless you’ve truly been stunted.
As that post related, a recently renewed connection has led to some much deeper conversation and awareness than we ever had back then. In addition, it’s opened paths to others and glimpses into how their lives have unfolded over the decades.
Some manifest the life I’d expected to follow – should I say fulfill? – after graduation from college and returning to my hometown. Instead, my career took me in a much different and likely rockier direction. One path would have deepened friendships over the years. The other kept leaving new friendships behind in the sunset, rarely by conscious decision but rather by the practical demands of resettling in a new location.
I’ve been counseled that emotions are real and don’t die or just go away. When they’re buried, they operate out of sight, insidiously, sometimes undermining what’s happening on the surface. As I discussed some of what I’ve been experiencing in revisiting the past, my wife observed that it sounded like these are happening now, rather than back-then. She had never heard my desire to return to my hometown, almost as a mission, but rather insisted that I could wait to break loose and run away. Acknowledging that the doors to any return had closed behind me was difficult, but that’s what’s occurring as the feelings come to full light. This time, there’s no denial of being hurt or feeling reject, no suppression of the sense of failure or hurt or that as they open, however belatedly, even slow me at the moment. What’s important is just sitting with them and being honest as another step in psychological health and wisdom. There’s energy in them, once I claim them. Let me say it’s something like having bass and alto harmonies running in music. Or solving a cold-case murder or heist and seeking justice.
One photo I chanced across cut hard. The caption named someone who looked nothing like she did back then, and it hinted at difficulties. I followed it to another, of the beauty I remembered in her youth. Quite simply, I’d had a big crush on her, though she was older and, in many ways, out of my league but sometimes in a big sister sort of way. Still, the last time we had been together ended badly, or maybe off-key, from my side, at least. At the minimum, I should have phoned her afterward, no matter if it was a very difficult summer for me.
What I’m discovering now is that our lives wound up in surprisingly parallel directions, though I’m also acknowledging that no one could have accompanied me on all of the relocations I’ve made, many of them shaped by closed doors as well as openings, most of them through my years in lower-level newspaper management. What I keep finding is that the deeper thread of that zig-zag journey, with addresses in nine states, has been spiritual growth. Yes, there I was, trying to move up in a shrinking business field. Ultimately, by stepping down and earning a union card, I made it to retirement.
For now, I’m hoping she replies to my overtures, but there’s no telling whether she’s even looking at her email or Facebook these days, much less responding. There are so many questions I want to ask and details and perspectives I want to hear. And parts I want to apologize for, as well as others I wish to celebrate.
My previous post included memes from the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, an outrageously funny FB page that also blew open some of the cover I’ve been working through.
Here are a few more.
I love mountains and have, after all, lived close to the Cascade Range in Washington state and the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as in the Poconos in Pennsylvania and the Allegany foothills of Upstate New York. Much of Downeast Maine even fits the terrain. What makes this one so funny is that the three Bell-Ettes have ventured so far from the generally flat landscape of our high school, which sat very close to the highest point in the city. Nothing like this, though. So much for the first inside joke. Add to that the directions for pizza and chocolate candy. Clifton Gorge had been a largely unknown canyon with the Little Miami River running over a waterfall that was out of reach and nearly out of sight. Now it’s better known as part of a public park, and what had been a big cliff for me is now dwarfed by the bluffs along the Atlantic around here. As for being headed in the right direction? Mine was always away.
One streak of the Disillusioned Bell-Ette postings had them going abroad in search of Enlightenment. That is, far from our high school and hometown. And here I thought I’d been the only Bison to wind up in an ashram? Not all of their encounters had them meeting gurus or holy men.
With its broad streets, Kyoto could have been the downtown of our modernized home city, except for the lettering and the mountain at the end of the street. And we never would have imagined sushi. Some of us have come far over the years.
Underground public transit was another of those things that were far from us. Cincinnati, the metropolis to our south, almost had a subway, and that’s a fascinating story all its own. But considering the extent to which I fell in love with subways (yes, love does seem a strange word in this context) and even wrote a novel about the wonders, real and imagined, I was delighted to see the Bell-Ettes following up in, err, my tracks.
More to the point, I’m more fully realizing the downsides and hidden costs of what’s been an incredible life, even with its many near misses when it came to making the big time. Or maybe because I hadn’t been sucked upward in those opportunities.
I thought I’d left all this behind me.
After high school commencement, most of my buddies headed off to campuses elsewhere, while I was stuck living at home and attending a local commuter school while working part-time. I didn’t even have a car of my own, unlike the assumption of so many kids these days. Well, after I graduated there was a hot round of romance with someone a year behind me, but then she, too, headed off before I finally made my own escape. I’ve always missed her, though my biggest regret was in not responding to her desire for me earlier. Yes, too late, as it turns out. Always turns out?
Eventually, my zig-zag career across the continent put all of that far behind me. So I thought.
Even so, I did ponder attending the 50th anniversary reunion, maybe just to brag, but complications came up. It would have involved a long drive or costly flight, and then a bunch of embarrassing pictures with old people who were nothing like me. As well as a high probability of a fatal heart attack, as I learned later. End of the book, right?
Except that in the past year I heard from someone I’d emailed a dozen or more years ago but never heard back. Maybe a good thing, considering how gushy it likely was.
And now? It’s opened an emotional can of worms, as well as some conversations we should have had then but didn’t. Or should I say couldn’t? We were so uptight. Period.
Ours was a largely middle- and working-class, all-white, high school, and in retrospect I’ve realized how whitewashed our indoctrination was. In my innocence or ignorance, I had no sense of how many pregnancies happened, even in our college-prep circles, just for starters. Not that I had any clue how to interact with a girl or any life in the other levels of our classmates, even in our homeroom, which was never exactly homey.
The new communications have sent me back to the yearbooks, where I see half of our classmates already probably never had a chance. Let’s be honest, breeding starts to show, or maybe the dull look in front of the camera, in contrast to the good-lookin’ ones, who also have all kinds of activities behind their names. I suspect I was walking a fine line between the two camps, not really belonging to either. As for the in-crowd, we never would have gone into the secrets of their home lives, although all of that becomes more suspect today.
Naturally, you know who I avoided or maybe never, ever, really saw or considered. It was a fine line we never explored. Besides, I was being told I belonged in the big city, far from where I was growing up. Now I see that as another way of saying I didn’t fit in, not fully. Still, I tried. Oh, my, did I.
That seemingly out-of-the-blue phone call and then emails led to Facebook, a platform I usually avoid, though this time with a raft of new contacts. A blast from the past, as we would have said back then.
So this is where they are now? But where are how many others? WTF have we done with our lives? All of that, and more.
The biggest kick in the gut came from an FB public figure page called the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, outrageously funny and caustically humorous. It quickly spun me into a depression.
You have to understand that the Bell-Ettes were our high school’s elite girls, a marching corps perhaps modeled on the Rockettes in Manhattan and sexier in general than our wholesome cheerleaders, not that I would have discounted any of them. For full disclosure, I even took one to the prom.
The anonymous Disillusioned Bell-Ette displays a prodigious talent in montaging images of the corps’ members and our school mascot, a bison – here I had been wondering if it even had a nickname, though she insists it was Bucky, uh-huh. Not so sure on this end, which makes it even funnier. Especially when she has a special, uh, affinity for him. I’m impressed by the sheer labor in putting these together, as if anyone’s actually watching. Or is she venting?
Beyond that, there’s the candor of being disillusioned after being at the top of the social pyramid, the destructively adolescent structure.
More to the point, what about the innuendoes regarding a faculty member’s sexual proclivities?
And I had already been wondering about that. Coincidence?
And I had also already been wondering about one Bell-Ette, two years older than me and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper as well as a member of our church, who was engaged to be married after she graduated. Was she the disillusioned but very talented host of the site? For now, I’m inclined to say not. But don’t rule it out altogether.
Missing is the wonder of how we ever came to have a buffalo as a mascot in the first place or how our drill marching team came to be widely known as cowgirls. We were in an industrial city so far from the Wild West. How weird!
All of this had me recalling some dreams – literally, visions in the night – where upon awakening I imagined how I would have redone the Hilltopper, the school newspaper, to include everyone. I would have condensed the club stuff to an Eye or Ear on the Hill column, with snarky comments. And then had a focus for each edition: Food, Transportation, Personal Style, Jobs/Working, Free Time, Survival (advice to the underlings and to the future), Favorite Teachers (a sly way of suggesting who to avoid, if you could), Engaging the Arts & Entertainment, Electives, Dating & Relationships, Personal Style, Living with Siblings, Prepping for Summer, Graduation and Moving Up. That sort of thing, inviting entries for the next issue, too, open to all. The focus would have been on the whole possibility of having fun rather than trying to meet the standards imposed from elsewhere, including in the paper’s case, a remote scholastic press association and its judges, who misplaced our entries for a whole year, anyway, thus failing to give us any useful guidance or feedback along the way. So much for my failings as ed-in-chief, not that I would have had any backing in attempting such a revolution.
Oh, well, a few more missed opportunities in my life. And a few more letdowns from those who were supposed to support us.
Dwelling in a rundown, low-income part of town or the countryside is a common theme in much of my writing. Call it funky, if you will, but it’s there – like I recall.
Assuming you’ve had a similar experience, where did you do your laundry?
Mommy! I’ll be quiet!
no straight lines, only the spiral endlessly reconfiguring
“may your hands be filled with blessings”
“may you be a blessing”
I was like one of their books, read once and then put on a shelf.
In one poem, which I’ve crunched here from my own journal entry, he replies: “You ask me how to pray to someone who is not. All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge and walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard, above landscapes the color of ripe gold transformed by a magic stopping of the sun. That bridge leads to the shore of reversal where everything is just the opposite and the word is unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned. Notice: I say we there, everyone, separately, feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh and knows that if there were no other shore they will walk that aerial bridge all the same.”
Elsewhere he wrote: “’I could not have had a better life than the one I had,’ she writes to me in February 1983 from Warsaw, Irena who has lived through the occupation of her country by two enemy armies, had to live in hiding trailed by the Gestapo, then adapt herself to Communist rule, witness the terror and the workers’ responses in 1956, 1970, 1976, 1980, and the martial law proclaimed in December 1981.”
I’m not sure I agree fully with his theology, but I completely appreciate the richness of his grappling with 20th century unbelief and its practice with his discovery that there is, indeed, something larger than what we admit – something few other artists in our time have been able to pull off convincingly enough to be considered sound artistically. (Milosz won the Nobel Prize, 1980.)
He also wrote: “To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”
And, he quoted from Renee le Senne: “For me the principal proof of the existence of God is the joy I experience any time I think that God is.”
Again, Milosz: “To wait for faith in order to pray is to put the cart before the horse. Our way leads from the physical to the spiritual.” And himself: “My friend Father J.S. did not believe in God. But he believed God, the revelation of God, and he always stressed the difference.”
I’ve been accused of being unable to understand because I’m a man. It was tempting to respond that she couldn’t understand my need to have a God the Father to relate to as a man who needs a role model and a complete positive (for the most part) male authority figure, and she couldn’t understand because she’s a woman. We are in a bind. But that cheap shot would have accomplished nothing. I still say that Biblical language is not exclusive, if rendered correctly.
The irony here arose in the case of a woman who was being criticized by a man for using Biblical language. Who should know more whether she felt excluded by its masculine nouns? As she said, it’s his problem.
Oh, my, this was all before some of my most important fictional characters were women.