Me, Mom, and Warren Beatty
I instantly stopped what I was doing, looked up at the ceiling and said, "Mom, if you're up there watching me don't pay no never mind to this shit, just know that I'm a little bit freaking nuts." I paused for a moment looked down at the floor and added, "You knew me better than almost anybody else and all you ever saw was, well, what you wanted to see.. . . Yeah, I'm nuts. But as you probably figured out, most the rest of us down here are too."
I don't even try to pretend that I don't talk to myself a lot. I live by myself and spend most of my life alone. Usually, when I do talk to myself though, it's because I'm cursing at myself for doing something really stupid like walking downstairs and opening the front door to get a cup of coffee when I know for a damn fact that the kitchen where the coffee pot sits was just a few steps to the right of where I started, and no stairs involved. It's either something like that, or else when the universe doing something really sketchy or amazing and I want to take the time to acknowledge it and to make sure I remember. Let me give you an example. I'll be watching a movie and hear a line, like the line Warren Beaty's character in the offbeat western McCabe and Mrs. Miller utters to himself as he leaves his confrontation with the three cold blooded killers who have come to kill him. Muttering, he briefly digresses from the conversation he's having with himself to justify his actions and starts talking to the absent Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the prostitute he loves, about how hard he has tried to let her how he feels about her, and he says, "Just one time you could be sweet without no money around?" He is face to face with the prospect of his impending death, and all he can think about is his failure to tell the woman how he truly feels. The deadly situation has made him aware what he's missed the most in his life is true love.
When I run across stuff like that I get so moved sometimes that I feel like crying, and sometimes I do. Usually, I'll just blurt something out like, "Damn it, Robert Altman. That was so pretty. That was so freaking nice." I'll sit there for a second and think of the scene as if it was an arrow aimed directly at my heart from somewhere deep in the universe. Then I'll recall the memory of when I failed my wife when she wanted to hear me say those words and I all I could say to her was, "Don't you know when I run down those stairs and greet you outside before you even get out of the car, don't you know what that means?" Unable to bear that memory for long, I'll quickly change the channel and put on something like Ninety Day Fiancé but only for as long as it takes for me to forget the still quivering arrow sticking out of my heart.
Now that mom's dead, I bet you that I'll probably start saying something like, "Did you catch that one, Mom. That was fuc...I mean that was pretty dang beautiful don't ya think?"
This morning, I was dancing around in the kitchen in my underwear, waving my arms around like a stoned hippy listening to a Grateful Dead jam. I just gotten a chipped coffee cup out of the cupboard and filled it with hazelnut coffee when the Holy Spirit reached out and grabbed hold of me and I started moving like a monkey on crack, waving the cup in my right hand above my head. When Jerry Garcia really started gettin it, I started gettin it too. My eyes were closed tight and for a moment I was back in time in front of the stage of the Mountain Air concert in Angel's Camp a few days before I started my teaching career. Suddenly, I lost my balance and bumped up against the counter and dropped the cup shattering it and spilling its contents on the floor. My first reaction was to look around to see who was watching. I looked and it caused me to laugh and reminded me that my mom was dead. I decided to give her a head's up on how things were here down below.
When I was a lot younger, there was this spot in our neighbor Mr. Miranda's yard, a shady little clearing between some trees. There was also a pasture to the north of the clearing bordered on the east by a small canal; not one of those dirt packed ditches that surround Corcoran but a small grass covered stream like something out of a story where a girl who looked like Shirley Temple could sit in the sun on the bank, talking to her lamb, and tossing flower petals into the clear flowing water. My friends and I used to gather there in that clearing and talk, play and argue.
"Who made you boss, Danny? Why can't we just play army like regular kids?"
"Who said I was boss? I just thought it would be fun to play three hundred Spartans?"
"There's only six of us dumbass! How we gonna do that if we can't even have the Spartans. How we gonna do that?"
"Imagination, George. It's a little thing called imagination. We could pretend there's six hundred of us. Marvin's house over there could be where the Persians are gathering their forces, and then they'll start coming at us through the drive way over there and we're here defending the pass and keeping all them from getting into Greece proper." I pointed at the neighborhood on the other side of Mr. Miranda's pasture fence.
George and the others looked and tried to make the connection between the run down houses on the other side of the street to the glory of ancient Athens.
"Nah, I'm going home watch cartoons. You coming Dean?"
People can say whatever they want, but they can't say that I lacked imagination. It was what got me through the rough patches, I could always imagine something else. I had the intuition even back then there was always something more to the story. How could there not be; we exist in an infinity, and that has to mean that there has to be an infinite amount of perspectives on everything. The worst thing I can imagine is to be trapped in life with only one way of looking at things.
Like my mom.
Don't get me wrong. I love the woman and will always revere her memory and cherish the fact that she was my mother. I am referencing though the fact that the trauma of her youthful experiences gave her one script to read, one narrative, and one outlook. I'm not saying it was a bad script, but it only had one ending and you could see it coming from the opening chapter. Her father dying in the middle of World War II when she was only ten years old was the dominant factor in how her life played out. Back then there were no therapists around to tell her how to deal with the overwhelming grief she must have felt. So she carried around inside of her for the rest of her days and passed it down to her boys without even knowing that she did.
She loved reading stories about the survivors of the Holocaust. Her favorite writer was the British novelist Catherine Cookson who wrote stories about young women placed in untenable situations who overcame obstacles with sheer determination and the simple act of moving forward one footstep at a time. Mom was an empath of the highest order and deeply felt compassion for all those who suffered. She sent money most of her life to orphanages and needy seniors. She would have made a great teacher but settled for teaching Sunday school, and it was the job she loved the most.
That settling for less was the hallmark of both of my parents. My Dad was her perfect mate because he too had suffered severe early trauma. They both could have made so much more out of their lives but preferred security above risk. Because of them, I learned to understand the hidden effects of trauma and its influence in shaping life long after the events that caused it. It helped me to understand my parents and appreciate the struggles of my students, friends and neighbors in ways I would never have discovered on my own. It also helped me to develop a greater understanding of my own foolish behavior.
Mom would ask my brother Steve and I almost daily, in reference to some celebrity or politician's infamous behavior, "Don't they believe in God," or "Don't they know that someday they'll have to stand before God?" And nightly her troubled sleep would always erase the memory of the conversation we'd had on that very subject the day before and she would ask the same question again the following day.
Sometimes tired, I would just shrug my shoulders and answer, "No, Mom. They don't." She would always look at me incredulously as if to ask how could anyone not believe in God. I would just shrug again.
There's another great line in McCabe and Mrs. Miller delivered by Warren Beatty, "If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its ass so much." It's not near as ascetically pleasing as the other quote, but it captures the essence of the character John McCabe who desperately wants to accomplish something with his life in order to elevate his stature and prospects and especially look good in the eyes of Mrs. Miller, but everything he achieves or builds is tainted by its proximity to the horseshit and the mud of life in the West in the late nineteenth century. One cynical critic opined that McCabe's lover even preferred the opium pipe to his romantic advances. I don't think that was true. Rather, I think the real problem was that he could never outright tell her that he loved her. Constance Miller's heart was encased in a very large glacier and only those words delivered simply and with passion might have had a chance to begin the thaw.
I don't know why people don't believe in God, and I've thought about it a lot. It greatly puzzles me why anyone would want to believe that our life on this earthly plane has no meaning. I also think that the simple understanding that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye would put some wings on the frog and actually allow us to not bump our ass so much.
That's gotta be worth something, right Ma?