Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Forgiving Way

Ed remembers bits and pieces of that day. Just a toddler, he recalls playing on the floor with his mother, Jane. She had bought some cheap plastic dinosaurs for him at the dime store (or the Dollar Store in today’s language), and she looked on as he marched them around and pitched them in battles with his little hands.
It was hard for her to get down on the floor. She was pregnant with Ed’s little brother. Very pregnant. He and his mother were always talking about having a little brother, how they would play together, what to name him.
“Take your toys and play in your room.” His mother said this abruptly. Maybe he argued. He’s not sure. The next thing he remembers is playing with those dinosaurs in his room and hearing his father’s loud, angry voice.

Otto Dix's "Pregnant Woman"

Some time elapsed. His mother Jane came into the room, closed the door, and sat down with him. “It’s okay,” she said, “it’s okay.” It didn’t feel okay. There was something menacing in the air, and although that invisible menace sometimes receded, it would never vanish altogether. It always threatened to flood the air again.
Years later Ed’s older sister told him what she had seen hiding in another room. Their father had come home drunk. He had struck Jane and knocked her to the floor. While Jane was lying there, he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach.
His sister’s account of that day connected some dreadful dots for Ed. Memory being what it is, Ed had no further recollection of that day or how it fit into the days that followed. Instead, he recalls being told some time later that there would be no baby brother. He had gone to heaven.
Once Ed had heard his sister’s story, he knew that his little brother hadn’t simply gone to heaven. He had died that day or soon thereafter at the violent hands of his own father.
It took Jane almost ten years to leave her husband. She worked on forgiving her abuser for the rest of her life. Ed’s still working on it.
Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. Especially for deep, enduring injuries to our hearts and our souls, we forgive again and again over time.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Imperfect Together

Will Simpson turned us in, as I remember it. Maybe it wasn’t Will, which is why I’ve changed his name.
All the boys in Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class at Louisville Academy had engaged in an epic dirt clod battle before school. The sandy soil on the edge of school property formed itself into small, soft projectiles that burst on contact (or in your hand if you didn’t hold them gently). Well, all the boys except Will.
Will stood at a spectator’s distance, telling us to stop. We were going to get in trouble. “I’m going to tell!” he said.
School authorities had sternly warned us about the dangers of throwing dirt clods. We might lose an eye, shatter a limb, or even damage our brains. Severe punishments awaited anyone caught throwing nature’s little hand grenades.

Karol Ferenczy's "Boys Throwing Pebbles into the River"

We were undeterred. And that’s why every single boy in the Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class—with the exception of Will—found himself standing in line outside the vice principal’s door. One by one each of us entered his office and bent over to receive what I remember as three largely symbolic whacks from his paddle.
Setting aside a conversation about the appropriateness of corporal punishment in schools, I have to admit that we were caught redhanded breaking a clear rule. As harmless as our play may have been, we had no defense. Not a single one of us thought to justify our behavior.
And yet, every one of us resented Will for turning us in. Now resentment is not a good thing, and I’m not defending this emotional response anymore than I’m defending that dirt clod fight long ago. But the resentment we all felt toward Will tells us something. Before I explain what our resentment tells us, you need to know a little more about Will.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Looking for the Keys

Autism Spectrum Disorder occurs in 1 out of 67 people. As the word “spectrum” suggests, autism expresses itself across a range of severity. 
We all know quirky, socially awkward people who otherwise function well at work and at home. They may have especially sharp intellects, play a mean jazz piano, or solve intricate puzzles in a snap. 
They may offend others with their blunt observations, make seemingly irrelevant contributions to a conversation, or relate a story or give an explanation in excruciating detail without realizing that everyone else has stopped listening.
Some of these folks are on the autism spectrum.

John French Sloan's "Stein, Profile (Foreign Girl)"
They differ in degree of severity from others who might fit our preconceptions about autism. There is no rocking. No obsessive ritual behavior. Far from non-verbal, many of them will talk your ear off and will even look you in the eye.
But everyone on the autism spectrum shares this. They struggle with making connections with other people. 

It’s not that they don’t want to form bonds of affection and mutual understanding. On the contrary, those with high functioning autism often yearn to be known and loved, to have companionship and understanding. But the way their brains are wired makes it very difficult for them to read other people.
It’s as if they lack the key to unlock the code of facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, and speech volume that most of us apply automatically in reading each other. The problem is not that they don’t see these communication clues. Instead, they lack the key to break the code and arrive at the meaning.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Getting Rid of Enemies

My father was a bigot. He wasn't especially passionate or outspoken about it. In his mind, blacks were simply inferior to whites. This was for him a fact of the natural order. Dogs hate cats. Leaves change colors in the fall. Whites inhabit a higher social order than blacks befitting whites’ presumed superior intellect and character.
His condescension was genteel, so long as it was met with the expected level of deference. He never used the n-word when addressing an African American directly. That would have been rude and unnecessarily hurtful. But among fellow whites that was the habitual way to refer to blacks.

As despicable as I found all of this, I have to admit that there was no naked hatred involved in my father’s prejudice against African Americans. I can say this because I witnessed his response to the Japanese. He reserved a visceral hatred for the people of Japan until the day he died.
My father was a sailor in the Pacific theater during World War II. He served in various capacities. Frogman. Landing craft pilot. Anti-aircraft gunner. Japanese soldiers, sailors, and pilots had tried to kill him on a number occasions. But that’s not why he hated them. The Japanese had killed his friends.
He was glad we dropped the bomb on them. He could never forgive them. And he had neither an interest in forgiving them nor a sense of moral obligation to do so.
He hated them. They were his enemy. Hate is what you do with an enemy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hesitant Little Faith

I have always been comfortable in the water. My father made sure that I could swim before I could walk. He had been a sailor in the the Second World War and an Underwater Demolitionist, the precursor to what would become the Navy SEALS. Water commands my respect, but it has never scared me.
Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was about nine, I was sure that I was drowning. Water terrified me that day. Here’s how it happened.

Gustave Caillebotte's "Bather's on the Banks of the Yerres"
I was tagging along with my older half-brother Joel and his friend Butch Dollar. They are five years older than me and considered me an annoyance. 
Joel and I had a rocky relationship for lots of reasons that I did not understand back then. Our father had abandoned his first family, Joel’s family, in favor of this new family. My family. 
We were locked in a struggle for my father’s approval (which is not to say his affection). I was a pudgy kid with a speech impediment and wavering self-confidence. Joel was thin, athletic, and good-looking. And he was by far the superior swimmer.