Saturday, March 21, 2015

INTEGRITY IS A GIFT, NOT A VIRTUE

Children who grow up with serious family violence often enter adult life as persons who have very little integrity.  In my own case, by the time I reached junior high I was skilled in lying, stealing, forgery and lock-picking.  I depended on these skills for my survival, so I was very, very good at them and was only caught once.  I took a dime from my grandmother's purse.  I couldn't bear being the only kid who didn't get to stop at Pano's Drugstore on the way home from school.   My grandmother, who had supported two children, two foster children, and an alcoholic husband through the Great Depression by taking in washings, always knew to the penny how much money she had.  After realizing a dime was missing, she went down to Pano's Drugstore and asked if I had been in there and if I had bought anything.  Mr. Pano told her I had been in yesterday and enjoyed a coke and an ice cream cone.  I don't remember what punishment she meted out for that.  Corporal punishment was not considered child abuse in the 1950s.  There were trips to the woodshed, and being made to go and cut a lilac switch.  Generally, the number of blows administered were set in advance, and ranged somewhere between three and ten, according to the severity of the offense committed.  That sort of thing went on at my house, but it didn't stop at that.  There is what I once heard referred to as 'the humiliation of violence.'  That phrase always brings to mind being knocked to the floor and kicked repeatedly with my grandmother's gardening boots.  I was nothing.  Integrity was a luxury that did not exist in my world.

A child who graduates from high school with lying, stealing, forgery and lock-picking on her resume, slides quickly in the direction of drinking, drugging and promiscuity.  Magic substances blot out pain.  There is what passes for love and is, at least, touch - soft touches that have nothing to do with boots or lilacs.  There was no voice in my head saying, "You are better than this."  In my experience, I wasn't better than anything.

The down side does emerge.  Being a drunken, semi-employed slut isn't much fun in the long run, and becomes in its own right a threat to personal survival.  Personal survival is what it's all about in a violent family.  That is the priority that rules everything.  So I needed to find a way out of the morass.

My half-assed attempt to get a college diploma included taking a class in Shakespeare.  Reading Hamlet, I came across this line that Hamlet delivered to Gertrude, his shameless mother who was rolling around in the bed of her recently deceased husband's brother.  Gertrude was sort of like me.  She would do anything for a good time.  Hamlet says to Gertrude, "Assume a virtue if you have it not."
This line resounded through my entire being like the Voice of God speaking from the heavens.  

I had attended Sunday School throughout my childhood so I at least knew what virtues were. In fact, when I was in the third grade I ran across the Bible verse, "Be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect."  I set a goal to become perfect, and even held to it for awhile.  It was a survival strategy.  I thought if I was perfect she would stop beating me.  But it didn't work so it was discarded.

Now, miraculously, the idea of practicing virtues had come back to me.  I went out and bought a notebook and made a list of virtues.  I then made a list of goals.  I would never again steal anything.  I would try as hard as I could to never tell lies other than ones like, "You look wonderful with that new haircut."  I would put money into a savings account.  Even if it was a dollar a week.  I would clean my little hovel of an apartment.  I would start going to church.  I would take notice of what good and virtuous people did and imitate them. 

Over the years, I developed integrity and a new and much better self-image.  I became the type of person who doesn't lie and steal because she's better than that.  Hamlet gave very good advice.

Now, as I work with homeless people, I often hear them being judged harshly for their behavior.  "They drink.  They do drugs.  They walk down streets at night looking for unlocked cars and take change from the drink holder.  They have babies they can't afford."  And so on and so forth. 'If only they would behave decently they wouldn't be homeless".  Many good people have these opinions.  They take personal credit for their goodness.   They don't realize that on the Merry-go-Round of Life they were blessed to get the brass rings marked "Goodness,"  "Integrity,"  and "Self Respect.

Many homeless people are amazingly good, kind, and decent despite the multitude of problems and traumas they have had to survive.  Those who aren't - I really understand.  I can now thank God for giving me those years of being dishonest and drunk and crazy.  I have many faults, but being a pious, judgmental prick will never be one of them.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

PIKUS

Pikus are poems three lines long:  three syllables, one syllable, four syllables, and are written in honor of PI Day, which comes once in a hundred years.  The following Pikus were inspired by seeing a flock of crows flying above St. Patricks Catholic Church, perhaps waiting for their share of the Knights of Columbus fish fry, as well as performing their metaphysical duties, like all of God's creatures:

Old crow caws
Lent
Repent!  Repent!

Black angel
be
God now, God now.

Old crow he
knows
no night alone.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Childhood Memories of Susan

(Note:  Susan Mary Emond Leonard was my sister, four years younger than me.  She grew up in Bennington, Vermont in a foster home, and I grew up five miles away in North Bennington, in my grandmother's house.  For  most of those years we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other.)

Susan wanted a small, perky nose.  She thought wearing a clothespin on her nose and breathing through her mouth would eventually bring about that transformation.  I only know that because I saw her on a street in Bennington, one day, wearing her clothespin.  She was embarrassed, and I didn't help anything by telling her it wasn't going to work.  She was around 12 and I was 16.  Maybe I needed to seem more wise than she.  It was the first time I had seen her since she was around eight years old.  I was 12 then and had spent the evening in Bennington at a grade school science fair.  I got back to the car before the others.  It was the time of day when dusk is turning into darkness and the car was parked across the street from Susan's house, on the steep hill that was Jefferson Street.  I looked up at her house and found myself looking into a lit up second story window.  There was Barbara Dunham, her foster mother, tucking her into bed and kissing her good night.

It was strange to realize that I was seeing my sister.  All my friends lived with their brothers and sisters.  I felt blank and empty in the face of this fact:  I saw my sister at night through a window, by chance, after years of not seeing her at all.

The last time I saw Susan in a normal way, she was four and I was eight and she was visiting me and our grandmother in North Bennington.  I took her to a little street carnival that was happening in a park a few blocks from our house.  On the way home we held hands and talked about how we would live together when we were grownups and be each other's best friend.  This was the last time she would ever come to North Bennington and the last visit we would ever have, but we didn't know that.  A few days later my grandmother got a letter from Barbara Dunham.  After the visit Susan went home and told Barbara that she wanted to live with us and had a major tantrum when Barbara said that wouldn't be possible.  Barbara said that Susan would no longer be allowed to visit us and I would not be welcome in their home either.  She felt that it was better that we have no contact at all.  She had that power over our lives and she used it.

The  next Christmas rolled around and there was no visit from Susan, but we did get a glimpse of her.  My grandmother and I were in Bennington shopping and we passed by the church Susan and the Dunhams attended.  There was a sign outside advertising a children's Christmas pageant.  We slipped in the front door and stood in the back, in the shadows.  We finally made out Susan, among a flock of diminutive angels.

Susan and I did not grow up and live together.  The tides of life carried us far apart from one another.  Also, somewhere along the line, Susan started hating me, as she herself told me, years later.  She hated me because she had to live in a foster home and I got to live with relatives.  She imagined that I was surrounded by loving family members, as in a 1950s sitcom like Life With Father or Leave it to Beaver.
I wrote a book about my childhood and shared it with her.  I expected that this would lead to understanding and acceptance on her part.  It didn't.  I got an angry phone call telling me that I had destroyed her cherished childhood fantasies.  Maybe that is a terrible thing to do.  I don't know.  I can't remember that I ever had cherished childhood fantasies.  I just wanted to live along enough to grow up.

Susan and I didn't do well together as grownups.  We had missed too much.  A childhood spent together, learning to know each other, working through our differences, sharing important experiences - in the absence of all that we had turned into strangers who didn't have much in common except a few memories.  I was always doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing and finding out only too late that I had been misinterpreted or had tread on sacred ground wearing boots.  She finally admitted that she didn't really enjoy getting visits from me.  But we did talk on the phone several times a month.  That she seemed to enjoy.

Nevertheless, I admire Susan enormously.  She was a person of great courage.  Life brought her a lot of tough times and she fought her way through all of them except the last one - cancer.  That defeated her.  I cherish my few memories of her - the clothespin experiment, the little girl being put to bed, the tiny Methodist angel, the very young mother struggling to make ends meet.  I love you Susan, wherever you are. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Learning to Color Outside the Lines

In the third grade I kept a diary.  One entry was preceeded by a Bible verse:  "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect."  Underneath I recorded my intention that from that moment on I was going to be perfect.  I would color inside the lines, always be places on time, do my chores cheerfully, treat grownups with respect and courtesy, get straight As in school et al.  I actually succeeded pretty well at most of those goals - I had a lot riding on it and I was a stubborn kid.  But no one can be perfect.  Nevertheless, the sincerity of my intention was recorded in a letter to God, requesting that He take me back to Heaven, so that I would no longer be driving my grandmother into an early grave, as she frequently mentioned me doing.

"You are driving me into an early grave" is a statement most of the children of North Bennington had hurled at them from time to time, from harried mothers.  No one in North Bennington was in therapy.  If someone became a raving lunatic and ran down the middle of the street in their underwear, screaming, that person would be hauled off to the state mental hospital.  Everyone who fell short of that was still walking the streets, raising children, teaching school, standing behind the counter at the store et al.  It was a treacherous world. 

The early grave accusation had some extra punch at my house, because it was often followed by my grandmother sinking on to the couch, clasping her bony chest, and croaking, "Go get me my pills.  Hurry!"  I was indeed a murderer in the making.

My grandmother lived to be almost 80, back in a day and a time when that was considered an unusually long life.  I went on to try, during the 1960s, to be as imperfect as I possibly could.  I have had a long and interesting life that has not ostensibly been ruled by attempts to be perfect.  Nevertheless, when I really look at my life, I find underlying it all an enormous glacier of would-be-perfection that never stops whispering to me or silently tying my muscles into knots.  Some part of me is still trying to color inside the lines, to get it right, to meet other people's expectations.  I have even managed to aquire a massively bogus reputation as the "Angel of the Homeless", or  "Mother Theresa of Gainesville" because I volunteer in the homeless community.  The desire to help homeless people is very real, but the giant dog and pony show I created to out-service all those other do-gooders out there (not a conscious goal) may have been from a child who was trying to be perfect.  It doesn't matter.  Most human projects are the result of mixed and ambivalent goals, ranging from the altruistic to other, hidden, agendas.  The Home Van has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life and I would never trade it in for purity of motives.

A few years ago I took up painting.  My early paintings are really, really bad because everything was perfectly colored inside the lines.  Coloring books from WalMart would be more interesting as art than those early paintings.  Finally, the epiphany came - forget the f***king lines - be wild!  As I continue to paint, as I turn in my pink slip to the Mother Theresa Employment Agency (except for a small food pantry - I still need that connection to my homeless friends), as I walk into a scary world outside the lines, I find myself needing to trust God.  For me, God is outside the lines.  And blessed be!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Allness, The Isness

webbed feet across a field of stones,
a fall of water, a tin tub,
a tuba, a tumescence,
a time when larks fall from the sky,
cries of the dying gathered in
barrels full of marmalade she made
that summer of the bitter oranges.

Lamb of God who taketh away the
bins of the world, have mercy on these
bins of sins.
Bless us Brother Broccoli,
Bless us Sister Stone,
Bless us old men who live alone,

for we have walked ten thousand miles
through stars, giraffes, and pocket combs,
 we're going home,
we're going home.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Southern poetry is sold

from backs of pickup trucks on country roads.
Hand-lettered signs for miles say
POEMS
HOT BOILED POEMS
BOILED POEMS
JUST AHEAD

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Heavell and Hen

1.
God I howl
for friends who are dead,
for friends who are dying,
for children of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine,
for all children.,
for polar bears drowning
who have no ice,
for blizzards, tornadoes, flood,
for those who die in cars
on interstate highways to the sky
that day, some days, any day.
For those addicted to pills, to booze,
to heroin and crack,
for all those who can't find the road home.

Help us keep looking for the road home,
help us keep looking for the road home,
help us keep looking for the road home.

 2.
Beloved God you have named the road home.
Friends who are dead,
friends who are dying,
children of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine,
all children,
all polar bears,
blizzards, tornadoes,
all cars,
all highways,
pills, booze, heroin, crack,
all the road home,
all the road home,
(and yes)
rainbows and unicorns,
all the road home.
as our hearts are purified,
as our spirits grow strong,
all the road home.