Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part Two

I walked home in the middle of the night, through a “less than desirable neighborhood” before arriving home.

I knocked and banged on the front door window, yelling to get in, but Dad would not stir from where he must have passed out in the living room, his body partially under the card table where, three months after Christmas, my paint-by-numbers picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane still lay unfinished. Bathroom light crept into the room. Dad’s chest heaved deeply. Snores penetrated the closed door. Great, I thought. He’s drunk on his butt, but he would remember to lock the door before passing out.

Who did stir was next-door neighbor Theresa, startling me with her abrupt appearance in a white robe. Backlit by the bare, glowing porch light, her long black hair shimmered past shoulders and down her chest.

“You scared me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a loud whisper. “But what are you doing, Kenny? You’re going to wake up the whole neighborhood!”

“My dad. He locked the door, and I can’t get in,” I said, trying to keep her from seeing my welling tears.

“What? It’s way after midnight. You should be in bed.”

“Do you have a key?” I managed to ask.

“Come,” Theresa said.

She wrapped her arm around me and stole an over-the-shoulder look through our front door window as she led me into their side of the duplex. I sat on the couch and tried to hide my face.

“How’s your mother?” Theresa said, stroking her palm across my forehead.

“I don’t know,” I said, sobbing.

Six months ago, we moved from Denver to Tulsa so Mom could get better treatment for those spots on her body that were now making her insides hurt. I hadn’t seen her since she went into the hospital.

“I’m so sorry,” said Theresa. She held my head to her bosom and swayed from side to side. “Your dad says your mom will be home soon, and then everything will be okay. You’ll see. I’ll make up the couch for you and you sleep here tonight…”

…Theresa stood over me and hesitated a moment before leaning down to kiss my forehead, her cool hair brushing the sides of my face. My mother did not have long hair.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You go to sleep. Things will be better in the morning. They always are.”

Not always, I thought, picturing Dad passed out on the floor just a few feet away, inaccessible by more than the wall separating us. I wanted to be with him, be close to him. I wanted to love him, but I didn’t know how. I pulled the second blanket to my chin and settled into deep couch cushions and closed my eyes.

— Excerpt from Chapter 15, “Boys Town,” from Security Bound

Shame, with the power of a trump card, for many years held me back from realizing my true self.  And, although to a lesser extent than in my childhood, I think it still does. I’ve been blessed with numerous “guardian angels,” like Theresa, who did not see me as a boy filled with shame, but as a human being simply in need of a helping hand. Sometimes, I sense shame as the “sins of our fathers” and their fathers, an ever-smoldering volcanic ember in the crater of my soul, and I wonder what it will take to burn itself out completely, and whether it ever will.

Writing has stirred to the surface memories long forgotten, revelations that have helped me to understand why I am who I am and to affect change.

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Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part One

Two of the central themes of my personal story are abandonment and abuse, where a sense of shame arose from situations or conditions particularly caused by my dad’s inadequacy to provide a wholesome and affirming family structure. Vast lapses of responsibility were common for my dad.  He was an alcoholic, and it seemed whenever good things came to our family–a good job for my dad, a respectable place to live, a reliable car, personal possessions–they were often taken away without warning, as though by a strong, unannounced shift of wind.

Although my story is packed with unscrupulous situations, happy moments did exist, but they lived in a long, broad shadow cast by bad times and the shameful feelings they generated. After I turned sixteen, a stretch of two years occurred in which I lived with my sister. Dad was out of the picture, and I discovered what it was like to breathe fresher air, to get my creative footing and to figure out who I was meant to be without feeling embarrassed by, or ashamed of, my dad or my living situation.  For the first time, I had the chance to see what life was like outside of the shadow.  Getting to that point, however, was quite a journey.

The following excerpt, quoted from my book Security Bound, shows what I’m talking about (another excerpt will be posted in “Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part Two”).  For about six months in 1958, my dad, mother and I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We had moved there from Denver so my mother could be better treated for the cancer that had invaded her body.  One evening, with my mother in the hospital, Dad took me to the movies, “to get our minds off things.” Unfortunately, a bar was near the theatre, and Dad decided to pop in for a beer, first. He wound up sending me to the theater alone.  When the movies (Boys Town and Way Out West) were over, I returned to the bar only to discover that Dad had left sometime earlier.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to get the bartender’s attention. “Excuse me. Mister?”

“Hey, Kid! Didn’t expect to see you again.”

I was glad the bartender remembered me from before.

“Do you know if my dad is still here? Maybe in the bathroom?”

“Your daddy left a long time ago, kid. Sorry…You know, you shouldn’t be in here on your own,” he said, wiping hands on a stained apron. “Do you think your daddy‘s comin’ back for ya?”

“I didn’t know he was gone. I’ve been to the movies. He was supposed to meet me there.”

The bartender rang up a sale, and I caught his reflection looking at me from the long mirror behind the bar.

“I suppose I could give you a ride,” he said, counting change. “But you’d have to wait till after I close her up.”

When he glanced at the roman-numeral clock hovering on the mirror above his head, I checked the time on the wristwatch Grandma had mailed me for my tenth birthday, last December. I was surprised to find my watch was fifteen minutes slow and re-set it.

“That’s a couple hours from now, though,” the bartender said.

I looked around the smoky room, deciding what to do. Six customers were seated at the bar. A couple that I recognized from earlier in the evening still huddled in a dark corner booth.

“So what do you think?” he asked me.

“Thanks anyway, but I know how to get home.” I slipped off the barstool and headed into the night.

The door swung shut behind me, cutting off the bartender in the middle of saying that he’d be there if I changed my mind. A surge of blood flushed to my head, a bitter taste filled my throat. Standing outside the door, I realized Dad had left without me–just like those times when we lived in California…

     — Excerpt from Chapter 15, “Boys Town,” from Security Bound

“Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part two,” in a day or two…

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Message in a Bottle

What is my story about? What is the story’s essential message? How do I express story and meaning as briefly as possible?

Composing a compelling synopsis or jacket blurb can be a real challenge, and it isn’t easy. To provide an enticing, synoptic description of my story, I must condense it to several short sentences that also convey its meaning, its message.

Tension makes good stories compelling. Great stories also impart a strong, underlying message.  I’m reminded of the fairy tale “Red Riding Hood.” As a child, I listened (and later read) with rapt attention to Red’s ill-fated decisions. I wanted her to flee, but every misstep led her closer to her doom. Instinctively, I knew the fear-based message, or moral, of the tale, which is the trouble you can get into by talking to strangers (adults, read: being victimized by smooth talkers).

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But what if I had written “Red Riding Hood” and was looking for a way to market it to new readers, in order to spark their interest? How might I condense the tale to a jacket blurb, in order to give potential readers both the story and the message? Perhaps:

A young girl is met in the forest by a wolf. After she unwittingly reveals her destination to visit her ailing grandmother, the wolf races to Granny’s house, swallows Granny whole, and disguises himself as her. Red arrives and notices that Granny’s features are different, no doubt a result from her sickness.  The ensuing conversation between Red and the wolf ultimately determines their fates.

Recently, I attended a workshop focused on writing a book proposal, in which an exercise was to write a jacket blurb, so when anyone asks what my story is about, I will have a short answer, a “preview” to make them want to read the book. For my memoir, Security Bound, I wrote: “A boy uses art and music to overcome an abusive home life and the death of his mother.  High school graduation finally comes at a cost, with the promise of a songwriting future.” It’s a start.

In my last post, To Share or Not to Share, I mentioned the importance of recognizing themes in order to create a unified focus of storytelling.  I found that those themes also provide the essence of the synopsis. Story meaning isn’t always as obvious as in “Red Riding Hood.”

I imagine funneling story ingredients into a bottle labeled “Security Bound.”  The message is the aroma released when the cap is removed.

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To Share or Not to Share

A question with no question mark: To share or not to share.

Isn’t this a central question a memoirist often contends with? It wasn’t a question I considered when I began writing my story several years ago, but I do now.  Everyday.

Last week, one of my guitar students, upon learning I was also a writer, asked me, “How do you decide what to write about?”  He said he wouldn’t have a clue as to where to begin or what’s important.  More recently, I visited the blog site of lucewriter, where I happened on a comment by another blogger, Lindsey Gendke:

“Blogging has been so good for me in that it’s made me grapple with whether I’m really ready to share certain parts of myself…”

Lindsey’s words prompted today’s post.  For me, even after grappling with what I’m ready to share, there’s another, probably more important, consideration, and that is theme.

I admit, it wasn’t until I completed the first draft of my book that I was able to clearly see the dominant themes threading their way throughout the work.  Once determined, however, it was easy to frame content within the “to share or not to share” duality–I cut everything that wasn’t a primary or secondary theme.  Of course, recognizing themes doesn’t automatically mean we’re ready to share details.

It seems that the more honest I am with myself, the easier it is to open my life to others. It’s tough to be open with strangers, but it’s harder to be honest with myself–and self-honesty, I believe, is the memoirist’s first responsibility.

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May Day

Getting into the right of mind to tell a story can be challenging.  It was nearly 80 degrees in Denver two days ago. Yesterday, the high reached 33.  And it snowed all day long.

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Such were the views from my windows, as I re-worked an opening chapter scene that takes place in the summer of 1958.  I was ten years old then.  I lived with relatives in Monrovia, California, after the death of my mother.

“Thick scents from tropical plants and a constant generator-like hum of insects rode in through open doors and windows on a soft, dark breeze.  The screen door’s tiny square wires fractured the glow from the front porch bug light.  Outside, Suzanne paced the sidewalk, waiting for Bill, a new fella she’d met at the record store.  The crunch of gravel under tires of a slow-moving car was always the first sign of visitors winding their way up the steep road to the house.  Headlights bounced off the hillside as a car made the sharp turn and headed up our long driveway.  Dry dust filtered through the screen door along with a squeal from old brakes.

That summer night, Bill brought over a small stack of LP’s–he said “LP” was short for long-playing records.  They were 12-inches in diameter and could hold more than twenty minutes of music on each side.  Until then, I’d only seen 45’s and 78’s…” — excerpt from Chapter 19, “Ouiji Board,” from Security Bound.

Yesterday was May 1st, May Day, a time for outdoor festivals and the display of new spring hats.  All that had to be postponed or cancelled.  May Day.  I thought of “m’aider,” which in French means “help me.”

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About Security Bound

This blog is moving in a different direction.  The focus is now on my book, Security Bound, a memoir spanning the time from my childhood through high school graduation. I’m working on the second draft and hope to complete this revision by the end of summer.

“A boy uses music to overcome an abusive home life and the death of his mother.  High school graduation finally comes at a cost, with the promise of a songwriting future.”

The story is written from the protagonist’s point of view, third-person, limited.  Within the story, I’ve pretty much resisted reflections from me as an adult.  I’m just telling the story from my kid perspective.  Reflections and comments do exist and reside in the last chapter, “End Thoughts.”  Over the next few months, I will post these reflections and others, along with pertinent story excerpts. 

The book title, Security Bound, is taken from a song I wrote when I was seventeen.

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Dickens and The Way

The Solstice Cometh.

The December holidays–Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa–all share the symbol of light.  It is the time of the winter solstice, when the Sun promises longer days–the reborn year.  Light is perhaps the paramount symbol. It holds the promise of redemption.  

In his story A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens distills the worst with the best of human shortcomings and strengths to exemplify the lessons of redemption and selfless reward (these themes are retold in many of our cultures’ best-loved movies, including It’s a Wonderful Life and Fred Claus).  The story of the recovery of a soul endures because of its truth, a deep, perhaps primal, truth that seems to touch something in us all.  Ebenezer Scrooge is disconsolate and loathsome.  His internal light is as faint as the single candle flame he uses to find his way through dark, narrow corridors of his gloomy house; it is less warm than the stingy fire built in his hearth.  One by one, three spirits arrive to reveal the truth of the past and present, and what will happen without conversion of mind and heart. 

In the end, Dickens has provided the model for modern-day Christmas.  Scrooge experiences the joy in compassionate giving with absolutely no thought of receiving anything in return.  His internal light glows with the brilliance of the Sun. This is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.  This is the Golden Rule.  This is the lesson we keep teaching our children, that it is better to give than to receive.  And by giving freely of ourselves, we in turn receive a bounty–not necessarily a physical reward, but a rich communion between our soul and the souls of others.

In The Way, Emilio Estevez’s film centering on four pilgrims’ journey on El Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James), a Spanish gypsy man tells the lead character Thomas (the doubter) that the trek has nothing to do with religion. At the end of the 500-mile walk, four “pilgrims” come to accept something about themselves that they were unable to accept before the journey began–revelations born of experience, not of religion. 

Stories like The Way and A Christmas Carol serve as inspiration to seek enlightenment, but we’ll have to do it on our own.  Not many of us will have the benefit of spirit visitations or a guardian angel to show us the value of our lives; but signs, or omens, are always on the road if we but stop long enough to recognize them and to have faith that they will light our path.

It is the symbolic promise of the solstice that even after the darkest of times, light shall return.

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