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Monday, August 8, 2022

The universe says 'no' too, so I learned

 It is not only the need, and eventually the habit, to say ‘No’ to whatever seemed ‘off the rails’ but also the inherent irascibility, scepticism and actually ‘fool’ that starts each moment with a sardonic ‘I don’t think so’. Without sensing a need for a rebellion, a revolution, or anarchy, in any situation, the ‘fool’ is, almost by archetypal identity and definition, familiar with, comfortable with and even bent in the shape of the ‘outsider’. The concept is articulately put in simonkidd.blog, the free-range philosopher:

There’s a well-known joke about a tourist in Ireland who asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. Being Irish, (as am I) I can tell that joke with impunity! Indeed, like some others in this category, it’s hard to tell whether the joke is actually racist, since there is something of the ‘Wise Fool’ in the Irishman’s response. After all, if you want to get somewhere, then it’s better to start from a place where you have a good chance of reaching your goal.

It was not a self-conscious ‘fool’, and certainly not a ‘wise fool’ who agreed to debate, at thirteen, the resolution: “the Christian is to remain separate and apart from the secular society,” taking the negative side in the debate. And, on reflection, who would be such a fool to agree to debate that position in a church run by and dominated by a group of born-again men who clearly considered their recent conversion to put them outside of, if not actually superior to the secular society in the small town. It would be redundant to note that the negative side lost the debate, given the predisposition of the judges to the affirmative.

It was not a self-conscious ‘fool’ or again a ‘wise’ fool who, when invited to debate the ‘relevance of the Christian faith’ in a Lenten series, sponsored by the local ministerial association, some twelve years later, when I was twenty-six, and employed in the local high school, agreed to participate. And then, (even more ‘on edge’) to write and deliver a brief push-back against the kind of absolutism and dogmatism that too often accompanies ‘theology’ from a intolerant and unchallenged bigot (recall the Irish evangelical fire-brand), calling instead for the more collaborative, conciliatory and potentially moderating model of the seminar, from university days.

The Irishman, not to be upstaged, and without my knowledge, had secured the job of delivering the ‘clerical perspective’ to conclude the evening. It was only much later that I learned that the public/secular billing of the event had my last name and his in the banner headline of the street talk. And, it was only a matter of a couple of weeks that that Irishman, in collaboration with one of his recent ‘converts,’ the father of a co-ed with whom I had become friends, and to whom I had written a friendly note borrowed from one of Coleridge’s letters, directed the father to demand my immediately removal from the faculty of that high school or face a law suit.

Fortunately, another Irishman, a local family physician, who had also been on the panel on the night of the Lenten Study, admitted me to the local hospital upon learning of my dismissal, and then referred me to a Toronto therapist. Learning of  the story from back home, that doctor sent me back to be visible and present, when a story broke of a different and much more serious incident in an adjacent town and high school hit the news. My ‘innocence’ apparently needed to be demonstrated, before the same town that had expelled me. And it was the Investor’s Group agent who called to offer: If you want to walk down Main Street with another, I would be happy to accompany you on that walk.” And, together, we walked the full length of James Street, visible to any and all going about their business that morning in the Spring of 1968 in the time bookended by the murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Those words, never fully appreciated in the moment, given the degree of stress under which I operated at the time, have echoed in my memory, along with the regret that I never fully thanked or fully appreciated their meaning and import, until much later.

The public side of the narrative played out while the levels of the private story, both in the marriage and in my psyche, remained out of the public domain. And, the discrepancies between those two narratives, is now and was then, a graphic illustration of how the world works. Shame, guilt, anger, frustration and public humiliation were the depictors of the public story, while a very different kind of frustration, anger, disappointment and alienation boiled under the public waves and winds. A three-year marriage that had converted a summer cottage into a permanent home on the shore of Georgian Bay, and seen both partners engaged on the same high school faculty, and had returned from a visit to the Montreal Olympics in the summer of 1967, seemed to be foundering, like a small cedar-strip boat on the rocks of different expectations, different perceptions of a shared future, and different professional levels of confidence in the expectations of the classroom. I became almost instantly immersed in the energy and the youth of the school environment, coaching and referring basketball, sharing duties to produce a variety show, joining a local Rotary Club, and chairing a planning committee for a Catherine Mackinnon vocal concert as part of the fundraising for the service club. If I recall, a fellow teacher, without my knowledge, had submitted my name as a potential candidate for the town council, a post I thankfully declined. Conversely, my then spouse was struggling with the ‘eyes of thirty adolescents on her in each forty-two-minute class period. And that ‘exposure’ was, for her, unbearable, without my being fully conscious of her struggle. Whether and when to have children was also a point of conflict, and it will not take a detective’s mind or intuition to infer which of us favoured having a family and which deferred. Some fifty-four years later, the heat and the bitterness of those interactions may have dissipated; the substance has faded ever so slightly.

So, at twenty-six, I had two rather histrionic divorces from the “Christian church’ to include in my resume. The first at sixteen, prompted by a bigoted, unforgiveable and irreconcilable homily, and the second prompted by the vengeance of a bigoted and vindictive clergy who had delivered that homily, and a born-again convert.

On the personal side of these events, flows the stream of both consciousness and unconsciousness about my own relationship to the female gender. As a young child of a dominatrix mother, along side an appeasing and passive-aggressive father, I never felt acceptance, approval and support from mother all of which was abundantly free from father. Melodramatic ‘spurts’ of sumptuous baking of such offerings as finnegans (a cinnamon-sugar spread on rolled biscuit dough), hockey gloves and the occasional knitted sweater or socks or mittens, while they were appreciated, were never fully appreciated by a na├»ve and sheltered and emotionally sensitive young boy. I seemed to have been known intuitively by my dad, and always a “project” for reclamation, like antique furniture, for my mother. And that project seemed to be guided by an unwritten mother’s user’s manual, that started from the position of adoption of the slogan, “spare the rod and spoil the child”! Trips to the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, and to New York, including the touristy visit to the top of the Empire State Building, orchestrated by mother, ostensibly to visit cousins in Binghamptom N.Y., and  East Orange, New Jersey, while different, somewhat exciting and an ‘escape’ from the unpredictability in our little brick salt-box, were nevertheless, not the daily or the hourly pattern. That pattern was invariably of failed expectations, ticked notes and physical abuse, pounding meter sticks on the top of the piano as I attempted to learn a new piece, and as the neighbourhood girl with whom I played duets and I rehearsed for a recital or a festival competition. The home-front was also characterized by a turbulence in the dynamics that erupted between the two parents.

In grade nine, I recall numbers of body shape and size, for which I am both ashamed and somewhat angry. At 5 feet, nine inches, I weighed 195 pounds. And while I had had some modest success as a piano student, I was the antithesis of a young boy in whom any young girl might be interested and I was fully conscious of that disparity. In fact, like most young males, I suppose, I fantasized about one or two young girls whom I considered attractive, but only from the perspective of a fantasy, given that they were always and inevitably ‘going out’ with some other guy. A single date, to the Christmas Dance when I was in grade nine, with a benevolent and kind Ann, was more memorable for the frozen walk back to her home, some two miles from the school, in minus 20 F, than for our time at the Idance itself.

And then, at sixteen, while working in the Dominion Store, my summer employer for eight years, while I had only barely acquired my driver’s license, I decided to invite two friends to a truck-ride out to the Y.W.C.A. camp Tapawingo, just south of the swing bridge that connects the mainland to Parry Island. I had met a camp counsellor, at the grocery story, from Windsor, whose first name was Allison, and who had exhibited a glimmer of interest in me and proposed a Saturday night visit, after her shift ended. She had promised her friends would meet us behind the camp. All went as planned, until the return trip back into town, when, on coming over a small incline, and likely going too fast for the half-ton truck with the three ton engine to adapt, mixing in a neophyte and somewhat excited driver, after our  “Y” visit, I noticed a taxi cab coming up the other side of the incline. Immediately, I turned the wheel to the right, only to realize that the truck was slipping into the gravel ditch where it stopped against a huge boulder on the edge of the ditch. The truth rolled onto the driver’s side, where my red leather jacket was pinned to the ground under the door, making it impossible for me to remove it, before climbing up and out the passenger door.

Needing a police officer from the O.P.P and being yelled some curse words by the cab driver for having slid into the front of his cab, I impulsively ran the two or three hundred yards to the nearest house to phone the cops. On arrival, I met a mother and teen-age daughter standing in the doorway, both having heard the sound of the collision just up the road. Patiently and kindly, they offered their phone; the police came and drove the three boys back to their office. Claire Edgar, the officer on duty, kindly called my parents, to come a bring me home. My father appeared, sullen, angry and very silent through the four-block walk back home where my mother was waiting for her opportunity to pounce, this time in words, without physical punishment.

The ages sixteen (1958) and twenty-six (1968), as you might imagine, are indelibly etched on the calendar of my memory, and visits to my home town have been infrequent and mostly kept secret ever since. Their respective impacts on my life continue, however, to oscillate like the strings of a long-abandoned violin in an attic, only to be formally struck whenever an event, a word, a face or an incident triggers its vibrating sound. And it is not an altogether musical memory; rather, seeded with intense emotion, some impulsivity and certainly a sizeable if not a desperate need to be liked and appreciated by a female. All of that need, however, did not rise to consciousness until decades later, after I finally departed a twenty-three-year marriage to that daughter in the doorway on the night of the truck incident.

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