Wednesday, February 04, 2015

With Eyes Wide Open: Chapter 1

A Bit of History: Where the Seeds Were Sewn

When I talk about my childhood, it's not to whine about how unfair or horrible my life 
was. I know many who had it much worse than I did. It's not to make anyone feel sorry for me. Without looking back, though, it's impossible to create a complete picture. You can't really know how far someone has come unless you know where he started.

I grew up in a rural Idaho town. When my mother, sister and I moved into town, the population number on the sign was changed from 503 to 506. Yes, it was a very small town but it grew over the years and is now a bustling metropolis with a population of over 3000. This was after my parents were divorced and we went to live with my grandmother in her small house. My mother worked sporadically and my grandmother didn't have much money so we were fairly impoverished. For a few years, my sister and I shared a room. The room didn't have a door but a blanket hung as a curtain and the closet was a large plywood box that had a length of plumbing pipe attached as a clothing rod. But, as the only male in the house, I wound up with my own room when my sister reached the age of 10, a source of delight to me and a point of contention with her because she had to share not only a room with my grandmother but a bed as well.

To be charitable, I will say that my mother demonstrated many symptoms of mental illness based on numerous unresolved issues from her own childhood including abandonment by her father. She was very masculine and, quite probably, a lesbian who couldn't come to terms with her own sexuality in 1960s Idaho. She spent a great deal of time among women who she told us were lesbians so I think this is a fairly safe assumption.

She felt the need to demonstrate how strong she was and how much she was in charge, emotionally and physically. To my sister, she was verbally abusive by constantly deriding her about her weight problem that our diet created. To show her physical strength, she would engage me in wrestling and other physical contests. The irony was the amount of trouble I'd face if I dared to fight back. One of her favorite games was to have me on my hands and knees, hold my head between her knees and squeeze until I cried. This would be followed with a torrent of abusive language putting me down for being a “candy ass.”

I could fill volumes showing the many ways my mother damaged my sister and me but I think this will suffice for now. But it will play a pivotal role later.

As for my grandmother, I know in many ways she meant well but if there is a hell and the road to it is paved with good intentions, she had the paving contract. My mother didn't mean well. She was looking out for herself and we were just along for the ride. When any meat more expensive than ground beef or the occasional chicken came into the house, it was meant for her, allegedly to help her fight anemia. My sister and I grew up on a diet of macaroni, potatoes, rice and other starches. To this day, three words can cause me to run in fear: corn meal mush. I can't say how much I despise that stuff. A diet that's lacking in protein and vegetables isn't conducive to building healthy, strong bodies. Instead, you get fat, malnourished children. This might have been easier to deal with except she'd often throw tidbits of steak, turkey, bacon and other meats to our cats.1 

Grandma was a Christian. I'm not sure if I could say she was devout. She certainly wasn't rabid about it. When we were very young, we said prayers over our food on holidays but I don't recall ever being required to pray at other times. She made sure we had a collection of Bible story books but we also had numerous sets of encyclopedias on the shelves as well. I was well acquainted with both. She did have an odd sense of decorum which meant I started attending funerals when I was five years old. If there was any kind of relationship with the deceased or his survivors, no matter how tenuous that relationship was, she'd make sure that we attended the whole affair from the viewing to the burial. By the time I was 10, I'd seen more than my share of dead people in boxes.

One block to the east of our house was the Methodist church which would become, while we were attending, a United Methodist church. Every Sunday morning, we'd dutifully dress in the nicest clothes we had (which were not that nice) and trot down the street behind Grandma to attend Sunday school and the main sermon so we were there from 9:00 to noon.

The church service itself was an exercise in tedium. We had two different pastors while I attended the UMC and neither of them could be described as a riveting speaker. I enjoyed Sunday school and, when I got older, the Methodist youth organization. When I joined the Cub Scouts and moved up to the Boy Scouts, we met in the basement of the church.

I attended this church from the time I was five until I was fifteen at which time I spent a half a year with my father on the other end of the country. Ironically, despite his Catholic parents, he, too, attended a United Methodist church most likely because my stepmother had grown up in that church. When I returned to Idaho, I returned to the Methodists.

The first time I met someone who I knew was an atheist took place when I was in the fourth grade although I didn't know there was a name for this kind of person. A new kid, Steve, had joined us at the beginning of the year and we became good friends because we both were fascinated by anything of a scientific nature. We both had chemistry sets, microscopes but he had a much better telescope. He also had a big collection of books about dinosaurs, a topic that still fascinates me.

At lunch, we'd often discuss topics in science as if we were learned scholars who had more than a fourth grade understanding of these subjects. Maybe we did. But he introduced me to the idea of evolution. I was intrigued but wasn't sure I bought into it. To the mind of this budding scientist, it made sense but it ran counter to what I'd been taught in church.

While we were having this discussion, some other kids overheard us and started asking him about “people coming from monkeys.” Steve did a pretty good job talking about the subject but, inevitably, someone asked him if he believed in God. He said no.

The next few days of school were like a miniature version of the Scopes monkey trial. He tried to stand his ground as fellow students were literally shoving the Bible in front of him. I remember this distinctly because it was the first time I'd ever seen a Bible with the words of God and Jesus printed in red ink. The teachers stood by and did nothing to help Steve in any way.

Finally he relented and told them that he now believed. When I asked him if he really did he said, “Of course not! But do you think I wanted to hear another day of that?”

He came to church with me from time to time but only to be seen in church. He was also in my Cub Scout pack. I'm pretty sure his parents didn't want him there but they understood why he went. I can't count the number of times I found myself wishing they'd adopt me because they were some of the first adults I really trusted. The family moved to Boise just before Steve and I were to start high school.

In this small town, there were three churches: the one we attended, a Church of the Brethren and an Assembly of God church. Most people attended the first two. As for the third, everyone I spoke with said that the Pentecostals of the Assembly of God were insane (it was what we called a “holy roller” church). My friend Kevan and I peeked in the door one Sunday evening to see their services and decided that the people who'd told us about these folks were right. 

The Mormons and the few Catholics in town drove to a city to the north to attend services.

When I was 16, it was very important to be cool and I noticed that all the young, cool people went to the Church of the Brethren while all the old people went to the United Methodist church. I was a curious young man so I asked my grandmother why we were Methodists. She said, “The other church is too far away.” It was a three block walk while the UMC was only a few hundred feet away. That was the main determining factor in which faith we would follow. I still attended the UMC but the seeds of doubt had been sewn. All they needed was something to make them sprout and grow.

Even with everything else I was going through, I managed to find love. Her name was Elaine and we were both smitten. We lived in different cities but neither of us had a car. She wasn't allowed to get phone calls from boys (this was the 1970s, after all) so the only way we could see each other was when she came to visit her cousins. Other than that, ours was a love carried by the United States Postal system. I wasn't a particularly good correspondent but I did my best and we carried on our long distance romance. This would have been difficult as it was but there were other complications: her mother hated me and my mother hated her, both for reasons that still elude me.

My mother knew I was a determined and somewhat stubborn sort who simply would have found a way around any means she could devise to keep us from communicating. If, for example, I'd found that she was simply intercepting the letters, I'd have had Elaine mail me in care of one of my friends. So Mom needed a foolproof plan.2

One Saturday afternoon, she sat me down and told me that Elaine had stopped writing because she was in the hospital and wasn't expected to make it very long. When I insisted that I needed to see her, she told me that because I wasn't family, I couldn't visit.

I went to church when I wasn't in school and prayed in the sanctuary for God to save her or to take me as well so we could be together. I know the pastor was trying to comfort me but the idea of her impending death wasn't something that could be alleviated.

About a week later, I was told that she had died. I'm not sure what was supposed to be the cause although I think it was supposed to be leukemia or the like.

Naturally, I was inconsolable.

Just as naturally, I had to put up a brave front because I wasn't about to have my mother deride me for being weak and I still had to attend school. I'd been picked on for being the fat, poor kid so I knew the last thing I wanted was for the gang of bullies to see me cry. When I wasn't around anyone else, I cried a great deal and I prayed almost constantly. I needed some comfort and some answers but they simply weren't forthcoming. Now the seeds were germinating and starting to take root.

My self esteem wasn't great shakes and when I wasn't comforted in prayer, I figured it must be some defect in me and I was somehow unworthy of God's grace. After all, God was perfect so if he felt that I didn't deserve comfort, I must be doing something wrong or that there was something terribly wrong with me. For a while, I was convinced that the only reason that God had put me on this planet was because he'd promised mankind that he'd never punish them the way he did when he flooded the world so he had a few select people he used to vent his frustrations with mankind and I was one of them.3

At the same time, I'd noticed that when I prayed, on the times that I thought I heard the voice of God, he always spoke in my voice. I also became aware that he never said anything that I didn't already believe or anything particularly helpful. There were no great revelations or insights. There were times when a little tough love from God might have helped.

Finally, this built up to a showdown between the angry kid and his indifferent god. In a fit of rage and sorrow, I climbed on the roof of my grandmother's house during a fierce storm (imagine the scene in which Lieutenant Dan confronts his god in “Forrest Gump” and you'll get the idea). I cursed God. I screamed how much I hated him for making me suffer so much. I wanted to know why he'd taken the one love in my life away from me. I dared him to strike me with lightning or blow me off the roof with a gust of wind. I begged him to make the heartache stop. Fortunately, the only witness to this bit of adolescent lunacy was my very understanding grandmother. Looking back on this event, I know that I must have seemed pretty unhinged. When I came down, I looked over my shoulder up at the sky and said, “Yeah, that's what I thought. You haven't helped me because you aren't there.”

The seeds had matured into the full plant but they weren't yet ready to bear fruit. My belief in the god I thought I knew had died on that roof and I was more uncertain of life than ever.

Here I was at a crossroads. At that point, it became obvious that the direction that I'd followed for the previous 16 years wasn't the right one. But where was I to go now? 

1At one time when my sister and I were talking, I told her that Mom didn't have us as children, she had us as pets. She shook her head and said, “No. The pets got meat.”
 2There are even more problems involving my mother and my older sister but this isn't the place for them. Suffice to say, I had some pretty deep issues so having this girl love me was like water to a man dying of thirst.
 3Remember that this was the perspective of a fairly messed up kid. I look back and realize now how ridiculous this all was but at the time, it seemed to be the most reasonable explanation.


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