One Word

This I’ll say at the outset: it is far harder for me to come up with one word than it is for me to come up with a thousand.

Write about my year and how it’s gone? Absolutely. Reflect on its dominant trends and emotions, and think about how I’d like to change them in the year ahead? Definitely.

One word? That’s hard.

After a lot of dithering, the one word I’ve come up with to encapsulate 2010: transition.

Over the course of this year, I transitioned fully — not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally — from the department I’d been a member of for the previous 11 years to the new department I helped to found. I went through the rite of passage of a promotion review. I packed up a subset of my belongings and moved them across the country for a sabbatical. And I finished up one major writing project, and started thinking about the next one.

All of that transition has been productive, but it has also been exhausting and at times quite painful. Everything that’s come out of it has been extremely good, and yet if you asked me, I’d tell you that it’s been a very hard year.

And so for 2011, the word I’m focusing on is still. I’m really hoping that I can slow things down, reflect a bit more, enjoy the time I’ve got where I’ve got it, and not be in such a rush to get on to the next thing. I want to linger in the next six months (hey, nine months!) of my sabbatical, to take my time sorting out the next project, to enjoy my friends and my colleagues and my students and my surroundings. Even if I am rushing about a bit — I’ve got some really fun travel coming up in the next few months — I want to see if I can find the stillness in the motion, to be a bit more aware of where I am, and what I’m working on, right now.

Hiding in Plain Sight

So the summer has now really and truly begun: the freeway sprints are over, my students have graduated, my desk has been cleaned off, and I’ve split for the east coast. Things have been quiet and lazy so far, which is much needed; the end of the semester — a period during which the faculty undergoes what I like to refer to as “death by reception” — was accompanied this year by a bit too much jollity and mirth, or at least a bit more than my hangover-prone self could take.

During one of those last bouts of jollity, an extended champagne infusement, my three pals and I somehow ended up on the subject of me. (One of my favorite subjects, to be sure, but I’m still not quite clear how the topic came up.) One of these pals, someone I like quite intensely, admitted at a certain point to feeling like she knew me much better from my blog than any face-to-face interactions. Needless to say, I found this a little disturbing: I consider this woman to be a good friend, and yet I apparently tell the internet more than I tell her.

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days, trying to figure out, if I can, what it means. I default — perhaps with emphasis on the “fault” — toward a kind of reserve in my engagement with the folks around me, driven in part by a sort of professionalization (something I wrote about a while back when thinking about the danger I feel in mixing the professional and the personal), but also due to a terror I have of being exposed. Of being seen. Really seen.

This arises, and it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to guess this, from some Bad Shit that happened to me as a kid, stuff I haven’t talked about here, and won’t, likely ever. One of the effects of that Shit is a sense of safety in invisibility. Which is not to say that I work to avoid drawing attention to myself — I’m a complete whore for attention, of certain kinds, at least. But which is to say that the self that I’m drawing attention to is very rarely, in some deep sense, actually me. Or at least it gives the appearance of not being me, of not being authentic and engaged. The upside of such a detachment from the public persona that I wear in the world is that I can actually be in the world, in that persona, and still feel safe. The downside is that people I care about don’t feel like they know me.

And, if I’m being honest, they’re right. They can’t really know me, until they know the Shit. Once they know, the persona makes sense. But they can’t know unless I tell. And the idea — much less the fact — of telling produces that terror of being exposed.

If that seems circular, it’s meant to. If it seems cryptic, well, I mean that, too.

This all came up for me again today, while IMing with weez, who referred to the me on the blog as a three-dimensional character. weez is one of my purely-internet pals (as opposed to the internet-first pals, or the internet-added pals), and it suddenly occurred to me that she might nonetheless have a better picture of who I am and what I think and feel than many of the folks with whom I deal every day. Which just hammered the thing home for me: I feel safer talking about certain parts of my life with the internet than I do with my colleagues, or with many of my friends. It’s not that I have any illusion that this is some kind of private or anonymous communication — it’s the internet, for god’s sake, and I know my students are in and out of here all the time — but there’s something bearable for me in the distance it provides. I write something, contemplate it, revise it, and publish it. Sometime later, somebody reads it, and maybe they respond or maybe they don’t. There’s an invisibility to the whole process that just isn’t there in face-to-face communications: I can’t be seen while I’m writing, and I don’t have to watch for the look of horror on my listener’s face before they paper it over with a solicitous smile.

There’s perhaps something a bit perverse in being a morbidly shy exhibitionist. But hey — at least I’ve found my medium.

How It Turned Out

[Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.]

My father remarried soon after the divorce, married the woman he’d left my mother for (this piece of information my mother does not deny, nor does my stepmother, through my father denies it, vigorously). They tried to have children in the ensuing years, but were unable. I assumed that the child-bearing parts of their lives were over. Fourteen years ago, when my father was 47 and my stepmother 42-ish, they had S. The next year came H.

There was something weird about all this, something I either couldn’t put my finger on or didn’t want to question too far. When my stepmother told me in February that she was pregnant with S., she said that the doctors had no idea how far along she was. They did some calculations and decided that the baby would be due in early August. S. was born in April, on Palm Sunday, and looks like she’s three months old in the picture I have of her taken on Easter. H. was born almost exactly nine months after S. My mother, who kept up with the story like she was watching a soap opera on TV, told me over and over that something wasn’t right about all this, that S. was not a newborn in that picture, that a 43-year-old woman could not have two babies in just under nine months with no complications. I was shaken, horrified, infuriated. I thought I had finished putting all my past problems with my father behind me, and now there was this. I finally made up my mind that there was no good reason why my father would lie to me, nothing that made sense at least, that S. and H. looked a lot like their parents, and that stranger things have happened.

But then, one September, when S. was four and H. was three, my sister ran into a friend-of-a-friend whose father used to work with our father, who asked my sister what she thought about the new babies.

My father had packed up wife and kids and moved to Saudi Arabia two years before. He and I had communicated sporadically at best when he was in Texas, and that had dramatically fallen off since his move. My sister, who was still having crawling trouble when our parents split, had even less of a connection to him than I did. Neither of us had heard from him in months. And neither of us had heard anything about any new babies.

But according to this distant acquaintance, my father and stepmother either had had or were about to have twins. Someone in the crowd of girls standing around my sister asked her, with just the right note of horror, how she could not know something like that. D. and I, after a panicked conversation, decided not to do anything, to wait and see how long it took the story to get to us.

Two weeks later, D. ran into our stepmother’s sister’s son at school. He asked her about the babies too. He’d talked to my father on the phone the night before and had found out that my father and stepmother were adopting two newborn Australian girls.

This was in October. In early November I finally got a letter from my father, announcing the arrival of R. and R., born in September. They weren’t sure it could happen, medically speaking, he said, so they hadn’t told anyone. But the babies and my stepmother were doing fine. No mention of Australia. No mention of adoption. No real mention of my stepmother actually giving birth, though that was the implication.

A few days later, my stepfather’s father died. At his funeral, a woman who had worked with my father before he left my mother came up and asked me whether the babies were girls or boys. “He told us she was expecting last time he was in town,” she said, “but I never found out how it turned out.”

I spoke to my father briefly at Christmas that year, and didn’t mention any of this. I didn’t tell him how furious I was that he did tell his colleagues about the impending babies, that he did tell his in-laws, but that he simply failed to tell his daughters. I didn’t tell him how much it upset me that I had to question everything he said, that there were always multiple stories surrounding everything he did, that I couldn’t even be sure that his four youngest daughters were his children by blood. I didn’t tell him how hurt I was that I was clearly not part of his family, and hadn’t been for years. I just lied and told him that I was in the middle of a letter to him, a letter in which I intended to make all of my feelings clear, a letter that ten years later I still haven’t written.

I’ve never met R. and R., who I think are now ten, and I haven’t seen S. or H. since they were in diapers. Who they are — much less who my father is — is something that, as it turns out, I’ll likely never know.

Memory

[Part 2 in a series. Part 1 is here.]

I have erased my father from my memory. Or memories. My mother tells me that when I was a child, quite young, he was the most important thing in my life, and I in his. We were devoted to one another. I have no memory of any of this. It says horrible pop-psychology things about me, I’m sure, but all I remember is being left. There are big black holes in the past where my father used to be, like he’s been cut out of all my mental photographs.

But then, my memory plays tricks on me. I know this. I remember things that can’t possibly have happened. Things that my mother denies.

There are the crawling lessons, for instance. I remember quite definitely that my sister had a very hard time learning to crawl. Many of the particulars escape me, though, and when I last asked my mother about this incident, she denied it entirely, denied that D. had ever faltered in her hands-and-knees coordination. But like the few other flashes of my childhood that I retain, I take it as real, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit in with everything else I know.

D. couldn’t, or wouldn’t crawl. Take that as a beginning. Mom was worried about this, afraid that if D. walked before she crawled, it would produce some insurmountable developmental disorder. What this specifically boded for a child, I’m still not sure. I was six or seven at the time, and I was convinced that walking before she crawled would leave her permanently confused, without any foundational support.

This was the year that we went to New Jersey for Christmas. My parents were in the beginning stages of what was ultimately a very bitter divorce, and Mom had brought my sister and me to stay with my aunt for the holidays. She was determined to get my sister to crawl before the trip was over.

Which is where the memory begins to fall apart, as all of my memories eventually seem to. My sister was born on October 2, 1973. If this was Christmas 1974, my sister had greater problems than that potential walking-before-crawling confusion. If this was Christmas 1973… well, why would my mother be worried about a three-month-old child who wasn’t crawling yet?

Somehow two memories have gotten intertwined in my head. Maybe this was the following summer, during our usual visit. Maybe that Christmas passed uneventfully, except for the absence of my father. I can’t speculate too far on the actual events surrounding the crawling lessons. There’s no one to compare notes with since no one else remembers it at all. I have no choice but to treat the memory as whole and true, if contradictory.

I sat watching as my aunt and my mother crawled around on the floor, my pudgy little sister looking on bewilderedly. They tried everything. At one point, my mother had my sister by the wrists and my aunt had her by the ankles, and they’d alternate picking them up and putting them down, moving her around the room, hoping she’d get the idea. D. went along with it, but once they’d let go and sit back, waiting to see if she’d do it on her own… nothing. She’d sit there on her hands and knees, rocking back and forth slightly as if revving her engines, but she wouldn’t go anywhere.

Finally, either my aunt or my mother (I have no memory-sense as to which, and if I did, I’m not sure I could trust it) bought a mouse. A small grey wind-up mouse, complete with long felt tail. I don’t remember how it was introduced, whether they let her see it or touch it or anything at first. But then my aunt or my mother, whichever it was, wound up the mouse and let it go, right in front of my sister. She took off like a shot, hands and knees flying, chasing after the mouse.

That’s the moment I remember, the mouse skittering along the floor and my sister trying to catch it. I also remember thinking that she just hadn’t had anywhere important to go before that.

The rest is too slap-stick, too colored by my later knowledge of my mother, loving and wildly attentive, but always much too concerned about precisely the wrong thing. It’s too filled-in, as though my memory is creating a patch-job, hoping that I won’t notice the mismatched fabric and the holes underneath.

The Most Recent Incident

[Part 1 in a series. Read Part 2 and Part 3.]

While in Prague this summer, I got the following email message:

From: [DLB]@[company].com
Subject: [GF]’s Address & Phone Number
Date: June 5, 2003 1:53:35 PM PDT

If this is repeat information, please forgive me.

If you would like to stay in touch with [GF], you may
contact him at the following address and number:

[GF]
[address deleted]
[suburb of Salt Lake City], Utah [zip]
[phone number deleted]

Thank you and God Bless.

In Him, Sincerely,
[DLB]
[company]
[phone number]

The shortest distance between a problem and a solution is the distance between your knees and the floor….

I have no idea who DLB is. GF, on the other hand, is my father.
Continue reading “The Most Recent Incident”