Category Archives: Childhood

Do we love her for her yellow hair?

Had a dinner party the other night, with our son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter Ruby Mae, age 7, plus a friend about our own age. Tim, let’s call him, hadn’t met our kids before or the kids’ kid (Ruby), and he was plainly enchanted by the child — talking to her, teasing her, playing, first, baseball and, then, boccie ball with her and me. At one point Tim praised her “gorgeous hair,” and I thought, inevitably of WB Yeats’ poem “For Anne Gregory,” which ends like this:

‘I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’

Cucumber harvest
Grandma Jen and Ruby harvest cucumbers from raised-bed garden.

What are we without our attributes? Those things that have been attributed to us, largely through sensory perception: our golden hair, our sparkling eyes, our shapely calves, our affect?

These attributes change as we age, of course: our golden hair is streaked with silver, our eyes lose their sparkle, our calves and butt sag, our feelings grow more leaden, it could be. And still we are apprehended, and judged too, by these physical attributes, into which we project all sorts of feelings of our own: golden hair is radiant and glorious, sparkling eyes invite, shapely calves and buttocks are a glimpse of heaven, sprightly feelings invite to play and frolic.

It’s only God, or the saints, as Yeats’ poem suggests, that can transcend or forget these physical glories and lead us into contemplation of the metaphysical, the abstract, the everlasting, if any.

Until such time, if such time there be, we will love our daughters and granddaughters for their yellow hair, their sparkle, their promise. And go on coddling them, protecting, nurturing.

Doubt and mystery

Jeannine Massmann

Funeral February 21 in frozen Minnesota of my first cousin, Jeannine, who grew up in Minnesota, married in Colorado, and died in California, at age 51, of a sudden aneurysm. Didn’t know this first cousin, once removed by time and again removed by place and then by death. Had met her just once or twice, last at the funeral five years earlier, in Minnesota, of her niece Rachel, who died at 21. Jeannine’s visitation and mass were at St. Raphael’s, in Crystal, Minnesota, a large Catholic church, with rich wood, stained glass, brick and stone. A registered ICU nurse, Jeannine had been well loved and admired by peers as well as patients — kind, concerned, empathic, and moved by faith and love.

Father Marty, a family friend, who had married Jeannine and her husband Tom some years ago, presided at the mass. He gave a good homily about faith and mystery, not the usual spiel of a minister who hadn’t known or cared about the deceased. He talked about life’s journey and its mysteries, how agonies like death may open new vistas and opportunities, even for those who suffer great loss. Faith is tested, he suggested, and strengthened by loss.

Still, he lost me, a humanist, inevitably, along the way, as my mind wandered into peripheral pastures, where I thought of life’s journey and mystery. Of the marvelous technological age where most of us live cosseted by technology but ignorant of how it achieves its ends, and so we exist in willing and unproductive mystery. (See March’s National Geographic, “The War on Science,” about the layman’s resistance to scientific evidence.)

If the aim of science and technology is to know, to banish uncertainty, then mystery is where most laymen dwell, whether stubbornly and stupidly or, somehow, productively. For mystery can be productive too, I think, and lead to creativity. I thought of the poet John Keats’ idea of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

We all need creativity in life, whether we think much about it or not. Need to enter into mystery, yes, and question authority — whether priest, president, scientist, parent — if authority asserts certainty and omniscience. Plunge into that kind of uncertainty where creativity can pool and spread. And admit that death too is part of the creative pool, in both a larger biological sense, where one generation makes way for the next (Jeannine and Tom had three children), and a personal sense, in which we mull our own place in existence.

Perhaps we don’t mull so much as muddle our way through life, most of us, or are muddled, like mint in a mojito. We are pounded and stirred (shades of the priest-poets G.M. Hopkins and John Donne!), and come to some sort of resolution if not clarity, and that’s that, without irritable reaching after fact, logic, certainty.

Were the half-pints in church questioning authority, also, when they wandered into play? The two year old girl with a pacifier in her mouth, the four year old reading a jungle story with her mom, the five year old bending over backward in the pew and making monkey shine? I had to chuckle, seeing how lively these kids were, how unformed and unimpressed by ritual and ceremony, how the quality of their inattention differed from that of the adults, many of whom were looking idly around, or holding hands, or staring down at their feet, going through the dull adult motions.

Yes, play is a form of questioning. Just as after the service, at my first cousin’s house and his wife’s, Jeannine’s father, Dan, and mother, Mary Ann, a little boy was playing with a plastic rosary, swinging it around, and his father reprimanded him, saying, You have to show respect for the rosary. For plastic Jesus? Why? To squelch all play? And why make the Jesus plastic? Why make it in the form of beads or balls, which invite our fingers to fumble, our thoughts to stray? For, adult or child, we use a rosary as an abacus, don’t we — counting beads, praying beads that we fumble in order to forget time’s surge and abrasion?

We fumble afterwards, after death, after ritual, with our memories of she who is now gone and can be recovered only via memory. Take out the photo albums. Delve into joke and story. Tell ourselves she’s now in a better place, for this is a line we’ve heard many times and find easy to remember. No negative capability there.

Hypnosis and family roles

RD Laing
RD Laing, Scottish psychiatrist, writes persuasively about the power of hypnotic suggestion in the family.

I’ve been dipping once more into RD Laing’s book of essays The Politics of the Family. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist (1927-1989), is known for his views that it’s not just the patient who presents symptoms, when he or she comes to a shrink, but the whole family.

Maybe you have dwelt, as I have, on the roles that children are assigned in the family. In my large Catholic family — seven kids, spanning some 20 years — my parents expressed a desire, from early in their marriage, for many children. When they came along — 1, 2, 3 … then, after eight years, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — however, they were not so sure what to do with them.

I’ve always thought that the fate of the two black sheep in the family — my younger brother, who died of alcoholism almost 20 years ago, and a younger sister, who has lived with two adult sons, like a “three-headed monster,” a friend suggests, for many years — was a kind of emotional abandonment. Vis-a-vis me and my youngest sister, the black sheep were simply abandoned on the mountain top of parental neglect.

But Laing has a subtler, and more powerful, view. When a patient “presents,” Laing suggests, he presents not only himself and his symptoms but the whole neurotic / psychotic ball of wax that the family is. He puts the dilemma of the child singled out for treatment in terms of hypnosis. “How much of who we are,” he asks, “is who we have been hypnotized to be?”

It’s not that our parents say, Do this or do that! Laing contends. Rather, they say, be this or be that! Or, more powerfully still, you are who we suggest you are!

You are a bad boy, or a sluttish girl! There’s no escaping your fate! After all, they might say, if they had but the insight to realize it, we too, in our turn, were hypnotized by our parents to do what we have done and be who we are — martinet parents,  dour fatalists, familial fascists.

So, if I hypnotize you, I do not say, ‘I order you to feel cold’. I indicate it is cold. You immediately feel cold. I think many children begin in a state like this.

We indicate to them how it is: they take up their positions in the space defined. …

So what do you want to be when you grow up, sonny?

Many friends have written on Facebook, in response to one of those unavoidable interrogatory games (“What career are you meant for?”), that they were meant to be writers.

One friend in particular put his finger on this desire or direction: “… perhaps we are all like-minded individuals, artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling. We tend to gravitate toward others of the same ilk. Which accounts for why we are all friends. You ALL could be VPs at Walmart climbing over the backs of others! Scrambling and headbutting your way to promotion!”

But then, aren’t you glad we are not?

The salary could be comforting, yes. But the scrambling and headbutting, no thanks.

Reminds me of Wordsworth’s lines in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” his neo-Platonic idea that we all start out in another, better place and that our childhood is our zenith:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Shades of the prison house indeed! Wordworth must’ve been looking at the bills piled up on his desk, even in his Lake District cottage, surrounded by nature and attended by his sister Dorothy. Oh well, he didn’t have Walmart to contend with anyway.

Writers can indeed be “artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling,” and where in the corporate world do you get that chance? Let’s be frank, fellow neo-Platonists, heaven is a long long way from the Walmart vice presidency. There’s the Muse, as one friend has put it, and the Meatball, and evidently we’re meant to choose between ’em.