Wednesday, May 27, 2020

May 27: Nothing to Worry About, Freedom, Deep Breaths

Merton tastes rebellious freedom for the first time . . .

In 1930, after I had turned fifteen, and before most of these things happened, the way began to be prepared for my various intellectual rebellions by a sudden and very definite sense of independence, a realization of my own individuality which, while being natural at that age, took an unhealthy egotistic turn.  And everything seemed to conspire to encourage me to cut myself off from everybody else and go my own way.  For a moment, in the storms and confusion of adolescence, I had been humbled by my own interior sufferings, and having a certain amount of faith and religion, I had subjected myself more or less willingly and even gladly to the authority of others, and to the ways and customs of those around me.

But in Scotland I had begun to bare my teeth and fight back against the humiliation of giving in to other people, and now I was rapidly building up a hard core resistance against everything that displeased me:  whether it was the opinions or desires of others, or their commands, or their very persons.  I would think what I wanted and do what I wanted, and go my own way.  If those who tried to prevent me had authority to prevent me, I would have to be at least externally polite in my resistance:  but my resistance would be no less determined, and I would do my own will, have my own way.

When Pop and Bonnemaman came to Europe again in 1930, they practically threw the doors of the world wide open to me and gave me my independence.  The economic crisis of 1929 had not altogether ruined Pop:  he did not have all his substance invested in companies that crashed, but the indirect effect on him was just as serious as it was on every other ordinary business man. 

In June 1930, they all came down to Oakham--Pop, Bonnemaman, and John Paul.  It was a quiet visit.  They no longer took towns by storm.  The depression had changed all that.  Besides, they were used to traveling in Europe now.  The fear and trepidation that had been so strong an element in their excitement in the old days were somewhat allayed.  Their voyages were comparatively--but only comparatively--serene.

They had a couple big rooms in the labyrinthine "Crown Inn" at Oakham, and one of the first things Pop did was to take me apart into one of them and talk to me in a way that amounted to an emancipation.

I think it was the first time in my life I had ever been treated as if I were completely grown up and able to take care of myself in everything, and to hold my own in a business conversation.  In reality, I have never been able to talk intelligently about business.  But I listened to Pop exposing our financial affairs as if I understood every word about it, and when it was over I had, indeed, grasped all the essentials.

No one knew what was going to happen in the world in the next ten or twenty years.  Grosset and Dunlap was still in business, and so was Pop:  but one could never tell when the business itself might fold up, or if he himself would be turned out.  But in order to make sure that John Paul and I would be able to finish school, and even go on to the university, and have something to keep us from starving while we were looking for a job afterwards, Pop had taken the money he had planned to leave us in his will, and had put it away for us where it would be as safe as possible, in some kind of insurance policy which would pay us so much a year.  He worked it out on a piece of paper and showed me all the figures and I nodded wisely.  I didn't grasp the details but I understood that I ought to be able to get along all right until about 1940.  And in any case, before a couple of years had gone by, Pop discovered that the big magic insurance policy did not work as nearly as he had expected, so he had to change his plans again, with a loss of a little money somewhere.  

When it was all done, Pop gave me the piece of paper with all the figures on it, and sat up straight in his chair, and looked out the window, running his hand over the top of his bald head and said:  "So now it's all settled.  No matter what happens to me, you will both be taken care of.  You've got nothing to worry about for a few years, anyway."

It is quite a gift that Merton's grandfather gives him:  economic independence.  At the age of around 15, Merton knows that, for about 11 years, he will not have to worry about school tuition or rent or food or travel.  He will be able to live the life he chooses, with very little in the way of limitations.  Merton isn't Jay Gatsby.  He won't be able to lease a mansion and throw extravagant parties every night for his rich friends.  Yet, he also won't be a starving artist (or writer or journalist or Trappist monk).  Freedom is his.

I have known that kind of economic freedom a couple times in my adult life.  When I enrolled in college, I did so with the knowledge that I had a full-ride scholarship.  I was given several thousand dollars each semester, which covered the costs of tuition and books and gas.  Not only that, but I received an overage check every semester, as well.  I had enough funds to simply go to school, live at home, and do pretty much whatever I wanted in my free time.  I would often save a sizable portion of my overage money and take a month-long vacation at my aunt and uncle's house in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.  While there, I would buy clothes, sneak across the Blue Water Bridge into Canada to drink with my cousins, and go see every movie that was released.  I wasn't Jay Gatsby, but I also wasn't Tom Joad.

And right after I was married, my wife and I lived in Kalamazoo, where I was enrolled in a PhD program at Western Michigan University.  Once again, although we weren't by any means wealthy, my wife and I didn't struggle.  I taught at the college and took classes.  My wife was a substitute teacher at some of the inner-city schools.  We were happy.  Went out to eat a lot.  Traveled to the Upper Peninsula at least once a month to visit family.  Bought books and music and wines.  It was a good life, not limited by economic uncertainty.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting some hardships that I faced during these times in my life.  The human mind has this ability to whitewash the past, wipe away the grime of struggle and pain.  It's a process called retrospective falsification, coined by psychologist Donovan Hilton Rawcliffe in 1952.  It is defined as "the unconscious distortion of past experiences to conform to a person's needs in the present."

For the past couple years, I have faced some financial hardships.  I don't want to discuss the reasons for these difficulties.  That's not the point.  My current economic distresses have gilded those times from my past when money seemed much more abundant.  Now, my undergraduate and graduate years of higher education seem almost like a once upon a time.  I could call them my Roarin' Twenties or my Renaissance. 

Yet, I know my mind is working its retrospective falsification magic.  There were painful moments in that Renaissance.  Heartbreaks.  Sleepless nights.  Tears.  Just like now.  I've been wondering how this pandemic will be remembered in the future.  Will it be painted bleakly, with death statistics and Dorothea Lange-like photos of people at soup kitchens?  Or will it be remembered as a great deep breath--when the universe forced all of us to slow down, take stock, and start over?

Tonight, I am writing with a friend.  We have given ourselves permission to delve into our passions, without guilt or apology.  After I'm done writing this blog post, I may work on a new poem or revise poems from a chapbook manuscript.  Or, I just may go to my refrigerator, take out a wine cooler, and sit down and allow myself to just . . . be.

That is the great miracle of this evening.  This time in history.  Everyone is learning to just . . .be.  Without parades or graduations.  Without fireworks or parties.  Happiness isn't about all those things really.  It may take the graduates of 2020 half a lifetime to realize this, for retrospective falsification to do its work.  But, eventually, they won't remember all that they didn't have this year.

Hopefully, what they will remember are the important things.  A rainy evening.  A dog sleeping on the hardwood floor.  Family going about its nightly business.  No rushing.  No chaos.  No deadlines.  Just the slowness of deep breaths.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  Time stretching out like a blank page, waiting for that first letter.  That first word.

For this, Saint Marty gives thanks.

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