featured image: ‘Hip Hip Hurrah!’ Peder Severin Kroyer, Goteborgs Konstmuseum
“One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts.” READ MORE:
Featured image: A Willing Captive by Frederick Stuart Church
“Stay with me, cadet,” Fahy replied. “We’ll have some devilment tonight.”
But Buck had come west for a break from devilment.
The day glistened like a golden carpet to the west and Buck felt the nip of sunburn and weariness as the soldiers tended a massive fire with choice cuts of rare buffalo brought in by Indian traders to the north and a wild turkey shot on the hills. Buck had imagined something more in the desert than sunken-faced soldiers and debased Indians in their cast off military clothes. No one else minded the quick chill replacing the day’s heat.
“Why don’t you take off your scarf—it’s pretentious and off putting, to be honest, young fellow,” Fahy suggested as he poured Buck more scotch to drink.
Buck untied the cravat, exposing the vicious-looking, half-healed scar.
“Jaysus!” Fahy moaned. “What the hell—oh, cover it up again, please! Not before a meal!”
Buck followed orders.
“What’s the story, cadet?” Fahy asked.
“There’s no story but that it won’t heal,” Buck said, sipping his scotch.
A few favored non-commissioned officers helped with the barbecue and shared the drink. Out of the shadows came the missionaries and William.
“Party over!” joked Fahy.
“Will I pour you all a drink?” Buck offered in an intoxicated whisper. “It’s from my father’s collection. He’ll never know it’s gone.”
The missionaries as a group declined.
“Cadet, you’ve forgotten good old Bill,” Fahy said. “You’ll have a drink, won’t you, Bill? It’s a celebration after all. Certainly you can take one drink. You’re no fun without one and maybe Papa Kenyon will let you off the hook for one night.”
Buck looked on innocently.
Kenyon said, “Lieutenant Fahy, I see what you’re up to and I don’t like it. We’ve come as a gesture of good will. Now leave Mr. Weldon alone.”
Fahy laughed, poking the fire. “Bill, do you have ANY mind of your own or have you been completely brainwashed by this sour old man?”
“I’m not under anyone’s thumb and I’ll speak for myself,” William said with false bravado, glancing at Buck. “One glass is hardly anything and I’ve done a lot of good work for you, Mr. Kenyon. I’m entitled to a small bit of enjoyment, sir, just this once.”
“It’s like you’re an indentured servant, Bill. I’ve never seen the likes of it,” Fahy said.
“William, I have your best interests at heart,” Kenyon said.
“You want to control me!” William replied, handing a mug to Buck, who hesitated but then poured him a large helping from the fancy bottle.
“You asked for my help, William,” Kenyon reminded him.
“Yes, and thank you, but I don’t need your help anymore. I have things under control—I promise you.”
“William, you’re an adult. Do as you wish,” Kenyon said, but the other missionaries grumbled.
The soldiers laughed and shared another round. William gulped the scotch. He stood away from Kenyon, but not quite with the military men, who now under the influence, drew Buck in as their own.
“So . . . Buck, you’re on furlough . . . how come you’re not with your friends?” William asked—just wanting to be included.
Buck’s face fell. He had no friends and leave it to William to remind him. “Hey, Willy, spell lieutenant.”
“What?” William’s face soured.
“That’s right, why don’t you spell it for us?” Buck said.
“Oh, Bill isn’t all that bright upstairs,” Fahy said, pointing to his temple.
“My brother and I played tricks on Willy, didn’t we?” Buck said to William. “We convinced him to be in a spelling contest, taught him the words wrong. He got up there on his gimpy leg—he always had these headaches—we taught him every word wrong and he trusted us—ha-ha.”
The soldiers laughed. Buck was getting sick with just a few drinks in him.
William took the open bottle near the fire and filled his cup again. Kenyon called him, but William ignored it.
“What else, cadet? Any other stories?” Fahy asked.
“Oh yes, many. There was the time we stole his father’s cane—he’s a cripple from the war. It was at church and Lieutenant Weldon—well, he’s proud and he’d have stumbled, so he waited till everyone was out of church and then him and Willy took the side door. We hid in the bushes breaking our hearts laughing at them as they searched for their carriage, clinging to each other only to find their horse moved around front where they’d have to be seen. I remember watching Mr. Weldon trip–and Willy’s face,” Buck didn’t laugh with the others. “My father beat us with that stick till it broke. It was the only time he hit us. Well, we got Mr. Weldon a new, gorgeous stick—a Grand Army of the Republic one—out of our savings—my father forced us.”
“No, my mother gave my father that for Christmas!” William said.
“Willy, your mother couldn’t afford shit and your father wouldn’t have taken it from us.”
Fahy wanted fun, not memories. “How about we eat?”
“It was a damned mean thing to do to you, Willy,” Buck said, his words slurring and his head beginning to spin.
William took another drink. Kenyon came up behind him. “Son, you’d better eat something.”
“Get away from me, you bastard! You’re not my mother!” William said, shoving Kenyon.
Fahy rushed up. “Kenyon, this is my fault. Don’t let Weldon ruin your night. He’ll be the same old self in the morning.”
“Yes, I’m afraid he will. The meat’s burnt to a crisp,” Kenyon replied.
Winslow Homer “Sleigh Ride” (Clark Art Institute)
It has been two years since we brought our foster daughter her Cinderella costume at the mental health hospital.
She was trapped in the facility where she spent four months being “snowed” (a term insiders use as code for the state of over-medicated kids). Children in foster care have seemingly endless access to facilities, group homes, hospitals and drugs.
M was thrilled by the costume that trailed glitter every time you touched it, but on Halloween when we came to visit her we found her face painted as if in some sick joke. The meds gave M’s pretty face deep, dark circles. The staff exaggerated those circles with paint making her a zombie Cinderella. M was too disturbed to care. Only days before she’d been told her mother had given up her rights and would never see her again and her sisters were going to be adopted.
As a zombie, M spotted my daughter and me from across the sparsely decorated visitors’ wing. She cursed us, called us bitches and told us she never wanted to see us again. When we left we were almost relieved. Maybe she really meant it. Maybe this experiment in foster care was over. M called that night (after processing her anger in the padded room). She apologized and begged for us to return the next day.
So much has changed since those early days when an invisible force kept nudging us to stay connected. So many layers have been peeled back, and, with each layer, new and sometimes ugly revelations and behaviors emerge. Kids who’ve been abused to her extent often take their anger out on the mother figures in their new homes. Many women report having suicidal thoughts after adopting extremely abused children (not there yet).
Survival for kids who have been hurt before the age of two, before real words to name their abuse, suffer from fears that make no sense—even to them. An Irish fishermen sweater may have the texture of a blanket in a child’s crib. How does a toddler understand the time her mother fractured her tiny sister’s skull and broke her clavicle before throwing her into your crib? Stress and neglect damage the brain.
This year has been tough. Loving a low-functioning kid with bizarre survival skills is loving a dog who keeps biting you. Yeah, they’re cute but you have to wonder if you’re a little crazy too. Luckily this kid is only verbally abusive—and it’s more a constant need to control me. It’s like being locked in a bubble with a crazy person. She wants help yet she’ll fight for three hours (if you let her) insisting 3+3=7. We have to keep an alarm on her door now because she threatened committing suicide with kitchen knives. Once we got to the hospital (because as foster parents we must bring kids in for evaluation after suicidal talk), M ordered some food, flipped on the TV and admitted she was just angry at me for not letting her date (tests say she’s functioning at between 3 and 7 years old mentally).
While there’s a whole host of more important issues to deal with, the one that drives my husband and I crazy is her Cinderella dress from two years ago. The experts say to pick your battles, so we let her dress in the torn, too small dress over her play clothes after school. She gathers a bunch of toys, rocks and pieces of string into a bag, hops on her bike and parks it a ¼ of a mile down the road where it curves around a neighboring cow farm. She practices cheering imaginary teams with her tiara tilted on her head. On ninety degree days she wears the princess outfit, 7 scarves and a Shrek-like furry vest someone gave her at the group home. M thinks it’s fashionable.
Last week our son’s friend drove to the house. “I almost hit some crazy person in a crown blowing bubbles in the middle of the road!”
“Yeah, that’s my sister,” our son replied.
We’ve considered throwing away this costume so many times but it’s so important to her we haven’t had the heart. We’ve considered keeping her on a tighter rein but she’s finally not afraid to be out in nature on her bicycle. We’ve considered cutting our losses.
This weekend she came to apologize to me yet again for picking a fight. She knows she seriously may not be able to stay with us if she can’t begin to follow our safety rules (children of neglect believe they actually do know best about most things).
M stood before me in the open fields waving her arms with emotion. “Yeah, I do take everything out on you! I’m afraid to go to school tomorrow because the dog ate my paper (true) and here’s why I wear the princess costume. You really wanna know?”
“Okay, I guess so,” I replied, waiting for a lame excuse and not really wanting a discussion about fashion.
“So when I wear it, it’s the only time,” she began, her brown eyes welling with tears. “It’s the only time–when I wear the tiara and the dress—that I don’t feel like who I am for real: the ugliest person alive.”
***Photograph Library of Congress
“The Apache people will never take to Christianity with all of its ridiculous rules and regulations,” Miss Peckham said.
“And you’re an expert, then?” Thankful asked.
“I’ve seen enough to know that God can’t possibly take notice of us. No god would allow such false hope and suffering,” Miss Peckham replied.
“I agree whole-heartedly, Miss Peckham,” Fahy said. “Good luck to you, Bill.”
“Mr. Fahy, you can’t believe God wills suffering. People choose for themselves,” Thankful said in surprise at Fahy’s cynicism. “I think what you’re doing is noble, William.”
“Of course you would, Thankful,” Fahy remarked.
“You think Indians choose suffering, Thankful? That’s more heartless than I would have given you credit for,” Miss Peckham said.
“No, people make decisions and seek no counsel in God—that’s where we all lose our way.”
“And when have you ever lost your way, Miss Thankful? You always have a perfect map and plenty of funds,” Miss Peckham pointed out.
“I’ve been lucky in many ways, it’s true. When I was young, I had a dream that I witnessed Jesus carry his cross. He turned to me and asked what I would do.”
“Thankful, enough of this talk—don’t embarrass yourself,” Fahy said.
“I think she’s interesting,” William said.
Fahy cocked his head with a haughty laugh. “Since when does anyone put stock in what you think?”
“That was uncalled for, Mr. Fahy. I’m ashamed of you!” Thankful cried. “Ever since Miss Peckham has come you’ve turned into a complete cynic and a stranger to me!”
“Thankful, I can’t have changed in three days,” Fahy groaned. “I don’t know why you’re being so sensitive.”
“Why did you have to go ride with HER?” Thankful cried.
“You said it was all right!” Fahy replied.
“Well, I didn’t mean it of course!” Thankful sobbed. “And all of this horrible talk about religion and keeping babies from being born is disgusting and beneath you, lieutenant!”
Miss Peckham patted Thankful’s shoulder and spoke in the syrupy way she had. “Oh, Thankful dear, don’t you worry about God. Everyone, including the Indians have a right to be spiritual in their own way.”
“Worshipping trees and such is not like worshipping God,” Fahy laughed. “I’ve had more fun watching Indians whooping and hollering to their gods than I ever had attending mass. Everyone has a right to do what they like.”
“What about truth?” William inserted timidly.
Thankful had tucked herself under Fahy’s arm but turned to William with curious eyes.
“Christianity has its merits as a civilizing force. That cannot be denied,” Miss Peckham said, “but let’s all be mature—the basic notion of Christ rising from the dead is ridiculous and impossible to prove.”
“So . . . what you’re saying, Miss Peckham, is that an educated person would never believe in the supernatural or miracles or. . .” William’s head hurt, but his heart quickened, too.
“Bill, there are no miracles. Science will one day prove it,” Fahy said.
“I don’t know much, but maybe it’ll be Christ, who comes to prove things,” William responded.
Miss Peckham chuckled. “I bet the Messiah snuck off to France and had a good laugh.”
William scratched his head, but no thoughts came.
Mr. Kenyon had been listening from a distance and entered the fray. “If our Lord had played such a contemptible trick on the apostles then we’re doomed and should throw in the fiddle.”
“Well, his people could have faked the whole thing,” Miss Peckham pointed out.
“You’re welcome to your theories,” Kenyon said, “but the apostles went from timid, cowering fishermen and misfits before the Resurrection to courageous founders of the Church who were willing, one by one to be martyred for their beliefs.”
“That’s a high price to pay for a lark,” William remarked.
“Your livelihood depends on making us believe that,” Miss Peckham scoffed, “but I’d rather worship a tree. At least I can cut it down to make firewood.”
“It’s not just about you!” Thankful cried.
Kenyon laughed. “What an opinionated bunch of friends you have, Mr. Weldon.”
“They’re not my friends, sir,” William said, saving them the trouble.
Thankful took his hand. “Willy, be careful and write your parents. They worry an awful lot.”
“Miss Crenshaw, stop being such a mother hen,” Fahy said, joking to hide his annoyance. He kissed Thankful on the forehead.
Kenyon turned to see William’s reaction, but there was none. “Mr. Weldon, Captain Markham has kindly lent us two soldiers as escort. Do you know Lieutenants Joyce and Fahy?”
“Sir, I am Lieutenant Fahy.”
“Oh, good. Very nice to meet you. Now William will have a peer.”
Fahy sneered at William.
“Do we really need escorts?” William asked. “I’m very good with a gun, sir.”
“My friends want soldiers, William,” Kenyon said.
“Yes, preaching the love of Christ will take a show of force,” Miss Peckham scoffed.
***the Peacemaker by John George Brown
Megyn Kelly the former anchor turned morning show host recently recalled a conversation with Roger Ailes who told her she had an “authenticity problem.” Whether you agree or disagree with her perceived politics is not what I care about here. What troubled me instantly was the sense that a growing number of people (including myself) in an effort to impress others, avoid fights and seem agreeable have this same problem.
“Viewers can spot a phony from a mile away,” Megyn recalled Ailes telling her. In her book, she said she grappled with this issue. “Why can’t I make friends more easily? Why don’t more women want to be around me? I had been so busy for so many years building up a protective veneer that it didn’t dawn on me that I might be alienating others—from viewers to potential friends.” Vanity Fair
I grew up in a world where people assumed other people had differing opinions (sometimes radically differing), yet everyone managed to understand that listening to extreme and opposing ideas was often a good thing. It either alerted us to the holes in our arguments or sharpened them. The notion that some ideas could not be tolerated was frowned upon and seen as immature.
A few times online I have stumbled into debates about heated issues. My experience was telling and common. In each case as soon as I stepped out of line to one side or the other I was demonized. As some of you know my mantra is that we’re all flawed. This is now seen as an extremist sentiment.
I believe what I’m supposed to think is that most of us are victimized . Not all of us, mind you. There are those people—those people we won’t talk about here who painted masterpieces and invented light bulbs and semiconductors, worked 18 hours a day picking cotton, died to end slavery or for civil rights and wrote The Bill of Rights etc. Okay I will say it. MEN. Can we stop the silly hatred of them?
We are all victims of fate. We didn’t choose where or when to be born. If I’m going to admire anyone it’s going to be the person who actively overcomes their fated victimization, the person who is heroic. What is heroism? Is it posting a paragraph or two about injustice? Is it wearing a t-shirt or slapping a bumper-sticker on your car? I often wonder at the people so eaten up by hate that they choose to show the Christian symbol of the fish being devoured by Darwin. Isn’t it enough for these people to be at peace with their own beliefs? Why be so provoking? But I’m fine with them ruining the look of their car if they want to. I’d never think of demanding they stop.
A verse comes to mind: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead.” Matthew 23:27
Another story I heard recently was about a professor who was discussing a “sensitive” topic. He was baffled by the students’ lack of participation until a “brave” student confessed that she was afraid to offend anyone. The professor asked for a show of hands. “How many of you have been doing the same thing?” The entire class raised their hands.
Bravery and creativity don’t usually thrive in group-think situations. Here’s my confession: I often lack authenticity. I want to be liked by strangers. I worry if book sales will stop because I mention I believe in Jesus and that I had a conversion experience I can’t explain. I say glib things to seem clever and modern. I have difficulty making female friends. BUT . . .
I know in these moments of weakness there is nothing brave or satisfying about being cowardly. There’s nothing uplifting or fulfilling in claiming your victim card. It’s such a hollow victory. It leaves you mired in misery. I know this from experience.
Most people seem to sense that we’re here on this planet to be more than victims. It’s why we fantasize about being heroes or at least tagging along with one.
In MY NOVELS I don’t quite have perfect heroes. I know some exist, but in my world most of us are saddled with baggage, scars of our upbringing, societal preferences that make us feel inferior, an unbridled need to be liked, etc. What makes my characters heroes to me is that throughout their long existences they keep trying to get it right. Often they get things terribly wrong. Their maddening like the real people I know. Like me. But they are active. On some level, though they rarely admit it, they think they are made for something better–something heroic if only quietly heroic.
My heroes are the ones saddled with poverty, addiction, abuse, neglect and cowardice. They are the people who lose everything and still get up the next day. Bitter moments, even bitter years, plague us all but love saves the day. It saves lives—all lives. Authentic love forces us to think of others first. It forces us to see the beating heart behind the opinion we think is ludicrous. Love is not just for the people we agree with and not just for those of us with authenticity problems.
What about you? Are you authentic? Do you have any advice for those of us who can sometimes be slaves to our desire for approval?
***Featured Image: Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1907)
“To hear never-heard sounds,
To see never-seen colors and shapes,
To try to understand the imperceptible
Power pervading the world;
To fly and find pure ethereal substances
That are not of matter
But of that invisible soul pervading reality.
To hear another soul and to whisper to another soul;
To be a lantern in the darkness
Or an umbrella in a stormy day;
To feel much more than know.
To be the eyes of an eagle, slope of a mountain;
To be a wave understanding the influence of the moon;
To be a tree and read the memory of the leaves;
To be an insignificant pedestrian on the streets
Of crazy cities watching, watching, and watching.
To be a smile on the face of a woman
And shine in her memory
As a moment saved without planning.”
Painting: Venus Veiling Pandora by Charles Courtney Curran