Part I Part II Part III Part IV
There are so many ways to learn valuable lessons. I generally pick just about the hardest I can find. I think I love the challenge. (Or as some have suggested I just have no common sense.) Before everything became Huge Supermarkets, there used to be small mom and pop grocery stores in every neighborhood in Salt Lake City.
At last, tucked in my bed and the light turned out, mom off to do her mom things before she went to bed, I got up and got that gum out of my drawer. One, two, three, yeah let's make it four pieces of gum went into my mouth. Chew, chew, chew, I really enjoyed that peppermint flavor. At some point I finally got tired and decided I better go to sleep. I took the wad of gum out of my mouth and put it in the waste basket, then crawled into bed and was pretty soon sound asleep. Who knew a life of crime would be so satisfying? Not an ounce of a guilty conscience either. Sometime in the middle of the night my mom came into my room and turned the light on asking me what in the world was wrong. Dazed by sleep and blinded by the light I didn't know what she meant, except my stomach really was hurting. I was pretty dazed and confused and I could hardly imagine what my mother was going on and on about and how did she know what a stomach ache I had anyway? Something important to remember: Things are not always what they appear to be. My mother was asking me over and over again what did I eat? Did I eat something? As I gazed around the room by my bed and in my bed all I could see was shit. Yes, the real stuff. . .fecal matter everywhere. My mother was pretty frantic, no doubt wondering if I had some rare disease contracted from playing in the deepest darkest jungles of Africa as I often did. . .oh, that would be the imaginary Africa. I meekly showed her what was left of the package of gum. I mean, I had to she was going to burst a vein or something if I didn't show her what I had eaten. Feenamint! Feenamint, the safe easy laxative in chewing gum form. Chew one piece to relieve constipation over night. For adults. No more than 2 pieces in 24 hours. If problems persist, check with your doctor. Not only did I have to get up, take a bath, change my pajamas, help mom clean up the horrible mess, and change the sheets, I also had to tell her how and where I got the gum. Ouch! That was really hard, but I told her. I was sick for a couple of days, and I was very darn certain my life of crime was over. But mom took me back down to the store and made me give the half opened package back to the store owner and tell him what I did. The only way I could pay for this pilfered merchandise was to work it off. Every day for a week after school I had to go to the store and sweep the floor with a broom that was way too big for me. It never occurred to me ever again that I might want to steal something. Stealing was a pretty shitty experience in my view.
We had a big console radio in our living room. It was a magic box to be sure. On Saturday mornings there were the best stories on a program called "Let's pretend", and then over the top dramas on "Lux Radio Theater." Sunday afternoons and evenings after church were the best though, because of "The Green Hornet," "The Shadow," "Nick Carter, Master Detective", "The Thin Man" and oh so many more. Sometimes during the week at night, dad would listen to the college ballgames, especially basketball. When BYU played the University of Utah, it was serious business. I used to listen to them with him. Well, listen is not exactly descriptive of what I did. I had to play the games as the announcer described them, running back and forth between two overstuffed chairs on opposite sides of the room pretending that they were the baskets and I was Cousey or Havelechek. . . "She steals the ball, dribbles down court, no one near her, she stops, she jumps, she shoots. BASKET! the crowd is going wild! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, Cousey/Shirley does it again!" It was not enough that this dialogue should go on in my head I had to make the commentary out loud. My father was amazingly patient. Although he would ask me to "settle down now," several times, that would last about 2 or 3 minutes and I would be up and in the game again. I don't think he ever really got to listen to a whole game. What a good dad.
Those days seemed to melt like a Salvadore Dali painting as I transitioned into personhood and became 10, 11, 12 years old. I discovered poetry. Emily Dickinson: "I'm nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too? Then there's a pair of us, don't tell, they'd banish us, you know. . ." ; Robert Frost: ". . .I chose the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference. . .," Amy Lowell, Carl Sandberg, e e cummings, Edna St Vincent Millay. . .Edna St Vincent Millay, was there ever a name that should belong to a poet more than hers? oh my: "My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--It gives a lovely light!" or the stunning verse brought forth from her 19 year old heart in Renascence, the first stanza of which brings the once fully memorized verses flooding back to memory:
"All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay ."
There was also Whitman, Byron, Keates and Shelley, Browning. . ."How do I love thee, let me count the ways? I love thee to the heighth and bredth my soul can reach. " Poetry could pretty much consume your whole life if you let it, it is such an indelible imprint on your heart. It did consume mine for several years. Words that make music in your soul.
I bought plenty of those "Complete Works of_____" poetry collections, and "Famous American Poets Anthology" books. As I would read through the pages totally enthralled, I would write comment in the margins of the pages. Having the awe and respect I do for books this was a little unseemly, defacing a book. But there was a reason that made sense to me at the time. Laugh along with me now as I tell you that reason. I thought it would be important in the future when I was a famous poet/author myself to have the youthful opinion of mine recorded for posterity. Hah! Oh, when I think of it now it makes me laugh out loud with the absurdity of it. However it is not too far off the mark of how young pre teens and teens think and day dream about such things.
The box that held my own writing was filling up. The poetry filled pages and pages and had an affect on a deep inner level. It seemed that I was on a paradoxical and parallel course. The part of me busy keeping everyone out of my personal heart and the part of me exploring and expanding a deep abiding love for humankind and the grave injustices that human beings suffered everywhere in our world. My bleeding-heart really began to bleed for people I would never know personally and circumstances I would never be forced to deal with directly.
Then 1951 came along, and the Newspaper, which I read every day as an 11 year old, was filled with this:
"...if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90 percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child's curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation."
The Board of Education's defense was that, because segregation in Topeka and elsewhere pervaded many other aspects of life, segregated schools simply prepared black children for the segregation they would face during adulthood. The board also argued that segregated schools were not necessarily harmful to black children; great African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver had overcome more than just segregated schools to achieve what they achieved."
My parents could not understand what was wrong with me. Please remember, they were a product of the early 1900's, they seldom if ever had even seen black people, let alone known any. There were certainly not a lot of people of color around Salt Lake City. Not excusing them, just describing where they were coming from. When I told them why I was so upset, they began with the idea that this was an event that did not touch our lives. And there was something inherently wrong about caring so much about national and world issues that didn't directly affect us or me personally. I could not understand what they were talking about. Everything in this world affects me personally. And it was all well and good that this was not happening in my town or to someone I actually knew, but damn it, it was breaking my heart. Such colossal inhumanity! Then there was the part I was supposed to understand about black people, only we called them Negroes then. Black people weren't somehow the same as white people. They were less and you just had to understand that that was just the way things are. My anger consumed me. My breaking heart consumed me. And at 11 years old I didn't have enough skills yet to make my argument properly or forcefully enough. But the devastation I felt in their misguided and faulty beliefs brought a new barrier between us. We would get lots of time to discuss issues like this over the ensuing years of the civil rights movement. The day came a couple of years later when my father told me from his place of authority as father and head of the house, that there were "Good niggers and bad niggers" just as there were "Good white people and poor white trash." I was so deeply offended by that remark that he and I never saw eye to eye on almost anything after that. I lost any desire to be a part of his awful belief system and our relationship deteriorated quite rapidly. My mother on the other hand was more concerned as to why something like this would cause me such deep emotional pain. That was not right nor acceptable in her view point. My emotions were inappropriate. That was something she never understood about me even with all the changes our relationship went through over the years of her life. The idea that things could affect me this deeply was just not right, in her view. Move along, get over it, this really doesn't matter, none of our concern. Huh, I was just too emotional for them. Not acceptable. Learn to control it little girl.
What I learned to do was honor it and nurture it and expand it as far as I possibly could. This is when I began having conversations with myself about a whole lot of people that were around me. "I swear to God, I am not from this planet. We do not treat people in this unloving, uncaring way where I come from. No, I cannot possibly be from this heartless place." Great. Now I don't feel like I even belong on the planet let alone in any family's life.
I was a very shy child. It took me a long time to get to know others and trust that we could actually be friends or at least playmates. At about 12 or 13 I decided I needed to understand how this friend thing worked. Of course I went to the library to find the answers. I found a book there, and I have no recall at all what the title of the book was, but it was exactly what I needed to know. How to be a friend. In order to have a friend you needed to be a friend. That was the focus of this book. Just the right thing at just the right time. This was valuable information and I ate it up. Interesting thing is it worked. And in the Junior High School years I figured out I was a person, I was funny, and people could actually like me. So then with my new found humor I became a "disturbing element" in the classroom. I made one teacher so mad at me he threw the chalk board eraser at me from the front of the classroom. And it was a Roger Clemens fast ball throw, direct and accurate. Now I see, humor is power! On to creating my stand up routine and knowing I could make people laugh. (Although it could make teachers mad)
Did I make a mistake in not going into comedy and giving Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby and the gang a run for their money?
Check out part VI tomorrow. . .