From Light on the Path:
“When you have found the beginning of the way
the star of your soul will show its light;
and by that light you will perceive how great is the darkness in which it burns.”
Blood Makes Rich Fertilizer.
Dinner chat wasn’t as joyful as it had been once upon a time. Voices were quieter, more subdued. My brother and sisters took turns. They passed food sometimes in silence, in thoughtful pauses, or in pauses as they tried not to think. For long hours in the living room, Sharon thumbed through her childhood catechisms and Bible tales until their colors faded and dulled to thin grays. Kath put hers back on the shelf, where it got buried behind her Nancy Drew collection. Tim was kicked out of high school for cutting too many days.
I set up an altar in my bedroom, placing prayer books and my favorite pictures of saints on it. In a Philadelphia church I stood by the glass coffined body of St. John Neumann, praying for all my soul was worth. I bought a tiny crumb of his backbone and positioned it reverently on my altar beside the crucifix my grandmother had given me when I’d gone deaf for a few months, and the little rosary in a plastic pack I’d carried to church every Sunday back when I’d still worn red clip-on bowties. There were prayer cards from my grandfather’s funeral, and those of dead neighbors, like the little girl up the street who’d lost her battle against a blood disease she wasn’t even old enough to spell.
We spent way too much time looking down into coffins, never quite understanding why.
In the center of the altar stood a ceramic Mary in a lovely blue dress Grandma and I had painted sitting side-by-side at her tiny table. Mary had the most beatific expression on her young, untroubled face; a smile so soft and gentle you could disappear into it; especially by candlelight, wisps of incense smelling as I imagined a Tibetan monastery might. The St. Christopher’s medal my uncle had worn landing fighters on carriers in World War II lay at her feet. Crystals from my rock collection poked in along the walls in case they really did offer some kind of healing.
Visits to New York art museums were diverted into pilgrimages to St. Pat’s Cathedral, praying for hours, lighting candles, and leaving what change I could spare.
The frayed and gritty edges of everyone’s world were worried away by neighbors you’d never noticed until the air spilled over with the tragedy of their loss. How the war had taken them or their children; killed them, lost them, torn off body parts, sent them back brain-fried.
Or, in the best of stories, trailing heaps of pain-wrenched glory. Somehow, though, even those tales of heroism, those dim lights you searched for through psychological and spiritual famine, groping desperately through all that gloom, even those somehow seemed to just ping off the surface of the pain they carried inside them. They sounded so defensive; like the good parts were mostly just make-believe. Friends of friends poured out each loved one’s heroism with swelled chest, but always followed the script, those same exact words, every time exactly the same, as though they never dared vary one single word, go wandering off, thinking things through. Tales fell from hearts in heavy, wet tones of grief and confusion.
Even when rare moments of relative calm and clarity crept briefly through our days, they crawled in with head hanging through that most familiar of all tunnels, our sense of loss. Each new friend seemed only to step in and announce himself with his last breath. Why hadn’t we loved him earlier when there had been more time?
That overriding sense of loss was the crusted-over peephole through which you viewed the world. Dreading life’s relentless advance, but knowing your locks could never keep it out.
“Jack down the street was a gunner in Nam. Chopper took some flak. Forced ’em down, props all knocked loose and ridin’ low. Stood up into it unloading a wounded buddy. Lousy time to be 6’4”. First week there. You remember Jack. You went to school with his sister. Only a year or two ahead of you. Died a man’s death. God-awful how it always takes the good ones.”
Yeah, I remembered Crazy Jack. Used to steal my towel in the locker room. Cops picked him up three, four times for drinking and stealing cars before he was old enough they could hold him. Even rumors of a stick-up, but you know small towns. Joined the military to sidestep a prison rap, or so they said. And suddenly he’s my hero? Yeah, I remembered Jack. Jack and a dozen Jacks like him.
“Joe Whatsisname. Almost dated your sister. You remember Joe. Went completely bald when they blew up his brother and sent home the pieces. Joe … Joe … Uhhh - You remember Joe. Not a hair on his head. Only fifteen. That war grabs everybody. Even ones’t don’t go.”
“Yeah, well, I know a guy who …”
As the late 60’s gave in and died, and I trudged my way through my first years in college, even the old folks were growing up. Their World War II glories clouded over. We’d all been dragged out of our warm, snuggly innocence.
People seemed infested by life, that dire contagion, burdened by the stifling weight of it, until we could only force shallow, labored breaths. Each new day was just an old one playing through again, a dust-laden August, a storm always riding right on top of you that never quite cut loose a hellin’. It settled into your joints until they grew achy, too heavy to lift; tarring all hearts with a dark, heavy plaque. Days stuck together as walking and breathing grew tedious. Until even my bubbly sister couldn’t offer up a smile without a shadow lurking inside it. We trudged through life like molasses as our mighty nation killed our sons and broke our buddies, defending itself from skinny barefoot farmers with sticks, in some rice swamps, somewhere on the other side of existence, where you couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad. Some lost tiny nowhere that hadn’t even existed when you’d been a kid; when the world had been innocent and untainted. Back when Father Knew Best, Beaver’s mom fed his dad all the answers, and Annie Oakley never had to shoot to kill.
My dad, Tiny Tim, the fat jolly Irishman, had always been too big to buy his clothes in stores. When we’d been tiny, he’d have Mom make sports shirts for the six of us out of the gaudiest prints they could find, the females condemned to matching shorts. Newspaper photos from around the country showed us standing out at Kiwanis conventions; my skinny arms poking out of some grotesque print of green doughnuts, or purple and orange palm trees, all six of us dressed exactly the same. Dad loved the attention, with his purple station wagon, gaudy sports shirts, his booming Irish laughter, and infectious joviality.
He still wore the shirts. Few people saw them. He lost more and more time on the couch, his socks drooping, his face hanging low as he fought hard against his weight, against smoking; and, secretly, against a world that no longer seemed decent, no longer made sense; though he would never, ever, ever say a word against our always-honorable American government.
Two years later, after his funeral, after I’d dropped out of school and he’d died within a month, a broken man, Mom would find fingerprints dragged along the hall, as though he’d groped his way out to us, blinded by pain, but then straightened up and put on a brave face.
Mom had been hit by lightning as a child and been terrified of thunder ever since. Dad had found her cowering down behind a bed one time when we were bitty, during a loud, and terrifying storm. He’d told her to buck up and not scare the children.
Our personal terrors were not to be put on display.
In my two years at the local college, if somehow I managed to keep my grades just above flushable, it wasn’t from any excess of confidence, competence, or zeal. Mainly my academic scores kept me afloat, though not really kicking very hard. I still sucked at Color & Design Fundamentals, expressing myself best through black & white photos and paintings; in ink and pencil drawings that sometimes writhed in silent screams like the deeply troubled work of Kathe Kollwitz. Eighteen years later, my wife would take me aside at public events to berate me: “You’re wearing blue pants with green socks again. You embarrass me. You can’t ever get anything right.” Apparently I was colorblind. Before our next event, I’d try holding up pants, asking her which was the black pair and which the navy. She’d shrivel me with a look of disdain that would reek its way through to my core, but say nothing to help.
Charli would wage a long, bitter war to grind into my bones that the world was your cashbox. That faith was a childish weakness, a pathology best torn out harshly. That bright illusions grow up into disillusionment. But back in college during the years of the Vietnam War, I was still trying to see the world as an expression of light, without all the shadows, evils and grays. I was still trying to paint with colors; still holding God as the center of everything, trusting that God and goodness would always be enough. It had to be enough; it’s all I had.
My friend Yorke said the universe demanded more of us and we should demand more of ourselves. He stood out from any crowd, trimmed his Van Dyck to a finely honed point, kept his Ben Franklin glasses balanced on the tip of his patrician nose. He parted his hair down the middle like a 1920’s banker. Yorke cut a trim, sophisticated, if intentionally anachronistic appearance in double-breasted linen vests and silk jackets, often dressing in pinstripes. He drove a Ford Model-T with a New York cabbie’s license from the 40’s pinned to its visor.
He and his twin, Gordon, were all but indistinguishable from the neck up, but Gordon dressed more late twentieth century conservative. Neither would wear t-shirts or shorts, but Gordon could have blended in among Republicans at a luncheon discussing how to lower wages, take the vote away from darker races, and stamp out labor rights.
Yorke was political. I wasn’t. It hurt both of us deeply that soldiers were killing and being killed, but he tried to do something about it. He tried to stir up some campus activism, signed on for what few and meager protests a tiny handful of students managed to mount. There were never any marches, no sit-ins, nobody held signs; Bucks County was too conservative for anything like that. The fires of his passions singed him through to the threadbare fibers of his soul. The world, as it was, hurt him deeply.
My heart knew the same pain, but it wasn’t my nature to make a fuss, to stand up for or against anything. I think that kept us from growing closer, Yorke and I. His passions were more in-your-face. He lived them, despite getting blocked, abused, and insulted at every turn. I kept mine locked away, and he could never deal with that in me. I shouldn’t have been able to either.
Yorke closed himself off in a garage with his beloved Model-T one bright and sunny spring afternoon. He turned on the engine, and died.
Mom spent that hour searching our house, miles away; sniffing corners, asking if we smelled gas. She’d never met Yorke, he lived in another town, but she, too, could be painfully empathetic.
He wouldn’t talk with me again for years after that, though his ghost would continue to visit his brother in their Ford. I wouldn’t have a chance to understand, to put things to rest, until one evening, six years later, when I caught him slipping away from a dark occult library and he’d finally stop in to explain things. But in the years immediately following his death, I still hurt for that resolution, carrying his fatal act of violence against himself in my fibers and tissues like a deep and very personal wound I didn’t dare pick at. I only knew that a friend hadn’t been able to take any more. That he’d taken the world’s gathering ugliness out on himself.
Some shared pain in me somehow understood. Some pain I didn’t dare stir.
As a photography major, I liked experimenting: smearing lenses, cracking or melting films in chemical baths; surprising myself with unpredictable special effects. One portrait of Yorke came out looking like he was dissolving into clouds. I was never able to repeat that effect. Months later he did just that.
His mom bought that photo at a student art exhibition. I never entered another show. Now and then I managed an impressive drawing or photo, and somehow squeaked through. Teachers managed to pull a few strings to let me tag along with four other kids who’d been accepted to an art college in another state; another world. On my own for the very first time as cities tore themselves apart in protests and race riots where I could be caught hiding the wrong political convictions, or wearing the wrong color skin.
I was terrified.
And as always, I hurt for my dad. He’d suffered enough even if he hadn’t let his family see it. He’d driven himself into debt to put his pathologically sensitive son through useless, impractical art lessons where I poured out passions that no one could see. If I didn’t make it, I’d fail him again, drag him down into my own morose sense of futility.
He had once tried to teach me survival skills, pushing me to try selling pencils or calendars door-to-door that some customer had stiffed him on. I was only about seven. At each door I’d just hung my head, mumbled, and walked away.
At most houses, I hadn’t even rung the bell.
I’d been born without a thread of aggression, couldn’t force anything on anyone; could never put my own needs first. So, failing art, starvation seemed my only moral choice.
I didn’t belong in a world like that anyway.