In Buddhist teaching, an old monk explains to a young disciple that he enjoys his tea in some cup, apparently quite a lovely one. The monk goes on to say that while the cup appears complete and whole–it catches the morning light, reflects the blue of the sky with smooth sides, and, perhaps, (I’ll add here using my favorite coffee cup), has a rounded lip that feels good to the mouth when taking a sip–while, as I was saying, the cup seems whole and complete right now, it might be, as I did the other day, dropped in the sink, knocked off by an elbow–something to to break it to pieces–and, because the monk knows this, he tells his pupil that “the cup is already broken.” Naturally, the monk, as monks do, is aiming at an understanding of profound implications. One association with the telling about the cup is that eventually everything gets broken, worn out, or dissolves in one way or the other. The lesson is impermanence here. The use of the vignette is made more real for me in the next line that the monk offered: because I know the cup (and, by extension, the cup of life) will not last, I enjoy its apparent wholeness right now even more, the precious existence of the cup now. Of course, this is the notion, in part, that emphasizes the present, the now of life, the moving into a realization of moment to moment awareness as opposed to living in the past or future too much.
Naturally, as most people know, the death of a loved one stirs up some deep feelings in most everyone. I recall the dynamics exploding in the house as we all tended Vic. Sometimes it was like a hand-grenade had gone off with the strong emotion and conflict that arose. We were walking around like broken cups, so to speak. Our sense of our own wholeness was shaky, and in a larger sense, was shown, rather painfully at times, to be an illusion, our fine face we turn to the world, slapped up the side of the head with the presence of dying. In my case, of course, I have whined quite a bit about my own worry and fearfulness at going solo. I can’t help recalling in this lesson of enjoying the precious cup while it lasts, of the ride Vic and I took right after getting out of the hospital. There, as I told it, we went face to face with the “sweet spot” of life, the enjoyment of the presence of each other, and, I emphasize, without any condition attached to it, other than, as my brother Will LaSalle would say,”breathing air and taking up space.” Not to sound too “new age,” but it was, indeed an emphatic reminder of the enjoyment of being without any conditional notions of how to be or make or modify our experience. Indeed, as I was reading the other day, there’s nothing like the focus on death to bring one into the focus on life, to feel truly the preciousness of being alive. In the house, the broken cup fell to rather negative groundings; on our ride, Vic and I experienced, I would have to guess, a deeper sense of being in the world that was fragile, at the time, but more positive. With us, it had to do with touching the love I do imagine (Love being the only lasting quality without conditions). Certainly, when I returned to the empty house the day of the funeral, I was placed next to the notion that my own happy…self was up to me, that going solo at 72, meant that I was to a large extent out of conditional images of life, that my past approach of postponing happiness (provisional life,a bit out of reality) in order to get to someplace called Happy Land, that in order to arrive at a more satisfied life in general, was as Ruby O’Dell would have put it, “kaput!” One thing was for sure, my participation in that ready-made excuse too many spouses have, that is, holding the other responsible for one’s own unhappiness, had passed with Vic. I acknowledge that physical disappearance does not always make the psychology of blame and the placing of responsibility outside of ourselves go away, and, indeed, it lives on too often.
But, in my case the emotional role of the either personal victim in my immediate life, or the collective victim from living into another generation’s world, beyond (what Hemingway expressed as “in our time’), that is, living beyond my own time as center front on the world’s stage–the emotional tide of my importance and role had passed, and it was now the time to step out free from victimhood. As I noted in teaching, each year I felt my importance moving from the podium, center stage, to the seats in the audience, until finally, I was high up in the back of the darkened balcony, backed up to the wall below the projection booth, with the stage far below, lighted up with the drama of what was happening now in life with my own sons and the generations I was teaching. This push off the stage of the affairs of life can make one feel a bit unimportant, perhaps, heaven forbid, marginalized, and my behavior and protest from the lack of appreciation for my own presence got expressed. My feelings of anger and frustration on the collective stage of service counters, check stands, drive-through windows, credit card phone recordings, insurance companies, contractors, banks, and, well, Here Comes Everybody, and all the assorted hoop-jumping one is required to do in the present world–my protest got expressed in my feelings that took over in an obsessive discontent experienced in thoughts that wouldn’t stop and bitch sessions too often repeated, however seemingly reasonable. A good way to explain the attitude is that the world was doing wrong, and if they would only listen to me, matters would be set straight. However, as Ruby would say, “Nobody cares.” My childish protest sometimes heard in what I call the “adult whine” could be heard in the too often depth analysis in the shortcomings of the organization that hired the poor girl at the check-out stand who failed to smile, who probably either just got dumped or crapped on by her husband, or worse yet, was kept broke because of her kids, or kicked in the emotional can by her boss. Undercover boss replaced my fascination with Bait Car on TV. I finally reached the stage of development in moving to a solution to all this dissatisfaction, called “fed-up” with myself, and this made my mantra, “I gotta do better than this” (hacked all the time). My goal of “Happy Presence” appeared on my personal horizon as a boat to take in transitioning to old age. Naturally, in fits and starts, I am only marginally successful, but the more I move to that position, the better life is, of course, as most anyone would advise. The tornado and its sequela provided ample opportunity for the practice of patience, compassion, and empathetic relating. The Academy standard of “No Excuses” may be high, but I believe it for myself.
So, as in my last installment of COH, how did my original cup of innocent wholeness get broken in the first place? I always felt, as my reader must know for sure by now, that I was sharing the fate of most people, walking around with some kind of wounding buried in the formative past–good psych. Yes, my formula for how to live and experience myself coagulated around the time of The Farm Forties. In my story of the Summerville Saga (following the advice to people who grow old–write your memoirs), we left young Jimmy and his brother on the farm. This was, of course, the time of our childhood experience, from one to six, and my psychologist son tells me, very important. Herbert Huber and wife, Maggie, took us, on our maternal mother’s side, Rita Huber. The farm was in the gorgeous farm country of Old Oregon, near the coast bordering the old rain forest of The State. Mason, my Dad, you will recall, said that The Hubers had it pretty good during the war (WWII) because the dairy farm business was good, and he sent them money from the Philippines. Telling incidents that present auguries of fate abound in our beginning years. My brother, Art, explains his pondering of euthanasia when Blackie, one of Grandad’s dogs got run over by his flat-bed International truck. Art became a doctor, and the best he’s confessed to is standing on the oxygen hose (he’s kidding), or “taking his time” with someone who is missing half his brain from a motorcycle accident. I apparently bounced off my shaken-babyhood with the squealing act. My protesting apparently had the effect, according to Dad, of Art protecting me occasionally, by bringing me along when I was called in order to avoid a whipping by Pop. Mason also said, “the Hubers were too permissive and let you have your way just to shut you up.” My father’s intolerance of matters helped me a great deal to form my own sense of intolerance, copying his shadow, which, to some extent, of course, led to a sometimes good, but mostly neurotic connection to seeking perfection, a fear of doing wrong, and a unreasonable fear of the resulting guilt–as is the fate of too many of us. I am told, without memory, that my aunts took care of us a great deal. The feeling I got when I heard my aunt’s voice many years later engendered an upsurge of pleasurable sensation of safety and “on base,” like some angel had appeared in my presence, or I had just heard the clear, easy gong of a bell. I observed here that one carries the illusion of a whole cup that is already broken like thinking all the pieces of the puzzle are in the box to make the picture on the top, when, in fact, the whole cup cannot be assembled because of the missing pieces that are not known to be missing. My memories of the farm life are clouded by later memories; however, one dominant impression stands out. When Dad married Ruby, following his return from The War, I recall vividly the night of departure from The Farm when Ruby, now Ruby Summerville, told me that they could find another headboard decal in our new home to match the one I had grown attached to. The headboard upstairs on the farmhouse had three decals of a bucking horse and rider across the top. I recall that I felt something new in her interest in my problem as she kept her gaze on me. I remember placing my finger on it and saying, “No, it won’t be the same, and it won’t be this one. Can’t I take it with us?” In 1948, such indulgences were impractical. The bed remained on the farm, and my severence from the “bucking horse and rider of my dreams,” symbolically my ego riding on the instinct of a rough go, followed me psychologically into life. An intimacy or safety of connection was lost in some way. Later, on our infrequent visits to the farm, Art and I would agree, especially in the morning, “There’s no place on earth that smells like this.” I can recall when coming for a visit, how my emotional atmosphere, what I can only describe as my emotional well-being was lifted into a sort of “safe at home,” not completely euphoric, but into that calmness one has when there is enough, a feeling of secure and belonging, like some translucent plasma surrounded me, and, now, what I would describe as the Garden of Eden before The Fall, that is, before I split into my ego versus my unremembered past, my conscious versus my unconscious; then, I was experiencing a sense of completeness, probably much owed to an unconditional love from all The Hubers. Dad said he couldn’t understand why we loved our grandfather so much, and Art always said, Grandma Huber “was a saint.” And, as I said, our aunts were full of love and care. Much, much later in life, Art said, “They should have left us on the farm.” Naturally, at the time he said it, I was really surprised. My version of our psychological reality did not include that judgment, for I had, as Art put it, “Bought their [blended family] version of how things are.” Art never bonded with step-mother Ruby, to say the least. In the new family of The Forties, my step-brother, Will was Ruby’s own, her one and only, and Art, as we’ve heard, Dad’s favorite, which, of course, even though I was the youngest, left me in the position of the forgotten, middle-child syndrome–meaning, with nobody who would first defend you when you made a mistake, but rather, in the shadow dance that I learned much later in life, would hold you hostage for your mistakes, not the least of which would be a rather unforgiving, as it was said, in The Fifties, guilt trip. A fine internalization of these images followed as a matter of course, as people’s lives do.
Thus, when Art went to school, we had been taken off the farm. After a short time, we moved inland, to the Valleys of the Totem River in a town called Eden Hill, the one that is the largest of the surrounding small, rural towns, the one with the bigger schools, the place, as Ruby put it, “where the boys can grow up to amount to something instead of wallowing in the cowshit up to their armpits.” Will and I would agree that much of our worldly success is owed in large part to Ruby. She was of Irish descent, lived in a cabin on top of a mountain in Montana; she and her sisters went it alone with her mother after her drunk father abandoned them. Mason called her “Toughie O’Dell” on many occasion. But the upwardly mobile, cultural value of bettering oneself and “improving their lot” was ingrained in her. All three sons benefited from this. Will listened to her, and he pulled himself higher than he probably ever dreamed of when he was hot-rodding the streets and pumping gas through high school at Bartrum’s Texaco. This locale was the center of the logging industry, settled in the foothills and river valleys of Cascade County, a place I naturally, as many do with respect to their adolescent years, relate to as the most poetic and beautiful place on earth, certainly where not a few of the burning issues of the heart took place, both inside and outside the home. This became our setting for The Fifties, a rather unique time in the Flowering of America that many have written about. Of course, there were black marks on the period’s historical record and reality, but from our little corner of the world, The Summervilles had a fine life, as Mason would say, “in the upper-middle class,” always giving the economic factor primary consideration as the ultimate measure of success. Art, as the favorite, of course, enjoyed the confidence of disagreeing with the family’s materialism, and he had no problem standing up to the family’s value system. I guess his self-worth had a little leg up on me, because I bought it, for better in many ways, and worse in some.
Thus, ended the Farm Forties, and since “there is no sense of time in the unconscious,” or put another way, “the timeless” feeling of the farm receded from my conscious sight. I did not carry into life what the psychologists call “full presence,” but rather, as my son explains, I took “re-enactment” of my basic structure from the product of abandonment, sort of “partial birth,” into the world, and life after the farm–a little mad, packing high emotion, defensiveness, a drive to prove my self-worth beyond reasonable bounds, and a compensation package that included the dangerous positioning of the desire and propensity for planning a future that is captured in the phrase, “going to be great someday.” It was much later in life Mason advised me to give up the dream of “the great blonde with an understanding heart.” At this time, much later in life, I wondered how he even knew of this heart’s desire. Naturally, a teasing of the feeling of the collapse and catastrophe in which a world I knew would come to a sudden and dramatic end had gained a foothold. Over time, however, a working identity sorted itself out, and Ruby called me “high strung,” peering at me with her knowing, blue eyes, and sometimes, quipping, “you’re a fit of misery!” The basic question was always, “why are you so unhappy,” because “you’ve got everything.” Seen in hindsight, understanding in mind is far easier than suffering the reconnection of the heart that is necessary to reexperience oneself and transform in an emotional mixing of the child and adult. For me, it has taken all my life, and, as this Confessions of Hermes expresses, not at all yet complete. During the first half of life, one is getting into the drama, going into life, not reconnecting with the past or going within to have his “dark night of the soul,” or in another, perhaps, more collective expression of the inner trip, “the night sea journey.” During our first efforts of going into life, the dragons of the world lay before us, and the business of what is popularly called “becoming whole” or revisiting childhood for the completion of unfinished business is going in the wrong direction. To turn inward is most probably for most of us, a long journey, and I add “to let loose the terrors of childhood” as Carl Jung has written, is not an inviting prospect or suspected inward journey for transformation; I did take the “night sea journey,” the trip to Hades, because the decision to do so was made over my head, and today, I still can feel a chill in the stirrings of that fear at the bottom of my original being like some cold draft from a hole I might just fall through, dropped by a trap door into some kind of annihilation, that “awful-awful,” as Ruby used to express the shock of the unacceptable–and, as I was saying can feel a blind sense of the bogeyman in the dark in my daily relationship to going completely solo, without the duality of someone like Vic to carry the projection of safety, either real or imagined. But, to make a daily report, when asked now how I am doing, I answer, “Better than I expected,” although I don’t trust it. And, I hasten to add here, a lack of trust is one of the number one characteristics of the negative-mother complex. My personal, basic position seems to be that if I end up alone, I’ve done something wrong, or a feeling of guilt, perhaps, defeat, but while I can do alone, I don’t feel the natural, default position with the surround sound of safety with it. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the positive-mother complex, where, as my brother Will would say to anyone who criticized him, “your taste is all in your mouth;” in other words, his default position is that he’s always okay. And, as Vonnegut wrote so well, “So it goes.”
Postscript: I must let Vic have the last word, as I like to do. During the illness, at the beginning, when we both speculated on how “it”[life with cancer] would be, Vic insisted during a shopping outing that I buy this sign. Obviously, now I am realizing her great intuition. Yes, I am a broken cup, but appreciating the whole cup of life now more. I know with greater emphasis that “the cup is already broken,” or as Ruby would say, “life’s short,” and as Ruby aged, “life’s too short,” she would say in answer to too much regretful monologue or expressed worry. Vic directed me in the living room in front of her friends when she still had energy enough to be up and around, participating–directed me to hang this sign among a grouping of other signs with sayings and photos on the wall. As usual she was dialed into life in ways that still had myself very much in the dark. The sign read: “Make each day a story worth telling.” She was absolutely adamant that I buy it. When I bought it, she said, “There, it gives you something to blog about.”