It seemed an important discovery that after all I had done in recent years to
shed what until these recent years I had thought of as the slimmest of illusions - illusions about family and what had at first been home - and about who I was and about the desirability of not even thinking about childhood - It seemed important that in this big airy retreat room looking out and down from a hilltop to the Hudson River at one of its widest bends - It seemed important that I could be so moved following this most trite of all conventional exercises - this one that went "Write a letter to yourself as a child." And, walking in the woods that flow down from this hilltop, I was suddenly asking myself - asking this child in the distant foggy past and myself in this present in which so much had been opening after so many illusions were shed.
It seemed important that from out of nowhere I was asking myself what had become of the distant past version of myself - asking questions to which I knew the answer - the ultimate one that went into my notebook in the woods and made me tear up was, "Did you have pets?"
Did you have lovers was another - for which I had facile answers - but the "Did you have pets?" was the one that made me realize that - despite all the work I had done, all the life that had been opening up for me, there was still unfinished business with the people and places of what so clearly now - though it had not always been clear - had been a dark and dangerous childhood, a dank prison from which I might never have escaped.
And here was something new for me here in this room which contained an open, if empty, casket, a real one brought in before the weekend by an actual mortician who was related to the retreat house's director
And constantly in the background was the static and occasional ship-to-shore
and ship-to-ship chatter on a radio band used by captains and pilots on the Hudson.
The radio belonged to this cherubic man - a roly poly man with steely if twinkling, eyes, dressed, as he always would be, in what looked to me like L.L. Bean hiking clothes worn by someone who wished he were not too old to buy his clothes at the official Boy Scout store, this roly poly man who was the leader here this weekend and never explained the open casket or why we should hear the talk that was sometimes coming from boats down below - No words about either - except to periodically insist that everyone go to the windows to see a barge.
How wonderful, I kept telling myself. How non-linear. And I told it to myself again when I nearly cried again inside the room when I decided to participate and read aloud the sketchy writing I'd done in the woods. I wanted to be a part of this crowd.
So I read what I had written and the roly poly leader looked me in the eye and said, "See, you're writing again."
How wonderful, though this was not writing. This was putting something in place. I had known since encounters with measured men way back in a cold college English department that real writing, as opposed to what interested those men, involves recreating scenes and stories, bringing real people to life. That's when things happen and discovery comes - not from starting with neat conclusions and writing into your conclusions. I was still angry to discover that people who devoted their lives to literature hated real writing. I knew that if you start with conclusions you are doing nothing that a dull-witted critic or English instructor could not do. And as I thought these thoughts I realized how alone I had been in
my views, rarely put into written words, about the horrors of linear thinking.
I was a painter now, and sometimes a sculptor. To sit in this room and listen to this cherub put a false label on me, to endure this and actually feel good about something, somewhere - feel good in my determination to take care of the old business that had just surfaced - it made no sense in any linear way that this should make me feel good.
Still, it was nice of him to say I was writing, for he seemed to believe that such was a good thing. For me the writing itself was not something good. For at this time I was rid of writing forever. I was letting what I needed to know come to me as in dreams, as in suddenly coming upon an abandoned memory. This was happening in drawing and painting and sometimes with clay. I still carried notebooks and made notes. That did-you-have-pets line could easily have come into one of my earlier notebook ramblings in this non-writing time. But it did not constitute what I considered real writing then, and it was not writing now. And although I felt strangely comfortable here, I was also thinking that when this guy talks about me he is saying things that have nothing to do with me.
Non-linear, I kept repeating to myself as if all my life I had been trying to get beyond what had made me a champion debater when I was 16. I was taking great pleasure in the parts to the weekend that made the least sense - Janet swearing at her husband Tim - who was the only retreatant I knew from the outside world - shouting at him about an affair he had had, and I could tell she never did get the whole story. She threw a large teddy bear at him - and then she had her angry eye on other stuffed animals - a lot of people here had brought stuffed animals - and then she seemed about to leap on him. And then Harold stepped into the center of the room, put on a baseball cap with the brim to the back, turned a straight-back chair around so he could straddle it, looked at each of us, face to face, and started to cry because, he said, he was scared about his wife's pregnancy, and then she was there too, oversize in jeans, cradling him as he cried. And then another guy, Elliot, read a poem about the family he had come from, whose every member had the ability to fart good smelling farts - and everyone was too good looking - reading this while beside him was his extremely pretty young wive.
Then we were all watching videos of the hazy PBS family systems motivational speaker John Bradshaw, rushing from point to point with a Texas accent but in a feathery way - so light-weight compared to our leader, who had brought the Bradshaw videos but did not endorse them
The leader then read peculiar poems of his own - one about a slave master, and another other about the joy of writing in shit on the walls of an outhouse.
How wonderful. How non-linear.
What bad poetry, yet there was something admirable in that nothing was explained. And the leader's philosophy backed up so much I had discovered in recent years about the danger for me of somehow living out the sad empty life that my family had planned for me - threatened by it even when off on love affairs and adventures.
All in all, this seemed a fine weekend.