Wednesday, January 31, 2018

STICKS & STONES Chap. 1

I mentioned in an entry yesterday that I have embarked on the writing of the story of my early boyhood. Today, it occurs to me to publish it in serial form on The Buddha Diaries, just to have a record of something that might never see the light in book form. Here's the first chapter.

1
WHY NOW?

At the time of writing, I am (rapidly!) approaching eighty-two years of age. When people get to be as old as I am, they tend to find ways around using that dreaded word; we fall back on the familiar clich├ęs, “You’re only as old as you feel,” “The numbers don’t count,” and so on. But the truth of the matter is, the body ages. Throughout your seventies, you can fudge things a bit. At eighty, no matter how fit and strong you are, you are undeniably old. So why write about boyhood now, at this advanced age? Well, because it is never too late to make an account of your life, to conduct not simply the narration, but the deeper work of accounting for it all; to reflect, and take responsibility.
I have long been fascinated with my own boyhood, both as a writer and as the man that boy grew into. As a writer, I have made a number of attempts to get to the truth of it. My first chapbook of poems, titled “Aspley Guise” and published in the late 1960s, was focused on the church and the rectory of that village where I spent my early years, and their effects on my developing psyche. Back in the 1970s, as I recall, I finished the never-published manuscript of a book I called “Sticks & Stones,” looking back at the sometimes traumatic events that shaped me. “While I Am Not Afraid,” a memoir published in the 1990s, was a still deeper attempt to come to terms with the joys and tribulations of my boyhood. And most recently, wishing to engage others in my interest, I started a “Boyhood Memories” project, asking friends of all ages and from all walks of life to write down their “most intense of boyhood memories.” I now have quite a collection of those stories, including several of my own, and am currently debating how they might be put out into the world.
My intention in all this is to find out more about the man I have become today and the route I took to get here. I have made many missteps, taken many detours, and have fallen too often from the path of true integrity, which I understand to be the full and proper functioning of four co-equal elements of our nature: the intellect, the physical body, the emotions and, for want of a better word, the spirit. For far too many years—and like many men, I suspect—I lived exclusively in my head, abusing the body with the insouciance of youth and using the armor forged in boyhood to shut myself off from my emotional life: I had learned in my years at boys’ boarding schools that it was dangerous to show evidence of pain, or fear, or anger: to do so was to expose myself to bullying or ridicule. As for the spirit, having been brought up by an Anglican priest father and sent to schools steeped in the Christian heritage, well, by the age of 18, on leaving school, I was happy to walk away from all that and into the realm of material pleasures.
It took me many years to learn that I could not lead a life of integrity without embracing those three neglected attributes. I learned about my emotional life the hard way. Past fifty already and at a moment of trouble and confusion in my life, I signed up, despite the “better judgment” of what I’d always credited as my superior intellect, for a men’s training weekend and was confronted uncomfortably with the disconnect in my life between head and heart. I was later described by those who met me on arrival, not incorrectly, as a “shrink-wrapped” Englishman. Bless my tormentors! They cracked me open like an egg, and left me on the path to the kind of self-discovery I had so long evaded out of fear of what it might bring to light. It was not long after that weekend, and surely thanks to the experience, that I found myself on a different, but related path—a spiritual path that led me to the Buddhist meditation practice I pursue until this day. Both asked me to look past the deceptive surfaces I had used as camouflage and into the depth of my psychological and psychic being. This present task I’ve set myself is no more than an extension along the path on which I started out some twenty-five years ago.
Looking back at my boyhood from where I stand today, it’s not hard to realize how much of the upbringing and education I received was intended to mould me into a “gentleman”—and an English gentleman at that. To this day I recognize that gentleman in myself, just as others recognize him in me. They say as much, with the understanding that they are offering me a compliment. What I have come to understand, however, is that no matter how charming, no matter how considerate, no matter how well-mannered the gentleman, there is always a price that has been paid. The foremost characteristic of the gentleman, as I see it, is deference. In order to be unfailingly polite, we learn to defer to others in matters great and small. I am constitutionally unable, to take a perhaps trivial but telling example,  to walk through a door without first standing back to hold it open for everyone else, man, woman or child. I catch myself considerately deferring to my wife on the choice of a movie or a restaurant, even when I know I have a preference myself.
It’s all very “nice,” of course. But too often deference masks something much darker: resentment, anger, fear, or even rage.
As a child, I learned I should consider myself last amongst everyone around me. In part it was the tired old Victorian adage about children being seen and not heard. But I also learned to behave myself, to be a good boy, to follow the rules, to do as I was told. Failure to do so could result in anything from a parental reprimand and a frown of disapproval to what we referred to, in school, as “six of the best” on the backside with a leather strap or cane. I learned, as I noted above, to hide my feelings: to cry, even in the direst of circumstances, was to invite ridicule; to show fear, to invite the attentions of the bully; to resort to anger, to expose myself to taunting or retribution. So I learned, with considerable skill, to create the armor I needed to protect me. It served me well at the time, but proved a hindrance in my later attempts to create relationships with my fellow human beings. The downside to being perceived a gentleman is being perceived, also, as aloof, unreachable, and cold.
And there is this: I have grandsons, both of them at different stages of boyhood. My older grandson, now sixteen, has spent all the years of his young life at a far remove from his grandfather: he lives in England, I in Southern California. I have been unable to know him as well as I would like. My younger grandson, six years old, is a different matter. He lives fifteen minutes from our house. I have watched him grow from infant to toddler, from toddler to young boy. His boyhood, of course, is much different from mine. Times have changed since I was his age, as have the cultural expectations around children. He is much freer than I ever was—free to be a brat as well as a charmer. And yet I see much in him that reminds me of my own boyhood: his enthusiasms and his curiosity, his interest in his body—though mine was mostly shame and his is mostly pleasure. So I learn about myself from watching and being with him, and his beginning boyhood brings to mind a great deal about my own, now so long in the past. He inspires in me the desire to go back and take another, deeper, and perhaps more unflinching look at who I was and how it shaped the adult life it presaged.
And finally there is this deep impulse to communicate, to share stories, to connect with others. At this stage in our human history we need desperately to understand more about each other. Our very survival as a species depends on it. The first step along that path, I have learned, is to understand more about ourselves. It’s my belief that we share a common humanity, even with those most distant from our own culture. We men have all been boys, surrounded by adults who tower over us and dominate our lives; who treat us well or treat us ill; who provide with safety and security or deprive us of it; who love us or neglect us; or, more commonly, provide us with a unique blend of all these.  We all have the same—well, similar—equipment down between our legs and all must experience the joys and pain associated with it. We survive our boyhood as best we can, and grow into adults ourselves, lugging our childhood along in our hearts and memories.

Tell me who you are. I believe that to be the impulse that drives all human creativity, a basic human need that, when ignored, can lead to turmoil, personal misery, even conflict. It’s why I have known since the age of twelve that I wished to be a writer. It’s why I choose to make yet another exploratory journey through these memories and write them down. Again.

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