WHEN LIFE SINGS, DO EARS LISTEN? I’ve heard lots of sour notes.

First I will lay a groundwork of memories, no highly rationalized order here, just as they come and where they go.

I remember moving to a Chicago suburb before my third birthday. We noticed a cardinal in the front yard “Indian Cigar” trees. It was excitingly thought of as a good sign. I remember some time before in Chicago, sitting out in a back yard with an aunt. I vaguely remember struggling to get into a yard recliner there, and seeing a train pass by that was the “Ell”, for elevated part of the in other places underground subway.

At three and three quarters years old I remember being in our kitchen in this working class suburb, my mother returning with her new baby girl. It was exciting to think there were now more of us, but the little one seemed so needy.

My oldest sister started first grade. Now the sister a little more than a year older than I played with me more. When she went off to school, I seemed more alone and at times doing duties for my little sister. We never had a car, so mom would gather us all after school or on weekends, to go shopping with our own two wheel shopping cart. She would be always wearing her babushka. Two blocks could seem like a little forever when you chose to lug the goods back.

On warm sunny days I would sit outside on the doormat legs crossed, stick in hand, to dispatch the flies who would land near me. I became one in this with the act. A fly would land and nearly instantly meet its end with one whack of the round piece of a broken broom. Something that once seemed difficult, if not nerly impossible, now happened in the instant a fly would land. Eventually the small area of carnage around me disturbed me. I began to let the flies land on me, and when at some future time I forgot and began doing that again, I was neither fast nor accurate enough. Something had changed.

DAD

At some time I remembered my dad getting me going on a bicycle, I believe in a few tries I was off and on my wobbly way. I loved biking around our area. We were to remain in yelling-hearing distance of our mother. Once I was able to drive “no hands” around the block and connecting gravel alley, I felt I had achieved some measure of bicycle proficiency.  I most always had to go a little further in an ability than those others I knew.  I never wanted to be just OK at something.  This has proved to be a blessing and a curse regarding my self impression.

We, or at least I, loved having our father come home from work. His brother drove him to our house and then off the six blocks to his own. Dad would make the rounds kissing each of us on the foreheads, then he would usually nestle behind the newspaper with a drink, not really to be disturbed. He once offered me a nickel an hour if I would be his leg rest. It was thrilling, being invited into his world in some way, I thought I would before long, be rolling in nickels, but he was just kidding.

Dad would be at his most excited talking about his war adventures in World War Two, seeing the enemy pilots eyes as you shot down a plane; shrapnel ripping the plane apart; the bailing out behind enemy lines; another time parachuting out of the plane, seeing the tail section slowly spiral down to the ground; and of course fights with insults between the other branches of the armed forces at bars.

He loved listening to the boxing matches on the radio at home. We would be there in our cigarette smoke filled kitchen, looking at the radio as dad made boxing gestures occasionally. He naturally favored the Italian boxers. I would at times accompany him to bars, probably after he told mom we were going to the hardware store, which we did. I’d sit on the floor with incomprehensible adults around. Pretty woman at times sat near him, or talked to him form across the bar. I thought he was lucky to have such nice attention. But I was not to tell mom we stopped there.

During WW Two, a famous Hollywood actress had seen his photo in a major paper, as he looked out of the B17 window, smiling his big welcoming smile. That actress had her agency send him an invitation to come to Hollywood for a screen test, but he never went. His sister, to recent years, would say when she saw Dean Martin or Burt Lancaster, (both of them do seem like him), she would think she is seeing my father. My father also did not accept a scholarship from the Art Institute of Chicago. He said instead, he went to work to help out his family. Dad often referred to our dead mother as a saint, to both have put up with him and in reference to the woman he married, who began stalking him when seeing him at our mothers funeral. A priest gave her his name and sent our family from then on, down the good intentioned drain.

My father no longer played the piano which we always loved to hear him play. He also played the accordion when he was a kid. Although he and my sister played together once in a while. My aunt said the official accordion player in the Italian neighborhood was good, but people got festive when my father played his way. When we went to the VFW hall to watch my next oldest sister play the accordion, I had no idea how she could learn to do that, and was there on stage in front of hundreds performing.

Our stepmother was kind enough to honore his request; to make sure he got buried with his most beloved Seagram’s Seven. I began my ongoing long lesson in lies and manipulation. It is hard to put a value on ones own suppression and the insights gained thereby. Hard to determine the amount of good discerned from the falsehood our stepmother spread while my father was living, about us, his original kids, and how that helped create a resentment of the five boys she brought. For a while, the bump out addition my father had built upstairs was their bedroom. I slept at the end of the hall near a small gable. There was no door in my room, no heat either. The stepmother systematically was “driving out” my siblings from the oldest down. I would hear her tell absolute fabrications to him of what went on during the day.

My oldest sister had already left and was struggling with masochism, and alcoholism, as I would one day with drinking (I quit alcohol over 20 years ago). She died in the mid eighties from liver failure due to abuse. All the family albums went with her. A book could be written about her struggles, her amazing strength to beat up 3 teenage boys her age who were attacking our house during a neighborhood battle.

She threw one through a wooden fence, bloodied another’s nose, and had another pinned down under her knee. I was there, and it was like a tornado spun inside her. From then on such invasions from the hoodlums who came up from the park, where they hung out at times intimidating people, stopped dead in their tracks when they would say; “It’s L####### It’s that girl!” End of invasion. This sister had all kinds of bowling trophies (apparently some 300 games). As a typist for a major company, the boss said she was the fastest and most accurate typist he had ever seen. He went on to send her around the country to set up offices to suit the key punch operator. She typed well over 100 words a minute with no mistakes as I remember.

Back to home.

I finally had brothers of a sort, but they were not on my wavelength. I often enjoyed their company but was envious of their privileges in the house and out. While I was to remain invisible as to not bring shame onto her watch over the family leftovers by getting into trouble, after my father was dead. Most of the time at home, I watched TV when not doing chores, or went out into the yard to breath in the freedom of nature.

I began to have a pride grow in me at the household accomplishments of cleaning and painting and cooking, that would generally not fall into her kids hands. I was capable and precise, always hounded by that time when I was five or so when dad called me stupid for dripping paint on the basement floor the day before, while thrilled at helping him. I had since practiced how to notice the paint gathering along the brush bottom. The next day I was going to show him I could do it right, but instead was called stupid for my former mistake and told I am incompetent to help. That broke my heart about him, that he would not only not give me this new chance to show I had learned, but declared me incapable of learning.

CONSERVATISM’S HIDDEN VALUES OF BLAME AND SHAME

We must be ever cautious what ignorance from which we may speak, when addressing young ones who have just witnessed in themselves some notion of failure. Any healthy human child is born to help, yearns to belong and do their part. It is what I call the dry rot of conservatism, that poisons relationships, turning them into duty and scorn, greed, resentment, envy and most of all a false nature uninterested in understanding difference nor ones natural integrating relationship to it as part of creation.

Now I will proselytize about how conservatism as I have known it in the US, presumes failure and so punishment, cuts off compassion and empathy for abstract ideas of perfection.

For the Christian ones; Does God forever punish fallible humans who are not as wise or able as an Omniscient Being? Does this Supreme Being really require humans to constantly ask It favors and special privileges for telling It how great it It is? Is that not being irrational, then, to punish His children for not being themselves infallible Gods? You are mistaken and so forever damned? Insane!, because this is the worshiping of ignorance instead of understanding, or in other words; anti-Christ teachings.

For economic conservatives; does hierarchical status guarantee right perception? Does bullying or demeaning workers create a lasting environment for respect, other than in the most callous dictatorial way of claiming the right from position or status (terror based in removal of income or physical containment’s by force-slavery forms) rather than whole infilled truth?

The ideas the we are above and below others and endowed to treat each other accordingly is an anathema to freedom, liberty, equality and justice, because it makes different rules based on ones position and the predatory privilege made in those incantations. The “Golden Rule” or Categorical Imperative distinguish how the individual and society function in health from mutual respect, because we are conscious human beings first, and not born into some selective right over, or privilege. Dysfunction and peril ensue from violating these rules.

FAMILY ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND SOME OF MY OWN

As children, we hid our health problems as best we could, as to not fail our fathers mandates of Italian and family perfection and superiority. Now they had certain bragging rights to intelligence. My great grandfather made a “Queens Table” 11 feet tall, hand carved with leaves and animals, with mirror, commissioned for the Queen of England. The royalty who secretly commissioned it as a surprise, died and it never got out of Chicago, but remained in boxes for decades and decades still. My father could look at a postcard and paint a large pastel replica of it three by four feet wide. His brother chalked all the Disney Snow White characters on our basement wall as if they were life size. My aunt, if she is conscious at this time, doodles now and then. In 20 minutes she will have drawn a beautiful model dressed in original clothes of my aunts own design. I wish I could do that sort of thing at a whim.

SCHOOL INTERNMENT

I got by in school from remembering what I had heard in class, and by reading some material. I tormented myself as a clock watcher at school, looking for the end of the day, a watched clock never boils, it instead toils and stews in mechanical time, hiding eternity inside of stilted seconds, a creeping minute hand and an hour hand short for its pernicious longevity. The end of the day was sweet release from prison. Out the doors were the same cracks in the sidewalk that weighed me down when coming to school, giving me wings when homeward bound.

In high school, under much different circumstance, the walk home was the essence of ambiguous drama. Would the car be there, meaning she was home or would her kids and I put on the music or find some fun thing that lived in suspended animation while she was present. “It’s the car! She’s home!’ would go out the yell. Now would descend the fogs of retreat; tracks stopped in motion, dials turned off, any semblance of happening put to rest to present the heavy and calming death of complete order.

HERE IS ME, ME, ME

Upon graduating eighth grade at the Catholic school, a boy (I guess the smartest kid in school) from the smart class came over to congratulate me. Now I was aware of this boy in our 150ish class of three rooms. There was the smart room, the average, and what we thought of as the dumb room. Not nice I know. But this clean, and what I always thought of as very likable blond kid from the smart room, came up to me and shook my hand for getting first honors in math on the final exam. What’s that I thought? I was given a certificate with this, and it was nice to feel I was magically somehow the best at math.  I was usually in the back corner of my room, with the less smart kids who seemed more alive. I would be embarrassed some years after a big test when they (for a week?) arranged seating from test scores. Kids would yell to me; “B…….. What are you doing over there?”

Once I remember just looking at math problems, the numbers, and knowing how to get to that result; what machinations would make that outcome true. They had me at times tutor the slowest girl in class because we could not move forward until everybody got it. She would have it and then lose it. I thought she had a very bad self image from being the slowest one in the room at so many things. Somehow I could not fathom how once having something it would fly away. Later I would learn my own lessons in humility, regarding what one is so sure of and later, not so much.

In high school I got top score honors in the final biology exam of the year as a sophomore. I was called in to be grilled on how someone not in the advanced class could top everyone else. I said; “I studied.” Which was true. I had glasses at home and actually read all the required material. I always so wanted a girl friend that I thought it would be hopeless if I wore those ugly black rim glasses to school, so there I was, still on blur patrol.

THE WHIRLWIND

I once announced to the boy next to me in sophomore chemistry class that there was going to be a tornado (only time in my life I have predicted a tornado to someone). Three weeks latter, when they let us back into school, that room was the last habitable one on that floor. Plywood boarded off the hall from then on. The tornado hit less than an hour later, going from my high school to my grammar school, where a stepbrother was to have his confirmation that night I believe. Many people were killed. On returning to that class that boy said to me; “B……… You and your tornado!”

A wicked electrical thunderstorm preceded the tornado. We were sent off to the store to get pop for the oldest stepbrother who worked where I worked on weekends. In the store, a man came in loudly proclaiming a funnel cloud outside. (I’d probably be a tornado chaser if I lived back there.) Anyway. We walked outside and could not process the view. An edge of some kind of wedge like wall was dragging across the street a mile up. The train and jet roar was beginning. We ran into the store towards the back as it went totally black. I could not see the hand in front of my face.

I could not imagine a worse place to be; a grocery store filled with cans and bottles and all the glass windows at the street, all under a large suspended ceiling. I was preparing for the worst with my two stepbrother’s with me. I reach in front of me and said, while touching some one; “G####### is that you? Yea, It’s hard to breathe.” I never heard how the air would be sucked away from your own lungs. Then the roar subsided. Going outside the street was littered with roof parts, air conditioners, a fence from somewhere. We were two blocks from where total devastation stopped. Without power, we were now in a world of silence and rumor. And the constant wail of ambulance, police and firetrucks.

I volunteered for the cleanup crews. We drove around on huge flatbed, filling them with debris. Others did not mind that I was quiet. We were strangers acting like family. We would arrive at homes where people were left hopeless at the mess. We did not ask if they were the right race or religion. We did not question their politics nor asked if they abused their kids. We did what was right and that was what was common. Larger than life things we handle together, as if we were the force of life and love itself; unconditional, not asking for forgiveness nor judging merit. That was my first public taste of Big Love in action. Now that was learning!

People thanked us for doing what was right, sharing a burden. We did not fault them for living in a tornadoes path. We did not say that you people in this swiped clean line were deserving of Gods retribution for being evil or wrong. The orders on the street to the national guard was shoot to kill looters. That is what some people think life is worth. That is how playing God is so seductive to those who have or are inherently insecure and fearful that they will sacrifice everything of someone else, just to protect their own. It is a big, very big betrayal of common interest.

I have had physical and mental issues all my life growing up. I have braved them and advanced my life, sometimes ever so slowly and at others seemingly instantaneous.

I fell on my head from trying to plug a phonograph in on the basement bar when standing on top of the bar when I was 4 or 5. I was getting the plug in the ceiling socket when next thing my head was on the concrete floor, my body falling down around me. That gave me a splitting headache which bothered me for days and may be part of my long-lived neck issues.

Another time at 5 years old I was flipped-ejected from the swing that hung across our garage door opening in summer. A sister jumped off just as we were swinging high and suddenly chains flicked and my chest landed on the two inch curb where the door met the floor. I was in great pain and unable to breath, barely seeming to make it into the house. My eye sockets turned dark as I grew pale so I went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with a heart murmur, and there was strong arrhythmia the doctor let me listen to. For some time when playing hard I would get winded and listen to my heart beat funny, then stop for a couple beats, then beat faster and faster, then stop again. I was for some time worried for my future. But I was to achieve physical records at school, so this is leading to the good part. I have yet to afford to have my heart issues diagnosed.

At ten years old my older cousin came over to ask if I wanted to play baseball at the little league field. He plays there with some guys and they could use another player. I was thrilled to be asked but dubious of meeting other kids. Most were three or more years older than I. When I got up to bat I could not believe my eyes. The outfielders were playing right behind the infielders. I thought; Oh boy! Then I wondered; did I look so weak or small to deserve this treatment? Nearly the first pitch I hit off the center-field fence and from then on they played little old me like I was a big time home run hitter. I did get a couple ground rule doubles after that.

Likewise, if playing outfield, I loved to catch balls over my head, or run and dive for them, and if chased down, throw the ball all the way to home plate. That is not the best way to get someone out at home, but since I did not now these guys nor really how to play properly, I could get that ball right to home occasionally on a bounce or two. One last baseball note; many years latter, someone told me while watching me hit softballs out for practice on a team I joined in Eugene OR, that he loves to hear me hit the ball; “It sounds like a shotgun going off.” he said.

Back to freshman year high school. We had test for calisthenics; how many can you do in a minute. I just did my best, called back the next day to see if I could break the record in sit-ups I tied. Then on squat jumps I was one off the record of. Then another year on the rope climbing record I tied. That one I clearly broke the next day but we had been told again and again that the style I used could not beat hand over hand climbing. When I got to the ceiling top and hit the metal thing; no click of the stop watch, so I hit it again and hear the watch click. That gym coach was one who instructed us on the winning method. I always felt bad about how that outcome went down.

I joined the freshmen tack team hoping for camaraderie and being a wining runner. I was not as fast a sprinter as some were. That was humbling. They put me on distance even though I was rather short at 5 foot two. Neither that nor hurdles worked out. I ended up trying high jump and received my numerals at high school conference with a third place finish jumping over my own height. Track was otherwise such a lonely disappointment and difficult, when the hard to place in position guys like me, either quit or got used to spending all afternoon after school mostly running around the track by themselves.

In gym class as a sophomore, during the wrestling two weeks, I went into three overtime’s with the top wrestler on the wrestling team in my weight class. The coach we had was one who was on the US Olympic wrestling team. (I should mention that the high school had close to 3 thousand students.)

Once again there was a rule in effect; we were told that people who know wrestling moves will always beat those who know less. As that match went on and on, I felt I had clearly pinned him more than once. Finally the coach declared the match over. As we all sat along the edge of the sweaty wrestling room, its wall dripping; the guy I wrestled walked around and around saying; “Who was that! Who did I just match with? Do you know who that was? Who was that!” I did not respond to his wild ranting.

Come junior year during the regular two weeks of track and accompanying test, I had my chance at two broad jumps. The first one I fouled on by going over the starting line. On my next one I made sure my foot hit behind the takeoff white line. In the air I began being concerned I was going to land outside of the pit. That did not happen, but my hand went back behind me a couple feet to stay upright=final jump mark. People were making a little fuss when I heard my jump was 19 something feet, and it looked like I was going out of the sand pit during the jump. The school track record I think was somewhere at 21-23 feet back then.

The next day the head track coach (four track coaches) comes out looking for me. He did not seem to remember me from two years earlier, of course now I was 11 inches taller. He said something like. ‘I heard you had a big jump yesterday. I could really use you on the Varsity team.’ (We had one of the better track teams in the southwest Chicago area) I shook my head no.

At this time I had virtually dropped out of school, I wasn’t joining anything. Not even the student dress code strike.

Upon going to the local community college, for the first time in my life I had straight As. You were treated as an adult. You were not being told how to dress and act. In one class after final exams, the instructor came up to me and whispered in my ear that I had the highest test score he had had, and that would I mind if my score was dropped from the bell curve so more people would pass. I said; “Sure. Drop me out.” He then went on for some time saying how learning should be so easy for all of us as it is for me. How easy life would be… I thought he had no idea what I’ve been through. I studied for that test until I mastered the material. I also road a one pedal bike for 25 miles a day from school to work. I ride in rain or shine. I get to school with mud up my back and books wired in plastic between my legs. My guardian takes all my check most times. Somebody bragging on me was an odd treat.

I have worked 36 hours straight on an open truck dock back then during the coldest winter on record. Many days barely went above zero Fahrenheit. When it finally thawed out my bike tires went flat. I once walked those 10 miles home from near the airport without hat and gloves at 9 degrees and who knows what wind chill. I called home but could not get a lift. It was Sunday morning at 2 am. No more buses and I was broke. Carrying the arm-load of books and walking through strange blackened neighborhoods, snow crunching underfoot. It was just me. The only one who cared for me was me. As I walked over those hours I warmed. Slowly the sunlight brushed away the night. I had stared defeat and freezing to death as a possibility in the face and never stopped in my mission to a kind of hell at home. Though I was walking away from the rising sun, life was singing in my heart. Everything I could see was with me in a sense of unstoppable triumph. It seemed as if some bigger life; the life of everything, was actually on my side.

THIS PAGE STILL IN PROGRESS

2 thoughts on “WHEN LIFE SINGS, DO EARS LISTEN? I’ve heard lots of sour notes.

  1. Thanks for checking in.

    As such a fine writer yourself, I feel lucky to receive positive comments on my writing, since I have read so little in my life, nor attended any specific writing classes and such.

    For some reason, your life and death comment gave me the image of a rubber band. We are all rubber bands of sorts, stretched out across time and space, only to snap back to the rubberness we began with. That snap back being something of an instance.

    At any moment in life, we are held in that circular continuum. What it is that stretched us, does so to all in a paradoxical conditional fairness, that we perhaps cannot appreciate in our own time. The rubber-band metaphor looses elasticity (oops)until a fourth dimension beyond our life sight at times, which has all those bands intersecting and interconnecting.

    Perhaps the question writers, some writers, are asking is; What do, and have you loved in this moment had in eternity? Why when there is not love, or something has snapped back, is there this loss. Loss may well be a confirmation of known love.

  2. Benfia: This piece reminds me of a poem by Wallace Stevens entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” which is odd because the poem is almost entirely visual and yet it seems to sing, quite elusively, of other worlds perhaps, embedded between a deceptively simple surface, who knows? It is an all time favorite of mine.

    I have always refused to teach it when mentoring writers in workshops because I cannot bear to subject it to a mechanistic analysis, although its structure is matchless, a sequential and evolving Haiku-like form with each perfect word following another and yet returning to itself, helix like, a spiral… Like music, one perfect set of notes traveling into infinity.

    We here are all working in the strange winters that the Antipodes hosts. Cold enough to burn you, close to the desert and the highest point on this huge island. Inside I am yearning for the sea, the womb like music that waves can play. Soon it will be the Equinox and the anniversary of the death of my young son, that warrior like child I brought forth into the world almost 32 years ago now.I sometimes wonder if even death can have devoured the midnight blue of his eyes, and his flat feet, he that could swim for miles, elated in his own element, companion to Poiseden and other deep water marvels. The dolphins loved him.

    I sometimes seem to only write of love an death but as Australan author and friend and writer Tim Winton once remarked ” What else is there?”

    You should find his work and read it, your writing and living sometimes reminds me of him.
    Hope you and yours are well, wise one, travel well. Take risks, take care.
    Kate McNamara

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