(I was grateful to be asked to share a story at Monday night’s 531 gathering in Asheville: 5 stories, 3 songs, 1 community. This month’s theme was “Clean Slate,” and this is the story I shared.)
At some point in my childhood—
It was after the summer day I romped in the woods in a steady rain, without a shirt, kneeling for dirt become mud and smearing it on my chest and arms and face, mimicking the war paint of the Cherokee.
So it was also after the summer evening we drove to Cherokee to see the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, and on the way stopped to picnic along the Blue Ridge Parkway, at a majestic and precipitous overlook, and my two-year-old brother Tony — who had a remarkable gift for spotting a moment of freedom and making wild runs at something dangerous, like climbing out the window, and onto the roof, of our Granny’s second-floor apartment, or flinging himself into a whitewater section of mountain stream, which washed him away and compelled our dad to run downstream a ways, plunge in, and pull him out – on this summer evening beside the Parkway, while our parents spread a blanket and laid it full of fried chicken, potato salad, and Little Debbies, Tony dashed for the overlook, and Dad, hero again, dropped the food, bolted after Son Number Three, and snagged him by the waist-band, half a step from eternity.
It was after that night.
And if it was after that night, it was also after the day, a gray day in winter, that I stood at the front window and watched my mother walking down the street, toward the house. She was wearing a long coat that covered an almost-nine-months-pregnant belly – this was Tony, still plotting his first escape — and on her face, a look that said, “I am far away from here, in a place that requires my absolute, inner attention.” And she was the picture of aloneness. I did not know that word then, but I could feel it through the glass and across the open yard.
It was after that.
It was also after a Friday night, in late autumn, when Mom made oatmeal and applesauce for supper, and Dad took me to the football game at the high school where he taught, and afterwards, onto the field, to breathe in the cleat-churned dewy grass and shake hands with the victors – teenage boys they were, but they appeared to me as gods.
And also after any number of snow days when Mom made snow boots by wrapping our feet in bread bags – first the sock, then a bread bag, then a tennis shoe, then another bread bag.
And after nights in bed when I’d make a tent from my covers and imagine myself in a cave, alone, but also not alone, in the presence of an energy that filled the cave, and filled me, and that I had no name for, and needed no name for, but that radiated out from my heart and enveloped me from beyond me, the energy of an expansive, resonating stillness.
It was after all that.
But it was before the night that our middle brother, Marshall, tired of me, his older brother, winning the race to bed every night – three boys in the living room, first one down the hall and in your bed wins, on your mark, get set, go! – Marshall had filled my pillowcase with wooden blocks, so that when I ended my sprint and dove for the mattress, I might bang my head, which I did, and consider not running so hard the next night, which I did not.
It was also before the Saturday morning, while our parents cooked breakfast, that Dad told us he’d be having hernia surgery in a few weeks, a revelation that led to many questions about hospitals and surgeries and hernias, and one of those questions led Dad to mention a man who waited too long to have hernia surgery and ended up losing a testicle, which led me to ask, “What are testicles for, anyway,” which led to our first conversation about the birds and the bees, or, more precisely, about the sperm fertilizing the egg, which led Tony, having somehow survived now for three and a half years, to joyfully shake salt and pepper over his breakfast and declare that he was fertilizing the egg, and which led Marshall, his curiosity running wild with all this talk of sex, to ask Mom and Dad if they’d mind providing us with a little demonstration.
Anyway, at some point in my childhood, I came to believe that I was not as smart as the other kids. It was school that did it. Second grade, in particular. Reading out loud in second grade, in particular particular.
I wanted to read. Very much. Dad read the funny paper to us, and I wanted to be able to read it for myself. So I was trying. But I wasn’t getting the hang of it. I was slower than the other kids. It took me longer to figure the words out.
The teacher, Miss Stillwell, would call on me to read aloud, and it would go something like this:
Me: “The . . .” —
Little girl next to me: “Cat.”
Me: “Cat. . .” –
Little girl next to me: “Sat.”
Me: “Sat . . . on . . . the . . .” –
Little girl next to me: “Rug.”
Miss Stillwell: “Thank you, Russell.”
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I just knew I couldn’t read like the other kids. And it was frustrating and confusing. It was like there was something stuck inside me, trying hard to get out, but it didn’t know how, and I didn’t know how to help it. I didn’t even know what it was.
Around this same time, when I was in second grade, I began wetting the bed. Two, three, four nights a week, I’d wake up, and the sheets would be wet, and I’d have to go get my parents. I remember one night, I was spending the night at Granny’s. She lived in a three-room apartment. There was one bedroom, big enough for her twin bed and a roll-away cot. And sometime in the night I wet the cot, and my parents hadn’t packed me any extra pajamas, and Granny suggested that I wear a pair of hers – hers! – and I said, No way, I’m not wearing women’s pajamas, call my Daddy! And she laughed until she cried. But she called my Dad, and he, God bless him, brought dry pajamas.
But this reading thing, this feeling stupid thing, this feeling that I was fighting to shake something loose from inside myself, and not knowing what or how, it was a millstone around my neck.
And then, one day, a lady came into Miss Stillwell’s second-grade class at Camp Laboratory School in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and she asked Miss Stillwell if there were any children in this class that needed their eyes checked. And Miss Stillwell looked around, and her eyes fell on me, and she told the lady, “Check him.” And the lady walked me down the hall, to a dark room, and sat me in front of a machine with a screen. And two days later, Mom drove me to Asheville for an appointment with an eye doctor. And a week after that, she drove me back, and I got my first pair of glasses.
And it turned out: I wasn’t stupid. I could read, after all. And whatever it was that was trapped and straining and struggling inside me, it found a way out. And I stopped wetting the bed.
Now, the instructions to storytellers at 531 are very clear: just tell a story. Do not interpret, or editorialize, or preach. Just. Tell. A. Story.
So I hope I won’t get into too much trouble if I just add this: When you’re a kid and you’re not seeing the world clearly, you don’t know you’re not seeing the world clearly. You think you’re seeing the world as it is. And for that matter, when you’re any age and don’t have eyes to see, you probably don’t know you don’t have eyes to see. All you know is: something’s not right, and you don’t know what to do.
But sometimes there’ll be someone around who does see, someone still well enough to recognize what’s happening. And sometimes they can help.
So, hail, hail, 2020. Maybe, with a bit of help, we might see our way clear.