Adventure

I love words! That being the case, some of my blog entries will naturally center around one word – usually a word that has captured my attention because of something I am currently experiencing or have experienced. Last night I began thinking about adventure. I had recently accepted an invitation to participate in an adventure; things did not turn out as I had hoped.

I know what adventure means, or maybe I should say I know how we Americans use this word – we use it in the sense of an event or experience that is exciting, maybe even unusual, but always exciting and exhilarating. Since my adventure did not turn out as I had expected it made me wonder what, if any, other definitions of adventure existed; I also was interested in knowing the etymology of the word.

Adventure, as it turns out, has several meanings. In addition to exciting and unusual, Dictionary.com (as well as the other dictionaries I consulted) adds: 1) “participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure.” 2) “a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.” 3) “a commercial or financial speculation of any kind; venture.” 4) “Obsolete. peril; danger; risk. chance; fortune; luck.”

When it comes to thoughts and words I find that one thing always leads to another – it’s like Hansel and Gretel following the bread crumbs to find their way home. Obviously Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs didn’t work out – the birds found the crumbs and saw a meal, not a way home. However, I still like the metaphor and the bread crumbs I find have fortunately not been devoured and they do lead me home again. “Bold” and “risky” resonated deeply but I was curious about “enterprise” and “uncertain outcome” gave me pause.

Again, I had my own notion of the meaning of enterprise but I wanted to see what other meanings there might be. Word Hippo had this to say: “A project or undertaking, typically one that is difficult or requires effort.” Aha!! I had never given any thought to an adventure being “difficult” or one that “requires effort.” Nor had I considered an “uncertain outcome.” How could I have been so shortsighted? How could I have missed entirely the fact that even an adventure encounters life and life includes many, many difficult moments that require great effort.

Like everything else, adventure is double-edged. It is exciting, exhilarating, and exceptional but it is also difficult and requisitions from us great effort, great courage, and endless tenacity. I don’t know how my partner in this adventure defined adventure or what his preconceptions were but given what I have discovered about adventure, I realize that I lacked clarity about what an adventure entails and encompasses when I signed on. I became lost in the exhilaration of the mountain-top experience and failed to anticipate the valleys and the swamps – the realities of life; the realities of any adventure. Not that anticipating the swamps would have dissuaded me – it wouldn’t have – but it might have made me re-examine my expectations (another word worth deconstructing), reminding me that nothing in this life is certain.

In one of the readings that I have done recently I came across a mystical teaching by Rabbi Gedalyahu Schorr who, in his commentary Gedalyahu’s Light, suggests that our souls are imprinted with both the good things and the not-so-good things that will happen to us in our lives: experiences that are painful and tragic; experiences that leave us debilitated, depressed, sometimes suicidal; experiences that leave us feeling that we have been dealt a bad hand, not to mention feelings of aloneness, abandonment, and certainty that God is nursing a grudge against us. In our periods of pain we forget that “Just as the hurts from our past [or present] leave an imprint on our souls, all the joys of the future leave an imprint on our souls too.” We forget that life is double-edged, that living means we can count on pain and joy. Remembering, in the midst of pain, that we are also imprinted with future joy is one of the most difficult tasks one can accomplish. Adventure, even when it descends into the swamps, contains the promise of future joy.

I am reminded of a story that I have cherished ever since happening upon it years ago. I wish I could attribute the story to a specific author but unfortunately I have not yet uncovered its origin. The story goes:

There was a man who had two children—two sons. One son was always negative. He didn’t like anything; he was very hard to please. The other son was always happy, very optimistic, very helpful. It was the time for Diwali [the Festival of Lights], and he needed to get gifts for his two sons. For his unhappy son, hoping to make him happy, he got a beautiful carpentry set, a magnificent telescope and a brand new bicycle. However, the son said, ‘I don’t do carpentry; I don’t want that carpentry set. This is not the highest class telescope; I don’t want this telescope. And I don’t like that bicycle’. The father was not surprised.

He had also given a present to his happy son, his giving son, his kind son, his anything-goes son. For him, he piled two tons of horse shit in his bedroom. After seeing his first son disappointed with his presents, he went into his second son’s bedroom. In the bedroom, singing at the top of his lungs, was his son with a shovel throwing the shit all over the room; digging and digging and digging. The father was taken aback at his son’s behavior; never had he anticipated such a reaction. ‘Son’, he pleaded, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing’?

The son enthusiastically responded, ‘Well, with all this shit, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere’!

Another aha, another demonstration of the double-edged sword – to get to the pony we have to dig through a lot of shit. And that goes for adventures too. If we want the mountain-top experience we must also be willing to slog through the swamp. Adventure is about endurance and tenacity as well as exhilaration and excitement.

To say that I was brimming with excitement over these word discoveries would be an understatement. I felt like I had found a pony. I had gained some real understanding and insight, not just of the word adventure but insights into myself and how the mis-understanding of the fullness of a word can actually blind us to the fullness of an experience. When I looked at the etymology of the word adventureOnline Etymology Dictionary had this to say:

c. 1200, auenture “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck,” from Old French aventure (11c.) “chance, accident, occurrence, event, happening,” from Latin adventura (res) “(a thing) about to happen,” from adventurus, future participle of advenire “to come to, reach, arrive at,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + venire “to come” (see venue).

Meaning developed through “risk/danger” (a trial of one’s chances), c. 1300, and “perilous undertaking” (late 14c.) and thence to “a novel or exciting incident” (1560s). Earlier it also meant “a wonder, a miracle; accounts of marvelous things” …
c. 1300, “to risk the loss of,” from adventure (n.). Meaning “to take a chance” is early 14c.

What struck me most from the etymology was the idea that adventure once had the connotation of “a wonder, a miracle….” Most of us (myself included) fail to see adventure in the light of a wonder or a miracle, let alone in life and living. It saddens me that this meaning has been lost – that excitement has replaced the lens of wonder, or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, we have lost the ability to live in radical amazement.

Do I regret having accepted the invitation to participate in this recent adventure? Not on your life! I would do it again in a heartbeat. However, imbued with the understanding I now possess about the magnitude and comprehensiveness of what adventure entails, there is much I would hopefully do differently. I understood so little about the demands one faces when embarking on an adventure. I have learned, for the moment at least (it seems I need frequent reminders), that the mountain-top and the swamp are two sides of the same coin – if I want the joy, I must also embrace the pain; never forgetting, as the Psalmist reminds us (Psalm 30:6): “…weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

We are imprinted with future joy even as we weep. There is the light and joy of the morning and the mountain-top even as we labor through the darkness of the swamp’s sludge and slime that threatens to pull us under; there is a pony buried in the mountains of shit. This is what John Mellencamp so aptly describes as The Full Catastrophe of Life. And that I have learned is the real adventure, recognizing that the sword cuts both ways and embracing it nonetheless.

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T’shuvah

T’shuvah (repentance) is what Yom Kippur is all about. Considered to be the holiest day of the year for Jews it is the culmination of 10 days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), of introspection and repentance. During this time it is incumbent on Jews to make amends with those they have wronged during the previous year. Only in confessing and seeking forgiveness from those they have offended and mistreated can Jews hope to receive forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur.

I offer this prayer of repentance, one that I wrote several years ago, in the hopes that some day Israel (and the Jews who support her immoral and illegal policies toward the Palestinians) might make such a confession.

T’shuvah For A Nation

God forgive us:
for hostility toward those we perceive to be not like ourselves;
for judging the powerless contemptible —
though it was we who rendered them so;
for believing that we are better, more deserving,
even entitled,
because our own suffering has been so great.

God forgive us:
for turning our pain into a grisly weapon with which we torment others;
for perpetuating the poisonous cycle —
from abused to abuser;
for despising the stranger, the refugee, the homeless —
for forgetting that we have been all of these.

God forgive us:
for the thousands we have displaced and discounted;
for the land we have confiscated and the homes we have demolished;
for the trees we have uprooted, and the water withheld;
for the hearts, and bones, and promises we have broken;
for the hatred we have engendered.

God forgive us:
for creating open-air prisons –
grisly arenas for sating our bloodlust and flaunting our weapons;
for murdering their children, their elderly, their dreams;
for shelling them in their homes, their schools, their hospitals;
for rendering their water undrinkable – a filthy mix of sea water,
human waste, and tears;
for taking pleasure in their suffering;
for “putting them on a diet” and “mowing their lawn”;
for making their misery our entertainment.

God forgive us:
for invoking your name to justify revenge and ethnic cleansing;
for citing Security to legitimize murder and torture;
for exploiting the Holocaust to defend doing to others
what has been done to us.

God forgive us:
for the blinders we so carefully fabricate to hide our eyes
from the humanity of the people we call enemy;
the same whom history records as kin.

God forgive us:
for euphemisms, Orwellian doublespeak, and outright lies;
for hiring high-powered firms to sell myths of innocence and righteousness;
for seeking a face lift for our image
instead of atonement for our soul.

May God forgive us.
May those we have so terribly wronged
forgive us.

The Names They Are A’Changin’

My family and friends know me as Keren Batiyov – some of them have known me by other iterations of my name as well. I was born Karen Kathleen Wharton and my married name was Karen Julius. About seven years after my divorce, while I was in graduate school, I returned to Karen Wharton. So how did I get from there to Keren Batiyov? Well, it all began with Job.

Job. Of all the male Biblical characters my deepest admiration and respect has long been for the man referred to as Job. For those unfamiliar with the story of Job, it is about a man who was considered by God to be one of his most righteous followers. One of the ways that God blessed Job for his integrity was in health, wealth and children. One day, Satan approached God and challenged God to let him test Job, boasting that Job would forsake him under duress. For whatever reason, God allowed it. Satan then initiated a series of strikes against Job: his children were killed, his wealth collapsed, and he was reduced to a body completely covered in oozing sores; even his wife approached him urging him to “curse God and die.”

His three “friends” (and I use this characterization advisedly since one doesn’t need enemies with friends like Job’s) find him sitting on the ground scraping his sores. These men attempt to deconstruct all that has happened and end up preaching at him for some sin he must have committed that he either won’t admit to or recognize. Job finally has enough (of God and his so-called friends) and demands that God account for the injustices. God shows up and while he didn’t respond to Job’s questions, he does respond. In the end God restores everything to Job twice over.

If, in some theoretical exercise, I could have chosen my father from among the sacred personages it would have been Job. He was an early feminist in that he offered prayers for his sons and daughters equally, they inherited equally, and they were allowed to socialize together – all practices that were virtually unknown at that time. Most importantly I reveled in his chutzpa; he didn’t suffer his tribulations in silence; he wasn’t intimidated by the fact that God was God and supposedly his superior. None of that mattered – he demanded answers. William Safire, in his book “The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics”, argues that “Job believed in God so resolutely – with all this heart and soul and might, as is prescribed – that he saw no contradiction in demanding that God force God to rectify God’s faults. Even as he hoped for death, it never occurred to Job that the answer to the injustice so painfully inflicted on him was that no God existed. His belief in God’s unfairness only buttressed his belief in God, who he was certain was up there being actively unfair to him.” Safire also notes that the very “essence of Jobanism [the practice of emulating Job in calling authority to account] is to refuse to accept injustice from any source – family, culture, nation, or God – and to press inquiry into inequity beyond what others accept as the limits of the knowable.” These are values I would have hoped for in my own father and values that I seek to embrace in my own life.

I was raised in a very right-wing fundamentalist Christian home. The hierarchy in that tradition was/is primarily male: God, Jesus, Pastor or Reverend, husband, wife (until male children become adults and then they supersede their mother), male children, and female children. Being a female child put me at the bottom of the totem pole and questioning any kind of authority, especially if it was male, was forbidden. The idea of questioning or arguing with God was considered heresy, if it was considered at all. I really don’t recall how Job’s argument with God was interpreted; I do remember that I was taught that he was tested through suffering and that he passed the test and was rewarded doubly. No one, before I began studying Judaism, ever bothered to point out that Job called God to account for His actions.

My relationship with my father was always complicated (oh the ambiguity inherent in words like “complicated” and “complex”). For most of my life, at least for the first 50 years or so I loved him, hated him and feared him greatly – all at the same time. He was the source of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as I was growing up. At the same time he was my father and children are supposed to love their parents. I’m quite certain that I was afflicted with what is now referred to as the Stockholm syndrome – the hostage (and I was definitely that; children have few choices when it comes to living with abusive parents) comes to identify with the captor. In order to survive I identified with my father – to the point of embracing all his opinions and beliefs. When he would play my mother and me against each other, as he often did, I always took his side.

After my mother died in 1998 I started to work through my relationship with my father. Why it took my mother’s death to initiate that, I’m not entirely certain, but it wasn’t until then that it began to ferment and bubble up. Perhaps I thought she might try to protect him (she had done that numerous times); perhaps it was natural to work on my relationship with him as my mother and I had reconciled our differences before she died (she even placed her hands on my head and blessed me – a poignant experience filled with the deepest meaning for me). However, I don’t think she realized that the blessing she made and the placing of her hands on my head was very Jewish.

I worked with a therapist on the issues surrounding my father (another story for upcoming posts) for over two years. At that point I decided that one of the ways that I could distance myself from my father and all that he did to me was to change my last name. It would not only serve to distance me from him, it would also signal a new and fresh beginning. Since I had converted to Judaism in 1990 (yet another story to come) I decided to pick a Hebrew name and because of my respect for the character of Job I decided to pick the Hebrew equivalent of “daughter of Job”.

I met with my Rabbi, Irwin Goldstein; told him of my plans, which he enthusiastically supported, and asked for the Hebrew rendition, which turned out to be “Bat” (daughter of) “Iyov” (Job). I decided to combine the two words, rendering Batiyov. As I continued to think about and plan the changing of my name I recalled that Job’s youngest daughter of his second set of children was named Keren-happuch. I also remembered that as a child, my mother presented me with an article from The Columbian, our local paper – it was about Keren-happuch. She liked, and thought I would too, that the name was similar to mine. Maybe it was a foreshadowing. After conferring again with my Rabbi and learning the Hebrew meanings of the name Keren (“beautifier”, “horn”, “fund”, “glorious dignity”, and my favorite: “ray of light”) I decided to change the spelling of my first name while changing my last name.

Conveniently, the executive director of the non-profit for which I was working was an attorney and agreed to handle all the legalities of my name change. He also did the work pro-bono, a gift for which I will be forever grateful. Joel arranged all the details and on the day of my hearing he accompanied me to the courthouse. The judge who heard my petition asked me why I was changing my name; after I responded he expressed sympathy for my decision. He also showed great interest in, and approval at how I had arrived at my new names. After several more questions he granted my petition and declared me officially “Keren Batiyov”. The feelings I experienced at that moment were quite similar to my feelings when I converted to Judaism (another upcoming story). I had finally returned to my true self.

Little did I know as I exited the courthouse into the bright sunshine of that September day that my new birthday was being shared with events that would go down in US history. Upon returning to my office I learned that while I was in the courthouse changing my name the twin towers of the World Trade Center had been demolished by two airplanes. Additionally, another plane had crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth, targeted at DC, crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Auspicious, indeed!

NameChange5

I Jumped!!

Almost seventeen years ago, on October 19, 1998, I jumped from an airplane, though not without a parachute. For many years I dreamed about skydiving – admittedly I have a penchant for extreme sports. After doing several whitewater trips, which I loved for the adrenaline rush and the natural beauty that surrounded me, I decided it was time to skydive. I found a small airport that offered sky-diving lessons within a half-hour of Harrisburg, PA, where I was living at the time, and made an appointment. There was a half-day of training after which we scheduled a jump. As the letter to my friends (below) indicates I had to reschedule three times before I actually got to jump – cloudy days are no-jump days.

It was a tandem jump – in other words, the instructor was strapped to my back. For my first jump I was perfectly okay with that. As you will see the entire experience was exhilarating, astonishing and insightful. After touching down I was ready to go again and while I had every intention of doing more skydiving after this initial jump things didn’t work out that way. As Catholic theologian, Karen Armstrong has frequently said: “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Other things got in the way and then several years later I had ear surgery. One of the prohibitions after the surgery was skydiving – and not for just a limited time, it was forever. Needless to say, I have been truly grateful for the one experience I did have.

Below is the letter I sent to all my friends after my jump.

Dear Friends,

Yes, today after 3 reschedules, I finally jumped!! I have been talking for a number of months now about all the birth metaphors that have been going on in my life and how I feel that I am on the edge of something big, yet lacking a clear vision of what that “something” is.  It helps me, at times like this, to physically act out what is going on inside me—hence my desire to step out and jump into the nothingness.

Most of you should have known me well enough not to have asked me the most frequently asked question—“Are you nuts?”  Of course!!  We all know that I am.  A close second, was—“Aren’t you afraid?”  Strangely enough, I wasn’t.  However, I must admit to several seconds of panic immediately after jumping, when I was trying to figure out how to breathe while it felt like the wind was actively conspiring to extract my lungs, as well as my breath.  Then there were the horror stories that many of you regaled me with, just like so many women do to first-time mothers-to-be.  Not to mention my daughter’s pragmatic instructions—“Don’t die, Mom.”  My favorite (and the wisest) comment came from my five-year-old granddaughter—“Be careful Grammy, and land softly.”

It was a tandem jump and I thought of my instructor as my “guide” into this new life—in fact, as we were suiting up Jim said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything”—kinda like the message that God tries to get through to all of us.  I listened to Jim.  Another lesson in faith.  As it turns out, in a tandem jump the instructor is strapped and hooked to one’s back, so I thought of him as my wings, my angel guide.  And you’ll never guess the color of my “jump” suit—yep, it was RED, my favorite color, with a bit of purple on the sleeves for contrast!  I must have been the envy of every male parrot in the skies.

I wasn’t prepared for the force of the wind when I followed my guide (backwards, I think) into the emptiness of space.  I found myself struggling to breathe, just like I did in the early stages of labor—deep breaths, in and out, in and out.  I also found myself, during the free fall, doing what I do in real life—trying to stay in control.  After the jump, before leaving the airport, I told Jim that I felt like I had missed something.  Looking back, I realize that I may have missed the magic of the free-fall moments because I was so intent on doing it “right”—and I have been wondering all evening, just how many moments of magic on the ground I have missed for the same reason.

When the chute opened there was a powerful jerk upward as the air rushed into the pockets of fabric.  And then, everything got silent—just like the world sounds after a carpeting of fresh snow.  It was like having the best seat in the theater for the premiere of a soundless symphony—yet hearing every note.  And it was there, that I really felt God—in the silence, in the space between free-falling and the earth.  Maybe that is why God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Maybe it can only happen in those silent spaces of nothingness.  I wanted to remain there, suspended and floating—in time, in space, in God’s mystical presence—above it all, gazing around in wonderment—forever.

Landing was uneventful and anti-climatic, similar to coming down from the mountain, and post-partum.  But it was “soft,” just as Taylor had hoped for me and my “guide” was still with me, seeing to my care and safety.  I told Jim that I would be back—I think this surprised me much more than it did him.  He has done thousands of jumps and still experiences the rush of adrenaline.  I have yet to experience that—I find an evening of wild Zydeco dancing to be more of a high than skydiving, but then I didn’t jump for the high, I jumped to find my feet.

Driving home, I couldn’t hold back the tears—they weren’t the gut-wrenching sobs that have plagued me recently when I have felt enveloped by a dense and suffocating fog that obscures both my vision and my path.  They were instead, tears of awe and gratitude—as if I were seeing life on the ground for the first time.  Everything was at once more peaceful and more vibrant, highly accentuated, yet subdued.  Strange, how falling down can have such a profound affect on how one looks up.  I find myself wondering if my new sense of seeing in any way mirrors the experience of the newborn’s moment of entry into this world.

Today is October 19.  In numerology, 1 + 9 = 10; 1 + 0 = 1.  “One” is the number of beginnings, of birth.  Today has been for me what I hoped it would be, a birth – day, and more.  I also learned something about fear up there, 10,000 feet above my everyday life.  I learned that it is FEAR of the unknown, not the unknown itself, or the nothingness, that causes discomfort and pain in life.  And that happens before we jump, or in some cases are pushed, into a vast sky of empty air.  How much easier change would be if we just stepped out and trusted our guide (or our God) and the strength of our wings.   In the moment before stepping outside the plane I thought about one of my favorite quotes by the dancer, Gabrielle Roth.  I think of it now:  “After you jump and before you land, there is God.”

Thank you for letting me share this moment of birth with you.

OCD

My mother was a lot of things – beautiful, intelligent, wise, thoughtful, angry, passive-aggressive, selfish, and dogmatic. Like my father, like all of us, she was a complex individual; multi-faceted, a mixture of light and shadow. From my earliest years I can recall her obsession with cleanliness, or at least her version of it. Most of it made little sense to me, not then and not now. Some of it, I’m sure, stemmed from living through the Great Depression and never having enough; the fear of being in that situation again. Most of it was irrational.

My father never questioned her eccentricities or mentioned them to a doctor. Being a child (no matter what my age) I was not permitted to question. However, three months before she died she had a stroke which landed her in the hospital, where she subsequently experienced a heart attack. I flew home from Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time, because her health situation was deemed dire and given her age (she was 84) I feared she might die before I could be with her one last time. I had been home just a few hours when the phone rang. Since my father was not there I picked up the phone. It was the hospital psychologist assigned to her case. After answering the many questions she had about Mom’s prior health history I asked her if she could look into a couple things for me. I sensed that for most of her adult life my mother had been depressed yet she had never been diagnosed (she certainly would have never sought help and my father was not one to ask questions). I also brought up what I considered her “strange” behaviors and gave her a run-down of what I had experienced and observed over my lifetime.

Growing up, the daily activities of living were fraught with rules, dos and don’ts that were senseless and fastidious. There was clean and unclean (like kosher but this had nothing to do with food) and never were the twain supposed to meet. Bedsheets were clean as were the inside of the washer, dryer, and refrigerator. Clothes, other than pajamas, were not clean if they had been worn after being washed; furniture was not clean. Pajamas were not allowed on bedcovers and certainly not on furniture; they could only be worn between the bedsheets. Street clothes were dirty and could not come in contact with the bed at all. Nor could they (since they were unclean) be thrown into the dryer (clean) to eliminate wrinkles unless they had just been washed. And dirty clothes could not go into the washer without first washing them by hand.

Paradoxically, while hygiene would dictate that underwear be changed daily Mom maintained that underwear had to be worn until they looked or smelled dirty. My only reprieve was to hand wash them myself, which I began to do in Jr. High out of sheer desperation…and embarrassment. My father, on the other hand wore his underwear until my mother told him he could change it as washing was “women’s work”.

New underwear was only for special occasions: Sundays, holidays, school performances, etc. When I had my 18th birthday one of my friends gave me a set of very chic feminine underwear (7 pair) – each one had a day of the week imprinted on it. I don’t know why I thought my mother would make an exception to her rules, maybe because there was one for each day, but she held firm. It was the one gift that I wanted more than anything to return – all the pleasure that is inherent in receiving a gift was completely squelched and stolen.

Anything that came from outside the home, groceries, etc. was dirty and had to be put into clean containers before going into the refrigerator – this included eggs which were soaked and washed before being refrigerated. Things that went into the cabinets, like flour and sugar (dirty) were covered with (clean) plastic bags. Despite the (clean) plastic in which my mother put the (unclean) bags and containers, they were still considered dirty when it came to washing hands. Hands had to be washed after touching each of these packages before continuing. Learning to cook in my mother’s kitchen was a nightmare, so much so that I gave up after a couple sessions and relied on 4-H and Home Economics where I could learn in other kitchens and not have to wash my hands every time I turned around.

Additionally, my mother was a hoarder. She saved every newspaper (she might want to read it someday) and magazine that came through the house, to the point our garage was filled with stacks upon stacks of old newspapers. She saved aluminum foil plates from pies, TV dinners etc., butter wrappers, peach pits, glass jars, and even bags of her own hair (which I discovered after her death). In the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink there were countless bars of soap (no less than 50), an item she bought whenever there were was a sale – a phenomenon I’ve come to learn was fairly typical of children who lived through the Depression years.

While my mother was in the hospital I took the opportunity to clear out some of the kitchen cabinets and drawers. I found boxes of spices that were in the cabinets when I was a small child. I threw out at least 20 jars of grape juice that she had canned in the 60s (this was 1998) – most of the juice was discolored and/or had mold growing on it and the seal was broken on several of the jars. When I told her what I had done she reprimanded me for my actions, arguing that I had discarded perfectly good juice…a waste of money.

Fortunately, during her hospital stay the psychologist acted on my request and after evaluation my mother was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior. It was such a relief to finally have a diagnosis, one that explained all the years of my mother’s strange behavior. As a result of the medications she was prescribed in the hospital the last three months of her life were among the most normal ones I ever experienced with her – she softened and allowed the rules by which she had governed and was governed to evaporate as if they had never existed. On the other hand I found myself battling a great deal of anger at my father for never once speaking to her physician about her aberrant behavior, consequently silently condemning both of us to labor for years under the senseless and fanatical rules that her disease compelled her to implement and insist on.

Early Childhood

My memories of early childhood start around three years old – my parents had moved from Medford, OR, where I was born, to Vancouver, WA. I recall that we stayed for awhile in a motel on Highway 99, though I don’t remember for how long. The middle-aged couple that owned the motel were very kind and they seemed to take to my parents. I remember sitting in their home at the motel and admiring the bookshelves overflowing with books, as well as the many stuffed animals that were kept for their grandchildren. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to hold one of the large teddy bears whenever we visited.

After leaving the motel my parents rented two other homes before my father built the house I grew up in. The first home was next door to the Richter family. I remember playing with two of the children, David and Sylvia and being fascinated by the chinchillas that their parents raised. Beyond that I recall little about living in that home.

The second home in which we lived in Vancouver was next door to John Gromesh and his family. My father, a chemical engineer, and John worked together at Alcoa Aluminum Company. I made friends with their oldest daughter, Ann, and went over to play with her as often as I was allowed and she was available. There was a young tree in their yard nearest our house – I have no idea what its fascination was but I was drawn to and I would wrap my hands around it and shake it. Mr. Gromesh caught me in action one day and asked me not to shake the tree but for some reason I persisted. Finally he spoke to my father.

My father was an angry man with a temper that was easily tripped, especially when it came to me. Abused and humiliated by his own parents, his takeaway was that parents have the right to abuse their children in the name of “discipline.” I was in the bathroom, sitting naked on the toilet, when he stormed into the house after talking with Mr. Gromesh and found me in the bathroom. He was ready to yank me off the toilet seat but my mother begged him to wait until I was finished. I remember sitting there as long as I could, hoping his anger would diminish and I could avoid a beating. No such luck – he yelled at me to get off the toilet or he would take me regardless of what my mother said. I was beaten naked with his belt and sent to bed. Years later he maintained that my beatings weren’t abuse because that term was never used prior to the 70s; he would casually refer to the beatings as “spankings,” as if the welts and bruises were love-pats.

Most of the early childhood memories that included my mother were pleasant ones. I would often accompany her to the cannery where she would go to can peaches and other fruits for us. Sometimes, she would drop me at a daycare center nearby where I was able to play with other children – only children, even at a young age, know what it is to be lonely.

One day we visited a local park. There were geese down by the lake where we had spent some time. My mother was up the hill ahead of me when I realized the geese had begun to chase me. In hindsight I don’t think I was in any imminent danger, but they were bigger than me (especially when they flapped their wings) and they moved faster. My mother rescued me but that memory has remained intact and it was the beginning of a life-long distrust of many large birds. No more than a year or two later, the banty rooster that we kept, along with several banty hens, flew at me with his talons erect and ready to strike. Fortunately, my mother was with me and rescued me yet again.

While I have no recollection of the incident, my parents often told a story about me that they considered hilarious: I was three-years-old and with them in a department store when I noticed a young boy about my age. I walked over to him, threw my arms around him and kissed him. I’m told his face registered confusion and then he began to wail. I’m not sure how the situation was resolved but since I didn’t receive a beating, I assume it was amicable. However, I’m fairly certain that the origin of my father’s later accusations of being “boy-crazy” and that I “chased boys” may have been this incident.

Memories of my mother during this time were overwhelmingly positive – she was nurturing, loving, comforting, and she protected me, or at least tried to. My father was impatient, angry, abusive (on several levels) and distant in his interactions with me – traits that didn’t change with time. I feared him – a fear that grew exponentially as I grew older.

My Father: The Sled

We lived In Southwest Washington, Vancouver to be precise (not to be confused with Vancouver, BC), situated on the Columbia River where the mild ocean winds come inland, meaning that ordinarily we didn’t get a lot of snow. Winter, if the temperatures did drop, usually brought ice, treacherous black ice. There were, however, several consecutive winters while I was in elementary school that brought copious amounts of snow. The neighbor girl and her brother who lived at the top of the hill had both a sled and a toboggan and if they were out on the hill I was always welcome to join them.

During the 50s, living out in the country, there were no snow plows that came through and plowed the roads – if you needed to go somewhere you put chains on your vehicle’s tires. Needless to say this meant that people stayed home unless travel was absolutely necessary. However, there was always just enough traffic to pack the snow which made the hilly roads great for tobogganing but you needed at least three people to make that happen safely: one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom to watch for cars; the third person got one hell of an exhilarating ride. But there were many times when my friends weren’t around and it was just me – and I had no sled, though not for want of begging.

One particular snowy morning I begged my mother yet again for a sled (I never begged my father for anything – I knew better than to risk his easily aroused anger, so it was to my mother that I went when I really wanted something). While she knew how much I wanted to hear her say “yes,” she also knew better than to do that without first consulting with my father. With a non-committal “we’ll see,” she sent me back outdoors. Knowing that my father would soon be eating breakfast and that my mom might use that opportunity to speak with him about a sled I stayed close to the kitchen window – waiting, hoping to hear their conversation. I wasn’t disappointed:

“Richard, why don’t you build a sled for Karen?”

“I’ve got other things to do.”

Back and forth this went and with each round the volume increased – especially my father’s. Finally, he stomped out of the house, slamming the door leading from the house to the garage.This was followed by a slamming door from the garage to the back porch; from there he entered his tool shed and set to work. Despite having heard the argument and knowing my father’s foul mood, the excitement building within 7- or 8-year-old me was intense; I could hardly contain it – I was going to have a sled and not just any old store-bought sled, but a sled built by my father.

Hours later he presented me with my sled and walked off. At first glance my heart sunk – it didn’t look anything like the sled that my neighbors had – it wasn’t sleek and shiny, nor was it light-weight. Undaunted, I trudged up the hill beside our house, struggling to pull the sled with me. It was hard work and I was sweating profusely by the time I got to the top – but I was buoyed by the anticipation of swooshing down the hill – the thrill would make it worth all the effort.

At the crest of the hill I positioned the sled and sat down, whereupon it promptly sank in the snow. I wasn’t about to give up without a fight so I got up and pushed it forward a bit and sat down, only to have it sink again. I repeated this scenario all the way down the hill. I was so frustrated and disappointed that I ran sobbing to my mother.

She attempted to soothe me by saying that my father just didn’t know how to build sleds. But she knew, and I knew, that my father was an expert carpenter (in fact, he had wanted to start a small carpentry business with a friend but was stopped by my mother – another story for another time). He knew what kind of wood was necessary and that the rudders should be steel or some type of metal. But he had been pestered into doing what he had no interest in doing and rather than tell my mother “no,” which would have meant a lengthy argument he didn’t want to have, he did exactly as she asked.

He built me a sled; an unusable one to be sure (Mom hadn’t specified that it be functional), but a sled nonetheless;  a sled constructed entirely of two-by-fours with tin cans flattened and nailed onto the wooden rudders.

"Good men must not obey the laws too well….Wild liberty develops iron conscience." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson