Childhood Refracted through a Life

Here’s a link to a memoir about a father who went missing – not walking away from his family, but falling away forever in a mountaineering accident, at least in the mind of his daughter.

That article got me thinking about something that’s very important in my own life: the idea that the child is father to the man. I need to think it’s not that simple. I need this to be true: that the child is just a sketch, a way to stand upright on your own fortitude, a work-in-progress that gets reshaped, honed, refined, re-made if necessary under the eye of the self.

The sapling is father to the tree.
The sapling is father to the tree.

I can say without argument (I hope!) that we do evolve as persons. There is a caution in it, however: that kind of change slows, or even stops, for many. I’m not the sort of stop changing; I can’t really get inside the head of anyone who does, mostly because it has never occurred to me to try. 🙂 I’ve always been quite satisfied to be merely puzzled at static lives. Thinking about it now, I can see that I really need to start asking questions about that – do people really settle in the way I imagine they do, rock-like? Or are they just simmering, in a happy, or contrived, or horrible place, whatever it might actually be?

So I speak only for myself in reaction to that memoir.

A single sentence is the heart of my reaction. The first part:

“The recovery of my father gave me permission to let go of the mistruths that had guided me since his disappearance, …”

“…gave me permission…” jumps out at me. It’s a scary thought, that we maintain mistruths–even the very ones most central, most responsible for who we are–because we just don’t have permission to move on. Even as I recoil at the idea, I know it’s true. I have strong memories, like prevailing winds too oppressive to fight, that fall right into this category. Not all of them can be named, or even roughly described. I have felt some fall away in the harsh light of undeniable truth (and one does try so hard to maintain the denial). I have felt some released by events, such as the death of my parents in an auto accident. (Until that moment, which was some weeks afterwards, I had kept a small part of the feeling of being unloveable tucked away against any evidence or reproof from the very people who loved me. As I said; we can be stubborn about these things. When it fell away, I not only enjoyed my new sense of self; I understood the reason for my denial. I was set free by the understanding that I was not only lovable, but also a loving human being myself. And freedom brings a more vast responsibility to be that free person–to love is not just being lovable; it is being strong and supportive and able to shoulder heavy burdens lightly.)

And then, the second part of the sentence, the reimposition of limits: “…but it also revealed how much of him was still missing.” Letting go is a two step process. The first part is just to admit that one is wrong about the trouble you are holding so close. The second part is to give up the urge to magnify the importance of the past, to simply learn what is the essential lesson and then move on.

It was like a hammer on my soul, that second clause. It implies that not only is her father’s story missing; her father himself is still missing for her. Yes, she gives up on the fragments she’d held on to, understanding they are not going to work. But she thinks: they won’t work, but surely something will! It’s like setting off for New York from Los Angeles, discovering in Ixtapa, Mexico that you are going in the wrong direction, and then spending all your time figuring out how you got to Ixtapa instead of heading to New York. It would seem that letting go ought to mean “letting go” but we usually choose to hold on surprising ways.

We need our illusions, because they have lived so many years as facts.

It’s hard to walk away, it’s hard not to think that they need just some modest revision and we’ll be as good as new. Nope. We need freedom, not explanations, in order to change. Because by stepping away, by letting go, we can with with perspective, with indifference, with kindness, without the pain of the wound blinding us.

Not that it isn’t healthy to look into one’s illusions. It’s getting trapped in some other way to live them that chains us. Calling a wolf a dog doesn’t change anything. Confronting the wolf, making peace with him, loving the wounds that bought our freedom, learning to live as the wold lives — all that can be very good for you.

So I became curious, even apprehensive, as she set off to learn everything she could about her father. She wants to know him having only met him as a very young child. The facts pile up. Explanations follow; without direct experience, I wondered: how true are those explanations? How illusory, or real?

You see, I’m about the age of her father; I know how impossible it is for my own children who have known me to grasp who I was back then. One might even think: it’s not to be, not under any circumstances, that you ever walk very far in your parent’s shoes. They are and will remain mysteries; you have your own life to live, after all, and that matters is setting yourself free to do that.

Which brings me to this conclusion: that love does anything but set us free. Love is a good feeling about hard work, a lot of the time. Maybe I’ve gut myself too loose; maybe I’m running with the wrong wolf, maybe I confuse living and dreaming. Even if I’ve let go of something that she still desires, I maintain my own staff of illusions, and will never be free of them. We all win a few, and lose most of the time. Freedom, it would seem, is a means to an end, and the end says, hold on to the truth in everything you do, even if you have to spend a lifetime to know it. It’s OK to be bound, but choose carefully, with eyes open: truth is the only adulthood worth finding, but it’s hard to know what it looks like under cover of memory.

One thought on “Childhood Refracted through a Life

  1. Lovely essay, Ron. I tend to view others’ static natures as you do but maybe it’s worth looking again now and then at how my own reactions to events might be unchanging, and how far they might be rooted in what I learned, or what I tried not to emulate, of my parents’…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s