I started this week’s blog, wrote a lot of it, and realized, hell no, that’s not right. I don’t want to say that. So I’m starting again.
Lots of people say they’re suffering from Quarantine Brain. Hard to focus, distractable, depressed. I’ve got a different problem: Memoir Brain. I’m working on a hairy chapter, the time between being kicked out of the University of Michigan in 1959 and getting into Northwestern in 1960. I’ve got sources: memories, letters, transcripts, newspaper clippings and class notebooks, but they don’t all add up to the same reality. From early childhood onward I was a really talented liar; it’s how I survived. Two years into my relationship with Conrad my most elaborate academic Ponzi scheme collapsed in flames, and from those ashes emerged the concept of Truth; grimy, wobbly, but on its feet. I never lied again.
This year and a half of the memoir, though, is like seeing an old 3-D movie without the glasses: the images won’t come together. A prime example is a yellowed transcript from my year of penance at Valparaiso University. That was certainly part of my application packet to Northwestern, and I did get admitted. Looking at enlarged photocopies, I honestly can’t tell if it’s authentic or forged. How can I possibly not know whether I finished those incompletes and got decent grades, or if I repeated the old sick pattern, failed, altered the evidence, and went on living a lie? Talk about an unreliable witness . . .
Abuse plays nasty tricks with memory. Writing this memoir is helping me bring some things back, but I always question whether what I’m remembering is true or not. Little by little, though, enough is coming clear. A butterfly was once a caterpillar, but you have to admit, they’re different critters. I was an impressive straight-A valedictorian Merit Scholar caterpillar, headed for a career in medicine. Eventually I became an actor and composer. 1959-60 was my time in the cocoon, when my imaginal cells broke me down into soup.
My first year at Ann Arbor ended in a nightmare of incompletes that became flunks. My parents didn’t know, because I intercepted and forged the year’s-end grade reports. I got very good at this. In my second year I started to become a performer: theatre, radio, and Gilbert & Sullivan touring, and the fall semester’s grades were a dog’s breakfast. I couldn’t intercept that grade report. The axe fell, and all hell broke loose, I groveled and cried and swore I’d seen the light: I’d go back to being a serious student again. I didn’t. I kept on performing and got the department’s annual award for acting. I should have said I didn’t want to stay with medicine, I wanted the life of theatre that was beginning to give me power. I didn’t have the guts.
I made a deal for 1959-60. I would carry on with my plans for the summer, two lead roles at Interlochen National Music Camp, and I would pay my way by waitressing. Then I would live at home for a year, become a good academic at VU, and hope to get into Northwestern. I still didn’t understand that, yes, my whole life could be in theatre, and it might be a good one; I just focused on one more goddamn college.
I did get into Northwestern, I met Conrad and we became the theatre team we still are. But the thing that’s bending my brain into pretzels is the possibility that Northwestern accepted a fraud, and I still don’t know. I’ve sent for an official transcript; that will sooner or later clear it up. What’s hardest to write about clearly is what it’s like to lie so well that you don’t know what is true.
And that’s why Memoir Brain is extra hard right now. Our entire society is spinning and flailing in a vile stew of lies. It looks as if they’re all having a great time doing it, yanking our chain and putting it over. But I’ve been there, done that, and it wasn’t a great time. I’m just one person. I fell apart and put myself back together, and it didn’t make waves. This time, though, if it ever sorts out, it’s gonna be a tsunami.
Facebook is fun. Apart from its many flaws, you learn things about your friends you’d never know. In the current crisis, I’ve learned this:
- The virus is real, it’s a global threat, the only hope is strict isolation.
- It’s no worse than seasonal flu.
- It’s a plot by Big Pharma to push a costly vaccine when there’s already a cure that’s cheap.
- The cheap cure is no cure.
- It’s a plot by China to undermine our economy.
- We paid them to do it.
- It doesn’t exist.
- It’s a plot by Big Pharma.
- If we let it alone, take no measures, and die, we’ll all become immune.
- It’s worse than anyone thinks it is.
- It’s a scheme by Bill Gates to force vaccination, implanting microchips in the world population to establish a totalitarian state under Agenda 21.
And so on, with variations. In a sense, I’m pleased that I have such variety among my friends. I haven’t yet heard that it’s caused by the aliens living in the bowels of Mt. Shasta to thin the human population so they can find a parking space in San Francisco—I fully expect to hear that tomorrow.
But this is not a post to belittle anyone’s theory. What I find noteworthy is the certainty.
I see it in this issue, in the primaries, in just about every issue on the face of my iMac screen. There are few doubts, few maybes, few on-the-other-hands, but there’s a buffalo stampede of rock-solid, absolute, butt-naked CERTAINTIES. It seems as if you don’t have that certainty, you might as well be going out the door without your pants.
I’ve seen almost no examples of an opinion being changed. Even if a hundred people tell you your mustache looks silly, damned if you’re gonna shave it off.
I would have been a good dentist. Not that I mistrust my notions, but I probe for the cavities. I want to make sure that damn tooth is going to do its job as long as I need it. I’ve always been more critical of experimental theatre than mainstream because I have a greater stake in it. I’ve been more critical of progressive political rhetoric than reactionary drivel because I want it to succeed. The best scientists are those who forgo the easy headline and do everything possible to disprove what they most hope to prove.
In all the thoughts outlined above in regard to Covid-19, the simple fact (IMHO) is this: nobody knows. Granted, predictions have consequences, and people, states, nations, have to make decisions based on probabilities, whereas all I have to do is to decide if I’ll wear a mask (which I do) and vote in November. I can express an opinion on whether there’s a sentient God, but my opinion is only an identity-construct, with little effect on the Universe.
So why the certainty?
I guess we need it. Apart from practical decision-making, I think most of us are addicted to predicting the future. Even those who’ve grown up in poverty in America have lived a privileged life. We haven’t suffered carpet-bombing. We haven’t had armed squads come into town and line us up—in this century anyway. Even in epidemics, we haven’t had carts through the streets to bring out our dead. We have hunger, but we haven’t had mass starvation, and our mass murders have been in the dozens, not in the hundreds of thousands. We haven’t had civil war for a hundred and fifty years. We have racial strife, but not on the scale of Rwanda. We’re really babes in the woods when it comes to suffering as experienced in the world.
So I’m not preaching a let’s-wait-and-see on any vital issue, only that we probe and prod our own firmly-held opinions and work hard to define the difference between “I think” and “I know.”
It’s Mother’s Day, but which mother? I had a mother; three of them, in fact. I have a son and a daughter, so I am also a mother. The mother who gave me life could not keep me. The mother who raised me was childless. The person who gave me a mother’s unconditional love was not my mother. It’s complicated.
The mother who adopted me gave up her career on the stage to marry the man who became the heart center of the rest of her life; it was a loving marriage, but childless. She’d had a turbulent and painful childhood, then went on to study theatre in New York. After the 1917-18 flu epidemic upended her efforts on the dramatic stage, she turned to a career as a vaudeville comedienne and did very well. Leaving theatre to live as a country wife was life-changing.
The mother who bore me grew up with a divorced single mother, and she spent most of her time away from home in private schools: 7 years near her Wisconsin home, 2 years in New England, a high school graduate at age 15. She was a beautiful young woman with a love for music and theatre, and the man who shared those loves probably never knew he’d made a baby. I interrupted her study at UW/Madison, and afterward she returned, completed her degree, married a good man, and had a son.
The mother who embraced me with full-hearted love was abandoned when she gave birth to the child who would become my life-mate. Her husband wanted no competition. As a single mom, she struggled for survival, always rejoiced in her son, and opened her arms to me when I entered the family. Her love was milk to me.
I honor them all. These women: amazing women, vital, fierce, loving, and totally different. Life threw them curves, and they all had to struggle. But all three gave me gifts worthy of fairy godmothers. My birth-mother chose to give me life, and she gifted me with her music and theatre and love of languages, as well as her wonderful bone structure. My adoptive mother gave me great pain, but she also showed me what a committed marriage can be and how performing can light up your life. And my borrowed mother gave me a warm nest, honored me by blessing my union with her only beloved, and called us both her kids.
Three mothers: I celebrate them. And I celebrate me too, a mother who nursed two kids on the road, changed diapers in the Dodge van, managed years of home-schooling, and let go when the time came.
And today I also lavish love on the mother of us all. She has been abused and is hurting, and we would all do well to become warriors in her defense. One way or the other, all my mothers did that for me. It’s only right to give back. Happy Mother’s Day.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein