I do not remember my childhood with fondness. Of course, it was not all of a piece. Some pieces were better than the rest and better in different ways. There were moments of delight, moments of sensory discovery, moments of absorbing mystery even before I discovered books. I was immersed in it. In a non-trivial way, too, I have remained immersed in it throughout the course of my life
It is a puzzle to me why I do not remember my childhood with fondness. My first thought is that there was so much fear. Unspoken fear was part of the atmosphere. I inhaled it without knowing its name, let alone what it was or why it was. I do not know if the unspoken becomes unspeakable or if the unspeakable permeates as the unspoken. But these are presences. I was permeated by the unspoken fearfulness and so became afraid myself. I was born very shortly after the end of the Second World War into a Jewish family. I was a new hope and a new hazard,
What language does fear speak? How does it communicate? How does it infect? Fear speaks in the eyes. It speaks through the eyes. It speaks in a whole range of gazes, some that look penetratingly, some that look away so as not to see what is there to be seen. It speaks in the throat, in the music that the voice composes. It speaks in the jaw, in the neck, in the set of the shoulders, down the arms into the hands and their postures, imploring and deploring.
It sneaks into the muscles, into the sinews, into the joints. It can give a crazed strength as well as take all strength away. It speaks in the organs, in how the stomach and the intestines work, how the adrenals drip their potions into the bloodstream, how the heart beats and skips, how the arteries and veins fill and drain.
It speaks in how the brain works. It affects not only that switching center named for its almond shape, the amygdala, currently so much in vogue, but in the vast array of workings that make up the mystery of our minds. Fear speaks and sneaks like a monster and a ghost not only while we are awake but also while we sleep and dream. It is capable of speaking in all the ways that we know ourselves and also in the ways that we don’t know ourselves.
How does fear travel in a family? It passes from person to person in its own stealthy way along the myriad channels of attachment. It makes use of the subtleties of attunement to become infectious, establishing its presence early and then thriving so that it becomes robust enough to be transmitted anew. Fear was never a named partner in the life of my family growing up, but it was certainly one of the managing partners. It was never named because it was too powerful to be named, too omnipresent, too insidious as well as too powerful. How did we happen still to be alive?
Another word about fear: the horrors that have happened do not stop happening. They have entered not only the category of the possible, but the category of the actual. They have happened and even when we raise walls of denial against them, these walls are but a testament to their strength, an homage that is almost a form of worship. So, if fear refers to the future, it can not help referring to the past as well and as insistently. The past lies ahead of us in the way it shapes our expectations, our inventory of the possible. Our visions of the future always testify to the views that the past and not simply the personal past have installed in us.
Along with fear, my mother’s depression and my father’s iron will to survive were intimate companions of my childhood. My mother retreated within herself, so that knowing her was virtually impossible. I never found her, always missed her and learned so much about futility from this missing without any end. I was alone even when she was near.
My father was actually a gentle man but he had a forbidding armor. He knew what it was to be hated for no reason. He knew what murder was and what it was to face a mob bent on murdering him. Also, his health was never good. He did not declare his determination but persisted. He was often irritable and angry. He was often irritable and angry at me.
He did not begin to speak of his experiences, of the facts of his life until he was over sixty years old. He was not talking while the flavor lasted. The flavor was bitter. The flavor went on being bitter even when he talked. His talking made a map for me so that I could track him and try to find him. Talking changed nothing and it changed everything.
I was a fat kid. I took refuge in eating. Refuge from what? From tensions both inside me and around me. Eating was a habit of comfort in a world that was quite uncomfortable, inside and out. Comfort can come close to pleasure, but I doubt sure it ever crosses the threshold.
If you are a fat kid, then in your mind you are always a fat person, even if as an adult you are not fat. There is an irreducible embarrassment, a sense that in some fundamental way, you are not as you should be. I am still occasionally aware of diving into food to escape something inside, to obliterate what cannot be obliterated. Food should support your vitality, but this kind of eating dulls it instead.
So many losses not grieved, maybe that can never be grieved, So many sorrows. So many hurts, unforgiven and unforgivable. Dread of repetition, Can it happen again? Dread that hope is an illusion. Dread as a day to day companion in all the little things. Dread when flowers bud and bloom. Dread when trees leaf out and when trees drop their leaves that have changed color.. Dread when snow comes whirling down in winter winds and dread when snow melts and runs off, disappears. Dead through all seasons.
There is no way to show. There is no way to tell, for the telling changes everything, Even when it is the truth that is being told, the telling falsifies it. It wraps it in the wind of words, so that it is not what it was, but only a neighbor.. Even if it is a near neighbor it is no more than that, The nearest neighbor only guesses, only surmises what goes on in the house next door. So it is with our own hearts. We surmise and we guess. What we write is an effort to get close to ourselves and also to get away from ourselves.
Fearfulness makes relaxation impossible.