Tuesday, April 28, 2009
UFO Sighting over Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The Army hospital where I was born.
Every writer--every artist for that matter--must deal with "exposure" and the tensions that can arise when one's own reality seems to step on the reality of another. My interest in excavating my ancestry flies somewhat in the face of my family's rules. These are the very rules of my ethnic ancestors, going way beyond my nuclear family: they are familiar to any one of British/Irish/Scots ancestry, I believe.
Here they are:
- we don't air dirty laundry
- we practice "reserve"
- we keep our secrets to ourselves
- we downplay our misfortunes and broadcast our successes
- failure is unthinkable
- we don't acknowledge the elephants in the room or the skeletons in the closet
- we just don't talk about it here
- if you are hurting, take care of it yourself
- don't bring your problems to me
- buck up and stop whining
- we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps
- we don't trust authority
- we obey authority.
Many of these became America's dominant paradigms too. And, I want to explore that segue between what I learned in my cultural and family conditioning and what America's lessons were for me as a child of the 1950s and 1960s.
As I befriend individuals from very different ethnic backgrounds, and learn how there are cultural tones to our personalities, I begin to pick at what I think of as the downside of my inherited "traits." The word itself has that sense of something repeatedly drawn until it becomes a deeper rut. It can work for the good, but it can also inhibit us. Merging with those from other countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities can be liberating. It is the reason America is great, in my opinion, to the extent we are welcoming of this diversity. But as we hold on to one supposedly "true" idea of what America is, of what we are, we sacrifice something very important: spontaneity, freedom to be different and to grow in a new direction.
My ability to turn over rocks, pick at wounds, scratch at the surface is the result of three things: 1) work I have done in the recovery movement and in therapy; 2) my contact with people who have very different cultural backgrounds than the one in which I was raised; and 3) my own family's (particularly my mother's) willingness to welcome individuality, to see the individual rather than cling to stereotpying. While my father, through his illness with alcohol, become ever more rigid, my mother was always able to meet a person face-to-face with warmth, generosity, curiosity, and kindness. Her hospitality to my friends and magnanimous spirit may be residue of Scots-Irish, pioneer openness. Cast into wilderness, unfriendliness won't get you very far. . .
Sharing oneself can be friendly or confessional; each decides how much to let out, let in. It is my responsibility to speak of my own experience, and leave it to others whether or not they wish to speak at all; the difficulty comes when we share a past.