Birthday Party

A few days ago, I made the following post on Facebook:

One of my boyhood friends died yesterday (here we are in the middle row of this photo: I, on the far left with my arm over my eyes, and he, on the far right wearing a white T-shirt).  Although I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in many, many years, the news saddens me because once upon a time we were pals who looked forward to seeing each other. When you grow up in the country, your circle of friends is small, and the absence of one can be deeply felt, as it is now. We rode our bikes over the gravel roads between our two farmhouses. We explored haymows and woodlands, shot BB guns, played “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button” at each other’s birthday parties. When I heard that he’d died, I remembered him the way he was when he was a boy and the way I was when I was a boy. I remember calling him on the phone. “Can you come over?” I asked, and he said, “Hold on. I’ll ask my mom.” I waited. Like me, he was an only child; we were eager for companionship. “She said yes,” he told me when he came back to the phone. “Hurry,” I said. Then I went to stand in my front yard so I could look down our lane, my heart thrilling at the first sign of him bent over the handlebars of his bicycle, pedaling fast, both of us ready for our day’s adventures to begin.

I was touched by the responses to this post and the expressions of sympathy, perhaps guiltily so because as I made plain I’d had no contact with this boyhood friend for many, many years. In fact, I can’t claim to know the man he became, only the boy that I remember from childhood. It’s that boy for whom I grieve. One response to my post, this from the poet, Cathryn Essinger, seems particularly relevant. “At any given moment we are all of the people we have ever been,” she wrote, “but mostly we are forever children.”

Cathy’s thoughts about the eternal children inside us make me think of the importance of that awareness, not only to the people we are but to the writers we are as well. As we age and hone our craft, we often develop a vision that’s more ironic, worldlier, more sophisticated, and we can use that vision toward good effect as we explore more fully in our work the nuances of the lived life. Still, we shouldn’t forget the raw emotions of childhood—those fears, joys, disappointments, sorrows that showed us that we could feel and feel intensely, that our tears, our dreads, our shouts of glee, were valid responses to the world around us. Sometimes real life comes along, as it did for me a few days ago, and reminds us of that.

Do you remember your public displays of emotion from your childhoods? The times you cried, the times you went silly with joy, the times you got unreasonably angry and lashed out or threw a tantrum? If you’re like me, it embarrasses you just a tad to recall the specifics. Discomfort is good for a writer. Don’t be afraid of the children you were. Don’t be afraid to feel what you felt then. I bet you weren’t embarrassed by your emotions at the time; you were too busy feeling what you felt. Now as a writer, if you can tap into those raw emotions from childhood, even if not replicating the events that sparked them, you can create a more genuine experience for your reader. Sometimes we’re tempted to run away from these emotions in our writing. Sometimes we rely on tricks of language to substitute for authentic feeling, but we can wade into that messy emotional territory while still having the aesthetic distance necessary to shape it, as Robert Hayden does in his poem, “Those Winter Sundays”:

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

Notice the direct gathering of facts—the cold, the cracked hands, the banked fires, the polishing of the good shoes. Notice how those details wouldn’t resonate if Hayden didn’t allow the expression of emotion when the speaker says, “No one ever thanked him.” That and “What did I know, what did I know.” In the caesura, we hear the catching of the breath, the choked emotion, the hard thing felt.

I fear that when we come to the page as more experienced writers, we sometimes forget what it was to feel the hard emotions in our childhoods. Maybe we need to daydream more, to travel back into the past, to revisit those uncomfortable moments, to feel again, as Cathy points out,  the children we are inside.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Richard Gilbert on November 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful essay, Lee. It in itself is a testament to honest emotion, controlled but deep and true. I think it pairs so well with what you have written here about the retrospective narrator, the older and calmer and wiser, who brings balance. But as you point out here, one must not shirk the original experience—what happeend in the first place, what fuels the writing in the first place.

  2. Lee Martin on November 25, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and Kathy, Richard.

  3. Glenda Beall on November 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I recently began following you and find your posts to be most enlightening and true. I write poetry and personal essays and am in the fifth year of my grief journey after losing my husband of 45 years. I agree. As writers we must go back to the past and let ourselves feel those emotions again in order to convey to our readers the reality of our words.
    Today I called an old friend I have not seen or talked with in many years. Suddenly we were laughing at the memoires we recalled, discussing our metamorphosis from young teachers to older women haunted now by some of what we witnessed back then.
    I completely understand your feelings about that boy who was your best friend and the grief you felt when you learned he had died.

  4. Lee Martin on November 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Dear Glenda,

    I’m so glad that you called your old friend. Thank you so much for following my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment, which speaks so eloquently to the thoughts that I expressed. Thank you for sharing your stories. I wish you all the best.

  5. sarah corbett morgan on November 26, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    I always enjoy these posts of yours, and this one certainly stood out for me. Both your memory and the poem were so evocative. Wonderful. Wonderful.

    I have many of these sorts of written scenes, childhood scenes that I have felt deeply while writing. They are filed away in my computer, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to use them in any current WIP. Maybe I am not digging enough, or perhaps I think no one would be interested. After reading this, I think maybe I should add that younger me from time to time, because I am only a slightly tempered version of that fierce little girl; that Cathryn Essinger quote is so true.

  6. Lee Martin on November 27, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Sarah, I’m often amazed by how small the distance is between my adult self and my childhood self. I often like to find the source of my current behaviors in my memories. When I write memoir, I treat myself the way I do my characters in my fiction; I look for the sources from the past that led me to where I am in the present. I’m glad you’re saving those childhood scenes. You never know when you might be able to put them to good use. Thanks for you comment, Sarah.

  7. Naomi Kooker on December 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Beautiful post, Lee. Thank you for sharing it here. I am so sorry for the news and your loss, yet appreciate your expression of what your boyhood connection means to you. That’s very powerful. I often think of a friend who I made later in life, Estelle. We met at a Honda dealership. She was already in her 90s, I was pushing 40. It’s an ‘older’ friend story (that involves self-forgiveness for I let our connection slip) but it resonates with that thrill of just being buds, the companionship, the abiding connection that abates loneliness and reminds us how much a friend can mean — at any age. Particularly in childhood.

  8. Lee Martin on December 9, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Thank you, Naomi, and thank you, too, for sharing your own story.

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