If you had asked me what I remembered most about growing up as a Christian Scientist, it would have been the disappointment I felt when my grandparents arrived to take us to church. They always made their entrance in the middle of “Beany and Cecil.”
Maybe you don’t remember Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Monster. From what I understand, he began his career as a sock puppet, but was fully animated in the cartoon of my childhood. He had a signature song, Ragmop, which he belted out at some point in the episode, “R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P, RAGMOP!” And he might be right in the middle of doubling his consonants when Grandma Lucile and Grandpa Virgil arrived, dressed in their Sunday best.
I’m sure I’d have been dressed and prepared for this trip before I ever sat down to Cecil. Cecil was probably the carrot my mother dangled to get me ready, as I was quite young when these memories begin. I don’t imagine I was too excited to head off to Sunday School. I was rarely excited to do anything that involved leaving my home, where I had my coloring books, my collection of tiny things, my siblings, and most importantly, my mother. Why would I need to leave? There were unimportant people and strange relatives out there. Better to stay home, preferably with Cecil.
But they would gather us up, my substantial grandpa in one of his huge dark suits, my soft spoken but firm-about-church grandma in one of her dainty netted hats and a pair of gloves, clutching a handbag. I would never see Beany rescued from the peril unfolding on our tiny black and white television. I would never see Cecil roar into action, lisping and invincible, to rescue him. Because we had to go to church.
Grandpa had a taste for enormous American cars and generally drove a Plymouth Behemoth. My older brother and sister would clamber into the back seat, and Grandma would tuck me under her arm in the front. If we were lucky, she would then carefully divide a stick of Doublemint chewing gum between me and my sister. “Double your freshness, double your fun, with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum.” I loved the flavor, which lasted about as long as that jingle.
Our breath dealt with, we were off, my siblings sliding across the back seat and bumping into each other when Grandpa swung the car around corners. There were no seat belts in those cars. We didn’t slide around on curves because there are no curves in the roads in South Dakota.
We lived in Claremont, and it was 39 miles from Claremont to Aberdeen. The Sunday round trip was nearly 80 miles. This is quite a distance, even for someone like me, who regularly travels many of Portland freeways and streets to see friends and family. But I don’t travel on gravel roads.
There were a few stretches of unimproved highway between Claremont and Aberdeen. There were also the vagaries of South Dakota winters, but no one let bad weather stand between them and church in those days. A whiteout blizzard couldn’t keep us away from the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Oh it was a grand building. Take a look.
Doesn’t it look like a bank? Or maybe a school, one of the old ones, with boy doors and girl doors? Christian Science was still a thriving concern in the early sixties, not as much as it was earlier in the century, but it seemed to be doing fine. The fact that a town of 24K could support a church like this boggles my mind. I don’t know the history of this building, so perhaps it was something else before it was a church. It is no longer a church, it now houses a law office, and when I stepped into it in the mid 2010s, it felt as grand as ever.
As a child, I thought the church magnificent, even though I never walked up those front steps. We entered through the little door on the lower left. That led into the basement, where we attended Sunday School and the children’s service. There, I learned to recite the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and a few Bible verses here and there.
After Sunday School, we waited in the “Nursery” for our grandma. Grandpa stayed upstairs, but she fetched us from this room where (I guess) the children who were too young for Sunday School were kept on Sunday mornings. It had a sand table, some books, and a few toys. The walls were painted a warm color and accented with painted animals here and there. My mother had painted some of the animals. I remember taking pride in a particular tiger. “Mom painted that.”
Grandma eventually rescued us from the Nursery and took us to the children’s service. This was quite short, just a reading and then a few hymns. My sister and brother were allowed to sit wherever, but Grandma stayed close to me, in case I went wild or something (I never did). I loved the hymns. My pleasure was slightly lessened by having Grandma Lucille warbling along beside me. But nothing could dim my enjoyment of my very favorite, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Onward Christian soldiers
Marching as to war
With the cross of JEEEEEEE-ZUZZ
Going on before!
I loved the military tempo of this hymn, and belted it out with all the gusto of Cecil the Sea Monster. It never struck me as funny that “the cross of Jesus” went out before us. Christian Scientists took that “no graven images” commandment quite seriously. There was not a cross in the entire church, and there were certainly no sad-eyed Christs in the vestibule. No plaster Marys looking sweetly down on us. And the idea of a crucifix? Not on your life. Those were seen as barbaric.
No, the only cross we saw was the one in the logo stamped on the front of our seminal text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
This book was penned by Mary Baker Eddy, the visionary who started the church after some visions. This book was the source of the readings that went on in the adult church upstairs, where my grandparents had their service. I believe they both did readings.
We used it downstairs, too. In the basement, after we talked about the Bible in Sunday School, we turned immediately to the companion book for explanations. Even in tiny doses, the Bible was incomprehensibly strange. The Key to the Scriptures took all that confusing, threatening, occasionally violent Biblical verbiage and made it comprehensible, kind, and metaphysical.
I want to stress that the verses we learned were very, very mild.
It wasn’t just the Bible that confused us. Whenever we heard of something wrong or frightening out in the world, my grandmother would soothe us with “Honey, that’s just Mortal Mind.” This was Grandma’s shorthand for a sophisticated and far-reaching concept, but I was too young to parse Mortal Mind as a sophisticated, far-reaching concept.
After church, we all got back in the car and headed to Elmer’s Café for donuts. This was probably the carrot my grandparents dangled to get us to behave. I didn’t ever like donuts as a child (this was shocking to all my family members, my dislike of sweets in general was considered aberrant, possibly dangerous or subversive because how could I be bribed?) but eventually, after much trial and error, it was discovered that I did like caramel rolls. So I got one of those at Elmer’s after church, and everyone calmed down.
That was church, when I was very young.
That’s a good question. Mom had participated in the upgrade of the nursery—I think my aunt Elaine did, too—but I never once remember Mom attending the church.
When we lived in Claremont, she and my original father probably enjoyed their time off together by adding another shouted chapter to their decade-long argument, a call-and-response of accusation and insult which provided the soundtrack to the first five years of my life.
After they divorced and we moved to Aberdeen, my mom probably enjoyed that morning alone. Maybe she relaxed on Sunday mornings. Maybe she slept. She must have been doing something, because as far as I recall, she never once went to the church with us.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa arrived back at the house on Kline Street to drop us off, Mom usually had Sunday dinner going. It was so nice to walk into the house, and find her happy and relaxed in a kitchen that smelled like her peerless pot roast.
That’s another good question. I have never studied Christian Science as an adult, so this is my understanding of it, based on my early training.
“Christian Science” is neither. I’ll get to the Christian part later, but there is no science present in a religion that teaches that physical illness can be overcome by correct thought. This thought isn’t the random cogitation going on in our heads at all times. This is directed and effective thought, applied to transcending life’s problems because they actually do not exist.
As a child, I did not understand this part. Do you understand this part? Does anyone understand it? According to Christian Science, the physical world does not exist. It is Mortal Mind, a screen of falseness between humanity and the purely spiritual plane, which is true reality.
This means that on an individual level, anything wrong with your life or your body is the result of what Grandma called “wrong thinking” (see, faith healing, including Christian Science kids who die of burst appendixes, which I almost did when I was five). On a global level, “Wrong thinking” is the cause of wars, pestilence, and famine.
Wrong thinking is part of “Mortal Mind.” Mortal Mind, as I understand it, is the level of flawed human thought/existence that stands between mankind and the perfection of God, which is always there, just waiting in all its splendor and glory, shining and divine. When freed of the entire mess of humanity’s wrong thinking, it is Paradise. Heaven, as much as it exists, is simply the oneness with God achieved by perfect thought unobscured by Mortal Mind.
What a gorgeous idea. How simple, and how transcendent. How specifically appealing this was to the various adults in my family. Think of the name of that companion text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Their own minds held the key to unlock the divine. You didn’t have to pray. All you had to do was think correctly.
I experienced my childhood faith as benevolent and somewhat annoying, simply because I could have been spending that time doing something that interested me. But I was not damaged by going to church, not was I damaged by my unusual faith.
Christian Science contains nothing frightening or negative. There is no sin, no devil, no hell as it is commonly understood. I remember hearing about all that stuff from some Catholic kids. I can summon up the memory and my emotions right now, but I don’t know if they were cousins or neighbors, just that they were Catholic, and we were in a wood-paneled basement room and they were telling me all about the Devil.
I wasn’t scared. I was utterly disbelieving. I could not believe that they believed what they were telling me. A devil was a Halloween costume, a seasonal figure, like the cupid shooting arrows on Valentine’s Day. And here were these kids earnestly telling me about Satan and sin, and the Lake of Fire what would burn me for all eternity.
They might as well have been describing how to walk through walls or time travel. It wasn’t real.
Like all children raised in a faith, I thought people of other faiths were misled. I still don’t believe in Satan, sin, or the Lake of Fire, and I still think anyone who does has been sadly misled. But as a child, I certainly didn’t believe that I could have been similarly bamboozled by my elders. My own belief wasn’t shaken until age seven, when I tried to repair a Little Kiddle through the power of thought. It didn’t work.
Cracks are where the light comes in, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.
We moved to Rapid City the summer before I started fourth grade. My grandparents were no longer there to take us to church. But they were very, very concerned that we should go. So every Sunday morning, our mother harried us into our church clothes and dropped us off in front of the local First Church of Christ, Scientist for our Sunday school classes.
I don’t have a clear memory of that church, and the only photo I could find was of this present location.
Could this really have been the place? I find it unlikely, but I don’t remember. I only have a clear memory of looking across a room at my brother, slumped in a chair with his elbow on the table, kind of facing out from his class. He wore a gold dress shirt and a dark tie. He looked so defeated.
We were good kids, obedient kids. We showed up and did the lessons and Mom picked us up and drove us home. But I started to get the feeling that it was strange for us to attend without an adult.
We only stayed in Rapid City for a school year, long enough for Mom and my adoptive dad to meet and marry (six weeks after meeting). That summer, we moved to Minneapolis. We attended one of two churches there. I’m not sure which. I went looking for photos, and found this one:
You can read the sad story of this building here: A historic church is crumbling. Can anyone save it? This might have been our church, or we might have attended a different, grander church, which is now a thriving Seventh Day Adventist tabernacle. Here is a photo of the other building back in its Christian Science days.
You can read about it here: Forgotten Minnesota
Whichever building it was, this church was grand. We attended for a few months, long enough for me to go Christmas caroling with a group of church members. We strolled the wintry sidewalks of Edina, singing up a storm. We’d never done anything that fun with the churches in Aberdeen or Rapid City.
No matter how welcoming that congregation was, no matter how fun, it was strange that us three kids showed up at yet another church without our parents. And it is telling that I was the only one of us three kids who wanted to participate in caroling.
I was ten or eleven when Mom sat us down and had a serious talk with us about church. It took me a minute to understand what was happening. She was asking us how we felt about going to church. She seemed to imply that attendance was…optional.
The disbelief I felt rising inside, followed by glee. She was letting us decide. Did we still want to go? We all said no.
My grandparents, who drove over to visit us in Minneapolis now and then, were sternly disappointed. Grandma was such a soft-edged person. But when it came to church, she was firm. But Mom made it clear to her parents that we had all independently made the decision, which kind of let her off the hook, as far as their disapproval. That was all on us, the errant children who wouldn’t go anymore. My grandparents were deeply disappointed in us, but they were no longer in the same state.
All those years of careful inculcation, the rides, the hymns, the readings, the donuts, the copies my sister and brother had received of the Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. We left it behind.
Well, he didn’t enter by the usual door, I can tell you that much. That basic thing about “Christ died for your sins” seems key to every other Christian faith, a fundamental belief in the Blood of the Lamb. Jesus had to die to wash us all clean of our sins and save us from hellfire damnation. That’s why you have to embrace Jesus as your savior to live in Heaven.
I was not taught that. In fact, I was not taught much at all about the crucifixion. I knew it had happened, but didn’t pay attention to it until I was eleven, and we were living in Booneville, Arkansas. My grandparents had driven down to stay with us for Christmas. I was finishing up the school week at Booneville Elementary before the break started.
An aside: I went looking for a photo of Booneville Elementary in 1971, but couldn’t find one. There’s an elementary school, but it’s far newer. I did, however, find a postcard of the highschool I attended for part of my seventh grade year, which has also been torn down and replaced.
It is no more, BUT LOOK AT IT, FOLKS.
Anyway. Back to sixth grade.
On the day before we took our Christmas break, my teacher shut the door to our classroom and solemnly announced that she had a gift for us. Great, I liked Christmas gifts, but she was oddly somber. She then passed out Chick Tracts. Do you know what these are? I hesitate to link to them, because I don’t want to encourage traffic to their site, but I describe them in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park.
Driving down the street, you might see the occasional bumper sticker—“Get Right or Get Left!” or “This truck will be unoccupied in case of Rapture!” And someone in the Park, probably Jeeter Tyson, passed out those small religious comic books about the appearance of Satan, masked as a cat, a neighbor, a stranger, a magazine.
In one of those terrifying little comics, three fornicating, joy-riding teenagers discover that their late-model four-door sedan is really Satan. In another, a fornicating boy discovers that the girl with the long hair and the dramatic “Y” of black-ink cleavage, the girl with whom he has committed back-seat sin, is really Satan.
On her rare trips home, Raven always found those little comics stuck into the latch of her sleeper door. As a child, she’d find them on the ground while roaming around the fairs…She would read them, throw them back down, and go off to try to forget the voice of Satan speaking through a Jack-o-Lantern or whatever horror was printed up and passed out like something for children to enjoy. She thought of those comic books as sneaky. They put fears in your head. They would haunt your dreams with their frightening threats, if you let them.
Dreams are made for haunting.
My teacher had us all read our little Jack Chick comic books, and then she explained that Christ had died for our sins. We needed to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, or we would go to hell. She was giving us a chance at Everlasting salvation. Also, Merry Christmas.
This was the first time in my sheltered little spiritual life I’d encountered such a thing. It was ugly and terrifying, so I took that little tract right home to my Grandma Lucille. And she calmly read it, and then explained the crucifixion to me. Mortal Mind had led those soldiers to put Christ on the cross. It was an error, and to rectify it, God had brought Jesus back to life. It wasn’t a sacrifice. There was no washing clean of our sins, as sin does not exist. It was simply Mortal Mind, and God had fixed it.
I sat there, washed over by Grandma’s kind, soft voice as she spoke with authority on the only thing she’d ever really studied in her life, which was her faith. She was patient and loving and reassuring. She offered a vision of faith that involved no hellfire threats, and a view of Christ’s agonizing death as a human mistake, divinely rectified.
I was greatly comforted by this interpretation of events. Together, we threw away the evil little comic book. After Christmas, my grandparents returned to South Dakota, but I still didn’t go back to church.
The short answer: Not often enough.
The long answer: Christian Scientists are not forbidden to seek medical care, but they are not encouraged to, either. This thought-healing stuff works best alone, as opposed to combined with medical care. My theory is that medical professionals would point out what wasn’t working, and faith in the working was necessary for success.
If you are ill, you can pay a Christian Science practitioner to help you. I believe Grandpa Virgil was a practitioner, defined as someone who can work with a person experiencing bodily illness to make it go away through prayer.
But there is no supplication in Christian Science prayer. You do not appeal to a higher power of any kind to take away your illness. You essentially argue with yourself until you are cleared of the false belief, the Mortal Mind inflicting your illness. Once you rid yourself of that, you’ll be healed.
We did not regularly see a family doctor, but there was a doctor named Dr. Shusha (I called him Doctor Shoeshine) who we saw now and then. We didn’t receive well care. I’m not sure there was such a thing as well care in the 1960s.
I took my polio vaccine in a sugar cube at the little Claremont school. I had the chicken pox and the mumps, but lots of kids had those. I discovered after my first daughter was born that I have no Rubella immunity. I’d never gotten the MMR vaccine. I’ve had three, now, but apparently they don’t take. So thank you to all of you who’ve had an MMR shot, because I can still get Rubella and German measles.
But what about the kids who died in the 80s and 90s?
Well, their parents were devout idiots. But I see how it happens. As mentioned earlier in this post, I languished with an attack of appendicitis for several days. I remember roaming the house clutching my tattered blankie, lying down on our deacon’s bench, getting up, pacing, crying, moaning. Nothing helped. The only similar pain in my life was the first time I gave birth, during transition. I did a lot of roaming around and moaning during that, as well.
In a more traditional household, it is likely that if your five year-old was doubled up with pain for days on end, you’d take her to a doctor. Mom didn’t at first. I have heard two different stories about it. In the one my sister tells, she was babysitting me and Mom was at a club. She called Mom and told her I couldn’t settle down and she had to come home. In the story Mom told, a neighbor came by and saw me writhing and roaming, and told my mother about a boy in town who’d had an attack of appendicitis. “She’s acting just like him,” this nameless neighbor said.
I have a dim memory of this woman standing in the front doorway, speaking, but it might be confabulated. However it happened, Mom was soon driving, and I was in the backseat of car with my blanket, then in an operating room telling Dr. Shoeshine “You talk like a Mexican,” and counting backwards from ten, and then awake, in a hospital bed, groggy and feeling my stitches under the bandage.
My mother could have called a practitioner. She took me to the hospital instead. Accordingly, I am still here. I have a huge keloidal scar that my doctors over the years have explained as, “That’s how it looks when the surgeon has no idea what he’ll find when he opens you up.” The doctor told my mother that my appendix would have burst within the hour.
Very rarely. We occasionally went to see a dentist who might have been a friend of my original father’s, or he might have been one of the great-uncles. I am not sure. There was a family connection to this Aberdeen dentist, that’s all I know.
Luckily, as my permanent teeth were coming in, we drank Claremont’s artesian well water, which tastes like sulfur but naturally contains a lot of fluoride. I had zero cavities as a child, so the lack of dentistry was not a big issue. Then, after we’d left that well water behind, my 12-year molars came in a year late and riddled with cavities. They are all capped, now. The rest of my teeth are still pretty good.
No one in my family needed braces, so I don’t know if we’d have gone or not. We definitely went to the eye doctor, because my mother, brother, and sister had terrible astigmatism. They wore glasses and got them as needed. My vision was oddly perfect until my forties, and I got my first pair of glasses at fifty. The church gets no credit for that.
It’s still here. Or there. Somewhere.
At one time, Christian Science was the fastest growing faith in the world. There were churches and reading rooms everywhere. I have always had a soft spot for the reading rooms, staffed as they are by women like my grandmother.
The Church survived a few setbacks, scandals, and public critiques, including a long one published by Mark Twain. It has lost ground since membership peaked in 1960. The Church doesn’t publish its membership numbers—probably less than 100K. But the teachings at its heart have inspired countless other metaphysical churches.
Christian Science also inspired Marianne Williamson. In the mid-1980s, I remember being at dinner with a couple who had discovered the Course in Miracles. The husband, with awestruck and shining eyes, told me the Crucifixion was human error, and the Resurrection was God’s rectification of that error.
“Oh,” I told him, “That’s just Christian Science. I was raised believing that.” I felt bad for stealing his thunder, but come on. Did he really think this was a new idea? Mary Baker Eddy wrote that down in something like 1870, and she probably borrowed the idea from a faith healer who treated her for her own myriad ailments.
No. Some years after my grandfather was incapacitated by a stroke, my grandmother relocated to Bainbridge Island for a few years (my parents lived there). She attended a Christian Science church. I don’t think she would have considered the move otherwise.
My brother occasionally accompanied Grandma to that church. Of us three older kids, he was always the most open to matters of faith. He had a curious mind and a gentle, accepting heart. I know he believed in an afterlife. My sister has been up and down with religion, following her own crooked path. She doesn’t attend any church these days, and as far as I know, she doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
I used to say I was agnostic, but that implies faith that there is some kind of a God sitting up there somewhere, and I don’t believe that. Not exactly. Despite this, I attended the Catholic church for years with my kids and then-husband. That was a compromise on my part. We wanted the kids to have a church experience, but I didn’t have one to offer. So I said, fine, I’m nothing and you’re something so let’s go with the something, which was his Catholicism.
My then-husband would never have attended a church without a hellfire-based doctrine. He was also sure I’d be going to Hell, which was just one of the many pain points in our marriage. After the divorce, he told me to stop attending his church, that he and his new girlfriend were going to start taking the kids, so I should stay away. I stayed away, but he never picked up the baton. It’s a helluva baton, getting three kids church-ready. I can’t say as I blame him.
Still, it surprised me, how much I missed going. If you were raised with church, Sundays can feel strange and empty without it.
Not much, and then everything. People who read my Gentry books assume I’m an observant Catholic, unless they’re Catholic, and they see all the holes in what I’ve written. People who read the trailer park book assume I am anti-Christian, because there;s not one positive example of a Christian in that entire book, except maybe Memphis, who is also scarred and limited by his own faith.
Everything I believe conflicts with everything else I believe. Christian Science has no doubt profoundly influenced who I am, but I do not believe I can mentally argue my way into wellness or think my way into Paradise. I still don’t believe in sin, the Devil, or the lake of fire.
Do I believe my own actions matter? Of course, and not at all. A person is less than an atom in the cosmos of infinity. I remind myself daily that my own concerns are so puny as to be imperceptible, and I also remind myself to live as if every action matters. These ideas contradict each other and I do not care. I have to live as if both are true.
I’m interested in religion, and skeptical of it. I try to be tolerant and respectful of whatever other people believe. If someone holds beliefs that are racist and intolerant and hateful, I excuse myself from their presence and avoid them strenuously. The statement, “If you’re using your religion to hurt people, you’re doing it wrong,” isn’t in the Bible, but it should be.
I don’t believe in a God that listens, but have been known to send up a supplicating prayer or two during plane landings. I do not believe God cares who wins the game. If there is a God, I do not believe he/she/it would care whether or not I believe in him/her/it. If there is a God, let’s hope pronouns have been transcended.
I do not believe in a personified God. If there is something that could be called divine, it is huge and impersonal, like the mathematical principle that orders the universe. We can’t perceive it. All religions are human attempts to understand this impersonal and infinite principle, but we are only human. Whatever we devise is woefully incomplete.
I’m fairly certain I’m an atheist. The problem is, I find many atheists to be smug and rude, crowing in a self-congratulatory way about how smart they are and how laughably stupid believers are. I really don’t want to be aligned with that attitude. I try to be respectful of religions.
I love churches, and religious art, and sacred music. I do not believe God lives in the houses of worship, nor do I believe God has ears to hear our songs and prayers. God has no face, but I love our representations of it. I love all of it, and I’m grateful for the hospitals and universities started by the church.
I also believe that most Western religions have been used as fronts for child predation and the subjugation of women and the oppression and destruction of indigenous people. At times, my cynicism and disgust are so great that I think predation and suppression are the only actual functions of organized religion.
And then I remember the years I went to church with my ex husband and my children, and how important it felt to have a place to say thank you for the blessings of my life, to listen to hymns, and to share a sense of community.
I am unable to reconcile these tremendous contradictions.
The same Bible verse is painted on the walls of all Christian Science Sunday schools: “God is Love.” I like that one. I wish for it to be true.
This is the one life I know I’ve been given, and I’m trying to live it as best as I can.
That’s really all I believe.
The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.
If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.
Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”
She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.
Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.
We all know how that went, don’t we.
If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.
I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.
I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.
Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.
I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”
Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.
But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”
This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.
This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.
To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.
Like I said, schemes.
My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.
Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.
Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”
Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.
Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:
Welcome to Holland
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .
‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’
‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’
But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.
There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.
And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.
At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”
I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”
Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.
Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):
And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):
I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.
And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?
So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.
I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:
It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.
“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.
I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.
In my book Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I have a character named Rhondalee LaCour who is absolutely insufferable. She’s a frustrated busybody who gossips and spies. She rains down storms of accusation and judgment on her husband. She pulls her granddaughter around by the arm, and possibly by the hair when no one is looking. She’s TERRIBLE. I can’t even describe how fun she was to write.
Now, not everyone can enjoy Rhondalee as much as her creator does, I understand that. But everyone who reads her identifies with one part of Rhondalee. And that is…
The Invisible Committee is a board that sits in judgment of Rhondalee’s actions, appearance, words, ambitions and marriage. Its existence is established during a very early scene in the book, while Rhondalee is vaccuming the courtyard of the trailer park’s clubhouse (it is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting). “She ran the Kirby with ferocity, sucking up every trace of dust while laying our her thoughts to an Invisible Committee she’d mentally convened to hear her evidence and render a judgment as to her fitness as a wife and Tender’s failure as a husband.” The Committee hears her complaints, but stays silent as it becomes clear that Tender LaCour is indisputably in love with another woman.
I’ve been asked over and over who Rhondalee is based on, and the answer is, no one and everyone. She is a creation of my twisted sense of humor, written to satisfy the unadulterated glee I take in women behaving badly. But as distasteful as she is to so many readers, everyone seems to identify with her Invisible Committee. And why is that? Do we all believe there is some committee in the sky, watching and judging and issuing pronouncements on our lives?
After listening to my friends talk about it, I’ve decided that we do. It’s just located in different places.
Please understand, I was raised without the concept of Heaven and Hell. I was pretty creeped out when I found out about the idea at age eight. I remember sitting in a basement rec room, wood-panelling and all, with some Catholic friends explaining the lake of fire, and the Devil, and sin in great detail. I kept saying, “You really believe this stuff?” and shaking my head. You can’t imagine how absurd it sounded. The Devil was a Halloween costume, nothing more. And sin? The whole idea of sin? I went to church and Sunday school each week, I learned my Bible verses and sang my hymns, but I had never even HEARD of sin. But to my Catholic friends, this was all part of an invisible world, inhabited by unseen beings that included an utterly unfamiliar God; one who sat up in Heaven on a throne, watching and judging and somehow controlling the world with his judgment.
I am aware that a lot of people–a LOT–believe this way. I never could.
There is a modern, spiritual-not-religious alternative to the big man in the sky, which is the Universe. People need to listen to the Universe and these same people believe that the Universe speaks to them. The Universe is always trying to tell these people something, mostly around how important they are and how needful their endeavors are, be that a line of handmade stained-glass earrings or a CD of drumming and chanting or the like. The Universe isn’t as judge-y as some of our invisible committees, but it’s still out there–vast, concerned, instructive.
The Universe is infinite. I have a limited ability to comprehend infinity, but I know it’s BIG. I have a hard time believing that the cosmos is personally invested in my self-publishing endeavors. I remember watching The Tree of Life, a brilliant, baffling film that features the endless stream of prayer and supplication that pours from humanity into this cosmic infinity; all the guilt and hope and supplication and anguish we send up as a species, alternating with gorgeous shots of nebulae and stardust.
That’s the universe. I don’t think it cares whether or not I leave my e-books on Kindle Unlimited or not. But some believe the Universe is ALL OVER IT.
You don’t have to go into the Cosmos or up to Heaven to find invisible judgment. There are much more localized sources. In the olden days, in the fifties and sixties, the question was, “What would the neighbors think?” This concern seemed to spring up after the uproar of what Great Depression and WWII, when so many expectations were set aside in the name of survival. Women donned coveralls and made decisions and worked in factories and men were–gone. At war. Scarce.
When the men came home, America embraced conventionality like a religion. We invented the nuclear family–a great failed social experiment, in my opinion–and created suburbia. With suburbia came that old saw of a line, “What would the neighbors think?” Those neighbors didn’t have names or faces or any kind of distinct identity to add value to their judgment. But streets full of those invisible neighbors observed everything. Everyone was SURE of it.
I’ve read some beautiful, difficult books that deal with the judgment and oppression of early Suburbia.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – The suburbs can be lethal.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter by Harriet Simpson Arnow – This novel is a perhaps overwrought and cliche-ridden, but it’s trying to convey something about the smothering sterility of suburban life. I like the author more when she’s writing about Appalachia, but I still feel this one is worth a read because it took on the burbs fairly early, and from the viewpoint of alienation from Nature.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham – This heartbreaking book is about several women through the generations, but the runaway suburban mother just grabbed me by the throat.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody – A depressing look at WASPy alienation.
Three of these novels have been made into excellent movies. Then, there’s TV, specifically Mad Men. Who could forget the moment when Betty Draper went outside with the shotgun and started picking off ducks? Betty was such a casualty of suburbia. I waited through the entirety of the shown for her awakening, which never, ever came.
“What would the neighbors think?” was already more of a punchline than a true concern when I entered my teens. If you watch the movies of the era, there’s a general mockery of the idea. Some Bohemian young woman is always turning to her mother, to say, “Oh MOTHER, I KNOW, WHAT WOULD THE NEIGHBORS THINK?!?!?” Because this young woman with her center part and her miniskirt is liberated, and her dotty, repressed mother still cares, which makes her quaint at best and ridiculous at worst.
I always wondered who those neighbors were. I’m fairly certain that none of our many neighbors gave a damn what my family did when I was a kid, and if they did, we moved so often that we didn’t provide much interest for long. People my age would like to think that the women’s movement, the Watergate era and general consciousness-raising resulted in dismissal of conventional standards. And in some ways, things have changed. Though my novel The Iris Files is set in suburbia, nothing’s been the same out here since the 70s, and that’s a good thing, especially for Iris.
But our need to assume judgment never really went away. Because, now we have…
Welcome to our current social media parade, in which we are obsessed with how our lives come across to others: how they appear visually on Instagram, how eventful they seem when we check in on Facebook, how well our thoughts read on Twitter feeds. Why, some people even have BLOGS.
And for the first time, we have actual feedback, by way of likes or comments or replies. But we don’t know most of those people. They are not our neighbors, our coworkers. They are for the most part, invisible in our daily lives. All over the world, people are curating and preaching to and performing life for the eyes and ears of unseen, unknown strangers. The larger the following, the larger the performance.
It’s obvious to me that we crave the judgment of invisible others. If not God, then the Universe. If not the Universe, then the neighbors. If not neighbors, then the Internet.
Rhondalee is a middle-aged woman who manages a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She has had her dreams crushed. Her life is tiny. It only matters to Rhondalee if her marriage falters, or her daughter never goes back onstage, or her community newsletter column goes unread. But when the Invisible Committee is watching, Rhondalee feels important. Her anger is forceful, her rage impactful. Her struggles matter.
I think so many people come up with the equivalent of an Invisible Committee because the alternative is humbling. The alternative to invisible judgment is your own invisibility. No one is watching you. No one has much of an opinion about how you live or who you love or where you shop or what you wear or drive or eat or consume for entertainment. No one outside your immediate family cares whether or not you have children. No one worries about when you’re going to finish your novel or make a success of your career or travel to New Zealand, or whatever metric you’ve set up to judge yourself against. No one is watching, no one is judging, and you are free to live your life just as large or as small as you choose to.
To some people, I imagine this feels terribly small and lonely. It’s just them, dancing for their dinners, trying to convince each other that their actions and opinions are terribly important to someone, somewhere. But to me? It is a calm, liberated place to be.
So if you have an invisible Committee, consider shutting it down. I am not sure what Rhondalee is going to do with hers, to be honest. She’s experiencing something like personal growth in book two. The days of her Invisible Committee might be numbered.