I’m going to continue with this monthly list of things I found influencing or interesting or weird enough to comment on, although it’d appear that April has only one entry. Which isn’t to say there weren’t more moments and objects and turns of language that knocked me flat or got my mind burning. But this entry feels worthy of a long exploration. If only because this examination of a poem and a period can stand-in for an explanation as to why I do so much of what I do.
1. “Louise,” by Raymond Carver
This poem—about a little girl living in a perpetual wince beneath her mother’s derisive tongue and hand—has already once helped shape a portion of a story (specifically, a scene in “A Means of Forgetting,” which certain Patreon subscribers have been getting delivered piecemeal in their mailboxes each month). And if we’re going to be honest, we can probably trace one or another thumbprint of Carver’s to almost everything I’ve written since 2012. But rereading the poem recently, I took the time to think about, not just what specific images and actions resounded to my core, but why those details mattered to me, why I should care about this poem and this character more than any other. So forgive me while I slowly dissolve back into the 1980s.
The world in which I was raised—the personal, experienced, subjective world—is so different from the world I live in now that it often feels like two completely separate lives. I’m not just talking about geography or culture or economy: I’m talking about the life lived. In many ways, I do not recognize or even identify with the person I was up through my teens. Yet those memories and experiences are indelibly imprinted on me. I might not resemble—physically or otherwise—the little boy digging in the fertile earth of Northern Maine, spiteful and alone with a stick and a dog, but his experiences are unique to me. Like it or not, they’re mine. And they shape who I am, what I do. Even when I’m not paying enough attention to notice.
What’s this have to do with Carver’s much abused Louise? The immediate assumption would be that I experienced something similar to the girl in the poem, the constant needling and shouting, the oblique lack of love. And to a degree, yes, I can identify with these experiences, with specific regard to my stepfather and the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity that defined social life at school. But that’s not why the poem is so striking to me: it’s not about me. It’s about that world I lived in. Where children were just baggage or an animal always underfoot. Where love had little to do with having a family. Where most examples of human touch were a slap or a punch or a shove.
I am in no way saying that this is the universal truth of life in Northern Maine. It’s not. But it is what I witnessed when I was young and poor and my mother was raising my brother and me by herself. Most of the people we knew then were in similar dire straits as us, and often hooked on one drug or another. Their homes were dirty and old and in need of repairs that would never occur, the scents of cheap beer and cigarettes, pot smoke and dog shit riding underneath everything. And hanging out in those homes, it seemed so much like the kids only got attention when they failed to be invisible. Which meant they either got good at being invisible for fear of the repercussions, or boldly became lions who didn’t care how often they were cuffed or slapped or thrown against a wall.
These were things I witnessed, and I remember, I felt lucky. Because I had at least one parent who gave a shit about me (problematic as her idea of parenting might sometimes have been). Because I didn’t fear when my mother put her hands on me and pulled me close. Because I didn’t (immediately) shrink beneath the threat of any kind of human touch.
All of which sounds like a pretty shitty childhood. But like I said: this isn’t about me. It’s about those other kids, biding their time until they were grown enough to escape, learning only the lessons immediate to survival. It’s about those parents, whose hurts coursed too deep or too disguised to be handled in any but the most destructive ways. It’s about the culture wherein all of this was normal. It’s about having witnessed that world—having been immersed in that world—and knowing that thirty years later, it still exists. People hurting people because they’re too lazy or warped to be kind.
So now that I’ve dumped that steaming heap of discomfort in your lap, allow me to thank you for reading, to thank you for sharing, to thank you for always being kinda okay with me exploring the least comfort aspects of being a vulnerable creature among vulnerable creatures. If you are a current Patreon subscriber, thank you for supporting the perpetual wedgie these stories continue to inflict upon your heart/head/spirit/etc. If you are not a current Patreon subscriber, please feel free and, in fact, encouraged, to join our parade of vulnerability. And if your view of the future looks too dim for any kind of subscription, consider making a one-time donation and getting the equivalent rewards for one month.
All this goofy shit I do: I do it for you.