Last night, I went to hear my old friend, Doug Anderson, read from his new book, a memoir entitled, Keep Your Head Down, in which he chronicles life before, through, and after Vietnam. Doug's a great storyteller and the book somehow manages to do what many who have survived events that are practically unspeakable can do (only he can write the stories down pitch perfectly), which is to make these unbelievable events both funny and sad, harsh and tender. Beginning with a memory of being dragged–by his mother and others–to a strip joint as a child, he describes his child's eye, imagining a particular stripper as so nice she'd be a "good mom," through Vietnam and beyond, his sharp ear and all-too-clear memory, and his compassion for suffering all serve the purpose of a gorgeous, generous book.
During the Q & A after the reading, someone asked about PTSD. "Well," he said, "I've been working with this for a lot of years. You have to stay conscious."
In my early twenties, Doug and I were both in a writing workshop led by Pat Schneider, whose teaching methodology is to offer a gentle prompt, have group members write, and share their work with the caveat to responding as this: say what you like and what you remember. At the time, Doug was getting sober and wrestling with memory, not a specific memory but the fact of memory itself, that in order to find that consciousness required of survivorship, he'd have to welcome memory and not drown it out. We became friends. I was much younger and had seen, quite obviously, far less than my friend making uneasy detente with memory. I was always awed–as was true last night, listening–by his ability to let voices leap from memory, in prose and poetry, and live almost free of his pen. So much of what he wrote on those evenings filtered into this book, but changed, as if he tossed back the stones and let a river polish 'em some more, and then picked them all back up to make a full mosaic. Back then, the pieces were like jagged rocks, but gleaming, shards of sea glass, some dull, some sharp. They were separate treasures in his hands, ones he wasn't sure what to do with. He made a book he can carry, shelve, take back, reopen, and read from, in order to share his stories-turned-story. It's as if something that was powerful and untamed also a powerful and cohesive entity. A survivor of rape didn't exactly ask a question, but stated, "I've been working on finding my voice." Doug affirmed, "Survivors–war, rape–have the same profile. Are you helping others?" he asked. She nodded. "That's key," he answered. And of course, that's what he's done for years and continues to do–and what I am certain his book will do, too.
I took Ezekiel to the reading. I warned him that he'd hear about the war. "So, it'll be really sad," he imagined. Yes, but it's a reading and I know Doug will find ways to share not only the sadness but more, like the humor, which he knows how to find. As I glanced over to see how my thirteen year-old was faring through descriptions of gunfire and gulped alcohol, I found myself thinking that regardless of what stories you experience, the process of finding consciousness is similar: you go through life picking up stones, polishing them, tossing them back, refinding, repolishing, reframing… and finding ways to carry them, you hope more seamlessly. A good parent listens to stories when kids tell them, and maybe shines an edge now and again, or offers a hug to affirm the story was heard.
Earlier in the day, Remy and his friend were awaiting another friend's arrival eagerly and (I was not there, Hosea was) in the moment of greeting, the two pals who'd been together did not create a comfortable welcome (although playing together–underscored by aftermath of tears from Remy–had clearly been their intent, evidenced too by the fact they'd been asking after their friend for two hours leading up to the appointed arrival time). Plenty of times kids somewhat inadvertantly mean to be mean (mine most certainly included), this just wasn't one of them; they'd meant to be nice but were probably too wrapped up in the shared code of silliness to pause long enough to translate to their friend. His quick exit stunned them. Tears ensued. They felt better once they realized the adults at hand–my husband, myself–comprehended their experience as they were sharing it. These friendships, these young children, are tender souls, gatherers of stones. They'll all try again and again (as I've come to appreciate from my older children's friendships, some older, some newer). Remy, I know, is often liked and considered a desirable playmate although he's kind of prickly and really craves just a very few, intense playmates. His stones these are, and sometimes I just hold them when he passes them to me, and consider them. I let them fall sometimes; I hold onto them other times. Because I love these children so much and do try to hear them out, do what I can to help them find security and nudge them toward independence, the stones, while they don't feel like mine, are ones I want to know the contours of, ones I study.
On the way home, Ezekiel said, first thing, "I am reading that book." The power of Doug's stories, the clarity of his voice overrode the fact that Ezekiel was stunned by what war really means, what Doug chronicled.
Not everyone is a Survivor, but everyone has stones, polished and jagged. And every person has the wish to be whole, with a way to carry his or her stones and shards. I felt grateful for that reminder, writ from Doug's hard-won carrying of small stones, shards and veritable boulders.