look at the handkerchief

i am 57 years, 8 months, and 2 days old today. my al-anon sponsor has invited me to find pictures of myself that represent moments in each 7-year period of my life. 0-7. 8-14. 15-21. 22-28. 29-35. 36-42. 43-49. 50-now. the exercise is intended to help me remember what i felt during each of these cycles.

i notice a pattern. there is a happy little boy, which is sort of amazing since his home was such a shit-show of anger and alcoholism and violence, and he lived in terror. yet he looks happy; perhaps that can be attributed, as Maurice Sendak said, to the resiliency of children, who, somehow, manage to find a way to survive. and perhaps, too, it’s as Wordsworth said: we aren’t born into this human experience blank and naked; we trail “clouds of glory” that we brought with us from the “heaven [that] lies about us in our infancy.”

the boy has created strategies that have helped him to survive and to find what will suffice as happiness in his teen years. he has learned to use the tricks of charm, and denial.

charm: he makes people feel good, happy, at ease. he’s smart. funny. enthusiastic. a people-pleaser. it’s a magic trick, a misdirection; “look at the hand into which just a moment ago i put the handkerchief,” the boy says, while with the other hand he reaches for an identical handkerchief from his sleeve, to be pulled out dramatically a few seconds from now. no one will know – even he’s forgotten – that this isn’t real, it’s fake, it’s constructed. it seems real. it seems to be working. he does well enough in school, at church, with friends, with family. nobody sees his terror that he’s really just a piece of shit who doesn’t deserve happiness or have a right to speak his own mind.

denial: he feels anger but chokes it down, because in his mother’s house (and his absent father’s still/forever-resonating presence there) he is punished if he voices discontent or disagreement. what’s frightening is that there are so many layers of denial; it’s like Voldemort’s cave in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; keep in the boat or on the island, because beneath the surface of the lake there are dead bodies brought to half-life with dark magic, who wait to grab you and pull you down. so he puts his fears and secrets in a cave, but that’s not safe either. how can he be sure not to disturb the water? only let your sadness or anger out – if ever – when no one is there to see. he spends a lot of time alone.

the boy survived. it wasn’t until he was in his 40s and 50s that the strategies finally fell all the way apart. that was good; by then he had learned to trust, at least a little, and to speak up, and to let go. and i am grateful to say that the untrue tricks continue no longer to work. so many graces have come to help him break the spells.

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