I ate a box of Cheerios
because I liked the cheery name.
I ate all the peanut butter cups
for their dark velvety chocolate taste.
Then I ate a plate of spaghetti bolognaise
because I liked that feeling of being full.
I wanted to forget about being me
and be someone wonderful —
kind and noble and beautiful.
But I was fat and lazy
and as irritable as fifty cats
lashing out at what got in my way,
chasing my elusive dream,
resentful that life was so hard,
despairing that it was so meaningless.
This was the story of my life. There are many more verses, but none of them were headed to a happy ending. At my funeral (if anyone had come besides my parents) the only eulogy1 that could have been made would have been: “She wanted to be kind, noble,2 and beautiful. It’s too bad she never made it, but at least she had high ideals.”
It was all the more frustrating3 because my parents were the kind of good citizens that governments want the nation to be made up of: honest, hard-working, respectable, respectful, trustworthy, reliable, and with a certain selflessness that makes up a strong society. Yet, they and others of their generation have produced children who are selfish and self-centered, unheeding, and disrespectful. Oh, you could see us in the family photo album and we looked like a nice family, probably pretty much like yours or anyone else’s. We weren’t just given over to out-and-out evil; we weren’t in trouble with the police. But if you looked at how we affected other people in our relationships, you would see that we were pretty messed up. We were not producing anything worthwhile in our own lives or the lives of those we were in relationships with. You couldn’t say that we were steadfast and true and of good character. In the crisis we were (in subtle but telling ways) arrogant, reckless, deceitful, and calculating.
Mum and Dad say that we turned out alright, because they don’t want to just put us down, but my father, now in his old age, sits in his great-grandfather’s chair that he salvaged from what remained of the old family homestead, and turns this question over and over in his mind: What went wrong? I always wanted to know, too.
I don’t know that I could lay all the blame at my father’s feet, and I want to preserve his dignity as much as I can, but even he would say that apples don’t fall far from the tree. Although he is deeply ashamed of his own shortcomings, written large in his children, I have come to see that there are spiritual forces at work greater than my father can see.
When my parents were growing up, life took care of shaping your character. There were miles to walk to school, spankings to be had for being late, the garden to hoe, the chickens and horses to be cared for, the cow to be milked, the milk to be separated, the barn to be cleaned, and the wood to be chopped. The house was stifling hot in the summer and the stove still had to be stoked for baking. It was bitterly cold in the winter and someone had to be the first to get up to get the kitchen fire going. There was no getting around these realities, and no one shielded their children from the work, as it was a matter of survival. And, they would be parents themselves one day and would have to face the weight of making a living.
Men didn’t quit a job that was irksome, and women didn’t quit housework because it was boring. They had more character than to do that. And because often time life was just sheer drudgery, the people celebrated — feast days and harvests, get-togethers, fund-raisers and any other reason to be together — with a simple joy no longer known today. They had enough character to do that, too.
I wonder if my dad was naïve4 to think that the childhood I had would shape my character to that degree of uprightness, but actually, all society was unsuspecting. Momentous things were happening in far-away places, and in far-away intellectual circles, prophetic voices were full of warning. But, in our little town no one saw the danger coming, and we swallowed all the innovations that came our way.
The economy took off after the war, and along came the motor car that everyone could afford. Gone were the horses, bikes, and walking. People moved into town and everyone got indoor plumbing and electricity. Everything went electric: fridges, stoves, lights, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, toasters. No more kerosene and no more chopping wood. We had electric radiators for the winter, and for the summer, fans, air-conditioners, and freezers with ice. No more enduring the weather.
Advances in photography and printing turned the trickle of information into a steady stream of magazines, books, encyclopedias. TV arrived late in our town, but when man walked on the moon everyone got a set and kept it to watch it every night thereafter. Dancing died out, along with singing songs around the piano, playing checkers, and writing letters.
Both my parents were working so we didn’t have a vegetable garden, and my brother would not mow the patch of lawn on Saturday without a huge scene first. All we ever did after school was watch TV, read magazines, and play ball. Why was Dad surprised that we weren’t diligent? There wasn’t much to be diligent about.
And we weren’t spanked. I don’t think either of my parents read any of the parenting books that abounded in time of my childhood, but they took on the culture around them, which was moving towards new ways of parenting, such as treating your child as an individual, appealing to his value system, reasoning with him, and redirecting his attention and will. Although they spoke about the rightness of a good spanking, I only remember being spanked once by my father, and a handful of times by my mother and grandmother. I think the old proverb came true: They spared the rod and they spoiled the child.
Somehow spanking went out of fashion, and the common definition of spoiling a child was indulging his whims. In that respect, we were not indulged in all our wants, and compared to the kids at school we were on a pretty strict routine. But the things I did against my conscience weighed me down and I had no spankings to set me upright again. I knew inside that I shouldn’t provoke my brothers, hit them, and pinch what wasn’t mine. But if my brothers told on me, I covered my tracks with more lies. Justice wasn’t dealt out and I kept going on with more lying and more things I shouldn’t have been doing. You can say, “Children will be children,” and it’s true. It’s all in there, and it becomes who you are if there is no way to get it out. You can say that spanking damages a child, but I remember vividly the day I lied to my mother and got away with it. I felt so far away from her, and I never got close again. Even back then, I wished that I had gotten the spanking.
I got away with too much. My closet was getting filled with deeds that got darker as I got older. But as a teenager I was the bright shining student, studying for a career yet to be defined. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies, so I thought I knew everything. My mother called it the arrogance of youth. There was such a gulf between us. It had widened from just a crack when I was a little girl.
As I left high school, I dreamed of being successful, glamorous, executive, and brilliant, but I flunked college. I thought I could be witty, attractive and hospitable, but no one liked me. It was like fantasizing about who I could be without seeing who I really was. My life was caving in and I was only 19. The poems I wrote at this time are filled with the darkness of my soul. My parents were in despair as they saw their daughter become a foul-mouthed heavy smoker and drinker — someone who didn’t give a damn. My brothers were going down the same road.
My father could only beg God that the school of hard knocks could knock some sense into us. He didn’t know what else to do. It was too late for him to do anything. We didn’t really listen to him anyway.
Like other teenagers, I toyed with the idea of suicide. Life seemed so bleak and dark inside my head. One of the girls in my school jumped off the roof of a high-rise and it wasn’t so shocking to me. What saved me from taking my own life was joining the Army. At the time, no one could understand why I would do such a thing. I understand now that I was looking for authority and discipline — what better place to go?
My sergeants were absolute authoritarians, without one speck of negotiation, compromise, or mercy. They understood that in a battle the enemy would not say, “Oh, you’re tired right now? We can come back tomorrow.” They understood that a battle is ‘til the end, and if you can’t endure, you won’t make it. They knew that strong discipline can correct many a fault. They corrected many of mine and gave me the will to live. I started to straighten up, but the hope I had in the Army being what I did for the rest of my life was disappointed. Just before I was due to re-enlist, I realized that they couldn’t give me a quiet and peaceful life. (I guess I was naïve to even think they could.) While we were on duty there was order and a strong sense of camaraderie, but off duty there was gossip and strife, and husbands and wives were cheating on each other. It was no life, after all.
So there I was, out of the army and with no direction for my life, writing my poems, hoping that I could be as famous as Sylvia Plath,5 but dreading having a life such as hers. It seemed to me that I was sliding somewhere dark and final, and I felt such a sense of impotence and resignation that I could hardly lift my hand to stop it. I think doctors call this depression, but I didn’t want to go near any of them to find out. I was afraid that if anyone knew the dark things I was thinking, they would put me on medication or into a place you don’t get out of.
My parents were distressed by how down I looked, and said they really needed me to work for them. I went home because I had nothing better to do, but the challenges of their little business brought me back from the dead. Now my thoughts were occupied with the needs of my customers, and working with my parents was encouraging. They really did need me, and I simply didn’t have time to be depressed. It should have been a happy ending right there, but after a few years of being very happy, I started to realize that somehow it wasn’t enough. You would have thought a rewarding career, living in the beautiful countryside, and enjoying the good things of life in a peaceful home would be completely satisfying. What more could I want? I didn’t know.
Driving up into the mountains, getting away from the rat race, being alone in all the beauty of nature was not enough. I thought guilt was an archaic concept and I never used that word, or even thought it, and so I couldn’t explain why I felt so cut off from creation, why I wanted to cry every time I went into the forest or I saw the clouds reflecting the sunset. Why did I feel so alone and drifting when my life was on track again?
If even being happy is not enough, what more is there? Why did I still have persistent memories of situations where I had been a coward and hurt people? Why don’t those painful memories go away? Does shame ever come to an end? Deep inside, I wanted a greater peace than a quiet and fulfilling life. I wanted the peace that comes from a good conscience.
The truth was that the foundation of my life was off.
More than the flaws in my character (which I think a few good spankings would have helped me with), there was a problem with the very nature of the foundation of my life: I was living for myself. Whether I did good or evil, I did it for me. Myself was the bottom line. I wanted to be kind and noble, but it was for myself, to be recognized, to feel good about myself. I wanted security for my life first, and your security was a distant second place.
All the world had to offer was just more of “what’s in it for me?” I wanted the way out and I started looking for it. But, where in the world do you find the way out of the world? The only way out is for someone who has already found the way out to call you out. I met a people who had what I was looking for even though I would not have thought God could be the answer to my problem. My old selfish life has been washed away, and I am learning to have compassion and some backbone. In my new family, we are learning together to truly care for one another, learning together to be kind and noble. And I have a new name, too. My name is Shelem, which means the peace that comes from a good conscience. If you are looking for that peace, you can find it here.