The Shadow Knows

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“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)”

The Shadow, 1937-1954 radio program

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As you read this, Mary Lee and I are in Nova Scotia, on what I think of as a genetic pilgrimage, traveling through the country that my Grandfather, Lyman Beecher Wile, left in 1906 to work in a Marlborough, Massachusetts shoe factory. Wile is a common name in the Lunenburg area of Nova Scotia—I’m looking forward to visiting Wileville—and I’ve made arrangements to meet with some distant cousins.

My grandfather Wile is a shadowy figure in my life. When I was growing up, no one in our family ever talked about him. I guess my grandmother left him around 1923, when my father was four years old. My mother told me that Lyman once beat my father with his belt, and Nanny told him if he ever did that again, she’d take Dad and leave. Apparently, he did and so did she. (I expect there was more to the story.) Other than that, all I knew until my sister started compiling a genealogy of the Wiles, was my Grandfather Wile came from Nova Scotia and lived in Massachusetts. I have a vague memory of an interminably long car ride to Marlborough ending in a series of winding streets and tenement houses and a hazy image of my father talking to someone who, except for being older and heavier, looked a lot like him. I don’t know the purpose of the trip—I expect my mother might have had something to do with it—but I know Dad never visited his father again and seldom mentioned him.

The way my family dealt with Dad’s father was typical of us, and many families I knew growing up (and actually, quite a few families I know now): if there’s something embarrassing or unpleasant or shameful in your past, never talk about it. If you’re afraid, if you’re in pain, don’t show it.

One the revelations of my life was to discover that all families, all people, have these dark sides that they don’t want to acknowledge. Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the word “shadow” to describe the negative, socially unacceptable impulses, the sexual lusts, selfishness, greed, anger, and so on, that we try to deny and bury in our subconscious. This denial, Jung posited, is damaging because the most common way to avoid looking at our negative impulses is to project them on to others so that we don’t have to confront them in ourselves. Both as individuals and as groups, even as countries, we create scapegoats upon which to inflict those prejudices, fears, perversions that we won’t admit we have.

My most vivid memory of the power of my own shadow goes back to the year I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street from my house to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were sixteen and seventeen years old. Bullying, fighting, taunting were common occurrences. Up until then a serious and solitary kid who liked to crawl into a cabinet next to the chimney in his living room and nestle in the warm darkness, or pull the bed covers over his head when he listened to “The Shadow” on the radio, I started waking up early on school mornings, shivering with apprehension.

Fortunately (for me, not for her), there was girl I’ll call Ester Morin. She was repeating the third grade. Possibly twelve or thirteen, she lived in a section of town filled with tarpaper shacks. She was thin and round-shouldered. I recall a long face and I want to say she had bad teeth. I remember dark, tangled hair falling over one eye, a faded dress, probably too short to cover her scabby knees, dirty socks puddled around her ankles, and scuffed shoes with at least one broken strap. The perfect target for ridicule and teasing.

It was a no-brainer. I could try to hide from the big kids on the playground, or I could join the gang of anywhere from five to ten guys surrounding Ester with their hands over their noses and mouths, hopping up and down like crows and cackling, “Fart-smeller Moron!” I soon became one of those guys. In the halls, we tried to trip her; in class, we targeted her with spit-balls. Sometimes we would wait for her after school and run circles around her until she shrieked and swung her long, bony arms.

It was, I discovered, great fun. I had found someone uglier and clumsier and weaker than I was. Ridiculing her made me stop thinking of myself as a loser. If I was self-consciousness about being fat, it helped to know someone who was ugly. If I was afraid that an eighth grader would beat me up, it was reassuring to know there was someone I could hit and no one would care. Ester became my way to strike back at those morning fears, ridicule them with names like “fart-smeller” and “cootie-lover.” Every time she screamed and waved her arms like some broken doll because of something I’d said, I felt stronger.

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I’m deeply sorry for the way I treated Ester. Still, I was 8 years old, I didn’t know any better, and I can’t do anything to make it up to her now. But Jung and others would say that I need to bring that memory to light. Richard Rohr, one of my spiritual gurus, writes: “Human consciousness does not emerge in any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow.” Maybe I need to remember Ester to help me confront and learn from my continuing sexist and racist tendencies.

Jung said that the shadow contains “positive potentialities,” such as creativity and spirituality. One example supporting his theory is that for the last several months, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has featured an exhibit called “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe.” The exhibit contains a variety of art, especially ivory statues, prayer beads, and jewelry boxes, urging us to “remember death.” Many of the figures have a human face on one side and a skeleton, sometimes with snakes crawling around the eye sockets, on the other side—a great depiction, I think, of our shadow side.

Last week I heard a speaker say that this art of “momento mori” reveals the renaissance search for meaning in death, which of course was commonplace. People apparently collected these figures and showed them to others. I couldn’t help but compare their attitude of curiosity to our present fear of death. We don’t want to look at death, so we relegate the dying to hospitals and hospice centers away from the rest of the world, and assuage our fears through caricatures of death in books and movies about zombies, demons, and vampires.

So perhaps I’m on a pilgrimage into the shadow side of my family. And possibly of myself. How much Lyman is there in me? Can I look at my own violent streaks, the pain I’ve caused my children, bring it to the surface, and reintegrate it into my life in a healthy way?

At this point, only the Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)

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On Quitting

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August 1, 2013. Outside of Ghost Ranch about 15 miles north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, I gazed across vistas of worn rocks layered red and brown and tan, punctuated with dark green brush. In the distance, Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that inspired so many of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings and where her ashes are scattered loomed against the sky. The view, however, was streaked with thick spirals of rain falling from low black clouds moving toward me. I looked through the skeletal arms of a creosote bush at Chimney Rock, my destination, rising like an arthritic finger into the darkening sky. I really wanted to get up to it. But I thought of the sign at Ghost Ranch warning of how quickly violent thunderstorms can arise. I called to my wife that we’d better turn around.

Back at the ranch, I looked up at Chimney Rock, bathed in sunlight. The storm had gone around us. I was pissed. Not because I wanted a better view, not because I was particularly interested in what Chimney Rock looked like up close, but because of this voice in my head: Damn it, there you go, quitting.

Growing up with a basketball in my hands, I remember playing in the Portland Maine YMCA, and the signs over the backboards at either end of the court. One read: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going; the other: A Winner Never Quits and A Quitter Never Wins. I carved these commandments into my psyche.

And they have often served me in good stead, inspired me to continue when I’ve wanted to stop. They’ve helped me recover from back surgery, two hip operations, and two hernia surgeries. They play in my head as I do my twenty minutes of exercises every morning. Recalling those words helped me get through some of the darkest days after my daughter’s death. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on those words during the twenty years of rejection letters, rewrites, course work, and financial expense until my novel Requiem in Stones (available—hint, hint—on my website, Amazon, and Maine’s finest independent bookstores) was finally published.

These backboard words of wisdom have also sent me on many a guilt trip. I often regret quitting the trombone—something I was pretty good at—in high school. I still feel guilty about deciding right after my final high school basketball game not to play ball in college, still wonder if I could have played at the college level. I dropped out of the University of Maine forestry program after a year. I’ve quit on a marriage, I left a teaching job in the middle of the year, and quit teaching altogether long before most of my colleagues.

Our society disdains quitters. If you google quotes about quitting, you’ll find that almost all of them say that it’s bad—un-American:

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever,” said Lance Armstrong, famous America cyclist.

“Americans never quit,” said General Douglas MacArthur.

“A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits,” said U.S. President Richard Nixon.

And yet, as I look again at all those things I quit on, I wonder, was quitting the trombone, basketball, the marriage, that job, really such a bad thing? What’s wrong with swapping a trombone for a banjo? Let’s say I’d played basketball in college. I certainly would never have starred; I was too short and too slow. (Hell, I never starred in high school.) So I’d have sat on the bench, and probably become a high school basketball coach—a job I could never imagine doing. The marriage was lousy; if I’d stayed in that relationship, I’d be dead now, I’m sure. If I’d never left teaching, I could very well have become one of the many cynical, depressed teachers I’ve worked with counting the days until their first retirement check so they could wait for the coffee shops to open in the morning.

While I was searching the net for thoughts about quitting, I found a PBS interview with Ewan Harris, founder of Quitter Quarterly. (It’s now a blog. Look it up.) In 2004, she published a book called The Art of Quitting. In the interview, Harris made a number of arguments in favor of quitting. The story of our lives, she said, is framed by quitting. The essential nature of a quitter is not laziness but a drive to move on. We quit because we’re bored, trapped, or because out dreams don’t match reality. The more things we quit, the more we do. The whole point of quitting is to move in the world.

Which got me thinking. I’m proud of the fact I quit smoking. Quitting booze has improved and possibly saved my life. I’ve got a number of other bad habits I should probably quit as well.

I discovered that the word “quit” is related to the word “quiet,” and originally meant freed or acquitted of a crime. Buddhism and other spiritual traditions warn that clinging strongly to anything or anybody causes suffering, and urge “detachment” or “letting go” as a way to freedom. Jesus’s disciples quit their jobs—threw down their nets—to follow him, and, in turn, he quit his life to show us that love is more powerful than death.

Going back to those Google quotes about the dangers of quitting, considering that Lance Armstrong has been barred from cycling for using illegal performance enhancing drugs to win his Tour de France championships, that President Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, and that Nixon had to resign from office because of trying to cover up illegal campaign activities, I wonder if they—and the country—might have been better off if they had quit.

In her PBS interview, Harris talked about what she called the “quitting cycle.” Our “early quits,” she said, often involve schools and romances. (my God, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I married my first girlfriend!) Our “midlife quits” are our midlife crises. (Mine was the best thing that ever happened to me.) Finally, Harris talked about “older quits,” when we don’t give a damn what people think. I’m not there yet—I still wished I’d made it up to Chimney Rock—but I’m getting better.

As I was writing this essay, I received word that my oldest friend going back to before grade school had suddenly died. Which has driven home to me the fact that I have another “quit” in the cycle right around the corner, one that I have no choice but to make.

Rest in peace, Roger.

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