Childhood Longings

I remember—in my limited, image-less, non-specific way—being a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, feeling a strange kind of longing as I looked out at a homeless man on the streets of Washington D.C, from the backseat of my family’s pine-tree green Honda Odyssey. Let’s say we were driving over Key Bridge a few days before Christmas, on our drive back from the Kennedy Center, where the extended family on my mother’s side—cousins, aunts, grandparents, and later uncles—would get all dressed up in suits and dresses (for the grown-ups) or uncomfortable Christmas sweaters and slacks (for the kids) and watch a play every year. Usually the plays were entertaining, even for us kids with itchy feet, but my favorite part of the ordeal was usually the king-size package of Dots candy I would always get at intermission. Pure sugar, enough to keep me wide-eyed for the first ten minutes of post-intermission before I crashed. My same-aged cousin Jack preferred the peanut M & M’s. One year the nutty crunch of these M & M’s, and Jack’s involuntary nonverbal expressions of his unabashed delight in them, got under the pallid skin of a couple of hot-and-bothered well-to-do’s in the row behind us, who shhshed and hissed their displeasure.

After the show was over, it would be time to spend at least an hour trying to get the perfect family picture on the velvety red steps outside the theatre. No face could be partially hidden by another face, no one’s eyes could be blinking, and everyone had to be grinning widely with teeth bared. When all of this criteria had been met, there was another half hour to hour of prolonged goodbye’s to people we would, save some unforeseen tragedy, almost certainly see in the next two days.

Finally, we would drive home. By now it would be close to midnight. Late December, usually some kind of snow or slush on the roads, the Potomac River partially frozen. And on the bridge under the streetlights a homeless man huddled in a threadbare coat, unsheltered in the cold night, eight hours or more until the wan winter sun rose meekly above the horizon. And I, a young too-well-dressed boy in the green suburbia minivan, looking forward to my warm bed that night, and even more to the upcoming two weeks off from my usual shy schoolboy agonies, two weeks to play in the snow with my brother and sister and cousins, knowing the warm shower and heated house would be right there whenever I needed them, felt this strange longing. What could I, apparently wanting for nothing, possibly want?

It was me, John Fogerty; I was the fortunate son. My family was well-off, deprived of no material thing. My parents could and did send me to the best schools available, where the teachers were contractually bound to care for each and every student, and the environment was conducive not only to intellectual growth but to the growth of students as whole persons, mind and heart and body, spirit and soul. I came from a large, tight-knit extended family. The virtues of love, faith, and hope were instilled in me at a young age, and the people around me seemed to embody those virtues to varying degrees. And yet, looking out through the letters of my name spelled in messy cursive on the frosty window at the cold bent figure on the bridge, I felt from deep within my body’s slight form a stripped-naked and skinned poverty no material wealth could repair or warm winter coat conceal, and a formless but full-bodied longing for I knew not what.

I did not know about alcoholism and drug addiction, about unemployment and desperation and crime. I did not know about the physical suffering this man must have undergone on a daily basis, in all seasons. Constantly facing the heat in the D.C. summer, unable to find refuge in the air-conditioned indoors. Blinded by the driving snow in winter, his coat absurdly thin and worn, unable to protect him in the slightest. His hunger and thirst, fevers and pneumonias.

I did not know about the mental torture he must have faced, the inner voices that told him he was a failure, a bum, a good-for-nothing ghostly presence that would soon be gone, with no one to remember him in a eulogy with fine words, delivered to a mourning audience who would miss him for the rest of their lives, with no one to remember him or miss him at all.

I did not know about the emotional slings and arrows this man—forced like all men who are utterly alone to remember always how he would not be remembered—must have endured, both from being sole audience, sole victim of his internal executioners twenty-four hours a day, and from being subject to the external voices that sometimes intruded into and compounded this hell on earth, who insulted him in similar ways, who with cold, contemptuous voices told him to get a job, get a life, get off the sidewalk, leave. Who told him he was not welcome here. How easy it would be for that man, after being told hundreds of times that he was not welcome here, to extrapolate and conclude that he would not be welcome anywhere, that Life itself had long ago decided to imprison him forever outside the gates of belonging. How hard it would be for this man to hold out any hope of ever finding his home.

I did not know about the spiritual agonies this man must have suffered, the unfathomable loneliness, the bitter hatred toward Life and all the people that seemed to move along smoothly and easily through it, the envy of the fortunate sons safe in their beds and the successful CEOs ensconced in their mansions, the shame that had burrowed its way into the very fibers of his being, the terrible fear of death that alternated with a terrible desire for it, the pain of an unlived life, the daily traumas of a soul born for heaven yet trapped in hell.

No, I did not know about any of this suffering. I was ignorant, a child already with pain of my own, and did I look at this homeless man on the bridge and see a kind of liberation from my own seemingly causeless pain, rather than certain bondage in his pain which had thousands of causes and no bottom or end but death? But how exactly was I suffering? From what particulars did I desire freedom? What could I possibly desire freedom from, as an young boy with loving parents, a warm extended family, supportive teachers and coaches, a roof over my head, clothes for all weather, friends to play with, food to help my body grow stronger, books to allow my mind to dive into its natural curiosity, and all of the above to help me discover and live out of the depths of my heart? Wouldn’t my spirit flourish? Wouldn’t my soul be nourished and at ease?

Alas, all the external wealth and support in the world cannot bring the soul through the dark night and into the sunlight. Though the surface of my life left little to be desired, yet I was filled with and burdened by desires and longings, and seeing this homeless man somehow brought all of this to the surface. I was longing for the inner wealth, the steadfast support, the perfect freedom, that resided somewhere deep within me, with which I had lost contact at a young age, leaving me without confidence or hope for the future, out of contact not only with people and objects in the outer world but most especially with my own heart, feeling an inner impoverishment that resonated with the homeless man’s outer impoverishment, feeling as deprived emotionally as I was privileged materially, unlike the homeless man in the prosperity of my upbringing but like him in my feeling of being down and out.

Down and out. Pressed down and left out. Pressed down as if under glass, divided by a fragile mirror that allowed me to look up and out at Life above the glass, to look but never touch. A mirror that also reflected back to me my own self, and because of this two-way mirror I became absorbed by the disparities between what was beneath the glass and what was above it, focusing on all the real and imaginary deficiencies that kept me gasping for breath as if under ice, perceiving everything below the glass as frozen in a dull and grey and painfully insufficient and lifeless image, and everything above the glass as a fluid Reality that was full of color and warmth and movement and vitality and fullness, left to conclude with a depressing finality that I would be forever estranged from that Reality, that I would be left to wrestle in unwelcome though unconsciously chosen isolation with my own inadequate and self-sabotaging devices, which only multiplied and exaggerated my sense of lack.

One of these devices, these defenses against the felt knowledge of my estrangement, which if recognized fully might pierce through the glass with its direct and unsparing insight, and re-connect me with the Reality that severed the boundary between inner and outer, above and below—one of these defenses was withdrawal. I withdrew in one sense in order to re-connect with the feeling of being myself. It was almost as if I could not feel or be that self in the presence of others, though I could not articulate who that self was.

There was a kind of freedom in withdrawal. Being around other people I was reminded painfully of the glass pressing down on me and increasing my feeling of separateness. Once alone I could imagine (to the extent that I could with my blind mind), a world where I never abandoned my truth and could easily be myself, where I did not fear rejection, where I never blushed when a teacher called on me and I had to speak in the presence of the rest of the class, where I never had to answer how my day went because everyone already understood how it went. There would be no need to hide who I was or what I felt. Written on my face would be the joys of a contented being, a soul at ease with itself. To speak of this contentment would be unnecessary, redundant.

But, in a cruel but predictable twist, the withdrawal that seemed like freedom was its opposite. It was the default response to my unsettling sense that I never responded to the events of Life authentically, blocked as I was by embarrassment and shame, by fear of judgment, fear of my actual self being seen by others and then scorned by them and rejected (or worse, ignored), which fears I reacted to by once more escaping into the well-grooved pathway of withdrawal. The comfort and familiarity of this default response made it feel like home, but it was a home that was cold and dark and silent. No one was home because the only one who could have been there was gone, lost in imagining what truly being at home would feel like, and the perfection he imagined there only made his time here, outside this suspect sanctuary, all the more distressing, lonely, and bleak.