Here begins a series of meditations, or better, recordings of meditations, that I experienced on my now ended two-week trip to Spokane.
Preface—the necessary details that come before the good parts
Imagine the mountain-fed river. The winter was very hard: snow depth was at historic levels, and its endurability was more than that of many Spokanites. The mountain (just a foothill in the Rockies) still boasts her white peak, but the sudden heat fought to overcome that. And the river always carries the brunt of these annual competitions. She was, as she always tends to be during these times, magnificent.
I was staying with a couple of friends in Browne’s Addition, and from their balcony, I could see the Spokane bend through the ponderosa forest, as she raced past the new River Run community and (unseen from the balcony) SFCC, off towards Riverside State Park. If the sliding door was open, we couldn’t but hear, throughout the entire apartment, the rush of her rapids, intermittently punctuated by the “Chicago!” cry of the resident quail—a reminder that I was just on vacation here from the Midwest, and would have to return all too soon.
I came for a number of reasons: a) to support my sister through a growing time of emotional upheaval, b) to reacquaint with a friend from my MA/TESL days, c) to meet and befriend said friend’s partner / spouse, d) to spend time with friends who have supported me long-distance through this first season of coming out, e) to enjoy the splendor of the white-crested Spokane in springtime, and f) to spend some time with mom for Mother’s Day. On the flip side, I carefully did not tell so-called “churchy” friends I was in town, friends that (alas) included one of my closest friends, Joe. The aim was to take a restful vacation from dissertation, to spend time in rejuvenation, to hang out with my sister (one of my favorite people), and to discover where close friendships would now travel, given my newly embraced self-congruency. Avoiding certain others was deliberately chosen in order to avoid the drama of having to come out to them or the stultification of not coming out to them.
Indelible Record I—-family relationship patterns.
Downtown Spokane is famous for the Spokane River, who cuts around Spokane’s mother Havermale Island and slices away little Canada Island by the sheer force of her rapids. White torrents spray vertically as the flood crashes over Devil’s Rock and fights the limitations of the basalt cliff-beds that mark where the islands and city begin and the river must end. The 90-degree heat wave and the immense snowmelt made for the highest rapids, the most torrential falls I’ve ever seen in my 40-year experience with the Spokane. Instead of being sprayed by the falls as we stood on the suspension bridge, we were splashed with sudden waves as they surged and foamed just feet beneath us, as the bridge itself vibrated in prestissimo time. Giant ponderosa trunks, twenty, thirty feet long were ripped from the banks and tossed like toys down first the breathtaking upper, then the great lower falls, alongside River Park Square and the library, past the Monroe Street Bridge and the tourist-packed gondolas.
When it comes to the Spokane, I am willingly drawn into the drama. Easily a third, maybe even as much as half of my time in Spokane was spent alone with the river, absorbing, emptying myself, being filled with awe and silence.
But when it comes to Spokane, I am grudgingly drawn into the dramas of friends and family. Coming back with my eyeballs properly fitted for the first time finally gave me the tools to see just how much so.
The river strains against her boundaries, yet even when she overcomes them, she flows predictably, powerfully, inexorably down her natural course. When she floods, she floods in the same places, and the damage she may cause is damage only to those who carelessly and recklessly built in known flood plains, to those who ignored the eventual, predictable power of the conjunction of severe winters and springtime thaws. In short, the drama becomes a tragedy only for those who foolishly build where seasonal tumult is known to occur.
But family, family’s not quite the same. We have our tumult; we have our damage and crossed boundaries. And generally speaking, the damage is predictable, occurring in patterns, dashing against the same rocks, drenching the same people on the same overlooking bridges. But it’s different here, for the view is from within, thus filled with ignorance regarding where exactly the rush of all that pushes us onward is heading. My role in this Heraclitan torrent ebbed on the sidelines for some time, with me living some 1900 miles away from the strongest current. That distance split me, giving me a duality of perspectives—I still see the world racing by as I am propelled down the family causeway, yet I watch the family flow from the vantage of an overhang, passing me by in the perspective of the greater sweep of the river as a whole.
In coming out, part of me has come out of the river’s pattern, of the family game. I say ‘game’ carefully, with a little Wittgenstein in mind. Languages are like games, with rules created by the users in a given group to facilitate the present and ongoing activities. Each family is such a group, triggering certain words and phrases, playing a sort of team sport together, each member expected to play a certain position. But often enough—and certainly in the case of my family—the game isn’t enjoyable, the rules are exhausting, the roles stifling. Passive aggression and manipulation seem to dictate every move, and points are scored by one only when one attacks one’s own teammates, even though the team as a whole is supposed to somehow win against other teams. In some ways, I opted to sit in the dugout some years ago, refusing to play with my team, deliberately turning my back on many of the inter- and intra-familial games. What I discovered this time, looking down into the torrent, was that the game had modified when I wasn’t looking, and that I’m still quite active in the passive aggression of my family river. —or at least, I was quite active before I moved some four years ago, and my brief visit was seen as an opportunity to toss the ball my way. From my vantage, I saw the rules, the manipulation, the triggers being pulled. I saw how polluted the river still is, and I saw how the absence of my dad (to Alzheimer’s) has only exacerbated the toxicity.
I recoiled from it all. Yet the stain on me is indelible. Being gay is unacceptable, even unthinkable in this game. It’s like inserting a figure-skater into a game of water polo. It’s so beyond comprehension as to be akin to a category mistake. Thus it was, growing up, that my being gay wasn’t considered. I felt something was wrong in the way I was categorized, but I had no tools to determine exactly what. Observing the game splashing in the family river below me, I watched myself passively enduring the contradictory rules. Mostly, I watched the plays between my mother and my sister, and I saw how horribly wrong, unhealthy, carefully self-deluded it all was—is. And because the game is based on looking good to those standing on the banks, and because the game is based on never admitting anything uncomfortable, and because I am still in that river-game even though I so desperately want out, I carefully said nothing about myself while in town, carefully limited any controversial statements to comments on how my mother should stop self-deprecating or how my sister should stand up to mom.
One afternoon with mom and her best friend revealed to me how much I am both in and out of the river. Out regarding my utter inability to happily play the game, to accept or ignore the destructiveness of the rules so desperately clung to by my mother. In regarding my utter inability to escape, simply by virtue of this being my family, my mother, my born-into no take-backs heritage.
One evening, over a glass of pinot, my very close and longtime friend R and I discussed exactly this. She noted how up to eighty percent of our problems and values are established in the first eight years of our lives, and how she kept this in mind daily as she carefully raised her now sixteen-month-old son. Watching how she and her estranged husband interact, R voiced her concerns as to how much of this is perceived, understood, and influencing her son. At the same time, we wondered how it is that we two, women in our early 40s, are still so concerned about what our mothers think about us. I wondered if our mothers were, at 40 and 41, so worried about what their mothers thought of their activities’ acceptability. When, asked R, does the supposed wisdom that comes with age actually come? And when, I wondered aloud, do we actually get to live our lives independently of the guilt, pain, or consternation caused by our parents’ disapproval?
The answer, we concluded, is that it doesn’t come, and we don’t escape the river, not entirely. That wisdom of lore is—lore. The river looks majestic from the vantage of the suspension bridge, but it remains ever treacherous and exhausting for those tossed against the rocks that rumble along the riverbed, propelled by the power of the current.
This sounds very Camusian when I write it out—like there is no escaping the futility of the battle between vantage points, but that somehow one must continue to battle, and that meaning will be found in this very absurdity of needing an escape in a place where escape is impossible. I don’t intend that to be the point, though a large part of me is drawn to such a conclusion.
I do not know where this river I cannot ever really escape is taking me. And I have seen a view of it that is unforgettable. I do not know how to quit the game, nor do I know how either to change the rules or to find a non-dysfunctional role to take up without this role being twisted into something considered acceptable by a modified version of the game. I will always be a part of this particular family, by virtue of my very existence. Like Heidegger would say, I have been thrown into a specific situation, and I must determine how I will throw myself forward from it, to whatever end. With this truth I am perfectly comfortable. But I cannot come to terms with what seems to be the fact of my every attempt at spiritual integrity being so blindly corrupted in the flow of this deceptively majestic river that flows unquenchingly through my veins.