My Journey: At First I Listened

Originally published in the Philedelphia Freethought News Letter.

In the 1930’s when my parents referred to their children with endearing nicknames, I listened. My brother, five years my senior was “the professor.” They called me “dupis.” Don’t bother looking it up. The word dupis is not in the dictionary, but I knew what it meant. Boys are smart. Girls are stupid. I was not expected to achieve beyond a high school education. I listened.

We were an upwardly mobile working class family. Nobody in our family had ever gone to college. In my parent’s generation few went to high school. My brother was destined to break the mold. He would be the first to get a college degree. My parents like all good hard working upwardly mobile parents, pre and post WWII, wanted a better life for their children. And like all good parents they gave support and advice to their children.

Well, I was the one to break the mold. I, the dupis, the girl child, was the first in my generation to actually achieve a college degree, and a post-graduate degree at that. So credibility of the myth of “the dupis” and the “professor” bit the dust.

My parent’s marriage was what was referred to in those days as “mixed”. Mom was Catholic and Dad was Lutheran. Neither of them went to church on a regular basis. Mom sent me to church with whatever neighbor was going. I remember singing “Yes Jesus Loves Me.” I did not enthusiastically sing along, but I listened.

My father told me to choose a husband wisely, one who would succeed in life, one who would be able to support me well. He told me to arm myself with job skills, job skills appropriate for a girl, just in case. I listened.

I know my parents loved me. That’s not the problem. They did their best in the culture they were born into.

They were hard working and loyal people. My dad was drafted at age 38. During the two years he served in the United States Navy, he sent most of his earnings home to my mother. She in turn worked three jobs while he was gone. She worked in the bottle house at Schlitz, full time days, and a waitress job weeknights in a neighborhood restaurant. She worked on the weekend waitressing at another restaurant. She saved as much as she could.

When he returned, after the war, they pooled their resources and bought a tavern.

I didn’t really become a Catholic until I married a Catholic man.

Oh, yes, I did go to a Catholic High School. The public school in our area was considered a dangerous place. My father, and my mother too, told me to play it safe. And while I was there, in that Catholic school, I listened. I also began to rebel, in small adolescent superficial ways. This was before the word feminism rolled off tongues. “The Feminine Mystique” had not been published yet. But I think before I understood the sense of it, I began to smell the stench of hypocrisy.

I was seventeen, yup seventeen, a recent high school graduate, when my brother took me to a bar and introduced me to my first husband. He was twenty-five and the teaching principal in a two room rural school. My brother pretended that I was his date, and obviously old enough to be drinking in a bar. When my brother “accidentally” let it slip that I was his sister, my first husband suddenly became very interested in me.

Later I discovered my brother’s intent in taking me to that bar was to play cupid, or you could say to take on the parental responsibility to arrange my marriage. The first chapter in my novel, “The Almost Brother” is based on that experience. When I protested an arranged date with my future husband, my brother threatened to deny me the use of his car if I didn’t go out with this fellow. Being a girl who thought her options were limited, I complied. My brother meant well.

On our first date, a Sunday afternoon, following our Saturday night introduction, he arrived to pick me up a little before noon. He asked if I had been to mass and I answered honestly, “No. I thought I’d skip it today.” He replied, “You still have time to catch the 12:00 mass. I’ll wait for you here.” I went to mass. He planted himself in the easy chair in my parent’s living room where he sat, Sunday paper held at arms length until I returned.

Wow, I thought, here’s a guy who means business. He knows what’s right and what’s not. As the dupis, the girl child, the stupid one, what more could I ask for, a professional man. Strangely enough, he did not think I was stupid, or if he did, he didn’t show it.

The first date didn’t go well. I was quiet, and pining for the boyfriend that had stood me up in favor of dating my best girlfriend. I didn’t hear from the guy my brother arranged for me until months later when I needed a date for a party sponsored by my employer. I had three choices of guys who could escort me to the party. Those days, girls didn’t go to parties unescorted. My mom suggested I draw straws to determine who I would ask to go to the dance. The first drawing didn’t turn out to her liking. She suggested two out of three. Well, you guessed it. It was my brother’s match for me. An embarrassed teenager called the good catch and asked him to be my date.

As I look back, I feel fortunate that I didn’t have the religious indoctrination, the brain-washing, that many of my peers had. At least when I was seriously introduced to religion I had already reached the age of reason. I could listen, but I could also begin to reason. I was still listening, and I was still shy and insecure.

I followed my father’s advice. I had typing skills and I knew the alphabet well enough to file papers. I also married a Catholic man with a very promising future. He came along when I was just seventeen, but I was finished with high school, and well, I thought, what’s next? What’s next for a girl, that is.

People mistook my shyness for maturity. My father used to look at me in that sort of special way, and he would say, “still waters run deep”. But I was just listening. People like good listeners. I discovered that if I encouraged others to speak, I didn’t have to.

At first, it was a cover for my shyness, and for the fact that I had nothing to say.

At age almost nineteen, I married the man my father would have chosen for me. He was a college graduate, he was moving up in his teaching career. He could provide me with security, and he was, still is, a good man, a kind and caring man.

Because of him, I went to the Catholic Church, and I listened. My mom was quite pleased. She thought I had achieved the perfect marriage. I remember her saying, if anything ever happened between Marilyn and Chet I will cease to believe in anything.

That all changed as time went on. My mom was my greatest ally, and my greatest support in the subsequent divorce between me and Chet. I gave her a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” and she read it. We talked about it. She understood my dilemma. In a funny sort of way, mother and daughter became friends. The generation gap was overcome.

I went to church, and I listened. The Pope said the pill is “a no no.” I concluded that I could not be a Catholic and go against the Church. I didn’t know how to be what is called today, a moderate, and I had an intense distaste for hypocrisy.

By the time I reached my 24th birthday, we had four kids. I either had to quit the church or keep having babies. My first husband, to his credit was not against birth control. He was alas, a moderate.

Ten years of marriage and five children later, still a Catholic, I stopped listening, at least I stopped listening to the sermons. Actually I stopped going to mass if I could avoid it. My husband and I took turns going to mass. He took the older ones while I stayed home with the very young ones. When my turn came to go to mass, I went to the local coffee shop instead. I returned home at the proper time and nobody was the wiser.

I knew my body would give out and my mind would turn to mush if I continued to have more children. By this time I knew I should have had only two children but I couldn’t say which two. I loved them all.

Ah, but I found another option, another Catholic church, one that was more interested in social justice than in denying its members the use of condoms. I enthusiastically dragged my family to this church. There was four years between my fourth and fifth child. I had her on purpose. I wanted to have the luxury of rearing one baby without having to be distracted by the needs of so many other babies. Honesty bodes me to admit that I was scared to death of having to enter a work force for which I was ill prepared. A fifth child would buy me a little more time.

I took a side trip, a journey into religion’s seductive promise and I got hooked deep, real deep. I guess you could say I had the faith and the enthusiasm of a convert.

When my youngest daughter was to receive first communion, I proudly provided a ceramic chalice, a chalice made by my own hands and fired in my own kiln to be used for the ceremony. The chalice was to be passed for everyone present to sip the wine. When my mother-in-law, a traditional Catholic, objected, stating it would spread germs if everyone sipped from the same cup, I self-righteously sputtered at her, “I would drink from a toilet if that’s what it took to get the blood of Christ.” I tell this story occasionally because it keeps me humble, and reminds me not to be too harsh in my criticism of the credulity of others.

I had found a home. As a member of the liturgy committee at this church where it was not unusual to hear parishioners singing, “Jeremiah Was a Bull Frog” during mass, I was able to satisfy my hunger for spiritual connection and community. My membership on the adult education committee put me in the inner circle of the thinkers in this progressive church and gently nudged my sleepy brain to wake up.

And wake up, I did. I read and discussed Catholic Theology with the best of them. I sat in on a couple courses at Marquette University, became friends with a Jesuit priest, and at age thirty-four I enrolled as a college freshman in a junior college, later transferring to UWM where I earned my bachelor’s degree in secondary education and my master’s in communication.

I became put off by the fact that the things clergy discussed with me were things they didn’t say from the pulpit. There was an elitism that didn’t respect the parishioners enough to stop sugar coating theology. I educated myself right out of the church that had provided me with a parking lot on my way to enlightenment.

Am I pissed off at organized religion? You bet. Of all the crimes against humanity, and there are many, one that is close to the top of my list is one that is not so easily detectable. It is insidious and subtle. I’m talking about hypocrisy, hypocrisy, knowingly believing one thing and preaching another from a position of authority and it’s cousin, dissimulation (concealing or disguising one’s thoughts feelings or character).

I read and studied psychology, philosophy, communication theory, theology, and yes, C.S. Lewis and other apologetics.

The taste of freedom is far sweeter than the stale comfort of naivety.

I’m seventy-six-years old and I still abhor unfairness and hypocrisy. I simply cannot be a “moderate.”

Ultimately after twenty years of marriage, we divorced, my children’s father and me. I still care for him, and I believe he cares for me too.

I feel fortunate to have traveled with him for a very important part of my life. He had a very positive impact on the who I am today. I continue to travel with him. He is my brother.

The financial security he provided while we were married and I was a stay at home mother allowed me the luxury to find my voice, without the restriction of having to do battle with the politics of the “real world”, and the pressure of having to be the breadwinner, I was free while he was encumbered with having to conform in order to provide for his family. With his encouragement, I became a liberal protesting hypocrisy and injustice everywhere I encountered unfairness.

He wanted a peaceful existence. He wanted to avoid conflict. He was, after all, a moderate. My voice got too loud for his comfort. He was threatened by my passionate rebellion. I was angry about his lack of passion. It was his financial support, the security he provided that allowed me to think outside the nine dots.

I didn’t see it that way at the time. I felt like I was the only victim. I had sold out my freedom to pursue my destiny for the security he could provide. I wrote this poem:

To weave this blanket took me many years
of discipline with dreams to overcome.
I wear it as a hood to cover ears
to keep from hearing lies told me by some
who mean no harm. I wear it as a mask
to cover eyes to keep from seeing all
unanswered questions urging me to ask.
Oh blanket meant to comfort me
I’ve made you far too well.
If only just to feel love’s pain,
security I’d gladly sell.
But now it’s done. My blanket’s over head
I may as well lie down you see, I’m dead

I find it ironic that the man who provided me with the security to seek my own path is the one with whom I could not spend the rest of my life.

When we divorced I divested myself of stuff, meaningless stuff, to me. I spent all that I had in order to achieve my independence. Every material possession I had would fit in a van. And I was able to afford my college tuition.

I felt free at last. I was thirty-eight when I transferred from a Jr. college to a university where I attended classes with two of my daughters, and I listened. I soaked it all in. I felt betrayed by the high school courses that fed me trickle down history and down right lies. Oh my. My brain was on fire. I was still young and I wanted to fight every cause.

Years later, I went back to that church on two occasions after I had finally figured things out. It was to attend the retirement ceremony of one of the church members, and to bid farewell to a member who was leaving the community. The first time, I was embarrassed when I could not control my stream of tears and the noises of my gut-retching sobs. I was sitting in the front of the church and made a spectacle when I got up and walked past all these people who had been so important to me.

On the second occasion for my return to this place where I had experienced all those warm fuzzys, I sat in the back of the church and steeled myself against the potential for a repeat performance. As it turned out, once again the tears would not stay hidden behind my eyeballs. This time, however, I was able to leave without disrupting the whole congregation of people who’d come there to participate in the fond farewell to a good friend.

So, what happened, you might ask. It took a while, but I finally figured it out. I was overwhelmed and weeping over my own loss of naivety.

The very first college paper I wrote began thus: “Man created god in his own image and then structured the institutions to contain him.”

I am free at last. I still listen, but with a critical ear. But wait, it hasn’t been all, bad. As I look back I have no regrets. I got to have it all, just not all at once.

Perhaps my childhood wasn’t idyllic, but I knew my parents loved me. I was married to a really good man for twenty years and raised five wonderful kids. I got to be a stay at home mom when my kids were little. I was a Den Mother, and Girl Scout leader, I had coffee with my neighbors in the morning, and there were block parties. I swam and water skied with my kids, and celebrated their many achievements. And then I got to go to college, with my daughters no less. I got to have a career I loved. I achieved in my field. I was part of a very creative process in the marriage and family therapy world. I made a good living.

I am currently married to a man with whom I am very much in love, a man with whom I have had passionately wonderful and challenging experiences, one of traveling from immediate attraction through feisty conflicts to acceptance of differences, an artist who has shown me how to look at shadows on a sidewalk and reflections in a window – to see wonders I had been blind to before we met, a man with whom I have danced and laughed, a man with whom I have shared my deepest thoughts through all night conversations sometimes in conflict with one another’s point of view, a man who is willing and able to call me on my faults but listens to my reasons, a man who accepts me for who I am, and a man that I accept with all his own insecurities and flaws.

I have a comfortable life and all the time I need to write and to read, to travel with my daughter and my granddaughter, to spend time with my children and my grandchildren, and have stimulating discussions with my neighbors and friends.

Who could possible expect more from one lifetime? This sketch would not be complete without including the hardest things I have had to experience. Those who know me would find this writing disingenuous if I didn’t include the tragedies.

The first was my oldest son’s loss of his right eye in a car accident at the age of seventeen.

My mother died when I was fifty. She was 74. I’m older than her now. Don’t ask me how, but I always knew she loved me, me and my kids. Here is what I wrote to her on her birthday shortly before she died.

When I was a little girl, I loved you,
like a little girl loves her mother, like a little girl should.
But I grew up, and am growing still and I do my thing as you
knew I would.
I love you now, not because I should.
I’m not that good.
There’s a warm and giving person inside my mother,
a person, whom I love.

When my oldest son died at the age of forty-one, a tragic death, more tragic than just the fact that he was young, more tragic than the fact that he left a wife to raise two small daughters on her own. To this day, some say it was murder, others insist it was suicide. We will never know. Eleven years later when my daughter died, at the age of forty-eight, the circumstances were equally as tragic. Her death was determined by autopsy as a clear suicide. She left three children who are at the very beginning of their adult lives. I worry about the affect of their mother’s death on them.

Have I cried? Oh yes. Do I still cry? Oh my,Yes.

The usual questions are, do I fault myself in some ways? Sure. I’m human. I’m a mom. Could I have stopped them? I did see it coming. I tried.

Did my “help” hasten their demise. I blame the mental health provider system for their deaths. Yes I do. I blame me for trying to rescue them from that system for their demise as well. This gets complicated. In times of these kinds of tragedies, many turn to god. Some take comfort by pleading ignorance. God acts in mysterious ways. He will heal me. My pain is worthy of offering up for the suffering of, of well, I don’t know, of something. Others curse god. They become angry with god and bitter about life.

None of that is true for me. Since I don’t believe in a supernatural, much less one who micromanages my puny little life, I neither curse and blame god, nor rationalize about anything that would make me, or my life, special. It has been my good fortune to travel my life’s journey with some beautiful people who no longer exist, my mother, my two children, and some friends along the way.

I live for today, and the good people with whom I continue to travel, and I thank my good fortune for having had the privilege of traveling with some good people in my yesterdays. They, yesterday people, have a special place in my memory. They have affected the person I call me today, and my current fellow travelers will continue to affect my personal evolution, hopefully into a better person.

I humbly thank my good fortune to have been born into a country where religion and government are not one and the same, a country that, so far anyway, bloody religious wars are not being fought in my back yard. I have the luxury of being able to mourn one death of a loved one at a time.

There is another chapter, another loss.

Mid life, when many are starting to contemplate their retirement or to sit on their accomplishments, I was just beginning to have accomplishments, in my own rite.

I am proud to say I was on the cutting edge of the development of a kind of therapy that sought to help people solve problems, “conflicts” within themselves, between them and others, and between them and the larger social system. I was one of the founders of the Brief Family Therapy Center, where the much-respected “Solution Focus Therapy” was conceived and developed.

I fought diligently to change the mental health delivery system from one that is dependent on psychiatrist’s diagnoses of mental illness, drugs, drug companies, and managed care systems.

I lost that battle.

I developed a bully prevention program based o n sound scientific principles. My program was not adapted in our schools.

I wrote a novel based on t h e p r o gr am. Some educators have used it to encourage discussions about bullying with their students. However the book did not sell well.

I wrote a screenplay based on the book. To date I have not found a producer.

Well, I did not change the world. However, I would not change my experience of the journey.