But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled. (Albert Camus, The Guest)
I have a pet peeve. I like to call it “middle-class, white boy angst.” Characteristic of this blight on American culture is a whiny complaint that can be summed up in the cry, “Pity me, I grew up privileged!” It often results in such maladies as monotonous garage bands, bad performance art, and college fraternities. I won’t mention, at this time, self-indulgent memoirs.
Even as I deride the pain of the privileged, I cannot help but reach into my bag of favorite clichés and pull out this one: Everything, no matter how bright, has a shadow side.
I had a great childhood. I’ve called it a ridiculously happy childhood. I grew up on a farm in central Texas and that farm is the only place I’ve ever thought of as home. It’s the place I always returned to for refuge, or it was so long as my mother was alive. Since her death, the farm has been less of a refuge, which should make obvious that a home is more than a place, but my mother will be the subject of another essay sometime. This one is about the place.
When I think of home, I think of the kitchen. My mother was always cooking and baking. She would let me watch and, after a fashion, help. I have memories of standing on a chair beside her at the kitchen counter as she mixed cake batter or cookie dough or worked a yeast dough for bread or coffee cake. By the time I was 12, I had already mixed my own batter and dough — admittedly with mixed results but always with encouragement to try again.
Summer was a season of nearly constant activity. The kitchen sweltered with the steam of the pressure cooker and the air popped with the sealing of Mason jars holding freshly canned green beans, tomatoes, peaches, jellies, and preserves. July usually saw my mother’s hands stained purple from the wild, mustang grapes she squeezed for jelly and juice.
At some point in the summer, my youngest (but still older) brother and I were enlisted to peel peaches, to make ourselves useful while we watched the afternoon reruns of the Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. Part of the peach peeling ritual included this litany:
“You’re cutting off half the peach with the peel.”
“And don’t hold the knife that way. You’ll cut off a finger.”
“I’m being careful.”
You’re eating more than you’re bringing to the kitchen.”
“But they’re so good!”
“You’re going to get the runs from eating all those peaches.”
“No I won’t!”
And so forth.
When I think of home, I think of animals. We always had two or three dogs, almost exclusively collies or collie mixes. They helped with the cattle and guarded the house. They guarded me. When I was about five or six, I was startled by a snake in our backyard. I ran screaming into the house and by the time my mother and I went back to where the snake was, Buster, my big white collie hero, was slinging pieces of the snake across the yard. I always felt safe with Buster around.
We had cats. Lots of them, sometimes up to 20 at time. Like the dogs, they also had a practical purpose in that they were meant to keep down the rat, mouse, and snake populations. They were not pets, certainly not in a “lap-cat” sort of way. This was in open rebellion of my many, bloodied attempts at taming them. I credit these cats with my developing quick reflexes. I had favorites, all right, and some would deign to let me stroke them from time to time, but mostly they were objects of desire more than possession.
There were cows and I had a favorite of those, too. Jenny, a Jersey. One of our milk cows. She let me approach her in the field and hug her neck. If she were lying down, I could lie down on top of her. I think this worried my parents some, for a variety of reasons, but I loved that cow. Her qualities were in marked contrast to her Holstein stable-mate, Tina, who barely stood for us to milk her.
(Even in my farming community, I don’t recall anyone else in my high school having to milk cows — by hand — as part of their before and after school chores. There are aspects of my youth that are anachronistic that way. I also recall a time, from my early childhood, when we didn’t have running water in the kitchen, but I digress.)
We always had fresh eggs and more often than not we also had fresh chicken to fry. I learned early enough how to butcher a chicken, gut it, clean a gizzard and what have you. In addition to the staples to our diet, I also loved to watch a mother hen call her chicks. I remember one little, brown, bantam hen in particular who was one of the all time great mother hens. I would watch her brood disappear into her puffed up breast as she whirred and purred her gathering song. I wished I could shrink to three inches tall so I might disappear under her wings. It looks very warm and snug in there. It is that memory, precisely that comes to mind when I pray with the psalmist, “Hide me under the shadow of your wing.” Add the fierce protection of that little brown chicken and the image of God as mother hen is indeed very strong for me.
We raised our own bacon, too. Baby pigs are among the most beautiful and fun creatures on God’s earth. They also grow up into ugly, smelly, contrary beasts. Even if knowing the end result of those piggies didn’t sway my affection, I learned quick enough not to invest too much emotional energy into them. Chances were high that, come winter, I would be feeding my beloved Oinky through the sausage grinder and hanging him in the smokehouse. Such is the reality of farm life, and it was true of all those pretty little babies, whether calves, chicks or piglets.
When I think of home, I think of long, hot summer days, getting dirty from head to toe from playing “trucks” on the west side of the house. That end of the yard, under big elm trees, was where we were allowed to destroy the grass with our toy trucks, tractors, and road maintainers. My brother and I would spend hours there, making roads and plowing fields. We’d mark roads and draw squares for the homes of our imaginary people, a good many of whom were based upon real neighbors.
I think of winters in the woods, chopping firewood and burning brush. I especially enjoyed throwing on the yaupon branches. Yaupons are sold in many local nurseries, but on the farm they grew like weeds and we treated them as such. What made them fun to burn was their leaves have some waxy coating that makes them burst into flame as soon as they’re tossed onto the fire, almost like throwing kerosene on it. I also had the job, eventually, of splitting wood and I would revel in the rare times when I could split a piece with one swing of the ax. Speaking of chopping wood makes me think of the strange pleasure we had in eating homemade ice cream in the winter, huddled as closely to the wood-burning heater as we could get.
I think of sensations that are difficult to put into writing. There is the smell of a fire being started in the heater on cold winter mornings, the taste of warm, fresh milk, still frothy from the milking. There are sounds from the farm, the grasshoppers’ rhythmic, clattering buzz, my father’s voice calling in the cattle . . . Lucinda Williams’ album title, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, takes me back to the farmhouse, getting up to look out a window, wondering who’s driving up and why the dogs aren’t barking.
Much like the deeds of Jesus, there would not be enough books in the world to record all the sensations that come to mind when I think of the farm, when I think of home.
And the farm was rich with daydreams, hopes, and possibilities.
From day one, I had this creative impulse, a curse as much as a blessing. I grew up drawing, copying art from coloring and comic books and magazines. My first dream was to be a comic book artist, but I also wrote the stories I drew and worked at prose as well as comic book scripts. Then there were the days that I imagined myself a performer, an actor, singer, dancer. I daydreamed of doing pratfalls and funny voices with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. I pictured myself in some horrible accident so that I could run through the fields at bionic speed with Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. I was smart. I even pictured Dr. Rudy Wells calculating how often my bionic parts would need replacing since I was still growing.
I have a vivid memory of plotting a Justice League of America story while I was shoveling sorghum (or maize, as we called it) into the auger that carried the grain into the barn. You see, the JLAers showed up on the farm, tracking some dangerous villain who, it turns out, was hiding in our barn, under the newly harvested grain. I’d be the one to discover him. We kept an iron rod in the mounds of grain and we would pull this rod out and feel it to see if the grain was heating up. Fresh grain, especially if there were green kernels in it, could get over-heated and spontaneously combust, so if the rod felt warm, we had to shovel the grain around, to help it dry out, cool down. In my story, it would be when I pushed this rod back into the grain that I would discover this villain because I’d hit the oxygen tank he wore while hiding out under the sorghum.
In that sense, the farm was a place of possibilities for me. It represents a place from which any road was conceivable, a place from which and journey could start. Even if I recognized the fantasy aspects of some of my dreams — and I’m not saying I always did — I felt it was inevitable that something great was waiting for me, literally waiting for me that would appear without effort on my part, whether I became successful as an artist, an actor, a writer or (as the fantasy would have had it) all three and more.
And here’s where we move around, get another perspective, see the shadow thrown by the brightness of this childhood.
In my family, in my schools, in my church, in my community, there was no one to show me how.
Had I wanted to become a farmer, carpenter, banker, pastor, teacher, butcher or any number of fine professions, I would have found plenty of mentors and role models.
But for the handful of us who had this creative impulse, the most we had at our disposal were a few piano teachers and my own parents hadn’t the financial resources for such things. That’s nearly beside the point. Even if I had been given the lessons, the prevailing attitudes for it would have been to treat it as a hobby, not as a calling. Most of my drawing and writing was self-taught and even when I went to college to learn about acting, I couldn’t overcome those attitudes of my hometown that said this art thing was okay as a sideline, but you really need a real job.
Part and parcel to this was also the — to call it homophobia would be to give it too much credit. There simply wasn’t the possibility that two men might fall in love. There were no role models for adult, loving relations between couples of the same gender. Just as I was quietly taught to numb my creative energies, I also learned to numb the feelings I had for other boys or male teachers or the Six Million Dollar Man. To say I numbed them suggests that I recognized my homo-erotic feelings, which I didn’t at the time. It just didn’t occur to me that my “admiration” for certain men was closer to what my male classmates were feeling for the girls, female teachers, or Farrah Fawcett. I tried to have girlfriends because that’s what I had modeled for me, but I had no idea that what I self-labeled as shyness was really lack of attraction.
Perhaps now, in these post-Ellen days, gay farm boys have some way of at least guessing why they don’t quite fit in, but from the 1970s, my strongest recollection of “gay” is Jack Tripper, on Three’s Company, and he only pretended to be gay. And the way he pretended did not look like anything I wanted to be.
It would foolish of me to overlook one of the larger driving forces in my childhood and that’s my own drive to be good, to be pious, to be righteous. In my puberty, if I admitted that I thought about sex at all, it would have been that false humility way of admitting, “of course, we all do, but I try to control it.” My bent toward wanting to be the exemplary Christian wouldn’t have allowed me to admit, had I been accused, that I really did notice men’s chests more than women’s. And I shouldn’t kid myself or my reader. Had there been a positive gay male role model available to me, the church’s condemnation of homosexuality would have had me disregarding him with something along the lines of, “Well, just because he’s a nice man doesn’t mean he’ll get into heaven if he keeps on sinning like that.”
It’s a difficult matrix of things that keeps one down. There are people from my home community who have overcome both a lack of childhood instruction and hometown non-acceptance of homosexuality and they have gone on to successful careers in creative fields while I remain somewhat stuck in a bureaucratic, almost anti-creative day job. Without going too much into other people’s lives, I’ll sum up the difference between me and these others with my observation (or excuse, if you will — I will not deny it’s possible application) that some people come from families whose dysfunctions propel them from home while others come from families with dysfunctions that compel them to stay home. In other words, some people in my home town reach high school graduation and head out of town without regret, remorse or intention to return. Most of us focus on the good things in that town because we’re supposed to honor and cherish our roots, but we also can’t seem to see beyond that town. Families and their dysfunctions have the power to make a difference between these choices. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my adulthood, but rare, it seems to me, is the family that encourages and supports a child to leave home and the child goes on to self-differentiate and fulfill individual dreams.
To talk about my particular family, there is something I’ve only recently come to recognize, a quiet pervasive message, a subtly taught lesson that I fight every time I sit down to write a story.
That teaching is this: Don’t aspire.
That’s it. Don’t aspire. At the very least, accept your lot in life and learn to be content with it.
My evidence for this teaching comes from various places. For example, I am the youngest of seven children. I have a number of musically gifted siblings. Two brothers have taught themselves to play guitar to a respectable level of proficiency. One sister has a voice that might have carried her through a classical music career. They’ve all learned to be content to use these gifts for weddings, funerals, and weekend dance bands. I don’t mean to imply that this is a misuse of the gift, only that it is an underdevelopment of it, a settling for an average, at best, level of excellence.
Of the seven siblings, only two of us attended college. Neither of us got up the ambition to pursue careers in the fields of our degrees.
When I decided to go to college and major in theater, my father wondered if it wouldn’t be better if I stayed at home and kept working in the grocery store where I had my high school job.
When I was working on my masters degree at the seminary and I mentioned the possibility of pursuing another advanced degree, my mother commented, “Oh, after this, don’t you think that’s enough school?”
I want to be clear on this, lest I begin to sound like the privileged angst-meisters I derided earlier. I understand the caution and concern behind the above scenarios to be born of love. My home wasn’t a home of hugs and kisses and spoken “I love yous.” We were German Lutherans, after all. But it was a home of care and protection. I suspect the caution is one rooted in surviving the Great Depression, born of a love that doesn’t want to see offspring fail as so many people in the 1930s failed. The slightly more positive, underlying sentiment behind the lessons in not aspiring might be: Play it safe and don’t get hurt.
My parents didn’t want to see their children get hurt. How do I fault them for that?
Have I said what a great home I had growing up, how happy my childhood was? Let me say it again, anyway. I had a great childhood, safe and happy.
I mean, we were seven children who grew up on a farm, surrounded by all the dangers farm life has to offer, and we all have complete sets of fingers, toes and limbs. It’s not unheard of, but it’s still worth noting.
I currently take modern dance classes. Every once in a while there is a collision in my brain, a moment of cognitive dissonance overwhelms me and my body doesn’t move as well as it might. “Farm boys don’t even know who Martha Graham is, much less study in her field of achievement.” Other times, I’m able to find freedom in this art form and I am released from the voices in my head that would question why I try to express myself in any art form.
I write all this as plainly as I know how because there is something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to lose sight of the great things my past gave me. I also don’t want to pretend that I’m free of the anger behind such obvious questions like, “What if there had been an artist community near my home?” or “What if I’d grown up in a home, church or community that accepted gay folk?”
I joke about white boy angst because I’ve got it and I’ve fought it with nearly every keystroke of this essay. Pity me because I had a happy childhood and I can’t quite pull it together as an adult? No, that’s not what I want you to hear in these words. If I examine my life only to complain and make excuses, then that life isn’t any more worth living than an unexamined life. What I want you to hear in this these words is that there is a way to figure out the why of our failures of our discontent.
It’s the only way to do anything about them.
I have a faith in the Good News of Jesus, in the coming and already started Reign of God wherein we are all released from the layers of hurt, lack, and mis-applied good intentions that keep us from defying gravity. In the Reign of God, the hungry are blessed with fullness, the naked are blessed with clothes, the ones who bring peace are recognized as the children of God and the grieving ones laugh.
I suppose the “right” thing to say is that when I think of home, I think of the Reign of God, of heaven or something similarly trite. Well, trite sayings often have some small kernel of truth in them and greater Christians than I have commented that our longing for God is a homesickness for a place we’ve never been, that our restlessness won’t stop until we rest in God.
So I say this about this ultimate home of my faith: In the Reign of God, as best that I can picture it, I dance and know how to tell my stories well and right. I do not fight, indeed, I do not hear the voices in my head that say success and excellence are for other people, not for me. In the place that is prepared for me, these ideals are integrated with the things I love. There are coloring and comic books. I taste fresh coffee cake and drink homemade grape juice. There is the smell of dry summer fields and cool grass under my bare feet.
I hear the cluck of a great Mother Hen and rest safely in Her warm, feathered breast.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.