Monday, October 25, 2010

The Boys From County Hell

Recently a friend who’s been reading my blog asked why I only write about the things I think and not about things I do or stories about my life. It’s a good question. And while the obvious answer is that I’m trying to maintain some privacy, the bigger picture is that it’s not easy to write about the people you love.

But since it keeps coming up, I have two stories for you about my brothers.

The first brother story is simple:

While walking home from first grade in the wintertime some older boys walking behind me started throwing snow balls. They hit the back of my coat and I ignored them, but finally one hit the back of my head and I turned around. That was when they stopped laughing and looked shocked and horrified. “Oh shit.” one of them said “Oh my god.” They ran up to me, brushed the snow off my coat and hat and out of my hair, asked if I was okay and did I need them to walk me home? “Please,” they said, “don’t tell your brother.” This sense of guardianship is very likely the reason I’ve never had any accurate sense of my own height and weight. And while our politics and values often drastically converge, while this brother called me by no other name than “little bonehead” for twenty-five years, (even going so far as to make me a Christmas present of a racoon skull with the words “little bone head” decoupaged all over it). He’s also clearly the reason I’ve rarely had a sense of limitations. If a little girl can instill horror in neighborhood thugs just by turning around, if she can become a woman who accepts skulls as presents, she can move through the world differently.

The second brother story is more complex but doesn’t involve animal bones:

Years ago, driving to the ocean with my younger brother the two of us were captivated by the site of forest fire. Trees black as soot, stunted and narrow and shaped like coral stood beside the tall green canopy of pines and maples that flanked the road.

That’s amazing my brother said and I nodded. It was otherworldly. An outgrowth of Heironomys Bosh’s hell sprung like an oasis inside the neat chuck of remaining forest that hadn’t been turned to highway.

My brother, who was paying for this trip, was a businessman who lived in Manhattan and worked seventy hours a week. He was so overextended he sometimes fell asleep in the shower while getting ready for work. The two of us talked on the phone often in those days when he was driving home, about books and politics and if there was some kind of unifying theory that could make things right in the world. I urged him nearly every day to quit his job, a job that would in just a few hours see us basking on the beach and eating lobster on the pier. This was the first vacation I’d had in more than five years. I had at the time an 11th grade education and had just been laid off from my job landscaping gardens on the campus of a lesser Ivy League school in a small gray town unreachable by trains. I was raising my son, collecting unemployment, writing and freelancing.

Which of us was, at that point in our lives, the domesticated forest and which was the site of the fire was a question that played out silently while we drove.

My brother supported my writing and he supported me when I was out of work and it made me feel simultaneously like a complete failure, and like a very loved, very lucky person.

I have lived between these brothers my whole life. One, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has sleeve tattoos, three children, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and his own unfinished manuscript; the other, now a bio-ethicist, who lives so lightly on this earth and in his skin and so heavily in his mind, his ultimate goal is to own nothing, to move with his wife into a Volkswagon camper van with a couple changes of clothes.

Fraternity and diversity are what I know most deeply of family. My brothers have made it possible for me to know what it feels like to love unconditionally a businessman and a soldier. And this is no small thing, to see behind the curtain of the dominant culture of men and corporations and war, and to know that they are built on the intentions and talents of individual boys.

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