Man as a Mystery to God – Thoughts on “A River Runs through It”

In honor of my writing friend, Michael Powelson.

In his novella “A River Runs through It,” Norman Maclean develops an unusual father-son relationship to examine the flawed nature of man in relationship to a theological philosophy of divine acceptance and unconditional love.

By developing his character Paul as a kind of prophet still trapped in sin, he suggest that man is both capable of identifying the path to redemption and simultaneously incapable of escaping death. By creating Paul’s life as an allegory to man’s relationship with God, he allows the reader to accept and understand seemingly unacceptable and incomprehensible levels of familial love for a difficult son.

Mclean uses the language of fly fishing to translate a Presbyterian family’s Biblical interpretation of this truth; his finest translation comes when the narrator’s younger brother Paul speaks words that reflect words from Genesis:

He thought back on what happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

The Genesis connection is not immediately clear, but the narrator’s father’s affection for and belief in his son Paul is. The narrator’s father is a Presbyterian minister, and Paul is a trouble maker. Paul drinks too much and places too many bets and is often in trouble. Maclean uses the father-son connection to truth via fly fishing to examine the father’s enduring affection for Paul.

Toward the end of the story, after Paul’s demise has been suggested as inevitable but has not yet happened, the narrator asks his father about something he is reading. His father is reading the Bible and says:

“In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

The narrator tells his father that he (the father) is a preacher first and a fisherman second, and claims that Paul would say words are formed out of water. His father replies:

 “No, you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

In the final few pages of the story after this exchange, the reader learns that Paul has been beaten to death, presumably as a result of the gambling debts he owes and is unable to pay. There is never a firm explanation of his death. The father is heartbroken, and continues to ask questions seeking more information about how and why Paul died, but little can comfort him. The narrator suggests that the terms of Paul’s death are less significant than the terms of his life.

“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I know is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been – you taught him.”

This exchange is explained as the last thing the two men ever say to each other about Paul’s death and suggests a larger redemption/forgiveness dynamic beyond the characters and into the limits of even divine love to understand and redeem human nature. That man may be a mystery to God is an atypical idea, but Maclean executes it brilliantly with his father/son/fishing allegory.

“Divorce,” and Other Words I Wasn’t Allowed to Say by Jennifer Kayrouz

Jennifer moved to West Virginia just prior to starting 8th Grade. Some people thought that her family moved to West Virginia on a dare.  That was over 22 years ago and she now claims she would give her left pinky toe to be considered a West Virginian by her hillbilly peers.  She went off to college once or twice, but always happily landed right back in Charleston. She now works for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and loves most minutes of it, getting to travel and constantly learning and being challenged. She lives in Kanawha City with her husband, who, while being 7 years younger is still decades more mature and light-years ahead of her in his intellectual and emotional capacity. They are delighted to be the parents of one precocious 4-year-old girl.

Note:  Jennifer worked for a period of months to tell her story in a way that is honest, transparent, and also respectful of everyone involved.  Finding that balance in a story of a childhood where your family is coming apart at the seams is not an easy thing.  I have tremendous admiration for Jennifer and for her difficult work in this effort.  When I read the final version of the essay, I could feel it all just “click.”  As I told her, Damn, girl.  You nailed it!  Well done.

“Divorce,” and Other Words I Wasn’t Allowed to Say

Childhood memories are very polarized. It’s easy to recall that epic Christmas where you got an entire Barbie settlement and to romanticize the moments of your youth, but the bad memories are always there to keep you honest.

The memories I have of our life on 1062 Cloverbrook are certainly some of the best and definitely many of the worst in my life. There were five of us in that house and I can make a fair assumption that all five have a different take on that time in our lives. With every thimble-full of torrential screaming about a dirty bedroom or why our dog fucked up the afternoon, there was a sturdy bucket pouring over its sides with silliness watching a movie as a family and genuine joy at racing down the rapids at New Braunfels. This strange dichotomy was my norm and I began to anticipate the storms because I knew the sun was never warmer than after the rain. There was always a bit of peace that gave some reprieve from whatever caused all the commotion to begin with.

It was within this space between the bad and the after that I seem to remember the most.

My memories are painted all the more surreal because we were living in San Antonio, Texas. If you have never been to Texas, go.  Take your kids. Texas is a circus-like playground. Everyone is a character and life really is bigger and brighter in The Lone Star State. Fireworks were legal (everything was legal in 1982) and beer is as acceptable a beverage at 10 AM as juice or coffee. For the record, my dad drank Busch and Shiner beers.  The weekends in southeast Texas are even more fun. There was always something to do. Always some county festival to conquer or flea market to troll for colored glass. I learned to swim in Medina Lake and to pick strawberries in Poteet. To my childhood eyes, it seemed like it was always the 4th of July; there were just so many people around.

We were a popular family. We had a big yard and there was some type of hutch out back where my brother raised rabbits or guinea pigs.  I took ballet lessons, joined and quit the Girl Scouts before I was ever graduated up from a Brownie, and I was one of the first kids on my street with an Atari gaming system. My older brother was a great athlete and my younger sister was so cute she barely had to speak with all the people falling over themselves to get her to giggle.

My mom had cultivated a beautiful rose garden and we grew vegetables in our back yard. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could name at least fifteen different types of rose bushes and describe to you their color. I can’t underscore enough the amazing images I have of lush yellow and peach rose petals all over my yard or the way we always had fresh cut flowers on our table. It was as if Georgia O’Keefe had spent time in our yard. What I wouldn’t give now to look at a picture of our rose garden…. It is one of my deepest and happiest visual memories. I can now just barely remember the endless and escalating bickering over how much it cost, who pulled who’s back out digging the flower beds, and who was being ignored for that damned rose garden.

To be blunt, my parents did not agree on much. I am not quite certain about what brought them together in 1973, but I imagine it was because they were both very bright, attractive, and naturally drew others to themselves. In those two ways, they were perfectly matched — my dad, the funny and charming tall drink of water you start chatting with at a party and come to realize that he is brilliant and knows the entire history of everything, and my mom a stunning beauty who  gave off mystery and intellect as easily as breathing. Sadly, they differed in the basics of raising kids, growing a marriage and most everything else.

I don’t want to demonize either of them. I am a parent now and I know that ‘the best I can do’ varies by 100 degrees from day to day. I truly believe that they were doing the best they could with the skills they had at the time. This was pre-Oprah, pre-Internet and pre-other people can poke around in your family’s business. Folks didn’t pour their wash water into the streets like we do now and certainly, if you caught a whiff, you smiled and pretended not to notice. Both of my parents grew up in Catholic families, went to Catholic schools, and were taught the fundamentals of life from immigrant parents who possessed a sharp focus on a narrow line of tolerable behaviors. Mom and Dad were each very intelligent, and each was exhausted emotionally from being themselves and our parents.

You aren’t supposed to see your parents as people. You are always supposed to gaze upon them in their exalted station as safe-keeper to all in their manor. They are not supposed to be the ones who scare the children. I watched my mom stab my dad in the back with a Bic pen over what seemed like folly at the time (she laughs at this now as if it were all an inside joke). I was often so afraid of what miserable disgusted venom might spew out of my dad’s mouth over the smallest of childhood indiscretions that I had almost no fear of what would happen when I really screwed up. They played hard and they fought with equal measure. As I spend time with my seven-year-old self now, I see them as I would see my own peers. The year I turned seven years old, Mom was thirty-five and Dad was thirty-three, both younger than I am as I write this. I see their flaws as people, not as my parents. It has made all of this much easier to swallow now that I know how easy it is for any of us to fall off that cliff. I don’t necessarily blame either of them; I just wish they had been better at hiding it.

For so many of my adult years, I didn’t know all this and I wished that I hadn’t been partner to their marital demise. I know it wouldn’t change the outcomes if I could process all that detail. Mostly, I just don’t want to remember the cruel words that my parents said to each other, the acts of a marriage breaking down, and the three kids who got flung into the abyss like General Zod into The Phantom Zone. I watch the three of us kids floating in space trapped in our panes of glass; none of us knowing how to escape or stop from shattering into pieces. We aren’t those kids any more and none of us ever want to be again.

If you were to ask me 15 years ago to paint my story, it would look very different from how it does now. Fifteen years ago I was angry and self-serving and most of all, self-righteous. I blamed everything on those two people and how they shaped my life. Everything from my fear of commitment all the way down to my student loan debt was because of Mom and Dad. Deep down, I harbored a grudge so fierce that my mouth tasted like metal and salt when I thought of any of it. In an ever more twisted angle, I relished this station and used it to draw my power.

Sadly, in my twenties, I was stupid and short-sighted enough to believe it was working. Thankfully as my youthful duties began to wind down, I began to gain perspective on life in general and how I came to be standing at that point. I wouldn’t characterize it as an epiphany (although it was certainly as powerful) as much as a slow and steady ascent towards understanding. Finally, I was able to look in the mirror and see my dad. When I saw this, it made me want him back in my life. So I started the wheels in motion to enter his world and make a big space in mine for him. As I got to know him as the adult I had become I realized that the best parts of me come from him. Amid many other traits, his sense of humor and silliness are painted all over me, not to mention my sense of right versus wrong and honor among men. I see it plain as the nose (also from Dad) on my face and I relish these parts.

While I had always remained close to Mom, when I looked in the mirror I thought I saw my defenses against becoming her molding my face and heart. I was wrong. Every woman eventually turns into her mother; mine is wonderfully complex and gets funnier every year. The logical and intellectual side of me is the exact same shade as hers. We are both smart enough to bend our reality and I am grateful each day for a tiny dose of her sex appeal. I am stubborn and irrational and just wise enough to get away with it. I have her to thank for that. It serves me well still. I am the perfect recipe of the two people that made me and I am delighted for it.

All in all, I think this is a story of redemption. For twenty years I thought it was my parents who needed to surrender, to apologize, and to beg forgiveness. I always expected heart-felt letters and poetic lectures about why all of that stuff happened. For a lot of it, I just needed an explanation. The daughter needed to know how certain events came to be even if I understood that I would never be able to reconcile them in my head. I thought my dad needed to make reparations to my mom for his part and she needed to mend the ties to me and my brother and sister for how she reacted and lived out the rest of her young life. It was a neat package of justice I held and I thought I should be the one to deliver us all into a full emotional recovery.

None of that happened.

As with everything else ironic in my life, the change and redemption happened to me. I s-l-o-w-l-y released my anger, fear, guilt and contempt and it was I who ultimately was set free. My heart is the one that was pushed open and flooded with love — love for my family and forgiveness for myself. All those years I thought I needed to forgive my parents and be given an apology for my sufferings. They never owed me either.  I owe a great deal to them.

Even though I wouldn’t want to live through any of it again, I have turned out to be a complex and multi-faceted woman with lots to offer to my partner and my community. On some days, I am downright brilliant and funny. Had I been born under some other moon to some other couple, I fear the under-bloomed yeast of my white bread existence. Because I am who I am, however, I will weather life’s rains better than most. I even found my own happily ever after and started my own little messed up family. My husband is very much like my dad and we have a little girl who eerily resembles the four-year-old me.  She was lucky enough to get me as her mother.

God help her be strong – she will need all the faith and patience she can get.