Monday, June 17, 2013

O Brother... (Or, the Men in My Family, Part II)

These two pictures are of the same people. The older one is me; the younger (by 23 months ten days) is Ocean, who throughout childhood and adolescence was my closest friend, favorite playmate, co-producer (we did radio parodies), and partner in bickering. He was given the name Stephen at birth, and kept it until, at 36, he renamed himself. The decision has not been well-received by our parents, and fourteen years later, the jury is still out among our other brothers. For my part, I've always respected the right of individuals to choose their own names. I just haven't ever felt the need to change my own--except during me first marriage, when I hyphenated my last name.
 

I have four younger brothers. Each is unique. We're all artists in one way or another, and several of us write. Three of us have also been involved in education. Two have been ordained, though neither remained in ministry. All have been married, though only two remain married to their first and (we all hope) only wives. We've all brought children into the family, many of whom are now grown. Three of us have moved away for some part of our lives, but in the end, we all came back. We are all now within two hours' drive of each other and our parents.
 
We are PKs. Preacher's Kids. Clergy Offspring. Between the day I was born and the day my youngest brother graduated from high school, my parents moved eleven times. After the first two, every move was to a Methodist parsonage. (For more of this story, see "O Father Where Art Thou," Part I of this series) There's a lot to be said for growing up itinerant: when something blows up on me, I can quickly change course; I'm highly adaptable; and I tend not to get too attached to an apartment, a house, or an address.

On the negative side, I'm predisposed not to get attached, period.

I had a hard time making friends as a child. I'm an introvert, so I'm not given to making overtures. If I sense compatibility, I'm very quick to respond to them; but again, I don't become overly attached. When it's time to move, I experience a few days of anticipatory grief, then a day or two of sadness over friends left behind, but then I move on. The frequency of these transitions in my youth may have actually discouraged me from making deep friendships. Apart from my brothers, there was no one I could count on being around for more than three years. And then there's the clergy etiquette side of it: once a Methodist pastor leaves an appointment, he or she is expected to break all contact with the church and the community in which it is situated. It's considered bad form to revisit a former parish without the express invitation of the current pastor, and even then, it's discouraged. This makes it especially difficult for PKs to maintain friendships after a move: if Dad's supposed to refrain from visiting, how will his sons get there? Too late, I learned that the solution to this dilemma was involvement in the conference-wide youth division. I went to my first Methodist youth camp after my sophomore year, and made friends I met up with again at other youth events. If only I'd started going to camps in junior high...

Back to my brothers, the ones this is really about. Here they are, along with Dad (one of the rare occasions when it was our mother taking the picture) helping me celebrate my 21st birthday:

 
As you can see, I look less than thrilled. I was feeling especially sorry for myself. A week earlier, I had professed my love to a young woman who lived in my dorm. She responded with the classic "I love you as a friend," and it shattered me. Oh, I'd had crushes before, and had my hopes dashed again and again; I'd also never been on a true date. But this was different. It happened just before Spring Break (my birthday is always in Spring Break), and then I had to go home and try to have a good time, when all I really wanted to do was curl up in a fetal position and cry my eyes out. I shared a room with Stephen, who was by now a freshman at Oregon State. I'm fairly sure we had some heart-to-hearts about how I was feeling--he was already more experienced at dating than I would manage to be until I was in my 40s--and thus was established a pattern that would be repeated again and again, to the point that, for many years, when I'd call him up and he'd ask what was going on, I'd say, "The usual," and away we'd go, talking through yet another instance of romantic heartbreak.
 
I've had similar conversations with other brothers over the years, especially as they, too, have accumulated experience of romance, breakup, marriage, divorce, and learning how to date again after years spent living with just one person. We don't go into intimate details--I don't think any of us (with the possible exception of Ocean) has ever felt comfortable with locker room talk--but we do go deep emotionally.
 
This hasn't always worked. During my first divorce, my family largely fell away. Stephen (still his name at that time) was still living in New York State, and Jon was in Berkeley attending seminary. James and David were living with our parents. Brenda and I separated on our anniversary, December 13, 1994. On New Years Day, Dad had a stroke. For the next six months, there was no emotional space for my crisis. I had some long distance calls with Stephen and Jon, but for most of my support, I had to look elsewhere. I found it--in fact, discovered some wonderful long-suffering friends in Estacada (where I was a pastor and had my first true bachelor pad)--but it created some distance from my parents and youngest brothers. In fairness, no one in the family had ever seen this up close before. Divorce was an undiscovered country, terrifying to both generations, and so I had to explore it on my own, without their help.
 
They've gotten much better since then. When Sean began showing symptoms of epilepsy, they were with me. When my second marriage began, it was Jon who presided. When it ended, he was the first person I called. As my career in ministry collapsed, James stepped up and helped with my transition. David joined me for many a rap session. I made frequent trips down to Philomath to stay with Ocean and his wife, Intaba.
 
They've been with me through more recent crises, as well. When, in 2005, it came time for me to drive my children to Idaho Falls, it was David who rode shotgun, then picked up the pieces as I said goodbye to them and collapsed in the car. That fall, he helped me through bankruptcy. Three years later, all my brothers gathered around me to support me through my lawsuit for custody of Sean. When my case collapsed, they helped me through that, as well.
 
We are bonded together, the five of us, by the shared experience of our itinerant PK childhoods. However many times we had to say goodbye to friends and acquaintances, the faces at the dinner table stayed the same, even as that table moved from house to house, town to town. Nobody else spoke our language, understood our neuroses, had patience for our passions, knew us well enough to think like us, to anticipate whatever the next line in an improvised radio satire might be, to know exactly when to ask if something is wrong.
 
We are not always in agreement. In fact, there have been disagreements between us that have lasted sometimes for years. As we've delved deeper into midlife, our opinions and interests have evolved, sometimes in very different directions. There have been misunderstandings, conflicts, resentments; but really, it's nothing out of the ordinary. Siblings sible.
 
Back in the late 1970s, Stephen and I had our own rooms at the top of the stairs in the Philomath parsonage. Mostly we got along quite well; in fact, some of our best collaberative efforts (those radio satires) came from this time. There were times, however, when we'd shut ourselves in our respective rooms and turn up the cheap plastic volume knobs on our record players as far as they would go. He'd be blasting "Get Up and Boogie," while I'd be playing "Mars, Bringer of War" (Holst, The Planets). This would go on until we'd start pounding on the wall, or each other's doors, one of us yelling for the other to turn it down. We were not good at resolving these arguments ourselves. At some point, Dad would come stomping up the stairs, raising his voice with his favorite argument-stopper: "This is the day the LORD has made, let us REJOICE and be GLAD IN IT!" (Psalm 118:24) This, of course, locked that passage in my head so that I can't hear it without thinking about arguing brothers and our father hilariously and ironically shouting a praise psalm to shut us up.
 
But there are times when I miss that, as ridiculous as it was. Now when we have a misunderstanding, or hurt one another's feelings, it can go unaddressed for far too long. What's missing is the firm hand of our father reminding us that this is a day for joy, and (his other favorite passage to shout at us when we fought) "how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in peace!"
 
It is good, and pleasant, and a blessing beyond compare; and for me, it's a quadruple blessing.

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