Shaped and Fashioned…

Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote, “We are shaped and fashioned by the things we love.” My childhood certainly supports that statement. My father was an artist who, among other jobs, painted the creation legends of the Native Northwest Coastal tribes,  and sketched dig sites for the Dept. Of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He was also a featured guest artist for the old Seattle Times ‘Rotogravure’ Magazine insert during the mid 1960’s. I listened with fascination as he shared the legends of Siakish, Clam Boy, Raven, Bear Mother and “The People”. I was one of the few children  growing up in the 1950’s & 60’s who had a mother who worked in predominately male fields and a father who mostly worked from home. By the time my mom retired, she had reached upper lever management in both her Boeing job and her SeaFirst Bank position of Systems Analyst and Logics expert. My parents divorced when I was about five and my brother and I lived with my mother and visited our dad on a regular basis. It was a civilized parting and both parents went to great lengths to accentuate the positive in their combined parenting efforts of my brother and I. Though money was tight, we got to visit the ballet, the theater, go to the movies on occasion and once, my dad took us to a beat poetry reading in the U. District in Seattle, that was like something out of a Kerouac novel.  The unique and colorful nature of my family of origin and my extended family allowed me to realize early on that I had a very different and much more expanded world view than most, if not all, of my peers. Being content my own company, I frequently found opportunities to explore the subtle difference between solitude and loneliness.  I was a curious and somewhat precocious child and learned to read early. The books I most loved were books on myth, legend, history, poetry and the natural world. My paternal grandparents were both teachers and kept me well supplied with books, as did the local library. I loved to hear my grandmother tell about their time in American Samoa during the early 1920’s when they taught school in Pago Pago. Very exotic! I attended primary school from 3rd-6th grade at Sartori Elementary School in Renton, WA. This was the early 1960’s and Sartori was the school where the ‘mentally handicapped’ children and the ‘gifted children’ attended. These two ends of the learning continuum (which were each considered challenges in their own right) each had a separate spot in the basement of the school. I was one of three children in my class deemed to be ‘gifted’, and the only female. The promise of this assessment was getting to be mentally challenged by Mr. Rowan who spent two hours a day with us in that dim basement room, and the cost was the stigma of being down in the basement, far away from the rest of the kids. I confess to wishing that I was upstairs with the masses more than once, as it seemed less weird. There was another part of my young personality though that reveled in being the only girl in Mr. Rowan’s class. It is a difficult thing when young to have the courage to let all of the parts of us show up on a daily basis. Frequently I found myself editing some erudite comment I was going to make because I didn’t want people to think I was showing off or that I was some kind of oddball intellectual. These early years afforded me a chance to fine tune my social skills as well as to continue to observe the nuances between solitude and loneliness.

By my early teens my reading genre of choice had branched out to include books on philosophy, science and new thought , along with the slightly lurid cheap novels that most teens read at some point. I spent the last two years in high school mostly being a biology and chemistry lab assistant. Mr. Phil Swanberg was my friend and mentor at school. He brought me a roadkill porcupine that, after research, I spent a couple of months skinning and tanning the Native way. I also did a long-term research project that involved changing the sex of chickens, by injecting them as embryos with gonadotropic hormones. This was a complicated project that when complete, won me one of the two Seattle, WA slots available to a science conference held by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Again, this part of my teen age life was my own personal journey, as not many of my contemporaries were reading, doing, or even interested in the things I was.  I had a very private side of me and it was one that I shared only selectively with the “right” people. Those high school days also found me doing the usual high school activities, dating, going to games, dances etc.

My parents, my mother in particular as I lived with her, held my brother and I up to the highest standards of integrity within a family structure that was extremely liberal for those times. In any conversation our thoughts and feelings were  asked for and generously considered. Education, humor, hard work, personal integrity and good manners were some of the cornerstones of my upbringing. My brother and I had very non-traditional gender roles modeled for us . Our personal space and privacy were respected and we were allowed many freedoms. We were also expected to contribute to the household finances and the running of the house in general. In retrospect we had more responsibilities that other kids our age, but it never felt burdensome. One of the tangible benefits of this upbringing was the discipline involved. To this day I feel one of my strengths is the ability to concentrate on completing tasks in a timely manner. I got my first job at 15 and I could run a household efficiently by the time I was 16.

One of the defining moments of my early life came at 13 when I noticed an advertisement in the back of a Sunset Magazine and used my babysitting money to send away for a workbook and folder of “Courses for Enlightenment” published by The Self-Realization Fellowship. Around the same time period I decided I wanted to check out the local church scene. The Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran churches were close enough for me to walk to, and so I did. Two things occurred as a result of my early wanderings which would dramatically shape my life. The first was I was “dis-invited” from the Presbyterian Sunday School for asking too many questions (I had been studying the SRF material for about a year at that point) I was told that I could attend church with the adult congregation, but if I had questions about the content of the Minister’s talk, I was to write them down and ask him in private later on. No raised, waving hands in the sanctuary. The second event was that I won a Bible and a free trip to the Methodist Summer Bible Camp for memorizing the most Bible verses. The long time attendees were not overly enthusiastic about this new comers small victory, but I was delighted! I had never been to a camp before, and I packed up my new Bible and what I thought were appropriate camp duds and got on the bus with the other campers to Bellingham, WA. My experience there on day two with the dour faced missionaries and their testimony regarding  the “Pygmy Tribe Who Would Go To Hell Because They Would Not Accept Jesus” nearly put me off the religious quest forever. I called my mother and asked her to please come and get me (she did not) I had several conversations with the missionaries, the camp counselor and finally the teacher who came with our Sunday School group, regarding my heretical thoughts about the belief systems of indigenous people and the God of their ancestors. Tears were shed (my own and others) when the general consensus was that I had not really accepted Jesus if I thought the way I did. It was an awkward rest of the week at camp I never went back to that church after it was over. I am fairly certain this was a huge relief to the Sunday School teachers . I did not get the actual boot from the Lutherans, but my enthusiasm had waned a bit after the first two forrays  so I moved ahead a little slower there. I was still hopeful that there was another path waiting somewhere for me to continue to explore my interest in this Jesus person.

Most people are familiar with the phrase  “curiosity killed the cat”. There is that unfathomable, irrepressible urge to move forward into the light or fire of Mystery. There are several possible outcomes when we risk the flames; one is tempering and the other is the very real possibility of going straight to the carbonized lump or burn-out phase. I was always drawn to the grandeur and ritual of formal traditional church, particularly that in the Catholic church. Attending this venerable house of worship, I jumped right in asking all kinds of questions about saints, sinners and salvation. I am sure the priests and nuns thought I was another plague. Oddly enough, I experienced more tolerance for my endless queries with them than with anyone else up to that point. Still, the answers I was given and what I heard and saw in those early days never really quite fit in with what my heart felt was the Truth. I remember reading once about how the will to believe comes first, faith second and, finally, understanding. On the home front, my mother told me to seek my own way and my dad tried to avoid conversations about what he called “church land”; we did have one lively discussion when I was 11 and he asked me how the Bible could be the “word of God” when it had a copyright. Ah, Grist for the youngster’s mill. I struck out on my own explorations  after that and read the Bhagavad Gita and writings by Yogananda, Alan Watts, Ram Dass, C.S. Lewis, Krisnamurti, Thoreau and many others all who became my companions on the road. I also read Meister Eckhart, the Gnostic Gospels, the Essene Gospels and others, eventually coming across a little book called. “Lesson’s In Truth” by a woman named Emily Cady. So many illumined minds who had written so many brilliant thoughts containing all of these common threads. Loved them all and the shaping continued and expanded to include Eric Butterworth, Charles Fillmore, Alan Cohen, Thich Nhat Hanh and so many more.

In speaking of the things that influenced there is a nod to beauty that I must include.  I have always been sensitive to and impacted by the beauty, majesty and wonder of things. To pay close attention and homage to the glory of the natural world, the arts, music, literature and people is a lifelong mission of mine. When I reflect on my formative childhood years I realize that I have indeed been ‘shaped and fashioned’ by the things I love. I am so grateful for my early teachers, my early yearnings to explore and question, for the still held belief that kindness always matters, for my realization  as a young person that all individuals are unique, have worth and are deserving of respect, and, finally, as Howard Thurman wrote, “There must always be a place for that which is breathless and beautiful”.

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