Tuesday, December 10, 2013

However measured

Once long ago, home from an ordinary shopping trip to the BX* to get ordinary socks and People™® Magazine and fabric softener, my mom gave me this.

Extraordinary. And still mysterious.

The plaque carries one of Henry David Thoreau's best-known quotes, from the conclusion of Walden. Here it is, in case the decorative font is hard to read:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.
I have no idea where in that store she'd have found this plaque — a nook no teenager could have fathomed, because if we were there at all it was to kill time on a forced shopping trip thumbing through the meager record section or pining for the high-end turntable/cassette combos. Maybe she found it in a place only mothers and grandmothers could see.

Nor do I have a good idea why she got it for me. Guesses abound, all unfulfilled.

"It made me think of you," she might have said when she gave it to me. Whatever she said exactly, it didn't really answer "Why?" I was 13 or 14.

Did she see me as not keeping pace with my companions? As stepping more slowly or in my own tracks? I know I was odd, but not all the time and not really odder than other kids. I was sensitive; I'd say weird things; even shortly before she passed away she reminded me how as a kid I declared a day trip to a nearby town as a "traumatic experience." I don't know why, but the little town of Los Alamos gave me a strange vibe, or maybe it was the circumstances of the day.

You can relate; I know you can. I once laughed at the soap opera she was watching because a character used the word "perturbed" and I thought the writers didn't know how to write and were making up words to compensate.

Shortly after she gave me the plaque, I wrote my own manifesto. In my memory I filled an entire hardback-bound journal with my declaration of independence. It was fierce, in my memory, a bold rejection of the norms and cliques and circles of conformity. Thinking none of the cliques and circles would have me anyway, I rejected them. I was living my own life, making my own way, using many many words and exclamation points to say what Thoreau concluded in 32.

No one else saw my manifesto, as far as I know. I lost the journal soon after. I wouldn't be surprised if someone found it and  made sure it got published as a great work of self-help literature. Except that I would. You know what I mean. I tried to rewrite it in an identical journal, but the venom had drained already.

Was it coincidence that she gave me the plaque and afterward I used Bic™® pen to cut myself loose from the herd?

Maybe my mom was projecting herself through the plaque. Maybe in this case Thoreau missed the gender, that my mom was hearing a different drummer, and maybe it would be good for me to do likewise.

She was a complex person, gracious in company, reserved in private. Accommodating but strongly opinionated, walled in by some of them. A voracious reader, a six-books-at-a-go library patron, novels and histories, always with a book opened across the armrest.

She was worldly, her face turned toward Ireland and England, where she got to live as the wife of a noncommissioned Air Force officer. But she was worried and insular too, moreso as she matured.

She'd say mom kinds of things, like forbidding us from ever telling any of our civilian friends about how much lower the prices were at the base commissary, for fear word would get out and the outcry would lead to reform and ruin it for all base personnel and dependents. Up to the time she forbid us, I had no idea about the price of yogurt on base compared to that in town, and never could imagine including that in any conversation I had with friends.

She loved art and literature but wanted us kids to get grounded jobs, not really art or literature. Journalism was good. Journalism lay at the crossroads of our visions, hers and mine. So I sought a job in that.

I became a variant of her. Reserved and quiet in private, but also in public more and more. I'm like Michigan J. Frog from the Warner Brothers cartoons, the singing and dancing amphibian. I can be bubbly and expressive when need be, such as leading tours or speaking off the cuff in front of groups, the less preparation the better. But between times I'm quiet and talking feels tiresome. Michigan, of course, only performed for his captor.

Books go largely unread in my life, and their volume of unopened volumes only expands exponentially. I read, but have always had a love-hate relationship with books; writers read, that's the credo, and I've always mocked myself as a would-be writer that I rarely read. Our son regards Walden as one of his favorites.

But I shared mom's craving for knowledge and curiosity, and maybe (thankfully) less her worry and anxiety. Which is a cop-out, because I really should take on more of that burden, leaving it as I do for others.

Thoreau's words still ring for me, though I'm concluding that I'm not so much different as I am contrary, too often desiring the opposite of others' wishes, which is not helpful in many venues and circumstances.

The plaque remained on the wall of my bedroom, which became mom's study. I brought it home after she passed away. Rediscovered last week when I was moving piles around, it will hang again in my office.

*base exchange, the Target™©®, if you will, for the Air Force base.


  1. I do believe that your Mom was a visionary, the times you have written about not being able to swim as fast others.you swim to a different beat!