Recovering From the Wounds of an Abusive Childhood
Marlene was one of Light Morning’s four co-founders. She died in 2018, shortly before her 78th birthday. Sixteen years ago, for the earlier incarnation of this website, Marlene wrote a searing account of how sustained abuse, both physical and psychological, can traumatize the psyche of a young child. Part One is a hard story to read. But as Parts Two and Three will show, even though the aftereffects of the abuse continued long after she left home, Marlene was also guided by her dreams along a path toward forgiveness and healing.
Is it any wonder that, at 61 years of age, there are still times when I feel like a walking, ticking time-bomb, ready to explode? The home that my younger sister and brother and I grew up in, a small Wisconsin dairy farm, was seldom a nurturing one. As children, we experienced frequent physical beatings and verbal whippings, freely administered by an insecure, out-of-control mother.
The wounds to my body have long since healed; hardly a scar remains. Yet the emotional damage, while crippling, has remained mostly hidden. For unlike physical scars, self-concept disfigurement is visible only to a public of one: me.
Is it possible to heal the broken heart and splintered soul that came out of such an abusive environment? While there are no quick or easy answers to this question, the story I choose to share is one of both tragedy and hope.
This is the second and concluding portion of Two Roads, which began here.
Time slides by. It’s December, 1995. Twenty years have passed since Season of Changes was published and Wax Statues was germinating. I have just returned from my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course. And I’m coming apart at the seams.
In the summer of 2018, I began an 18-month program offered by The School of the Spirit, a ministry “rooted in the Quaker contemplative tradition of the living silence.” My application to this program, which was called On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, can be found here. During that year and a half, we were to write three “reflection papers,” on themes that were largely self-chosen. This two-part post is my first paper.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood…” Robert Frost1
Two strands of what might be called destiny have shaped my life. Both have been with me since birth. One is from my father’s side of the family and concerns the Religious Society of Friends. The other is from my mother’s side. It pertains to a visionary community called Light Morning, which has been my home for the past forty-five years. These two roads have sometimes intertwined. More recently, they’ve been pulling me in opposite directions. But whether conjoined or in opposition, the Quaker and Light Morning force fields generate deep undercurrents of uneasiness whenever I consider just how strongly family, genes, and/or fate have determined the trajectory of my life.
Last week’s post (which can be found here) started to explain why we were given the name Associations of the Light Morning. This week’s post continues that exploration.
Names Given and Taken
When I was born, my parents named me Robert. My father’s father celebrated the arrival of another grandchild with a cross-country telegram. But he was puzzled by my name. “Robert?” he asked. “Why Robert?”
Grandpa’s confusion was understandable. Children were expected to be given family names. He was Henry Wilder Foote II, named after his father who had died young. My father inherited the name Caleb Foote IV. Genealogy was important to Grandpa. Family names sustained and strengthened a family’s sense of identity.
My parents met and were married on the west coast in 1942. Far from their east coast families and freed from the constraints of family expectations and traditions, they were married on a lonely beach in southern California. It was just the two of them, plus a friend who was a minister, standing before the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Three years later, in San Francisco, they named their firstborn Robert.
What’s in a name? Two friends of mine renamed themselves when they were young adults. Maxine became Naomi; Karen became Olivia. Two other self-chosen names gave America’s cultural stew pot a good stir. Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali. The names these four people had been given at birth no longer fit. So they took new names and assumed new identities.
This is the final post of a four-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
An Escalating Sense of Urgency
The ocean waves keep crashing in. They surge up the beach, only to be drawn back down again by gravity. Each set of waves climbs slightly farther or less far up the beach, depending on whether the tide is flowing or ebbing. How high any particular wave will reach is unpredictable. But the trend of the tide is unmistakable.
* * *
In March of 1980, Douglas celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Not long after reaching this milestone, one of his sustaining beliefs — that he was riding an incoming tide and that the story which had led him here was unfolding as it should — took three significant hits. Following these jarring dislocations, Douglas started to wonder whether the tide might have already turned against him and was now beginning to ebb.
This is the third of a four-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
Seeding Wax Statues
Douglas and I are sitting together on Temple Hill. It’s a warm Indian summer afternoon in 1977. Douglas is 47; I’m 32. Doug and Stan have just moved up from Norfolk and are living in a small camper at Transdyne, the land they bought two years ago. It’s within easy walking distance of ALM (Associations of the Light Morning), where Doug and I are now talking.
Far above us, a raven traces a lazy circle in the sky. Douglas again wants to hear why our guidance in Virginia Beach said that the Essenes were to serve as a model for the community. He’s alluding to a few lines from Season of Changes. It’s the passage that first sent him searching for ALM and for me. By now I know the words by heart.
Remembering Douglas Dean Todd Born March 3rd, 1930 Died on Good Friday, 2000
One morning over breakfast, in the autumn of 1999, I mentioned to the other members of the Light Morning community that I would be going to Roanoke to see Douglas that day. Following his stroke, Doug had been staying at Salem Health and Rehabilitation, just across the street from the V.A. hospital. Then someone sitting around the breakfast table said, “Who’s Douglas?”
Cecile had become part of the community only recently, and her question stopped a spoonful of applesauce midway between my bowl and my mouth. It seemed inconceivable that someone living at Light Morning could not know who Douglas was. For me, it was a watershed type of experience.
Douglas had played different roles for different ones of us during the 25 years when he and Stanley lived just down the road: mentor and interrogator; a reliable source of both irritations and insights; an occasional enemy; and a best friend. He could be effortlessly charming one moment and fiercely adversarial the next. But above all else, Douglas was fully committed to exploring the interplay between his own unique and pricey calling and the founding vision of Light Morning.
These are the final three letters I wrote when participating in a bioregional seminar in the late 1980s. The first two letters, with a fuller introduction, can be found here.
Letter 3: February 1989
I stayed up late last night, trying unsuccessfully to find a theme for this month’s letter. As I finally went to bed, I asked my dreams for help. But this morning I was unable to recall even a single dream. Joyce, however, who was consciously unaware that I had been puzzling over this letter, awoke with a surprisingly relevant dream. It almost seems as though the dream I needed had come through her.
In the dream world Joyce is attending a workshop on environmental issues. Many of the other participants are castigating the government and/or the big corporations for their unresponsiveness to the critical problems facing the planet. Joyce is moved to say that we have no right to demand significant changes from anyone “out there” if we are unwilling to make comparable changes in our own lives.
“The changes we must turn to first are personal changes,” she says passionately. “And they have to be radical.”
It’s a warm summer evening at Light Morning. I have just settled down to read the newly-arrived Summer 1986 issue of Katuah, the Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians. It’s a homespun publication run by a volunteer crew of artists and activists, poets and homesteaders. Gary Snyder has called it the best bioregional publication in the U.S. Growing out of the mountains of western North Carolina, Katuah Journal comes out quarterly. This is Issue 12. One of the early issues had laid out its guiding theme.
“Here in the southern-most heartland of the Appalachian mountains, the oldest range on our continent (Turtle Island), a small but growing group has begun to take on a sense of responsibility for the implications of that geographical and cultural heritage. This sense of responsibility centers on the concept of living within the natural scale and balance of universal systems and laws. We begin by invoking the Cherokee name Katuah as the old/new name for this area of the mountains and for its journal as well.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of “Communities Magazine.” The core question that Joyce explores here continues to be relevant twenty-five years later. Light Morning found one answer to this question. Other communities and organizations are finding other answers, or have not yet wrestled with the question.
Many of our communities are just now reaching that sobering age when we start to question our immortality. The founders are aging, as are many long-time members. Meanwhile, there’s a surge of interest in the communities movement among younger people who see this lifestyle as a partial solution to the multiple crises facing our world. At the place where these two phenomena meet lies a crucial challenge: how to blend the old and the new.
This is the founders’ dilemma. It’s the creative tension between affirming the original intent of a community, while at the same time being deeply responsive to the need for growth, flexibility, fresh air. New people arrive with strong and good dreams of their own. How can their visions be woven into the original tapestry without obliterating it?