There are things about my childhood that I’ve never told anyone. Not even a therapist.
I’m not proud of this.
When I was young, you did what you had to do in order to survive. Mostly that meant staying silent, keeping your thoughts to yourself. You lived inside your head, even as the physical world swirled around you. Speaking out loud might mean saying the wrong thing, for which there would be consequences. Thus, if you said nothing, the odds were somewhat in your favor.
I was terminally shy to begin with, so right there, that was an advantage. I was an introvert stuffed inside a one hundred and twenty-three-pound introvert.
For a long time, the wind was my best friend. Really. I’m not joking.
There was a small hill in the craggy woods behind the trailer where I grew up. I’d often climb that hill and lay down on a bed of pine needles, staring up at the sky while the wind danced between the branches of bushy evergreen trees. That’s all. I’d just listen. Halfway thinking. Trying to decipher code that wasn’t there.
In church last Sunday, something came over the pastor and he asked us all to kneel in prayer, which he’d never done before. The building the church is in is an old JC Penny’s that recently closed. The renovation is still in process. There are uncovered rafters. Exposed two-by-fours. The floor is one extensive sheet of concrete.
It had been a very long time since I’d knelt on a hard surface. Still, I tried my best to pray, to hear what God might have to tell me.
What happened is I failed. I didn’t hear God at all.
Instead, I kept having flashbacks of various moments from my childhood when my siblings and I would have to kneel in a corner for some misdeed, either real or conjured up. Sometimes we’d be handed a bucket and told to fill it with rocks, rocks which we’d end up having to kneel on, in a corner with our arms upraised. Our penance was to do that for one hour. Sixty, incredibly long minutes. Lowering your arms was only an option if you wanted additional punishment.
It’s funny how a little thing like kneeling in church can leave a person unsettled. Transported. Nostalgic. But not nostalgic in a good way.
At home that night, I remembered the silence I lived with in my youth. That vast aloneness. The world so huge and me just a speck. Wondering why I existed. Wondering if I even should.
One August day, when I was nine years old, my brothers and I were laying the foundation for our garage with my dad. My father and brothers were mechanical and could fix anything. They could take an engine apart and put it back together blindfolded. Me, I had long, feathered hair. I wore puka shells and read poetry. I couldn’t fix a thing, not even myself.
So that smoldering day, I was merely handing tools to my dad while he and my brothers did the real work of pouring cement. At one point, my brothers all went to lunch, leaving me with my father. In my memory, this is the first time I was ever alone with him in daylight.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but my father intimidated me. Scared me. Sometimes made me quake. And I hardly knew him.
But for whatever reason that day, I felt emboldened.
Imagine that—a skinny colt of a kid feeling brave for once.
So, I said, “Hey, Dad, I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.”
He put down the trowel and looked at me, genuinely curious. Said, “Is that right? What?”
Without hesitating, I spewed out, “I want to be a writer.”
I remember his head whipping around like the Lazy Susan my mom kept her spices on. His forehead wore pearls of perspiration. Even his lips were sweaty.
He looked me in the eye, and I knew not to look away.
He said, “Quit your fucking dreaming.” He said, “How are you going to live on that?”
He didn’t wait for my reply. Just picked up the trowel and smoothed the clammy cement. He was doing what needed to be done to finish the job.
For a long time, I harbored a great deal of bitterness about that encounter. Eventually, I would come to realize (or rationalize) that my father’s response that day was not meant to decimate me, but rather he was trying, in his way, to help me. Redirect me. Root me in reality.
My father was an extremely hard worker. He labored with his hands. To his way of thinking, that’s how you made a living– manual labor was what put food on the table. Not scribbling or typing up the cloudy dreams in your head.
But even with this new justification, I remained crippled. I wouldn’t be a writer. I would go into the army, as almost all of my seven brothers had done. I would get a job laying glass or putting up fences. I would be diligent and dutiful with my hands.
However, I did buck my parents’ wishes once. I refused to go into the army. Instead, against their ardent advice not to, I enrolled in college.
I thought what I would be is a lawyer, though what I really wanted to be was a writer. So, while taking Political-Science classes, I cheated and took a few writing courses.
One of those was taught by an elderly man named Henry Alan Fielding, whose non-de-plume was Gabriel Fielding. Mr. Fielding was a minor literary celebrity in the UK. He had wide, pool-blue eyes that seemed to spontaneously look at everything and nothing. He looked like an actor and spoke like a regal duke.
He transfixed me.
More than that, he encouraged me. He made me think, for a few seconds anyway, I had talent as a writer. He started me dreaming about What If? What if I ditched law and tried my hand at writing? What if I proved my parents wrong while proving myself right? What if I could be a real writer after all?
Those notions never died, but they sat idle in me for many, many years.
A while back, I re-enrolled in college. It was a college of my own making, a university solely in my head. I read books about how to craft characters and stories. I examined the works of great and minor writers. I studied harder than I ever had when I was in real college. And, after having done that for upwards of a year or two, I started writing full-time, every day.
For me, it felt like falling in love with my soul-mate and having them there with me right by my side. It felt spiritual. It felt like I was on the best drugs ever.
I still feel that way about writing, being able to write, to do the thing I think I was born to do.
Kneeling on the concrete last Sunday brought a rush of muddy stuff to my head, stuff I try to keep at bay. But that night, in my office, I pulled out Mr. Fielding’s book and opened it up for the first time in decades.
I read the inscription:
To Len Kuntz
February 2nd, 1980
You show every promise of becoming a fine writer.
I hope he was right. I hope he wasn’t just trying to make me feel good. But even if he was, it worked.