Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why The River Why?



Book-it Repertory Theatre in Seattle is currently putting on an adaptation of The River Why!! It's running through March 7.

Oh how I wish....

Adapted and Directed By Myra Platt. Yes, a woman adapted and directed a play about a young man's quest for life's meaning based on a novel written by a young man in a year when it would probably have been an even rarer thing to see. 1983, the year The River Why was debuted was just 8 years after my high-school guidance councilor told me I should just get married and have kids and raise them untroubled and write stories for them instead of aspiring towards a child psychiatrist's training in order to help troubled kids and write their stories because at some level, already, I knew that stories could save lives. (I'd been inspired by Dibs in Search of Self in 7th grade and Sybil that year. ) Gee thanks Mr. G.

Oh how I wish....

Watch the preview above. It looks magical. Just like I remember the story being when I read it around 1994.

Why did I choose The River Why by David James Duncan for my Book Drum project?

Because I can say without a sliver of exaggeration that this story saved my life.

I was living in Longview WA right on the Columbia River at the time. The town of my childhood and only a day trip away from most of the locales the story was set in, many of which were familiar to me from encounters while growing up just a few years behind the narrator Gus Orviston.

The year I read it, my life was in meltdown. It had been three years since I was diagnosed with the eye disease my mom inherited from her mom. RP. Retinitis Pigmentosa. AKA tunnel vision. I'd been assuming it was so for three years already. I was already legally blind by the time I was diagnosed at age 33.

It had been six years since our move back to Longview had forced mt to drop out of school just shy of my senior year at Ashland, OR SOSC (now SOU) because there was no four year school within reach and thus I'd defaulted on my student loan and the powers that be had sent the hell-hounds after me as did my own conscience.

It had been two years since I'd learned that the fundamentalist 'Bible Believing' group I'd been raised in was imploding while doctrine-drunk 'Brethren' slinging verses like
Ninjitsu shuriken slashed and burned their way through the hearts of families, excommunicating one another and their spouses and children along with them. 50 years of inter-marriage among the families had created an intricately woven 'extended family' that was now torn asunder. Several hundred people across half a dozen states west of the Rockies were affected. Cousins and best friends were forbidden to have any 'fellowship' because their respective fathers or husbands were on opposite sides of the fence. Like my mom and her twin sister. Fence sitting was not an option. If you didn't choose a side you were exiled from both.

It had been six months since the mother of three month old twins Ed and I had been babysitting for several weeks did not arrive at the expected hour to drop them off, calling two hours later with the news that that morning she had found one of the boys blue-faced and silent and the other red-faced and screaming, grasping his brother's cold ear in his fist. SIDS. And because they were identical twins the other twin needed to be kept on a monitor until he was past one year and anyone caring for him had to be trained. Thus we lost both 'our' babies.

And just a few months later, I was to make my final, unequivocal choice as to which side of the fence I was on. Neither. I left the pasture altogether. My choice was triggered by the trauma of witnessing an infant disciplined by his father with a hand over the mouth to 'deprive the baby of the reward of hearing himself cry' because those cries were willful rebellion don't you know.

And rebellion was worse than the sin of witchcraft don't you know. (1 Samuel 15:23)

And having a will of your own was the equivalent of rebellion don't youu know.

Obedience was the prime directive. Obedience to the Word of God. Which commanded children obey their parents and warned us that our nature being born out of nature was naturally rebellious don't you know.

That the thoughts of our hearts were only evil continually so of course we couldn't be trusted to have our own don't you know.

So our thoughts had to be trained early and often to conform, to follow a rigid, narrow path flanked by an abyss of terrors. For narrow is the way and few there be who find it don't you know.

Into the middle of all that came David James Duncan's little fish tale. It wormed it's way into my heart, hooking me with its humor, its laugh-out-loud scenes depicting characters having a riotously good time exploring their world and their own minds. Thinking singular thoughts. And disagreeing without banishing or abandoning one another. Yes, even a wife disagreeing with her husband or a son with his father did not bring down the wrath of the Almighty.

A young boy not yet shaving could have thoughts that opposed his mother's or father's or pastor's and Mount St Helens didn't blow, the river didn't flood, the lightning didn't strike, the tumor didn't grow.

Before the tale was through I'd glimpse another way, a possibility that lifted me out of despair and inoculated me against its power to overpower me. And when that moment of choice came a few months later, I had the image of Eddy the first time Gus laid eyes on her. A woman alone in the wilderness fishing alone in the wilderness, jumping naked into the river to chase after the steelhead that was towing her pole up stream. And she caught that fish and towed it ashore and reeled it in and killed it herself. That woman alone in the wilderness.

That image sustained me through the coming trauma of feeling myself cast out into a wilderness alone. A wilderness of both dangerous and nurturing thought that often seemed the twin of each other, thoughts that had to be wrestled, baited, hooked, teased, subdued, reeled in, caught and released or perhaps cooked for dinner. For what is food for thought if not thought itself? Thought could be wily and slippery and strong but I need not be mastered by it. I could be its master without the aide of a Master (priest, king, father, husband, pastor)

It's been 16 years and that image still sustains me. I never quite managed to slip into Eddy's skin, inhabit her sure poise or clothe myself in courage such as hers but just knowing it was possible to imagine it was possible gave me something of courage to continue in the face of the fear that stalked me in the coming years. It might have been half the size of a mustard seed but it had potential.

So that's why The River Why was my choice for this project.

0 tell me a story:

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