Finding a Voice
By John Clifford
This post is a departure from my norm. My wife and I have a parenting blog, in which we write about all of the ups and downs or parenting from both the mother’s and father’s perspectives. However, left to my own devices I would not write exclusively about parenting. I love my child, and my wife; they are the lungs and the soul that breathe purpose into my life- an unshakeable, unquestionable purpose. This post, though, is about everything that came before. Before purpose, before happiness, before peace.
I don’t mean to bore you, or begin this post in a pathetic voice. I am not lamenting anything, nor am I subtly imploring you for some sympathy and pity. I am just stating circumstances as they were, factual and without any shred of emotion (unless irreverence is an emotion). I’m just setting the stage, so to speak.
And so we begin about 27 years ago, give or take…
All of my happiest childhood memories were made when I was alone. To maintain my solitude I would ride my bicycle, faster than my little tag-along brother could possibly pedal, for hours on end. This was back in the day when child sex predators were not a staple of sensationalist news and fodder for hushed dinner conversations. They simply were not on our radar, and we were all the freer because of it. I would ride miles away from my house, equally through wild wooded lots, as well as across the paved streets and sidewalks of our little metro-DC shitsplat city. I had no destination in those days, and in some ways I wouldn’t know what it meant to have a destination until I was in my mid-twenties. But I was maybe seven at the time, give or take, and free as a bird.
In this regard, I grew to love my solitude. I was a withdrawn child, practically a mute. I was asked in equal measure “are you okay?” and “what are you thinking about?” People often remarked that I looked lost in deep thought. That was okay for a child, almost commendable. Adults were undoubtedly projecting promise onto me, hoping to have met a child that might someday achieve all that they had abandoned. There’s just no way to be sure after so much time has passed. Nowadays, when I go blankly to someplace else in my head it draws criticism and judgement. Adults should be raising the next generation of thinkers, not ambling through adulthood pensively hoping to still become something. But that is neither here nor there.
I grew further withdrawn after my parents split. We were never well-off to begin with, but we fell hard and fast into poverty in short order. We spent some years in a cycle of evictions, about every three to six months we were forced to move, that were followed by one more sympathetic landlord who couldn’t bear to turn away a mother and her five children. My mother was great at plucking the heartstrings of suckers. She had no way to pay rent, but that didn’t stop the cycle, not for a while.
And then, one day, the cycle did stop. My mother ran out of suckers, and we got turned out with no home. We were homeless for a little while, staying in hotels until they got wise to the lack of money, and then staying in the basements of family friends. I will not drill down deeply into the details, since that is not at all what this post is about. It isn’t about how hard my childhood was, or how I managed to make a woeful few meaningful friendships in any of the five high schools I would end up attending; I’m still learning proper social skills, even now into in my thirties. This post is about how I was turned inside-out, or rather back outside-out, after years of turning inward and seeking refuge and escape in the limitless expanses of my mind.
It was, and is, a slow transition. To write that it was just a matter of “letting others in” is a gross oversimplification. I never had issues letting others in. Rather, I just had issues with sharing the words which reverberated between my ears. Hence, the mute.
I had no audience, and fittingly I let my words dissolve and fade. I had to get them out of my head, so I wrote as a way to quiet the noise. But once they were out, exposed and open, I relegated them to the trash can, or shredder, or to moldy notebooks. I had no audience, and didn’t care.
I have forgotten far more than I have ever saved.
This trend began its metamorphosis, practically overnight, during my time in Colorado. I initially moved to Colorado from Virginia when I was 21, chasing a business opportunity presented to me by my brother-in-law. He had a kiosk selling knock-off Nokia cell phone covers to tweens in a mall in Denver. His kiosk flopped in short order, and he and my sister moved back east to pursue newer knock-off sales opportunities while I stayed in Colorado.
I wasted a year or so in this manner, but for one thing- I found an audience, and I found writing for my audience very rewarding.
I have no clue what it was that I wrote, but I suppose that is irrelevant. At my bar, or the bar to which I referred as mine, I spent a great deal of time. It was my preferred watering hole, where I went to accomplish the second and third steps of my routine. Over time, and through over-tipping, I grew pretty close to the bartenders there.
One night, I left behind, quite apropos for this guest blog, some scribbles on a cocktail napkin. I left it there on the bar, assuming that it would get swept up by a bar rag or tossed in the trash. Instead, the bartender, Krissy, read and kept my scribbles. And then she asked me every subsequent night to write her something more. I did so in exchange for vodka and gin.
And that’s it. Just like that I found an audience. Just like that, I found some level of comfort in turning back outside-out. There was nothing profound about that moment, nothing out of the ordinary, it was nothing more than an accident. The atmosphere inside the bar that night was unremarkable. It was likely as empty as any other weeknight (I was often the sole denizen of the bar), and undoubtedly smelled of mildew, bar-funk, and loneliness. But not everything life-changing needs to arrive grandiosely in a flash of brilliance.
And from then I decided to write more often, to keep what I write, and to share it with whomever might respond to the content. I hope one or two of you experience some kind of reaction, anything that upsets the inflectionless equilibrium state of a soul at rest, and feel something in the words you read.
You can find me at bothsidesofthebed.com, where my wife and I blog about haphazard parenting from two perspectives, and at jaclifford.com. The latter is barren at the moment, but I fully intend to contribute more writing in the future. Sending vodka and gin may help to speed up the process:)
For those of you don’t know, this guest post is long overdue.
John won the right to blog on Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins by winning one of my favorite Sunday Scribble Challenges . . . first posted all the way back in MAY!!
If you can’t remember that far back, take a second look at the prompt and his response:
The summer had been particularly harsh this year; an immeasurably minute amount of rain had fallen, the tall grass had long ago turned brittle and sun-bleached, and the hot dry earth was scorched and broken along an infinite number of cracks and crevices. He ambled closer still to the last watering hole for miles, slowly, taking his time to conserve what little energy he had left in his tired muscles, and what little resolve he had left in his hunger-maddened head. The lion drew nearer still, and was met with a scent carried aloft on a fiery breeze: the nauseatingly metallic smell of sweat, cotton, and fear quickened his nerves and pulled taught his muscles, and he knew in that instant that he was one last pounce away from either death or survival in this harsh, unforgiving prairie.
Please take a moment to congratulate John for a great submission AND an inspiring guest post in the comment section below.
He certainly deserves it!