“Talking Recklessly” is excerpted by permission of the author, Kim Stafford, from his memoir 100 Tricks Any Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared published 2012 by Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX.
When we were young, our father had a habit of abruptly increasing the voltage by announcing, “Let’s talk recklessly!” This meant any tiptoeing in polite banter was over. We were to dig deep, gossip freely about our uncertainties and strange beliefs, lean forward and tumble into the liveliest possible interchange.
This verve matched his habit as a writer to speak boldly beyond fear, reticence, or even the need to be strong or eloquent. “I must be willingly fallible,” he said once, “in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.” And part of such necessary fallibility required trying out wild things in language, and speaking with zest.
When I think of our father’s way with a conversation, I see it as vertical-always going deeper. At his best, he wanted to know what was at the foundation, hidden, waiting. A different way of talk can be horizontal — you move from one topic to the next, skimming cream as you find it. But for our father, the gold lay deep, and he was ready to plunge.
I think he got this habit from his mother. My aunt Mar says that when she was being courted by our father’s brother Bob, back in Hutchinson, Kansas, in the 1930s, “It was a thrill to be at the Stafford house, because they talked about all kinds of things in all kinds of ways. You didn’t go there to hide and listen. You went there to talk, and laugh, and learn.”
This does not mean irresponsible ventures. Quite the opposite. At best, talking recklessly means deeply responsible ventures of creative inquiry unencumbered by rules of polite restraint. Our father was a citizen writer involved in all kinds of creative activity — and his legacy called for broad citizen involvement, not just literary creations. As the writer Elizabeth Woody says, “Responsibility means responding to your abilities.”
The mystery is that for all his advocacy of freedom in writing and his zest for exploratory talk at home, about certain things with our father you couldn’t get a word. He never talked with me about my brother’s death. Something stopped him. Was this reticence the code of survival that helped him, as it helped his generation, to make it through the Great Depression and in his own case, through World War II and beyond as a pacifist, an edge-dweller in a time of symphonic military patriotism?
Our father ends his poem “Vocation” with a father saying to a son: “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” Somehow, in that quest, he could not speak with us about the puzzle of his own dead son, his fears, the dense interior of his pain. Or as he says in his one poem about my brother, “Why tell what hurts?
It wasn’t until I read his journal, for example, that I learned the act of teaching could be as frightening to my father as it sometimes was for me.
I thought he was the master, never at a loss. It was I who fretted anxiously before a class, and might spend much of the following night awake, going over what I had not done right. But there it is in his journal, after he had been teaching college for over ten years: “Back to school today. When I stood — 1st hour — and first looked at the students, I thought I’d throw up. But all students were nice today.” I would have been helped by knowing my fears were not an aberration, an idiosyncratic failure. And I suspect this knowledge might have helped my brother, too.
This is the silence in my father’s practice, and my family’s culture, when things get hard. This is the gap that I must close for my own life. For there is so much I don’t know. I have not read my brother’s journal, if he kept one. I have not talked with his wife in over twenty years. I have lived essentially in silence in my own family about my brother. I do not know — beyond his one poem on the subject — our father’s thoughts. I have never heard a detailed account of finding Bret dead from my sister. So what do I know? I have to make the most of the materials that are available to me — memory, dreams, a handful of artifacts, photographs, and archaeology of soul.
In the years since my brother died, and then my father, this archaeology digs deeper. Once at a gathering, my poetry teacher from college took me aside and said, “There is something I have thought about telling you for a long time, but kept to myself. It’s about your father. Should I tell you?”
“Fire away,” I said.
“Well, you see, your father and I were driving home from a conference late one night, many years ago. We got to talking about our children. And eventually Bill said a strange thing. ‘I love all my children,’ he said, ‘but there is one who is myself — and that’s Kim.’”
I felt a knife pierce my heart. For a moment, I could not speak. “I can see why you hesitated,” I said. “That’s heavy.”
“I couldn’t carry it any more. Do with it what you will.”
In the years since that conversation, I have thought often of this pronouncement by our father, in secret, to a friend, for hiding. Realistically, can such a thing be hidden? No, it can’t. My brother grew up in a house where he was not the son presumed by our father to inherit the kingdom.
Being orphaned from this inheritance was not for lack of trying by the oldest boy. When I look back now, I see that my brother worked hard in myriad dimensions to follow the father we all admired. It was my brother who made little books as a child. It was my brother who pioneered pacifism in our father’s footsteps, who worked for the Forest Service as our father had done, who tried teaching at a series of community colleges. These parts of the quest he could accomplish. The difficult dimension, though, was how Bret strove to re-create his apprehension of our father’s ethical stance. That was hardest. Bret caught the moral standard, in spades, but not enough seasoning of forgiveness for imperfection.
Our father clearly loved my brother, admired him, viewed him as a standard of behavior for the rest of us. But my brother was not our father. Identity was withheld from him — in my view, at great cost to both of them.
The remedy for hard silences about crucial matters seems so simple: When you are together, in one place, be together truly. Tell your troubles, your confusions. Without answers, you can still be together in the search. You must be reckless.
The thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi pointed out a simple fact about human behavior: it’s a good conversation, he said, when two people can talk about the same thing. In my life, I observe — in both myself and others — a different habit: we talk about different things at the same time. This is marked by the relative rarity of the following sentence in the flow of our conversations: “Tell me more.” When I remember life with my brother, always eager to tell him what I was accomplishing, I said this too rarely.
Our father used to give a writing assignment to his students: “Think of something you did, but write about what you might have done. Or think about something you said, but write about what you might have said.” His idea was that a writer could have a second chance to get things right. There was a kind of alchemy available in language to turn regret into creation.
Some time after my brother’s death, his wife came to visit our parents. I was away. And when I returned, as often, I was so busy catching up with my work, my self-designed life of frenzy, I did not learn about that visit in detail. But now I have a copy of my father’s letter to Lynne after she had departed for her home in Canada. The letter is an unusual document, for the great poet, the man of words who trumpeted the habit of “talking recklessly” in pursuit of discovery, confesses his reticence, and laments what he could not say or do. He says to Lynne:
When you cried, getting out of the car on arrival, I should have known that maybe we could find our voices and bring into speech many recollections, thoughts about what might have been, ideas about going on into the future with some soothing realizations and helpful conclusions. But I let my timidity keep me from exploring how to talk about the past and think about the future. I wanted you to feel right. I wanted to help. But I didn’t know how. I felt like a mirror being carried through a crowd, not knowing what to reflect.
This reticence of my father, my own reticence on many occasions, the reticence of my whole family since my brother’s death — this is a contradiction to the long-cherished notion of “talking recklessly” that governed much of our history. It was as if Lynne, simply by crying openly, said more than any of us could say.