Monday, May 11, 2009

Words in a Box

Long after my sister and I left home, my mother’s desk became the center of her world and, as she understood it, a bridge to another one.

The walnut desk with its embossed, leather writing surface, extended at right angles from the south-facing wall of our formal living room. You saw my mother at the desk as you entered the room from the hallway. On a brittle, snow-cloaked winter’s day in northern Illinois, she sat in her straight-backed chair bent over writing.

The mystery was whether the writing was “hers.”

Beyond her and the desk was the warming radiance of the fireplace. As her hand moved across the page, her petite profile was framed by winter’s white light streaming in through a mullioned, floor-length window next to the desk.

Prior to the spring of 1968, when she was 59, she might have been writing a letter to a friend, or to her younger sister, “Bill” (short for Wilma) back home in my mother’s native Washington State, or to my sister, Kate, or to me.

But after that spring, with its King and Kennedy assassinations and their resulting turmoil, in all likelihood the words on the page were addressed to her. They came not OF her own hand, but, as she explained, through her hand. Her description fit the classic definition of automatic, or “spirit,” writing—a form of mediumship popular in the Nineteenth Century, but largely dismissed in the Twentieth.

For 16 years, her hand was drawn across the pages of mismatched spiral notebooks. She filled at least 25 of them. The words were all connected by a continuous flowing script. The ball of the pen never left the page. Instead it was pulled along in a stream of words.

Once at my mother’s urging, I picked up the pen, held it loosely. After a minute or so of feeling slightly silly, I was surprised when the pen’s tip began to move, responding to an inexplicable but palpable pull. It was as if someone were moving a magnet beneath the page.

As soon as I reacted to what was happening, the pen went dead in my hand. When I tried again, letting go of any reaction or judgment, the pen traced looping circles that eventually indented the page and then shot off the page. I have no explanation for the pull but it took me a step toward understanding my mother’s experience.

The “authors” of the writing my mother seemingly channeled announced that they inhabited the world beyond life here. Over the years, the flow of words described that world and tried, with some urgency, to guide our actions in this one.

The pull of the pen also delivered greetings from deceased family and friends; pronouncements from guides and teachers; interruptions from lesser, intrusive spirits; practical, assertive commandments that my mother dared not disobey (and which earned her both ridicule and admiration); quaint stories told in archaic prose quite alien to my mother’s written voice; the occasional drawing; some universal, prosaic truths and—for me and others who knew my mother—a mystery.

All of these messages, save the first year and a half’s writings, are now in two boxes in my basement. I have unsystematically dipped into the contents. My method has been exploratory, as if I were prodding some sleeping, unpredictable, mystical protoplasm. Could these writings simply be the disconnected ramblings of my mother’s subconscious? The Jungian stuff of dreams? Or were the words what my mother took them to be—messages from the spirits of the deceased?

Scattered throughout the writings is the clear dictate that I, the writer/journalist in the family, must turn all of this into a book. Not just any book, mind, but one of great weight to be given to a needful, eager and waiting world.

The quandary for me is that in all my probing and prodding, I have failed to find the makings of any book of such profundity within these tablets. No scales fell from your eyes although fleeting truths flicker through the writings. Those less skeptical than me might find solace and even evidence of the divine. But the words also display prejudice, ignorance, surprisingly partisan politics (Nixon won endorsements on “The Other Side,” for example), dogma and wrong-headedness. If these are the words of spirits, we clearly—and sadly—do not leave our human foibles behind when we pass over.

So the writing remains a mystery. How did it happen that one Kathleen Lewis Seifert, a good-hearted, stable, no-nonsense Midwestern housewife, would devote her last years of health to such an endeavor? What was it about her and her world that either prompted or inspired such writings? Could it have been related to the tumult of the times? To stresses in her personal life (and she had her share)? To some stifled ambition?

I never figured out how to assess the material. How did it—and its manner of creation — fit into my own understanding of life’s meaning and purpose?

If anyone is interested, I will share some of the writing here. Let me know whether you might be interested. If enough are, I’ll retrieve some words from the box.

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Blogger MTP said...

Rick - I for one would love to hear more about your mom and her journey. I know you have multiple books in you with your wealth of life experience and the interesting characters with which you've associated. Plus with a sex therapist in the house...

I still remember being impressed with your description of rowing through the fog on the way to school...

Journalism may be dying, but not the journalist.... MTP

8:28 PM  

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