Monday, July 02, 2007

The Song Remains the Same

I met tonight with Book Club #1 to discuss Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Those of us who finished it all agreed it is an excellent book. Macon "Milkman" Dead floats through life without any vision or purpose. As an adult, still living at home with his parents, he strikes his father at the dinner table before his father can strike Ruth, Milkman's mother. Afterwards, his father comes to him to explain his actions and to warn Milkman that he shouldn't assume his father won't fight back the next time. His explanation of why he has so much contempt for Ruth leaves Milkman uncomfortable and unsure. Later in the novel, Ruth tells her side of the story. Eventually, Milkman learns facts his parents aren't even aware of which put the events of the Dead family's lives in even greater perspective. Milkman is able to reinterpret the words and actions of his parents. His view of the world changes as he gains in knowledge of his family history and through his experiences. This peeling back of the initial layer of an event to reveal a deeper layer happens frequently throughout the story. Words and actions which seem easily interpreted have entirely new meanings as more information comes along.

I had a strong response to this. As I read about Milkman's discoveries, such as his grandmother's real name being Sing and how that completely changed the message his grandfather's ghost had shared with Pilate, his aunt, I thought about the times in my life when I have experienced my point of view changing based on a new piece of family information, revelations which have not always been positive. Sometimes the perspective I have gained has been disheartening.

In addition to reading A Song of Soloman, a recent event and last week's round table discussion over at The Ravin' Picture Maven's blog have had me thinking about secrets and lies in the context of family. Specifically, I've been pondering the secrets I have learned about my family and whether or not to share that information with my children, and if so, when. It is a tricky thing--knowing when and when not to divulge family history which has been kept secret. First, because it is often only secret to a few. Next, you are often only one of several people involved and it is hard to know exactly what is yours to tell.

The temptation to keep the secret is strong. If you keep it, there are fewer people to by angry at you. There is less explaining to do--not as many questions to answer. Milkman's mother and father kept their secrets for a long time. But, a foundation of secrets is like the proverbial house built on the sand. When the storms come, the sand is washed away and the foundation crumbles. Before the Dead family's relationships could improve, that house of sand had to be demolished.

Revealing the secret can also be a strong temptation. The pressure of knowing and pretending not to know is released like steam from a kettle's spout. To reveal information that is suppressed can be a way of saying, "Don't you understand me better now that you know this?" However, the revelation can also be a way of passing along a burden you are uncomfortable bearing and once you've shared it, you cannot un-share it. By attempting to divide the burden by sharing it, you might end up multiplying it.

Ultimately, I don't know that there is one answer which will fit every circumstance and let you know when to share and when not to share. For Milkman Dead, his journey of perspective changes his life for the better. He learns the truth about himself and his family origins and is able to help enlighten his father and aunt, to widen their perspective also.

I still have Frost's miles to go on my journey, but I think I prefer the knowing to the not knowing and I have hope that what is now a source of discouragement has already changed my life for the better and will continue to do so.


Julie Pippert said...

Oh the dilemma of what to share, especially with your kids. The burden and relief of knowledge.

Like you said, I think it really depends upon each individual and situation.

Milkman gained, but perhaps another person would not have.

Like you said, you can end up multiplying it.

But without hindsight how can you know?

Someday my kids are going to confront me about inadequacies in my parenting. It's going to be tempting to share my history as an excuse...but I guess the question is: who is the sharing for, what is it for?

Excellent post, lots to ponder.

Sheila said...

Wow, Mary. Excellent post. (I liked that book, too.)

Queen of the Mayhem said...

I read somewhere that sharing destructive secrets is very selfish.

Then again...some secrets are meant to come out into the open..if only to shine the light on a previously unknown avenue of life!

Good luck with your decision!

Alpha DogMa said...

My initial response is that secrets loose their power when spoken aloud, and I'd be inclined to stop hiding the truth. Knowledge is power and similar blather.

But maybe the stakes are higher in this instance? Will the secret hurt others? Will it hurt your kids' sense of self and security? What a dilemma.

Let me ponder this today.

Snoskred said...

When my Aunt was young, she got pregnant before she was married. Her mother either talked her into or forced her into giving the child up for adoption. She did not want to.

She ended up marrying the man who got her pregnant and having two more kids. Of course there were repercussions throughout the whole family - her relationship with her mother *always* baffled me as I was growing up, and when she finally decided to search out that first child she told all of us about it. It changed everything for the better, and everything suddenly made sense.

There are some secrets which should be kept. I'm of the opinion these include surprise parties, for the most part. ;) But I do think parents should teach their children never to keep a secret that someone asks them to keep, because it opens up door ways which should remain closed - the obvious ones, and the not so obvious ones.

Great post. I like your blog. ;) So I'll be adding you to my google reader (basically a feed reader, if you're not using google reader it's worth checking out), my sidebar list of blogs I read via google reader, and my Technorati favorites, just so you know. ;)

I'll also mention you in my weekly wrap up post on Sunday.


thailandchani said...

I agree with QofM. Sometimes secrets are best kept secret. Before revealing one, it's always worthwhile to examine our motives.



mcewen said...

Family secrets are the worst. I agree with thailandchani about trying to work out what one's motives are. I'd also be extra cautious have read a few blogs [other peoples] where they've discovered that family members read their blog when they thought that they didn't
Best wishes

kaliroz said...

Great post!

And, like Chani said, it's best to explore our motives for sharing secrets before opening our mouths.

I'm a secretkeeper. But sometimes the burden is too much.

Emily said...

Anyone who starts a post with Song of Solomon is OK in my book.

Secrets lose their power when you realize that it is YOUR decision whether to share them, not someone else's.

Mary-LUE said...

Julie, that darned hindsight is definitely an issue. If only I could know impact of opening up this Pandora's box. . .

Queen, what's so hard about this kind of family secret is determining which is more destructive, the impact of the secret or the impact of the revelation. I'd love a crystal ball so I could see what will happen either way.

AD, that is my concern, exactly. Will it hurt my son's sense of security or, will he end up having more hurt or anger--if and when he finds out later--because I didn't tell him. I know it will affect him but I so clearly remember that every new revelation as I got older became more difficult to process. By the time I was 34 and finding out yet one more secret, it was devastating.

Snoskred, I have experienced exactly that same type of moment. The Aha! when something becomes clear once you have a new piece of the puzzle.

Chani, Kaliroz and McEwen, I have definitely struggled in examining my motives. In times past, I know my motives would have been wrong. Now, I'm concerned that if I keep holding it back, the consequences will be worse. I am seeing now the impact of the family dynamic on my son. When he was younger, I don't think it had the same import. Now, he is developing opinions and resentments which I'm hoping to enlighten and diffuse. I had pretty much decided to go ahead and do it after talking to my husband about it. Now though, thinking about the before and after makes me somewhat sad. It does feel a little inevitable, though.

Mary-LUE said...

Emily, Song of Soloman really is a wonderful story. Have you ever read A Different Drummer by W. Melvin Kelley? You might like that also.

I do think some of my hesitation is my still struggling with that very thing. Part of me feels it is mine to share and part of me doesn't.

Lawyer Mama said...

Family secrets are tough. Mine has many. I do remember, when I discovered a long held secret about my mother, how so much of my childhood finally made sense. It was a revelation. But perhaps if her secret had affected me more directly, there would have been a different result. It's so hard to know.

Catherine said...

Mary-lue, its nice to "meet" you! thanks for your comment on my Karma post, and for following up on the organ donor post as well. It looks like we have quite a few favorite books in common, so I'll look into Song of Solomon.