I early learned that the world is a shadowy place. My mom was my best friend but when I tried her patience she ratted me out to my dad when he came home from work then he would take me to the woodshed where he hung his razor strap and instruct me to raise my arms so that the strap would not injure my hands, then slash me with the strap until I was seized by uncontrollable sobbing. My mom may have thought this was good for me because she and her two sisters used to slash each other with willow switches to prove they were stronger than the devil.
Ontario towns were full of tough kids who wore steel clickers under their boot soles and would elbow you off the sidewalk if you dared to walk on the curb edge which for some mysterious reason belonged to them. I soon learned to take refuge in solitary walks and reading. Fairy tales opened doors to other worlds where normal rules did not apply. These were followed by comic books, science fantasy fiction and a growing curiosity about the cosmos beyond my dream-filled days and nights.
Three revelations guided my early teens and they were all delivered by the printed word. One was Darwin’s Origin of Species which details his discovery of the process called natural selection whereby genetic mutations that are better adapted to environmental change tend to persist whilst mutations that are less well adapted do not. I delighted in the elegant simplicity of Darwin’s logic and the breadth of his vision.
A second book was Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s exuberant celebration of the sacred mystery that is embodied by each individual being, including himself and possibly me. Leaves was a deep, sweet shock. I had never before encountered such sonorous, evocations of the beauty of nature and language and such a large view of what a man might be or a boy might become.
The third publication was a magazine article about the holocaust, featuring photographs of naked, emaciated corpses in mass graves and body parts used in the sick experiments of Josef Mendele who evaded capture for the next thirty years until he drowned while swimming off the coast of Brazil.
Darwin gave me a sense of the interconnected wholeness and mindless creativity of nature. Whitman gave me an example of the sensual wholeness of sanity and wisdom to which I might aspire and led me to seek their seeds and find out how to grow them. Mengele showed me the active and latent evil of human nature and I began to search for the basis of that evil so that I could liberate myself and others from its power.