What do we do with all the things we don’t want to recall? Ala Scarlett O’Hara? “Fiddle dee dee. I won’t think about now, I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I can stand it.” Or more smugly, in the manner of William Jennings Bryan, who said, “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Like that goofy arcade game Whack-a-Mole, where you take a heavy mallet and pummel the beasts popping up from holes. At first it’s easy, but the more you beat them down the faster they rear. There are people who must be having Dickensian style, horrible nightmares about what they’ve done. At least, I hope so. The really bad seeds, war criminals, sexual and financial predators, spammers, I suspect, are without conscious. Anyway, nightmares are not only for monsters.
You need to look the mole in the eye. The blind leading the bound. Therapy was helpful, in spite of my bullshit through most of it. If my therapists had really got out of me what I was thinking, if I’d broached what I truly feared, or the fact that I wasn’t “feeling” anything at all, I would have been bankrupt before I finally called it quits. Be that as it may, there comes a point if you don’t own up, you don’t move on.
“As Faulkner wrote, “Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest.” Most of the recollections that redden my cheeks occurred before I got out of grade school. Lord of the Flies gives me the heebie-jeebies because I can so see those fascist inclinations in my boyhood self. We almost have to commit some reproachful acts in our lives to understand what it feels like so we don’t do it again. On the other hand, misplaced guilt makes you weary. Henry Miller describes receiving a middle-of-the-night-phone-call from a guy telling him a mutual friend had just died; the guy went on about how sad and tragic it all was. Miller wrote he hadn’t liked the dead fellow much, wasn’t that broken up about it, and what’s more, he felt a sense of relief because he owed the guy a lot of money.
When I was seventeen I was driving alone near our farm in Kansas on a warm and bright January afternoon listening to the radio. The music was interrupted by one of those breaking news bulletins. I listened as they announced my father had just died on arrival at our local hospital. He suffered a fatal heart attack, the disk jockey said, after testifying for a client in a probation case at the county court. He was 57 years old, and is survived by his wife and two sons. What about my sister? There was no shoulder to pull onto, just a deep ditch, so I rolled to a stop in the middle of the road. The radio station resumed the rock-n-roll. A farm house was near, but I didn’t know the folks. Weren’t they supposed to notify next of kin before they announce that stuff? We had breakfast that morning, my dad and mom and I. He said his stomach was bothering him. Maybe it was nerves about his court appearance. The hospital was fifteen miles away, in the center of Topeka. I had to get to it because I knew that is where my mother would be. As if dilated, I was seeing too much. The light seemed to be brighter and hazy. I drove a few miles, got onto the highway, down into the city to the hospital. Once I parked, I lost it a bit. Now, like a movie shot with a hand held camera, my purview was jerky. When I entered the emergency room I started to shout to no one in particular that I wanted to see my father. A nurse and a work mate of my dad’s who I didn’t know very well, shepherded me to my mother. She was in a waiting room, bawling. She leapt to hold me. He died in my arms, she said, in the ambulance. She made a point to tell me he didn’t suffer. Right after that, the work mate and someone else, took us out to the sidewalk, where we waited for the traffic light to change. We crossed the street to the Penwell-Gable funeral parlor. My mother had to make all the arrangements, then and there. In twenty minutes I had gone from a daydreamer to selecting a casket.
It took me some years to accept, after that radio announcement, when my head was ringing as if I’d been in a blast, what I felt was relief. I was free - of his repression, his depression, his will, his love, his wisdom. That is how I was able to drive those miles. It gave me a shot of adrenalin, enough to clear my senses and allow me, automatically, to operate.
“I am myself indifferent honest,” says Hamlet. “But, yet I could accuse me of such things it were better my own mother had not borne me.” Haven’t we all felt that way? It’s almost always in retrospect we see what havoc we’ve caused. Otherwise, we might not do it. I’ve been an emotional terrorist. I have strapped myself with bombs and blown myself and everything in range to bits. But, like video games, you eventually come back to life and proceed. I don’t get religion and, as I see it, there is no deity of any cloth to ask forgiveness. (I had a basketball coach in middle school who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – only you do it first.”) Seems to me there is a perplexing lack of parity within the Ten Commandments. Coveting a donkey carries the same weight as murder? By my count, I’ve achieved seven of the ten and moved beyond the venial on several delightful occasions. As to the Seven Deadly Sins? Wrath (not so much), greed, sloth, pride, lust (oy vey), envy, gluttony? Strike six. Anyway, these evil-doings aren’t necessarily in my private ken of lapses. I don’t see how there can be a neat, general list of torments. We create our own.