(Which, when I think about it, isn't really the prettiest picture -- rumination -- coming as it does from the cud-chewing that cows do... Chew, chew, chew. Burp up the cud. Chew, chew, chew. Too late now...)
So. When I started this blogue process, I vowed -- like an antic teenager full of energy but lacking in stamina -- to post something new every single day. And much to my own amazement, I seem to have followed through with that pledge for... what, a week maybe? The score really doesn't matter -- but now I've kind of hit, not exactly a wall, but more like one of those highway nightmares, where seventeen major interstate routes converge, at grade, with only a badly-graded rotary to accommodate all the incoming traffic. My little virtual desktop is filling up with partly-written possible entries, each in desperate need either of drastic editing, or disassembling into two or more separate bits of writing. No apparent dearth of material, or of ideas; it's the selection process that's my current downfall.
I've always had this problem, as a matter of fact. (Maybe we could call it a challenge?) Every summer, during my late grade school/early high school years, I was put in charge of planting a vegetable garden in the vacant lot beside our house. I was told what to plant, and that always included, for some reason, carrots. (They weren't cheap enough in the supermarket?) As any gardener knows, there's that moment, when the seeds have been sown, and the sprouts have pushed their eager way up through the dirt, and are opening their first tender little green leaves, and you, The Giant With The Thumbs, have to go wading in there, and kneel down, and kill most of them. The proper term is 'thinning out', but it amounts to the same thing. Seedling Murder. Mass Botanicide. I simply couldn't do it, even though I knew that, because of this moral weakness, I was dooming otherwise innocent root vegetables to the equivalence of a soil slum -- growing up in crowded conditions, no privacy, no space to really reach one's full potential. And as a result of my failure to be merciless (to be, as it were, a kindly and ultimately beneficial plague, if you will), any carrots that survived at all were shriveled, grimy, thumb-sized stubs, hardly worth bringing into the house, let alone peeling. I didn't like carrots that much anyway.
At least with the writing, my hands generally stay clean. So far.
But... today... I'm again going to evade the decision making, and the editing, and the choosing between six or seven sets of ideas. (Well, it being that day of the week again, I may post the last of my 'Sunday'-themed pieces later, if I can find it. But what I'm unreeling here at least takes me off the hook, technically) Instead...
I am a very very fortunate man. I live, with my boyfriend/husband of 25 years, in the most beautiful house I've ever called my home. Both of us have advanced degrees in our chosen field of interest. One of us has a meaningful, rewarding full-time job, and we regularly have food on the table, and keep the house heated. The other of us (I'll let you guess which) has possibly the world's largest collection of unused art supplies, and an available -- if fully cluttered -- basement work space, with a functional heat gun and a power drill with at least two sets of bits. Upstairs from all that, we have two healthy cats, and out in the driveway, two cars that function properly. I am, to all appearances, quite healthy, if you don't count the fact that a couple of my doctors are so certain I'll be dropping dead within the next 24 hours, that I think they have a Death Pool set up, arranged by hour and minute, $10 for four squares. I have a wonderful new exo-brain, covered in a dazzling orange plastic case, with which I can reach out to the wider world. As, now...
I acknowledge all this, because I'm afraid that, with most of what I write about being so relentlessly unpleasant, I come across as ungrateful, or whiny, or self-indulgent. It is in fact a miracle, to repeat myself, that I have the time, energy and wherewithal to appear to be complaining in the first place.
But two things occur to me (which really means three or four things, but you're probably used to that by now). First, I think of an unanticipated adventure John and I had, in Nashville Tennessee, years ago, for an organ-centered music event in which I played absolutely no part. One day, John played hooky from a lecture, and we drove our rented car out to Opryland, where, in spite of discouraging advice ('Oh, they're always sold out -- you'll never get in'), we hoped to see a performance of The Grand Ole Opry. When we got to the auditorium, the box office was closed because the show had indeed just started. As we discussed what to do now, we were approached by a nicely-dressed couple who looked like they'd traveled there on a bus filled with more Bibles than were strictly necessary. 'They're scalpers', I told John, 'be careful.' Like they were going to throw their cardigans over our heads, and stab us with extra tickets.
Well, they did have extra tickets, as a matter of fact. In the third row, just right of the center aisle, as a matter of fact. And because some folks from their group hadn't showed up (the magic of the motel room, perhaps?), they wondered if we'd be interested in buying these extra tickets for... half price? ????? Meaning, for both John and me, full admission to the actual and real Grand Ole Opry, within schvitzing distance from the stage, for the stunning sum of $11. (Granted, those were late '80's dollars, but still) It took about thirty seconds to say yes, exchange bills for tix (they hoped we had two fives), and then get to our seats while Lyle Waggoner was still flashing the audience with the messages Magic-Markered on the inside of his coat.
Then, between numbers in a set of banjo tunes, a Canadian performer named Grampa Jones (may God rest his soul) mentioned, quite matter-of-factly, that he'd been raised in an orphanage. I cannot tell you how stunned I was at that. It was almost as though all the sound in the building ceased. How beyond wonderful, to witness someone standing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, before hundreds of people and with even more listening to the live broadcast, and here he was calmly owning up to the very kind of life experience that was still, for me, a matter of continuous, intense, living shame.
That public validation was profound, to say the least. It's part of my reason for choosing, since then, to be open, when appropriate, about the events of my own life. I figure, if Grampa Jones and his simple five or six word declaration could be so unburdening for me, there might be the remotest chance that, somehow, I might be able to pass on a similar kind of psychic relief to someone else. Woundedness is indeed a problem, which I feel we all share, in one way or another. But the sense of shame and isolation because of the wound, I suspect, is largely optional, and can, at least in part, be eased and even redeemed. But somebody has to go first.
The other thing. From the Viktor Frankl book, again. This time, about the nature of suffering. Confronted with the extremes of suffering of the Nazi camps, but with his intellect somehow still clear and intact, Frankl says he wondered why some fellow prisoners withered in a day, while others retained their stamina, and their ferocious will to live. Of course there were a number of saving factors. Frankl, for instance, visualized his wife's face, and spoke to her, and derived great solace from these 'imaginary' conversations. Others found solace in covert acts of art and poetry. Even music-making was not unknown.
But more importantly, Frankl avers, is the notion that each human being has an individual capacity for suffering -- an internal reservoir, as it were, for anguish. Suffering itself, Frankl continues, might be visualized as gaseous in nature -- expanding to fill whatever space is available. Those whose inner capacity is smaller, will suffer to the fullest extent they can, but may well still thrive. Others, whose capacity is much greater, may suffer more extensively, even cripplingly, from an apparently minor stress. Frankl sees no moral or ethical issue here, any more than might attach to a certain height or eye color. None is especially good or bad. We each have our own capacity.
I don't know about my capacity for suffering. In some ways, I suppose this entire blogue adventure explores this specific issue. Unfurling the unpleasant, brutal tales that I still have to tell might help explain, at least to myself, the disconnect I experience between the manifold blessings I can barely enumerate, and a certain flatness of my emotional interior. The clearest metaphor I can call up is that of Velcro © (I love that I know how to do that: ©©©©©©©©©); for Velcro © to work properly, there must be the two parts -- the hooks, and the fuzzy side. To be honest, I feel as though my early experiences, both in the orphanage, and even more so with my father's second family, burned away and flattened whatever original receptive mechanisms I might have had. Incoming blessings and accomplishments, awards and professions of affection simply have no place to stick. They sort of bounce off.
Instead, I usually feel as though I'm still trying to earn the right to be alive, and while I can never work hard enough, I'm also frequently discouraged. On the one hand, making even the smallest effort seems more than I can manage. And on the other, the successful production of yet more artwork leads to more problems. As I've noted before, I feel like the human equivalent of an infection, whose greatest accomplishments will unfailingly be accompanied by fever and sputum.
Still, for no good reason that I can think of, I persist. Maybe because I'm so easily distracted, and can't even pay attention to my own pain for very long? While I was in graduate school, I took a self-administered version of the Meyers-Briggs personality profile test, and discovered -- to no one else's surprise -- that I'm an ENFP, which means, among other things, that -- oh, look, there's a purple finch! Also, it's unbearable for me to make decisions, and to finish things. So, while I despair about both my immediate and ultimate uselessness, I'm also transfixed by the collection of sycamore knots that I harvested from the tree limbs that fell into our driveway last October, like some malign gift. They're so fascinating, like little wooden frustrations, but I don't think I'm allowed to work with wood, but they're too neat to throw away (even though the pile of them is making John slightly crazy -- if we were a political cartoon, or a comedy skit, he would be busily ironing one end of a long, expensive ivory-colored damask tablecloth, to get ready for our arriving dinner guests, and I would be equally busy at the other end, ripping the cloth into strips, tying the strips into knots, and dipping them, alternately, in shellac and driveway tar), but where will I put the sycamore knots while they dry out? (Hmmm -- I'm thinking: an installation on the bathroom ceiling... I mean, no one uses it, right?)
So. Ahead: still more tales of brutality. Plus, my guitar may be repaired by the end of the month, and then I can worry to you about how long it's going to take to learn how to play again. Plus, right this moment, two of those fixated doctors are cursing me and my heart, because they've each lost $20 by picking early and mid-morning on Sunday, January 15th, and I'm... still... here. Plus, I have to tell you the globally-significant news about my cat Buster and his diet. Plus -- oh, look -- there goes a downy-headed woodpecker!
Those poor carrots never stood a chance.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman