Was it really just last week that I made that entry about Mothers' Day, and the twisted meaning it's always had for me? It seems so much longer ago than that. But now I remember -- the choir I sing with in New Brunswick was on duty that day, and there was a particularly lovely pink hat on a woman in the congregation, toward the back, stage left.
Well, bringing up all those old memories, those layers of my personal history, has had a different impact than I would have expected, at least in the sort term. I don't know why I didn't anticipate this psychic backlash, but it has nonetheless caught me somewhat by surprise, and I'm still staggering a little. The image that came to me this morning, as I was dragging myself around the house, was that of a man, walking down a country road one afternoon, with the sun shining and the trees all leafed out and providing the occasional bit of shade as he passed them. And then, out of nowhere, comes an enormous, seventy-foot wave of cold, murky salt water, knocking this man off his feet, taking his breath away, and turning him head over heels in its surge. There's no way for him to regain his footing, and he can't even tell, in the green swirl, which way to struggle, toward air and light.
And that's kind of how it's been, this week, really.
Now, I want to make it completely clear that I'm not trying to compete for the title of King of the Sad People, who I imagine holds court under a bridge somewhere, with a crown of wet newspaper slapped onto his head. I find myself constantly trying to combat the emotional state in which I find myself with rationality -- seeking to prove to myself, over and over again, that I should be happy, that my life is a miracle, that things are so much better for me now than they ever were when I was a kid, and on and on. But as demonstrably true as all these things are -- and this is only a mini-fraction of the things for which I am grateful indeed -- holding them up and examining each precious blessing does, unfortunately, exactly nothing. I might as well be trying to reason away the existence of a giraffe, by holding peaches up in front of it.
If there were some scientific discipline such as emotional chemistry, I might try to express what I've got all over me as Sh2Gu3 -- the tarry salt produced by the interaction of shame and guilt. Though invisible at room temperature, it is nonetheless one of the densest, most burdensome of the known emotional elements, and one of the most durable as well. The only known solvent is alcohol, and that working only temporarily, before the stubborn and pervasive substance recreates itself.
The guilt comes from telling the truth.
Once, when my Dad was home for supper, and was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, while my brothers and I, having already eaten, were playing in the living room, I casually leaned over in my dad's chair, and pushed over a stack of wooden blocks my brother Glenn had built. He recreated his tower; I nudged it over again. Glenn began to cry, and complained to my parents. I said I hadn't done it. My mother, who had been watching, said that, yes I had. I remember looking her square in the eye and saying, 'No, I didn't.' I remember, still, how daring and how necessary it was for me to say this, how important it was for me to tell the truth by telling a lie. Hadn't she lied to me, over and over again, about more important things than a stupid pile of wooden blocks?
She turned and said a few words to my Dad, who then took me into the bathroom, sat me down on the closed toilet seat, and slapped me across the face so hard that, just like in the cartoons, I saw stars. "Don't you ever, ever let me hear you call your mother a liar, do you understand me?" he said, wagging a finger in my face, and speaking in the most vicious tone of voice I'd ever heard. Of course I nodded, still a little dizzy. I wouldn't ever call her a liar again. Even though that's exactly what she was.
A few months later, after we'd moved to a different house, I was on a shopping trip with my mother, and we had stopped in a parking lot, when she saw my father across the way. "Hurry, hide," she said, and pulled me down out of sight in the front seat. I wanted to call out to my father, and run to see him, but she seemed excited by somehow fooling him, or by escaping something -- there seemed something soiled, to me, in this game of hers, and I didn't like being part of it. But I was part of it.
The shame comes from the truth being true.
In spite of all that I knew, about what was going on 'backstage' as it were, in my parents' marriage, I was still only a boy of nine when the family cracked into two segments, and then the segment to which I was attached was deposited at the orphanage. In later life, I came to understand that, when children are institutionalized, they always assume the blame. It is always the child's fault, no matter how hard the truck hit the car, no matter how flattened the house was by the tornado, no matter how many bullet holes one adult pumped into the other. This mantle of shame and guilt is a pathetic grasp at somehow exerting, in retrospect, the most feeble thread of control, in a world that has otherwise proved to be unreliable, treacherous, whimsical and cruel. And in spite of all the best-intentioned self-help books in the world, no child believes that bad things happen to good people, when the worst things in the world have already happened to that child.
We all of us, in that institution, were like vermin in a dumpster -- hating ourselves, hating each other for reminding us of ourselves, and then hating ourselves some more. And the 'real' kids -- our classmates in the schoolrooms down the hill, who sat in desks next to ours -- knew there was something wrong with us too. No one had to explain that to them. There was, I guess, the scent of Sh2Gu3, that we could never wash off ourselves, or rinse from our clothes -- we'd become so inured to it that we didn't even smell it on each other, back in that big industrial dining room where we were reminded, every Sunday, to shine our shoes.
Now, at this point in my life, I honestly can't tell whether remembering is better than forgetting. I don't know whether unreeling all these griefs is a wiser choice than otherwise to let them rot in hiding. It does appear unassailable, however, that like the chemical model to which I allude, the facts and histories both generate woeful, unproductive emotions, and also serve as a kind of framework onto which these dismal feelings will crystalize without much apparent provocation. Sometimes all it takes is a particular angle of the light, or the smell of pancakes, or a few notes of a song, and --hey presto! -- a fresh crop of shame is availablle, whether you like it or not.
I try, on a more deliberate level than ever, to 'normalize' my life experience, by referring in conversation (and appropriately, I hope) to 'the time I was in the orphanage', if the subject turns to growing eggplants, for example. Or how often you buy your children new shoes. But even now, there's a chill that sparkles through the talking, and if anyone does make a remark, it's invariably a semi-accusative 'Why were you there?'. Because everyone knows that bad things simply don't happen to good children.
So. This has been the main struggle in my life, I think -- both to own, as my heritage and the basis of my identity, my peculiar history, while simultaneously attempting to shield others from the more troubling truths of how I've managed to survive, in such redundantly cruel surroundings. I think that, without being at all aware of any inner bargaining, I had hoped that, by succeeding somehow, at something, my very real past would be transformed into some other story -- one to which I could point with pride. But nothing I've managed to do has made even the smallest retroactive impact. And even this imagining, having taken place in secret places in my heart, about which I obviously know so little -- even this imagining gives me a twinge of shame. How could I manage to be so stupid?
Another week begins. I'll try my best to crank up something approaching enthusiasm for something, for whole moments at a time. Too close to my own surface, though -- too close for comfort -- sits the cold realization that none of this matters at all -- none of these pretended enjoyments will fix the things that could never have been fixed, from the moment they became reality. All of this tangle is my own particular mess, and there's no one to clean it up but me. A cleaning which, really, will make no difference, whether it's successfully executed or not.
Oh, there's that stupid giraffe again, and the little basket of peaches. Take care of it, would you mind?
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman