Sunday, October 21, 2007

Choice and Chosen

One person famously said that, if you want a happy and successful life, you should choose your parents carefully. There is great iron in that irony. I respect my reader too much to explain the statement, and I respect myself too little to believe that there is anything I have seen in it that is obscure.

As my life has continued to play, I have come to a conclusion that is, I hope, far in advance of its conclusion, and that is that, if one wishes to be happy, one needs to choose one's memories very carefully as well. I may write as if I were in my eighties, look as if I were in my twenties, and act as if I were an arthritic teen, but I am in between those decades, in physical age. I write these essays, usually, with the benefit of a weekend morning, unusually with the benefit of a stiffer of B&B, and nearly never with anything more to my tally than unaccustomed sleep. This afternoon, it's Grand Marnier. In my previous, I suggested that the self that must be sought in the haze of drink and drug must be a very slippery fellow indeed, if one can only apprehend him when he's too drunk to move. My analogy, perhaps, was not so ill chosen, for that, I believe, is the purpose of those self-discovery benders that people occasionally ride when they are miserable or confused. They're not trying to forget. They're trying to stultify the man or woman within so that her or his lapels can be seized and the lights may be shone.

My mother and father have both just passed the three score and ten years that we are allotted in the flesh, and they are both beginning to show signs of what doctors and other observers promise us all. Their strength is not labor and sorry, but their memories are tumbling. There is a somersault of the past that all who live to age discover.
"For honest merit to succeed amid the tricks and intrigues which are now so lamentably common, I know is difficult; but the honor of success is increased by the obstacles which are to be surmounted." -- Rutherford B. Hayes

The truth is that when we are young, the sensations which sink most deeply in our minds are those which are most recent. Each item that occurs creates an impression equal to each other, and therefore memory and recall are alike dominated by the history of the moment and the momentousness of the present. There is little hierarchy, for there is no meaning yet to subordinate any memory. As we get into mid-stride, we develop two tracks of memory. There is the memory, which is a narrative of a life and a treasure house of pleasures and a counting house of afflictions, and a present. This "present" is nothing like the moment of existence. Instead, it is the surroundings of the existential moment, the "action," and it contains within its bounds "reasons" and "what's next" and "expectations" and "objectives" and "guilt" and all of the other things that can be summoned instantly to guide the ongoing agon of the endeavor of living.

At a certain point, though, the memory grabs the ego and begins to throttle it. At a certain point again, memory steps forward according to rhymes of action, indexes of words, and the like. Therefore, you hear of a poorly aimed telephone call, and a memory, some monster of youth or delight of teen years, rushes to your lips, and you feel again those sensations that gave this experience of yours such power.
I have seen my parents, and before them I had seen my grandparents, remember scenes and incidents from their childhoods with the power of a lucid dream and the vividness of a storm colored sunset. I have witnessed friends with horrors of childish embarrassment or shame washing over their adult bodies, and they were wracked by things that did not matter at the time and cannot heal or harm now, but which created a hollow pocket in their minds, a pocket that was now seeking expiation.

What is it that has made the past such a wilderness? What is it that makes it come to our present lives, its empty cup thrust forward, demanding alms? Traumas? I know few bruises that reappear so long after the event. The critical moments that make us selves? I doubt that, as well. Two nights ago, my mother relived her only occasion of being in trouble with a teacher in elementary school, where she was treated unfairly by a petty tyrant. Another student by her would likely have thought it nothing, and yet, at age seventy, she was put upon the rack of that moment again, and she could not choose to forget it or explain away its power.

What memories will leap frog over your taxonomies? Which ones will arrest you and hold you hostage until you pay them their two pennies? The moments of joy come to pay their respects as well as the humid, intemperate, shameful episodes of spiritual death.

I had a "bad patch" in the middle of the 1980's. It seemed like I might have pulmonary hypertension. That would have meant a heart transplant. I began to read books on death. That's when I read strange items like The Egyptian Book of the Dead (apparently, I was in a hurry) as well as more sensibly depressing things as The Sickness Unto Death. I also read Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. It's a mere 50 pages.

It turned out that I didn't have pulmonary hypertension. Oh, I had stuff going on, but not that. I learned some things from my run through the rapids of death literature, as well. Tolstoy's work was interestingly admonitory. It was clearly not designed for people who were aware of how soon they would be still and dance no more, and so it pointed out clearly that, if you wish to live and have a meaningful life, you must live and live meaningfully. Ilych's only consolation at death is memories of snowball fights as a child. All of his accomplishments meant nothing.

I decided then to go to graduate school. I was going to be happy and live as I wished to live and never defer my happiness until certain conditions were met. I vowed to not hedonism, but existentialism of a epicurean sort. I cannot tell if it has made any difference.
All that I know is that I have made a darned poor job of having chosen. What will meet me, interrupting the ice tea and biscuit on my plate, overrunning my conversation to a care giver or electronic ramble, is most assuredly not going to be a major event like September 11, 2001, but some mordant glance in a school cafeteria, some inappropriate stride in a bad place, a mugging at age fifteen behind the Omni, in Atlanta, or, of course, being the spider's abdomen in a hospital bed. At seven, I had some surgery beyond the customary. My friends in the hospital ward with me died. I had a three week coma. Veins began to slide and slip beneath the phlebotomist's needle, my elbows taped to planks of wood, drains in my sub femoral vein, and many doses of liquids into those sites. I was cheerful enough through it, having been brought up on tales of "men." Men were not merely possessors of Y-chromosomes. They were without remorse, and when they had "nerves," it meant that they were even more remorseless, and not that they were capable of suffering any physical pain -- for they were completely lacking, there. However, I had an irrational reaction to the situation that may, indeed, have been as rational as anything else. I saw myself as the center of a spider. Tubes going out and coming in, draining pus and transporting in antibiotics, saline, and glucose made me an immobilized tick's body, the arachnid whose web was not her own -- which is to say the fly in the web.

I have little doubt that that, which I have placed in a box stored beneath the shelf of conversation, will rattle and throw off its lid, shatter its chains, and clamber on top of me at some point in a decade or two. I can only hope that others, the conscious others, the ones fashioned as good times, will compete successfully. Perhaps pillow talk with a lover, the scent of a room, or even a horrible fight with a lover will manage to vault my consciousness as well as such horrid powerlessness, for they are preferable, each.

Know, then, your past. Perhaps telling the stories of our worst moments before our memories flip on their heads can make them so boring as to take away the only thing they all seem to have in common: the fact that we don't want to share them with anyone.

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