They don't understand, do they?
-- Our Town
Look you, the stars shine still.
-- The Duchess of Malfi
Grief not for wildness of youth, scrapes and escapades long gone and not to be revived. There were no scrapes. There was no wildness.
Primary narrative for a preacher's kid: a joy-riding car-wrecking dope-smoking wild-oats-sowing scourge, disciple of Marlon Brando on his loud bike, just bailed out at midnight by discreet arrangement in respect of the parson's position, an arrangement known across the town and in the pews by morning's light, and that is why the pastor's cheeks are burning as he ascends the pulpit. That was not my narrative. Sometimes I wish it had been. You hear how it lives in my imagination.
Mine was a second scenario, impulse curtailed and curdled, perfection imperfectly performed. Never arrested, never flunked out, never made anyone pregnant -- the clean slate that can bring no joy as an end in itself, but only as a modest flower on the vine of love. Paranoids have real enemies, and the lonely are not always to be pitied. Good grades at the prep school down the street appeased the parents, covering many sins of omission. If you are a "good kid" and no athlete, your grades are all most people want to know. Buttoned down, consumed in fantasies that rarely intersected with the world. More conversant with ancient characters of drama than with persons of my age, my sentences too long and lexicons no longer current, I was so old in youth, bitter in isolation.
And there was always an enemy, someone I was angry at and appointed chief wrecker of life. If that villain had only not done this or that to me . . . I thought life would then be good. Not that I had an idea what good life would be, too busy defending myself against real slings and imaginary arrows to look in other faces and wonder what behind their personae they were making of life, where their tender spots might be, how we might, or might not, have made a little bit of life together. Not a hot mess I was, but rather a cold one.
So what I feel, setting foot again on hallowed grounds that once I failed to make my own, is not grief but guilt: for a sour virtue, acts undone, roads not taken, dice not thrown, conversations not started, confessions aborted, opportunities of growth tabled in self-pity and delayed to future decades. What a jerk! -- the refrain of a critical heart no longer proud of misery.
We only learn big lessons the hard way, and the longer we wait the harder is the way. It seems I have lived long enough, not having learned the easier way, to scissor up such scripts of anger and futility. Perhaps I do not need a script at all. I don't draw castles in the air and rage because they do not meet the ground. For half a decade now I've not had enemies. Well sure, there are people who make me angry, but it's not a cosmic thing. I get over it.
I was of course saved, or I could not write this. There were those who, for whatever reason, reached down into the well and pulled me out. Some were friends of a year, or a decade; some were of a lifetime. Some were foolishly blind to my folly, and thought I was smart, or talented, or kind, or god help me good looking. And here's the simplest romance: when they put your newborn child into your arms, and she looks into your eyes saying please save my life tonight, you have to start growing up, whether you know how to or not. Fake it till you make it they say in showbiz and many other trades, including ministry.
And Carol, who gave me two babies and a half century of waiting for my adulthood, went to her fiftieth reunion at our college this year, and had a good time, and she commands me to go to my fiftieth reunion next year and also to have a good time. Perhaps, if I go, they won't remember what a jerk I was. Some of them at least. Maybe I'm not a jerk any more. Is that bar low enough? can I leap over it?
Do I really want to have been a bad kid? I'd rather be a good man. I'm not ambitious. I don't want to win anything. I'm not pursuing prizes or advancements. I'd like to be someone in whose presence living things can thrive.
I might turn out to be a younger, better old man than ever I was a young one. I hope. I think. I think I can. I think I can. . . .
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