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Penance

My life has been an unending and conflicting struggle to find my place and, at the same time, to keep from getting stuck. For many years, I thought that my discomfort at one job or another, or in one relationship or another, came from a deep flaw, something seriously wrong. But looking back, I understand the anxiety that arose from familiarity was less fear of intimacy with tasks and people than it has been a way forward. It has tempered the expectations I inherited from my parents. In the grips of this anxiety, of which I have yet to be cured, I have been uncomfortable, even unhappy. But this discomfort impelled me into new experience that, in its own way, has produced happiness and fear, contentment and anxiety, love and resentment worth any temporary distress.

big chief

Hurdling the void between my physical and mental universes has driven me to move from student to viticulturist to furniture mover to journalist to house painter re-habber to ironworker, and, finally, to historian (and ironworker). Between and during these extremes, I returned to the pursuit embodied in a story I scrawled in a Big Chief Tablet when I was in the second grade. On those yellow pages, I wrote and illustrated a story about Secret Service agents—no doubt influenced by a television movie or series that I no longer remember. Of those pages I remember a child’s printed letters at the top of each page, extending down five or six lines, with an illustration below of the action in the text. The pictures were two-dimensional, profiles of white and black men in suits carrying and shooting guns at bad guys, appropriately ragtag and ugly. I showed the story to my teacher, a young woman with frighteningly bad complexion, Miss Gilbert. Handing over the Big Chief, I was proud and ready to accept praise for my writing ambitions. She, however, was appalled. Where I saw the complexity of story and human interaction—for as much as a second grader can understand such things—she saw a young mind obsessed with guns, crime, and violence. Plus, according to Miss Gilbert, I’d drawn negroes, which was somehow wrong. She took that Big Chief and called in my parents, who, similarly astounded at the incandescence of my tale of guns and woe, ripped the story to shreds at Miss Gilbert’s desk and assured me the rest of my life with them that I would never be a writer. The competition was too stiff, they said. There was no money in it. It was an occupation unworthy of a good Catholic who should spend his time learning American patriotism and getting a good job.

Being born to my parents was not a choice I made for myself. Accident. Love. Attraction. Necessity. Obsession with legacy. These are reasons, or perhaps excuses, behind my coming into human life. Certainly, these were burdens my parents bore—and their parents before them in an exponential summation that shrinks to the hominids who first peered over the grass and picked up their babies and their fruit and walked to where they believed their fortunes were better. We are all stuck with what we get and have only unrefined ores from which to found a life. We all carry human emotions, obsessions, and compulsions. If my face revealed those that come to my surface in the course of a day, as I went to the grocery store or out to dinner, they would make me look and seem as monstrous to others of my species as I am to myself.

failure

I am sure, now, that joining my disparate selves will be my salvation. Building bridges is an exercise turning the void between them into the space where I will find peace. I grasp that work and will do my best or worse in it. That is enough. I seek neither ceaseless happiness nor eternal damnation. I search for redemption.

penitent
The Penitent, Albrecht Duerer

Still, I fear the joy and anguish of the salvation I seek. In delaying confronting this fear, I increase the chances of a blind leap into my life’s dream. When I labor for others, for money, for approval, I deprive myself spiritual but very human nourishment. I sever myself from the soothing graces of my species in all their individual and collective ugliness and beauty. I force myself to believe in uniqueness of my lot, and in doing so, keep myself in exile, seeking not the comfort of others but the absence of them. Intellectual and physical labor are the metaphorical switches with which I beat myself, always with the understanding that if it’s not for an act of commission or omission, then it is for a lie, an excess, a good feeling or enjoyable day sometime in the past. For my indiscretions and misdemeanors—the desire to write, to create, to disappear under a stone among stones written with so many names and dates they become parodies of the individualism they are supposed to represent—I need not be arrested and fined by higher spiritual or human authorities. I take care of the job well enough alone.

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