July 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Edvard Munch. The Storm
As a very young woman, I liked the word “regret.” I liked the way it sounded, its Frenchness. “Je ne regrette rien” comes to mind, of course, but I don’t think it was that song, more swaggering and maudlin than I would have appreciated at 18, that drew me to the word. I see it in print: black on white, the discreet letters with that fat g in the middle. Everything regretted (still desired) lurks within that g. A Google search gives me: “from Old French regreter ‘bewail (the dead),’ perhaps from the Germanic base of ‘greet’ (weep; cry.)”
Regret also sounds like my own first name, though I didn’t realize that until I started writing this. Mostly I liked it because it was a signifier of a lived life and of melancholy, and while I had plenty of the latter—and stubbornly clung to it—the former was still a mystery. One cannot regret without having done something, unless one regrets doing nothing or not enough—and even that seemed oddly appealing to me at 19 or 21: languid, somnolent, poetic. Sometime around then, or perhaps a couple of years later, I read Henry James’ great novella The Beast in the Jungle, which is all about the life unlived, death-like regret, and how it can be created, piece by piece, by a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime.
I had a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime. It was the part of myself I was most proud of. I thought it would take me to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, distant magical cities. I wouldn’t be so foolish as the man in the story, though. I knew that, just as I knew that I wanted to write with as much breathtaking poise and discernment as James, albeit with a bit more sex. And I haven’t been (as foolish, I mean). I have been differently foolish. This is not the place to list all my mistakes, especially because even now I can’t tease out what were really mistakes and what is the ongoing mistake to consider something a mistake. But I am well acquainted with regret.
It is corrosive, unrelenting. It is a constant yammer, the obverse of the self-consciousness of youth, which thinks itself so different as to be monstrous, while regret knows one is so similar as to be banal and will beat you about the head for it. Regret is neither generous nor kind. I associate it with those travellers (in fiction as in life) who fasten on strangers and pour out their resentments and self-pity, hour upon hour, into a time stretched to forever. At best, this is comedy. I think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked over her shoulder. I was never a bible student so I assumed religious people knew what this meant and only recently discovered that there is a bit of discussion about it. Did her action reveal her longing for what was left behind (including her daughters), or did she merely suffer the effect of gazing upon the face of the destroying God? What does salt have to do with it? The story of Lot’s wife’s is akin to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. An utterly human reaction, glancing back to make sure she really follows, means the rule broken and the wife lost.
When I first read them, I found these stories unfair. Not that I didn’t understand they were metaphors; I still found them unfair. It takes age to bring a different perspective, to see the clear and present danger of too much looking back and therefore the need for such tales, opaque as they may be to young readers. The implicit message is: trust God (or the god). I don’t, actually, but I admit I ought to trust something; would be happier if there were an area of life, loosely called the spirit, where I could let go and believe that if this is not the best of times and circumstances, it’s the only one I have and therefore, by default, the best. It is a time infinite until it is over, minutes upon minutes upon hours, and who can say any of us deserve more than this unfathomable magic?
There is a place for regret, perhaps the place I imagined at 20; the older person, standing by a window looking out at the rain, mind touching lightly upon wrong turns, wrongdoing, feeling a shiver of sorrow and something else, something ineffable and French. The older person is beautifully dressed, in a spacious and well appointed library, standing on two healthy limbs, looking at a landscape that does not include leering demons, crazed assault rifle murderers, mutant giant insects, unnamed evil from beyond the stars.
My library is not spacious (it is also my bedroom and work space). There’s no room to stand by the window because boxes of jewelry-making supplies and old notebooks are piled everywhere, and the windows are dirty anyway. And if I did look, because I do look, this direction or that, inside and out, what I see too often is leering mutant evil from beyond the stars.
I regret that.
Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.