There are no photographs of me taken between July of 1983 and July of 1987. That is because I spent those four years “casting the smallest shadow I could.” (I quote a poem I wrote from that time period.)
They were dark years, bookended by the month and year my first wife left me, and slightly after I met the woman who would become the love of my life. Thirty years later I pose for pictures often. I am no longer afraid of my shadow.
I don’t often think about those years now, but today something happened to bring them flooding back in a very stark, gritty way. I stumbled upon a journal I did not remember existing, opened on June 6, 1984, not quite a year after my first marriage ended. I remember writing in the days and months after July of ’83, but those things were written on legal pads and envelopes and toilet paper and napkins. I don’t remember a single word I wrote on any of those scraps, but I remember them being among the best writing I’ve ever done, even now. After all, as I told my friend a little while ago, they were written using only pain and adrenaline. Mostly pain.
But eventually I got myself together enough to buy a marble composition book, and I actually filled it. (When I first pulled it off the shelf I expected it to have been abandoned, half-empty. And before you make any comments, the glass is always half full, but the journal is always half empty.)
I haven’t read much of it yet because I’m not too eager to dredge those feeling up at this point in my life. But I did open it, and the first thing I read was possibly one of the more profound things I’ve ever scribbled down. It might mean nothing to you, and after reading it you might think, “He thought that was profound? He probably gets emotional reading cans of peaches at the store!” (I do, but that’s not the point.) Listen, I love ya, but this was my soul laid bare, so I suppose it only makes sense that it’s sounding deep to me today. Anyway, here it is:
What a man does with his life is no more or less than what he refuses to do with it. One is just the old stiff negative of the other. At some point, or perhaps at a number of points, he will stand in review of these two worlds – of the done and the undone. And always there is balance. Always the undone will reluctantly and angrily equal the done. For every book he never writes, his heart has pumped a beat. For every bridge he does not build, his feet have walked a mile.
But balance can be an uneasy cloak to wear. More than once when the scales have come to rest with the needle straight up, despair has come like a paid assassin. No man is safe from his own perfection. It can swallow him so quickly that as he is digested, he can only lie back to be consumed, perhaps shaking his head a bit. There is no way to fight the Absolute.
In the end, even the weakest man must bow down to himself, and that is seldom easy.
Maybe it’s because I caught a whiff of the man I was when I wrote that, but I was shaken by the reading. As I transcribed it just now it marked the third time I’ve read it, probably the only three times I’ve ever read it because I didn’t read what I wrote back then. I just got it onto paper as quickly as possible, believing I’d spit a little of the poison that I was living on in lieu of food and water and air, and maybe that bit being gone, I might live a moment longer.
My point, though, is that after three readings it hasn’t turned to tin. It may just be that on July 5, 1984, eleven days shy of one year from her leaving, I managed to capture just a small peek at the abyss into which I looked every day. And maybe, without even realizing it, that being a day that I didn’t die, I gave myself permission to one day dare to look there again, this time as a (mostly) detached observer.
There, I’ve shared it with you. Do with it what you will. I’m going to read some peach cans.