Monday, February 19, 2007
In Richard Ford's novel, The Sportswriter, the protagonist observes that "for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret." That idea knocked me back when I first read it, in the mid 1980s, when the Vintage Contemporary version of it cost $6.95. Ford's protagonist was 39 years old, and I was very close to that age at the time.
I didn't want to think about regret, and I wasn't fooled by the sportwriter's belief he had licked it. In the years since then, I've mistakenly recalled this quotation as stating that after a certain age a man can't avoid regret. Well, if Ford doesn't say it, I will.
I used to think regret was an offshoot of Catholic guilt, and maybe associated with the shame of the working class hero who doesn't quite "make it." Maybe so. But there's a non-freakish and maybe even appropriate quality to it. And a certain inevitability, at least for some of us.
Several years ago I was pleased to hear novelist Martin Amis admit that small regrets hit him suddenly every day, to the point that they stop him in his tracks, literally, as he walks down the street, and he involuntarily winces and mutters to himself because of some small memory that emerged with the peculiar force of shame and the pitiless, bottomless thump of regret. I was pleased because I thought I was the only one this happened to.
For it seems there isn’t a day—and on some days (or most often, nights) that I don’t wince, mutter and wish to hide when some memory surfaces that demonstrates my mistakes, idiocy, foolishness, stupidity, arrogance, fear, timidity, etc. Were I more actively suicidal (and this particular means available to me), the fitting method would be to put my head in an oven, for its appropriate combination of ending the farce and hiding my head in shame.
Regrets range from the absurd (maybe if I'd discovered hair conditioners sooner...) to the nearly absurd but poignant (so that's what she meant--she wanted to sleep with me! Why did it take me 25 years for my brain to tell me this?), and the cringe-worthy moments of being a clueless jerk, either arrogant or timid, passive or too aggressive...and so on, ad infinitum. As the years pass, it seems entire eras of my life belong in the "being a jerk" or "being a fool" categories.
Fortunately, I haven't killed or maimed anyone, and since I've never been a husband or father (the source of many regrets, that grab like a hand on the windpipe at odd moments, seeing a child with a father for instance) I also don't have to deal with the death of a child, the failure to support one, the effect on children of a divorce, or just the "what did we do wrong" of a child who turned out badly. But there are times when the regret over not having done things overwhelms such calculation.
My regrets do tend to be of what I haven't done, haven't accomplished; the story of my life I kept faith with that was supposed to have a different middle and ending. And though regrets run the gamut, they often do return to what I haven't written, how I haven't connected.
More recently, as both he and I have gotten even older, I heard Amis on TV tell Charlie Rose that he believes men experience regret, possibly for the first time in their lives, as they get older, and probably have a bad death because of it. Whereas, he believes, women are more likely to come to terms with their lives, and die in peace.
I'm not sure about that, but a fog of regret does permeate my life at times. It particularly comes at times I return to the frenzy (which by other peoples standards probably looks leisurely) of schedules, duties and writing for hire. Much if not all of my writing, both paid and unpaid, seems these days to be shouting down a well. And I face the terrible choice of risking and extending myself each time anyway to do the best writing I can, or the equally terrible alternative of not caring how badly I write, since it doesn’t really matter.
At times like that—when I regard the ruin of the past, the lost energies and time when I could have concentrated on creating something worthwhile and lasting but did not quite do it, rather conned myself into thinking I was doing it; and I regard how my time is being absorbed now, the person I am becoming—the future looks bleak indeed: continuing to diminish myself until I get sick and die.
But there is a little balm to be had in my little corner of the blogosphere. I've been writing and posting on A Blue Voice since August 2002. This was one of my first blogs, and though I have posted more often on newer ones the past couple of years, there's more here than I probably remember.
Thanks now to the new Blogger/Google formats, there's this "label" process that allows these posts to be organized according to content. I've really just started that on this one, with the most recent posts, and then (for the hell of it, hah!) the earliest. The process is very time consuming, especially on this blog, because I have to read or at least skim every post. But it is oddly comforting. I may not have accomplished much in worldly terms, or in earning a vast readership, but I did produce writing that is not half bad, more or less, from time to time.
I don't know if the labels will be useful to anyone else, but I think they will be useful to me. There's a growing list of them to the side--click on one and you get all the posts with that particular label, that topic or reference. Access from organization is what works for me. Who know, I might even be able to grow a book from this, for whatever that might be worth.
I don't know if regret is ever very useful. But at this point it's doubtful. You probably never know when you've made your last move, but once that happens, regret is truly useless. The option that the well-timed regret may serve to move you towards just isn't there. Whatever road you're on, is the road you're on.