It’s weird, isn’t it, when you have a few days of mostly unrelated, if not inconsequential, circumstances that collude or maybe collide in the creation of a crystalline face-slap. Wake up. Get up. Get over it. Whatever the cheek-stinging message is, it kind of hurts so good.
Today we inaugurated President Obama for the second time, and we did it on Martin Luther King Day. I don’t care what I was supposed to learn from Joan Didion’s “The White Album” about the profound disconnect we feel at the failure of our futile human effort to string the non sequiturs of our existence into a contiguous meaningful narrative — there is some meaning there. I read Didion’s essay a week ago as part of a ten-week effort to get through the Publisher’s Weekly Top Ten [American] Essays Since 1950. Since reading it, I’ve felt myself sliding down into her postmodern morass of meaninglessness, full of malaise and general sinking dissatisfaction. The essay made me feel silly and naive for compulsively connecting disparate stars into comforting storybook constellations and knowing that as long as Orion’s belt matches his shoes there is order and meaning in this world. Didion has been the Parker Posey senior girl snubbing and scoffing at me: “Little baby freshmeat freshman, what do you know about the existentialism of anything?” But something today caught my eye and emboldened me to slam my locker, spin on a Ked’s-clad heel, and get back to walking down the middle of the hallway that had been hers but would be mine.
Yesterday I saw a polaroid picture of someone living the perfect life. He was smiling, his girlfriend was smiling, her daughter was smiling, and they were playing together in the park on a warm sunny Sunday. In Didion’s world that polaroid’s got nothing to do with me. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is. It is my small compulsive need to string it like so many elbow macaronis on my childish necklace narrative that is the source of my frustration, anger, and depression — not the polaroid itself. But that’s wrong. The polaroid does have meaning. It means that he is surviving, even thriving maybe. It means that he is doing what he has always done and is still getting away with it. It means that if they are out there in public, in a park, playing house, then his ends did justify his means. It means that I am not on the high road rebuilding and rising up while he is on the low road crumbling and struggling. It means things are not going as well as I thought they were at all.
Didion and the polaroid are combining forces, and the fierce meaty hand of self-realization is rearing back to slap me hard. I see it receding, I stiffen anticipating the blow, but it doesn’t come quite yet. I spend the rest of the day in awful anticipation of it.
I finally climbed stiffly to bed last night, or maybe early this morning, and creaked uneasily between consciousness and sleep thinking about how unfair life is by allowing good things to happen to bad people; how sickening it is to not be able to control your own desire to see someone suffer, how living well has turned out to be no revenge at all, and how those lawyers used still shots of the Rodney King police video to reconstruct that reality instead of letting the video play. I woke up late this morning free from work on Martin Luther King Day, Inauguration Day. I scrolled groggily through my Facebook feed: one inaugural observation smeared into another MLK quote punctuated by the streaming meditation video to accompany a new week of the Digital 40 Days yoga challenge.
I rolled my blurry eyes at another likening of a second presidential term to a second marriage: disappointing, ineffectual, and doomed to failure. Why is everyone so smitten with this inapt analogy? Why do first- and third-time spouses get to take a dig at two-timers? How can Didion be depressed about the way nothing is interrelated when I just got away with referring to the re-marrying cheated-on among us as two-timers? I rolled my sleepy self out of bed and on to the yoga mat to squeeze in a make-up session after missing Friday and Saturday.
Now my rising defiance against Didion, the picture-perfect polaroid, and the sapping of vitality from second chances for first successes are synergyzing. Their combined energy propelling the hand toward my face, cutting the air around me. The slap is coming soon.
I cued up the class I ought to have heard on Friday. There is no cosmic meaning to my missing class on Friday and not getting to it until today. Except that the class kept getting more and more poignant. Muddling through my crappily drafted responses to the political vitriol on Facebook, Canadian podcast instructor Kinndli McCollum lead us to exhale forcefully everything that doesn’t serve us, sighing loudly so our neighbors can hear us since “this is how we do it in Canada.” I sighed out the partisan reposting and drew in thinking, “Hm, how they do it in Canada . . .” By the time we got to savasana, to let all the work we’d done sink into our bones, Kinndli asked: Where does your energy go? Where do you spend it, like your money in the bank? Is it 95% in the past buying you a brick to sink you down? Is it 70% in the future building you an uninhabitable house of cards? How much is invested in today?
Didion’s crippling anxiety should have been at the overwhelming meaning of the events around her, not the lack of meaning. If there wasn’t a collective narrative meaning of life, then we wouldn’t compulsively create it. We wouldn’t have been built this way. We wouldn’t have honed this sophisticated flushing of salt and potassium across our cerebral membranes, furiously firing neurons between the dots, creating lines and coloring inside them. If this process didn’t benefit us, we would have left it in the trees with our prehensile tails and four-legged gaits.
The polaroid has meaning, then, and it is not the picture of a have and a have not. Just like with the Rodney King stills, where an aggressive-looking stance proxied aggression but the video belied a different story, the perfect-looking picture proxies perfection while the video shows a different reality. The living breathing ongoing interconnectedness of life’s staccatoes is the real story. The real story is progression toward my back-and-better-than-before versus his stagnation somewhere near good enough.
The second chance is so much more than a lame re-make or sequel. The idea that the take-two is destined to fall short of the take-one is nothing less than un-American. Sparing any references to Plymouth Rock after religious repression, the real Tea Party after oppressive taxation, or Ellis Island after social stratification, let’s suffice it to say that the second chance is somewhere rooted near the core of the American Dream. The statistic approach to life proves that the second chance is every bit as valuable as the first since, no matter how many times a flipped coin comes up tails, the chance remains 50/50 that it will be heads-up when you try again. And that is a universal truth, whether we are talking about the President here or just another two-time bride.
As I lay there in savasana staring up at the ceiling of a room I used to share, something started to stir. The salt and the water began to spin and heat, no longer particles in liquid, but on their way to tonic. Then finally it happened. The proof rose to the top of Didion’s improperly-mixed pudding. The polaroid dissolved as the film strip kicked back on and into motion. The dawning of a second chance warmed us into thinking maybe this time we can get it right. The stocks held in the past were sold and futures were cashed-in for reinvestment in the short-term gains of now. The long-ago initiated motion of the fierce but friendly slap, the friend on Facebook quoting Martin Luther Kind quoting Booker T. Washington:
I let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him.