Or so said Oliver Sachs about the stories that become our lives, and it's a sentiment with which I'm inclined to agree. Not everyone does. Augustine stockpiles his narratives in that famous warehouse of his and puts himself in charge of it: "It is I myself who remembers, I, the mind" (Confessions 10.6). The mind here is distinct from the life that shaped and shapes it, but even he acknowledges that without "the force of my memory, I should not be able to call myself myself" (Confessions 10.16). By "the force of memory," Augustine means the actual act of remembering, which to my mind—albeit against his stated wishes—puts him in my camp, because to paraphrase Beckett, to have lived is not enough: I have to talk about it.
Life is not real until it comes into language, but those words are meaningless until they cohere into narrative. By which I mean that, over the course of the day, I have increasingly come to recognize my affinity with Harvey Pekar. Not that I didn't already know this about both him and myself, but I never appreciated our common compulsion to transform the scattered detritus of life into neat meaningful narratives. Had someone not told me yesterday that she did nothing of the sort, I would have assumed everyone connected their messy celestial lives into orderly constellations that, though imaginary, are visible to others. When I talk or write about my life, I transform a sky full of random stars into patterns others can perceive. Do those patterns exist in the experiences themselves? No more than constellations exist in nature. But that doesn't make either any less real.
I'm chattering on about this as a way of explaining where I disappeared to from the 28th of June to the 8th of July. Because I don't know where I went. I can tell you where I was located, which was here in the apartment; and I can tell you what I did, which was work and watch the World Cup; but I can't tell you where I was. I had disappeared. That simple sense of narrated self had been knocked clean out of me by an old lady in a nice car. I had lost the plot.
Because it turns out that I will break if bent enough. The sum total of the horrors I experienced this quarter finally hit the point at which my narrative became absurd. Since absurd narratives are, by virtue of their absurdity, unbelievable, I could no longer believe in myself. An incoherent narrative begets an incoherent identity, and so for approximately eleven days I wandered about my life in the state I'd entered when I caught sight of that car in my peripheral vision:
This cannot be fucking happening again.
As I landed on the car, I was more concerned with a failed narrative than bodily harm. I unraveled into I because neither could fit this new incident into an available narrative. I had ceased being believable, and for those eleven days I barely believed in myself. I could not laugh at myself because all I had was the punchline: "Then I was hit by a car. Again." I tried to set it up a hundred different ways, but I couldn't find a way to make it funny. I played caretaker to the Augustinian storehouse of my life, but lacked "the force of memory" required to organize the shambles into something resembling a life. So I wandered about my memories concatenating experience into narrative on the basis of whatever random items had been carelessly deposited next to one another.
Needless to say, such a narrative doesn't amount to much of a self; and so, needless to say, for those eleven days I ceased to be much of a person. I became this emptied self that worked on a book and went to the gym and watched the World Cup. I wished I could have been a void instead of a wound, but I could do nothing about it because as long as I was I the plot was lost. What happened on July 8th that pulled me back together?
A short email from one of you lot—feel free to identify yourself if you'd like the credit you deserve—in which the phrase "brave face" appeared. I sat here staring at that phrase for some time, wondering what it could possibly mean to put on a "brave face." A face is a face is a face. How could a person exchange one face for another without sacrificing some integral part of himself? But then I realized that I had done exactly that the day previous. I had forgotten myself and informed the world that
in the epic battle between the Roomba and the tube of Ben Gay SOMEONE knocked off the table, the Roomba wins and the couch loses.
The moment I felt the need to chastise a cat in a public forum I had started scratching my way back to myself. I had put on a brave face because the world requires that faces be brave before their mouths start moving. That email from one of you lot made me aware of the fact that, unbeknown to myself, I had already begun to sketch myself back onto the sky. The force of my memory had returned, albeit weakly, by dint of technology and topical analgesic. It was merely waiting for me to acknowledge its return before bringing its brunt to bear.
Which it did by virtue of one of the oddest memories in my storehouse: that of having my Rabbi force me to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People before my bar mitzvah. In addition to going over my Torah and Haftorah portions, my Rabbi and I would discuss how little Jews should expect from life and the perseverance strategies they have perfected over many a persecuted millennia. Why would a person of power and influence want to discuss such matters with a thirteen-year-old boy? Because in some very strong sense—one much stronger than the law or parents allows—he believed that a bar mitzvah marks the day that a boy becomes a man.
He was wrong.
Only not in the of-course-he-was-wrong-sense in which most religious fancies can be grouped. I'm still in the process of becoming an adult to whom things, both bad and good, happen. That they happen at what could be called an alarming frequency is merely an indication that I'm not finished becoming the adult I'm gonna be. It may sound like a brokered homily, but I do believe I've begun rewriting myself into something more sound and steady.
Something whose bend can bend much further before it breaks.
We shall see.