The Wondrous Star

I have a new therapist, his name is Bleep. This is really neither here nor there, except he is the reason I have lately been in touch with the ten-year-old me — with some spillover to the nine and eleven and twelve-year-old me’s. Prior to being in touch with the ten-year-old me,  it was suggested that I keep a journal of negative thoughts. I’m no dummy. This is a classic therapist’s parlor trick, one cleverly deployed when they see that your time is almost up. “You might try keeping a journal of negative thoughts, and then, challenge those negative thoughts.” I always nod and agree to do this but like am I really going to whip out my journal every time a stinkbug lands in my coffee cup, which happens a lot more than I’d care to admit, our house being infested with them?   Plus I think Bleep doesn’t really like my insurance plan. I don’t think it pays him enough, so I don’t want to push him too far with negativity. Maybe that’s why he suggested we till the more fertile fields of my youth, plow up the past, find out just when all this trouble began.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time on my own couch, on my own dime, thinking about when I was ten. I will be 59 in two days, so reaching back almost 50 years really stretches some brain muscles that haven’t been used in ages. Memories appear like fragments, they surface like Koi fish in a dirty pond — or that mysterious little plastic answer cube in a Magic 8 Ball. It’s amazing anything is swimming down there at all, but sure enough, up comes a memory of my brother and I playing barefoot in the little stream behind our house, turning over rocks and catching crayfish, and I can almost see what we’re wearing, and I can almost remember what color our house was, but I know it is summer and the days are long and there are so very many of them. But is this the ten-year-old me or the eight-year-old me? Because the nine-year-old me had a different story, mom is missing this summer. She has had a nervous breakdown and is in a clinic for six weeks, and I am having nightmares, one of which I still remember. I’ll have to remember to tell all this to Bleep. But I am thinking, the crayfish boy was too carefree, it must have been a memory from before 1970. And I think I know this because twenty years ago I discovered a photo I had never seen before, a photograph of myself at age 10 or 11, sitting on the side steps outside my house in Denville, New Jersey. There I am, but with an expression I have never seen before. I am looking at the camera but not mugging for it, and my eyes have such a deep, wistful, serious, faraway gaze, that to look at the photograph even now it to meet my future, present self in those young eyes. That was a post nervous breakdown photo. That was a picture from when things were not picture perfect, from a time when my parents’ marriage was rapidly falling apart. What had happened just before that picture was taken? Had I learned we were selling the house where I grew up and moving to Florida? My world was being turned upside down and inside out. The people on whom I depended were becoming undependable, and if it wasn’t their fault it was still pretty scary. 

My parents have been divorced for 50 years, but they are still alive, and I am grateful for that. I think I stopped being angry at them as soon as I was about their age when they divorced — 31!  So young. In fact, by the time I was in my late twenties and saw how hard it was being an adult, I felt like a jerk for ever being angry with them at all. No one teaches you how to be married, or, really, how to be a parent. We are supposed to learn by example but my parents’ parents screwed up for them, they screwed up for me and I screwed up for my daughter. Or did they and did I? Maybe life is supposed to be really messy and chaotic, or it isn’t a question of whether it is supposed to be one way or another but it just is.  I telephoned (does anyone really say telephoned anymore?) my father in Mississippi the other day —

DAD: I’m telling you son, this Trump is starting to look like a real jerk.

ME: Starting to?

—  To ask him about some dates and events that I was trying to get straight for my next conversation with Bleep. We spoke at length about that period in our lives, and I began to wonder if I was opening up old wounds, but it was cathartic, I think for both of us. It’s not that we have made any conscious effort to refrain from talking about that era, but my father and I are not that close, and somehow speaking about this time in our lives when we were a close family, brought us back around, as if we were sharing the same telescope, looking at a wondrous star.

If I could go back in time to the ten-year-old me,  —  or the pre-nervous breakdown me — is there any advice I could give myself? I doubt it. If anything, I would be asking nine-year-old me for advice, on how to catch crayfish, or build a lunar lander model, or how to win at Skee Ball at Asbury Park. What I want now, more than anything  in this time of pandemics and climate change and ecological and political disaster, is to see the world again with all the wide-eyed wonder of a child. 

(c) 2020 James Brunel