A couple of months ago I wrote an essay called, “Things I’ve been Wrong About Most of My Life, Part 1.” It was about learning to stop judging and critiquing myself all the time, to let go of the untrue criticism of others, to apologize when I really did do something wrong, and forgive myself. I included this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
The essay seemed to strike a chord in some who read it. A couple of women commented that they were haunted with guilt for past “blunders and absurdities.” And I thought about what that meant, in my life and in others’. There are certainly things that I’ve done wrong, people I’ve hurt, ugly feelings that I’ve acted on — things I might call “sins.” But blunders and absurdities — those are something else. Those are the things that were awkward, ridiculous, weird, that exposed my otherness, that made me feel like I didn’t belong in society, that I didn’t belong among friends. Those are the things that are decades old but still make me flinch every time I think of them. And as I thought about them I got mad. I thought, what right do these b’s and a’s have to kick me in the gut, over and over again, so many years later? What right have they to suggest that they represent the real me, the secret me that if people knew about they would run? And what right do they have to haunt my friends with guilt? No, I thought, enough. We should be free of these. Of course, this is easier said than done. Easier preached than practiced. But one thing I do know, is that secrets, and fears, and secret fears shrivel up when they are exposed to the light.
So today I’m writing about — and publishing — the three blunders and absurdities that plague me the most. Some are silly. One is genuinely awful. For some I do owe an apology — though it’s not clear to whom it should be addressed. This, then, is my confession and my apology. But it is also my declaration of freedom. I am bringing them out of the dark corners of my heart and into the light of day. I am putting them, finally, to rest. And maybe if I share my own secret pangs of guilt it will help other people to feel less alone. I know we all have them, these blunders and absurdities.
The first happened at a friend’s wedding, about eighteen years ago. I didn’t know most of the guests at the reception, so I was wandering around, nibbling snacks and making small talk. The time came for the bride to throw the bouquet, and I gathered with the other single women. Among us was the widowed grandmother of either the bride or the groom — I can’t remember which. I heard some of the women joking about letting her catch it but I wasn’t really paying attention. The bride turned around and tossed it, I stepped forward, raised my hand…and caught it! For a second I was excited and happy, but then I looked around me and saw that I was the only one who had stepped forward — and I had stepped right in front of the grandmother. I don’t remember if there was silence or feeble applause. I don’t specifically remember a surprised look on the bride’s face, or the grandmother smiling graciously. I can’t say for sure that the other women glared at me or whispered behind my back. I don’t even remember if I took the bouquet home. But I vividly remember that moment of realization after I caught the bouquet and looked around, and I feel that jab of shame again every time I think of it. Blunders and absurdities.
About ten years ago I was traveling in Morocco, and I stayed with a family in a small village there. I’d been with them a few days when Friday came along — the day that the men went to the mosque and the women spent the morning cooking a big couscous meal. I was used to the box of couscous that takes five minutes to make, but in Morocco it took the whole morning and was a special Friday tradition — they didn’t eat couscous any other day. I spent the morning in the kitchen with the women. By the time the men came back from prayer we had a giant plate of couscous covered in meat and vegetables. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to dig in. We all sat around the table, with our own spoons but a common plate in the middle. As the guest I was asked to take the first bite, and I carefully loaded my spoon with a yummy looking piece of zucchini and some couscous. As soon as I put it in my mouth I realized it was too hot. Of course I couldn’t spit it out, so I tried to subtly inhale over the food in my mouth to cool it off. Unfortunately, couscous is made up of tiny pieces of pasta, and my inhale sent several of them straight into my lungs. My first cough came so quickly that I didn’t have time to cover my mouth, and more couscous shot out onto the table. The rest of the coughing fit was hardly less embarrassing, as tears came to my eyes and I tried to apologize while my lungs desperately tried to empty themselves of the sacred food. The whole family stared at me until it was over, and then the meal went on in silence. Blunders and absurdities.
Are you ready? This last one is the worst. I had a friend at school who I’ll call Elise. She and I had a rocky relationship, and at the time this incident took place I was feeling frustrated with her. I felt like she was dramatic and controlling, like she always needed to be the center of attention. (How much of that was jealousy that *I* couldn’t be the center of attention and control things, I wonder?) She and some other friends lived in a small house on campus, and I would visit them sometimes. Typically for me, I didn’t feel like I really belonged in the group, but I wanted to. One day, Elise was upstairs, and a few of us were downstairs, talking. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I remember it was a good conversation, and I felt like I was really getting to know the other women. It felt rare and special to me. And then, all of a sudden, Elise started swearing, loudly, upstairs, and I knew the moment was over. The other women looked up, concerned, but I said, kind of under my breath, “Don’t take it out on us.” I don’t know if anyone heard me or not. But one or two of them ran upstairs to see what was wrong. I don’t know what I thought it was — that she’d cut herself shaving or something like that. But it turned out that a good friend of hers had been shot and killed in a robbery. Someone had just called to tell her. Oh how I wished that my selfish little grumble had been a silent one. Nobody ever said anything to me about it, but every time I remember it I get that same sick feeling. Blunders and absurdities.
Well. So. There are more, but those are the top three. “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” Thank you, Ralph. I have done what I could. I will forget them as soon as I can — though in this case “soon” means ten and twenty years. But today is a new day, and I choose to be done with the old nonsense. Who’s with me?