I’d been at Buenos Kriyas Beach Front Yoga and Retreat Center in Costa Rica for four days, four days of rice and vegetables, four days of downward facing dog, four days of sitting, at sunset, in the lotus position on a quiet seaside cliff, inhaling the warm, salted air, salting my prana, my energetic breath, with deep pulls of the rejuvenating seaside air, the sun gently at rest on my skin like a microscopically thin layer of hand, my chakras spinning like Ferris wheels, my identity, the story that I tell myself—through other people—about myself, shrinking and shrinking as the God-face of consciousness emerged from the nameless solitude within me; four days of margaritas and frolicking with the blond dreadlocked women from Minnesota, California, Austin, Texas and deep tissue massage and the emergence of the God-face of consciousness from the deep tissues of my nameless self. I was feeling blissed out, as the blissed out are apt to describe themselves, and as I climbed the rock stairs that had been built into the hill side of the cliff, called the Spine Stairs on account of how much they look like a spinal cord from the back deck of the center’s main building, I fully expected more of the same, more of that deep tissue bliss, another honeyed meditation, another half an hour in which to feel the infinite cascading through my trillion cells. And I expected more as I pressed my ischial bones, the two inverted steeples buried in the flesh and muscle of my buttocks, to the yoga mat that I’d placed on what I had determined to be the perfect, energy-fused piece of earth (the brochures for Buenos Kriyas speak about a pocket of unusually rich, spiritual energy that emanates from the tropical lands on which the retreat center had been built, and though I’d been skeptical of these claims, which, juxtaposed as they were with the photos of the beautiful blue waters and ivory beaches, seemed unnecessary, I and even my friend Jamal, who was more skeptical than I of such things, had had our judgment greased by the beyond-reasonable amounts of giddiness we were experiencing); I expected more and could feel, almost instantly, the hum of my bones synchronizing the hum of the sky with the hum of the grassy plateau, the half-a-football field of space inhabited by three or four other late afternoon meditators. I was, at that point, so relaxed I could have shit my organs out.
But what happened once I closed my eyes and sank in, just after I firmly entered that thick, internal darkness the blonde from Texas, in her high-pitched, musical-noted voice, liked to call “the makeout closet of the soul,” was an unsolicited memory from childhood: I had cornered some other child, a small, frail boy, a boy whose skin looked like a coating of dry milk, the skeletal color of whose skin was somehow the emotional focal point of the memory, and was standing over him, yelling things at him—maybe I was alone, maybe there were other kids—and the goal, from what I could tell, was to terrorize the boy because he was weird and it was funny.
This memory—this sliver of memory, incomplete, this fingernail clipping’s worth of a memory—formed like a cyst and then burst and as the disgusting slime of disgust that it released oozed through my system, all of my blissed-out cells began to vomit inside themselves. They vomited up the joy they’d been consuming, little bits of half- digested joy aka guilt, green, unsightly masses of guilt that mixed with the oozing slime (or so I recall envisioning at the time when I think back on that moment (with a slight mixture of ex-post-facto deciphering), when I think back on the convulsive shockwave of putrescent emotions that had surged through that earlier me, on how terrible that unusually vulnerable me who’d been seduced over half-a-week into an unsecured wide-openness by all the frolicking with fellow retreaters and tropical aliveness of my surroundings suddenly felt about what I had done, or, because memories are extra-temporal, was doing (or because I still remember it: am doing) to that clearly troubled— shaking, he was visibly shaking I now recall myself recalling, and now recall myself also recalling my awareness, as the child me being reinvoked, that he seemed sadly familiar with this emotional state—boy). The whole thing happened quickly, or maybe not quickly (as it was happening, I was experiencing solipsistic time, indifferent to the rest of the world time); I, sealed within myself by my eyelids (or really the force whose iceberg tip is closing the eyes), didn’t even know I’d started making viscous sobbing noises, a thing I was told later by one of the nearby meditators whose meditation had been disturbed by the sounds I was making.
I do remember my joints aching, my stomach aching, my head, the inside parts, the psychic parts, butting themselves meanly against the gross pillowy meats of the material parts.
The first and most important fact of this matter, that which precipitated etc…, is that I could not remember the name of the boy, or even where I’d met him I was certain that the memory was authentic, in the way that we distinguish between memory and dream: through the gut: in the way that we distinguish between dream and external world, and, to a much less acknowledged extent, self and other; certain, yes, but, as I walked, on flabbergasted legs, down the Spine Stairs, I was unable to wrest any more information from my psyche, unable to even locate the part of myself the memory had come from. While this vexed me enormously at dinner the evening of—as the others, including Jamal, to whom I wouldn’t talk about the incident until we were aboard the plane home the next day, engaged in their nightly speculation on whether or not the builders of the Spine Stairs had intended for it to look like a Spine and so had also been the ones who painted the five stones that along the stairway occurred at points equivalent to where one would ostensibly find the five spinally located Chakras (Root, Sacral, Solar Plexus, Heart, Throat)—; while it plagued me through the restless night, and during breakfast, and in particular as I split a grapefruit at breakfast and saw the pulpy white tissues between the oily blushing skin and the crystalline flesh of the edible fruit, it would plague me even more once I was back home in the States. I’d had hopes that my mother or my father might be able to identify the boy from a description, especially if I placed enough emphasis on what I thought of at that time as the unforgettable color of the boy’s skin (I’d completely forgotten that I’d completely forgotten about it for what was probably over two decades), or that perhaps I’d gotten in trouble for the incident and my parents would remember that. When I went to them (and I did not tell them on my first pass why I was asking), I’d had these hopes.
First my mother. Agnes Henderson is a proxy-eidetic cataloguer of events, was at the time of my crisis, still is and was long before I was born. She is possessed by some probably healthy desire, perhaps to fully savor or reflect contemplatively on every experience, that, owing (or so I suspect) to a tragedy that befell her as a teenager, has mutated out of her control and become what is more or less a compulsion to remember everything. She doesn’t know that I know this (or didn’t know until this very moment, depending on who is reading this sentence), but she had, under my parents’ bed, where a curious teenager of my generation might have gone looking for something the adult he eventually becomes would be embarrassed to admit, hundreds of journals that chronicle in a unique and complicated shorthand the snowballing of minutiae that is a life. Of course, growing up, I’d seen her, in various rooms of our house, writing in them, but never to the extent that anyone could have imagined, including my father, who, despite his proclivity for looking for the answer to some endless nondescript question he had about life/purpose/infinity in places that no one else would ever look for anything (see: my father’s obsessions with flea markets and yard sales), I can easily imagine as having never once looked under the bed he slept on (even more so because I suspect that my mother, to protect the purity of her recollections, kept those journals in a place she knew he would never find them). I went to her knowing, when I shouldn’t have, about this collection, prepared (in my mind 100%, in my heart maybe 48%) to ask her to consult it if necessary; prepared because it seemed that my only option, after talking to Jamal about it on the plane, after explaining to him that my heart had been blown way open by the memory’s surfacing—I could suddenly feel, I told him, everything coursing through the nerve tissues of the boy in my head, I could feel the frantic motion of every molecule in his body that fear was agitating—, was to make amends, to find the man that frail child had become and apologize. But my mother told me she needed time to think about it, which meant that she planned to check her journals, and came back to me three days later, which meant that she had checked them thoroughly, to tell me that she had no idea who the boy was.
And so then my father. Paul Henderson, for all the time that I knew him, appeared to remember things at random, meaning both that the events he prioritized for active recall were difficult to categorize in a meaningful way and that he would frequently recall things that seemed incongruous to the stimuli that set his memory in motion: it was absolutely impossible to predict what my father might remember if asked to recollect or what he might remember at any moment for no computable reason. He drifted through his own consciousness exactly as he drifted through the world, exclusively on the currents that made him Paul Henderson, refusing, or else unable, to make the concessions that the rest of us were making to the overwhelming presence of otherness in the world. I went to him like a skeptic with a gambling problem goes to see a fortune teller, hoping that the knowledge I sought would become accidentally available, and my father, closer to the mark than he usually was in these situations, excitedly offered me a memory of his that initially seemed to be what I was looking for, and then turned out to be a memory of my brother James cornering his twin Louis while they played, for the first time, a game of cowboys and Indians. My father tried to insist otherwise, but I also remembered this event, in particular how it ended: cowboys and Indians, because my brothers hated being on separate sides so much (as twins, I think, they have a greater understanding of the strain that otherness puts on the human spirit than most people do), became a game of cowboy hugs and apologizes to Indian/Indian hugs and apologizes to cowboy (and thereafter, they only played either cowboys and cowboys or Indians and Indians).
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness recently. This happens from time to time because a) I’m human and forgiveness is a part of my humanity that if left unexplored becomes belligerence directed at both others and myself and b) I’ve never been able to remember the name of that boy, never been able to track down the adult body that now contains him. I’m not tormented by the memory to the extent that I was in the few weeks after Costa Rica—forgiveness, in the form of constant change, is mercifully built into the fabric of the universe— but every so often, I see a pale-skinned, awkward person (male or female) and wonder if they’re the person to whom I owe an apology; I wonder this and remember the period of apologizing which followed the intervention my friends held for me re: the eulogies I was writing.
For close to a year, I apologized to every frightfully pale-skinned person I encountered, which, since I was a complete stranger, freaked out most of them, but my belief, at the time (and still at this time, though the fervor that had once made it so tangible has long since subsided, leaving its current application mostly an intellectual enterprise) was that no matter who these people actually were, no matter their views on cause and effect (which were likely classical, i.e., that effects occur adjacent to causes), they were probably owed an apology for some wrong doing that had occurred in their lives and I had the power to give it to them. The roots of this belief (part one): that I shared (share) in the single communal spirit that gives to our animal forms the humanity that perhaps we squander or neglect a little too much; the roots of this belief (part two): that the recognition of this indivisible spirit, of its unquestionable sameness in victims and villains and bystanders alike is the essence of forgiveness. In other words, I saw quite clearly, in the aftermath of the Costa Rica episode’s aftermath, following a period of struggle and weirdness, that all apologies call upon the thing that makes us human, the piece in each of us that belongs to the whole of humanity, and are rendered identical by contact with this faceless force; identical and thus independent of causality; independent of causality and thus: every apology, no matter the relationship between the apologizer and the offense, mends every wound (also worth contemplation, but just outside the bounds of this meditation: that all wounds are the same wound); and thus: every human has the right to apologize on behalf of the human spirit for all infractions committed by representatives of that spirit upon that spirit’s bearers…
I recently had an encounter with a frail child, a hearty-colored but frail boy, whom I saw being picked on by several larger children in a schoolyard. Though a woman, perhaps their teacher, interceded, I could tell the damage had been done, not just to the victim, who would certainly understand that damage had been inflicted, but also to the bullies, who probably wouldn’t understand until they were adults, if ever, that alienation is a two-way street, that one person cannot cut another person from the humanity that is shared between them without cutting themselves from that same humanity.
At home, after this, I recalled what my father had suggested to me when I finally told him about my dilemma, when I finally told him that I was haunted by the need to close out an interaction from my past, by my inability to find the boy I’d wronged and make things right. He told me that the solution was simple: I needed to apologize to everyone I knew, to inspire them through my own actions to apologize to everyone they knew and so on and so forth until someone in the chain I had created apologized to the person I needed to make amends with. It was a typical Paul Henderson machination, complicated and magical and unconcerned with practicality, and I rolled my eyes and laughed and probably hurt my father’s feelings, but sitting in my living room after witnessing the bullying incident, I found myself wishing that I’d apologized, on behalf of the boy and the bullies and my father, to the first person I’d met thereafter, who, even if they were initially spooked by the strangeness of the interaction, might have been nudged a step closer to the forgiveness they were secretly aching to discover, might have been nudged a step closer to one day apologizing to a stranger of their own, who might one day apologize to someone who might one day apologize to someone who might one day apologize to someone who might one day apologize to me on behalf of the damage I’ve done to myself.
It is certainly a little weird for me to reconnect with the person I was when I wrote eulogies for all my friends, both right now and whenever Jamal brings it up, which he does from time to time because he thinks it’s funny and because from other time to other time it appears as a setting in his dreams (his living room from back in those days, but with the self-serve bar he’d set up on a collapsible table and the angry mob of our friends, copies of the eulogies I wrote curled up in their hands like clubs, gathered around the several hors d’oeuvres-covered porcelain platters he’d borrowed from his mother). It is even ever so slightly more difficult to make this connection than it is to connect to something like the moment when I first kissed my fiancée; I can feel a subtle force pushing back at me like my psyche has partially built or else is in the process of attempting to build around my memories of the time the same sort of structure or scar tissue that had kept the memory of my cruelty to that boy contained for all those years.
I’d consulted the pre-school photos from my mother’s photo collection, and then all the photos in that collection from the time period, which I perused obsessively from foreground to background (the entire time I felt that peculiar dizziness, the disorientationof-the-butterfly-as-I-imagine-it-trying-to-enter-the-body-of-a-caterpillar dizziness that arises when the burly consciousness of the man squeezes itself into the space created by the delicate and oddly obscure child consciousness it has evolved from); I’d consulted even with my brothers who could not have been older than four at the time of the memory’s referent event, and then, in the hopes that they had stumbled on this same problem in some form or other in their own lives, revisited my parents in search of guidance. My father, while I accompanied him as he returned a library book he had suddenly remembered was nineteen years overdue, suggested, as I’ve already said, that I apologize to everyone. My mother, in a separate conversation (I never sought advice from my parents at the same time, so different were their approaches to problem solving), told me for the first time, and in much greater detail than I’m going to go into here, about how as a teenager she’d lost the first true love of her life to an illness, in the aftermath of which she was possessed by an overwhelming need to apologize to him, not for anything in particular or for anything that she could name, just a relentless desire to say she was sorry. She would see ordinary, familiar, soulless objects—the blender in her mother’s kitchen, the tire iron that had been sitting on her front lawn for years, the gumball machine at the pharmacy she worked at after school—, objects that had had nothing to do with her love, and feel a doughy ball of guilt undulating in her gut; would wake up in the middle of the night from dreams she couldn’t remember, or maybe not even dreams but from the nothingness in which the slumbering self inters itself to dream, and feel certain she’d done something horrible. Eventually, to satisfy or combat this, she’d written him a letter that she mailed to nowhere and it brought her what she described as the peace necessary to live gracefully with enduring sorrow.
I sat down to write such a letter and found that everything I wrote, when read back to myself through the part of me that had been damaged by the encounter, the part of me that was seeking reconciliation, sounded insincere or foolish. I tried for a few days, churning out a mush of greeting card sentimentality and greeting card exposition on the nature of good and evil, and grew progressively more frustrated, and as the frustration grew, so did my anxiety, and with my anxiety, so did my rabidity and then grrrr, grrrr, grrrr; the words wouldn’t come and then when they did it was a eulogy. I’m sure there was some evolution that took place inside me—perhaps I, because I was not yet ready to speak about my feelings in a way that would be meaningful to someone else’s pain, unconsciously declared the problem to be writing in the first person and then drafted, also unconsciously, several versions of a letter in the second person, which came more fluidly but sounded and felt too much like love letters, prompting another switch of perspective into the third person that, without the need for any other editing, transformed those love letters into the eulogy I was permitted to consciously write—, but it just seemed to happen spontaneously: though in retrospect I see that the love we access through eulogization is the same love we access to repair our connection to the human spirit after it has been damaged by the actions we have taken, is the same love we access to embrace an apology given and in so doing repair the connection to the human spirit after it has been damaged by actions taken against us, is the same love that we access when, sitting atop an ocean-view Costa Rican energy store or elsewhere, we sink agendalessly into deep meditation and look upon the God-face of consciousness. At the time, I sat at my desk and constructed a life for this unknown person from reverent things, speaking through the eulogized, as every eulogizer does, to the great potential of all humanity (and the forgiveness we seek for failing to honor this potential until it is claimed by death), speaking to the boy-cum-man’s compassion and capacity for life, to the warm sadness left behind by the enormous sense of humor I imagined him exercising as friend and husband and father and teacher, etc…, and I was, as far as I knew, acting purely out of the well-meaning insanity that had taken hold of me.
I worked on the eulogy for close to a week. I admit to having practiced it in front of the mirror more than once; I’d written the words more slowly than I write other words, had thought more about the way each word mattered to the ones that came before and after it, had, after careful deliberation, signed each word like a contract, and wanted to see what I had built. And then, because I just didn’t feel done when I was done, I started writing eulogies for my friends. The continuation was seamless; I don’t think I put the pen down between the last word I wrote for the stranger and the first word I wrote for Jamal (Jamal, I’m sure his eulogy began, was the dark side of my moon, the gregarious flirtatiousness to my sanguine mopiness, the person who most emblemized the courage to be one’s self…). I wrote ten eulogies before I started to trek across town, in what I remember as being the terrible weather of that year’s winter, to hand deliver them to the people I’d written them for. I wrote two more before I was struck by the need to return to the ones I’d already written and revise them for errors that I was convinced I had made and then trek again through the miserable weather to hand deliver the revisions. My friends, I would learn, had begun expressing concern to one another after receiving the first drafts. By the second drafts, they had begun to feel, unaware of the irony, that I owed them an apology.
Many faiths believe in reincarnation, believe, like science does of energy, that consciousness cannot be created or destroyed, that the space one meditates themselves into is an indestructible spine that holds up body after body, around which body after body is formed to walk the world in search of the enlightenment that will free the consciousness from its attachment to having bodies. And thus, the question of forgiveness is exponentially expanded. Had I understood this at the height of my obsession with the boy, I probably would have lost my mind; lost it to the vast web of human interactions that, within a theory of reincarnation, must constitute a soul’s slow trawl toward perfection; lost it to all the pain that one flawed soul is capable of afflicting incidentally and/or intentionally over the course of a single lifetime multiplied by hundreds of lifetimes (if we avoid the anthropomorphization of the animal and insect and plant souls that some faiths believe human souls come from, which when unavoided increases the number of lifetimes a bazillion fold); lost it to all the forgotten boys and girls and men and women that linger in some karmic depository that my consciousness drags with it across space and time. Even now, some small part of me, some small twitch of my soul, wants to write eulogies for all of them, to embark on a Borgesian project of infinite eulogies, eulogies for men and women and children (and elephants and spiders and dinosaurs and tulips and amoeba…)
Recently I found, in the same drawer in my kitchen, while at the latter parts of a search for the driver’s license I would eventually need to replace, a brochure for Buenas Kriyas Beachfront Yoga and Retreat Center and the eulogy that I wrote for my father’s funeral. They were separated by an assortment of take-out menus that I’d collected over the years, some of them for restaurants that no longer exist, at one of which I, who was thinking about forgiveness at that time and reflecting on the episode of years before, apologized to a pale-skinned woman I’d never met before, who was surprisingly unfreaked out by this and will soon become my wife.
Forgiveness, I therefore think, is a recognition of the connection between all things, through which recognition we let go of the pain of being trapped within ourselves.
At the intervention, after everyone else had made clear to me how weird and, more important, disruptive my actions were (no one, in the surge of their youth, wants to read their own eulogy, and they certainly do not want to see what awkward things are revealed by revisions to that eulogy), Jamal, standing alone in his kitchen with me, instead of telling me that he at least understood what I was dealing with, said something that angered me to the point of not speaking to him for several weeks, that made me angry enough that I called my mother and told her about it, knowing/wanting her to record his transgression for all time in one of her journals. Later, following a crisis of his own precipitated by an appearance on the television game show Let’s Make a Deal, he would say something else to me that I’ve since used to edit the kitchen conversation: I’ve gone back to the intervention moment in my head and where Jamal had said that enraging thing, that thing which at the time I classified as “typical Jamal,” I’ve inserted this other thing. And so, where, standing across his kitchen countertop from me, he once said “be cool” or “let it go” or something to that effect, Jamal now tells me instead about the unusual experience he had while meditating in Costa Rica, an experience that he never told anyone about, an experience had while, on the fifth day of the retreat, he was meditating on the beach, right at the tide’s edge, as he had been doing each day while I, atop the cliff, was deep within the makeout closet of my soul; tells me that he too had sat that day expecting more of the bliss to which he’d become accustomed, expecting, as the ocean intermittently licked at his undersides, to make contact with what he had, on more than one occasion, and without the slightest hint of irony, referred to during the retreat as the sweet backside of the infinite, and, too, had been ambushed by some chunk of dark psyche that had floated up from the netherwheres of his being; tells me that where I had experienced a buried memory, what he’d experienced was, to the best of his ability to describe it, an abstract force that pushed in an almost physical way on the non-corporeal constitution of his awareness, a force that he could sense was trying to expel him from the bliss he was feeling; tells me that the force had been relentless and that as he’d pushed back against it, as he, who had been, since he was very young, a star athlete, had tried to achieve victory over it, he’d begun to see strange, unpleasant visions of himself, grotesque, humiliating visions of himself, Jamal having sex with a clown, Jamal being shit out of a donkey, Jamal eating from a doggie dish; tells me that eventually, the force had won and that he’d been thrown from the meditation, tossed out from behind his own eyes, back into the dense mass of his heavily breathing, heavily sweating body and that on shaky legs, he’d returned to our room to wait for me so that he could talk to me about what had happened; tells me that when I never came, he’d made his way to the dining hall where he’d found me sitting quietly at a table with the people we’d taken up as friends during the retreat, sitting quietly, with a look on my face that had reminded him of the Phantom of the Opera, or what it had felt like to be the Phantom of the Opera (whom he’d played in a collegiate production of the musical of that name), next to the blonde from Austin who was telling a story, in her high-pitched voice, about skinny dipping without permission in a neighbor’s pool; tells me that he’d come upon this scene, upon my face, the too-visible discomfort on it that had, without his fully understanding why, reminded him of the Phantom of the Opera inside him; tells me he’d come upon this moment in time and felt his desire to say anything about what had happened instantly repelled, leaving him with the only other recourse he’d felt was available to him, which was to pretend that everything was all right, a thing that he, the post-crisis Jamal telling me this story at the before-crisis intervention, had realized he had done so often throughout his life and was trying to forgive himself for.
Philip Jason’s stories can be found in Prairie Schooner, The Pinch, MidAmerican Review, and Ninth Letter. He also has poetry in Spillway, Lake Effect, Canary, and Summerset Review. He is a recipient of the Henfield Prize in Fiction. For more information, visit www.philipjason.com.