It’s Okay If the World Ends
A brief but related vignette now, of my own. I’m in kindergarten or first grade, I can’t remember which, and we’re having a class party for some reason or another. All of the children have brought candy to share; my contribution is a giant bag of M&Ms. My teacher acts very surprised and pleased to see that I’ve brought something and I, in turn, feel inordinately pleased at what I interpret as her praise.
Right in the middle of the party a very loud and frightening air-raid siren sounds. This being the height of the Cold War, though I probably had never heard the term as such, I immediately assumed that the “Bomb” that I’d heard my parents talk of had finally been dropped, and the world was ending. Well never mind, I thought, I’d played plenty of fun games and eaten plenty of good candy and so, I decided with a kind of insouciant fatalism, I was ready to die.
By the time we were herded outside, we learned that the real cause of the siren was an approaching tornado, still some miles away, so we were all told to run home under the sickly green and glowering skies. I still remember as I raced across the cracked concrete playground, with my giant bag of M&Ms under my arm, hearing my classmates yelling, “it’s a tomato! It’s a tomato!” and when I walked through my front door, I discovered that nearly all of the M&Ms had leaked out of a hole in the top of the bag, leaving me with only a few remaining candies. The rest were now lying in a long brightly colored trail leading back to my school, where they were about to be bleached white and then disintegrated by the approaching storm.
This didn’t upset me; I thought it was funny and cool.
With the retrospective intelligence of many decades, I can now understand why I remember this incident above so many others from my childhood that are now irretrievably lost. More important, I can now examine the elements in detail and understand how each was revealing of my already-formed character, and how incredibly useful an understanding of that character could have been for my life to come, had I had the perspicacity to understand it at the time, which of course I did not.
Consider: My teacher was so vocally surprised by my bringing a big bag of candy to the party because I came from a poor family, wore the same ragged clothes every day, and probably hadn’t contributed any treats to previous classroom parties. I was inordinately pleased by her surprise because I was too innocent to be offended by the implication that I was poor or possibly ungenerous, but more important, because I was cautious and respectful and craved the approbation of authority figures, who represented, after all, the life I could aspire to once the temporary inconvenience of my childhood was overcome.
I jumped to the conclusion that the world was about to end because my parents’ neglect had inculcated in me the sense even at that early age that life was fragile and contingent and that I might never have the opportunity to reach that life I aspired to.Yet I decided, or perhaps rationalized, that I was somehow okay with the world coming to an end because (in addition to being as self-centered as any other six-year-old child) I had intuited even at that early age that the best way to get through my life would be hang on to every good thing that ever happened to me —the candy and the games—and use such experiences as a storehouse against future disappointment and failure.
I pictured in my mind the long trail of M&Ms I must have left behind me because I had a congenital tendency to ignore my present unpleasant surroundings and to visualize—and poeticize—things that were outside of my immediate purview. Lastly, I was delighted by my little error, even though it meant that I would have less candy to eat, because I also had an inborn need to have and hang onto quirky little incidents, and for a six-year-old, leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel like trail of chocolate candies on the path from school to home was as quirky as it would get.
If I had understood then the significance of this tiny moment in time, I might have lived my life very differently. I might have been less unquestioningly accepting of authority, for example, and might have published a few zines and chapbooks on my own, as Sampsell did, instead of waiting, mostly in vain, for distant literary magazines to pass judgment on my work. In general, I might have been less focused on receiving approval for what I was about to do, and just plunged ahead and done it. I might have understood that, in building a storehouse of positive past memories, I was merely postponing a reckoning with the bad ones and, more importantly, with the ragged holes in my life that my upbringing had created.
On the other hand, in my unwillingness to live life in a headlong way (though like everyone‘s life, it was headlong anyway), I had very few serious accidents, and the minor ones I did have were mostly, like the lost M&Ms, a source of amusement and anecdote. In other words, whether it was a good or bad thing overall to carefully control how I was perceived and how I perceived the world, I never had a naked, convulsing freak-out at 3:30 in the morning. (Although here, too, and even now, I find myself rationalizing away the actual difficulties I have faced.)
Just because we all ‘live our life forwards’ doesn‘t mean that most other memoirs other than Sampsell’s have got it all backwards. Indeed, the whole point of the memoir is to slow down the ineluctable rush of time, consider the significance of what has already occurred, and draw some conclusions about a life—the author’s and the readers’ alike—that is still to come. A Common Pornography is an interesting experiment, and if nothing else creates in me the desire, even at this relatively late stage in life, to go out tonight and do something just for the hell of it.