Bob the Catholic
I’m now 73 which is considered an age of full-fledged maturity. At this age, free of many of the compunctions of earlier periods in life, one can pause and consider the aspects of the paths taken, the opportunities missed, and the experience gained. This is a brief pause before the end to review the pluses and minuses of a life inevitably misspent and poorly understood. At my age one has vastly more past than can be made sense of. There is, at the same time, far less future, and whatever the future’s extent, it is sure to provide less time than it would take to actually create a coherent and encompassing worldview.
I have never been an accomplished sleeper. It is a result of being married for over 20 years to a professional schizophrenic; I haven’t slept a solid 8 hours in 50 years. One is never alone with a schizophrenic. The voices and terrors are always awake somewhere, and even decades later I am up between midnight and 4 am, often several times. Frequently these brief periods of wakefulness lead to what the Japanese writer, Mishima, referred to as the ‘nocturnal thoughts’ that plague the intellectuals of the white skinned. I suddenly remember and ponder the fates of acquaintances of long ago at 2 a.m.
Bob and I met in our 20’s. We were not really friends, but we would bump into each other and end up talking. He was puzzled at my self-designation as artist. He was a Catholic; that was it. His faith was primary and urgent. He had considered entering the priesthood and he viewed my choice to be an artist to be a similar commitment. He entered Gonzaga University and eventually dropped out – his parent’s fortunes had changed, and he couldn’t afford to complete the degree. In those days there were rather limited student loan and scholarship opportunities. I was freeloading on the MFA program at the UW, which while it seemed difficult at the time it now seems to have been an easy but fluky glide path.
Occasionally there are incidents in life that make this seem quite a small world after all. More than a decade later our paths crossed again. We were in similarly dissimilar circumstances progressing through life in age-categories. At that point we were both married, we both had a kid, we were employed, fit, healthy, broke, and wondering about the future. His primary concern was keeping his kids in private Catholic schools – kindergarten and second grade, but the costs are endless. He and his wife were very involved in the church. He was attending a morning service daily.
He was struggling in some ersatz partnership enterprise that had drifted into legal trouble on some contracts. The legal bills were eating them up. The future was tangled and uncertain, but his faith was pulling him through.
In contrast, my first wife was drowning in schizophrenia and I had spent several years on welfare. I had finally gotten a job through a casual acquaintance and a sense of desperation. I had to get out of the house – she was driving me crazy. My dream of an art career or becoming a teacher had vanished in the mayhem. The yearning remained, but my ability to produce art-like objects had dwindled, and my confidence in execution was near zero. Someday, who knows when, but someday.
We exchanged addresses and I sent him an Xmas card. It was not reciprocated, and the next year I sent another but again with no reply. I didn’t give him another thought for about 30 years, but on this tiny planet our paths crossed again. I would not have recognized him, but he spotted me, and we spent the afternoon in a café with coffee and talk.
His business of long ago had sunk like a stone. He had started over and was now more successful. However, one of his children had been killed in a pedestrian/traffic incident. The child’s death was neither parent’s fault in any way, but the death changed his wife and they drifted apart. Shortly thereafter his wife left him. They were still married, but she lived in another state. As Catholics, divorce can be complicated and he was still sending her support money.
The remaining child completed Catholic high school while living with the mother, but a private college education couldn’t be provided. The kid went to a state university, but that proved to be more than could be paid for. The kid soon drifted into serious student loan debt and then dropped out to work and didn’t return to school. At that time the kid was employed as some sort of factory worker back east, sharing an apartment, smoking dope, goofing off, still living like a teenager despite being in his 30’s. The father and child have an uneasy relationship, not close but far from strangers.
My life had improved. I was with Karen, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. We had a house and my kids were off in the world struggling, but surviving. I was starting to dabble in painting again.
He and I were in our late 50’s at this point. He inquired about my artistic commitment. That obsession had become undefined and amorphous; I was a weekend warrior in the Arts with little pretence and no prospects. He brought up his Catholicism and how he had come to reassess his engagement with the faith. He no longer went to church: just occasionally. He still believes, but he just can’t sit through the services and the rites. He felt like an impostor in the Church. It no longer felt right and he can’t remember what prompted him to take it all so seriously. He can’t remember just why it was so important, why he was compelled to spend so much time in the Church. He has lost the script and can’t remember the character he used to be in his youth which nevertheless seems just moments ago.
The fire flickered out after the kid was killed and the wife left. He got counseling, consulted the pastor, prayed on it, went through a period of agony and loss, but just could not get the kindling to ignite. He misses the church, but can’t bear to go there, it all seems empty of meaning.
Both he and his wife are living in sin, still married but living with others. He was introduced to his current lady on one of his rare church visits. It was a lucky but accidental meeting. I pointed out to him that we all meet our friends through accidental circumstances. He has not seen his wife for a couple decades nor met her gentleman.
He and his lady are content. He felt that she’s a bit too churchy, but they have a mutual agreement to not talk about it. She thinks he will ‘come around’ and re-engage with the church, and he wishes she would not be so damned diligent about attendance. As is befitting a couple in their late 50’s, they cuddle and comfort one another and life together is pleasant but not impassioned.
Of course things look calm from a distance. The aesthete’s phrase from Victorian times “Distance lends enchantment to the view” carries over to our view of casual acquaintances’ lives. His profound and unshakeable conviction seemed similar to my own obsession with the arts. If we judge the street traffic from a 20-story roof, peering over the edge, the general flow of traffic on the roads below is visible, but the details are not. The movement is apparent.
Recently I have been brooding about the nature of obsessions, or callings. Our culture suggests; “Many are Called, but few are Chosen”. It is not at all uncommon to notice that many individuals have obsessive behaviors and beliefs. I’ve not seen much of the world, but even to a person doing solitary it can be a source of astonishment. Despite my limited experience, I could go on for pages outlining the obsessive beliefs and dreams of the handful of people I have met. My Catholic acquaintance seems conventional and mundane. In his youth he must have been what is often referred to as ‘a pill’. I recall him discussing how difficult it was in high school because he had all these service obligations. There were morning prayers, and evening meetings, and the weekend was filled with rehearsals and services. He couldn’t participate in athletics because of his inability to attend practice, and he found the youthful vulgarity of the locker room offensive.
There is only so much time in a day, and life can get quite complicated. As adults we get entangled in all manner of distractions and necessities. An obsession needs frequent burnishing and there is often not enough time and energy to adequately re-enforce the compulsion. The maintenance of the ideal can be so strenuous that it often seems a heroic endeavor, perhaps one compelling admiration – the maintenance of a counterproductive enterprise despite the assault of obligations and reason. Most of these obsessions have no prospect of paying off in fame or fortune or transcendent spiritual episodes.
I had the good fortune to be married to a big league full-time professional schizophrenic for a bit over twenty years. In good conscience I can’t recommend this as an intellectual exploration of the ramifications of the wonders of the human mind. There has long been the observable fact that mental disorders seem to run in families, often skipping a generation, but leaving a trail of chaos that can extend for centuries. Recent research involving brain scans and genetic DNA tracing has begun to reveal the wide yet limited scope of human variation. These so-called aberrations are linked with traceable combinations of genetic coding. Brain scans now demonstrate the variations in ‘wiring’ that can be rendered visible. These variations have probably been distributed relatively constantly among humans for ages. The wide range of diversity of abilities and perceptions has played a role in evolutionary success. Increased diversity yields a variety of outlooks yet enables a level of social cohesion.
There is a bit of comfort acknowledging that some individuals are simply born to be obsessive. The compulsions often become apparent around puberty: a time of emotional turmoil and a period of self-definition. Parents are frequently not attuned to their offspring, and much of the advice from adults is incoherent and spotty.
“If only I had listened to my parents, I wouldn’t be in this fix!”
“Well!…What did your Parents say?”
“How the Hell would I know? I never listened to those crazy old bastards!”
“It is unfortunate that there are bad men and bad dogs, but on the bright side, a good man is not an angel and a good dog is not a man.” – C.S. Lewis
My father, George, was in many ways a good man. He was not an educated man. He had, perhaps, an eighth grade education – such as it may have been in the late ‘20’s. When in his cups he would brag of never having read a book, which was not quite true, but it was true in the spirit of Jimmy Durante’s doggerel song “The day I read a book”. My dad was co-owner of the Polar Bar and was proud that he didn’t work for wages. This was a frequent topic in Nome, a legendary land of the bold and adventurous. “Only a damned fool works for wages”, he often stated. That was a caution to the young, and it was often repeated amongst the miners, dreamers, hard scrabble entrepreneurs and thrashing losers that ended up in Nome. Nome was right near the edge of the earth. Nome wasn’t right on the edge, but you could see it clearly from there. There was nothing beyond what you could see.
While it is possible to find this philosophy in the world today, I believe it is no longer as common; so many small businesses have gone down in the ‘Recession’. Riches have become a quickly receding illusion. Among the laboring workers, the wage slaves, it is common to view jobs as “eating shit all day and hoping for more tomorrow.” Whatever the higher aspirations of the circle of adults that a young person may observe, many of the dreams of youth are crushed by simple greed and self-serving wrong headedness on the part of the adults in charge.
As a youth there is no method of assessing the depth of one’s future abilities or interests. In the process of nurturing these talents, there is very little honest appraisal. A college athlete can easily assess the caliber of an individual performance. Within the Arts it is quite common to be thought talented and to work hard and long to realize a dream, only to fail; and to fail for reasons that are far from clear. The list of variations that lead to failure are many; born in the wrong decade, in the wrong city, missed opportunities, missed connections, distractions, accidents, changes in health, family problems, wrong turns, bad advice, errors in judgment, or the wrong lessons learned. In the Arts, the success is often fleeting, lasting but a few years, despite decades of long work and little recognition. In the Arts it is possible to receive a tad of local acknowledgement among friends and peers, but being ‘Good’ is adequate only for family and friends. They are encouraging but clueless on the sidelines. A higher level of excellence is expected of those receiving wider recognition. I think it may have been Mark Twain that was afraid that Heaven is filled with enthusiastic amateur musicians playing their favorite tunes poorly and endlessly.
No one counts those that give up in despair and berate themselves for decades.
Graham Greene wrote of the priest, waiting to be executed by the firing squad: “It would have been so easy to have been a saint”, but that is only in retrospect. In the process of living among the living it is not at all neither a simple matter nor a clear path to attain a defined success.