I got curious.
Not like “curious strange” (although you might think so), but curious like “I’m wondering about…” Always a positive sign of my mental health.
As I was wandering around the locker room where I work, I saw this (a framed St. Paul Pioneer Press article, below left), dated Sunday, Sept. 24, 1995.
Hmmm, I thought. Bet I have an entry from the 1995 journal on that date.
Noting to check it when I got home, I meanwhile tried imagining what I did that day, given the year and season.
In 1995 I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in St. Paul’s Merriam Park, not far from where I am now. I recall I’d had a tough time there by June ’95, three years into freelancing and struggling to get by.
My Sunday ritual then was breakfast, coffee, and a newspaper at home. When I found the entry dated in the clipping, it reported it was a gray, overcast day, but I’d planned a road trip south to explore, since the entire day was wide open.
The funny thing about curiosity experiments like this is how it leads me down paths I could’ve never found otherwise. As I wandered further into those September’s entries, I found this from two days later, Sept. 26, which I’ve transcribed in full:
“Went straight to bed last night after attending the Mythos Center’s salon and ritual on ‘atonement.’ It was an odd evening. …”
ICYMI, the 1990s were the “Decade of the Salons”: precursors of today’s Internet-driven Meetups. In 1995 I attended Sunday services at the St. Paul Society of Friends (Quaker Meeting). There I learned about the Mythos Center, run by a Unitarian minister named Ted Tollefson out of a bookstore he and his wife owned in St. Paul.
“There were about fifteen of us and it began a little rigid, with a salon/discussion in the library. After 8 p.m. we all performed a ‘ritual of atonement’ in the Meeting Room. I was feeling very open to things all evening, but became more uncomfortable and disturbed as we got deeper into the ritual. It consisted of a simple earthenware urn that was placed in the center of the room on a huge black sheet, with candles and pots of paint, green, blue, yellow and red, surrounding it. We were to paint the urn and describe, if we wished, our own need for atonement. There was a major decision split in the group as to whether we should break the urn upon completing the painting and calls for atonement, or keep it whole. This became a major item of negotiation for the group. I felt that each person should go with his or her first impression—stay with the gut feeling as to whether the urn should be broken or not. I started out wanting to break the urn…I felt that guilt and the desire for atonement should not be an easy process, and it seemed to me that breaking the urn would be the difficult thing to do after investing the time and care to paint and embellish it. The group seemed to feel that we should continue with the ritual until the point came to decide whether or not to break the urn. That seemed resonable.”
I’ve added italics in the previous and forthcoming sections because certain passages leap out at me now, about what I went through that awful summer. I was 35 years old.
“…The latter part of the ritual was the hardest for me. After painting the urn we were to describe our need and add some paint to the urn. I waited as long as I could for my turn. While everyone spoke their peace: ‘I need to atone for being so selfish,’ or ‘I need to atone for the hurtful things I’ve said to others,’ the group responded with moans and whatever sounds they chose to add—I suppose to give an element of witness and reaction: so that the confession seemed to have a reciprocating action. Ted Tollefson stressed that if one did not wish to say anything, that would be fine, and one could just witness those who wished to atone. I vacillated…”
Thinking now of that knife’s point: deciding to speak, and confessing my own transgression. I’m also thinking of others in that room who decided against making a confession. Did they have any regrets? Were they able to atone for their transgressions later?
“…in the end I approached the urn, jabbed it with red paint and said I wish to atone to my father for [wanting] to take my life. It was really difficult to say that, and the group responded faintly—respectfully, I thought. After everyone who had wished to speak had spoken, one of the Mythos board members, Garth, dressed in what I thought to be a silly red Taoist-like robe, put on a mask, played the ‘Trickster’ and destroyed the urn. We picked up the shards, I handed some to those around me, and took a piece for myself, drizzled it with rosewater and ran it through the burning sage smoke, put on my shoes, and walked home.”
Interesting that I painted the urn red, and that Garth wore a “silly red Taoist-like robe.” Was my earlier impression to destroy the urn the choice of my own inner Trickster? Would things have been better had it remained whole?
“…Two things: Open to what is happening. Having no control, or limited control, over events. Being a force in the events by one’s mere presence, and by actions and choices made by those actions witnessed by others, who reinforce one’s identity as a force in the events. Approval, disapproval. I like the fact that the ritual was simple, and yet we as a group brought so much silly baggage to it, the cluttered baggage of our own ways of living. The majority in the group was older than me: in their 40s, one woman was in her 50s. They are aging baby boomers, the head of the pack. They may have been hippies, they may have been farmers’ sons and daughters. They could not live in the ways of their families and their ‘conventional’ religions, so they’ve started inventing their own.”
Now those “aging baby boomers” have added 20 more years of “silly baggage” to this tired old world, they’re at the head of the pack, waging a scorched-earth policy over political and economic control of the only urn left—the fate of the entire planet.
“…This is the second thing: the thing I did not like and felt it was a problem: there was too much subjectivity to this choice. It left things too open to the vagaries of one’s own desires and self-deceptions. It’s as Dylan says in “The Man in the Long Black Coat”: “The preacher was talking in a sermon he gave/He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/You cannot depend on it to be your guide/When it’s you who must keep it satisfied.” That’s why I suppose I’m more impressed by an independent thinker like T.S. Eliot, who embraced … Catholicism. Now THAT’S avant garde. Eliot, I suspect, would not do something like that for ‘effect,’ whereas the group I was with last night seemed too easily swayed by a rational appeal to alter the direction of the ritual. That’s why I tried to appeal to intuition and asked everyone to search for their first feeling about the urn.”
Revisiting this moment from the past, begun as a thought experiment looking at a date in a framed newspaper clipping, reminds me how when I’ve been in the middle of things I can’t see the edges, even while I’m reaching out trying to find them (hence the appeal to intuition).
Whether I actually atoned to my late father for wanting to take my life—the one I still have, the one I question is worth living, the one he and my late mother so joyfully gave to me at the cost of their own lives—comes down to not a journal entry, or newspaper clipping, but two vague memories. Both are roughly tied together in time.
One—the time just after Mom died when Dad and I lunched together, alone, at a restaurant a few miles from his home in Florida. We drank beers, had some gumbo, and ate seafood. I remember the squawking birds and crashing surf, the salty-sweet smell of the ocean. And how sad he looked since we lost Mom.
The other—hugging him later in his kitchen. He was a big man with a big heart. That happened 13 years after the summer I might’ve died.
Maybe that was my atonement, a last attempt to mend a broken urn, but I don’t think so.