Ironic Advent Meditation 2016 #2:
Charles Ricke Figures It Out
Nita wanted to die. Anyway, I think she wanted to, but of course they say that people sometimes try to do things but not really die. That sounds risky to me. And it’s probably not a great idea to stand back and cite the children’s classic The Boy Who Cried Wolf as your reason for standing back. That’s risky too. Everywhere we look it’s like that—risk, risk, risk. Missy says, “be careful with your heart, bubba.” I say, “it’s too late, I read the gospel.” Missy is my sister. Nita was my mom. My name is Ben Camino. Today is the second day of Advent. And this is Ironic Advent Meditation #2 for 2016.
I suppose some women in the 1960s had the decency to keep their mental illness a secret from their children but not Eudora Juanita Ricke. With a name like that, I guess you just didn’t worry too much about keeping things quiet. I do appreciate the silent and dignified way of handling pain and tragedy. The Canadian Way, I like to call it. I think of my father and his friends who went through God knows what kind of hell during the war, but just about never talked about it.
My mother was not so good at suffering silently. And I didn’t inherit the gene either. I still have some of the letters she wrote to my siblings and me (there were four of us before Noel died. Three of us remain, depressed in various ways, to varying degrees, and variously medicated). She wrote in that super-shaky hand which most people associate with extreme old age or palsy but which I will always associate with my mother under the influence of shock treatment.
They were messy, sloppy letters, so look away dear reader if, unlike Jesus Christ, you like things neat and tidy. And if you don’t like to think of electrically-stimulated young mothers, puffed up from insulin treatment, with very little short-term memory (including sometimes their children’s names), talking about their infatuation with their handsome psychiatrist. All of this, to some degree, because of yet another scientific fad on the part of “mental health professionals” to use “technology” because it made it look like they knew what they were doing when they were doing stuff. Working on the assumption that a machine could fix the soul.
I’m not sure who to blame, though. It’s seems to be to be an incontrovertible fact that conditions that we find to be a problem are difficult to fix. It’s hard enough even to know what we mean by fixed. But we keep trying.
I was thinking the other day about pain, the kind we obsess about in our culture since we don’t have much starvation, genocide, or mass epidemics or anything. Please don’t get all up in my business about this dear reader, WE don’t. Read about Rwanda or Syria or Haiti. Then tell me about how bad things are. I don’t blame us, though, for feeling that other kind of pain, obsessing over it, even being overcome by it.
Whatever Keats had in mind (or, being Keats, had in heart) by his “pleasure thermometer,” I do believe in a kind of “pain thermometer.” We adapt to an environment which does NOT administer the “necessary” quality or quantity of pain which evolution, at some deep level, has shaped us to expect by holding on to and perhaps even intensifying other kinds of pain. Hamlet knew this. And Lear. They weren’t afraid of the ague or of execution. They were afraid that the world didn’t love them enough.
It’s like an inverse of old so-and-so’s hierarchy of needs. I call it the pyramid of suffering. Basic physical suffering is the most obvious kind, the kind that shouts to the world, “Notice me, please. I am physically suffering.” This is the kind of suffering that charity and/or political revolutions should and often do make it a priority to address and relieve. But give those “relieved” victims a century or so of relative peace, safety, health, and satisfaction, and so much stuff that they don’t have to worry where their next Mazlow “D-need” is going to come from, and they will develop enough ennui to fill a festival of plays by Edward Albee (who, believe it or not, never went to bed hungry). “Behold,” he shouts to the world on their behalf, “we have everything and yet still fear that the world doesn’t love us enough!”
I know my mother feared that, and sometimes believed it enough to start heading towards the exit. I have journals she wrote when she was as young as twelve and some that she wrote in her sixties. She always seemed to be in search of some kind of love or acceptance that the world was withholding. As if she craved the kind of love that would match her flamboyant name.
Why her mother, Jewel, who was only fifteen when my mother was born, gave her the name Eudora Juanita, I really don’t know. I’ve heard suggestions, but they don’t make sense. Being raised a hard-scrabble Baptist (please don’t tell me that Mary Karr has already used that phrase ), there was, of course, no possibility of a proper christening and exorcism until many years later. A pity. I’d like to think of some pioneer German or Irish priest asking all the devils to leave little Eudora Juanita Thompson, and her neck starting that slow Exorcist turn . . . .
Well, anyway, she had them. The devils I mean. Notwithstanding the fact that her grandfather, an Ozark Mountain dirt farmer, who had traveled to Texas and Oklahoma looking for something better for his family, would regularly preach for any Protestant (he would say “Bible”) church that would take an offering for him. He was all things to all (Protestant) men. A Baptist to the Baptists. A Pentecostal to the Pentecostals. A snake-handler to the snake-handlers. And Enoch and Elijah to the Papist Antichrists.
Whatever good he did as a preacher, he did not fill up the Pascalian vacuum inside his grand-daughter. Or himself, it seems, since he took his own life with a shotgun outside his farm house near Hot Springs, Arkansas when I was a boy. That empty place led Nita, as she came to be known, to several attempts to do likewise. Fortunately, my father, the war vet with two purple hearts (and a more obvious claim to suffering) never left a gun with ammunition around where she could get her hands on it.
Of course, I do wonder, even then, and even with the hospitalizations and slashed wrists of my teenage years, not to mention the long periods away in the Victoria State Hospital through so much of my childhood, if she ever really meant to go through with it. I’ve always wondered. After all, I’m like her. I understand drama’s appeal, especially it’s (false) promise of order and transcendence. I too would like to shake my fist and cry out, “I need more love.” In fact, I think I do it quite often. I’m a vampire that way.
I need. More.
Dear people have found it important to psychoanalyze me, boiling whatever I happened to be doing at the time down to the fact that I was “needy” as they like to put it. As if they had discovered the hidden key to all my problems and my future behavior modification(s). As if to be needy was the sin against the holyghost.
Well I say unto thee: NOT to be needy is the sin against the holyghost. Hay’ll yes, I’m needy. If anyone is listening. I need more love. The world sometimes, maybe oftentimes feels like a cheat. I’m just way too afraid of dying to try anything that might end it all if I should make a mistake when I tried to fake a mistake. I may be needy, but I’m not leaving on purpose. My complaint is that I want more of the good stuff. I figure maybe I can just whine about it a while and wait a little (or a lot) longer. Truth be told, although I want and need more love from this sometimes stingy universe, I also appreciate and enjoy the small daily doses of pleasure (cows in a field, songs performed in an unlikely place, really good cake) I’m allotted even while begging in poetry, song, sermons, and mysterious crop circle formations for MORE.
As I was saying, Eudora Juanita Ricke was needy, messy, talented, beautiful, poetic, undisciplined, needy, courageous, dramatic, outrageous, needy, and, sometimes, an embarrassing palm-reader. Oh God, when she tied the bandana in her hair and instructed her children, in that bad Zsa Zsa Gabor voice of hers, “please dahlinks, call me Inga,” we cringed and sometimes cried.
Crazy as it was, at least that strange persona, her crazy costume, and certain mixture of scotch and blood flowing through her body got her out, got her going, got her feeling like living again. I’m glad she had that. And that she had my dad who was one bigger-than-life partner for her drama and angst. She hurt him a lot. But he kept coming back and kept taking her to the hospitals and kept taking care of us and kept waiting for something better to break.
I have often thought about why he stuck with her and with us and with the program, so to speak, given all the grief, which I’m sure he never foresaw when he first took her out for a hamburger and shake after school at Reagan High School in the Houston Heights. I know. I know. It must have been Catholic guilt and their medieval out-dated ideas about divorce and such. Maybe. Maybe not.
I sometimes wonder whether he was prompted by some other things. Like the fact that his father died when he was young, leaving his mother with a bunch of kids to raise alone. Seeing his big brother Lawrence who sacrificed lots of things to hold the family together when he could have been out setting the world on fire himself. Maybe there was something he heard from a nun (oh yeah, right!) at All Souls Elementary school or in a sermon. Or maybe just the longing for life that had some stability and rhythm to it, or at least as much as he could bring to it, after seeing the ugliness and chaos of the war.
This story goes on in lots of directions, and I’ve told parts of it before and will tell other parts of it, I’m sure, in the future. Today, I’m thinking about people who want to die. And what to do about it. Whether ultimately there is anything we can do.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think my father probably took some goodness, some meaning, out of “saving” my mother. Out of sticking with her, not letting go, not giving up, not deserting us, doing the difficult good thing. It’s easy to say—“well, sure, what else could he do. That’s what people did then.” Or even, “well, maybe he shouldn’t have; think of how much he missed.” But this was real. This was as real as life could get. Sort of like, I guess, some stuff back in the war. He could try to save someone (and, of course, maybe not, but that’s impossible to know). Or he could just not try. I don’t think it’s like he knew what to do. Just that he had to do something.
Maybe he was doing penance.
Actually, I love that idea.
I knew a girl once. I guess we kind of dated. Really we only had one date and it was at a diner in Queens. As I watched, she ate the contents of a whole bottle of ketchup because she was hypoglycemic and she used to binge on sugar for a big, dangerous high (like later that night) and the big, dangerous low to follow (the next morning). And we talked. She had issues. Later, another time, I guess I went to her apartment where I met her family, including her father whom, I learned later, had sexually abused her a lot in her childhood. She was a mess and talked about suicide a lot, but I didn’t know that when I first met her. I just knew that she could sing. And that she was pretty. And Italian.
I went back to college and she came to visit once. We made pasta with a lot of garlic. She showed me how to do that right. And she came to see me play basketball and had a jealous fit over one of the cheerleaders whom, she was sure, I was dating. I wasn’t. But she was cute, anyway. I didn’t say that during the screaming though. That was the end of that.
Sort of. Years later, married, Ph. D. , at least two kids already, sitting in my office reading Milton or Chaucer or something, I get a call. It’s from someone at a psychiatric institution in upstate New York asking if I would take a collect call from Ellie (not her real name). Imagine. I don’t care how long ago that was, it still confuses me. Everything about it.
I took the call. She told me how horrible it was there. I had no way of gauging the truth of what she was saying. She asked me to come get her. To rescue her. I was the only one who could help her. They would believe me. All that.
I didn’t just make this up, in case you’re wondering. What did I do? What could I do? I probably said I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t see how I can do that, a hundred times. I don’t know what I could have done really. But I probably should have done something. At least gone and looked her in the face and talked to her. But what would I tell my wife? How could I take time out from the family? I don’t know.
We can’t save everyone, can we? Can we? I keep saying and thinking, all these years later, I don’t know. I know that my situation was different from my father’s. All I can conclude is this: I honor what he did; I’m not so sure about me.
Advent is not just the prelude to Christmas, or a way to “Christianize” the all-important shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s meant to be four weeks of preparation, four weeks of reflection, four weeks, even, of penitential work. Oh God, we really don’t like to think of it that way, do we? So many things bother us about that last phrase. And even the Catholic “spiritual directors” who write about Advent now downplay the penitence part and suggest things like buying a gift for the “angel tree” instead of, say, fasting or confession. I’m good with all of it. Buy the gloves. And we all agree that all of it can be a big empty ritual.
The one thing I’m sure of is that the rhythm I need is not the one I find from CNN or Fox News or Facebook fake news or ongoing arguments about the same old thing. We need a liturgy, a practice. The liturgy is not every old thing that happens that we want to baptize and call “liturgy”. It’s not the Democratic Platform or the new regime’s immigration policy; it’s not Obama’s first date or my neighbor’s confederate flag. It’s something older and deeper by which we make sense of and order every old thing, including all the noise, some of it necessary, that surrounds us.
Perhaps the moral arc of the universe swerves towards justice. I don’t necessarily believe that myself. I believe that it might. And it might not. I’m afraid that many of the people who do believe this are not entirely clear about what moral and justice mean. Advent points to a coming King and a coming kingdom, but then things get really confusing to say the least.
Will Christ the Savior be born? I’m hoping. I really am. In the mean time, and I do mean mean, let’s try to do better and save some people. Let’s do some salvage work. Doing the difficult good can look like penance, maybe even be penance.
I sometimes wonder what my father said in confession after the war. Or, even, just before going into battle. Or when mom was at her worse. I wonder if anything he had done or left undone contributed to his determination to do what he did for his wife and his children. I can’t know. So, for now, I’m going to eat my roots, especially confession and penance. And, yeah, OK, I’ll light a candle. And try to be ready for the phone call.
“Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” Introit for the First Sunday of Advent.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255