Let’s say you’re lucky enough to know an actual California hippie poet with a bushy ponytail and Tijuana retread sandals, the kind of guy who made it to 40 without a credit card. He’s a moralist who wrote a poem about the exploitation of dwarf miners, and a sensualist who calls you his father-confessor. (If he calls you his mother-confessor, tighten your belt.)
Back in the day, you guzzled beer while he confessed his sins, which he made interesting and funny. (Even priests must appreciate that.) First, he confessed to sleeping with your teaching mentor. Weeks later, he lay with a woman who was in love with your gay South African friend. Sometime after that, the poet regretted a fling with a visiting assistant professor, who turned out to be so … emotional. As he talked on those humid afternoons, squirrels with nearly hairless tails shuffled in the fallen palm fronds, and grackles stole french fries from his plate. Once, he confessed to eating nightshade flowers in somebody’s yard and passing out in an unlocked car on the street. Oh, one last thing—he’d forgotten his wallet; would you mind picking up the tab, this once?
Confessions made to clergy are like those canisters at the bank drive-through: they chuff up the pneumatic pipe to God, who waits for eternity to cash the penitent’s check. But secular confessions are like caltrops, which look like toy jacks but have razor edges and one sharp point always sticking up. They’re bloody little forget-me-nots: I enjoy this, they say; remember that about me and worry a little. I have witnessed that, and I may go back for more. Think of me thus and so, as I believe myself to be.
The person who confesses fits Tolstoy’s definition of an artist, who “hands on to others feelings he has lived through … others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” In this way, confessions, like art, provide a little immortality.
One day, watching the Beverly Hillbillies episode where they go to England and Jethro starts calling himself Sir Jethro de Bodine, Head Varlet to the Earl of Clampett, you roll over, and somebody’s old confession, hidden in the pocket of the jacket you were wearing when it was offered, pricks like conscience. Have you thought of the poet lately?
It’s been two years, you remember—no, three now—since he blew into town after a poetry retreat in the Ouachitas. He was hours late getting to the house, but you found him a ham and three or four side dishes, a cherry pie with whipped cream, and a pitcher of sweet tea, for a midnight snack. Then he sipped delicately at a 12-pack and settled in to talk. You had an infant now, who would wake at 1:30 in the morning, and again at 3, 4:30, and 6, but the poet was so full of good humor that when he said he couldn’t stay more than a week or two, you felt strong mixed emotions. You put him in the spare bedroom, with the cats’ litter box. After a light breakfast of a dozen eggs over easy, hash browns, a pound of bacon, and homemade biscuits and gravy, he spent several hours out in the yard on a cell phone. But he loved the Inner Station Fourth of July parade, doubling with laughter at the float bearing the banner “We’d do ANYTHING for our country,” and you were reminded of his fine moral sense.
His last confession was that he was moving from Pennsylvania, where he was an adjunct, back to South Florida, with an older woman who was a waitress, and her kids. The memory of how you thought it was wrong that he sleep past noon, and of him stretching luxuriously under the comforter to the sound of a cat fervently clawing in its box, makes you feel guilty and worried all over again.
Al Pacino, as real-estate shill Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, says, “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.”
Roma might have confessed worse; at the time, he’s seducing a lonely man into buying swampland. But I know what he means. The Monday stink of stale beer and garbage outside a campus bar reminds me of a Panamanian brothel where we used to drink because it was cheap and the jukebox played “One Night in Bangkok.” La Guardia stood near the bar, under a velvet painting not unlike Manet’s Olympia, with their Uzis pointed at their feet, and the urinal troughs were filled with lemons and limes. Outside, a boy grilled some kind of meat over a charcoal brazier. “Hey, Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage!” he yelled. “That ain’t no sausage,” we always said, and we always bought several of the kebobs and ate hungrily.
Like other stories we tell, confessions show how we choose to think of our lives and what we like to focus on. They even hint at how we would fashion heaven, given the chance. Problem is, some people’s ideas of heaven are commonly known as hell. As Ricky Roma says, “Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me.”
And so, while we care about our families, friends, and students, their enthusiasms can grow tiresome. (Mrs. Churm returned from a conference recently and said eight times in two hours that she attended the “opening plenary session.” I hung myself with my belt.)
Last week, evangelicals from Colorado invaded Hinterland University. The ringers huddled together in their cowboy hats in prayer circles on the quad. Wind gusts reached 40 miles per hour, but they gamely held aloft flags clumsily sewn from bedsheets, which read “All that Matters is You are All Headed for Hell.”
Two jokers stood nearby with cardboard signs on which they’d scrawled “You are fine” and “Free hugs.” One smirked at me and said, “Everything’s going to be OK.” I thanked him for that, and he looked surprised.
Many of my students carry 20-hour course loads in subjects like genetic engineering, and they work 30 hours in that basement laboratory with all the hazmat placards. In office-hour confessionals, they tell me, unprompted, other reasons they’re doing poorly in my class: Dad killed Mom, and the trial is this week. I’m not making this up or being flip; how do students survive this? Maybe one can memorize Planck’s Constant under these circumstances, but what of the Confessional Poets? As Ovid says, “Nothing that is hard can a sick mind endure.” (When I get physically sick, I can’t read literature. It’s the worst thing I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.)
But I’m not talking about disasters as unavoidable as fate. I’m talking about drama—how we use our imaginations and free will to shape our lives. I’m talking about Jerry, my independent-study kid, who finds it fascinating that he can’t get himself to our meetings and says we need to discuss not only his novel draft but also what makes him do self-defeating things. Or, the student nearly my age who confessed, in harrowing after-class sessions, her abuse by her husband, yet smiled grimly all the while. Uncomfortable and uncertain, I mentioned resources available to her. “Yes, I know,” she said. “It’s just that he’s keeping me from what I want …” The talk—and the martyred laughter—continued, until she looked beatific. Six months later, I saw her in a video store, and she introduced her husband, who crushed my hand and glowered. She seemed excited that I knew of him, and that I could see she was pregnant.
Henry James knew that if people believe they suffer, they do. It’s good news for Henry James, who can then focus his stories on psychological nuance instead of on big actions, like, say, Bruce Willis running across broken glass in his bare feet.
Last Friday the air turned wet and cold; trees are mostly stripped of leaves. I parked by the graveyard at the edge of campus and, in a rush to get to the library myself, felt ill at the intent, tired, angry student faces I met on the street. I worry they aren’t, as Wendell Berry says, “set free from fashionable lies”—other people’s insistence on what’s important. Jackhammers chattered, and a cherry picker crept through the crowds, carrying drywall for another new building in the College of Business.
Blood thumped in my ears as I climbed three flights of stone steps in the library. It smelled of dust and dry rot in the hallway where old card catalogs sit abandoned. High above them on the wall are fire alarms that look like they were salvaged from a Soviet submarine. If they work at all, they won’t klaxon. “Oh, what’s the use?” they’ll sigh. Somewhere a librarian shouted, “Next!” Her tone was not encouraging.
Still, the Reference Room is my favorite place to work on campus. It’s 300 feet long and can seat 500, though there’s never more than six or eight people around since they moved the reference desk to a more central location. The sun shines through gigantic fan windows with panels of stained glass set in them like jewels. Comfortable oak armchairs are tucked under endless oak tables; each table has a dictionary stand with an edition of Webster’s in which the name “Harry Truman” has yet to be entered. Fumed oak shelves around the walls hold 16,000 largely unused reference books, such as The Complete Holdings of the Bancroft Library, in 39 volumes. Sitting under the high coffered ceilings and acanthus-leaf friezes, I imagine this as my own British Museum Reading Room, but a librarian friend tells me it’s to be renovated to make better use of the space.
I’m thinking about false connections: Autumn is the Fall, and The Fall refers to Original Sin. It’s a season for reflection and melancholy, what with the impending death of the earth and all, and a fine time for confessions. But the squirrels in my neighborhood don’t know jack about all that. They’re so jazzed that they can’t stop chattering and tumbling high in the branches, scolding me and chasing each other in spirals up and down the trunks. One slipped and fell 30 feet to the ground, landing with an audible “oof” at the feet of Leo Tolstoy, our black Lab mix. The Count was so surprised he just stood there and looked at it. The squirrel tore off, and in the next hour shucked the magnolia buds, dug up my crocuses, and started gnawing his way into the gable of the house. He and his buddies are content in their acorn fat and impudent hair, bucktoothed-ignorant of our notions of how life is meant to go.
Our two little boys, more and more like Thing One and Thing Two from Cat in the Hat (“They will give you some fun / On this wet, wet, wet day”), are warm and happy too. Mrs. Churm struggles to write code for her new eBay business, and Thing One, waving a handful of neon Play-Doh, asks, “Mommy, do you want a meatball chocolate ice-cream cake with corn on it?” She refers him to me.
But to me he says, “Um, Daddy? I have a thing in my pocket that defeats things. It’s probably T. Rex’s. It’s a superduper trumpet laser. Here, Daddy. Here. Here, Daddy. Parasaurolophus is the one to drive now. Hey, put your seatbelt on.”
It’s hard to know what to say to this, other than, “Clearly, Son, you’ll be a Harvard man.”
I sit on the couch with a cup of tea, six books at various stages of being read, another 100 pages of student writing to grade before I can sleep tonight, and all sorts of half-baked holiday plans, starting with Thanksgiving dinner for 16. I still need to buy something that sounds like harness bells, since we have a secret room (honestly) behind the fireplace, and a month from now I intend to hide there and shout “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and jingle the hell out of those bells, while 3-year-old Thing One shivers in his bed with terror and delight.
Suddenly, a possum screams in the backyard, and Mrs. Churm yells, “Where’s Sofie Tolstoy?” The house emits some damp confession from a cavity in its brick walls, and the stench of asparagus cooked in 1871 drifts past. Little Thing Two squirms and grins up at me, all gums, and fills his diaper with a blast like Gabriel’s trumpet. Whoever thought heaven had to be perfect? I just wish it could last.