On the Ineffable Delicacy of Souls

I had a crazy 5th grade teacher, Ms. Conkle. An older, skeletal woman with platinum hair, Ms. Conkle should have retired a decade before I landed in her classroom. As if it was yesterday, I can recall her telling the class the odd story of an Indian man forced to drink his own urine. When my family moved mid-way through the school year, I attended a better school staffed with teachers in their right minds. I know my parents were happy.

In that context, it may seem a little odd that my strongest teacher memory from 5th grade involves a substitute teacher. When Ms. Conkle was absent one day, Mrs. Pruder, the principal’s wife, graced us with her presence. I can recall her high frozen hair, bold (overdone) makeup, and dour demeanor.

At some point in the day, one of my classmates accused me of something I did not do. I cannot recall the specific accusation, but you can be sure that, in a 5th grader’s mind, the accusation was dramatic. As I attempted to defend myself — ever the good little boy — Mrs. Pruder cut me off, in front of the entire class, and took my accuser’s side. I now understand this to be a gross violation of the 5th Amendment due process rights and 6th Amendment protections guaranteed to me as an American citizen, but, at 10 years old, I did not yet have my law degree. I cannot recall what Mrs. Pruder said, but I can recall the horror of being wrongly accused, the feeling of defenselessness, and the fundamental unfairness of it all.

And I’ve never forgotten.

Once a year, I’ll daydream I encounter Mrs. Pruder and tell her how her unkind, thoughtless behavior has stuck with me for three decades. That, in her smugness that day, she embarrassed a scared little boy for no reason. She should have known better.

Admittedly, it’s very silly, but these are the little battles we all fight in our heads, solitary soldiers fighting over and over the lost battles of our lives.

That said, from my life, it’s the earliest piece of evidence that wholly validates Maya Angelou. The famous American poet once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s a blessing to consider that all of the thoughtless, mean-spirited, ignorant words that leave our mouths at one time or another will, eventually, fade into the mists of time. But that blessing does not compensate for the curse that is the realization that we are accountable to the ineffable delicacy of the souls around us. The long ago fights, the bitter resentments, the venomous retorts, all vanished from exacting transcripts, but ever present in the emotional memories of friends, colleagues, and loved ones.

So, say and do what you want, for the specific memories of those acts will fade, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Worse yet, you may send a young boy down the path of a career in the law, looking for guaranteed rights of cross-examination.

On Lost Throwing Stars

When I was nine years old, my dad gave me three Japanese shurikens (throwing stars). Stored in a leather pouch, the throwing stars were black, and one throwing star had two dragons chasing each other around the middle. These weren’t pretend toys; they were the real deal. Armed and dangerous, I was.

Kept carefully stored (or concealed, depending on how much of a ninja a nine year old can be) in my dresser, I loved to take them out and look at them. One day, Dad and I took them out to the back yard. Behind the detached garage, there was a pile of wood. Safe away from the house or anything else I could hurt with an errant throw, he let me practice throwing my shurikens. I couldn’t have been standing too far away, but I’m sure some embedded in the wood logs, while others embedded in the side of the garage. It didn’t matter to me. At that point, you’re pure ninja. My classmates’ Little League was laughably “little” compared to throwing throwing stars. Soon, I’d be scaling walls, fighting baddies, and starring in my own martial arts action-adventure films.

A funny thing happened, though. After throwing a round, we could only find two of the three shurikens. We searched high and low, around the wood pile, up and down the garage, but it was not meant to be. A shuriken had been lost, most surely the result of an errant throw. And it would never be found.

What’s interesting to me is not that a nine year old boy threw something and lost it, but that, three decades later, I recall the event with a high degree of clarity. I wish I knew why. I can recall trying to find the throwing star, and I’m sure I wasn’t thrilled about losing one, but it is not as if the loss caused great emotional tumult. My mom likes to say that we take our childhoods with us, and that’s surely true. It seems, however, we take not only the big emotional moments, the successes and the failures, the love and the hurt, but also the quiet and the unremarkable.

We all have seemingly benign moments from our childhoods that have dropped deep psychic anchor. Are the memories simply outliers, haphazard, nihilistic synaptic connections in our brains, or do they represent something deeper, some meaningful emblem of ourselves? If we could pull back enough, pull back at a psychic distance of miles and miles, would the pattern reveal itself? Would we see ourselves in the random assortment of memories, the lost mitten, the beautiful flower, the unusual cloud, the splat of rain on the window? Is it possible that the random aren’t so random and reveal more than we think?

Why do these memories come to us? These interstitial thoughts, a background chorus to our music. Neither sad nor happy, but present. Real. Softened over years, but still tangible. Is our psyche trying to find the pattern in the patternless, connecting the unconnected, the disconnected? Or, does our personality, maybe even our soul, reveal itself in this way? Revealing a sum of parts, including the random, the meaningless, the merely extant.

I still have the black leather pouch and two remaining throwing stars my dad gave me, and, from time to time, I take them out and look at them. I daydream about returning to the home of my childhood, walking into the backyard, past the grapevines and garden, circling around to the back of the blue garage, and looking down to find my lost throwing star. Waiting for me, all the time.