You have lived just over half a century and have made all the wrong decisions. That is, even if any decision in all those decisions could have been considered a corrective, even if a number of those decisions can have changed the course of things to some positive outcome, any amount of correction has not ultimately changed what you have been trying to avoid, which is the position you are in now, and which you blame on bad decisions, or decisions leading to the now, which from all directions, looks all all bad…
If any decision can have been a good one, such as not going to Montreal, so you could spend a year in a travel abroad program in England; not going to graduate school so you could spend time doing theatre; not doing an English degree at Concordia so you could focus on your writing in a creative writing degree; not going to Turkey so your could get a free flight to teach in Jordan; not pursuing education in documentary film production so you could do a degree in social justice… all of these decisions based on not going to Boston with your first love because you did not want to live a life as a hanger-on wife of a slutty alcoholic aspiring-director; and returning to your hometown to make it as a writer only to be faced with the two handicaps of your life, anxiety and depression. At every stage, these two things stand sentinel, ineluctable, bishops on a chess board. One is not weaker than the other: who knows if one made the other. In retrospect, every decision was determined by either, each manifesting in different ways: anorexia, on the one hand, anxiety/agoraphobia on the other; fainting on the TTC where you had lost your words as a grade two student–don’t ask me, you say. Ask that teacher who was so stupid she did not recognize the metaphor of loss–to an inability to navigate the war zone of social interaction or more succinctly, the debilitating exhaustion of days. War because anything was a threat and dealing constructively with threats was not something you ever learned to do. Was it ever about learning? You throw your mask on, every day: when you don’t read the cues, you make the same mistake and the chess falls into despond….
I have made so many decisions and at each moment, you think. I have made my decision based on where I thought I wanted to go. Life is a wide-open Sargasso sea on this board where nothing happens and games end to start again. No. This game is a mountain range with moguls and sometimes a tree shaped as Pirate of Penzance pops up from nowhere. Sorry, that was the knight you misdirected. Sometimes there is no choice here. Sometimes, the only choice is to say no. No, I will not move. Sometimes, not even no is a choice. If you can believe there is no choice then here you are, serving phantoms with these hands, making up stories about choices all bad.
The dialectic of the forces in my life have got me here, but here was never where I wanted to be.
How much of my personal life do you need to know to recognize the quandary I am facing in this game, as I lead you through this quarry of stale-mate?—a quandary, yes, so you can see exactly the material of play: the trouble we moderns face using plastic that does not decompose, obviously, not god-sent, nor are we at the mercy of weather, dragons, mind traps, or bad knights. Oh and the stars, our wonderful dis-asters, that shine down on this black and white tiled board that reminds you of your great aunt Anna’s kitchen floor. Maybe everything started there, in that kitchen, in early childhood. When choice was chocolate or vanilla.
Two things: choice as the crossroads, left or right, yes or no. The decision is based on a dialectic, left bank, right bank, and the answer is a synthesis. Sometimes, sometimes, you’ve found a third way–is this the real dialectic? What if you just can’t decide and let yourself sit there, not making a decision? You pull over on the side of the road and read a book. Too terrified to choose so you sit in the corner of the problem and wait for the day to end. They’re pissed you’ve reneged again. You look up, look away. Is this the act of giving up? Or terrified, not about the choice, but the way they look at you… and you can hear them all, all all their voices whispering words and giggling at the cut of your hair, your glasses, that skirt you sewed with a pattern you invented…my bangs, oh my bangs… You look away trying to ignore what you feel: degraded. Out of the game.
Or a plan formulates based on having seen it in the book, the novel, the magazine, or whatever the design with a clear path (like the thin mark of the animal tracks in the woods) and you follow it. Sometimes you have to bear left because a boulder is in the way and you go on because the bracken is less dense and the slope is soft and welcoming, to come around to the other side and you think everything is good because you are on the path still and have avoided injuries. Yes, your pawns can’t see further than their orders, but you—you only have your toes. The boulder is massive and where the path picks up on the other side is not clear, so you keep tracing the circumference of your obstacle to arrive at where you started.
Going around in circles. A roundabout in the woods.
Some days, the day is in the way and you are defeated. The defeat of days cold as winter such a force of fatigue you sit down to die. Or some other obstruction. This something is not a natural thing (ha!!!) but the force of some malignancy. It feels like punishment. It feels like a thinking thing. Something here wants to teach you a lesson. You feel the lesson as no love; you feel the lesson as specious; you feel the lesson as vindictive— Instead of looking at this malignancy as about the problem with the landscape, you introject what is not yours. You swallow it whole, an aspirin, its necessary choking. Taking it in, will solve the problem. The problem is you. You are a chess game, and you are a lousy player.
How can you make decisions based on this obstruction inside you? You blame it for being there, and stand defeated by your guilt. We’re back in your Aunt’s kitchen. No one taught you. You call it ‘assault’ and all the negative force behind it makes you bleed. Your life force leaks, as if to erase this malignancy that is inside you: to make it right, to correct what’s wrong, you empty yourself. It is all your fault. The board slides off the table and it’s mayhem.
Tancred, why do you constantly come upon me in the same place with that same question? Yes, I’m dead? And do you want to kill me again? Says the tree to the man guilty as charged.
I have become Tancred, you say: I wounded my fiancé so that she died. But in my defence, she was in disguise. It wasn’t my fault. It was my fault, however, to duel with her disguise, accepting my opponent at face value. I assumed she said what she meant; I assumed what she meant. It was my fault for not reading between the lines, behind the curtain. It was my fault, for forgetting how the Queen moves, for not being smart enough to see three moves ahead. The future and imminent disaster. Again with the stars.
I am dense. I cannot find the edge of my sword. I cannot find the field beyond these woods. It’s all so black and white. I assume she is what his costume says she is and not my love. Or was.
So on this plate now you have these things: trauma, as per Tancred’s murder which returns in his mourning in the woods as the voice of death, reminding you of what you did; not being able to tell the difference between truth and fiction that comes out of people’s mouths. Not being able to tell disguise. Honestly, now that you trace this like this it’s a wonder you saw any choices in all this medieval interference.
The interference that tells you: this here malign treatment, there is no shame in this. This here place of lack where every move you’ve made moves the world, all your doing with our own craftless digits. This lack of love and or sex–that’s something you made. With your own craftless widgets. Better than following that Homeric hocus pocus that suffering comes from Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, or Poseiden [sic]. That’s a choice, yes that is.
If I am the mastermind of all these miseries I face down here, in the microscale of no perspective, pure ignorance, then what can the higher ‘me’, the one holding all the pieces of the game, do about it? Good question.
Choices based on what is in front of you: and this is what? Yes. Well, then let’s plate this dish. What if, because of where you were born, because of who your parents were, because of where they came from and the food they fed you, because of the materials they gave you to play the game, because of your blood and the light in your quarter of the city–what if all this social DNA meant you never had the chance that Trudeau did? All those opportunities. Without the chance to choose, but with those same desires, how far down this highway can you go? … but Justin, please, Justin. A boxer dressed in feminism, painting liberalism over his black face past. Justin, does he deserve to get all the credit and be forgiven for his crimes? Who made him king?
Note the king is weak: he goes so slowly and in one straight line.
Is it all as bad as you feel it? Is ‘bad’ only about perspective so that ‘bad’ disappears if one changes perspective? I’ll turn my back on this. I’ll pop a pill. Does bad disappear? What if I stop listening to the ghosts of social persecution and sexism and ageism too? Do I silence them or live and let live? Do I give my game away? It doesn’t end here, as you mull over how to answer (what choice to make) in this fucked up game of knights and bishops, pawns and a princess. It’s a game, this strutting we do on the Shakespearean stage of our inner drama of failure, which we try again, and each time, get better.
At some point in your life, you might look back and think: well, considering the board I was given to play with, definitely not gilded or bone, nor alabaster or stone, but maybe a rook of sticks and stone, a knight of some Hobbit museum I found in grade three, cracks and worn, a King and Queen filled with empty signifiers, and the pawns of my hands, my two handicaps, I came out, even-Steven, in the economy of being. I came out being ogled by haters and hated by what I loved. I had my battles and met my night as best I could, killing and killed, masking and framed, refusing defeat but admitting failure, bishops in defence, crying into masks of unsaid and meant, no matter my choices, I am here, where everyone arrives.
About the Author
Concetta Principe is a writer of poetry and creative non-fiction, and scholarship on trauma and literature. Her new creative non-fiction project, Stars Need Counting: Essays on Suicide, has just been released by Gordon Hill Press (2021). Her recent collection of prose poems, This Real (Pedlar Press 2017) was long-listed for the League of Canadian Poet’s Raymond Souster Award. Her work has been long-listed and short-listed in creative non-fiction awards at The Malahat Review and The New Quarterly, and her poetry has appeared recently in The Capilano Review, experiment-o, Hamilton Arts and Literature, and the Eastern Iowa Review. She is a contract professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Trent University and York University.