Last night, bundled up around a roaring fire and warm on wine, my family and I stumbled onto the subject of regret. What is it about wine that tugs at the back of your memory? I leaned in and posed to my sweet brother-in-law (a soul who has seen a vast ocean of pain in his young life) a question: what do you regret? His answer, of course–in true warrior fashion–was nothing. Here’s where the intrigue lays down: we had not been discussing mistakes, rather, we were considering the idea of regret as it pertains to the moments or changes that sting, scar or flattened a soul. What would you pull out of your life, like a Jenga piece, that you regret? His answer was profound.
Around that fire, we were representative of so much trauma. Many of us were the black sheep of our families, carrying the weight of guilt so that others could feel vindicated. Many of us had been drug addicts, quit school, gone bankrupt and had given up on dreams of success too easily. Several of us had struggled with suicide, grieved the loss of someone who had been their hero and had damaged our bodies by living like we were Peter Pan (if he were playing Kurt Cobain in an eighties movie). But this one, this sweet brother-in-law, had suffered so much more. I’m not at liberty to divulge the particulars, so let’s just say that his body had betrayed him, cost him those dreams that we had blithely threw in the trashcan and had been to blame for more wrenching anguish than I will ever fathom. Factor in that he, too, was not the apple of his parents eye; he, too had not been rocked in the arms of unconditional love as a young man. And still? What do you regret? Nothing.
It takes my hero quite a bit of time to speak. His voice is one that you wait for, patient and kind, so that you might garner a slice of Celtic wisdom. So many of us struggle with this, as we run ramshod over a conversation, desperate to have ourselves heard, desperate to finish the sentences of someone whom we think we know. In these moments, we might even knight ourselves gallant: I saved him! My quick wit and sharp elocution has swooped in and thrown his words on a white horse! Now they are valid! It is my contention that, in these moments of egotistical gallantry, the only thing you have saved is your own glass pride–or perhaps, your impatience and precious time. My hero doesn’t mind–not much. His eyes will simply shift to the fire, smiling and ancient, and wait. And we miss the universe. What do you regret? Nothing.
And so I learned something, ten years his elder, because I waited. I listened to find myself while he found his words. It occurs to me that in doing so, I hear me. I have spent a lifetime regretting my past (easy to do, really, as I am reminded of it often) and very little time valuing it as the foundation for the life I now call home. Seems to me that folks who rip and tear at the underpinnings of their house have very little hope at a stable living room. Damn thing will always shake, rattle and roll–and I truly love my china. I found myself standing on a sloping, rotting floor this Christmas (that unforgiving holiday that rattles like a ghost of regret) and am still hanging onto my proverbial dry wall. In deference to my hero, I refuse to ignore these rumblings of forgotten injuries, guilt-ridden missteps and rattling bones. I am Pagan. I recycle. I reclaim. Yes, y’all, my basement is a hot mess. Hurts my eyes to look into its dank, dark abyss. But it’s holding up such a lovely home: me.
In the throes of Christmas drama/trauma (the house was a quakin’), I received a phone call the other night. A past student, lets call him Scott, has become a nephew to the Southern Kitchen Witch. We waxed on a bit, then he hit me with it: I can’t imagine my life without you in it. You are the finest, kindest human I have ever met and I love you. Well, then. I’ll be damned. Those skeletons in the basement shimmied and shaked. Turns out, they don’t know so much, after all. Mayhap they’re just confused–after all, I’ve been telling ’em how scary and powerful they are for ‘nigh around forty years and given them quite the swelled head. Now, I tried to tell my sweet Scott what those bones thought they knew, that I was not kind, nor good, that I was a manipulative, selfish soul and he had just not been privy to my past. I didn’t make much headway, as Scott didn’t give a rat’s ass about my basement and figured that he just loved my house and had found it warm, supportive and healing. (The skeletons were a might confused on this one. Thought I heard one trying to come up the stairs in clackety heels.) It took me some time, about a pack of Pall Malls and some outright M. Night Shyamalan nightmares to recognize what all the commotion was about. In the end, it all got clear by a fire by resting patient and listening to the halted voice of a man with a dragon tattoo sliced across his bony shoulders.
We take on regret, y’all, because others offer it up like sliced banana bread with our name written on it. Oh, it comes with sides of guilt, self-doubt and labels like “bad” and “black sheep.” When it shows up, ‘specially if you’ve been eating this delicacy for a while, you just slop it down and wait for the tummy ache. But, wait. What if it’s not truly yours? I teach this little work of fiction called Thinner by Stephen King in which the protagonist (or in this case, antagonist?) runs around all full-tilt-boogie-crazy trying to get a curse off of himself that he earned, tail and all.  In the end, the gypsy (Lemke) takes it off and shoves it, beating and throbbing, into a strawberry pie, which Billy Halleck then tries to feed to his wife. Seems he can’t take responsibility. Now, there’s this delightful scene in which the gypsy tries to reason with him, attempts to save his immortal soul by posturing: “why don’t you do right? Eat your own pie. You die thin, but you die clean.” And there it is. You see, Billy refused responsibility, refused “regret,” and this is where it gets sticky. (Hang on, here we go!) It’s in the moment, y’all. If you’ve done wrong, it should go like this: feel regret for the moment. Try to make it right and eat your pie. But, if you’ve “done right,” had your pie, moved on and lived and learned–slap the immortal shit outa’ the fool who tries to get you to have seconds. That’s some old, rotten pie (and they are serving it up for their own questionable reasons). If someone tries to spoonfeed you a little rancid pie that they made themselves? Tell them to man up, you’re full.
In the end, even as regret is transitory and a righteous lesson, it does not construct a sound foundation. I may die thin, but I will die clean. Those mistakes and blunders, regardless of intent, made me who I am: thoroughly and unconditionally loved, trusted and wise. Anything else is a crusty ol’ bag of bones. Time to lay it down, y’all, ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
And today? I can finally answer the same as my hero. What do I regret? Nothing.
You see, I ate my own gypsy pie. Then I cleaned out the basement and put in a wine cellar.
1. King, Stephen. Thinner. New York: Signet Publishers, 1986. First published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.