Hard to know what to do when one wakes up in a fighting mood, and there’s no one to fight with and not even a clear, distant opponent. The only answer is to roll out to the garden, park under the tomatoes and contemplate growth. They are downright arboreal, these vines. The tomatoes are appearing higher and higher up their branches. Doubtless this imitates certain trees, although why I believe this…well, that is uncertain. Nor is it clear why I retreat to the tomato vines in times of emptiness. I do feel a lingering pride in their growth. But since I did not anticipate the latter and have only achieved this explosive greenery by way of agricultural accident, what I really feel is a reassuring sense of wonder. While, at the same time, noting the autumnal nature of the enterprise. September is rolling along. The days are shortening. The tomato harvest, while not currently diminished, does not have all that long to go. Reminding me in my banal and existential way, that neither do I. Not that I can be all that certain about this premise either. I am already exhausted, and the day seems to have barely begun.
I don’t know if it is denial and escapism, obtuseness or a general disregard for things trendy, but I have somehow never considered that anything about me could be considered ‘post-traumatic.’ Particularly stress or any disorder. An older, rather macho and all-American acquaintance of mine was holding forth on the topic of PTSD one day with the dismissive observation that this supposed malady had not troubled combatants in wars before Vietnam, what was the big deal…and so on. I assured him that the Great War’s shell shock had to be the same thing, only likely worse. This conversation being the sort of distant and minor recollection that only comes back to me because…other things are coming back to me. And regardless of psychological classification, a fear, a really big fear, roots itself in the soul. In a way that makes eradication impossible and avoidance only temporary.
Where was I? Actually, out on the terrace, a rather attractive brick area revitalized by Marlou, my brother and sister-in-law, plus a small team of Colombians. The place is largely ignored, barely glimpsed as people make their way up my wheelchair ramp. The absence of a useful table and chairs has something to do with this. But there is more to it. Memories. Marlou spearheaded quite a number of improvements about the place as she began the process of dying. I believe it gave her some sense of the future, doing this sort of thing. And so the patio resonates with futility. But it need not. Thus, the works of man. They come and go, as do we, and it is still September, so why not lean back in one’s tilting wheelchair, throw a canvas hat over the face in a gesture of dermatological caution, and enjoy?
When I found myself sprung from six months of hospitalization and living just a few streets off the Berkeley campus, it was midwinter, days were short and my stamina low. The latter must have picked up as I schlepped to and from classes. By the spring, now a graduate, I lived even closer to the university, there being no other apparent place to go. I found a room and rented it weekly in the Carlton Hotel, seedy in a genteel sort of way, and all of about 200 meters from my alma mater.
What I am trying to recall is my anxiety level. I think it began to increase round about then. Once courses were over, I was just another off-campus hanger on, and evenings were open and unstructured…Berkeley began to feel scary. I must have confided in a friend or two, for some discussion of this has stayed with me. Someone asking if I really believed that my assailants were still after me. No, no, I assured them. Doubtless trying to assure myself, but aware across these decades that no, no, ‘they’ were after me in some sense. I was afraid to be out at night, afraid enough to have broached the introvert’s code of silence. Signaling to me now that this was no trivial fear.
After all, they had not been apprehended, my attackers. Which could only fuel paranoia and dark fantasy. But what was the operating fantasy? That I might find one of them, do my own sleuthing, and that my assailants somehow knew this and would get me first? A power fantasy, in other words, of the threatening witness left behind. In any case, the facts of the matter are gravely complicated by the reality of spring, 1969, in Berkeley, which turned into more violence in the streets, including shooting, this time from the police. And in a matter of months it was June, and I was out one night stoned in Islington, a volley of London police cars with blue lights rotating en route to some crime somewhere…a frightening, aggressive onrush of cops…and were they about to bust me?
And now? I can feel it at times, most times, acknowledging that the force waxes and wanes…a fear that if I don’t keep my head down and my voice low, something horrible will happen. Not even that vague, that I will get attacked. I can trace earlier, pre-shooting manifestations of such fear in rage against the mother and Oedipal fear of the father. And before the attack I had dreams of being pursued by someone with a gun…both possible manifestations of the former. Impossible to sort it all out, not that it really needs to be sorted.
I feel vulnerable, physically vulnerable, in almost all settings. Perhaps my travels are counterphobic in origin, attempts to allay my essential, primal fear of the world. While doubtless a low-value target, I do offer high convenience, easy to both track and destroy. Sanding me an search of lunch and the more dubious streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. But also making me wary progressing along Portland Place, in Marylebone, central London…one of the safest parts of town. And yet…. Howard Jacobson sets a mugging there in his latest novel, which struck me as alarmingly vivid, almost realistic, the irony only briefly perceived before it evaporated in my own fear.
But to sort things out, and do it fairly, there is something in me that remains afraid of my own shadow. And are we speaking in the Jungian sense of the word? Oh, doubtless, but who knows the difference between real fears and phantom ones? And does it matter, or does one just take action? Maybe not. At this point in my life, awareness counts.