The more I work with myself the more I discover that everything affecting me today has its roots in relatively early childhood. This, of course, is also what Freud discovered but today –for me- there is a basic difference between Freudian thinking and my own experience. Since I have been doing The Work of Byron Katie with my thoughts, the direct experience of what happened in my childhood is possible and every time this experience has been the same: it wasn’t what happened that scarred or traumatized me, but what I thought about what happened. The deed was something like, let’s say, my parents closed the bedroom door; the thought that followed was “they’ve excluded me”. This five-year-old ‘exclusion theory’, taken as literal truth, marked almost every one of my important relationships at some point or another, with a tremendous amount of pain following each supposed ‘exclusion’ experience. The feelings attached to each experience were a replica of the sensations of the child, always tremendously more intense than those of an adult, and therefore the ensuing reaction was the exaggerated reaction of child which, of course, no one in the adult situation could understand. This became a virtual Torture-go-Round for most of my grown life that submerged me in years of psychoanalysis first and psychotherapy later in an attempt to accept and ‘purge’ the subsequent traumas that never actually existed apart from my interpretations.
For years now, I have been undoing judgments that have served no purpose in my adult life other than to make me unhappy. Today I can go long periods of time in absolute peace and harmony, at ease with life and reality, living in the present and content beyond my most fervent desire. Yet, now and then, something will happen and I’ll find myself once more on the roller-coaster of untamed emotions (as Richard Moss calls them) grabbing for any straw that will keep me afloat in the wild waters of insanity. Thus, yesterday, once again I was plunged into the darkest of depths thinking that only death would give me a way out when Kiwi-san made a move in our Scrabble game that gave him 88 points.
I can hear a cynical chuckle or two amongst my readers: The depths of despair over a Scrabble game? Yes! And no one could have been more surprised than I was. I will start, as stories should, from the beginning.
About a month ago, Kiwi-san and I began a series of games of Scrabble played at a distance, on internet through our computers and I-phones. He would make a move and I would receive a message inviting me to check into the site and make my move. Kiwi is a really good, I mean top notch, Scrabble player. He has trained for years doing crossword puzzles and playing word games. He is also a retired journalist. But mostly, he loves language and words and has a marvelous memory when it comes to ways of saying things or strange unfamiliar terms. When we have played normally, sitting at a table with a board between us, Kiwi has always won and the scores are usually 3-400+ (his) to 200+ (mine): an honorable defeat at best. Since we have begun playing at a distance, however, what seemed like merely an uneven game has become a crushing defeat of humongous proportions. Twice my friend has been able to start off a game by playing all his letters which has given him such a head start that even catching up was out of the question. It would seem also that he not only gets most of the large-score letters (Z, X, J, etc.) but also knows how to place them in 5-7 letter words that almost invariably land on a ‘triple-word’ square therefore leaping ahead in what already was an incommensurable distance. I have been walloped, squashed, scrabbled and eliminated in three of our four games so far. But the fourth game, the one that was being played on our computers had so far progressed neck to neck, with no more than 30-50 points between our scores. I had even been ahead during some plays so I was really having fun. Having all but given up on the I-phone game where he was almost 400 points ahead of me, I found myself spending great time and concentration on each move in the computer game, honestly believing that I could maintain at least a neck-to-neck race. And then yesterday, when I clicked upon the link to see his play and discovered that he had played the word ZOECIA for 88 points, leaving me eating his verbal dust, something inside me plummeted to the darkest depth of despair. I had no idea what was happening to me; all I knew was that I felt as if I wanted to die, as if my whole life had just been proven wrong and I the biggest loser in the Universal game of existence. I was devastated to say the least.
At that moment, I didn’t even try to understand what was happening. It was all I could do to hold myself together and allow me to feel what was going on inside. I asked myself if I wanted to cry but the despair was beyond relieving tears, it was as barren as moon’s surface, so I sat there dry and hurting, torn between the desperate need to never play Scrabble again with Kiwi-san and the painful thought of losing forever that possibility. I was completely stymied right in the middle of what seemed terribly like existential checkmate. Even to a mind as confused and hurting as mine was at that moment, what was happening seemed unreal. The tiny part of adult that remained observing (and it was very small) understood that these emotions had nothing to do with adult feelings, yet no thought or memory appeared to explain them. Rather, the mind kept trying to get me to distract myself from what was happening.
“You could watch a dumb romantic comedy” it suggested, as a way of offering an exit from the hell I seemed to be in.
“No” I answered, “I do not want to distract it away, medicate, entertain or meditate it away.” There was a narrow margin of intuition working that told me I had to sit with it. I ate a handful of almonds and drank a cup of tea. One part of my mind was asking “How could you do this?” while the other part was answering “If one plays a game one must play the best game one can, so it is normal that he does just this”. That wisdom was to no avail against the depth of despair where most of my being floundered about. The pain refused to go. I went back into the Scrabble game with Kiwi-san and swapped letters losing a turn at the same time as deciding to discontinue all future games with him. I ate yoghurt with honey. My decision to never play Scrabble with Kiwi again produced a sadness which would tide over into the following day. To compensate for the loss, I actually played a game of Scrabble against the computer (on the 3rd level out of 6 of proficiency) and won after only using the computer’s suggestions twice (one of those times gave me 71 points but they were both plays I never would have done on my own!) The Scrabble game helped to calm the feelings down a bit and I was able to go for a night walk with Salomé. The cool, humid air, the evening’s darkness, the quiet only broken by an occasional car or the distant hooting of an owl brought sufficient peace to my heart to allow me to fall into a deep sleep the moment I lay down in bed.
In the morning what remained was like a veil of sorrow that seemed draped over my whole body. It wasn’t unbearable, but it certainly did nothing to cheer up the rainy day. I didn’t remember having dreamt anything and frankly I was feeling a bit fed up with the intensity of the evening before so without giving it much thought, I went about my morning chores. I think it was while I was washing my teeth that the memory surfaced stopping me dead in what I was doing. It was my Grandfather, the place was Acapulco and I was anywhere between seven and nine.
I must introduce the memory by saying that my grandfather, among other things, was a gambler. He loved playing cards and did so every Friday night of his life in the Westchester Country Club where he was known as “Cookie” (his surname was Cook). He and my Grandmother were visiting us for a vacation in our house in Acapulco where we usually spent the winter months once school was out. What I remembered was playing gin rummy with my Grandfather. I think I asked him to show me how to play and was delighted that he accepted. He showed me the basics and then we sat down to play, although not before he had informed me that –as a gambler- he never played for free. We had to establish a bet. He suggested one peso (equivalent at that time to about 10 American cents). I had a weekly allowance so I could bet. I guess I was so excited, feeling like an adult, and so sure of having fun and even winning that what happened next must have felt devastating. He beat me. No: he creamed me! Hand after hand he got gin, or he went out for a few points leaving me with everything. I never had a chance. Game after game I lost by stratospheric numbers. In my memory, I didn’t win a hand and my Grandfather exulted in his winning. He was a gambler: gamblers gamble because winning produces such pleasure and I presume this is true even if your opponent is a child. The memory returned with the feeling of devastation repeating itself just as it had felt the night before, and on my imagination’s screen Grandfather and Kiwi-san became one and I, of course, was seven years old feeling humiliated, shamed and stupid believing I ever could win a game against him/them.
As I watched these parallel events play out in my imagination and felt the emotions that had so surprised and puzzled me the evening before, I was once more fascinated by the mind’s capacity to make me relive childhood experiences in order to bring them to peace and by my newfound clarity that allowed me to observe this process and understand it. All at once it became clear that the seven-year-old and the almost seventy-year-old were one and that time does not exist. Both had thought the same thing: “He should let me win even if only once” and then the adult had understood what the child could not: gamblers do not let anyone win if possible, it is against their nature. And the adult also understood that to have let me win, then or now, would have been dishonest, deceitful, degrading and unsatisfactory making the child experience a power and a capacity she didn’t have and making the adult miss one more marvelous lesson in self-realization as the mind unravels before her the mysteries of existence up to now.
“Zoecia” by the way for those of you who are word sharks or future Scrabble players, is the plural of “zoecium”: one of the cells or tubes that enclose the feeding zooids of a bryozoan. I wonder how he came upon that word!