Thursday, March 13, 2014

The dark before the light

There was a dark period in my life when I was a child entering adolescence. I was a loner, a reader and a raisin-eater, and I had an obsessive fear of death that kept me awake at night. My fear of death was intertwined with my fear of math. I lived in the country, in a house cantilevered over a steep hill. Someone had told me about infinity. And I lay awake many nights, projecting my mind incrementally forward “… plus one, plus one, plus one …” 

Infinity terrified me. It was logical and simple but unreachable, and propelling myself toward it felt like falling into a bottomless chasm. It sucked the air out of me. 

It was a period when my parents quarreled a lot. I don’t know what they fought about—maybe it was about me and my brothers—but the fights often culminated in one or the other of them raging into the night. A car door would slam and then brakes would screech as the car careered down the treacherous winding road toward the flatland below. So as one part of my mind was inching toward eternity, another part was straining to catch the receding racket of the car.

That wasn’t the only time math and parental anger were joined. Though it was clear that math was not my strong suit, my parents, in an excess of feminist fervor, insisted that I be placed in the advanced class in junior high school. I languished there, stupid and embarrassed, my misery compounded by my being one of only two girls in the class. My dread of math—and of my parents' sure anger—hung over me throughout the day, with just a brief respite between sixth period, when the class took place, and later in the afternoon, when I started in on my homework. On weekends, my father would tutor me. These coaching sessions would begin with patience and good will and end in fury and tears. My father, a structural engineer, could not fathom that anything but stubbornness could account for my stupidity. It was a relief to us both when the school placed me in the regular track the following year. This time my parents did not intervene.

Then there were the taxes. When I was 16, my father said he’d pay me to code his receipts for the year and add them up. It was simple in concept, but the coding was an elaborate scheme, with dozens of categories and subcategories. And the receipts overflowed a large grocery bag. It was a big job—overwhelming in scope and importance—and I muffed it. I knew I was muffing it, even as I did so. As I waited for him to discover the mess I had made of things, I swam in a sea of dread—of my father and of the IRS. When he finally began to plug in the bogus numbers I had assembled, my father reddened and roared at my “carelessness.” I called him a “swine,” a peculiar word—I have no idea why it came out of my mouth—that ignited an explosion of wrath. My father was six foot four and burly, and he seemed to swell with rage. I was scared and humiliated. His rage eventually burnt off, but its toxic cinders lingered in the air. We didn’t speak for weeks. One of the enduring residues of that episode was a deep fear of growing up and having to do my own taxes. 

But adulthood turned out to be a lot easier—and happier—than childhood. I learned that for a small fee, an accountant would do my taxes. And balancing my checkbook is about the only task I’ve ever had to do that involved math of any kind. Infinity I still struggle with, oddly when I meditate. I get that free-fall feeling when I try to let go of the past and of the future, and focus on the now. That now … plus now, plus now, plus now … feels a lot like eternity.

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