the abyss

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when I was a child I would lie awake at night, aware of the abyss.

The abyss was outer space… infinite emptiness and darkness… dotted with tiny sparkling lights without which, the darkness would have swallowed one up completely.  The darkness was infinitely deep, a void the immensity of which could only be felt — not understood… and the feeling was death.

The abyss was also inside.  It was infinite.  It was impossible to reconcile, to make sense of — only known by perception and feeling and imagination.  It was shadow, it was darkness, it spoke of death.

At night, in bed, lying awake, I knew of the abyss.

I thought of death.  I thought of the daytime rationalizations; the lighthearted, “if you are good you go to heaven if you are bad you go to hell”.  Daytime simplemindedness was annihilated and rendered ridiculous by the presence in the dark of the abyss on either side; inside and out.  The thin layer that separated them was fear and that fear was me.

During the day, in the light, fear lay dormant.  Events of the day:  family, home, the walk to school or church, teachers and classmates, schoolwork and tv, friends, play and nature … these created a daytime world of normalcy, lightheartedness and continuity.  It was different at night in the dark in the shadows; the precariousness of human existence reigned and all the daytime busy-ness, purposefulness, meaning and conclusion-gathering disappeared.

I felt the abyss.  It had a taste of terror.  It was precisely, at least in part, terrifying due to the very disparity between daytime reality and nighttime reality.  It seemed as if daytime life was extra-superficial somehow; as if there was something that we as a collective society were deliberately avoiding the acknowledgment of.  Even as a child and maybe especially as a child, I recognized the weird superficiality of grown-ups.  They were pretending somehow, to each other, to us and even, it appeared, to themselves. Grown-ups adopted personas.  They seemed phony.  When they were introduced to me, a child, they would greet me in sugar-coated voices with phrases that were taught them, that they’d repeated a million times.  The women’s faces were hidden beneath make-up and their hair was plastered stiffly into puffy arrangements that were designed to make them look like the others.  Their smiles were also a result of engineering, artifice and most of all compliance and conformity.  They were pretending, even to themselves.

Teachers were awful too, even worse than my parents’ friends.  They were doing what they were doing for a paycheck.  They were by-and-large unattractive even frightening adults.  They seemed spiteful; they seemed by-and-large to dislike and have no feeling for children.  I used to look at teachers when I was very young and wonder if it was true, that they could possibly once-upon-a-time have been children themselves.


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