Friday, February 18, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 29.2 (Cormac McCarthy)

McCarthy, Cormac
All the Pretty Horses


Not sure about this one. I may have bought it a long time ago, after reading Blood Meridian. I feel like I have had it for a long time.

When we left off yesterday, I was seething with jealousy at not having been singled out like my friend, M., to go on this super secret retreat. When senior year came around, I lobbied hard to be chosen to go on the first retreat. I am not sure exactly why it seemed important to me. Part of it was an inborn competitiveness, and I guess another part was that I had been seduced by all the secrecy accompanying the return of the retreaters in the spring. Something seemed to have happened to them all and I wanted it to happen to me.

It turned out that the biggest impediment to my participation was my poor academic performance. I was told that there was grave concern that missing five days of school could adversely effect my school work. I barely did any homework as it was, so how could I assure my teachers I could keep up with the extra load? I recall making my case several times over before they finally relented, most likely to get me to leave them alone rather than because anything I said actually convinced them I'd turn into a good student over night. Either that or they decided to gamble on the fact the retreat might change my attitude.

M. was one of the student leaders on the fall retreat, but we weren't in the same group, so I didn't see much of him. The retreat functioned somewhat like an encounter group. We spent a lot of time in group exercises involving deep sharing of fears, anxieties, social pressures, ambitions, etc. We did this one-on-one, in small groups, and in large sessions involving all thirty or so people. We were kept up late into the night talking and woken early to begin the day. As the week wore on, our lack of sleep made us all quite vulnerable emotionally.

At the most emotional point in the retreat, the retreat leaders turned up the volume a bit. On the second or third night, everyone gathered in a room and listened as one by one our names were called, followed by the phrase Dear Michael (or whatever the name)...They'd asked out parents to write us each a letter saying how much they loved us. It wasn't long before everyone in the room was in tears. At that point, I recall they handed us an envelope full of letters from friends who'd been previous retreatants, teachers, etc., all teling us the same and wishing us well. We were given the rest of the evening to read the letters and cry.

I think the final night we stayed up all night, tired & vulnerable, sharing and sharing and sharing (and smoking like crazy -- at least I was. Kind of amazing to think that was the case back then). By the time it was all over it did feel like a religious experience. It didn't turn me into a believer, but I did bond with a few friends for the first time since I entered high school. If nothing else, I felt less alienated from my peers during my senior year.

I believe I lobbied further to be chosen as a student leader for the spring retreat. I got the job. I think it was my first real public speaking gig. My friend C., the retreat leader, had me over to his apartment on Capitol Hill one night to work on a my talk. He let me smoke and drink a few beers (the drinking age was 18 then, so I was almost legal!)

I told him the whole exciting adventure of my life on drugs. I had recently stopped using everything for a brief period of time because I had been tested by my parents, who then insisted I go to a twelve step program. I had a useful story of triumph over adversity to tell. C. typed out the whole thing as I spoke. I memorized most of it and then delivered it during one of the big, emotional sessions. It was my first real taste of using words to engage an audience. And I liked it.

from All the Pretty Horses

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

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