Tag Archives: recapitulation

Rascal!

I am in third grade, a tiny spry little girl, quiet as a mouse. For some reason I get the idea into my head to play a trick on the bus driver who shuttles us back and forth to school and home again at the end of the day. He has been very friendly lately, chatty, ebullient almost, joking with everyone. I like him. I think he’s funny and that he’ll appreciate a good joke in return.

Sometimes I came out of my shell and did something bad!
– Photo by Jan Ketchel

When I get on the bus at the end of the day the driver is turned sideways in his seat facing all the children as they climb onto the bus. He says something funny to each of us as we walk past him carrying our book bags and lunchboxes. He gets us all in a good mood and there’s an overall air of jollity to the whole busload of kids as a result of his jokey attitude. I’m happy, feeling mischievous. I walk to a seat and sit down. Suddenly an idea comes to me. I tell my friend what I’m going to do.

“Nooo! How are you going to do that?” she asks, looking quite incredulous.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “Just watch me.”

I study the driver. He’s preoccupied with the kids getting on the bus. I know exactly how long it takes for everyone to get on and how many kids are not here yet. I’m naturally very observant. I calculate that I have plenty of time to do the deed.

I sneak up to the front seat directly behind the driver’s seat. There’s only a shiny steel handrail separating the back of the driver’s seat from the rest of the row of seats behind him. The rail is about even with a kid’s head when sitting down. I know this because my older brother got tossed into the bar once and broke his front tooth against it when the driver had to slam on the brakes.

I slide into the front seat and sit down. The driver doesn’t notice me. He doesn’t see that I’ve wormed my way up from the back of the bus nor that I’m sitting behind him. He’s distracted, still chatting away to the students getting on the bus.

Carefully, as quiet as a little mouse, I slither down to the floor and along the left side of the driver’s seat. I’m small and thin enough to squeeze in there quite comfortably, crawling on my hands and knees. The upper half of the driver’s body is turned away from me, facing the other way, so he doesn’t see me. He’s got his feet planted squarely on the floor, the bus idling gently. I reach around to where his feet are and very carefully untie first one shoelace and then the other. Then I tie the two of them together, nice and tight. I slither back out as quietly as I went in and sneak back to my seat. I can’t believe how easy it was!

“I did it!” I announce to my friend.

We giggle softly, conspiratorially. I have no idea what’s going to happen when he discovers his shoes tied together but I have no doubt it will be funny. I sit and wait in high anticipation. I can barely hold back my excitement. The kids in the upper grades finally get on. It’s time! I watch the bus driver swing his torso around and face the front of the bus, pull the door lever toward him to close the door and…

“Whaaaat the!” he says, letting out a loud shout of dismay. I see him trying to figure out what’s going on with his feet. It takes him a moment.

“Who did this?” he finally yells and immediately looks into the rearview mirror, searching the bus for the culprit.

I am standing up in my seat, leaning onto the back of the seat in front of me, laughing into my hands. I just can’t help it. I am laughing hysterically.

I watch as the bus driver reaches down to untie his shoes and retie them correctly. He gets up and slowly walks down the aisle of the bus. Uh oh, I’m in trouble now! I sit down hard in my seat, hoping he won’t notice little quiet me, but I must look really guilty because he comes right over to me and leans down, his big round face so close to mine I can smell his bad breath.

“You’re the rascal!” he says in a loud voice, loud enough for everyone on the bus to hear. And then he struts back up to his seat with an air of command, no more Mister Jolly, just an angry bus driver who seemingly doesn’t like getting pranked by little girls. He sits down, glares at me in the rearview mirror, puts the bus in gear and off we go.

That’s as far as any sort of punishment went. He never told the principal and my parents never heard about it, but he never let me off the hook for the rest of the school year. If there was a commotion on the bus, I got the blame. Any shenanigans going on, I got the blame, even if I had nothing to do with it.

As with the previous stories I’ve been telling about the little imp inside me, as I write this story my heart is thumping with the same level of excitement that my eight-year-old little girl self experienced as she thought about what to do and as she stealthily carried out her plan. And I can’t help but laugh out loud too. It was a thrilling moment in my life, thrilling to carry out and thrilling to get away with, one I’ve never forgotten. So quick, so quiet, so dexterous! I was invincible! Rarely did I feel in such control!

It was, however, not thrilling at all to be branded a rascal, because normally I was a quiet little girl, but in hindsight I understand that the imp inside me was enticed by this friendly fellow, greeting us all at the end of a long day at school with a joke and a happy grin, and she wanted to reciprocate with a funny joke on him that she thought he’d naturally appreciate. Not so!

It’s often hard to gauge the reaction a person will have to a practical joke. Sometimes we laugh when we’re really nervous, or scared, or embarrassed. Sometimes we shout when our ego is bruised or envious, or when something gets triggered inside us. Sometimes we cry when we really want to laugh. Sometimes we know we’re doing something mean and sometimes we really do think we’re doing something funny and that it won’t bother anyone.

The imp, however, has a little bit of nice and a little bit of mean inside her; it’s who she is. And I can say now that she wasn’t just a nice quiet little girl on the day she pranked the bus driver. She was all imp!

A blog by J. E. Ketchel, Author of The Recapitulation Diaries

Something Stinks!

My elementary and middle school years were spent at a small Catholic school taught by nuns. There were eight classrooms filled with about 60 kids per room. We all knew each other, our families knew each other, the nuns knew us all. It was an environment where if you did something good everyone knew about it. Likewise, if you did something bad everyone knew about it too.

My beautiful blue squirt gun… it all started here…

I was a poor student for the most part, often bored, except when something interested me. Then I went from an uninterested slouch to a stellar performer, but such moments were rare. I liked hands-on learning but learning back then was rote memorization, the whole class of 60 kids repetitively shouting out loud, or quiet reading of textbooks where nothing was alive.

On more than one occasion I acted out and got into trouble. Getting into trouble could mean being humiliated in front of your whole class, being sent to the mean principal’s office, made to stand in a corner for a day, or getting sent to public school, this last being the most dramatic, but it did happen. Suddenly a student would be gone and we would be told that she or he had somehow sinned and been dealt the worst punishment this side of Hell, public school! I do clearly remember one girl once telling a nun to shut up, using an expletive, and she got expelled that very day, the little heathen. Her fate was, as we heard from the satisfied nun, public school!

It was my seventh year in this school when I did something really bad. It was the fall of 1964 and for some reason squirt guns were popular. It became a big fad, both boys and girls carried them around all the time, to school and home again, around the playground at school and around the neighborhood at home. We’d carry them loaded with water, ready to fire away at a moment’s notice. There was a little general store a few miles from where I lived and it was at this store that we bought our plastic guns. They came in various colors. Mine was blue.

The impish potion…

As I recapitulate I remember the thrill of pulling out that little blue gun, taking aim and squirting an unsuspecting someone, usually a boy. I remember that a big “fight” was planned and everyone was bringing their gun. The imp in me got the grand idea to fill my gun not with water, but with perfume, specifically my mother’s Chanel No. 5 Eau De Parfum. I carefully poured from the big glass bottle directly into my gun, not spilling a drop. Hee hee, you couldn’t tell it wasn’t water!

I could barely contain myself as I got on the bus and surreptitiously pulled out my gun and started firing away. Pretty soon the entire bus stank! Clothes reeked! At school, as we played outside in the morning before being called to line up, I continued firing. The air was filled with the stench of Chanel No. 5 Eau De Parfum as I aimed and shot yellow stream after yellow stream of the stuff. Two perfectly aimed shots hit a boy in my class right smack in the eyes. Thrilling! The pistol of perfume was in my hands, and I was a champ. All my girlfriends laughed as the boy started rubbing his eyes and went crying into the school. Pretty soon Sister Mary Bernard, the Principal, came marching out, dragging the weeping boy by his shirtsleeve.

“Who did this?” she demanded.

Everyone ran. I was the only one left standing. I had to admit that it was I; I did it.

“You knucklehead, where did you ever get such an idea?” she yelled, as I stood there shrugging my shoulders, unable to answer her because I thought it was a perfectly brilliant idea! “You hurt this boy! You’ll be lucky if he isn’t blinded by what you did!”

As I remember that day, I still experience the same thrilling jolt of numinous energy that coursed through me when I loaded that gun with perfume, slipped it into my uniform pocket with a giggle of delight, and when I pulled it out on the bus and started firing. Once everyone realized what I had in my gun, it was all over. No one else in the entire school had thought of what I had thought of! I was onto something good! And boy, it was good while it lasted! And boy, was it bad when it ended!

All guns were confiscated. Parents were called. The boy had to go to the doctor. The school stank all day of perfume, we all reeked of it. And I got into trouble, big trouble, though I did not have to go to public school. At the end of the day even the bus driver finally knew who had smelled up his bus that morning. He glared at me when I got on the bus in the afternoon and said, “I’m watching you, Troublemaker.”

Not only did I get into trouble at school and at home, but everyone in the whole world seemed know what I had done. I was bad. Even my grandmother and her bevy of friends knew. People in my neighborhood knew. Kids who didn’t go to my school knew. Even the man who owned the general store knew. The next time I saw him, he grumbled at me.

“You’re the one! I had to deal with the Catholics! I had them calling me up, angry and yelling, and now I can’t sell squirt guns. Had to take them all off the racks!”

I had to apologize to the boy whom I might have blinded for life. He meekly accepted my apology when I saw him on the bus the next day. “It’s okay,” he said. I think he secretly wished he’d thought of using perfume instead of water, but he just wasn’t as inventive as I was.

I had to stand before my parents in the evening after my shameful adventure and explain to them why I had done what I had done. I remember telling them that I did it because it was fun. My father could barely contain himself, secretly pleased that he had such an impish daughter. My mother delivered the final blow, as usual. I was grounded.

“For how long?” I whined.

“Until I say, now go to your room!”

What can I say, there really was an imp inside me and she had to express herself. She was much more daring than shy me, or quiet me, or scared me. Without her, life would have been one long boring snooze! She knew how to kick up some energy and have a grand time. I never really regretted what she got up to because she brought me such exciting experiences, and the thrill of it all still vibrates through me today as I recapitulate what she did. When she showed up, it was time to have some fun!

A blog by J. E. Ketchel, author of The Recapitulation Diaries

Maybe They Won’t Notice!

I recapitulate another memory of the bad girl, the imp inside me. I am walking with three boys and my cousin. I am eleven and my cousin is a bit younger. The boys are a year or so older than me. We’ve all known each other our entire lives. We’ve played together since early childhood.

Gotta’ love it, the nature in all of us!
– Photo by Jan Ketchel

One of the boys nervously asks, “Do you know what this means?” He makes a rude gesture with his finger. Another of the boys asks if we know what fucking is. The others laugh, but I can see they are all very nervous. I pretend I don’t know what they are talking about, though I know everything. My cousin says she doesn’t know and I don’t think she does, she’s telling the truth. One of the boys pulls out a condom. I see it quivering in his shaking hand. “What about this? Do you know what this is?” I have never seen one before so when I answer that I don’t know, it’s actually the truth.

We are on our way down to the swimming pool. It’s nestled in the valley, a mile or so down from the mountain where we all live. We spend our summers there, swimming in the pool and sometimes the nearby pond, boating and fishing too. There is a cold mountain stream that runs near the pool. There are copperheads and other large snakes around the stream and up the slopes of the mountain that is covered with pines, maples, and oaks. Tall pines surround the pool too. We ride our bikes down or walk, sometimes a parent will give us a ride, but the pool is unsupervised, no lifeguard. Mothers come with small children during the day, but often it’s just a bunch of kids swimming, diving, playing. The fathers come down to swim after work.

Today is cloudy and cool, late in the day, perhaps early summer or late spring. No one is at the pool. It’s totally deserted, just the five of us, talking and joking around. One of the boys asks me if I will go over to the outhouse and dressing room with him, so we can try out the condom.

“No, of course not!” I say.

They try a few other tactics to get us to do something with them, but we stick together, wary of their eager energy. Finally they come up with the idea that we, my cousin and I, should swim naked for them. Skinny dipping! The thrill-seeking imp in me immediately agrees, the ecstasy of it, the cold water on bare skin, the heart-pounding experience of doing something forbidden! I just can’t say no, and my cousin is equally daring and agreeable.

We take off our clothes and run and jump into the pool with a shriek as we hit the cold water. Like three movie directors the boys stand beside the pool and instruct us. Do headstands, flips, back flips, they say. They laugh excitedly, telling us to go slower, so they can get a better look. My cousin and I know exactly what we are doing and what they are looking at, what we have between our legs, that place where the condom goes. They egg us on, but we soon realize that we have the power. They are mesmerized.

I don’t remember how long we stay in the pool somersaulting and showing off our twats, all of us laughing and having fun, but suddenly the boys take off running. With a surprised yell they scatter, running toward the stream, leaving us girls alone. We had been making so much noise that we didn’t hear a couple approaching, the parents of some friends of ours, out for an early evening walk. Suddenly there they are, standing near enough to the pool to see what we are doing. How long have they been there? Panic sets in. The looks on their faces says it all: BAD!

They do not leave. They go and sit on a bench by the pond. My cousin and I are naked captives in the pool, our clothes lying on the ground some distance away. We will have to get out of the water in front of this man and woman. We discuss how we are going to do it. We agree that “really fast” is the only way. We decide we will jump out of the pool, run to our clothes, grab them and run to the dressing room.

“Maybe they won’t notice,” I say, ever the hopeful one. “Maybe they didn’t really see that we’re naked. Maybe they didn’t notice.”

We do as discussed, hop out of the pool, run and grab our clothes and dash over to the dressing rooms. The man and woman sit on the bench and stare, their faces stiff with the kind of disgusted look that only disapproving parents can have. Of course they see us! We fumble with our clothes. Soaking wet, and no towels to dry ourselves with, we pull them on as best we can. We decide we will nonchalantly saunter past the disapproving couple, for they sit smack in our path, blocking the only way out. We are not about to head toward the stream and all its snakes as the boys had.

“We will be calling your parents,” they say, glaring at us as we walk by, as we say a friendly hello, as if nothing has happened, as if they did not just see us naked, as if they did not see what we were doing with those boys.

My cousin and I walk slowly, reluctant to face what we know is coming. Maybe, if we delay, our fate will shift, but we both know we have to face the music. My cousin’s house is closest so we go there. The news has already reached her mother. She is waiting as we walk in the door. She has company, so the company also knows what happened. One of the guests is a woman I have long admired, independent, tough, not physically attractive but I have always sensed her beautiful soul. One day I overheard her say, “What a beautiful child!” Now I am no longer her beautiful child. I am a monster. I am embarrassed and ashamed that she now knows the true me.

“What am I going to do with you kids? What next?” my aunt yells, but we see that she is laughing behind her stern look. “Get out of my sight,” she says.

We go to my cousin’s bedroom. That wasn’t too bad, her mother has a sense of humor, but my mother is different. I am reluctant to go home. The phone rings. It’s my mother, yelling at me to come home immediately. I can hear the cold, controlled anger in her voice. My cousin looks at me with big sad eyes.

“Uh oh, you’re going to get it, aren’t you?”

I walk home as slowly as possible, but eventually I arrive. I am ushered up to my room by both of my parents. They are dressed for the evening, my father in a suit, my mother in a flowery summer dress, ready to attend a party in the neighborhood. My mother is livid. I am spoiling her evening! I am an embarrassment! I am a disappointment! I am a stupid girl! Why do I do these things! How is she ever going to live this one down! What is she to tell people!

I am in tears, apologetic. I know she hates me, my mother hates me. Then I notice that my father, sitting on my bed, is covering his mouth. His shoulders are shaking. He’s trying to hold back laughter! He gestures to me to keep quiet. He doesn’t want my mother to see him laughing!

My mother delivers the punishment. I am grounded. I am not to leave my room for the next three weeks. I am never to play with my cousin again! My father shrugs his shoulders and with a goofy look on his face follows my mother out the door. I hate my mother! What a bitch! The boys don’t get into trouble; they get away with being boys. Girls are troublemakers.

I really was not allowed to play with my cousin after that. I would sneak off with her anyway, but I always got caught. My mother would find out, somehow, where I was. She’d call on the phone, anger in her voice, or she’d just show up and drag me home. It was an effort on her part to both keep me safe from my inner imp and to save her own face.

What’s the lesson in this recapitulation? There’s always a lesson.

Even as the imp inside me led me on another harebrained adventure, she also came to my rescue. The skinny dipping and the subsequent discovery by the man and woman saved me from some other fate, perhaps being raped by three oversexed boys. It’s interesting to note that though I was, at the time, being sexually abused by a grown man and his cohorts, whom I could rarely deflect from their evil intent, and amnesiac to that side of my life, I had no problem saying no to these boys. Perhaps it was the experience of discovering normal preadolescent sexual energy, power, and excitement that spurred me to engage in precocious exploration. The other side of me, the abused girl side, was deeply hidden, unconscious inside me. She never showed up alongside the imp.

These boys were friends. We’d all been naked together in the past, playing caveman and cavewoman in the woods, building lean-tos and acting out what we thought were primitive man woman relationships. But those were more innocent times. We were all younger then, exploring our bodies in childish, nonthreatening ways, showing each other what we had inside our pants but never really intruding on each other, except with minor touching. Innocent enough, but I instinctively sensed something else going on this time.

The boys, though gawky and nervous, were looking for some other experience, a willing participant to try out intercourse for the first time with. I was not willing to go there with them, but I also had to accept the power in the pussy, so to speak—oops that imp again!—for once in the water it was very clear to me that I was the one who was really in control. I had what they wanted. It was a personally powerful moment of acceptance of my female enticement. Even though I was not using it for sex, I was using it to control three boys who thought they wanted an experience of it. I was totally in control. My mother was right, I really was a bad girl, a dangerous imp.

I am once again thankful for the imp inside me who teaches me and instructs me as I make my way through life. As a child, under the dominance of my parents and their expectations, and as a child who was sexually abused, I nonetheless had other formative experiences throughout my childhood; the imp inside me made sure of that! She had a knack for showing up at just the right time, offering salvation and adventure, and I could never refuse. She continued to offer the thrills so badly needed as compensation for a traumatic childhood.

Beyond compensation, she led me into the normal unfolding of becoming a sexual being, discovering indeed the power of the pussy or, in the deepest sense, the power of the feminine—Yin, Female Nature. I am forever grateful.

A blog by J. E. Ketchel, Author of The Recapitulation Diaries

The Imp Strikes Again!

As I recapitulate, it’s winter, near Christmas time. My friend Cathy and I are babysitting for friends of my parents, people my mother considers intelligent and worth knowing, people they are going to a party with, carpooling with them. Cathy is there because we have made plans for a sleepover at my house and I have asked the family if she could babysit with me. The family has been assured that Cathy is a nice girl, like me, reliable, a trustworthy babysitter.

That little imp!
-Detail of Artwork by Jan Ketchel

The kids are asleep. Cathy and I get hungry. We make macaroni and eat it at the kitchen table. Sitting on the table is a massive ornate wreath made of, funnily enough, various kinds of dried pasta shapes, spray painted gold, kind of tacky, but at the same time I can appreciate the amount of work that has gone into making it. It’s beautiful simply because of its size and intricacy. The thing is huge, a foot and a half in diameter at the very least, and it weighs a ton!

After eating we become bored. Babysitting is boring. We stare each other in the eyes and without saying a word begin pushing the wreath toward the edge of the table. First one of us gives it a nudge, then the other, which is more like a shove because of the heaviness of the thing. Goading each other on, the excitement grows. Do we dare? The wreath makes it to the edge of the table, then it’s teetering on the edge, half on, half off. One more push and over it will go. Who gives it the last shove? Me, of course!

That imp inside me, and the imp outside of me in my friend Cathy both ask me the same question just before I give it one final shove.

“Are you really going to do it? Really?”

How could I not?

It is one of the most thrilling moments of my life. The moment I shove it and watch it soar over the edge and hear it crash to the kitchen floor, golden pasta shells scattering all over the place, is one of the most exhilarating of my life. I did it! I feel a tremendous rush of energy. A devil-may-care attitude sweeps through me and my heart jolts as I realize I have actually done it! Me! I’ve done it! We laugh like crazy and then panic sets in! We have to fix it, somehow! What are we going to do!

Frantically checking the clock, the driveway, listening for the door, we set about righting our wrong, our big wrong! No glue is to be found, though we search through every drawer in the house. So, resourceful being that I am, I cook up a glue of flour and water. We pick up the shattered thing, pieces and all, and try to repair the damage. It’s not easy and it’s not very successful either. It’s pretty obvious that something has happened to the wreath.

“Well,” I say, “let’s leave it on the counter, the bad side turned toward the wall. Maybe they won’t notice.”

We clean up the kitchen, leaving it sparkling, go upstairs and check on the children, hoping they have not been disturbed by all the noise we’ve been making and then we go into the living room and sit on the sofa. It’s a cold house, an old farmhouse with stone floors and walls, low ceilings and thick dark beams. We sit there on the sofa in our coats, shivering. What’s going to happen? Will they notice right away? Or can we get out of the house before they do? Our plan is to be ready to leave as soon as they come home.

“Oh, how cute you two are!” the mother says as she and her husband enter the house well after midnight. We jump up and stand there ready to go, schoolbooks clutched to our chests. They want to talk, to hear how it went. We just want to get the heck out of there!

My parents are waiting in their car outside. It’s snowing. We make uncomfortable small talk as we drive slowly home in the falling snow. It’s the longest ride I’ve ever taken. We get home and Cathy and I go right to bed, fearful of what tomorrow will bring. Maybe we did a good enough repair job that they won’t notice. We discuss our possible fate, worrying for a long time, and eventually fall asleep.

Seven in the morning my mother hammers on my bedroom door, shouting.

“Mrs. So-and-So is on the phone and she’s very upset,” my mother says. “What have you done? What did you girls do?” My mother is livid.

“Jan, do you have something to tell me?” Mrs. So-and-So says when I pick up the phone.

“Nooo, I don’t think so,” I say.

“Well, I think you do,” says Mrs. So-and-So, “what did you girls do to my wreath?”

“Ohhhh, thaaat. Well it got accidentally knocked off the table by an elbow when we were cleaning up.”

“I don’t believe you, Jan,” she says, and then Mrs. So-and-So goes off on me, telling me that she doesn’t think I’m the culprit, that it must have been that other girl, because she knows me and doesn’t know Cathy. She knows I would never do something so terrible, so it must have been Cathy who did it.

“No, you have it wrong,” I say. “It wasn’t Cathy, I did it.”

I refuse to let Cathy take the blame. I don’t at all like the way Mrs. So-and-So is skewing the story. What she is saying is just not true. I persist in telling her that it was completely my fault, that I knocked it onto the floor, “by accident” I insist, because I just cannot cop to the real truth. No matter what I say she just won’t believe me. In the end she delivers the final blow.

“You will never babysit for me again.”

But that is not the end of it. My mother is waiting. She screams at me. I’ve embarrassed her. I’m a disappointment. Cathy has to leave and never set foot in our house again. I’m grounded. I go back into my bedroom and tell Cathy what Mrs. So-and-So said. I tell her what my mother said. We’re both scared. She’s scared she’ll get into trouble at home too. We’re both shaking with shame as she gathers her things and leaves.

News of our disgrace spread fast. It seemed as if half the neighborhood already knew. All our friends knew, other girls who babysat and were secretly happy that we, the perfect ones, had screwed up. All the other mothers whom we regularly babysat for heard about it and for a long time we were off the babysitting list. Even though we only got paid 50 cents an hour, and a dollar after midnight, it was our only spending money.

We had to bear the shame, humiliation, and embarrassment for a long time. Eventually, the hubbub died down as someone else did something worse, boys stealing mail out of mailboxes, one of my brothers involved, my parents ashamed and embarrassed again. And Cathy and I did become trusted babysitters again, but never for that family. But after that incident the trend was to never have two girls babysitting at the same time. Bad things can happen!

In recapitulating this vignette, I once again encounter the imp inside me, her thrill seeking spirit and how I consciously let her take possession of me. I chose to allow her to act, that’s pretty clear, and the draw was the numinous thrill of bringing down that massive structure, sending it crashing to the floor. The imp opened the door to a sense of power that clearly compensated for the good girl persona I had to uphold and the utter powerlessness of the years of sexual abuse that dominated my life.

I see and experience the imp as a pure nature spirit, a lightning bolt, a storm of energy that is thrilling to engage, absolutely thrilling.  That thrill is a powerful draw in its own right, but my fascination with her was also connected to the compensation she offered. She did not overtake me; I signed up to go with her. No blame for the imp. In fact, she may have kept me sane.

I am well aware of this character in my personality and appreciate her daring spirit still. She, in an integrated way now, is part of what enables me to channel every day or write honest books and blogs about the truth of my life. No more need to smash any wreaths, now I’m just telling the truth.

That imp is an essential part of my being. In communication with her I get to live life to the fullest. Gotta’ love her!

A blog by Jan Ketchel, Author of The Recapitulation Diaries

Shame On You!

I was way ahead of my time! Who knew salty chocolate would become so popular?
– Photo by Jan Ketchel

Shame is multilayered and multifaceted. It may be aroused by the thoughtless, unfeeling actions of another, or taken on due to a distorted, untruthful view of the self, the world, and reality. It may be instigated by a part of the self that knows better but goes ahead and does something shameful anyway.

It might only show up occasionally, when one is reminded of something one has done, not done, or had done to one. It’s an amorphous, shadowy, dark thing that’s hard to shed, and even harder to reckon with. It’s a bit like wrestling with an invisible opponent, because who can really see it? Except when it shows up, it is largely nonexistent, but say the word, “shame,” and you can feel the red heat of it spreading like wildfire.

In the story I am about to relate, having to do with a death and a chocolate cake, my own actions led me to the awareness of a deeper part of myself, a self I was not fully aware of, a part that apparently wanted me to know of its existence. In deep shame, I discovered something about myself that was shocking, abhorrent, sinful, despicable and mean, the epitome of sinister—all living within me!

Last week I wrote about the thief who lives inside me. It’s funny but I never felt ashamed of her, nor did I suffer shame around her actions. She was pretty straightforward and known, active often enough. I knew of her, the opposite of my good side, as we lived pretty much side by side, navigating life together, making decisions and choices, trying to figure out how we were going to reconcile with each other. The image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other comes to mind, both of whom constantly vie for attention. What I write about today is more covert, darker, hidden in the recesses of my soul.

It was 1966. I was 14. A good family friend had died, a man, an artist whom had taken an interest in me for my artistic abilities. He had a wife and a daughter. The daughter was 13 years older than me and also an artist. I considered her to be a mentor. When I heard that the man had died I was sad and wanted to do something for the family. It was in my nature to be generous and giving to others, in small personal ways, sending letters, making paintings and drawings, giving little handmade gifts.

At the time of the funeral I was visiting my cousin. She and I were not invited to the funeral; no children allowed. It was to be a small affair with the mourners invited to the family home afterwards for refreshments. My aunt, my cousin’s mother, would be going to the funeral and to the gathering afterwards.

I suggested to my cousin that we bake a cake for the gathering. My aunt thought it was a very nice idea and agreed to bring it with her. My cousin didn’t really understand my need to do something for these people whom she had no personal connection with, as I did, but I insisted. I had to do something, and in the end she was willing to join me in the project. So we set about making a cake.

We picked a recipe for a chocolate cake made from scratch. I was in charge of reading the recipe while my cousin got the ingredients together and measured everything into the mixing bowl. Everything was going along well enough as we came to the last ingredient in the recipe.

“¼ cup of salt,” I read to my cousin.

“Are you sure? That sounds like a lot of salt,” she said. I looked again.

“No, that’s right,” I said, “¼ cup of salt.”

“Check again,” she said.

I did. I saw the same thing every time I looked at the list of ingredients in the recipe: ¼ cup of salt.

“Okay,” my cousin said, a little warily, “in it goes, ¼ cup of salt!”

We mixed everything together, poured it into a baking pan, licked the beaters, and gagged! It tasted horrible! Too much salt! I went back to the cookbook, sure I had gotten it right, only to discover that I had read it totally wrong! It actually only called for a ¼ teaspoon of salt! My dyslexia had screwed things up royally.

We didn’t have enough eggs to bake a new cake, nor did we have the time, as my aunt would soon be heading off. We made an executive decision to bake the cake and see if it improved with heat. No deal! What should have been a thick and fluffy Bundt cake came out as flat as a pancake, looking more like a brownie than the grand cake we had envisioned! We debated over whether to cut a piece and taste it to see if it had indeed improved with baking.

“Do you think anyone would notice,” my cousin asked, “if we just cut a little piece?”

“Yes,” I said, “it would spoil the whole cake. We can’t send a cake with a slice taken out of it. Let’s sprinkle it with confectionary sugar and just hope for the best. Maybe no one will notice.”

For good measure, I topped it off with some purple violets, picked from outside the kitchen door, poked into the center of the cake. When we sent it off it looked perfectly fine; though a thin, dense cake, it looked rich and dark.

For the rest of the day my cousin and I were in agony. Though we laughed hysterically and somewhat meanly at the thought of people actually eating it, gagging as we had, we also knew what we had done.

Would they actually serve it? Would anyone eat it? What would they do or say if it turned out to be as bad as we expected it to be? As generous and thoughtful as the gift of a cake had originally been, we knew we had decided to test the fates, that a part of us was willing to risk all for a bad cake!

It did not go well. My aunt returned and confronted us. No one could eat the terrible cake. Did we know we had made a bad cake? We pleaded and pretended ignorance. But we knew what we had done and we also knew we would have to live out the consequences of our decision.

The story of the bad cake did not end there. The widow wrote my cousin and I a note thanking us for sending the cake; it had meant a lot to her that we’d been so thoughtful. She had served it with whipped cream and berries, but no one could eat it. “Was that some kind of joke?” she wrote. When I read her note I could feel her pain. I could see her preparing to serve the cake, all dolled up with cream and berries, triumphantly placing it on the table next to the coffee and tea cups, a nice gift from two sweet young women, and I felt terrible.

I was old enough to know that my actions had hurt a family that was suffering greatly, people I truly liked and admired, people I really did care about. What I had done had put them in an awkward, uncomfortable, if not mortifying position at a time when they were deeply grieving the loss of their beloved husband and father. It was a cruel joke to play on anyone, because the truth was my cousin and I did treat it as a joke, and a very bad one at that.

I don’t think the story went much beyond that small group of people who actually tasted the cake or were present at the cake eating. I have no recollection of being scolded by my parents, as would surely have been the case had they known about it. But I did have to live with what I had done, with the sinister character who lived inside me and did mean things to other people.

As I recapitulate that day, I realize it was mostly my decision to send the cake off, clothed in its beautiful sugar and flowers, like a poison apple looking all shiny and delicious. I truly did want to be generous, but there was another part of me, an imp in me, who was angry for not being invited to the funeral. I understand now how she was compensating for my ego attitude that said I must be gracious and giving when in fact I was really pissed. A year later the same family had a wedding, the daughter got married, and once again, no kids invited. Once again I was pissed, though I did not make another cake!

I came to recognize and know this dark little imp better over the years, as she popped up often enough, a troublemaker, an energetic entity who lived inside me and was daring enough to do some pretty harebrained things. She pushed the envelope on many an occasion, challenging me to go beyond my normally good self, granting many exhilarating experiences in return, those blissful moments of highly intense energy like nothing else in the world, and her voice inside, goading me, saying, “Are you going to do it? Really? Come on, do it! Do it!”

Yikes, the shameful things I have done! And once done there were those deeply embarrassing consequences to contend with as well.

The imp inside me is still active and she can still lead me into bad places and many experiences that I would otherwise avoid. But I am thankful for her now, grateful for how she leads the way into those numinous experiences of joy and excitement, those exhilarating experiences of life that I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to taste. Oh, the lessons I have learned!

And I deal with the consequences of my actions in a more mature way now too, seeing how everything that I do, good and bad, offers something, is part of the whole package of who I am in this lifetime. It’s all  part of the grand unfolding of me and my life, leading me toward the greater fullness of who I really am, both good and bad.

When C. G. Jung had to face the impish side of himself he just allowed himself to cheat! He was known to cheat at all the games he played with his children, and even some adults. He couldn’t help himself!

If you want to achieve any kind of wholeness you really do have to live the fullness that you are!

Recapitulating the shame of it all,

Jan

A blog by Jan Ketchel

Author of The Recapitulation Diaries