Carrying your Albatross

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It had been a tough couple of weeks and it was wonderful to be in my dear friend Gail’s home for a charity afternoon tea. A few people, to whom I’d been introduced and whose names I’d promptly forgotten, were there, mostly women around my age and teachers at Gail’s work. One woman in particular drew my attention, not because of an irresistible charisma but, rather, because I sensed a certain energetic quality, a sensing that went well beyond reading body language. Against my own inclinations, I sat near her and gave her the attention she craved. As her story unfolded, it became clear that she was experiencing a condition I’ve come to dub the “Ancient Mariner Complex.” If you’re familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” you might have some idea of where I’m going with this.

In the poem, the Mariner makes the mistake of killing an albatross. His error results in the supernatural beings, Death and the Nightmare Life-in-Death, throwing dice for his soul. The latter wins, condemning his shipmates to death and the Mariner to endure the horrors of life-in-death trapped at sea on a ship that will not sail. So traumatized is this eponymous character, so scorched, agonized and isolated, that he cannot pray. Around him he sees nothing but death and rot and the endless monotony of sky and sea. Then, in a moment of grace, while watching the slimy snakes of the sea, their blues, glossy greens, velvet blacks and flashes of gold, he blesses them “unaware.” At that moment, the albatross that his shipmates had tied around his neck as a sign of his guilt falls away. Then he can sleep, the rain fails to quench his thirst and the ship begins to move, piloted by the dead men. His penance, however, is not complete. He eventually reaches his own land and begs to make confession to the hermit that greets him, temporarily relieving his soul of its agony. This is an agony, however, that always returns and so he feels compelled to tell his tale again and again to selected individuals who are left wiser for the lesson learnt.

And this is the quality of energy I sensed in the woman at the party. It wasn’t long before she had told me that her eldest son, who had enlisted in the military, was headed for Afghanistan. Personally, as the mother of two sons, the thought of them ever fighting in war fills me with dread, but I didn’t want to be rude and so I asked if her son was excited. Of course he was but she was horrified, stating that she’d already lost a son and didn’t want to lose another.

Presently, it unfolded that I knew her youngest son when he was at high school. I didn’t teach him but I remembered him and he was the spitting image of his mother who sat before me. According to her, he had a career as a rugby league player ahead of him but that was destroyed when his coach, a teacher with whom I’d worked and who’d gone on to a well paid job in professional football, had given him performance-enhancing speed. As a result, the boy became schizophrenic, drug addicted and suicidal. His mother had him committed and took control of his bank account so he couldn’t buy drugs but she returned that control because she believed he was becoming well again. On the day of his death, she had dropped him back at he hospital for the night but didn’t walk him in. He waited for her to leave, withdrew a sum of money from the ATM, went to the pub down the road for a few hours and then caught a train to Cabramatta, where he bought heroin. He had told his mother that he wanted to die on a train. He was close, actually expiring on the platform from the overdose. The stationmaster had even stepped over him, presuming him to be drunk.

Like the Mariner, the mother had released her agony in telling her tale, a tale that was ten years old and that had come to define her and shape her life. I was none the worse for having listened; the promised pleasure of the afternoon was not erased. Heck, I’d worn my own albatross and carried my own obsessions in the more challenging parts of my life and I know what that feels like. In its way, the experience was also part of the tapestry of death dream and the boy asleep on the bench* mentioned in previous blogs. All of it was geared towards growth. So was hearing the other teachers there talk knowingly and lovingly about their students, as I did about mine. It was, indeed, an afternoon for being charitable.

* I still find him there sometimes and we still chat every so often.

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Updated 4th July 2011 at 09:20 PM by Beekeeper



  1. Korpo's Avatar
    In reading another book I came upon Samuel Taylor Coleridge and since part of the book is made up, including the college in Cambridge it plays in, I kind of assumed both Coleridge and the Mariner were only part of the fiction. I'm a bit surprised to read about them here.

    Beyond that a very interesting read.
  2. celiaflx201112345's Avatar
    Deleted spam.
    Updated 7th September 2011 at 09:44 PM by Beekeeper
  3. celiaflx201112345's Avatar
    Deleted spam.
    Updated 7th September 2011 at 09:45 PM by Beekeeper
  4. eyeoneblack's Avatar
    Guilt must be one of the most intractable emotions of all. I suppose it lies at the very bottom of low self-esteem. It feeds upon itself and is therefore self-perpetuating. However, for all that, I'm not sure it is Natural to the human psyche. IOW, I see that is learned, a product of nurture and not of nature.
    That we try to dispell it by confessing it, paying pentence, I think only encourages it. It's weird. I recently broke a front tooth and haven't had the ambition to get it fixed. It's really nothing but nevertheless I feel ashamed.
    We should not feel guilt for that, or say, a large mole or the like. This seems somewhat obvious, so why shouldn't our stumbling, bumbling actions be treated in the same way - without internalizing it into a picture of a pathetic self that haunts us ad infinitum?
    We see that guilt and blame are not the same things. If there is blame, and it is ours, there is no reason to pile a bunch of guilt on top it.
    I've been reading a large set of volumes about the American Civil War. General Lee of the Southern states remarks after the whole-sale blood letting of Gettysburg, a battle which did not go his way, that the fault of the miscarrige lies soley with him (some 50,000 dead and wounded). There is nothing to be said about his subsequent actions and character that would indicate a feeling of quilt. No confessions needing proferring and receiving.
    I don't know, Beek, just my unfinished thoughts.
    Updated 7th September 2011 at 08:30 PM by eyeoneblack
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