Anyone who knows me knows I love Nelly's song "Air Force Ones." Once, when drunk, I completed a rhetorical analysis of the structure to prove its brilliance. I maintain that lyrics like, "I get to stomping in my Air Force Ones" and "If the shoe is on the shelf then you got one, man" are pure genius.
This is the hill I'm dying on, y'all.
I recently rediscovered my love of this classic late-90s ballad when I started listening to Nelly Radio on Pandora (okay... I'm so old, yes I still use Pandora). And as lyrical masterminds like Ludacris, Nelly, Chingy, Eminem and Chamillionaire started blaring out of my car stereo at 6am on the way to work, I discovered something disturbing: I know an alarming amount of offensive rap lyrics from the late 90s and early 2000s. I no longer remember most basic math, anything from a single science class I've ever taken, or even my sophomore English teacher's name, but the lyrics to D12's "Purple Pills?" Got 'em.
My memory is a blessing and a curse. I appreciate being able to rock out to "Big Poppa" with my commuting-buddy-slash-best-friend, but there are so many other things I wish I could remember. And most importantly, there are so many other things I wish I could forget. Our memories often seem designed to sabotage us, forgetting the things that could serve us well and holding on to useless--or even pain-inducing--information instead. Chuck Palahniuk wrote, "It is so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness."
Goddamn, Chuck. Right through the heart.
And that's something I'm struggling with lately--remembering pain I'd rather let go. Because lately, up in my brain right next to musical masterpieces like "Ridin' Dirty" and "Lose Yourself" are crashing, cruel words I can't shake. I've always considered myself a forgiving person--I wrote a blog post about it recently--but now I'm wondering what exactly that forgiveness means. Have you really forgiven someone when you take their words--all the things they said that wounded you--and bind them inextricably into your relationship? Into yourself? Is it forgiveness if you know there will be no forgetting? And, if so, what do you do with forgiveness when the remembering crowds in and temporarily knocks you off your feet for a bit?
Words have always mattered more to me than anything else. It's easier for me to forgive a cruel act than it is to forgive a cruel word. I think most people would say the opposite. Perhaps that's why I became an English teacher--because I believe, as Margaret Atwood said, that "a word after a word after a word is power." And people's words have always had a unique sort of power for me. This means that a kind word can work wonders. And a cruel one? A cruel one has a staying power that rivals any lyric by Luda.
For the past few months, I've struggled with words I can't shake free from. Apologies have been made. Relationships repaired. I'm happy and at peace. But memories haven't been wiped. And every once in a while, in quiet moments, the words will suddenly whip-crack through my brain and I find myself temporarily devastated. I find myself stunned at the words rattling around my brain. I find myself a little breathless at the weaknesses someone saw in me. At the faults. At the anger and hatred that spurred those observations into words. And I am, for the briefest of moments, shattered all over again.
Part of my problem is I don't believe in the phrase "I didn't mean it." That phrase reeks of insincerity. You may not have meant to say it, but that doesn't mean you didn't believe--even for a moment--the content of the message. After all, the words came from somewhere. Perhaps they came from the darkest, meanest part of your mind, perhaps from thoughts you would not normally give voice to, but they came from you. And you believed them, at least enough to put them out into the world to wreak their havoc. We've all said things we regret. We've all, at some point, gone after someone's weakest point--their most sensitive point. And too often we excuse it with a quick "I didn't mean that."
But of course we did. Of course. Otherwise we would not have been able to identify the weak points. We wouldn't have known exactly how to break someone. We wouldn't have thought it. And we surely wouldn't have said it.
So then what? What do we do with the words we've been given that we don't want but can't get rid of? How do we move on from pain--from our scars--when the doctors have done all they can? What do we do when we're left with words that have forever changed how we feel about ourselves? Because that's the rub, isn't it? Once a word is unleashed, we've lost it. It no longer belongs to us. We can apologize--we can even mean it with our whole heart--but the words aren't ours anymore. They belong to the people we flung them at; they belong now to someone else's concept of self. And when our words are cruel, we can't deny we've done damage and there's no real repair. And on the receiving end? Well, we take the words and gather them up and hope some day they'll stop whispering to us in our weak moments. So often it works.
So often it does not.
It's hard to explain to someone that you can genuinely be not mad anymore and still be a little broken by something they said. That you can forgive without forgetting. That you can be okay, but still forever changed. Words change the way we see our world and ourselves. It can be devastating when someone's words make our world darker. Especially because, so often, no matter how many good words that come later, the painful ones are somehow always stronger. Louder. More insistent.
Perhaps because, as Palahnuik said, sweetness leaves no scars. But pain?
The best we can hope for, maybe, is that new phrases will eventually crowd out everything else. Perhaps those painful words will continue to rattle around in my brain, but I can hope that, over time, they rattle more quietly. Perhaps they'll be like the lyrics to "Hot in Herre" by Nelly--vaguely familiar, words I knew long ago but which escape me most days. Words that faded when masterpieces like "Air Force Ones" took over. Maybe given enough time, they'll fade. I've forgiven. And now I'd really like to forget.
But "Air Force Ones?" "Purple Pills?" "Ridin' Dirty?"
I've just accepted those masterpieces are for life.