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The Anatomy of Regret

March 18th, 2021

Poem by Carter Cumbo

Photo by Maya Heins



There are memories that continue to torture me. Doing the dishes, spaced out in the shower, a wave of regret will accompany a flash of memory, some petty mistake I've made forces its way in, starts shitting all over whatever sliver moon of serenity I'm currently trying to loop a string around. I’m often taken by a memory of when I was twelve or so, on a beach where my father was covering classic rock songs on his guitar. When he began playing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ I told our family friend Jeff, who was perched on the jetty with a Modelo, that I loved when my father sang Neil Young. He corrected me, ‘Brown Eyed Girl is Van Morrison buddy.’ I protested but felt his correction in my gut, my composure shrinking from my clothes and into the sand like a hermit crab; bare naked, all awkward limbs and shame. That was at least thirteen years ago. It still makes me cringe today. 

It's the Shame come back, revisited ad infinitum creating pressure, each cringe felt again forming little diamonds, cutting my mental fortitude like an erect penis through the soggy mantle of a microwaved pie crust. Like someone walking in to witness said dick scalded and stained cherry red; derailing the whole train of thought into a valley of sharp head twitches and putting the milk away in my room.  

          I've come to realize these diamonds as self centered fear, glittering reminders of how seriously I take myself. So preoccupied with trying to forget them, to alleviate the shudder of embarrassment, I am unaware of the irony when I curse time for not dispersing their power. I hoard my shame, wonder why it’s so hard to move around, why my head is a dozen microwaves all dinging done at the same time.  

          Truthfully I know, all the taco bell shits, escaped period blood down a leg, Freudian slips on a first date, are beautifully human and darkly humorous. Society’s a chorus of awkward small talk and names forgotten as soon as they learned it. I am too a part of this chorus, somewhere in the crowd mumbling along in my nasally tenor.  




But I know of a darker side, a more serious depth to a cringe, a type of full-bodied rejection that has shaped me into a twisted bicycle. I am talking of white guilt. 


Diamonds hard pressed by a rejection of privilege

the incredible social benefit of being white 

and liberal in America,

apologies for my ancestors and finger pointing

at trailer park whites, 

my privilege rears its head 

I repress it, steal the spotlight

stand on this page even, with 

the severed head of Uncle Sam,

performing irony of the great

whiteness of American nationalism

while the applause fills 

my back pocket with ticket sales

of social currency, my white voice 

crowding another platform. 

The diamonds sit deep

In the psyche like kidney stones

when they tear at the fragile 

walls I am the victim,

to the applause of white hands

I attempt to pass them:

These bloody diamonds,

deceived by the sparkle.






After I finished my undergrad at Colorado State Online, from the third story room of a Portland sober house, I returned to Fort Collins to walk, walk across a stage, walk through 

a tunnel, walk in front of my mother’s camera, walk into

some frame and be captured in the normalcy of a moment 

that did not exist. 


My graduating class was massive, the History department 

had a damn army. The college of Ethnic Studies, my college, 

were eight in number. Mostly women of color and me, no other men;

certainly no other white men. It was decided, with a mouselike squeak

of compliance from me, that during graduation we would all kneel in front of our seats during the national anthem. 


It was excruciating, the long walk from the practice gym to the stadium, where all the families rung around the basketball court turned ceremony hall. The discomfort of being seen was brutal. Newly sober and anciently terrified of large groups of unfamiliar people, the last time I had been on that campus for that long, there was a half gram, about to be an empty bag of heroin in my pocket. 


Everything bled together , the roaring crowd, naked light

and blue gowns distilled into a single powerful sensation

a spell from which I meant to disappear into the chaos of.


When the time came to genuflect my knees stayed locked. The weight of five years of studying social justice, Baldwin, Said, Zinn, Alexander, Morrison their voices all cut to shredded afterthoughts by the sharp edges of my discomfort. I was another passive white face in the stadium reassuring myself that kneeling is not my form of activism, that I had betrayed my classmates, used my knowledge for silence, I wanted nothing more than to dematerialize; something the drugs had failed to do. 


The woman next to me, Black American, knelt with a fist protruding through the thick fog of my white discomfort shrouded around her. Her family were the loudest in the stands, she danced across the stage, she carried many others across with her. I trailed behind irritated, I moved only a procession of passive eyes along with me. In my family, there was nothing remarkable about a college degree. My mother had three of them, my father, my sister had one from the same damn institution. The only remarkable thing was that it was a graduation for me, and not a funeral; not another walk across the parking lot of a detox. Personally, my presence was remarkable, socioeconomically it was not. The gravity of the miracle of my psychic change was undercut by the privileged access to detox and a quality rehab. Though millions of well-to-do young white addicts, middle class like me, die from this disease, it is not from a lack of resources but purely from the pervasiveness of the disease itself. How many young Black addicts in the 1980’s were given prison sentences instead of treatment plans. I don't recall any of my white friends receiving 500 times worse sentencing for a handful of crack then for possession of a brick of cocaine. 


During the national anthem I shuffled over to blend in with the ranks of white history students. I stood out of shame and years later I now double over in guilt like I have a hernia, the diamonds scraping. I had failed; stood in solidarity only in my head. After all the lectures and classes and supposed awakenings, there I was, as complacent and unwilling as a student who hadn't taken a single second of time to think about their blindness to racism.


In recovery I learned that self-knowledge will not save you from drinking again, from driving back to the dope dealer. No light bulbs will break into the piercing sustenance of the sun.  Because of how I heeded to shame, I embodied the hollow statistic of another white liberal with a head full of justice and no action to back it up.  


Yet, I did not stay standing out of disagreement, or sinister motives for white supremacy. I did so because I was ashamed to be seen at all. Without the familiar invisibility of my whiteness, of my booze, I shuffled over, I sweated and cursed my mother’s insistence for me to engage in scholastic ritual.




Shamed, dazzled by the sparkIe of my own guilt presented for attention, I am young to challenging my whiteness but I believe in reconciliation, because I believe in owning our collective fuck ups and complicity. To dismantle it, I work to understand the parts of the machine, the wheels and gears of bias in myself, the cringe-y regrets that cause me to avoid and cop out, to stay silent in the face of injustice for fear of being labeled a hypocrite. No one wants to be Ben Afleck, but most of us are. Imperfect. Full of bias and damaging foreknowledge, clapping at the wrong performance, filling the pockets of whatever black art our favorite white artist appropriated, full of liberal arrogance, or conservative fear. But there is hope in the effort, in trying to use our voices to reveal these biases, to question our silence to sketch the body of our guilt, to listen over the loud droning of our collective fear. 


The diamonds sit deep

In the psyche like kidney stones

when they tear at the fragile 

walls we are the victims,

we attempt to pass them:

these diamonds from the psyche,

deceived by the sparkle

shocked at the sight of blood,

and the task before us. 

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