Wednesday, December 17, 2008
There is a puzzling quotation that opens Herman Hesse's early novel, Demian:
I wanted only to live in accord
with the promptings of my true self.
Why was that so very difficult?
This weekend I met with my mentor, Alane Rollings, in Chicago. Alane is a Southern woman with kindness in her eyes. She has a baby doll face framed by dark curly hair and she carries herself with extreme fragility; but inside is a powerhouse of strength and love. She has been mentoring me in fiction and poetry for ten years now.
One summer after my second year of college I sat in Alane's creative writing workshop surrounded by high school kids who admired me for my passion and intensity. A couple years older than these students, I had already begun treating myself as if I were destined to write fiction, as if nothing in the world could change this basic truth.
Alane also seemed to treat me differently. She enthusiastically pointed out the attention I gave to detail in my short, fantastical pieces. There was a feeling of specialness, a halo of uniqueness, hovering over me in her classroom, and although I appeared confident in my abilities, I needed Alane to prove to myself that my quest to become a writer was not an elusive dream.
At the end of the short summer term, Alane wrote on the back of my final assignment--a ten-page short story--that she'd be willing to read another 50-100 pages of the same story. I read those words and my heart sank. Before leaving the classroom, she reassured me that she meant it. My dream could become a reality if I wanted it badly enough.
What happened after that is a long story. I went back to college and became addicted to drugs. I never wrote another page of the short story that Alane praised in front of my classmates. The rest is told in my Novel of Life.
I don't know what dreams look like to other people. I don't know if some people allow themselves to dream as vividly I do. Maybe it's a matter of temperament. Some of us are brought up to be more practical, more responsible. Others meticulously cultivate their irrational side.
My mother never allowed me to have a full-time job when I was in high school. She grew up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and knew what it was like to work hard and be poor. Without an education, she became a fashion consultant and then a clothing designer for Sears in the 1970s. My mother never stopped working until she met my father; and then she went back to school and became an oil painter.
My father was born in Baghdad, Iraq. At twenty years old he left home for compulsory duty in the Iraqi National Army under president Saddam Hussein. Since childhood he was following his mother's wishes to become a doctor. He worked as a doctor in the army for two years and then was granted a rare, once-in-a-lifetime pass to leave the country.
I believe my father never got to follow the "promptings of his true self". His mother fiercely directed him into medical school in Iraq because it was a stable, higher-paying profession and something my grandmother always wanted to become herself. But my father loved literature and for the rest of his life he would recall the hours he spent alone fervidly reading European novels and magazines from the United States.
A father's dreams are easily passed down to his son. Through this natural process, I inherited my father's lost dreams. And here, it would be nice to say, "Just like my father became a doctor, I became a writer and everyone lived happily ever after." But life is not a fairy-tale.
Alane and her husband Richard Stern seemed happy last weekend when my girlfriend and I visited them at their Hyde Park house. A small house with brown paint and blue shutters, it was built during the World's Fair in Chicago, nearly 80 years ago.
Alane directed us into her living room that faced a large window. The overcast clouds caused the living room to grow dim. Still I could see an infinite amount of interesting things on the walls, miniature pictures, framed sketches and small illustrations; and on the side tables, lots of old books rising up everywhere. The wallpaper had an antique quality to it, but it was well preserved and without a speck of dust. The house reminded me, in fact, of just what it would look like going down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland:
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung on pegs.
I was surprised to see Richard in such lively spirits. He overflowed with an autumnal vigor, his eyes sparkling with interest. He remarked, "Fantastic!" after either my girlfriend or myself told him a piece of news about ourselves. But I was more interested in hearing about his life. He told us a story about Borges whose apartment they visited in Argentina. It seemed like a dream to hear a personal story about a man universally worshiped in the world of letters. Here was Richard Stern, exactly the same age as Borges in 1979, telling me how Borges directed him to the shelves and "pointed out the exact location of the book he wanted read to him even though he was blind".
(As a side note, I discovered a book about Borges on Amazon, in which Richard recounts this exact same story in an essay entitled Borges on Borges.)
To believe your dreams is a daring, dangerous quest, very often plainly irrational. Think of Don Quixote.
Before going to Alane's house, I had gotten into an argument with my father. Rather, my father expressed his disagreement with my lifestyle (i.e. writing and not having a full-time job). I'd heard the lecture before and so I buffered it with my own peremptory defense, but most of the points I raised were useless.
Why was it so very difficult?
It was so very difficult because my parents unwittingly raised me this way. It was so very difficult because there are conflicting realities in this world. Herman Hesse, I'm torn between what is true to me and what is true to those around me.
My father has never been an illogical or preposterous man. On the contrary, he wants his son to be self-sufficient and financially stable. He wants me, more or less, to embody what Emerson talks about in that great essay on man, "Self-Reliance."
And I want that for me too, but I also have this irrepressible drive to emulate Richard Stern, Jorge Luis Borges, Alane Rollings, and Herman Hesse. My dream is to accomplish what they have accomplished in their brief time on this earth.
But my father has a point that I always seem to forget, "Dreaming takes place in the future; while living is the here and now."
Toward the end of our visit at Alane's house, I broke into a soliloquy about my past. I shouldn't have said another word. As Richard remarked in his essay on meeting Borges, "We talked non-stop for two hours, literature, history, politics, jokes." I too thought our time had passed quickly and enjoyably. But something possessed me in those final moments and I blurted out:
"My father always wanted me to succeed. My father is a surgeon, and I had this . . . this need to perform, to outperform my peers. I took mental enhancements, drugs like Ritalin, to become better than the rest of my classmates . . ."
I went on, unable to stop myself, "And the Novel of Life, this project that I'm working on, it's a work of archeology, I'm digging into my past and finding a lost civilization . . ."
I had nearly become delirious explaining myself to the room, and all I can remember is Alane, and then Richard, repeating the dreadful word "civilization". They repeated it as if it meant something, but to me it meant nothing and I didn't know why I had even said it. It was ridiculous to declare in front of a celebrated author that I was digging up a "civilization" with my "art". A civilization of what? Myself?
Alane led us to the front door and told us where to find the Coop Bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. As I walked away from the brown house with blue shutters, I kept replaying the blunder in my mind, and I kept saying to my girlfriend, "Didn't I sound stupid? Didn't I screw it all up in the end?"
"No, no," she said. "You sounded fine. You sounded intelligent. You were fine."