January 1, 2017; MANAGING THE PAST
A new year, and we're supposed to look forward, but it's hard to do when you are constantly wrestling with your past. I'll be leaving a whole lot of words behind me, essays, books, feature articles, book reviews, hundreds of those, two whole books still looking for publishers (one a memoir, talk about wrestling with the past), and now a book of poems, self-published because I never wanted a career as a poet, and I'll be giving a reading at the end of January, and it will be out of the past. Words words words. Occasionally I read some of the things I've written and pronounce them good, or not so good, and I think, does this make a whole? Is there a definitive person behind them? Was this a good way to lead a life?
Well I can't stop. I look at the 5,000 books in my personal library, I reread old notebooks, I remember all the ideas I've had that could have been books or magazine pieces, and the same itch is there, the need to know, to tell stories about the present or the past, or to voice opinions about politics, about human beings, about experience and its consequences. I once ran down Mt. Rainier. Served as a quality control inspector for a hotel chain in South America. Scuba dove to 85 feet in Belize. Kayaked in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Interviewed adults who had been sexually abused, by their own parents, as children. Stood for a day beside a concierge in a fancy hotel and watched him work. Spent eleven days in a mental hospital. Had lunch with Robert Lehman in his private dining room. The list is long. A full life, one would say, a rich life, but not atypical for a free-lance writer.
What's it all about, Alfie? In a way, it's a stupid question. Nobody really knows what it's all about. To a degree it was all choices I made, from another angle it had little to do with choice. So many things just happen to a person, they appear as roadblocks or disasters you could not have foreseen, could not have prevented. Or wonderful strokes of luck. You don't get what you want, you get what you need. You try to sort it out, decide what you're responsible for, what you're not. Either way, guilt is built into the equation.
I walk around the house sometimes scanning the bookshelves and wondering what's inside all those books. I'll pick one off a shelf, take it to bed with me to read after the TV gets shut off, read it over a period of a week or two, sometimes longer. I still want to know, I'm curious about all kinds of things. Maybe forty years ago I wrote a piece for the old Psychology Today, now vanished, called "Selves," about the slipperiness of that concept, the difficulty of pinning down what's going on inside our hearts and minds and what that means about who we are. The longest piece that magazine ever ran. But here's the thing--I still have some of the books I read for that piece. I may need them again someday.
You wind up with doubt, or, if your heart is particularly flexible, with what Keats called "negative capability," which is the ability to hold two opposed concepts in your mind at the same time without feeling the need to decide between them. You keep your options open. You accept the fact that mostly you don't know whether you're doing the wrong thing or the right with your life, and what the consequences will be. You tell yourself, you tell other people, you always wanted to live in the real world. But you can't promise that you reached that point, because the real world is a very complicated and unpredictable place, and you may be wrong. So your life could be like the lives of some scholars, who spend their lives chasing a subject, a dream, an insight down a blind alley. A waste.
That takes courage. You hope you have it when you need it.