Reading, Writing, and Failure (and other disparate bits that aggregate to a greater whole)
It took me awhile to fully comprehend why I felt compelled to write this post, but then I realized it had something to do with my MacBook dying the other day. I still had my iPad and my phone, yes, but I didn’t have my fingers tethered to my keyboard, always ready to hash out meaning or think aloud and plug my way through the messy uncertainty of the future (or the present). It has been dead for a few days and it will be in service for at least three more (if it is fixable at all). I had some time on my hands. I was squinting at the wide open space ahead of me, between semesters (teaching), between papers, plodding along with my PhD. My mind was a bit too wound up for reading; perfectly primed for writing, if that makes any sense. But life wanted me to pause and reflect. Lay down. Close my eyes. Feel my heartbeat. As it turns out, it was a bit of a necessary breather.
I began to wander a bit into the past, into my youth. I remembered my hometown (Youngstown, Ohio). I remember it as violent and depressing. I remember a small little window from my bedroom (the one I shared with my brother) and I remembered staring from it every night and imagining a better place. I remember it always being dark, a perpetual dusk. I had a great family, a stable family life inside those walls, but outside was different. I remembered reading, endlessly. Mostly because I loved it, partly because it was much safer than outside. I still remember the books I took out from elementary school library (the now defunct St. Dominic’s) and the nun who would encourage me to tackle more challenging works each and every time. I remember seeing that my older sister was the last person to have checked these out prior to me and before that there was often a twenty-thirty year gap. I suppose sons and daughters of steelworkers had little need for the Count of Monte Cristo or Captain Courageous. They should have, though. It helped me. It hatched an idea. So I read and read and read. I imagined places and people as I wanted them to be. I did research at the library. I checked out as many oversized photography books of exotic locales as I could carry from the library. Then I remember thinking that I could live there someday. Ireland, England, France. I remembered being enamored of China. I remember dreaming and plotting and researching.
And that is where I also remember the tension, the anxiety, and the depression most vividly. I remember the insomnia (which I still have in lower doses). I had a dream, but I lacked a plan. I wasn’t clever enough at the time to map the journey from the dream to the reality. I was in conflict. So I sunk and remained true to my nature, my introspection. I lived in my head and stumbled around the physical world. I was painfully shy at the time, choosing often to sit alone rather than at tables with friends. I remember avoiding social events, after-school activities. I rarely participated as was expected of a university bound student, in the endless sports, clubs, honor societies. I was always placed in middle-tier classes (not quite remedial, but far from honors). I find it amusing to this day that I remember a guidance counselor telling me I might not be cut out for university. It wasn’t his fault; I just wasn’t there. This was all in elementary and middle and the first few years of high school. I was a ghost wandering through a life not of my choosing. So I had the background (as much background as any fourteen year old could have from reading), I had the dream, I even had the melancholy, all the ingredients for the literary life. Now I needed the voice. Something needed to be turned inside out.
I was drawing at the time, but writing hadn’t yet entered my life. I basically cocooned in my room, reading, never less than a stack of ten books next to my bed, all half-read. Laying down to read was excitement and elation. The serendipity of reaching for a book and accepting the fate it provided. But I was still stuck between a dream and a reality. It was time to transform inspiration and education to voice and activity. The novel that made me a lifelong reader was the Count of Monte Cristo (which, in turn, inspired me to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses as Monte Cristo was Daedalus’s favorite novel as a child). The work that left me a lifelong writer was W.B. Yeats’ When You Are Old. Sentimental claptrap, for sure, but I was fifteen. The only emotions at that age that feel authentic are sentimentality and rage. The aforementioned claptrap:
WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
I had never loved a woman at the time (although I thought I had), I had no idea what this situation was describing in terms of this aging beauty and this mature love, but I was stopped dead in my tracks by this one man loving the pilgrim soul in you. Pilgrim soul. It still makes my heart flutter a little. Being the obsessive reader I was (and a bit of a one-trick pony in terms of figuring out my world), I went to the library and checked out as many Yeats books I could get in the Youngstown Public Library system. Ie, not many. I branched out to the names I felt I had to know. I tried to like as many as I could, but I was confident enough even then to say that I didn’t like Wordsworth as much as Coleridge, loved Auden and hated Ezra Pound. Thought T.S. Eliot could get right at it at times, and at times fall into pedantic drivel. I liked Tennyson, but would loved him about twenty stanzas shorter. I read some translated Chinese poetry and fell in love with a snippet of a poem that I have never been able to track down again: “From the minute you entered my house, you never minded being poor.” That is beautiful. Poetry taught me all of that. Definition, discretion and expression.
I suddenly had a voice, an awkward, fumbling, clumsy voice. I was a fifteen year old poet, writing everyday, scribbling in notebooks, thinking every word was gold, every verse would woo, every stanza was justification for life itself. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And that was basically the tool that unlocked the rest for me. The rest of this education, this PhD, this faculty position, these papers and book, the modest professional success I have enjoyed. It started with that fear and danger leading to reading leading to dreaming leading to depression and anxiety leading to writing leading to realizing. That was the particular path that I followed, a series of thousands interdependent decisions that led to an aggregated whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Now I write about other things, but after that moment, I had, for lack of a better non-academic term, agency. I had a voice.
I proceeded to make mistake after mistake. I made my way through the rest of secondary school. I was decidedly average in university. I then graduated and realized I had forgotten my dream and had replaced it with convention. I was working towards a teaching degree as I was too afraid to graduate with solely a literature degree. I took my educational psychology classes, I taught in local schools towards my degree. I, through sheer force of banality and attrition replaced my dream of overseas life, following in the footsteps of Daedalus and in search of my own gobbledygook and stately pleasure dome in Xanadu, had surrendered the dream for the reality. I had somehow found myself applying for local teaching jobs in high schools and middle schools in Dayton, Ohio. I then ran headlong into an immoveable object in my student teaching, the final semester before graduating. I battled with a teacher who didn’t like me, nor I her, and we never hesitated to let the other person know. She failed me. I deserved it. My teaching was good, but I had yet to learn professionalism. I had to do the student teaching again and I did. I finished a semester after everyone else. I watched them all get teaching jobs and me graduating in the thick of December, literally and figuratively left out in the cold.
I did some substitute teaching, I took jobs through temp agencies. I slid into a depression. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper to teach overseas. I remembered my dream, I drew strength and courage from the heady cocktail of desperation (professionally) and inspiration (all those literary voices calling to me). I never looked back. All my success in this life was born of that moment. Of that failure. It was the furnace that generated the heat that burns inside me every day. It, at times, almost consumes me. Shame and rage and dreams and vision and voice were the elements that combusted in that cauldron. But without reading and introspection and eventually writing, I would have just extinguished myself after that initial flush. I was born of failure and circumstance, of ambition and dreaming and all that, but I was crafted into something useful through my art, my writing and reading. Without them, I suspect I might not be here, or not be in a position to speak with you.
So there you have it. Small miracles, these MacBook crashes. I hope it happens again, at least every so often. A good chance to pause and reflect. To wipe clean the To Do List of activity to see the motion and progress, the forest for the trees. To reflect on where I came from and what made me. Apologies for the confessional nature of this post, but I realized that it was worth remembering. It has carried me far, this momentum from that failure. I suspect it is time to leave it in the past, though. I suspect the next iteration is near ready and this one won’t need the propulsion and heat of failure to spirit it forward.