Thursday, September 9, 2010

To Be, To Travel

Those of us who claim a love of travel often claim it in the romantic abstract. I have too often learned after hearing the words, “I love to travel” that the speaker’s idea of traveling is going to places, staying at the local Marriot, seeing the "must-see" sights, and returning home. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this scenario, only that it’s not traveling. So, when someone says they love to travel, I almost always assume that they like to visit places. This, in a way, is an old debate. To visit is to play tourist, to keep oneself apart from that which is being visited, to remain aloof, often to live “better” than the locals to make up for a perceived vulnerability. I have visited many places, from the more foreign like the former Yugoslavia and Morocco to the less foreign, like Canada, France, and Portugal. I have only felt myself to be a true traveler in one place, however: Spain.

It’s hard to say if I have a heart-and-soul connection with all things Spanish because of this fact, or if this fact is true because of the connection. For me, to really experience a place/culture satisfactorily, I need time. I don’t think time is generally a factor in whether one is a visitor or a traveler, but for myself, the more I have, the more likely I am to shed the visitor’s limitations. I have, of course, had moments when I was suddenly a traveler in the midst of a visit, such as the night I roamed the streets of Würzburg, crunching atop the hardened snow, engaged in a heated political discussion with a new German friend in broken German (on my part) and broken English (on her part), and drinking rotwein to stop us freezing to death. This makes it sound like I was comfortable in Germany, but for most of my two year visit, I most assuredly was not. I mostly spoke English with the Americans I mostly hung out with. The first step towards being a traveler, though, is to leave one’s comfort zone. I was young, and that night in Germany was one of the few times I dared to be outside the company of Americans. I had met Susan, the new German friend, through another American, and was subsequently invited to join her at the local wine fest. This was near the end of my visit, and so it took a lot more time than I’ve needed since. But time still seems to be a key ingredient.

I think it’s natural to feel tense, uptight, self conscious, and generally uncomfortable in a foreign place. I don’t think it’s wrong or bad for us to feel trepidation around the idea of immersing ourselves in a new culture. I remember seeing a Gap in Morocco when I was there, and feeling such a strange mixture of emotions: the immediate rush of relief at the sight of something familiar in a strange land; the discombobulation from the juxtaposition of it amidst dirty, toiling children & the decidedly less shiny, bright structures surrounding it; outrage & indignation at the gall of capitalism, and the base desire to walk inside to see if it was air conditioned. All of this is fine & natural, I think, but of course, you know I’m going to say it: there is something so valuable, so worth it in stepping outside of the known & familiar, in not only stepping into, but submerging in another world – and it’s this submerging that makes us travelers, whether for an hour or a year.

When you do submerge, it’s not always romantic like those abstract ideas that we have. In fact, it’s kind of hard. Actually, it’s more than kind of hard. When I went to Sevilla for an extended stay, it was on the heels of a break-up, and the first few weeks were downright hellish. Not only was I in anguish over my doubts about ending the relationship (and missing the ex, in spite of having initiated said break-up), but I was exhausted all the time from the heat, from straining to understand the difficult Sevillan accent, and from figuring out the most mundane things, like the quirks of Spanish bus schedules & washing machines. Every time I went to do something, expecting it to be quick & easy, it was neither. I can’t tell you how many times I rushed home so I could finally break down & cry. I was lucky to find a wonderful Spanish roommate, but we struggled mightily at first to understand each other, and to agree on things like finances and the division of labor.

Even as I wallowed in misery, though, I wallowed also in the rhythm and flavor of the place and its people. And right when I thought I would drown or reach for a life raft, I stopped flailing and somehow began to swim. I don’t think I connected with the place in spite of my difficulties, but that the difficulties are part and parcel of it all. When we are beaten down enough, we tend to let go of our defenses and stop resisting. Such riches come when we are able to do this! To release our desire to control every little thing & let life take over, trust that it knows better than we do. Though I can never understand Spanish culture as a native does, I rooted myself in it for some time & reaped the reward of a much deeper understanding of both it and myself. It is a fundamental understanding that can’t be sufficiently expressed or taught in words. This is why we have to do it for ourselves, have our very own experiences, right? Oh, I can tell you that Spaniards don’t go out on a Saturday night until 2am and then stay out until 7 or later, but I don’t think things like that translate into understanding. In fact, if anything, it’s these sorts of facts that serve to obscure rather than reveal.

 Of course, this entry is inspired at this particular moment not because of my experience in Spain, but because I am compelled once again to submerge. I am in Costa Rica in those beginning stages. I’m not wallowing in misery, but I’ve had my share of frustration since arriving, and have spent most of my energy sorting out the logistics rather than seeing any sights or making new Tico friends. I can’t say whether I’ll end up having traveled or visited, but having experienced a version of this before, I hope to remember how to let go, submerge, and trust in the process. Come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty good plan for life beyond, as well…

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Empty Nest

Since my cat Esther died on June 8, I haven’t spent a lot of time at home. As long as I am elsewhere, my head is in the present and I have a shot at feeling happy or excited or curious. Here, I feel heavy as I drag myself around & feel the not-yet-latent habits still dwelling within my mind, heart, and body. As I approach my apartment from the outside, I mentally prepare myself for not letting the cats skate by me in their reach for the open air. I know better, but I still wait to see their expectant faces at the door, their meows of greeting, their excited little bodies and twitchy tails as they wrap themselves around me. Sometimes, when I’m still in the parking lot, I find myself scanning for evidence of them – a hungry face peering out the window or a furtive shadow as somebody positions himself for greetings. However many times I remind myself before inserting the key and opening the door, the sight of the bare kitchen floor where their bowls used to sit breaks my heart anew. Yet, seeing certain things still in their places - like the cat carrier with which I had expected to pick up Esther another and another and another time – also breaks my heart.

To have lost two cats within 6 months of each other feels as sudden as if they both disappeared yesterday. I wonder when the shock of not administering pills twice a day, clipping claws, and not having to schedule the cat sitter when I go away will wear off. It’s been almost a month since Esther returned to spirit, but I still wake up late in the morning because my alarm didn’t wake me with meows and gentle paws in the face. I used to hate that, resisted it for a long time, and then succumbed to it. By the end of Atty’s life, I was his nurse and pharmacist. By the end of Esther’s, I had become a kitty chef, as well. These things I did not love, but neither did I resent them. I certainly never thought I would miss them. If I thought about it at all, I thought that not having to do those things, not having to spend the money I was spending on vets, etc. would be the compensation for no longer having “family time” with those long time residents of my heart. But it is not the family time I long for now (though I wouldn’t shun it); it is the obligations, the chores associated with their care that I miss the most. What I wouldn’t have given this morning to have Esther’s probing, persistent paws in my face tellling me that breakfast time had arrived! I would gladly whip up a week’s worth of pills right this minute to have Atticus napping in the next room, or even sleeping on my head again - another feline habit I tried & failed to break.

In the last few months of Esther’s life, we endured three crises, the last of which took her life. At my lowest point during the second crisis, in the midst of my despair over the possibility of having to put her down, before she bounced back like a miracle cat, a friend of mine asked me that if Esther died, what part of me would be dying with her. A couple days after that, I ran into an acquaintance at Yorgo’s. This person asked me if perhaps I needed to be cat-free for the next phase of my life, which felt like essentially the same question. I couldn’t fathom these questions at the time, however, and offered no guesses. I still don’t have an answer to them, per se, but suppose I now have more “freedom” for adventures that I had put on the back burner while my cats lived.

As much as I have spent my life seeking freedom, I am now left to wonder again about the nature of freedom. Certainly nobody in their right mind would call my obligations to my high maintenance felines – in and of themselves - freedom. So then, why do I – a supposed freedom seeker – miss carrying out those duties so much that it makes me nauseous and causes actual, physical pain in my heart? Obviously, freedom is not always about being un-tethered. Perhaps it’s really about choosing our tethers. Perhaps, as evidenced by “empty nest syndrome” our responsibilities, when chosen and carried out with love, are not the things that pin us down, are not the things that we do for others even when it seems so, but are the very things that enrich our own lives beyond measure. And yes, we empty nesters need to keep moving, keep choosing, keep evolving beyond our wildest dreams. And I suppose we shall, but not without growing pains.
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Monday, May 24, 2010

Ten Books: Mrs. Dalloway

5. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

If I were pressed to pinpoint the moment I understood the difference between literature and mere fiction, it would be after the revelation of Mrs. Dalloway. I first read the book, under duress, as an undergraduate. My assessment of the book at that time was that it wasn’t terrible, though a bit slow. These days, whenever a student of mine doesn’t see the enormity of what s/he has read, whether it be “Sonny’s Blues” or Moby Dick, I do my best to remember my experience with Virginia Woolf’s work and that all is not necessarily lost - for that student, for literature, or for the world. I put aside Mrs. Dalloway and moved on to whatever was next, not realizing that a seed had been planted.

As my college years passed and I became increasingly aware of Woolf’s reputation, and was repeatedly assigned her work to read, I couldn’t help but begin to think that maybe there was something to it that I was missing. To me, it seemed rather simplistic (except Orlando, which I still don’t sufficiently appreciate, I suppose), and I determined that one day I would revisit Clarissa Dalloway. After reading A Room of One’s Own, I began to understand Woolf’s role in feminist thought & her place in women’s history. I understood her importance in these ways, but still failed to understand her literary importance.

Underneath it all, it must have been nagging me, for when I went to graduate school, I would do more than merely revisit Clarissa Dalloway. Although I was in a writing program, it contained a serious & substantial literature component that would challenge me nearly as much as the writing elements. At the time, the English Department chair was a Woolf scholar of some reknown, and one semester she agreed to do a Woolf tutorial with me. The reading list was long; it included fiction, nonfiction, plays, and short stories.

Recognizing, appreciating, and understanding the bold experiments Woolf had brought to the writing of fiction – which are too numerous to get into here - was the first step towards a more profound appreciation. By the time we read To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway – arguably the works that cinched her reputation – I had begun to get a sense of deep complexity beneath the simplistic surfaces of her work. But it wouldn’t be until I chose Mrs. Dalloway on which to write the required 20-page criticism, and immersed myself in that novel, that the real depth and magic of it would be revealed to me.

During the course of wrestling with the beast, I had a sudden revelation: that this seemingly simple, chronological, manageable, naturalistic novel was actually a rumination on the immense, unfathomable, felt sometimes but rarely seen or understood worlds of human consciousness, sub-consciousness, and the invisible strata & mechanisms of the universe. It is about something so big and profound that I do not have the words with which to say it, so for my paper I focused on the mythological “language” of the book & tried to encapsulate all that I suddenly had to say about it in what was now a “mere” 20 pages. It was not the “A” that I received for the paper that was so gratifying, but my professor’s joyful declaration that I “got” Virginia Woolf. In retrospect, it felt like receiving the keys to the kingdom, to the inner world – the soul, if you will – of literature. I also realize in retrospect that it was the platform on which I would build a brand new, radical vision of myself, the world, and existence itself.

Postscript: I just realized that I went out of order by doing Mrs. Dalloway in the #5 slot. In my notes, I have it as #6 and Ovid's Metamorphoses as #5 - and indeed, that book had its effect before this one. But c'est la vie, I shall do Metamorphoses in the #6 slot....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Virtues of Nothing

“When I am faced with the choice of doing nothing or doing something, I will always choose to act!” – Andy Andrews

This quote represents something so ingrained in the American psyche, most of us consider it to be just a natural way of thinking. From individual conduct to national policy, this in some way (and the very idea, of course, that there is a “natural” way of thinking) seems to be at the heart of the kill-‘em-all-let-god-sort-‘em-out mentality that sometimes seems to have created our very history. We say that someone is a person “of action” with not only approval but reverence, and judge anyone who doesn’t appear to be “of action” as lacking (or worse, boring).

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been as frustrated as the next person with people who know something is wrong in their lives, know (intellectually) how to fix it, yet are seemingly incapable of actually taking the necessary steps. I’ve been equally frustrated with people who can’t sit still or enjoy silence or solitude. This can’t-sit-still-busy-busy-busy approach seems to give those who embrace it an interesting sense of superiority. When I lived in New York City, I found myself caught up in the endless cycle of social engagements and having my calendar booked weeks, if not months, in advance. A lot of my friends were like this, too. In one phone call I can still remember, I spent well over thirty minutes throwing potential coffee dates back and forth with an acquaintance. Of course, we could have spent that time catching up, but we hung up our phones completely stymied.

One of the worst things that ever happened to me would become the thing that saved me from that treadmill of foolishness. I injured my foot playing racquetball, and this injury triggered a nerve condition called RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy). Without getting into all the nitty gritty details of its awfulness, suffice it to say that my life was suddenly & forcibly restricted to the bottom end of the hierarchy of needs. Since every task required at least triple the time & effort previously required, and the center of my life was unrelenting pain, I swiftly created my cardinal rule: do nothing that is not absolutely necessary. I worked. I went to physical therapy 3 times a week. I read. I became a PBS addict. Here and there, a friend would trek out to Brooklyn to sit with me, drink Southern Comfort, and marvel at the color, texture, and size of my foot.

While the experience of so much intense pain, and the anxiety that accompanied it, changed me in fundamental ways, what I’m trying to finally get to here is when I was walking normally again. When I was walking normally again, and living with substantially less pain, I was joyous in spite of the fact that my entire social life had crumbled around me. Then I was joyous because my entire social life had crumbled around me. I had time now for reading and thinking. I had time for writing again. I had time to just be still and feel the absence of pain - that sweet nothingness! I had time to contemplate what I liked and didn’t like & wonder who the hell I was & where I wanted to go. It was during this time that I first read Thoreau’s Walden and these lines:

Sometimes…I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise til noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have done. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.

I was changed by much of what Thoreau wrote in this little book, but this was one of the most important revelations for me. So much over and above my usual allowance! I had begun to discover this for myself, but now I had some sort of endorsement (which I needed then). And so began my quest for a slower, more contemplative life, a life not driven by money-making or self-importance, but discovery, experience, and self-knowledge.

I was first introduced to the Buddhist concept of emptiness a very long time ago. Or rather, I was introduced to the terminology. My first reaction to the word is negative in the extreme. Emptiness? Void. Depleted. Nothing to give. Glass half empty. Oy! When I did allow the actual concept into my consciousness as possibly valid or at least to be taken as seriously as anything else, I realized that it refers more to an emptying of all that crap that gets stuck in our consciousness that is weighing us down – psychic constipation, you might say. Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with meditation understands at least the idea here. Emptiness is good, nothing sublime.

I think the idea of not being “of action” is associated with this in the sense that they both are related to an idea we have about nothingness. Nothing not as an absence, per se, but as something unspeakable – not evil, exactly, but unfathomable darkness and our own un-tethered, essential aloneness in the universe. To western minds, all there is to fear in life & the universe is wrapped up in this idea of nothingness. Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” demonstrates this attitude succinctly, especially in the following passage: It was a nothing he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. … Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be they name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.

Last summer, on the banks of Walden Pond, I was introduced to the I Ching. I had had a passing acquaintance with it before, but this time I learned a little something about it. It didn’t turn out to be a major transforming power in my life, but I was fascinated that the two or three questions that I posed to it within maybe a month were answered by the I Ching with some variation on the theme of sitting on my hands, letting it go, doing nothing. Even more fascinating was my realization that I had known the answer before I had even asked the question. Around the same time, my horoscopes were all about biding my time, going inward rather than outward, hibernating, taking no action. I decided to follow these guideposts, and eventually the situations I had been contemplating resolved themselves without my intervention, and probably with a better result than I could have expected otherwise. Of course, I could have figured this out without aid if I had been doing a better job keeping my own council, but I allowed my head to become cluttered with the idea of what action I should take.

As any smart farmer will tell you, allowing land to lie fallow for a season or two will benefit the land, the food that grows from it, the animals who graze it, and the people who tend it in myriad, far-reaching ways that are certainly not all quantifiable. Just as this is so, so too will our actions yield so much more when we lie fallow from time to time or refrain from what would be unproductive action. Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed, or as though I’m spinning my wheels, I have begun to habitually stop & do the counter-intuitive thing (for most Americans, anyway): nothing. I take a walk or meditate - even a 20-minute nap in the middle of the day is sometimes sufficient to allow serenity in place of chaos, emptiness rather than clutter, the buoyancy of nothing instead of the burden of something. Sufficient, indeed, to allow the transformation of Nothing into the splendor of Everything.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ten Books: Three Tragedies

4. Three Tragedies, by Federico García Lorca
My very first entry for this blog gives you a pretty good idea of the influence of García Lorca on my ideas poetic, theatrical, aesthetic, philosophical, and otherwise. While I love his poetry and his other plays, this is the book through which I met him. Mind you, I don’t necessarily think it’s the best translation it could be, but it made the introduction – and later when I was in Spain and at the apex (so far) of my Spanish-speaking/reading abilities, I read the same plays in the original (with the English translation, a Spanish dictionary, a Spanish/English dictionary, and sometimes my Spanish roommate on hand). Though reading sessions often ended with a headache, I was newly blown away, especially by the boldness of what he had written at a very dangerous time in Spanish history. Much of his work was not only banned until 1953, but because of it (and his homosexuality) he was hunted down, killed, and left in an unmarked grave by Franco’s henchmen when the Spanish Civil War broke out. It was a tragedy then, for his family & for Spain, and it will always be a tragedy for humanity that he died at the not very ripe old age of 36.

The three plays in this volume comprise what many call his “rural trilogy.” In my opinion, they are the height of his humanist work, passionate & compassionate, simple yet complex, insightful & ahead of their time, composed when he was dabbling with surrealism but not yet immersed in it. They are about women in contemporary, rural Spain with towering passions, yet anybody who has read them would agree, I think, that they are about us all. For those who haven’t read them, they are, in order, Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), Yerma, and La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba).

Next: Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cold Hearted Bitch

It doesn’t get truly, disgustingly hot in Kingston, NY very often – maybe one or two days per summer. And when it does, it has about the same effect on people there that a truly cold day has on people here in South Eastern Virginia. It’s shocking. It’s unbearable. On one such summer afternoon in Kingston when I still lived there, it was approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity was as stifling as anything I’ve felt here in Virginia. I was driving to the Home Depot (again – I practically lived there at that time in my life). A friend was visiting, so she occupied the passenger seat. To get to the Home Depot in Kingston, one must drive up a long, curving incline (basically the side of a mountain), and as we were doing this, I saw a man in a wheelchair struggling to get up this incline. He was long, lanky, and tan. He was shirtless & his shorts were saturated all the way through. His ropy muscles strained under glistening skin. Sweat was literally pouring off of him. I had seen him before in various places around town, but I couldn’t believe he was attempting to go up this road in the current conditions. I gasped, made a u-turn, and pulled alongside him to ask if he’d like a ride, or anything else. He paused in his labors, locked his chair, and said he was fine but had run out of water. I proceeded to the nearest gas station, bought two liters of water, and took it back to him. He was grateful & assured me that he didn’t want a ride, that he was training for a marathon & this was good training. I marveled at this, we exchanged a few niceties, and I was back on my way to the Home Depot. When we parked, my friend was looking at me oddly, and I wondered what for. Practically in tears, she told me how beautiful it was that I had bothered to help the man, that I had gone out of my way to get him water, and gushed about what an incredible human being I was. She informed me that most people would not have even noticed his plight as they passed him. I had thought nothing of it, but I saw her point & appreciated her appreciation.

Why, then, can I not be moved by Haiti? Whenever I hear or see anything about the devastation over there, I sigh, or roll my eyes, or change the channel, or change the subject. It bothers me to hear about it and it bothers me that it bothers me to hear about it. What kind of a cold, awful person am I, really? I must be, at bottom, a cold hearted bitch. Last night, as I was settling down to a solitary evening of channel surfing, I was dismayed to find that nearly every channel was carrying the “Hope for Haiti” charity program thingy. I desperately switched from one channel to the next, but couldn’t escape it. All I wanted from life last night was a Law & Order marathon or even a single episode of stupid Bones (which I don’t even like when it comes down to it), but no. Though I had looked forward to an evening of decadent laziness, I preferred to turn the tv off rather than hear about the plight of Haiti. I picked up a New Yorker magazine instead, one that was too old to have anything about Haiti in it.

Why can’t I be moved by Haiti? I think the answer is manifold. First of all, as I get older, I get more and more like my cat, Esther. She is feline through and through. She knows her own well-being & cannot tolerate any energy that is contrary to well-being. Though she drove me crazy when she attacked Atticus whenever he returned from the vet, I kind of understood it. He was sick, and while I wanted to coddle him, I did weirdly understand her intolerance of it. Who wants all that sick energy in their space? Evolutionarily speaking, her response was much more rational than human responses to illness & tragedy.

And so I have become repulsed, in a way, by the sick energy of Haiti. I mean, as demonstrated by the wheel chair marathoner, I am as compassionate as anyone, but Haiti, I guess, is not a someone. It is a mass of someones, faceless, nameless someones. It is big, too big. It is abstract, too abstract for me to grasp. It is in my face, much too much too much in my face. And this, I think, is triggering me more than anything: it is fashionable. It is so fashionable that the coffers are filling to the brim, and the cynical side of me only hopes that a decent percentage of that gets to real people in real need. In a way, my rejection of this Haiti-pushing reminds me of my wholesale rejection of the movie, The Titanic. I have been assured many times that it’s a wonderful movie, and I believe that it probably is. But when it came out, I couldn’t force myself to see it, though it wasn’t the film itself that I rejected so much as the hype. It was fashionable. Like maniacal flag-waving was fashionable after 9/11. Remind me to blog someday about group behavior & insidious socialization.

I know, I do know that each & every person in Haiti is a specific, real individual, just as flesh-and-blood as the wheel chair marathoner, and probably in more dire straits. But I cannot be moved. I am not drawn. And if I have not learned anything else from my metaphysical studies, I have learned that I must go to where I’m drawn, and I must not go to where I’m not drawn. So I shall not be drawn to Haiti. I am not called by it, and maybe that’s all the explanation necessary. For me, anyway. I realize that a lot of my angst over not being moved by it, not putting on a show of compassion, is a result of social pressure created by media. There goes the goddamn media trying to control me again. Do I sound like a maniac yet?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ten Books: To Kill a Mockingbird & Illusions

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I imagine this would be on a lot of people’s lists. It is an American classic, and Atticus Finch (can you guess after whom my Atty Boy was named?) an American icon. Told from the point of view of Scout, who during the action of the novel is a mere six years old, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of lessons that a six year old can comprehend, but many adults fail to achieve. While the main story line of Tom Robinson’s trial brings to life the ugly, brutal face of institutionalized American racism, its twin story line of the childrens’ obsessive fear & taunting of Boo Radley works to expand & universalize the themes of maturity, listening to one’s own voice, treating people as individuals rather than monoliths, and plain old kindness and generosity. On reflection, I realize that Atticus has served all these years as a yardstick for my own integrity. What would Atticus do? Gregory Peck, who played the lead role in the movie version (which is nearly as good as the book), fingered Atticus Finch as his favorite out of the more than 25 lead roles in his stellar career.

3. Illusions, by Richard Bach. The books of Richard Bach are fun, well-written specimens every single one. I had first read Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was very young, and had quite randomly picked it up out of a pile of my older sisters’ abandoned books. In a way, it was written perfectly for a child my age, though I wouldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of this seemingly simple story for years to come. Perhaps I still don’t; perhaps we can never rest easy that we truly and fully understand anything. To this day, the sight of a seagull brings me a feeling of ease, and I refer to them all as Jonathans, as in “Look, there’s a Jonathan.”

But as much as I hold that first book dear to my heart, it is the next one – Illusions – that entertained, stunned, riveted, and freaked me out all at once. I was an angry, screwed up nineteen-year-old in a severely dysfunctional relationship with an angry screwed up older man. The one healthy thing I took away from that relationship was a taste for literary science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov) & a lot more books read under my belt. At a time when I was absorbing all kinds of new information & furiously trying to figure out who I wanted to be & how to be it, this book (okay, and Stranger in a Strange Land really sticks out, too, but it got booted from the list) held a lot of answers. Granted, they were answers whose code I wouldn’t figure out for years, but I didn’t have to have it all figured out in order for it change the direction of my life.

Because of this book, I decided I wanted to go to New York University, and it was the only college to which I applied. This was very much in contrast to my mother’s nature of constantly hedging her bets, and she tried until it was too late to get me to have backup choices. Part of the application package had to be an essay in which I delineated which book had had the greatest impact on me and why (perhaps it was broader than this, but this is what I remember now). I wrote an essay about Illusions that even inspired my mother. I wish I still had that essay; I would have simply used it as this entry instead of all this blather. Before NYU ever had a chance to change my life (which it did, tremendously), I somehow mustered the confidence to apply, to express something genuine and be rewarded for it.
Next: Three Tragedies, by Federico García Lorca