It all started when I met Walt Whitman in the gym. I was stretching my legs and had been for some time when he spoke. “Looks as though those legs of yours could do just about anything, now.” He was right. I’d been stretching like I was going to run a marathon, but here I was, all alone in this gym, with an old man watching me and making comments. “Why aren’t you out doing a poetry reading or something?” I asked him, and he said he was tired of people complaining when he put pauses where they didn’t want them. He said it was his poetry, so he could read it like sweaters falling off of hangers if he wanted, right? Then he looked around with an air of resignation and said that maybe he wasn’t in the right business. Maybe he should be a guidance counselor instead.
<!–My middle school gym, in fact. The very worst possible gym.–>
This was a dream I had after transcribing everything I’d ever written (that I still had) into what turned out to be a 500-page Word document. The transcribing was actually a very good exercise: it taught me that even though I thought I quit writing I actually had been writing all along–only in the form of letters, dreams, papers (for the English degree), and fits and starts, constipated-but-earnest bits in many notebooks over the years. I was no George Eliot, but I was a writer.
These were good things to learn. The problem was, I started to think that this 500-page monster in a box (<3) was actually a book. A publishable book. It’s a dear document to me, and has many seeds and even flowerings, but god help the person who delves there alone and unaided by my memories and personal interest.
Besides letting me know he was a bit exasperated with me, what ol’ Walt was saying was, I had long been ready to go out and actually write. On purpose. In the open. Making time for it and not letting anyone or anything interfere with that time. Not bitchy (unless necessary)–just protective. I kept stretching my legs though, thinking about writing but not doing it. Immersing myself in snippets but never making them into anything.
And you know, that’s OK. I could enjoy my writing as a little hobby I dabble in but never get too serious about, and the absence of my voice would not make the Universe cease. Living life well and having loving interactions with people: cooking good food, drinking wine, enjoying a movie or a play or a concert, taking care of business, and going on this way day after day, year after year–these are all very good things and a life thus lived is a good life. But I’ve fought through isolation that was some times impenetrable by humans, most times no human wanted to penetrate. Time spent unable to connect in a meaningful way with anyone in my life. Luckily, I found connection through other aspects of life: nature, animals, stories, poems, music, movies, art…
The marks left by others have saved me, and because I desire to communicate my experiences and see how they fit in with the larger picture –into life and humanity and what we’re doing here– I feel the responsibility to leave marks, too. Just in case these words bring even one person succor or light or direction or any of the numberless ways we humans make meaning to sustain ourselves on the journey.
∞ ∞ ∞
Walt Whitman saved me, right at the point where all the work I’d been doing underground was ready to come out and show its pale green face to the sun.
I was a 22-year-old mother, grocery cashier, wife of a warehouse worker barely getting by in a cheap, cat-piss smelling apartment when I saw Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams was funny–a lovably and even adorably clueless Mork–but in DPS he became this teacher who had honey on his tongue and made you want to truly find out what it is to live your life. I believed him, and every bit of that movie. Afterward, I thought I remembered we had a book of Whitman on the shelf, went to look and found it. When I took it out the binding opened to “On the Beach at Night Alone,” and I stood there reading it, transfixed. It is very difficult to tell you what that did to me, reading it the first time, without telling you a whole lot of other things too. So I’ll have to suffice with…it validated a view of the world I’d experienced, but before that moment almost nowhere else had I found evidence others had also experienced it that way. I’d lucked across a paragraph or so in a Carl Jung book, but other than that, I knew nothing yet of the vast and rich conversation that has been going on for 30,000 years give or take a few.
Whitman was my constant companion from then on, for at least six months. I took him everywhere–even in my pocket at work, to be pulled out for every ten-minute break. My fear–the ever-present social phobia–subsided for the time. This all started in April, and the following January I was registering for classes at Broome Community College–standing on that gym floor covered in blue-taped lines and arrows, a voice in my head telling me the fuck up, me the mental patient, me the ragamuffin delinquent daughter I should leave before I throw up. Then one of my soon-to-be professors came up to me and looked at the classes I wanted.
The class he thought he was teaching.
He said, “I think I’m teaching that one,” pointing to a class listed on the paper, which was just weird enough to jolt me out of my fear, and then he showed me the line I needed. I got through, got my classes, and didn’t throw up even once. Turns out literature, not psychology, was what I needed. Stories and poems, myths, and my professors up there, leading the conversation. I loved the conversation, hungered for it, and semester by semester came back to humanity–my own and the human spirit that contains all.
So Whitman, and Robin Williams, saved my life. Along with a whole lot of others who decided to tell their stories when they could easily have kept them to themselves.
Now, since October or so, I’ve shyly been voyaging out, writing in the open. Put something out there, then run and hide. Put something out there again, run and hide. But it’s OK. It’s OK to take it slow, I tell myself, stretching some more. I’m figuring this out.