I’m in Seattle visiting with friends for the High Holy Days. When I lived here a few years ago, I was deeply involved in a spiritual community that had suffered a deep loss, then spiralled into conflict. I had heard that recently, healing was becoming evident. So part of my reason to visit was this: I wanted the pleasure of seeing what had been broken becoming whole–for its own sake, for the sake of a big world in which problems so often seem to overwhelm the possibility of repair, for my own nourishment and inspiration.
Yet a tiny anxiety nibbled away at a dark corner of my awareness. Some people must associate me with the time of trouble, I thought. I’d been part of the community’s leadership. That had made me vulnerable not only to the consequences of whatever mistakes I’d made, but also to the bane of leaders everywhere, people’s projections of symbolic or presumptive responsibility for all that is not right in their worlds. I wondered if my arrival might feel to some like an unwelcome reminder, Marley’s ghost.
It has been so lovely to have that anxiety confounded. There are few things sweeter than seeing someone’s face light up in delighted surprise at one’s unexpected appearance. My heart is filling with smiles and warm embraces, with the pleasure of renewing old connections, with the delicious amazement of seeing sweet children grown into admirable young adults. All of this is just what I needed and I am grateful for it.
I am at a crossroads in life. Many things are wide open: work, relationship, how I will live in future. I can’t say I was brilliant enough to think it all through and consciously decide to revisit my past as an aid to clear sight. In truth, a lovely friend offered hospitality, I needed a break and so I stumbled into this realization: that re-experiencing familiar things is a good way to comprehend how you have changed. It gives you an opportunity to see them through new eyes and to compare what you see with your memories, with the expectations shaped by those memories. I am finding it sweet.
For instance: One of the first things I saw when I arrived at my friend’s house was a pile of novels stacked on a corner of the couch. Her daughter bought them for a class she’d contemplated taking. At the top of the pile was James Baldwin’s 1960 novel Another Country, the first adult novel I read. I think I was thirteen. The novel turns on Rufus Scott, a jazz musician who is driven to suicide by the disappointments and betrayals of post-World War II racial and sexual realities. The cover of the used paperback I am holding quotes the New York Times review: “Searing…violent…brilliantly and fiercely told.”
I did not have a Nancy Drew childhood. No one nurtured my budding intellect with age-appropriate books. Instead, I satisfied my voracious curiosity with the magazines and drugstore paperbacks my mother discarded when she was done with them. Something about the heft and cover of this one made it seem dangerous and enticing, like a mountain I wanted to climb. I’m only a few pages into it now, but I can already see I must have been mystified much of the time. My grasp of the facts of life was tenuous at that age–all I’d been given is a few plant metaphors, “the man plants a seed”—and this text must have taxed it mightily. So I can’t say how much I got from Another Country the first time around, only that I’m looking forward to finding out.
There is one line, though, that has stuck with me these forty-five years, like a stone always in my shoe. In a climactic passage, Rufus stand on the bridge, freezing water beneath him. Raising his eyes to the heavens, he curses God, asking this question: “Ain’t I your baby too?” My young life was different from Rufus Scott’s dwindling one in every respect, but somehow his words fit my distress, coming to stand for all the indifference and refusal that shaped my world.
They say that everyone who lives out the span of days has three lives: the one in which you figure out what you’re doing here, more in the sense of an underlying developmental or spiritual task than in the sense of occupation, though the two may mesh; the one in which you accept, and if you are diligent and lucky, complete that task; and the one in which you perceive and embark on a new challenge and opportunity.
This visit feels like a pause between lives. I have let go of my ancient complaint, and something other than grievance, something I can’t yet name, is coming to take its place. While I wait, the future is foreshadowed in the pleasure of seeing old friends—including the sweet and tragic Rufus Scott—through new eyes.
[…] Plus, James Baldwin sits high in my personal pantheon of Uncolonized Minds and Avatars of True Presence. Plus (also noted by friends on Facebook), 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of his great novel, Another Country, the first adult novel I read, as I wrote back in 2005. […]