Great God! Why am I me? – Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir
Can one have an identity crisis at the age of 63? Apparently one can. One is. I am. I am having a bloody identity crisis at the age of 62 and 11 months. In preparation for yet another g-d birthday.
I sit at my desk and can see it, the novel I wrote in my thirties – like a dismembered hulk, it’s piled up in various corners of my room, in drawers and on shelves – paper and more paper, yellowing xeroxes and typewritten originals, notebooks and binders; and all the orbiting bit players – poems, lyrics, short stories, a musical, lots of doggerel. My former self…
I can barely stand to look at it. It terrorizes me. The damned weight of it all, the density of verbiage, the rush of self. But I cannot put it away again. I’ve done that already so many times; fiddled with and prodded at it so wantonly that all context, all chronology, has been forfeited. Part of the horror. It’s like entering a room with an unmade bed, clothes on the floor, shoes strewn all over. A vortex ready to suck me in and then make me cry because I never pushed hard enough to finish it.
But here is the final metaphor: it is a shuffled deck of cards, and the game demands to be played.
So now I sit before these piles stacked all over the floor of my study. Every morning I glance at a few pages, often yelping out loud as I encounter a younger self whose sometimes painfully accurate prose records her thought processes. Who is this creature? Where has she fled? This is a self I only distantly remember. A post-war, post-punk, pre-marital, pre-maternal, artistic soul who gave way too much thought to her own predicament as such in an increasingly commodified world.
There is anger here, and doubt, and fear, and a pulsing desire to make manifest a vision of beauty and harmony and destruction and a Self beyond self. The writings are filled with starkly solitary moments. My response is visceral, humid, an ache. I am filled with tenderness for this girl, admiration for her struggle. But then I blunder into the sadness that she shared it with no one, that all this thinking and articulation, poetry and madness, ecstasy and doubt, had no witness. Ahhh, but there is that cliché – it’s all about the path. Well, it’s been one hell of a rocky Sisyphean stroll.
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.
– Cyril Connolly
I cannot let the work languish any longer. I dive into an editorial frenzy, a forensic exhumation. As I read, the shade of my younger self begins to coalesce before my eyes. With a scent of musk and cold earth to complete the metaphor, that younger self incarnates. So interrogatory. Back then every move I made provoked a question, every thought produced another thought, every word a query as to its origin. I came to life in these words – my earlier I – so on edge, fighting for something, I knew not precisely what.
Back then everything, and it was Everything (including myself – an Alice-like figure who grew and shrank at will), everything was riding on the back of some winged creature (maybe angelic, maybe demonic, or merely mundane); could be a bat, or a hawk or a careening sparrow upon which I rode across the plain of my own existence… So what terminated that flight? What quelled that urgent need to define, to realize, to transcend?
Of course events transpired, demanding full attention of the conscious brain. One loses track of oneself while fielding life’s numerous absurd and arbitrary curve balls. But when those years were navigated and you arrive one day back on that earlier path, what then? Do you find the same questions looming before you – like a bear standing on the path between you and the uphill journey? A bear who plays gatekeeper, asking the same questions as always. Who are you? What is the meaning of your life? Why should I let you pass? And anyhow, where do you think you’ll get to? How do you know I am not the terminus of your quest?
So now, nearly 63, why would I cower before the standard outline of mortality? I owe it to my younger self to charge back up the path with the same ferocity, the same blood lust; do battle with the furred giant, fling open my sack of words, and conjure, with the spinning alphabet, my best, most essential self.
There are those that need be born only once, and those that need to be born twice.
– William James