“The story is always better than your ability to write it.” — Robin McKinley
“It may be that your whole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.” Anonymous
I was sitting on the front porch of my friend, a former professor, in 1995 when she asked me why I wanted to be a writer.
“I want to be famous,” I said with the air of confidence only a 23-year-old can have.
She was mortified, audibly. “No,” she wailed, drawing out the vowel just long enough to project her mock horror and her very real disapproval. “That can’t be the reason you do anything. It can be a by-product, but it can’t be the reason.”
“Every writer wants to be famous,” I said, defending myself. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t write. They would journal.”
The rest of the conversation turned on my friend’s contention that the journey mattered and my contention that the end goal had to be factored into the equation. Back and forth we went, each entrenched in certainty.
It took me a few years to come around to her way of thinking.
I’ve come to recognize the look on my students’ faces just before they visit my office.
There is a hollow broken-ness in their eyes, a muted terror that comes from sliding down the rope in the dark, knowing your length will run out any second.
I’m an addict. I’ve been trained to see this look. There was a time I was drawn to that look, a moth to the flame. I lived in that look.
My kids know this because I’ve told them the story. But I think they also know this because it’s a large part of who I am. I carry that dark hollow-ness with me wherever I go. I carry it with me so that I am always reminded that no matter how good I am feeling, no matter how large my ego has grown, and no matter how far I believe I have come in my recovery, I have laid waste to parts of this earth.
When you have scorched the earth around you with reckless abandon, you can’t righteously pass judgment on others.
I recognize that look in the eyes of my students and prepare myself for the inevitable visit.
I have told the story of The Muse many times within the last few months.
I didn’t tell our story much at all for the 17 years she circled my life, pulled – in some measure – by the gravitational vortex we created. In this particularly story, I am not the hero.
But that is not why I didn’t tell the story. I didn’t tell it because there was always a darkness there. Not a darkness in the relationship. Between us there was love, I think, although probably not in the way that most people think of such things.
The darkness came from our own tragic flaws. For me, that was drinking.
In the years that I knew and loved The Muse, I turned a relationship that had the kind of potential you spend your life looking for and reduced it to a smoldering pile of rubble. Worse: my fire bombings took out civilians who wandered into our war zone.
Despite it all, I refused to ever let her go. We would be happy, I determined, come hell or high water. Even after all the damage, I thought I could make that work. I loved her. She loved me. We could set aside the damage that flowed through two decades.
Eventually, a friend pulled me aside and said this: “You have to let her go, Brad, because she’ll never do it. She can’t. If she could, she’d have left a long time ago. So you have to do it.”
Strangely enough, I remember the night my friend spoke those words, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the friend who spoke them.
I do know the next day, I said goodbye to The Muse for the last time. I continue to think about her, but I am glad that our mistakes have somehow helped my students. We are beyond repair; they are not.
The last two years, April has brought a flood of students into my office.
This is an odd experience for me. If you’re new around these blog parts you may have missed a few things about me: as a teacher I’m hard, harsh, exacting, unrelenting, and (as I was told today) intimidating. In the real world, I’d be called gruff. (Although my flat caps and sweater vests have elicited the term Old School more and more.)
No matter the name, I’d not been – until I quit drinking – the type of teacher students would come to when they needed help. I was avoided, eyes averted, pace strong.
Sobriety softened me in all the best ways. I’m not longer capable of the long fits of anger fueled by the dark energy. I still have a bit of an ego problem (yes, yes, I am aware of such things), but by and large I’ve turned my life around enough that I seem – at times – like someone who understands how “the real world” works.
Even without that affirmation, I know that I have become the Patron Saint of the Lost Souls, the Keeper of Redemption, and the Last Refuge of Salvation.
I have become a teacher of Zen philosophies and a follower of Calm Seas.
I find myself talking with these students – one after another – who have taken refuge in my office, the ones searching for a brief respite from whatever demons are chasing them. I see in them the longing, the searching, and the fear that I knew – and know – so well.
And I have come to realize that they are not looking for answers. There are no answers. They are looking for hope, the kind that comes from meeting someone who stared into the abyss, who fought with the demons, who fell into the maelstrom, and managed to survive.
They are looking for stories about The Muse. They are looking for stories about recovering. They are looking for any story about destruction and survival. They want to hear the worst and know that it’s not overwhelming.
They haven’t yet gone through the fires, but they want to know that someone else has. Winning isn’t important to them anymore. Surviving is.
Today, as I write this while watching the night sky spread out in front of me, I realize that my life serves not a warning to others, but a lighthouse to the lost ships at sea.
My friend, and former professor, was right: famous was the wrong goal. It led me astray, that quest for fame. It splattered me across its rocky shores, and left me for dead, alone and dripping.
In those moments when I contemplated the inevitable Void, I decided to cast my lot elsewhere, to help others try to find their way. Which, I think, was what my friend, and former professor, was trying to tell me so many years ago.
Of course, this story is not overly heroic or simplistically redemptive. There is no glory in finding a righteous path. This should have always been the goal. That I have found it late in life is not to be celebrated.
But it is a story to be told. As a beacon, or a lighthouse.