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Monday, January 27, 2014

PERSONAL IDENTITY LOST AND FOUND

 
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I tend to think an awful lot about the people I know, people directly involved in the weave and flow of my life such that I'm in the weave and flow of their lives. I really do think this is where my head mostly dwells, on the others in my life. I see over years my habit-thinking of the various individuals was actually a projection of how I felt about myself. In the time I was in despair about myself, teens and twenties, I objectified others somehow, left out their hearts, addressed their minds. I wanted to know people that impressed me, and even they weren't really it. Eventually, my attitude toward self changed and along with it my attitude toward others changed. When I finally came to respect my own heart, even my inner child came to life. This happened in my early thirties. Up til then, I wanted to live solely by mind. My heart was so incredibly wounded in childhood, I did my best to shut it down, to quit feeling, because all I felt was rage and the continual depression of holding the rage inside and pretending on the outside I'm happy. It took until late twenties before I even noticed the inner rage that projected my attitude toward life. I wanted to live, but didn't know why, except to get away from parents as far as land allowed and have a go at living without their absolute control and suffocating religion. I didn't do my wild-thang time very well, between ages 18 and 23, when children of dysfunctional families run wild and fall into every kind of pit. I think of my time with them as a dog chained to a doghouse with a ten foot chain, living on a circle of bare dirt a couple inches below the level of the topsoil around it, something like a miniature baseball diamond. One day somebody let the dog loose and it ran and ran in any and all directions, heedless from inexperience, falling, getting up running, ran across a road without looking, out of control. If left off the leash, it would soon be hit by a car. I grew up on a short leash and did just what a dog does, ran til I was out of breath and couldn't move. But stumbling, uncertain, devoid of self-esteem, hesitant, not believing my own feelings and thoughts, taught not to.
 
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I fell on my face, fell on my face, fell on my face, through my wild-thang five years. The first half of it I made stupid decision upon stupid decision. Sometimes fell on my face drunk. Drunk was the easiest kind of falling on my face. I married daddy in a woman's body. When I realized I had bought myself more of same to live with the rest of my life, I bounced off the trampoline. He was done and in the past. I wasn't living the rest of my life as the life theretofore had been. I was not going to live in the same mental climate all my life. A window opened and I jumped. The US Navy seen through the lens of Oppositional Defiance Disorder was my enemy. It took me away from my life against my will, set me back two years. It took care of me in those two years when I could not have taken care of myself very well, not well at all. Working in a shoe store with head in knots. The Navy took me away from it. Navy put me on the sea with head in knots. It allowed time to untie some of the knots and learn to live with the ones I couldn't untie. During the time on the ship I mostly read novels in translation of the French Resistance in Paris during the German occupation. I read the French existentialists almost exclusively. They spoke my truth. I wanted education desperately. By the time the Navy was over, the marriage was over. Out of the Navy on Friday, started school Monday, weekend at the beach, the first days of my life. I look back at my life starting at age 23. I'd taken care of the checklist of obligation to society, church and parents. Leaving the Navy base the last time, I stepped into my new life of decisions made for my life by my self. The Navy got me safely through the time of running like a dog unchained. In retrospect, I look at how the Navy served my development as a human being by putting up guardrails when needed, and now is giving me a monthly assist. I have to say I'm as grateful to the Navy for shelter through my storm as I am the College of Charleston for opening the door to the rest of my life.  
 
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Ego having been buried for so long, it was time for ego development, discovering personal identity. A friend at the college said something that stayed with me as a kind of a minor Zen koan. He said college is the time when we create our own identities. I was thinking it meant as a kind of style, like a writer's style that is one's own, or an artist's style. Imagine it, then become it, was how I took it. I think he thought of it that way too. I wasn't able to compose for myself an identity I wanted to live by, so I left it open to see what happens. Seeing that time in the context of a lifetime, I can see that I did indeed discover my personal identity in that time. For the first time in my life, I interacted with others without the inhibition of bleachers full of judges who believed I was their hand puppet. In the beginning, I kind of became other people's puppet temporarily, because that was all I knew. Did not yet know how to make decisions for myself. It was fun to exit the chute of living by other people's decisions for my life. I can't say I did it gracefully, but got through it standing up. I learned the importance of being a friend. I loved that the College of Charleston was then a small Southern college a couple hundred years old, Old South neo-classical architecture. It felt like a grandmother's arms. It was a nurturing place that helped develop my ego, my self-identity, gave it sound principles, again like a grandmother. The honor code was absolute, no two ways about it. Caught cheating, you're out that day. See somebody cheating and don't report it, you're out same day. I remember a guy caught cheating on his last final exam of his senior year. Out. It got me over any, every propensity I might have had for cheating. It has stuck for life that cheating amounts to cheating oneself, caught or not caught. Learning not to cheat was a primal step in the progression of discovering who I am that became a significant part of decision making.
 
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In a student body of under 500, I had a handful of friends and others I only knew from classes. I had an attic one-room apartment and worked in a bookstore. All through the Navy, when the ship went into any port, I found the bookstores. With just a few hours in Nice, France, in uniform, I found a French bookstore and bought a book of poems by Jean Genet in French, an inspiration to learn French in school well enough to read it. After classes of a wide variety, my interest zoomed in on Twentieth Century American writing, prose and poetry, and American art. By the time I finished at the college, I knew these were the interests of my life. These were the longings from deep within I was unable to satisfy without education. I had a longing to go to graduate school in something like existentialist drama, something I know, and knew then, I would love. I aimed to be a teacher, maybe high school where I felt I understood the kids somewhat. By the time I'd done undergrad, I didn't want any more school from either side of the desk. But I did uncover my self-identity by letting it evolve of its own. Now looking back it's clear that the interests of my life are good writing and good art. It was in the college years I learned that. Without the years of school, I'd have been more lost at sea than I am now. I think Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were the first poets I had experienced on my own after high school. Starting college, the first book of poetry I picked up on my own was Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers. I lay awake in bed all night reading it over and over in awe of what I was seeing. He spoke to me like no writer had ever done before. And to this day, I can sit in awe with Louise Gluck's new collected poems, or Elizabeth Bishop's collected poems, Robert Lowell's Notebook 1967-68. I don't make my living from it, but these writers and a host of others inform my interior life. This is how I created my self-identity: I found it by being open to it, an affection for Twentieth Century poetry. It serves nothing but my own aesthetic satisfaction. It's untarnished by money and ambition. It's uniquely my own.   
 
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