Monday, August 6, 2012

A Canterbury Tale: The Troubadour

I can’t tell you when I first saw the man I came to call The Troubadour but I can tell now you that I loved him.  I did not love him in the way that one loves a brother or a partner or even a friend, but in the way that one loves love and life itself – the kind of appreciative love that wants to reach out to touch rose petals because they’re soft and to stand in the rain because it’s cathartic and to hold hands with a loved one while walking down the street because it means you’re not alone.  I remember watching The Troubadour’s weather-worn face and England-gray eyes and sensing a kind of sadness that ran soul-deep, as it does in so many of us who make art.  And I remember having some instinct that of all the people I had come across in the world, The Troubadour would understand what I meant if I were ever to tell him that sometimes listening to the Cloud Cult cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was all that got me through the day.  And I loved him for that. 

The only thing I ever told The Troubadour was “Thank you,” but during the months I lived in Canterbury he was a fixture in my daily life.  When I went to the city centre for lunch or coffee he would be there, sitting on a bench beneath a tree, strumming his guitar and singing folk songs.  When darkness was cloaking the rooftops and medieval ramparts he would be leaning against the old Roman wall, playing his guitar, singing rock’n’roll songs and giving the money that passersby had placed in his case to the homeless man that sat beside him.  And whenever I saw him my soul would smile. 

As it happened, Canterbury had many street musicians, most of whom played banjos or just played “Wonderwall” over and over.  The first song I remember hearing The Troubadour play was the Tom Petty song, “American Girl.” And while all the other street musicians would disappear along with the last golden-purple streaks of evening light, The Troubadour would remain.  When the streets were empty and the damp chill of an English Autumn was whispering ghost stories of all the Canterbury tales that had come and passed upon those cobbled streets, The Troubadour would still play.  I would see him there with his gray hair and cracked fingers and I would swear that he needed the music the way I needed the music and in my heart I would thank him for helping me to feel a little less alone in the world. 

I was always with my boyfriend whenever I saw The Troubadour and I was always miserable.  I felt stuck in my relationship and stuck in a world that was filled with people who were content to just be happy enough – people who never cared to question the meaning of things, people like my boyfriend. And I was worried that this was as good as it would get -- as good as I would get.

Whenever my boyfriend and I would happen upon The Troubadour I would smile and clasp my hands together and stand utterly transfixed in the happiest moment of my day.  But I would be lucky to hear one full song before my boyfriend was pulling my away.  He didn’t feel the pressing, pulsating need for the music the way I did and he had an outright, inexplicable hatred of street musicians.  Sometimes I would wonder if he could love me the way he said he did if he couldn’t love what I loved or even just love how I loved it.  The thing I loved most about myself was how I could fall in love with a song, how time and time again I could give my heart up to melody and verse and let them make me better and lovelier and brighter and more alive, if only for a few minutes.

One night in late November, when it was just me, my boyfriend, the homeless man, and The Troubadour, I paid The Troubadour for a song.  I put some pound coins in his case and he thanked me.  I was surprised to hear that he had an American accent.  I thanked him in my own.

The song he played for me was “Mrs. Robinson.”  His eyes moved back and forth between mine and his guitar.  A terrorizing thought crept from the song to my heart as I wondered if he had heard me exclaim happily every time I had seen him in the street and if he had seen me stare back at him over my shoulder every time my boyfriend pulled me away.  I wondered if he had noticed the way I walked around like my high heeled boots and pearl earrings and other pretty things could make up for how unhappy I was.  I felt like he knew.  I felt like he could see the art of misery painted in my eyes.  And, in a way, I wanted him to.  But really, it didn’t matter if he was playing the song because he was trying to save me or not; either way he was scaring me and I needed that.

Before the song was through my boyfriend was pulling me away.  But even as we made our way up High Street and through the old city gate, the wind carried the sounds of “Mrs. Robinson” from The Troubadour to me.

It was snowing on my last day in Canterbury.  The Troubadour was playing in the street outside the cafĂ© that my boyfriend was hurrying me into.  I promised myself that this time would be different – that after we had had our coffee I would go back outside and I would stand in the falling snow and I would listen until my soul had had its fill.  When I came back outside The Troubadour was gone.

A year and a half later I returned to Canterbury.  This time it was early May and the air was warm and tulips were bursting up in patches in the grass.  The Troubadour was nowhere to be found but neither was Mrs. Robinson.  And there was a new work of art hanging in my eyes; this one was called Happiness.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Secret Narrative

Nine weeks ago it was a warm night in Paris and I was dancing alone in the mist of the crowd that gathers nightly in front of the Eiffel Tower during the summer to drink and talk and kiss and dream while wide awake and to just be there in front of the world’s most romantic icon.  I was dancing because I had to.  It was my last night in Paris.  The following afternoon I would be on a plane to Chicago. I didn’t know how long it would be until I would be able to return to Europe but I worried that by the time I did return, I would be much older and much less hopeful – much less youthful and free.  And so I had to dance because that is what one should do when one is young and in Paris, but mainly because that is the kind of person I like to be – the kind of person who is young and dancing, living and loving, and who is doing it all because life is nothing but several lovely moments dispersed at random in the midst of a static series of quotidian monotony.  So when life gives me a lovely moment I must be as lovely as possible within it - as alive and as lively as possible - so that later when the stasis of daily life is strangling me and I am failing to find any more beauty in the world, I can live off that memory of the time when everything was breathing loveliness and affirming life.

I am telling you this because I told you in a recent blog entry that we become each other’s stories.  I told you that family is the story we inherit, but everyone else…  They are the stories told to us, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we retell until the people in them are no longer people at all but anecdotes demonstrating who we were and who we’ve become.  Having said that, I now want to tell you that I do not think we are merely each other’s stories; we are our own stories as well.  And those stories – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – might be some of the most important stories of all.  Though, not because they are necessarily true or good, but because while our interactions with others are the stories of who we are in the world, it is the stories we write solely about ourselves and then read back to ourselves time and time again that let slip the secret narrative, the subtext: who we believe ourselves to be.

As I danced in front of the Eiffel Tower I was telling myself the story about myself as a young woman who is brilliantly and stubbornly alive and happy against any and all odds.  That was a story I had been telling myself quite often during my time in France.  It was a story that I so desperately wanted to be true that I told it to others.  It was a story I was telling in a grassy clearing in a forest on an island in the Mediterranean as I spun around beneath the hot afternoon sun, holding an open bottle of wine in one hand and smiling at my boyfriend.  I had told him that this was the kind of moment that he would remember much later when his life was just a static series of days and what I had meant was that I hoped he would remember me as being as bright and carefree as that day.

The day after I danced in front of the Eiffel Tower I boarded a plane and flew from Paris to Chicago.  In Chicago my mother met me at the airport.  From there we made the drive up through Illinois, past cornfields and pro-life billboards, back to my southwestern Wisconsin hometown – a place I had barely visited at all during the four years I had been in college.  I have now been here, in that town, for nine weeks.  I have been able to find very little to do here but read and write, drink and dream.  Here there is no longer anyone that I might call a friend or even a tolerable acquaintance and so I spend my time with my family and most often by myself.  And when I am by myself I find that I am in the not necessarily welcome company of all the stories I have ever told myself about myself.  And whether I like the stories or not, I am reminded of their importance – a thing I had forgotten over the past couple years – for it was here, in this town, that I first started telling the stories.

This is the story I grew up telling myself, the story I never really grew out of telling, the story that has been told about me by this friend or that boyfriend so many times that I have come to believe it’s true: I am inherently different. 

In grade school different was called weird.  And I was.  I liked books the way most other kids liked videogames and when asked my favorite thing to do I always answered “write.”  While other kids wanted to be veterinarians or teachers or maybe football players, I always said I wanted to be a writer.  Even then I liked the power of good writing.  I liked how a book could take a series of events and find meaning in them.  And I think I was weird because I was always contemplating the meaning of things.

Now that I am back in my hometown, walking the same cracked pavement I walked on my way home from school when I was much younger, I am reminded of the other reason I wanted to be a writer – the other reason I was weird.  I was always telling myself stories.  It wasn’t that I was talking to myself but in my head I was writing stories that were far more lovely and life affirming than anything that ever really happens in a small town.  I was telling myself stories about distressed damsels who saved themselves and who saved their knights in shining armor too.  I was telling myself stories about witches and the magic that some people grow up to find within themselves.  And I was telling myself stories about princesses and pioneers, stories of girls who went out into the world and kept going and going, stories of girls who married adventure and lived happily ever after.  I told myself these stories sometimes because I was bored and sometimes because I wanted something to hope for and sometimes because I didn’t want to be who I was. 

But of all the stories I ever told myself when I was young, the story that said I was different was the most important, the most insistent.  As lonely as it often made me, I believed it would be the thing that would save me.  The story that said I was different would also be the story of how I wouldn’t ever end up in a relationship as awful of that of my mother and father.  I would be different.  It was the story of how I wouldn’t ever find myself stuck like my mother, living a very average life in a very small town when once she had made art out of above average dreams.  I would be different.  It was the story of how I wouldn’t end up alone the way all the women in my family were.  I would be different.  And the story was the reason.  I was different because I had witnessed and been caught in the midst of pain and heartbreak and failure.  And I would be different because it had taught me to just know better, to fight harder, and to believe in nothing but myself. 

The story that I was different became the very thing that sustained and broke me; it was the torch I carried and the void I tried to fill.  It was a story that I believed in so strongly that it got me out of this small town and it kept me going – to Chicago and San Francisco and London and Paris and Istanbul and Prague and on and on.  It made magic out of the sounds of the sea and the feeling that grew and grew within me until I felt like I was floating through heaven in my hot-air-balloon-heart whenever I was in London.  It was also the story that kept me in a bad relationship for three years because it allowed me to believe that I was too smart to ever be in such a thing as an emotionally abusive relationship.

It was the story that I was starting to have trouble telling myself towards the end of that relationship.  A year ago, on a late June afternoon in Chicago, I stood in my apartment before a full length mirror.  In my reflection I saw the damsel I had envisioned in the stories I had told myself when I was very young.  And I was starting to see that it might be time to save myself.  I was skin and bone, with a big green bruise on my right arm that was left over from an IV that I had been given in the emergency room earlier that month.  I was wearing a black silk corset and a pearl necklace.  I was dressed to impress and, more specifically, to prove to my boyfriend that he couldn’t possibly have meant it when he told me that having sex with me didn’t mean anything – when he said it could have been anyone, that I could have been anyone.  I was not just anyone and never in my life had I ever said or done anything that didn’t mean something to me.  He had to be wrong.  I had spent most of our relationship trying to prove him wrong about such things because I didn’t want to have been wrong all the times I had told myself that I knew better than to end up in a relationship the like one my mother had been in with my father.  I was supposed to be different.  But there in the mirror I was just another woman in a bad relationship.

Six months later I was just another one out of every four women in the US to be raped.  Later my mother remarked that she had always thought I was too smart to ever have something like that happen to me.  And though I got angry at her for saying it, I think that was her way of saying that I was supposed to be different. 

It happened on a Friday night in January.  Earlier that day I had gone the French consulate in Chicago to apply for my visa to live abroad.  And then I had stopped at my favorite bookstore to buy a travel guide about living in the south of France.  That evening I had gone with my friends to a nice restaurant and then to a bar in a nice neighborhood.  There I had made polite small talk with the man who sat beside us by telling him about an article I had read in the Economist. 

In the end those little things that I had believed proved that I was somehow a bit different didn’t matter any more than the pepper spray I was carrying in my purse.  The next morning, when I went to buy Plan B, both the pepper spray and the travel guide were still in my purse right where I had put them the night before.  They were the same as they had been before and now I felt the same too – the same as one in every four women.  But I felt different too; I felt like a stranger to myself and a second class citizen in my own body.  And what felt the most different was my sense of being able to control or make sense of anything that happened to me – that was gone.

I am telling you this because this is one of the stories I have sat with this summer, alone in my childhood bedroom, late at night when I could think of no story with which to lull myself to sleep.  And so sometimes I drank until I was too tired to drink anymore because that seemed like a very average thing to do.  And it seemed to me that I had been telling myself a lie my whole life.  I wasn’t different at all.  And as I doubted the story I had told myself, I doubted whether or not I was really even a writer.  But one night, as I sat at my desk with some wine and some gin and my notebook, something occurred to me.  Life happens to everyone.  What makes me different is how I react to it: I write.

It is in words and paragraphs and syntax and punctuation that I can take control of anything that has ever happened to me.  It is in the juxtaposition of one scene and another and a finely articulated thought that I can begin to see the meaning in things.  And it is in the stories that I tell myself that I can be not as the world might see me but I believe myself to be.

Of all the stories I tell myself, I want you to know that I rarely tell the victim’s story.  I prefer to tell the story of a fighter and a survivor.  And that is what I am doing every time I write.  When I sit down to write, no matter what I am writing on the page, the story I am telling myself is the story of a woman who writes what she knows because knowledge is power.  That is my secret narrative. That is my subtext.