I. Reduced to Our Achievements
Recently our class had the privilege of touring the well-mannered jungle of bureaucracy that is the EU capital, Brussels. For two days we met with Irish diplomats, ministers, and business strategists, and at the beginning of every meeting there seemed to be an obligatory reference to our bios.
“Looking over your CV’s….”
“What an impressive…”
“At such a young age…”
It was gracious of them to give such compliments, but as each dignitary made reference to our bios, I began to reflect on all the experiences that are not, and maybe cannot, be condensed to a single paragraph on a website. If each of us is to be reduced to our achievements, then it should be acknowledged that each of us must have a shadow bio as well–a list of all the personal failures and moments of paralyzing doubt that are a part of our history. Why list such things? Why conceive of it as a reduction to be represented only by one’s honors? Maybe it is my literary background that points me to such questions (I have been trained to look for the cracks in an individual as a guide to his or her true character), but I would argue that each one of our successes is directly bound to failures and our responses to them.
An example. My classmate Ivan stopped by my apartment yesterday to grab a tea between library sessions. “ARTHUR MILLER was totally BROKE before Death of a Salesman!” (Ivan is prone to hysterics.) “The guy was THIRTY, with a WIFE, living in his parents’ basement, wondering how many more plays he could write for the dresser drawer–nobody was reading his work–did you know that?! Does ANYONE know that?!” Ivan had actually conflated some of the facts of Arthur Miller’s life, but his enthusiasm for an alternate view of Miller points to something. We hear the name Arthur Miller and we think Pulitzer, Marilynn Monroe, pillar of American theatre–there is no room in that picture for a man doubting himself, struggling, writing for no one. And so it seems a shame that we haven’t found a way to list those failures and moments of doubt beside each achievement. There is a violent concealment here, just as there is a certain violence to admiring the roast turkey on Thanksgiving–plump, savory–without acknowledging the butcher’s role in all of this.
II. To Forget My Own Past
I’ve been sweating through my latest play. In part, I’m trying new narrative techniques, and while it excites me, it’s a leap into unknown territory. I’ve also been putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on myself (this is your big year on scholarship, Marina Carr is reading your work, you better make this play the greatest play ever written by anyone), and this has led to self-doubt. What’s funny is how easy it’s been for me to forget my own past.
An example. In undergrad, I earned an award for a piece of short fiction, titled Kalighat, which tracked the thoughts of a young man (me) who was massaging oil into a dying man’s skin at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying in Calcutta. (The content of the monologue is a tribute to human failings: the young man fantasizes about the old man dying in his arms because he wants to know what it would feel like to be touching a body in the exact moment that life slips out of it.)
The story was written months after the actual experience. I was back in California–mildly depressed, fifteen pounds underweight, ducking into the English Department bathroom in the middle of the day so I could cry without anyone hearing me. I felt like my life was falling apart. I didn’t compose the piece during those months, I hardly wrote anything during that time, but if I hadn’t gone through that time in my life–if Calcutta hadn’t shaken me as it did–I wouldn’t have needed to tell stories like Kalighat. And in this sense, writing (and human life) is like a mysterious kind of farming. Seeds and stones are planted alongside each other with no method for discerning what, if anything, will sprout.
III. It Might Have Been Otherwise
After two days of EU meetings and tours, Lauren, Sarang, Michael, Shane, and I take a day-trip to Bruges. The sun is up, we nap on the train, life feels leisurely and warm. Around lunch time we find a restaurant with outdoor tables near the main plaza. We order mussels, freshly-caught fish, frites. The beers arrive and we toast George Mitchell. Speaking his name reminds us of how grateful we are to be here–how privileged to be given this time to pursue our passions, this money to fund our studies, this money to be in the sun in Bruges on a Saturday in March.
And what separates this moment from any other moment in the sun, is that we have toasted George Mitchell, and in doing so we must acknowledge, as the poet Jane Kenyon reminds us, that things could be otherwise.
“I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise…”
I’m sure that George Mitchell means something different to every one of us, but for me, he serves as a reminder that we must actively work to make this world a livable place. Each one of us received this scholarship not just because we possess a list of honors but because we have chosen to extend ourselves into communities. We are aware that there is a need for reconciliation at all times, between all types of people, through as many means as possible–politics, social work, the arts. It is good to drink Belgian beer and enjoy the sun, but it is not enough. The world, with its beautiful moments, is more complicated than that.
After the toast, we dip frites into our mussel-nectar, and whether we imagine him or not, George Mitchell is traveling across the Middle East, working, struggling. At the same time, as we dip our frites, a winner is declared for the EuroMillions lottery–44 million Euros for guessing the right seven numbers. Across the ocean, my 12-year-old sister, Anna, spends her last weekend without braces. And at the same time, as we dip our frites, two women are making their final preparations for a human tragedy that will take place in the Moscow subway the following Monday. In the days after they have carried out their plan, sources are uncertain but they posit the women were young. In their twenties, like us.
And what are we to make of this? Sitting in Bruges, with plates of fresh food and a table of friends. Does this seem palatable? Somehow will these events all come together–will Russian separatists find a George Mitchell, someday peace, someday everyone’s bio will acknowledge their achievements and their shadows? This is why I am honored to share a table with Mitchell scholars: while each of us has our specialties and realms of expertise, we are connected by an approach to this world. We are grateful for moments of beauty, we know that there is affliction and suffering, and we understand there is work to be done, always.