Listening to the boy within
This picture was taken at dusk in early May in my bedroom. I was 17 and finishing up my final year of high school. My classmate Eduardo was responsible for taking the yearbook photographs; I was one of the hold-outs on his list. I was shy and disoriented.
I still have the photograph that Eduardo took of the burnt-out shell of our house. The fire happened in early January and our displaced family had moved to an old, empty dormitory at the school my father taught and I was graduating from.
We moved into old dormitory rooms: my retarded sister and I next to each other facing out to the bay, and my sisters and little brother across the hall in three rooms facing the practice fields. My parents moved into the master’s suite at one end of the long dorm and two large rooms were opened at the other end. One was the living room, the other was a studio for my mother.
We were like squatters. We’d lived in the kind of clutter that hoarders of knowledge acquire — books doubled up on rickety shelves, paintings and notebooks stacked against the wall, records and artifacts tucked into nooks and crannies — and after the fire the absence of clutter was more notable than the surfeit of bathrooms, or the incongruity of converting an old bathroom to a kitchen, or the odd quiet that marks life on the second floor of an abandoned dorm when the first floor is still unoccupied.
The clothing that we wore had been donated by the people on the island when they learned that a family of eight had been left homeless by a fire. The story had been on the front page of all the papers. The desk that I was typing was an oak desk that had been brought up from the storage below. The gooseneck lap was of the type that had been used in the old dorm rooms of the school for decades. The typewriter was a portable Smith-Corona Clipper that I’d found in one of the storage rooms above the library.
The pages next to the typewriter were the final draft of my senior project. I’d worked with the writer Jaimy Gordon on a series of stories. Her final comments were emphatic and flattering. I had a gift as a writer.
I intended to explore that gift.
My father had taught our AP English class that year and we had read Russian and Irish writers. I was caught up in the meaning of it all: my father was sharing his passion for these traditions; my blood mixed the genes of Russian Jews and the Irish of the Kerry peninsula; I was in full voice as a young writer; my insights were informed by being one of the chosen, a witness who was destined to unfold truth in a distinctive, compelling lyric voice.
That’s some of the background, a quick sketch that helps to explain the intent confidence captured in my profile, the kinetic energy in my posed fingers.
Looking at the photo some 35 years later, I’m intrigued by the resonance of the words that I used to accompany the photo.
The O’Faolain quote is as powerful to me today as it was when I was 17. I’ve tried to listen to the voice of that boy for all these years, tried to keep seeing the world through his eyes, listen for the stories that made the boy lose track of time and hold his breath, look for the angles and images and expressions that told the boy that he was in the presence of something unique and beautiful. I’ve tried to keep the ready laugh, the worry at mystery, the spontaneous wonder.
That’s what it meant to me to listen to the boy who was within me.
The excerpt after the O’Faolain quote was from a poem I had written. The poem described the m
oment a flock of geese had passed over me at the end of a Fall day of tramping in the swamps.
Why did I use those lines to mark my yearbook page, I wonder?
I imagine wanted to say something. I wanted to say that I was alone. I wanted to say that I felt the quiet melancholy of things coming to an end. I wanted to say those things in words that would get people to stop and admire.
If they just stopped and admired the way I said those things maybe I wouldn’t feel alone.
Now, three decades later, I understand the conversation that was really going on.
The boy was speaking to the man.
“Stop looking outside of us,” he was saying. “I need you here. You have to help me speak. You have to tell me what we are seeing. You have to walk hand in hand with me. That’s the only way that we’ll be able to find what we are looking for.”
In the simple symmetry of O’Faolain’s lyricism there’s a reciprocal statement that easy to overlook.
If ever the boy within us ceases to believe that the man is ready to protect him, listen to him, care for him at every moment, then there is literally no more to be said.
Listening to the boy within us isn’t listening to a child. It is being whole and confident, always ready to delight, patient in the ebb and flow of life, realistic and optimistic, enthralled and engaged.
When we walk away from that enchanted moment when the clamor of the geese swaddle our solitude, we walk back into the hot richness of the improbable melange of life.
Three decades ago, poised to go out into the world, stripped of every worldly possession, reinvented through serendipity and generosity, the young man I was knew what he wanted to keep hold of. He didn’t know what he wanted to go to. The man he became knows how long it took to find that path.