Friday, April 16, 2010

The Only Book I've Ever Burned

“I wandered lonely as a cloud.” The Daffodils, by William Wordsworth

Calcutta officially changed its name to Kolkata in 2001 to reflect many of the physical and emotional changes the city had gone through since India claimed independence in 1947. Bombay came earlier, changing its name to Mumbai in 1996. This was all explained to me by the man I hired to show me around the city on the Sunday after sleeping outside. He talked very quickly while sweating and taking enormous and deadly drags from a rapid fire succession of thin yellow cigarettes. But I learned a great deal about the city and saw many places. “He kept saying between breathy drags, “Change is good, yes?” But I just looked at the water and let him talk on.
Kolkata was marvelous that day. I mean, a change can do a lot of psychological good, can’t it? My guide took me to all the “New” places in the city that were untouched by the untouchables. Men played cricket in lush parks. The quaint “old” cable car came rumbling by with people waving. There were horse carriages and tours of historic British buildings in all their late 19th century architecture. But the whole time I kept thinking, Kolkata is Calcutta, no matter how you dress it up. Asking if change is good or bad is irrelevant; because the change occurs for some, while others continue on forever in the past.
Later that night I did something I had been trying to do for some time. In fact, I think I brought this thing with me for the very hope that I would have the strength to do it. When I got back to the youth center, I took something from my bag I had been carrying. It was a book of poems I’ve been sort of keeping as a journal over the last year, just writing on the pages and tucking it away. I walked with the book down to the Ganges where there was a ceremony of the dead and watched a while until all the colorful mourners went away. It was dark and I climbed down the Ghat steps to the river and sat for a while listening to the waves lap up against the shore.
Then I lit a match and opened the journal and read all my thoughts over this last difficult year by dim candle light. Deep. Dark. Painful. Joyous. Revealing. Hurtful. Rapturous. Troubling. Doubting. Everything. There were secret poems and letters never sent. Just my heart poured out onto the page, just the way I was taught, the way I have asked students to do for years. It was writing I had hoped to share someday, maybe. But something made me do it, almost as if the journal itself was telling me to let it go.
I didn’t want to.
I wanted to keep it forever. It was like having a best friend that was always there for you. Would listen to anything you say, and believe me, I said it. I tore myself into that thing, and that journal fought back too. It had style. Personality. Sketches and drawings and keepsakes taped to pages. I was in love with it.
So, when I lit it on fire, all I could do was sit back and watch it burn. Even though I felt like I still needed it, maybe I didn’t. It certainly didn’t need me filling up its pages with all my confessions and fears and problems and worries. That journal must have been glad to be set free, but watching it go up in flames was almost as painful as pouring out my soul into it.
When I was a kid one of my favorite poems was Wordsworth’s Daffodils. I’ve written about that poem’s impact on me many times on this blog, but I’ve never really said why. You see, I’m not who I say I am. In fact I am a total imposter. I’ve tried to promote myself as someone who is footloose and carefree, a vagabond bound to nothing. But the truth is, there are certain things I just want to hold forever. It is not because I want something sick or self-gratifying from them, or that I’m not strong enough to go it alone. It’s just that they are so beautiful to me that I want to hold them closer than anything else, like I would forsake the world just to keep them for me. I’m so afraid they will leave and not be a part of my life, the most important part of my life, and somehow when they are gone, they’ll give their best to someone else.
I know, Brian. I know. I whisper to myself as my burning journal of poems floats out onto the waves. The memories here are just wandering clouds. They are for everyone to enjoy, to lay in the grass and make their own shapes, that’s why God made them, and besides, who can hold a cloud anyway, you fool. But it’s what I want. Don’t I get a say in it?
I think this as the last of the hard bound pages, now turned ashen, sank into the dark river. Gone forever. Sometimes I want the past to stay alive more than I want myself to go on, and I will always feel this way.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure Fox is going to see a surge of interest after your travels =)