Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Life on the Mississippi

“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” -Mark Twain

There was this moment today, in between the breezes on the fifth floor balcony where I sip hot coffee from this porcelain mug my second daughter painted, between classes as the students pass, between lecture notes and the worn leather creases of my satchel, where I closed my eyes, held my breath against the wind, and remembered those days.
Out in the trees I would find you, between the crush of brown leaves beside the brook, hidden as the nightingale or the fawn, waiting for me in secret.
“We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When the circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first Negro minstrel show that ever came to our section left us all suffering t try that kind of life…” -Mark Twain

Introducing Samuel Langhorne Clemons, I show the students pictures of Hannibal Missouri, white picket fences and barefoot boys in straw hats shouldering fishing poles, houses with wood burning stoves and porches meant for corn cob pipes, the slave quarters out back and the faces of weeping blacks. I tell them that Clemons lived in between the words, full of confounded irony and stubborn wit, where self-deprecation was a moral vanity and whose loftiest ambition was to contradict itself, such is the universally accepted father of American Literature: Mark Twain, who said, “I am not an American, I am the American.”
“Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.” -Mark Twain

There was a fire around the school yesterday. Off in the industrial park, a small temple and home caught ablaze sending black clouds and glowing sparks rolling past the windows in the twilight dusk. The boys acted exactly as they should, crying, "Fire! Fire!" and running off half-cocked and brazen in the direction of the burning smoke. I stood on my rooftop balcony and watched them race down the streets on their bicycles, some sprinting alongside until their legs gave out, until they blurred into the dark raging glow of the inferno toppling down onto the street.
How perfect it is to be a boy racing toward the fire. How it calls us. How we must see and know the danger for ourselves.
“These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.” –Mark Twain

I joke with the students, I am sitting on a chair in the front of class reading from an old paperback, the kids sit above me on their desk tops. I do not fear their vantage, I see it as more of a protective shell. I tell them, Twain was not the first American to go abroad and write about it, but he is the first to bring America with him. Before, writers traveled to exotic places and described it as the center of the world, but Twain, no matter where he went, stood in the center of the American compass and saw it as home.
He made it possible for all of us, to be Americans abroad.
Out on the balcony in between class I am approached by this young girl Hannah. She reads this blog religiously, steals my books of the shelf, try as I might I can't be rid of the poor soul. Hannah tells me that she believes Twain wrote like an American so that he could stay close to the people he left behind. She asks, "Is that why you keep writing your blog, to keep those you love close, to always be there for them in some small way, even if they don't want you or need you anymore, to offer them a kind of protection, a kindred spirit when no one else is there?"
She made me laugh, this young girl did. In between the breezes on the balcony, in between my secret place in the high trees, she found me. I told her, "Yes, because that's my compass. I've always given myself away for free.

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