In 2014 I set out to explore versions of my former self through books that had been particularly dear. I hypothesized that by identifying their specialness upon first reading them, I had somehow infused their pages with my contextualized self, creating a permanent shadow of me at that particular moment in time.
This notion of marking time and discovering points of connection between former and present versions of self is an idea that has fascinated me ever since I was very young. In my post, “Marking Time” https://marabhuber.com/?s=marking+time I explained,
When I was a young child I had a strange image that would often come to me. I would see myself replicated in a long line with my present self somewhere toward the back and many more versions ahead of me, extending way into the future. In this vision I -my current self- would be waving furiously trying to get the attention of my future selves, but to no avail. In retrospect it seems much of my young life was spent racing ahead trying to catch up to the me(s) in the front, seeking out experiences and ideas that would propel me forward.
For me, books have been time machines, allowing me to revisit, reflect, and sharpen my understanding. But until now, my journeys have always been solitary. So imagine my delight when my youngest daughter, Natalie, joined me for an unexpected journey back in time.
The trigger was a science video detailing the impacts of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Through a series of before and after sequences, the narrator followed the impacts of a single predator on a vast and interconnected ecosystem, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of a single manipulation that was initially deemed small and unimportant.
As I listened to Natalie try to explain why she found this to be so utterly compelling, trying to get her head around how far this idea could be taken and extrapolated, I immediately thought of a similar story that had captured my own imagination when I was her age. It was a short story by Ray Bradbury in which a group of hunters traveled back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. The hunters were led on an adventure that was closely controlled, with clear instructions to never leave the trail, that any misstep could alter the details of history, leading to unforeseen consequences and implications.
As I found myself recounting this story, which I hadn’t read in over thirty years, Natalie seemed to appreciate the significance of connection. She recognized the specialness of a common theme and idea fascinating both of us. She somehow saw – or felt- herself in me and me in her, and we both reveled in the intimacy.
Through the magic of the internet, I was able to quickly identify and download A Sound of Thunder. And within minutes, Natalie and I were huddled under a blanket, both enthralled, infusing the virtual pages with the essence of us- together- at this single precious moment in time.
Other posts about rereads https://marabhuber.com/?s=reread
Perhaps revisiting our youth is dangerous business. So dangerous, that our present narcissism prevents us from getting too close.
Did I find traces of my younger self within the pages of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden? Certainly. In fact, I immediately recalled the titillation of discovering this gem within a small German book store, paying what had seemed an exorbitant amount, and reading it boldly; or rather, trying to be bold in the absence of anyone to care. I was only sixteen, living as an exchange student in a small village in Rheinland-Pfalz. I had wanted to explore the world, to become worldly.
Initially the cover had drawn me in. The plot had sounded so sophisticated and risqué. And yet, in the end, it was the every-day descriptions that stimulated my imagination- the food and cocktails, the setting and dialogue, all described so richly with excruciating detail. I remember thinking, how truly amazing that such mundane objects and actions could become so exquisite, making me feel so strangely alive.
Upon my most recent read- I have to admit that I have picked this one up several times since my first introduction- I still felt the same sense of stimulation. However, this time it wasn’t the minute details that dominated my attention. Clearly, they still felt electric, but I now understood that the energy was not their own. Instead, it was radiating from the underlying tensions of the characters and their respective relationships. And ultimately, it was the fragility of the situation itself, or perhaps the inevitability of its ruin, that charged every detail with a heightened sense of sharpness.
This theme of inevitability took on a prominence both within the central narrative and also the stories within a story that I had barely skimmed in earlier reads. The idea that once set into motion, our interactions build towards some unstoppable crescendo. And although there is a nobility in exhibiting restraint, discipline, holding to the belief that we ultimately have control, in the end we must allow our lives to run their course. This recognition in turn creates a sense of detachment, which is perhaps a self-indulgence or instead a protective shield. But regardless, once the crescendo is reached, there is simply no going back.
As I reflect on my self-imposed challenge (see “The Big Reread”), I have indeed found traces of my former self within the book’s well-worn pages. And have also witnessed the distance I have come. Through my experience I now appreciate the impact that relationships can have, projecting their colors onto things and places, as if throwing their energy like patterns on a screen. And yet in many ways I am still that same explorer, trying to be bold, and still drawn to the humming tensions that play out just under and around the surfaces.
*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014
Some twenty-five years after my original read, I returned to Siddhartha looking for a trace of the teenager I had been, and perspective on the distance I’ve since come.
Admittedly, my reread began with some frustration. I wanted desperately to remember how I was first connected with the book. This contextual detail has become an important thread in my recent evolution. I have learned to embrace connections and the serendipity/fate that often catalyzes my most meaningful encounters. But despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the source of my initial interest. I suppose the question of how a 15-year old would stumble upon such a heady read will remain a mystery, at least until it is ready to be revealed.
Yet my connection with the book was immediately apparent. Its cadence and voice spoke to me in a way that was familiar and intimate. The story of a boy who is bright and curious, acknowledged for his academic gifts and promise, but rejects the easy path for a journey of personal growth and enlightenment. The resonance with my own childhood made me laugh out loud; curious and smart, certainly, with a leaning toward blatant insubordination.
Of course I had loved this book. The beginning of the story was affirming, giving me the validation and approval that I had so desperately craved. I was a precocious child who yearned for so much more – more experiences, more meaning, more truth. And although I did well by everyone’s standards, I felt trapped by the small town, small ideas, and compliance to conventional teachings and wisdom.
It was this insatiable version of me who leapt from the pages, urging me to rush forward, skipping over details devouring the big ideas, leaving me hungry for more. But as I sat rereading Siddhartha, pacifying my inner child, slowly reading aloud to appreciate the cadence and beauty of the prose, I found myself suddenly alone. Although the lessons of Siddhartha’s later years rang resoundingly clear and true, poignantly speaking to the adult I now was, the text had lost all familiarity. I was clearly reading it for the first time.
I laughed out loud as the realization hit me. As a teenager I had obviously skipped over the entire second half, racing toward the end, ready for my next read. I had gotten what I needed, what I had wanted from Siddhartha’s early years, and had dramatically declared the book to be pivotal to my growth and evolution.
To the current me, Siddhartha is clearly about the wisdom of humility, the insights that come from the rhythms of nature and the intimacy of touching souls. It’s about the riches of a life lived with honesty and simplicity, and about receiving the gifts that come when we are ready.
Although I cried when I came to the end of Siddhartha, it was not from sadness. Yes, I had enjoyed reconnecting with the youthful impatient version of me, but I was grateful for the sense of peace and reflection that enveloped my second reading. And this time rather than rushing through to get to the good parts, I instead found myself lingering on every page, hesitant for the book to come to an end.
*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014
I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.
I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.
Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.
I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.
My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.
By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.
The books I am rereading
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (early college)
The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)
Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)
West of the Night by Beryl Markham (adulthood, Tanzania project)
The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)
The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)
Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)
*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way
Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.
The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.
How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.
My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.
And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.