Ventura: The Summer Before the Dream

After 23 years, it's still as though I just woke from that dream. I know now that you can spend half your life journeying toward a particular night of sleep, a particular dream; and then spend the rest of it living in the power of that dream. I know now that you can wander aimlessly for a long time, uncertain and without guides, with no conscious purpose whatever, unable to do or say much - but the aimlessness may be an illusion. For a dream may be forming, deep in the soul, slowly, painfully, joyfully, and it's taking all your energy, all your thought, all your love. This leaves your conscious life feeling aimless -- you feel nothing but dissatisfaction, longing, and the guilt of not knowing. How strange to feel guilty about not knowing, but we do -- not knowing where to go, what to do, what to be, what our names really are. Guilt, and the strain of longing. It can seem impossible that such a fragile and small creature as yourself, as myself, could be the source of such immense longing. Walking and talking and attempting to function in the medium of that longing. There is no word for it. There is no anything for it. There is only the longing that both goads you on yet prevents you from doing anything specific, anything concrete. It was that kind of summer. In Berkeley and Oakland, 23 years ago. There was almost no money. I would shine my shoes and carefully press one of my three white shirts and go for long walks and take great pride when the hippie panhandlers on Telegraph Avenue asked for hand-outs. It wasn't that I felt superior. Any gentle way that anyone survives was and is okay with me. It was that my disguise was working. I had never felt more insubstantial, physically (I was bone-thin) and emotionally, yet these people seemed to think I was substantial enough to beg from. They thought I existed. That, at least, was something. A woman at the museum saw right through me, but did so with a kind of love. The museum was free back then. Now it has a sterile cafeteria, but then it had a bakery where you could sit for hours. It wasn't like the street joints, full of hippies; there were mostly old people in the museum bakery, and I felt comfortable with them. It seemed they were doing what I was doing: floating in time, letting time just hold them up and soak them and drift them along. We all sat for hours at little tables overlooking a sculpture garden. I thought of it as a kind of anteroom. For them, the anteroom to death; for me, though I didn't know it, it was the anteroom to the dream that was taking shape in me. But I was telling you about the woman. She was some kind of Latina. In her mid-20s, like me, but not at all insubstantial. Every move she made was definite and clear and full of energy. She had bright dark eyes and a bright wide smile and she would look at me as though to say, "I see you." I would order coffee, but she would add two large slabs of fresh bread thickly spread with butter. After my third or fourth refill she would bring two more slabs of bread. Somehow she knew this was my breakfast and lunch. (I have always depended on the kindness of waitresses.) The coffee was 50 cents; I'd leave a dime tip. In that way I spent about $4.50 a week, plus another $4 on yogurt or fruit for dinner. That was the summer I read Kierkegaard, Brecht, and Artaud -- used books purchased for less than a dollar each. Read them in that museum, over and over. It might have been easier if I'd known I was waiting for the dream, but such things are not given to us to know. I was writing, of course, I was always writing -- a long series of lousy poems about Aztec legends. Consciously, these writings were no more than attempts at self-respect, though I know now the dream would not have come without that writing. (As Gurdjieff says, no conscious work is ever wasted.) Then I went to a free Fellini film and that inspired my awful Fellini-esque play. It was about a village cripple named Mimo who snuck into a circus and stole the sequined costume of the lady tightrope walker. It wasn't that he was cross-dressing, it was that this was the only way he could touch this untouchable woman, and it was more: The sequins were like mirrors and he wanted his body to look like the mirror of Creation that it was. He was stoned to death by the children of the village. On every page, I knew I was writing badly. But I didn't know the poems and the play were a form of praying, and I didn't have to know, did I? That's the great thing about some forms of prayer. I wrote mostly in that bakery. I suppose the bright-eyed woman who fed me bread was the tightrope lady, I was Mimo, and the children who stoned Mimo to death were what was going to happen to me in some form or other. (Oblivion was more likely, but I couldn't face its lack of drama.) I could have worked, of course. There was plenty of work, especially for someone like me who could type 100 words a minute. I'd earned my own keep since I was 17, but a year before I'd promised myself never to take another day-job. (An act of desperation, in my case, not courage, though sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.) I suppose I was having a kind of breakdown, but since I wasn't hurting anybody but myself it was nobody's business whether I broke down or not. As breakdowns go, I was being fairly quiet and polite about it. Harmless as Mimo. There seemed to be so much harm going on in the world that I was kind of proud of being harmless. One night I was taking one of my long, long walks. Since I lived in a very cheap and very small room, sharing a kitchen and a bathroom with several equally cheap and small rooms; and since, after eating my yogurt or fruit, and writing or reading a little more, there was nothing to do in that small room -- I would walk and walk and walk. This night I was walking in a dangerous part of town past a dingy hotel. A strange place. It had plate-glass windows like a store. I stopped and looked in. There were two vending machines and a lamp, and in a wheelchair beside the lamp sat an old dwarf. He just sat there, staring out the window as I stared in. He didn't look directly at me, didn't seem aware of me, but I stared at him. "Mimo?" I said. He remains the loneliest person I have ever seen. I can't prove this, but I can't imagine being more alone than he looked. I knew, at that moment, that compared to him I wasn't lonely, and never really had been. What I'd thought of as "loneliness" was mild discomfort beside what this man faced. But I did not feel in the least sorry for him, because I had seen his face and I already knew what bravery looked like and he had it. I was and am a fool, off and on, but I've never been so foolish as to feel sorry for the brave. A person with courage can do without a lot of other things. A person without it has to play along, sooner or later. There isn't any way to construct it, and you can't go to therapy or anywhere else to find it. It consists of how much of your true self you can really be, even when you're most afraid. Those not born with courage have had to find it for themselves in their own ways, ways so much their own that they can't teach their ways to others. The truly brave are rare and blessed, no matter what their circumstances or how they found their courage, and they don't need a writer to tell them that, and they certainly don't need anyone's pity. He was brave enough to die, that was clear. So he lived on in his loneliness because, even there, he valued life. (A quality of bravery that often goes unremarked.) What other reason could there be? You may measure how deeply you are living by how many things come toward you that you will never forget. I have forgotten whole years (and many achievements) that I thought at the time were important, years of living various lies -- lies that were only waiting for one truth, in whatever form, to smash them to smithereens. I've forgotten many things, but not that dwarf and that waitress and that summer (when I achieved nothing), and I knew on that night that I'd never forget them. And I learned again what I had, for a time, forgotten: that a teacher can come from anywhere, in any guise, and teach one thing on one night that turns you toward your courage. Which is all you need. There were two other teachers that summer, and then the dream. I'll tell you next time. ...every once in a while I get up from the typewriter, pace around, light a cigarette, ask myself, "Why am I telling strangers all this?" The answer is always different, and the one that comes tonight is that I know there are some strangers out there having a summer like I had, and we strangers have to talk to each other sometimes, no matter what, and I'm saying: You never know, a dream might be forming, and your teachers will come in disguise.

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