This is it, the end of my first year of living backwards. Into this blog I’ve poured the lessons of a lifetime, so many of them hard won. It’s helped me preserve family stories, communicate with friends, and reach out to people I will never meet.
Does everyone, I wonder, feel this need to launch themselves into the unknown? Do you? Do you write, paint, sing, cook? Do you seek out strangers and confess your secret fears to them in bars or at bus stops? Or do you pour out everything you are into the children you raise?
Writing is hard work, comparable to digging rocks or doing your taxes. I’ll do anything to put it off. As deadlines loom, I feel sudden and contrary urges to wash the floor or clean out the garage — anything rather than face the terror of that empty, white screen. At the bottom of it is always the fear that the words won’t come.
Our culture makes it all look so easy. We see people effortlessly pull off rewarding and challenging careers — while we and those in our circle struggle to make it from month to month, or day to day.
Thanks to new media, it’s now possible for everyone to become a writer, a photographer, or a filmmaker. Singers perform on youtube and, in a blink, share their work with the whole world. But the fact that everyone is doing it somehow makes it even more difficult to communicate. How do we make our voices heard among the thousands of competing voices? It’s like shouting into a well, or scratching on the wall of a prison cell. Rarely do we discern voices echoing back from deep within the well, or hear another person scratching faintly on the other side of the wall.
What is it, I wonder, that drives any of us to reach deep inside, painfully pull out the best of ourselves, then fling it out into the void, where it lies waiting to be judged, ignored or slashed to pieces. Is it the same drive that makes us throw pennies into pools, in the hope that our dearest, secret wishes will be fulfilled? It may be the same instinct that causes us to bring children into the world, in spite of the danger and pain of living. In fear and trembling, we take a step into the light and are slapped down. Then we stand up and take another step.
I realize this post is self-indulgent. This is not the perky Susan you know. I’m sitting here at 5 a.m., typing and drinking coffee. In an hour, I’ll bring my husband a cup and we’ll start our crazy-busy day, at jobs that are both difficult and challenging. Why do I arise so early to engage in an activity that will never pay the grocery bill? It’s the same impulse, perhaps, that drove James Elroy Flecker. You’ve heard of him, of course. No? That’s no surprise: he was no Kim Kardashian. He died young, at the age of 30. And yet, he achieved a kind of immortality. These are his words, To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence:
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
Another person whose words resonate is King Midas’ barber. In a fit of temper, the god Apollo transformed King Midas by giving him a pair of donkey ears. In horror, the king covered them so the world would not see. The only person to know the truth was his barber, who vowed never to reveal the secret. But the promise proved impossible to keep. The secret tortured and tormented him so that he dug a hole and whispered the words into it: “King Midas has asses’ ears. King Midas has asses’ ears.” Unfortunately, a thick bed of reeds grew up in that very place. When the wind blew, the reeds whispered the secret to the whole world: “King Midas has asses’ earrrrrssssss. King Midas has asses’ earrrrrrrssssssss.”
Legend has it that the king killed himself in shame. We don’t know what happened to the barber. As will be the case for most of us, his name is lost in the mists of time.
There are those of us in this world who will always whisper the secrets, because we must. We try to make it enjoyable for you, the reader. But in the end, we do it because the words are burning a hole inside us. It’s too painful to keep them trapped inside and yet the process of pulling them out is excruciating. Like Moses’ mother, we put our naked child in a basket and set it among the reeds of the river, hiding ourselves among those reeds to watch as the tiny craft is swept away on the current. It is a poor gift perhaps, but the most valuable we are capable of producing.
I will be giving you another gift, if you will receive it, in the days and weeks to come. It will be different. You may not like it. But it will be the best I have to offer in these years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”