Approaching the Frontier

“The man with imagination but no knowledge is like a bird with wings but no feet.”

There it was—a collection of quotes stuck in my bed frame, written in the early 1970s when I was preteen.

I found them last spring while I was moving.

While it’s not particularly connected to what I’ve been thinking about lately, which is where I last left off, at the beginning of 1989: the year that probably changed the course of my life, there might some use for the old saw.

That transformation actually began the year before, even though my journal at the time devotes a mere eight handwritten pages to 1988.

An entry on Wednesday, Nov. 23, declares, “things have changed for the better, though. I’m working nights at Fingerhut as a regular staff proofreader under the ruse that I will be going back to school part time Winter Quarter. I say ‘ruse’ because that rhymes with ‘excuse’ and that’s how I’m looking at it. I like working nights—more pay, less hassle with people, solitude to get things done.”

But what’s even more interesting about the entry is the next paragraph. I touched on my relationship with Sally, a coworker at Fingerhut, adding intrigue to what I originally wanted to write about here: dealing with other people, protecting myself, yet still enjoying being in the world.

The following paragraph spills it:

“It’s ironic, also, in the last few months—when I’d written the last entry and left it there [Ed. note, back in June 1988], a few days later Sally and I had breakfast at Benjamin’s in Minnetonka, then that night she stayed with me over at the folks’ (they were out of town for a week—Indiana, I think). We saw each other for a few weekends for another month, until July 4th (the worst 4th of July in my recent memory) when I did nothing but crash out at my apartment, got drunk and phoned her at her folks’. The next day she had asked me to phone her and we ended it again. In a way I was quite relieved—she’d touched on a true point—that I was just seeing her until someone better came along. Well, I’ll admit that I’ve never been ‘in love’ with her (I’ve always seen sex and love as two completely different things: sex as bodily function, but love as a rare and special experience, one I’ll admit that I have yet to know in its complete force.”

That admission leaps out at me, revealing maybe less about how I felt about Sally and more about relationships in general.

You see, for much of my early life, it was a touchy negotiation with the outside world.

I often felt overwhelmed by the needs of others. As mentioned, my father was probably the biggest dog in the room. I’d get frustrated when my personal world was upended by his demands. From there it projected out into other spheres: school, friends and girlfriends, then later, bosses and coworkers.

I always went inward—what I now call “stargazing”—and fixed my attention on a subject, hobby, or practice that completely absorbed me. Sometimes it was art or music; other times writing or reading. The chief absorbing love was stories. Storytelling lay at the core of all my other interests. Then family or friends would then get frustrated and “rattle my cage.” I would angrily lash out, attempting to “protect my territory.”

While there’s no journal entry marking the date, one such stargazing moment happened in 1988. I’d been killing time at the Ridgedale public library when, mindlessly skimming through the racks, I pulled down a copy of Roger Manvell’s biography of the English actress Ellen Terry. On the cover was Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Terry at 16 years old, taken in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s bathroom, of all places.

Immediately I fixed on the photo—it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen! It deserved an exclamation mark! I recalled it from years before when I was thumbing through art magazines as an art department aide at Lakewood Community College.

I had to know the story behind the photo. So I checked out the book, devouring it in days.

So, on Feb. 27, 1989, I wrote in the journal: “I’ve started a draft of a screenplay of Ellen Terry’s early life in the mid-Victorian theater entitled ‘The Wandering Moon’ and I’ve set a completed draft deadline for October. In November, for about two weeks around my 30th birthday, I’m planning on visiting London again…” I’d arranged to stay with old friends Lindsay and Abi (who then owned homes in Forest Gate and Wood Green, respectively), visit museums, art galleries, and locations in the script, and do research toward a rewrite.

“If I achieve these goals (all realistic) this year,” I wrote, “Then 1989 will be the most successful year I’ve had since I graduated from high school…I haven’t had a personally satisfying success since I wrote The Crowded Room in 1979. What a start! I mustn’t let the obnoxious little black voice belittle my hopes. One step at a time! Hooray!”

Which, ironically, leads us back to the opening quote: Imagination (seeing the story in my head) was the bird with wings. It could fly, but how would it land if it had no legs?

(Answer: by writing day after day, one step at a time.)

That “obnoxious little black voice”—the thin borderline between self and others—would have to be strictly policed. I was hyper-aware of how the world would add distractions and rob my concentration.

The frontier of the imagination is always there—I know that—but it took years of figuring out how invite others into it without jeopardizing the work I wanted to finish, someday.

And time was of the essence.

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~ by completelyinthedark on July 6, 2017.

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