Strongest of the Strange

I first read it in Eric’s room when I moved into the mansion in November 1992. Every time I stopped by to chat with him, or see if he wanted to grab a beer, I had to read that poem.

Most people put up family portraits, vacation photos, or memories they want to preserve on their wall. Eric Wulfsburg, one of the many renters at the Summit Avenue mansion, hung a poem by Charles Bukowski titled “The Strongest of the Strange” in a simple frame.

I thought it was fantastic.

It had stayed with me so much that I noted it in my calendar/journal for April 3, 1993, a day after appearing in conciliation court with the former landlords Eric and I had suffered under in my first move to St. Paul, buying into the Fitzgeraldian dream of freelance independence and city living.

Or whatever. It all seems so small and stupid now.

By April 1993 the money had come in and working gigs had picked up. It just wasn’t a “hand me a check and let me slum a little longer” new life I was leading. I needed to sustain the dream. And dreams need funding. It was an exciting time, but I was still nervous. Outside of new gigs, I wanted to rewrite my screenplay and travel. That would be the theme of 1993, the Clinton I era: “See the U.S.A. from Coast to Coast.”

Bukowski’s poem ends with the startling question: “Where did I go?”

As the years zip by, it’s become a constant question. I think of the people who have passed out of my life either by dying or just leaving my orbit (or mine from theirs). It’s unsettling—proof that change is the only thing we humans can ever really expect. There was a time—probably before 1993 that’s for sure—when it looked as if nothing would ever change. I could count on calling my parents and they would invariably pick up the phone.

Now they’ve left the planet and it’s an odd realization. “Sometimes,” Bukowski writes, “you will only note their existence suddenly in vivid recall some months some years after they are gone.”

If the “weakest” of the strange are those who succumb to depression, anger, confusion, fear and regret, then perhaps the “strongest” are those who get back up after losses and failures and reinvent themselves, try to be cheerful amid the mundane which, Bukowski also writes, might surprise others as “a lightning quick glance never seen from them before.”

Sitting here in “the future,” I’m thinking about that spring of 1993, how hopeful and new it was, and yet the past was still “available”—just a phone call away. For me it was always a sort of “Christmas morning anticipation,” the happy expectation of people and new places to go to, faces “dreaming against the walls of the world.” It’s basically what got me up and out the door every day in the middle of unsettling change.

Later this month I hit a landmark birthday—60. Fifty-two years ago, my mother snapped this photo of me (at left) scratching my head while my brother Brian (across the table from me in the blue shirt) and neighborhood friend John Gottschalk pretended to smoke my birthday cake candles as if they were cigarettes. It’s a joyful memory; I was just eight years old. John passed out of my life many, many years ago, after we left Maryland and moved to Minnesota.

Every year I feel more distant from my brother, and I’d like to change that. As I’ve written before, we’re fundamentally different people—I’m sure that, either weak or strong, he counts me among “the strange.” I’ve always tried to think creatively, to go wherever the crowd isn’t going, to find my own path—behaviors I’m sure my brother finds distressing. But I’ve tried to stay true to myself. I know I haven’t been the most attentive or thoughtful brother, or uncle to his three boys. Those are my regrets.

Nevertheless, in an April 4, 1993, letter to my friend Thérèse, I wrote about the birth of my oldest nephew, Colin, admitting to her that I found myself weeping at the office on the day he was born:

“It was like the Spirit of God touched everything—to realize the power of love is stunning…the simplicity of it, yet people all over the world try to get this and try to get that, when it’s the GIVING that brings it all about. It’s the trust and the pride, the courage and the faith. It can sometimes be a difficult place to be…I’ve learned so much that I realize I have more to learn. Fear ate me up. Walls went up. My goddamn heart wasn’t for anybody. Now I’m less interested in what I get. It’s all out there in the Wild Wide World, people living and dying by the lack of it every day. Can we introduce a New Morality, Thérèse? You know, one that says, ‘I respect you. I’ll help you. What can I do for you? I’m sorry. I trust you.’ A morality beyond games and politics. I may not know anything about jurisprudence or multilevel marketing or catalytic converters, but goddamn it I know about the human heart.”

Can I get an amen, somebody?

I guess, in the end, if you’re still alive and in a position to improve things, there’s hope.

And while Charles Bukowski’s poem isn’t exactly a paean to aspiration or expectation, it’s oddly inspiring, like a cracked window into people—or maybe even ourselves—that we thought we knew well.

~ by completelyinthedark on November 8, 2019.

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