The world according to who?

December 8, 2011 § 8 Comments

He caught my eye as I drove past him on his bicycle.

His shoes were shiny. His yellow suit was too.

The day was warm for a polyester suit and the man who wore it was sweating as he labored at the pedals. To me, the outfit and the mode of transportation suggested a preacher.  I looked for a Bible.

I tried to imagine the next scene when he leaned his bike against a tree and knocked on a door.

As a writer I spend my time imagining the world each character inhabits, the doors that open or stay closed, the thoughts in the mind of the man who has just knocked.

It is my job to aquaint the reader with the truths, the rules, the joys and heartaches particular to the world as my character knows it.

In doing so I only mimic what is true of any human life. The world is a subjective place created mostly in the mind. You have one, I have one. Although they may contradict each other both are real.

If we are lucky we inhabit a world that suits us, one in which we are the prosperous, well-loved main character, but sometimes circumstance forces us to live in a world where we remain the perpetual outsider.

In my early 20s I rented an apartment in Hamden, a Baltimore neighborhood built to house German immigrants who worked the mills along the Jones Falls. Although the mills had long since closed, Hamden had remained surprisingly homogeneous.

The landlord made no bones about who he would and would not rent to. Because I was white he assumed I shared his views on “us” and “them.” I didn’t, but the neighborhood seemed safe and I was alone, and could walk to my job at the Baltimore zoo in nearby Druid Hill Park.

Unwilling to remake my sense of the world in order to fit in, I watched my neighbors like a field anthropologist. When young, the girls of Hamden were all pretty and lively. Every Saturday was marked by some kind of parade. Girls high-stepped in white boots, tossing and catching batons.

By sixteen or seventeen those same girls had put on weight and were leaning heavy on the handles of baby carriages.

Mature adulthood looked like the woman who lived downstairs. She was sturdily built with permed hair. Her husband, a scrawny alcoholic, would come home drunk in the middle of the night and yell, “Git your feet on the floor woman! Fix my breakfast!” What I observed with the detachment of a visitor to an alien world was the real world as far as the women of Hamden were concerned.

The only one I felt any kinship with was a man who lived with the couple downstairs. He was simply called, “the boarder.” He had just one leg but was always neatly dressed, his empty pant leg rolled and pinned, his steel gray mustache carefully clipped.

I quickly caught on that anytime I came down the stairs he would appear at his apartment door, so I descended the stairs loudly and slowly and listened for the click of crutches.

He would open the door and then we would both act surprised, as if we had not collaborated to make the meeting happen. He too seemed to be a visitor in that world. Only he was trapped there.

A smart child trapped in poverty, a man trapped in a woman’s body, a black man trapped in a racist town—in a world that fit better each would be fine. Sometimes we must have the audacity to doubt the world, not ourselves.

My grandfather did not occupy the wrong world, he was suspended between two, at home in neither. When he immigrated to America as a young man he brought with him to his new country memories of the one he’d left behind.

America was not what he expected–but neither was Italy when he went back to visit. In his absence Italy had continued to imagine itself into the future. Over the years he shuttled back and forth always longing for the country he had just left. It was only when he was away from Italy, or America that he saw it as he believed it to be, each most convincing when seen  through the filters of memory and imagination.

As my grandfather demonstrates, life is not a strict one-world-to-a-customer deal. The turning points in our lives usually involve trading one world for another, the new one just as real and as firmly believed-in as the one being discarded. Our old worlds don’t go away. We perfect them in memory. We string them like beads.

My mother, who was notoriously directionally impaired, used to get very nervous when she had to drive to a new place. To cover her fear she would glibly say, “If I get really lost I’ll just start a new life.”

It turns out that this is a practical notion we embrace over and over.

All our lives we balance two concepts: the belief that the world we live in is the world, real and absolute, and the undercurrent knowledge that possible other worlds are as close as one unexpected turn away.

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§ 8 Responses to The world according to who?

  • Tgumster says:

    “If I get really lost I’ll just start a new life.”

    For most of my life, I lived your mother’s words, not quite literally but not entirely figuratively, either. It all turned out all right but to be truthful, I prefer these days of taking in fear as it comes, mostly.


  • craig reeder says:

    i LOVE your mother;s sage advice, about getting lost!!!
    now that’s a cup half-full!


  • My mother was also directionally challenged. With each new car, Dad faithfully added a compass to the dashboard. It never seemed to make a difference!

    I think my mother would have liked your mother!



  • ammaponders says:

    GPS rocks!
    Letting go of old worlds isn’t optional, I think. Nor is it ever really easy. I keep telling myself it’s all an adventure!


  • A constant force in life is our moral compass. Fredrick Douglass noted this when he described how his mistress had to be trained to be a slave owner. She had to learn to harden herself. Mark Twain also noted this internal compass in a scene where Huck prays to what society tells him is right . Society at that time demanded that he return Jim, a runaway slave to his owner. Huck prays for the moral courage to take Jim back to slavery. At the end of the scene, he gives up and decides he will go to Hell rather than turn his friend in.
    All memory is just thought, and thought is just that. Thought doesn’t exist.
    Yet, I believe we do all have a moral compass that directs us to the right path. In your description, I was reminded of that constant force that guides and must be trained out of us.


  • Trusting your moral compass when no one agrees with the direction it is pointing is perhaps the hardest of all acts of faith. But it does have the benefit of feeling right. There is something comfortable about following your innate moral sense–and something so persistently uncomfortable about ignoring it that the only way to handle it is to become an unthinking follower, deaf to your own inner voice.

    Go Huck!


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