A scholarly adult life is full of exaggeration. It is an unspoken secret that all of us keep as none of us read as much as we say we do. None of us write as much as we wish we could. And very few of us round out the thoughts born from our reflection into smooth, complete theories, lifestyles, or tidbits. But still, we’re inclined to share. I do not believe that this exaggeration is born from shame, at least not commonly, but instead in a desire for our future—or manifested— selves to be better.
This is what makes the exercising of introductions so lovely. People present their ideal selves to one another, and if done properly, we are excited to swap stories; to swap books, thoughts, interpretations, pastimes, and particulars. We share equally as much for ourselves as for the other person. But these introductions are rarely conventional, and depend on a number of factors: time of day, mood, setting, sobriety, age, maturity level, cause for conversation, and, above all else, the relationship between those there.
I visited my girlfriend this past summer in Vancouver while she was about halfway through a Fulbright internship experience at the University of British Columbia. I had been spending the summer at home, living with my parents again for the first time in a few years and working for a writing agency in Cincinnati. Both of us had been spending the summer dedicated to studying our vocations and maturing in craft; her, in psychology, and I, in writing and poetry. This day-to-day education allowed for a rare headspace. It made us feel as if we had both matured in our careers, gifting us the notion that we had finally ascended a few rungs on the figmental life ladder for the first time in a while.
While in Vancouver, my girlfriend and I had dinner with a new friend of hers who so happened to be an avid reader. I felt myself stir with a voracious need to prove that I had progressed. We started with the current reads, then pushed onward into the testing waters.
“Oh, have you heard of Rilke?”
“Yes of course, have you read Frost?”
“I tend to shy away from American poets”
“Oh, I guess not Plath. I love American fiction though.”
“You must have read O’Connor then! I had a wonderful professor who introduced me to her short stories.”
My girlfriend chimes in.
“Sam, you haven’t even mentioned Bukowski yet.”
My stomach sank. I could feel my head beating against the rungs as I slipped back down the life ladder. BadumBadumBadumBadumBadum… Her friends face twisted, and they sat back against the booth, unengaged, or—at least—cautious of me.
“I’ve only read one of his books.”
The scholarly conversation ended with this declaration. Those who’ve read Bukowski know how devastating and final this sentence is. The one-and-done experience.
On the walk back from dinner, I related to my girlfriend that I wish she hadn’t mentioned Bukowski, but I had to admit that she was totally validated in bringing him up in my conversation. I loved my time reading the man, and have told her many times that I think highly of his work.
For any readers who haven’t read him, he’s a strange writer to digest. The man lived a difficult life in California, his childhood full of abuse and acne conglobata and his adult life full of drunkenness, depression, and heartbreak. The man was disgusting, rude, abusive, inappropriate, and hateful. But he wrote often. He wrote poetry about beautiful things.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate the poetry from the man, which is why I very rarely discuss him in these introductions. But I don’t necessarily want to separate the man from his work, I simply don’t want to try to defend him.
My freshman year of college, my father gave me a copy of the selected works of Charles Bukowski, and I fell in love. It is, without a doubt, my most read poetry book, and I take it with me everywhere. I can recite many of the poems from memory and my favorites in the collection change with the seasons, always promising something new with my next reading. Since then, I have read many of his other books, both his novels and his collections, but I find myself slowing as I think I’ve started to outgrow him.
In scholarship, in the pursuit of understanding and new knowledge, mentors are paramount. I have had many during my time in university, and I anticipate myself continuously gaining more as I study and progress and obsess. But I find mentors a tricky business.
For me, life truly began when I realized my parents had been children. When I took the time to imagine how they were raised and identified what has held them back and hurt them. Life began when I realized how short it might be, how close to the beginning of this story I am, and how I will not live to see the end of it all. The mentors that I’ve chosen know this—mentors must know this—and they have, no doubt, learned something from this knowledge. They have pursued a career. They have specialized. They have grown up, and it is my duty as a student to learn from what they’ve learned, understand what they are, and love them for that. But one mentor cannot teach me everything I need to know. And like I said, this life is much shorter than I thought it was going to be.
The difficulty with mentors is understanding what questions to explore with them, and what questions to unwrap elsewhere. I have tried before to commit myself to an education from a single source, whether it be through relationships or through other forms, but no one teacher is me. No one artform can teach me all I’ll need to know about growing up, about being a man, about raising a child, about prayer and who to pray to. This is why I sometimes feel that I’ve outgrown the people in my life. It’s a lack of excitement from feeling I’ve exhausted all they have to teach me.
Bukowski’s writings showed me that the most broken often have incredible beauty to offer the world. My favorite poem of his, The History of One Tough Mother , describes his relationship with a rescued cat who’s faced death over and over again, but the poem is really discussing spectacle in the mundane. He writes,
and now sometimes I'm interviewed, they want to hear about life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed, shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say, ‘look, look at this!’ but they don't understand, they say something like, ‘you say you've been influenced by Celine?’ ‘no,’ I hold the cat up, ‘by what happens, by things like this, by this, by this!’
But this has been a story told over and over again. Beauty in unsuspecting places. Beauty under outward layers. Inner beauty. We learn this through art (Andrew Wyeth’s depictions of the storming excitement within the calm American simplicity.) We learn this in fairytales (Cinderella emerging as the princess after a cruel and lowly upbringing.) We learn this in life. We form relationships with people we thought we hated or never thought we’d know. We heal each other. We hold each other when we’re sick and at our lowest and it makes us love each other even more. There is no true disgust while there is also love. Thus, beauty in the lowest of places.
But we know this. We have learned this in one way or another. And although I may have realized this under the guidance of Bukowski, I will not defend him as the best option. He is a single option by which conclusions can be determined, and I have determined mine. This is the meaning of that sharing: when we reach out to others and say, “This is what educated me, I hope you agree, and I hope we can both be right.”
The exaggeration of what we’ve done or seen fills the holes. It makes us feel like we understand more than we might at the moment, and that is okay. Desiring to know more is hardly a sin. The desire to have answers, to know experiences, and to relate to one another is a strong pull. It drives us to lie. It drives us to augment.
I’d like to say that I outgrew my mentors, that I could rest well knowing I fully understood the lessons that they presented to me. I could defend this point by saying that I know now why I cried when I saw Wyeth’s Christina’s World hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. Or that I know why Bukowski’s poems stay in my bag so often. But I do not outgrow people. I cannot. These ‘scholarly’ relationships can never be outgrown.
I talked with one of my professors this past week as we caught up after a long summer. He had been a mentor that I relied heavily on a few years ago, but had since then thought I had finished my education with. We swapped summer stories, discussed our parents, talked about where our minds were, about God, about heaven, about rest, and about inheriting books. We talked about mentors, about lessons and how we learned them. I told him what I’ve learned from him, and described to him how unsure I am about writing. I told him of my singular goal, to write something that lives for 1000 years, not to be worshiped or revered, only to be studied and carried with people. I told him that I do not think Bukowski will be read in 1000 years. I told him that I do not think our renditions of the Cinderella story will extend through the next millennium, that Wyeth’s masterwork will not still hang in New York City’s art museum, that there won’t always be a New York City. But I told him that I hope something I write might remain. Something personal, and fair, and important; something that students read and think, “Incredible, I never realized this before. Have you read him? Have you read what he realized about himself? About all of us?”
“That will be enough for my soul: when they find me, learn simply, and move on; without the slightest need to defend any of it.” My mentor scoffed at me when I told him this.
“1000 years is a long time; we can’t even perceive it.”
“I don’t want to live that long”
“Are you sure? Isn’t your writing your way of living?”
In a way he’s right. In a way, he’s taught me in those few sentences that I might be much more afraid than I believed myself to be. That I might be wrong.
It causes me to spiral and think that maybe this all goes nowhere. Maybe it will grow for a few years, and bring me love and satisfaction for my middle days, before collapsing in on itself much later. Maybe it will collect dust in a drawer. Maybe it will disappear with the blast of an EMP. I do not know. Maybe it will transform into the most beautiful poem that becomes the alma mater for some prestigious university. Even then, would it ever survive 1000 years?
I’ve sat with these questions for days now, trying to write what it means to me. Attempting to comprehend how these writings end, but I can’t. I’m utterly unable to. But I do find myself sitting quieter. I find myself reading my poems, and Bukowski’s poems, and crying at the print of Christina’s World while I talk to my girlfriend over the phone.
I wish I read more. I wish I wrote more. I wish this ended neatly, and new, and profound, but I am unable to see how it can. I have these questions that I’ve written down and save for the next time I get to talk to my professor, my forgotten mentor, after I assumed I was long-since finished with his education. After I assumed I had grown past him.
But it’s strange. I can feel the rungs back in my hands. There is this tangible excitement where the doom should be. It’s begging questions. It’s driving discussions. It’s pushing me to read and compose and create something. I write a poem, and I like it. I outgrow no one, and have the same number of answers still. I can only believe this to be some sort of progression.
This article will go nowhere, and I hope I’ve made my peace with that. It might sit, forever in this document, unread by those I do not share it with. But how exciting for them? How exciting for me? What a wonderful thing it is that I’ve been blessed with this ability to write and to have grown up in a time where I can share it. I am blessed to have these mentors, to have love, to have family enough to engage these thoughts and drive me to want to eternalize them. To make this, my wonderful experience, into something that can be felt and shared long after I’m gone.
Are there answers more than this? I struggle to believe so. I seem to love this life much more than I should, and I just hope this version of me, your version, is someone we both might learn from.
All the best,
For Posture makes
There is a cycle
As it were,
I’m abysmal every time
There are attempts
But I cool it
For there is little to note
Or my years
Or my findings
I aim to be kind
And hope that life
Might like me back
Like when it corrals me towards my loved ones
When I know I’d write
Sammy Taylor is a student writer studying at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Raised in Cincinnati, his writing, primarily poetry, focuses on living with and overcoming eating disorders in a midwestern climate. His poems have been published in magazines like New Reader Magazine, Orpheus Literary Magazine, and Gleam. His debut poetry collection, OAF, will be published later this year.