Sunday, June 21, 2020


I have been using some coronavirus time to clear out a lot of old stuff from dusty files that have lain neglected for these many years. One of the things that turned up in the process was a British passport issued in 1970, at a time when I had already been living in America for some time but was still a British citizen. The stamp beside the photograph indicates clearly the passport had been cancelled. I became a naturalized American citizen in 1972, so this was presumably the last British passport I held before renewing it in the early 2000s, during the second Bush era--a time at which I began to feel the pressing need for an escape hatch. I was already far from happy with what was happening in the social and political landscape of my adopted country. 

I look at this image now, though, and wonder who I was back then. I was 34 years old in 1970, but I look so impossibly small and young. That smooth chin scarcely needs a shave! The long hair and the loud tweed jacket and patterned tie, contrasted with the almost certainly brightly colored striped shirt, speak of a time when the "flower children" had brought bold color, along with revolution, into our lives. I was a newly minted university professor, having arrived in Southern California just two years before to take up an appointment in Comparative Literature at USC. I was a poet. As a graduate student in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, I had met and studied with some of the distinguished poets of the day, but my insecurity, I think, is evident in this picture. It's as though I was even then wondering who I was.

This was 50 years ago! It was a troubled time in my life. I had arrived in California with my family--my wife and two young sons. The boys would have been only five and three years old when we drove across the country in an old AMC Rambler. The car was literally falling apart as we drove into Los Angeles on the 10 freeway, so badly impaired that I worried whether we would ever make the last miles into the city. The drive from San Bernardino seemed interminable. I was in terrible emotional shape, torn apart between a British boarding schoolboy's unforgiving sense of duty and a British boarding schoolboy's flawed and deeply inhibited sense of myself as a man. While acutely, even desperately aware of my own sexual needs, I was hopelessly ill-prepared to meet those of a partner--a deficiency that turned out to be fatal to an already foundering marriage.

Looking at that face now I see a boy and not a man. And I realize there is little that remains of him in who I am today. Has every single one of those thirty trillion cells that make a human being died since then, and been replaced? Am I in any way the same purely physical entity represented in this picture? It takes no more than a glance in the mirror to know that the face has collapsed...

(an unflattering, but truthful enough selfie!)

... and I doubt that my young body experienced the daily, familiar aches and pains to which the older version is subjected. There are many parts, too, that worked efficiently back then but fail me now. So, no, as a purely physical entity, I am no longer the same.

I bring, however, far more of life's experience, and I like to think that I'm in many ways the better for it. I am more tolerant of both myself and others, kinder, more compassionate, slower to arrive at judgments. I have learned to listen more closely to the heart--and to exercise appropriate skepticism when it comes to the mind. 

There must, though, be something of the same. A through-line of some kind that connects the young man that was to the old man that is. The word "character" comes to mind. No matter the changes--I like to think of them as improvements--over the years, that aspect of my being has some kind of continuity. What I am today was surely there, if only incipiently at the time of that passport photograph. I was perhaps not in touch with it, not able to see it, not able to express or realize it, was blinded to it by the narcissism of youth. My self was more important to me then, more in need of assertion and protection. I was unable to see much further than my own paltry needs.

I wonder, too, about that thing called "spirit." "Soul"? I am skeptical of those words. But in one particular form of meditation that I like to practice, I take my mind back as far as the body's in utero experience, to babyhood, the life of the toddler and the little boy, through adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, to where I am in my life at 83 years old; and then project still further, into extreme old age and to, and past, the moment of my death. And I ask myself, what part, if any, has always been the same? What part may have been present even before birth and may persist, perhaps, even after death? An energy, a life force, a gleam or column of light... And even as I realize that this... call it "experience" might be fanciful, no more than delusion, I think to catch, at times, the merest glimpse of a presence that is real, though evanescent, suggesting a kind of deathless inner self that existed at the time of that passport picture as it still exists today. 

I am, as I say, a skeptic. Except for those curious sometimes, when everything seems more real.

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