This week I attended the first session of a poetry course in New Haven, taught for alumni by a former professor of mine now in his eighties—a Chaucer scholar with a wicked wit, elvish smile, and shock of (now) white hair set above his still fierce blue eyes. Teaching enlivened him; surrounded by a fresh crop of students, albeit older ones, his cheeks reddened with a youthful glow. As our class discussed the "happy surprises," (the professor's phrase) that we encountered in a sampling of narrative poems (some familiar, some foreign) by Housman, Tennyson, Whitman, and others, I was drawn back to a happy time—college—when my mind was clear, my focus was sharp, and my future filled with promise. I suppose those four years felt that way for many of us, but in my case, life took a turn after graduate school when I began my first marriage, and while my outward appearance gave no sign of the turmoil and (I would later learn) trauma taking place within, my psyche was slowly fragmenting, depriving me of the continuity that comes from keeping your character intact throughout life's journey.
Here is a bitter truth: If you stay long enough in a dysfunctional relationship, you become someone else, changing subtly at first, then later in ways you could never have fathomed, because remaining yourself is too painful. I don't blame my ex for my dismantling. It was my choice—to get married and to stay for 15 years. Still, it hurts to lose parts of yourself that you love, though once they are gone, you manage without them. You accept, then embrace your new normal. A diminished self. It is when ghosts of the former you appear, or rather resurface, that you begin to comprehend the magnitude of the loss, to feel the depth of it in the pit of your soul. I suppose that sounds melodramatic—and hardly constitutes a happy surprise, but the unusual experience of re-encountering an aspect of the person you once were is one that bears exploring. Imagine an appendage or limb, gone numb long ago, now starting to tingle, as you exclaim—both outraged and elated—"I had forgotten what it was like to have feeling there!" On an intellectual level, it's a twisted version of schadenfreude; you find misery in your own pleasure, lamenting the loss of sensation even as you celebrate its return. Then there follows a frustrated determination to get back what was taken from you, to exercise the atrophied muscles, or (to mix a metaphor), to blow on the spark, fan the nascent flame, and never again allow the fire to be extinguished.
Re-entering the world of poetry, and re-engaging in pure intellectual pursuit, reminded me of the person—the scholar and the gentleman—I used to be. In the days that followed, what began as a quest for a paper I had written for my old professor (still searching) turned into a tour of my old Yale notebooks and papers and an attempt to reassemble my bright college years by putting everything in order. Notebooks neatly labeled for each class and filled with clear, coherent writing spurred feelings of sadness while sparking resolve to resurrect my organizational habits and skills. Papers that required intense concentration and clarity of thought to write inspired me to start clearing mental clutter and take time each day for the life of the mind. I took heart in meeting my old self again and felt shame at how, over years of laziness, complacency, and inactivity, I had chosen easy over challenging and abandoned the high standards in which I once took pride. And then there were the letters—folders full of correspondence with friends—that took me back to a time when I spent time deepening relationships, exchanging thoughts and feelings instead of text messages, and crafting carefully considered responses instead of accepting gmail's insipid suggestions. Before this morphs into a complaint about modern technology, I should state that I appreciate the many new ways we are able to connect. But I also miss the intensity of written letters, the absorption that accompanied both writing and reading them, and the joy of receiving something personal in the mail.
I haven't yet found all the notebooks, and some—as is the case with many of the books I studied—were likely lost over decades of moving. But the self-reassembly project is underway. I may not be half the man I used to be (though I'd like to claim at least 49 percent), but I can, with effort, become a better man than I am now. I can hold myself to a higher standard of professionalism, perfectionism (the good kind), performance, and pursuit. As Oscar Goldman intones in the introduction to "The Six Million Dollar Man" (which my father took the time to watch with me when the show launched in the early 70s), "We can rebuild him....better than he was before..."
And here is the happy surprise I encountered on a walk at the beach with my son today—happy and completely unexpected—but in light of my renewed commitment to excellence, not completely surprising.