Saturday, February 17, 2007

An Application Essay

For the sake of the brevity of this work, let me not speak of the humanities as such, but specifically of the part of the humanities which first influenced the force of my character: literature. Books. When I was young I did not read every book in the children’s section of the library, but only because I was so anxious to move on into the ‘adult’ section. And there I did go systematically through the shelves, alphabetically, and voraciously. I read a lot of crap. But through the sheer volume of the books I read, I also stumbled across real works of literature that stayed with me and presented my mind with challenges and ambiguities that eventually forced me to confront myself and make an absolute schism between the years I lived as a child, firm in the shape of the world, and the rest of the years of my life now which I can face only starkly, in honest unknowing at what the world is or what it will bring me.

My mother was a little too young to be a child of the sixties. She watched her older brother rebel in fantastic ways and he flaunted his nonchalance and independence. Their parents, like many parents of that generation, were a bit too cold, a bit too uncertain of how to raise up their children in a quickly changing world. They tried not to be too strict, they tried to loosen up with the spirit of the times—but they hadn’t been raised in a way that allowed them to be affectionate. Obviously they loved their children, they were raising them, weren’t they? My mother felt lost and half-abandoned. At fifteen she went with a boy who made her feel loved, and then he raped her, and she had an abortion, alone. So she smoked a lot of pot, and that didn’t comfort her, so she did a lot of acid, and that was great but she still drifted from boyfriend to boyfriend, and marriage to marriage, alone, and afraid, and increasingly desperate, so she joined a cult, and they have loved her and loved her and loved her and she has been blissfully happy.

I cannot fault my mother for seeking solace. I understand now the depths of the fear which presents itself to a person alone in the world, without family, or religion, and the bizzarity of death for which humans instinctively seek a comfortable answer. I understand why my mother joined a mid-sized cult, harmless really, money-grubbing but not financially ruinous, with strict rules to help distract you from your empty moments, a charismatic leader who visits every night in your dreams, and pre-written answers to all life’s questions. The mind was the greatest enemy of the soul, and she was taught, firmly, and daily, to suppress its workings, and she taught it all to me from the day I was born. I had a safe and comfortable childhood in that cult. It was exciting and mysterious to have been born into the only group of people in the whole world who knew what God really was and how to get there at death. I was very proud of this, and arrogant, even. But I also read.

My reading was, in some ways, my only activity not defined and delimited by the cult. All of my perceptions, yes, they had been firmly shaped by my upbringing. I certainly judged everything and everyone harshly, and in terms of what I knew. But I was presented lucidly with the world in a way that I could not understand when I began to read certain books. Lowry’s The Giver may have began it all, in the fifth grade. Night, by Elie Wiesel, and Fahrenheit 451 in middle school. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn which first navigated the complexities and ambiguities of poverty and drunks and grime and the struggle to survive it. Dylan Thomas—Do not go gentle into that good night, rage rage against the dying of the light. Louise Gluck’s then completely unintelligible, terror-laced and beautiful The Seven Ages. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, The Left-Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea books, all harshly philosophical works set in a forbidding alien landscape which I could not understand yet left me with a need to search. And moving outward I remember the first time I ever heard a composition by Schoenberg, and the paintings of Egon Schiele. The works of all of these people confronted my small person and placed in my hands new worldviews.

As I integrated these works into my own collection of experiences, I was eventually forced into a position of strange, wavering vulnerability. And when I moved out of my mother’s house and left for college, I loosed from my foundations. I was afraid, and on my own. Without any conscious awareness of what was happening to me, I began to challenge the cult. Then I got mono, and I lost twenty pounds, and I couldn’t climb stairs, and I shook when I walked. And then I got a little better and I realized that I was losing all my beliefs, and I got so scared I went crazy, and I even started cutting myself, and I failed a bunch of classes, and all the while I tried to pretend to myself that I was still in my religion. And then I took time out from school, and I worked at Joseph-Beth for a while, and I started reading books like they were steak, and I was starving.
I read strange haunting stories by Bruno Shulz, a Polish Jew who was killed by Nazis, and a book called Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz, and I read ancient Arabic desert poems and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy and Kafka. And despite my disdain for the mind’s capabilities, my readings forced my thoughts to broaden, and my brain strengthened, and then one night I got online and I typed ‘Eckankar’ into Google and I went not to the first page that came up—my cult’s official website—but to the second link, which I had actually been instructed to never click on for fear of halting my spiritual progress. I discovered that my bible, ‘The Shariyat ki-Sugmad’ was plagiarized, and that the founder of my religion died a multi-millionaire, and the wife he left had admitted in print that they made it all up after witnessing the masses of money made by L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. And so the shameful facts went on as I stayed up all night following links and sorting through nineteen years worth of memories and experiences, all of which I finally understood with my whole mind that I had already renounced. I cried for a long time on the crappy carpet in the living room of my apartment and as the sun came up that morning, I went outside onto the porch and I looked at the sky for a long time more, and then I went to sleep. From then on I have been trying to live in the world that I can see actually exists, and I have tried to analyze its real workings with every day I have. I am trying now to grow comfortable not by seeking glib answers, but by embracing the real fear I have in not understanding what is to be alive, and what it will be to die.

I do not know why I was able to slough off my cult while my mother and all the friends I grew up with were not able to do so. All I know is that I have always read insatiably and that somehow, the ideas and experiences I was confronted with in my reading of the world’s literature prepared my character for revolt.

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