28 January 2011

On Turning Faustus

Birthdays are wonderful times for reflection--and none more so than the decades. I've been trying to prepare myself for "40" for weeks now. But as the days have ticked down to my 40th January 28th on planet Earth--to be followed, hopefully, by my 40th January 29 and 30--I've been thinking more about Faustus than 40.

Here's why. (Pardon my self-indulgence. I promise to keep it under wraps for another ten years.)

Faust is a German legend about a man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. It is original tellings, Faust was a brilliant but doomed wizard, the draw of the story was the magic and demon, Mephistophiles, Satan's right-hand man.

The Faustus story benefited from two retellings in particular. At the height of the English Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe wrote the play, "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus." His main character was a Renaissance Man who had mastered law, medicine and logic--a man who found magic to be the only study that still interested his teeming mind.

At the dawn of European Romanticism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penned Germany's greatest play, "Faust." Again, knowledge was the goal, magic was the means: only this time the growth of The Enlightenment was the writer's canvas.

I find myself, therefore, entering a new age (pardon the pun), thinking more of Faustus than 40.

I can trace it back to a dream I had in 1990, just one month before I turned twenty. I was traveling Europe at the time on a Eurail pass, sleeping on trains, in youth hostels, at the homes of long-lost relatives.

I dreamed I was hitchhiking--a skill I had been taught by none other than Jenny George, a.k.a. "future bride." The person who picked me up wasn't Jenny, it was another girl--a girl I had loved in academy. As we drove, we talked, and as we talked I flirted, knowing somewhat disconsolately how badly our relationship had ended.

I realized that she had grown quiet, staring ahead at the road. I gave up flirting, and asked her the question I had asked her three or four times a day over the last month of our relationship: "What's wrong?"

"You're different," she said. "I mean, you were different before...when you were at home...but now you have been around the world. I really don't know what to think of you anymore--no one does."

I turned away and looked away out the window. I groaned. As I remember, I was groaning as I awoke a few seconds later. While I do not remember whether I awoke on a train or in a bed, I have never forgotten that dream. It informed the next twenty years of my life (so far).

When she had rejected me the first time, I was very much a creature of my culture: I was white, religious, Southern. In other words, I was a Republican--a George W. Bush voter in waiting. Fortunately my curiosity was stronger than my chauvinism, and I flew to England after one year in college.

When she rejected me the second time--in the dream--I couldn't have understood the changes that had begun in England. They wouldn't be apparent until I had returned to the bastion of small-mindedness that was my American college. The seed was there; I think that's why I had the dream.

I think of the way that seed grew throughout my twenties. I returned to the United States to find a much smaller group of friends willing to accept my socialism, my antipathy toward borders, my boundless desire for adventure, but there were enough--and there was Jenny George, the woman--the mate--who shared every dream, every adventure, every spiritual longing. Thank God that Jenny knew what to think of me.

As I neared 30, the dreams petered out. We were stranded in Albania and shut out of Pakistan, returning to Tennessee in January of 2000 to follow Jenny's call into rural medical practice in Westmoreland. When I turned 30 in 2001, I was jobless, staying home with Ellie and newborn Owen. I was hungry for knowledge, for power. I think that's when Faustus stepped in.

I know of no Mephistophiles, and I want to assure my reader that I have signed no blood oath, there is no 24-year contract for my soul that ends with me descending into hell.

I hungered for knowledge. I would walk with Ellie to the Westmoreland library and read everything I could get my hands on: religion, physics, history, engineering, war, etc. I wrote manuscripts. I went to graduate school, getting my Master's in Public Administration. I became someone who threw himself into researching any project to the hilt: whether it was a road trip, a new business venture, or an inspiring text in scripture. (Sadly, I never found a way to profit from these impulses toward expertise.)

For example, in recent years I have become literally addicted to the "webinar," an online course--usually free--that instructs educators or illustrates new technologies. Last week--during a snow break, no less--I decided to get certified in Google Apps for Education. I am any teacher's best student--I'll listen to a lecture, research the heck out of it, and return to the instructor with ideas how to implement the ideas even further!

Yet the hunger for knowledge only takes me back to that dream of twenty years ago. Learning doesn't unite people, it divides them. The questions that we ask when we reunite with friends aren't "What have you learned?" or "Have you changed?" It is quite the opposite. When people ask you a question, and you can respond with five to eight thousand words, it doesn't endear you to them. Knowledge is a threat to a relationship; ignorance is--after all--bliss.

Should I care? I confess that when I meet indifference, I'm compelled to reach further, read even more, research my way out of a problem. I'm not out to impress anyone, so I can't really feel rejected. I'm only hoping to learn more and more and--why thank you--even more.

"I don't know what to think of you anymore." I can hear the words and see the frustrated look on the girl's face even today, more than twenty years after they spoke into my dream.

The words haunt me, bittersweet like beauty that breaks the heart. I want her to care--I crave the acceptance that high school friends offered in exchange for conformity, in exchange for thinking, acting, celebrating and worshiping in a defined, conservative, Southern space. I want that protecting shell.

I'm 40. I'm Faustus. I didn't sell my soul--I sold my shell so that my spirit and my mind could break free. And that fact brings me closer--both to Heaven and to Hell--that I ever could have dreamed.


Amanda said...

JD, I literally have goose bumps. It is so interesting to read your musings on the transforming adventure of experiencing other cultures that many of us enjoyed at that impressionable age. How lucky, lucky, lucky we were, I have always felt. Immature, sure. Naive, absolutely. But we did it. While everyone else went to Hamilton Place Mall on a Saturday night, we went to London. I don't know any more what wild notion it was that was ENOUGH to push me out of that same protective shell, but every day I'm grateful that I made the leap. Wasn't it fun? I'm glad to have shared a bit of it with you. Happy birthday, old friend.

JD said...

You make a good point, Amanda. I don't regret anything. I think it's a little different for me because I live back in Portland--the hometown that I left--rather than somewhere further away. This causes me to both confront the pre-Newbold life on a pretty regular basis and have to practice the post-Newbold knowledge at the same time. Thanks for reading--and for the birthday wishes.

Amanda said...

Oh yes, I agree that it's different for those who stayed away (somewhere or another) vs. those who returned. I am confronted by "pre-Newbold life" whenever I return to Florida or somewhere else on the east coast. I used to find it frustrating and exhausting--the lack of common ground, the resentment of my "betrayal" of my roots, etc.--but I think both my and others' edges have softened a little bit, so it's not such a rough ride these days. That, and the older I get, the more I am able to be nostalgic about the past, rather than struggling against it. Again, probably the luxury of one who doesn't bump into the "past" every time I go to the grocery store...