What I Taught Myself Thirteen Years Later

Of all the amazing moments in the fascinating and weighty American Beauty, it’s Lester Burnham’s last words that I recall most often: “Man, oh man.  Man, oh man, oh man, oh man.”  He’s looking at a photo of his family that seems untouched by the psychosis and pain that’s haunted them throughout the film.  They are young, happy, united.  His words are at once a meditation on the depraved and surprising nature of humanity, and a simple inability to express one’s feelings about said nature.  In this state of transcendent meditation, his life is cut short, and the movie effectively ends.  This is its thesis statement.

I feel something similar when I look at my own life, or at least at the period about which I wrote so much in those letters I republished last month.  It’s hard to read them, in part, because I see so many failings in them. Failure to see things as they really were: I was foolishly optimistic about the situation there for far too long. Failure to see almost anything beyond myself: I wanted to leave the letters untouched, but couldn’t bring myself not to edit out the most navel-gazingly offensive passages.  Failure, above all, to see that what mattered most was very far from what I spent most of my time trying to do.

Above all, I was surprised to learn that although I had always believed these letters were the start of my writing career, the writing itself wasn’t that great.  At times there was a glimmer of something real, but in the main it was simply what it sounded like: me telling stories about my life, which although amusing at times, was pretty ordinary.  That fact was both shocking and freeing.  God knows I need to be reminded more often about how ordinary I am.

Two things inspired me about this experience.  The first was the similarity of my seventeen-year-old self with my only-very-slightly-younger students of today.  As the age gap between us grows (I am now roughly twice their age) I find it harder and harder to relate to them, and I can be especially unforgiving of shallow self-centeredness. But reading my own entries from that time has reminded me that this is how teenagers are, and I was like that too. So if I don’t rush too quickly to judgment, my own students may follow a similar path to a greater understanding of the world.

The other was the space between my letters.  A weekly missive may seem extreme for a college student, but in fact it was barely enough; I remember keeping lists in my head and on paper in preparation for Sunday, when I’d include the thoughts and anecdotes in my pre-blog entry.  Having time to think before I wrote — imagine! — is probably what I miss most about that style of writing, and there’s no reason I can’t institute that here.

So my posts will probably be less frequent, at least for awhile.  Thanks to everyone who has checked up on me, but honestly, I’m fine.  I just want to wait until I have something to write that’s worth the space.