BY DAVID W.
I spent this past September feverishly sorting, discarding, and re-packing my way through an ever-increasing collection of boxes that had followed me from apartment to apartment since college. I recycled two years of student exams and folder upon folder of mildewed, water-stained lecture notes that never got tossed after my grad school-era apartment flood of 2005. I visited my first landfill and hurled dead DVD players, a fifteen-year-old computer monitor, empty CD cases, and bags of miscellaneous garbage down a mountain of compacted, indistinguishable refuse. I purged a closet and dresser full of clothes over ten years old that I did not buy vintage from the thrift store. Dyana’s brother Dylan chopped and burned the dresser after we noticed one side was moldy. The dresser had been mine since childhood; it still had sports-themed drawer liners. I drove uncountable loads to Goodwill in my Ford Taurus, then I sold my Ford Taurus. Dyana and I left Tennessee on a Thursday morning. By lunch time Friday, we were in Boston.
This “fresh start” and the activities that preceded it got me thinking about past lives, about how past lives coalesce into this present life, about the hazy future lives erased as possibilities every day by the decisions we make.
What was an occasional tendency to analyze my past, present, and future ad nauseam has only escalated since I moved to Boston. I have spent October-November-December-January nitpicking over my resume, pairing my past “accomplishments” with cover letter promises of a mutually conducive future. Wireless Internet access at the apartment and a constant need for job-search distractions too often send me to Facebook and its postage-stamp-sized photo rejuvenations of high school friendships. I can look at entire albums devoted to the high school reunion I missed last summer. I can read comments left on the “I went to R— Christian School” group page, comments that became increasingly nostalgic once our alma mater ceased to exist in the real world.
Most of my old classmates look the same–it’s only been a decade. I probably look much the same too, longer hair and a beard notwithstanding. But those old friends sure seemed baffled about my identity when, caught up in election euphoria, I posted “David is thrilled about Obama but disappointed in California” as my status in early November. I spent a Saturday watching comments like ARE YOU SERIOUS—WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU—I NEED TO PRAY HARDER FOR YOU—ARE YOU REALLY TALKING ABOUT THE PROP 8, etc. fight for wall superiority with the sarcastic rebuffs of my more up-to-date proxies.
I don’t blame my high school friends for being confused. They don’t recognize me now; I don’t recognize the me they expect. I don’t recognize David W, circa ’98, wrapping up a four year reign as class president, practicing free throws and pouring over books about becoming a successful basketball coach. I don’t recognize David W. entering college with short, gelled hair and an excess of polo shirts from American Eagle. I don’t recognize David W. with dreams of a political career wherein he’d intern for his Congressman and schmooze his way to the Capitol in a fresh suit and tie. I don’t recognize David W. reluctantly voting for George W. Bush the first time around despite misgivings, hashed out in weekly meetings of the College Republicans, that the “governor’s record just isn’t convincingly conservative.”
Despite some temporal and characteristic overlaps, I usually can’t even think of those David W.’s as a single, unified person transitioning gradually into future manifestations. Although those David W.’s each felt like they had a secure grasp on life and personal ambitions, whereas now I mostly feel like I’m floundering, I don’t want to be any of those past me’s. I don’t. If anything, I’d like to counsel various David W.’s along the way. Tell a particular David W., for example, how embarrassed he’ll one day be if he raises his hand when the professor asks “How many of the men in this class think their wives have a duty to stay home and take care of the kids?” Warn another David W. (by way of a solid punch to the stomach) the very second when in his transition from Christian music to, well, regular music, he detours away from the promising start of OK Computer and Odelay to the abysmal depths of My Own Prison and the purchase of Creed concert tickets.
No, I don’t want to be those David W.’s, but they continually haunt me. Their humorous and sometimes atrocious mindsets haunt me, but it’s not even just the particular content that gnaws at me when I should be job searching. It’s also the abstract transformation of past-present-future. I think I’ve always had the seeds of an unhealthy infatuation with potential regret and a nearly paralyzing inability to choose a set of goals by which a present “me” would seek to become some particular future “me.” In short, I have always had trouble making life choices. Thanks to education, these personality quirks became for me defined sets of metaphysical questions that my philosophy courses generalized as “problems of the continuity of the self over time.” Reading the books that were supposed to answer my concerns only made me more distressed with “selfhood.” The theories that appealed to me–theories described with phrases like “the self as personal narrative”–only sharpened my anxiety over being able to describe “me” as the story I can tell myself and others in order to connect past David W.(‘s) with a current David W. himself on the cusp of a future David W.
I know that every decade brings drastic change in a person’s life, especially perhaps the decade following high school. Admittedly, clearing out old “stuff,” moving a thousand miles, regaining contact with people who haven’t seen you in ten years, and having too much unemployed time on your hands– well, that can make anyone excessively introspective and self-critical. Maybe I should limit my rehearsal of past lives to a few laughs, a few confessions of stinging shame. But helpful or not, possible or not, I seek some connection, some way of reconciling an 18 year old wholehearted desire to be President of the United States with a 28 year old admission that calling about a job or making even a minuscule decision often puts me on the brink of a panic attack. This need for connection, this impulse for a coherent account of “me” over the past decade, has me in knots.
What I need is a sense of greater continuity, a comforting synthesis of myself, for myself. In 2001, a particular David W. spent an impromptu evening with a surprisingly complicated stranger who seemed to offer such a solution. At the very least, the stranger seemed to suffer none of my connectivity problems. He had no difficulty connecting himself to himself, no difficulty with his self’s “narration.” This stranger had no difficulty telling that David W. his story, a story that spanned much longer than the decade I’m worried about.
The stranger interrupted me as I flipped pages of a Julius Caesar biography at a Barnes and Noble in Miamisburg, OH.
“You like that book?”
“Uh, yeah,” I answered and then, concerned with intellectual integrity, plowed forward with a confession. “I actually haven’t read it. Not all the way through. I footnoted it a few times in a paper I wrote on the motivations of Caesar’s British campaign.”
It was summer break, and I was at the zenith of my enthusiasm for things like papers “on the motivations of Caesar’s British campaign.” I’d spent June wandering around the Middle East with friends and professors and came home a little depressed. Cairo to Ohio can be a bit of a downer. I was lonely and worried about the still-pending term papers on which my six summer trip credit hours hinged. I was spending two months cleaning houses vacated by University of Dayton students, and I suffered bad reviews from my cleaning partners–my niece and brother. They’d quickly grown tired of finding me, in my forever unfinished sections of the house, limp rag barely in hand, grumpily staring at the spent condoms and forgotten coins caught in the tendrils of shag carpet. Or at the toothpaste-pubic-hair-soap-scummed bathroom tile. Or at crumbs fossilized in the congealed, refrigerated quagmires of Kool-Aid.
“You’re a student, then,” the stranger continued. “I figured–not too many young people at a bookstore on a summer evening.”
After my day of cleaning, I’d come to the bookstore to relax, to brainstorm paper topics, to enjoy a caramel Frappuccino® with whipped cream. Mostly, though, I’d come to the bookstore to give hope once again to my longstanding dream of being approached by a beautiful, literary girl intrigued by the angst-drawn furrows in my brow, the shy reclusiveness in my stooped posture, the implications of mysterious depth emanating from the Kafka underneath my arm.
“Well I’m interested in Caesar, too” the stranger said. “Really interested in fact.”
The stranger was not my beautiful girl. He was in his late thirties. He was large, imposing even, not imposing like the awe-inducing perfection of the male form of Michelangelo’s David but imposing like the discomforting yet proportionate clumsiness of an idealized ogre. He was around six-foot-five and had an oversized head perched on wide but unmuscular shoulders with little mediation from a neck. His limbs were reminiscent of the undefined ovals seen in the sketchbooks of beginning art students. His nose made sense of the adjective “bulbous” to me for the first time. His lips remained puckered, mouth always open, a warning for spittle.
We talked a few minutes, generalities about my school and course of study, my post-graduation plans to teach.
He leaned forward at the waist, engulfing even more of the space-time that separated us.
“I do some teaching,” he said and then paused, squinting down at me through thick-lensed eyeglasses.
“Really?” I answered, hoping my tone didn’t sound too incredulous. “What do you teach?”
“Metaphysics,” he responded, as if that were the most obvious subject in the world in which one could “do some teaching.”
I was still skeptical about his teaching credentials, but I allowed myself a cautious enthusiasm, for “metaphysics” happened to be a sub-discipline of philosophy, and at the time, I not only loved things like Caesar–I also loved all things metaphysical thanks to my previous semester’s Introduction to Philosophy course.
“So where do you teach?”
“Here in the cafe.”
He gestured toward the in-house Starbucks behind me. My mouth said “Cool, I just took a class last semester on metaphysics,” while my brain tried to understand what he meant by “here in the cafe.” I assumed I must have heard him wrong–either that, or the intra-Barnes and Noble-Starbucks scene in suburban Ohio was much more intellectual than I’d previously thought.
“Well you’ll know all about the stuff I teach then,” he said, and then eagerly began specifying the various types of “soul forces.” He spoke of “auras,” “energies,” “human potentialities.”
I began to suspect that his “metaphysics” were not my own. I’d nod every so often then divert my gaze to the floor, focus on his massive white and blue tennis shoes with thick protruding tongues the laces couldn’t contain.
“For instance, you’re definitely an ‘intellectual force,’” he declared at one point.
“Now come on,” I interrupted. “Classifying me ‘intellectual’ is an easy move. Like you said, how many twenty-year olds are in the ancient history section of a bookstore on a summer night?”
“True,” he admitted, “but even more so, it’s your posture, the way you hold yourself, the energies you give off.”
I wanted to say that my posture, which he’d described as “stooped forward and always with a slight intake of breath”, was actually just laziness combined with my fear of being noticeably chubby (thus, the requisite “stomach sucking in”). “The way you hold yourself”? Well, that was a direct result of my aforementioned conjecture that appearing troubled would draw the affections of lovely, intelligent coeds.
In reality, I mumbled some minor criticism of his assessment, and the lecture proceeded to a higher level of instruction centered on terms like “New Age,” “crystals,” “reincarnation.”
I’d probably known it all along, but only then did it fully hit me that, of course, he did in fact teach “here in the cafe.” Only then did it fully hit me that “metaphysics” meant one thing to professors at a university and another thing to persons crowded around tables of the Barnes and Noble Starbucks. Only then did I recall that our Egyptian tour guide Amro had, just a month before, entertained our studious bunch with stories about what he called the “metaphysical groups” from Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand. I pictured this stranger at the pyramids and the temple complexes of Cairo and Luxor, chanting with his fellow seekers, flawless crystal prisms sparkling, while Amro stood just outside smoking a cigarette, smirking with the other guides passing by, waiting for the initiates to finish their rituals and emerge, big tips for their guide in hand, with excited mumbling and trembling about the energy emitted around the Pharaoh’s old haunts.
“So, you like that book,” the stranger stated with a point to the forgotten Caesar biography. His tone signaled that the teacher was ready to blow the student’s mind by completing the circle of the lesson. “How’d you like a first hand account?”
I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head.
“My studies have revealed to me that I am, in fact, a reincarnation of Julius Caesar.”
Absolute sincerity in his eyes and voice.
“I know that might strike you as unbelievable, but it’s not without factual support. You know how Caesar died?”
“He was stabbed…in the stomach…and I have a birthmark on my side in the shape of a knife wound.”
He paused. I worried he was about to lift his shirt.
“Shortly after I realized who I was, an old friend, someone I’d once been romantically involved with, discovered independently of me that she had once been Cleopatra.”
I stood still, dazed, my mouth open.
“And,” he said with an instructive point of the finger, “Guess what she’d named her son years before? That’s right,” he nodded. “Mark Anthony.”
Perhaps I should have foreseen, based upon his previous metaphysical claims, a humble speculation like “foot soldier present at the crossing of the Rubicon,” but Caesar himself? I kept waiting for a final, incontestable disclosure, something like “Then I was back-stabbed by a friend-turned-arch-enemy whose childhood nickname had been Brutus.” Instead, we exchanged a few “nice talking to you” pleasantries, and I didn’t even blink when he turned down the Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle.
Julius Caesar immediately became part of my standard absurdist encounter repertoire. He proved especially popular with my ancient history professor and my friends from the Middle East trip, all of whom recognized the type from Amro’s “metaphysical” tales. He even once appeared, my mother told me, in a sermon illustration at my old church because, well, reincarnation sounds so much crazier than the virgin birth or original sin.
Months after our initial meeting, I saw Julius again at the same bookstore while home on Christmas break. I deliberately walked by him, even paused momentarily, but he didn’t recognize me. Two millenia of faces are, after all, difficult to keep straight. I’m sure it would have made for a bland re-encounter. I wouldn’t have asked any of the sarcastic questions I’d developed over the months, questions like “Does the world-historical you ever get bored with the Ohio suburbanite you?” or “What do you do at spirituality gatherings when rival claimants to Caesar’s reincarnated soul show up in the Holiday Inn conference room?”
For all the laughs had at this cafe metaphysician’s expense, however, there’s always been a part of me that is troubled, sometimes angered, when I think about him. Initially, twenty-year-old David W. fumed over the man’s arrogance, his blatant disregard for reason, and his irresponsible peddling of false ideas under the banner of a serious label such as “metaphysics.” Later David W’s tempered their responses. By now, I’m mostly just jealous. I am jealous of the sincerity, the clarity, the assurance with which this man identified himself. I am jealous of the comfort and self-satisfaction I could see in his squinting eyes and hear in his mush-mouthed voice. I am jealous of the passion and joy with which he declared his convictions. I am jealous that he seemed so content with himself. If I were him, I’d be perpetually terrified of the responsibilities involved with having been one of the most important human beings in the history of the world. I think I’d keep the information to myself. Not so with this man. Apparently, he just wanders around bookstores in his ill-fitting UK Wildcats t-shirt and stonewashed jean shorts looking for anyone who might be interested in his true identity.
I know, of course, that he is mistaken. Even granting his New Age framework, the numbers are against him possessing a Caesarian past. I know that I spent two years trying to convince my students to discard mistaken beliefs, no matter how comforting, no matter how strong the conviction. Still, Julius Caesar appeals to me. I can’t associate my current self with a self five or ten years previous without relying on self-deprecating jokes. This man had no problem with 2000 years. I can’t ignore the pangs of regret when I think about the past no matter how misguided my mind knows the regret to be. I can’t stop obsessing over the foreclosed futures I’ll never inhabit because of decisions made today or decisions made by some previous me. I can’t enjoy my “fresh start” in Boston without reeling over the unsteadiness of the present. I can’t imagine a future David W. attaining a sense of security and purpose, a feeling of understanding his place in the world, like that man possessed.
I’m aware of the probable futility of these anxieties. After all, even if I could believe in reincarnation or some comparable, overarching belief system, it surely wouldn’t alleviate all my doubts about my self. Posting “David W. is a reincarnation of Julius Caesar” on Facebook wouldn’t make my political transformation any more accessible to my high school friends. I’d still have to laugh about the choices and tastes of past David W.’s, still have to wonder about the shapes future David W.’s might take. Nevertheless, this David W., the one of the present moment, can’t help but wonder what it feels like to be that Barnes and Noble stranger, to be a self comfortable in the belief that he’s figured out the metaphysics of it all.