I may break all my bones
‘cause I lied about the vertigo
and I have
never been up this high
there’ll be no safety net
when I fall right out of the sky
there will be no ambulance waiting
and I have no wings to fly
—from The Near Demise of the Highwire Dancer by Antje Duvekot
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
was to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew
tangled up in blue
—from “Blood on the Tracks” by Bob Dylan
Between 1966 and 1971 I slowly and painfully learned that pursuing a life as a film or theater actor was not making me happy. I spent five years at the Oxford Theater as a student of acting, a carpenter, a technician, and a young man escaping Ohio with whimsical dreams. I had the opportunity to act in several plays: This Property Is Condemned, Desire Under the Elms, The Glass Menagerie, and an original play written by Jack Donner called Citizenship for Tommy Paine. But the dream then was to be in the movies, to be a star.
I watched other students of the Oxford Theater break into successful careers: Barry Levinson began writing for a comedy show. Craig Nelson and Levinson formed a comedy troupe in LA. Barbara Parkins was an immediate success with the TV series Peyton Place and the film Valley of the Dolls. I did not manage the work nor summon the surrender necessary for such a career and found myself listlessly stepping away from those years as if I truly had been dreaming.
In 1970, David Banks—an Oxford Theater board member—told me a friend of his, Jack Root, was looking for an audio-visual technician for his company AVHQ. I was hired and began dividing my time between the theater productions and AVHQ, which was based in the Century Plaza Hotel in the germinal stages of what would become Century City. There were also offices in the Beverly Hilton and the Biltmore in downtown LA. AVHQ did large-scale presentation for companies like Xerox, Wynn Oil, Exxon, Stax Records, and the Academy Awards.
During this time, I married Rose, a former student at the Oxford Theater. In retrospect, neither of us knew what we were doing. She was a Beverly Hills girl, educated at private schools, living at the top of Beverly Glen. Her mother was a minor film producer and her father a wealthy successful commercial real estate developer in Houston, Texas. It was a match made for Hollywood. I played the part of a vagabond dream seeker, roughly raised, falling for the girl who had everything but adventure in her life. Needless to say, it did not work out in the end.
In late 1971, I said farewell to California. Rose and I moved to Houston, Texas. After two unsuccessful films that shall remain unnamed, her mother had left the film industry and moved to Texas so Rose’s sisters could be nearer their father. Rose was very close to her sisters, so we moved to Texas as well.
Failing to find work immediately using what technical skills I had, I fell back on my roots as a carpenter for a short while. Our marriage was rough. We argued about what to do with our lives, both of us feeling we had wandered into emptiness, each of us filling the spaces with undefined hopes, while working at jobs only to be working. We lived in a small village-like development in Houston called Westbury Square. Rose started working as a secretary for her father only a few weeks after we moved to Texas. He leased her a new car, since all we had was a blue VW microbus we had driven from LA to Houston. I always had the feeling Rose’s father felt she could have done better for a husband.
A short time after we moved to Houston, Rose’s mother was killed in a car accident caused by an underage drunk driver. Great loss can be the catalyst to repairing a struggling relationship, but this was not the case with us. Over the following months, the scant distance of the few rooms in our apartment widened into a sea of silent discontent. Rose and I finally talked, finally admitted we were not happy, and agreed to divorce. We remained friends.
In the Spring of 1972 at age 26, I fulfilled a promise to myself that someday I would go to college. Drawing on my admiration for Jacque Cousteau and my sense of adventure, I enrolled as a biology major with hopes of a career as a marine biologist. Once again, I engaged in flights of imagination, picturing myself aboard a ship like Calypso, sailing into kaleidoscopic waters and diving into worlds of fish that darted around the limbs of coral reefs. This is how I had ventured to California, approached a career in acting, always poised on the high wire of reverie far above the world of consequence and the hard ground of dedication.
I had not grown up with a sense of purpose. I spent most of my childhood and early teen years escaping, playing in the fields near my house as a kid and later walking or sitting deep in the woods abundant in the late 1950s in Ormond Beach, Florida. Surrounded by trees and the sounds and movements of a forest, I was at peace in these realms. Solitude enriched me.
During one of my excursions north in California, I had spent a night in a cabin in the forest of giant sequoias. It was difficult for me to leave the next day. I felt as if I had lost a part of me that had wandered out in the night and burrowed into the centuries of needles carpeting the ground. Or as if my fluid dream-self had slid into one of the massive gills of the sequoia bark and was now rambling in the circles made by two thousand years of rings. Even after I first moved to Hollywood, I would find time to sit alone on a rock at night listening to the Pacific surf, its jazz sounds erasing the incessant dialogue going through my head, thoughts that would draw themselves into a knot of fear and doubt. I let pyretic evening skies burn away misgivings like so much dust floating inside me. I swam in phosphorescent tides and watched grunion washed up on a beach at Malibu writhing in the moonlight as they lay their eggs. I came to realize that these were the things I loved. These were the things that brought me joy, and these were the places I felt at ease, but I did not know what to do with them. I did not know how to bring them into the world of marriages, houses, cars, careers, and finances.
At the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, Texas, I received grants and a scholarship that covered tuition, and I went to work at two jobs, as a clerk in a B. Dalton Bookseller and as a curator for exotic marine aquariums in the showroom of Hawaiian Marine Imports. I was doing well with my biology classes. Then in my second semester I had to take an English Composition course. I had heard stories that Comp 101 was the filter to separate the grain from the chaff. So far in my life, I seemed to be the latter.
In the first class, we were assigned two novels to read and write a “criticism.” I had never heard of literary criticism. To me criticism had negative connotations. The first novel was Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I sat dumbfounded in class listening to other students, eight years younger than me, talk about theme and metaphor and symbolism. Just as I had been in the first months at the Oxford Theater, I felt lost in another new world. I had always read just for the story value of a novel. As an adult, I had read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. I had devoured all of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and all of Edgar Rice Burrows’ work. However, I had only a vague idea how to analyze the symbolic content of a novel.
When I finished Slaughterhouse Five, though, I found that I loved Vonnegut’s style of writing, the way he managed the jumps in time, and I especially liked Montana Wildhack. We had a week to write our review. At home I would stay up late into the night studying. I had very little time working two jobs and taking 15 hours of coursework a semester. With only the weekend remaining before the Monday deadline, and still struggling with what and how to write a review about World War II prisoners of war, I began to write what I thought about Vonnegut’s novel, as if there were no teacher, no class, no scale of approval, only what my heart told me this story was about. I decided to use Vonnegut’s own style to write the review.
The professor of this class was Joy Wilson. I will never forget when she handed back my paper. I sat nervously expecting to see the same scattering of red arrows and circles and admonitions I had received in high school. I held out my hand to receive the paper marked with a red A. As Joy released it to me, she mouthed the words, “You write very well.” My face flushed. For a moment I was stunned. She turned to the next student, too late to see me grinning like the Cheshire Cat. As I started to exit the classroom that day, Professor Wilson stopped me and asked if I would come to her office after my last class. In that meeting, she said I had a gift I should practice and use, and she urged me to change my major to English Literature. No one in my life had genuinely said I was talented at anything until that meeting, not my parents nor any teachers before Joy Wilson. I changed my major to English Literature the next day. I still found it hard to believe, even after other professors gave me similar advice.
In 1976 I moved back to Ohio to try and reunite with my family. I did not want Bummer to move again. He was twelve years old, and I did not know exactly where I would be living. I left him with Rose and knew he would be loved and cared for. Although I loved and cared for many animals over those years, I’ve always regretted leaving the stray cat who befriended me at a time when I sorely needed a friend. To this day I remain contrite over that decision.
Once in Ohio, I enrolled for my final years in college at Denison University in Granville, again on grants and scholarships. The reconciliation with my family did not go as I had hoped. Some relationships became too fractured and lost in time to be repaired. At Denison I learned the futility of fantasizing outcomes. I set goals for myself and, with the help of advisors, began doing the work necessary to achieve them. For a while, I didn’t dream beyond the discipline of study. I began a second major field of research in cultural anthropology. In 1978, I graduated magna cum laude with majors in English and anthropology.
Years go by—three words, visibly narrow on a page. Years, like a movie, are wound on the reel of our lives. We unwind them into frames and sequences of people and events, some vividly living before our eyes, as if they happened only yesterday. Some are lost in the blinding light of forgotten hours and become mere fragments of echoes sounding from a canyon of days. If we are lucky, there will be one day that rises in our thoughts like a lighthouse, a beam that makes its rounds and just when the night is darkest, it returns to illuminate us.
I recall walking, my arms level with my shoulders, through a million sunflowers, their petals softly brushing my skin while the heavy clusters of seeds gently bowed then straightened as I passed. They circled their dark centers with a brightness that filled my eyes in every direction and swayed ceaselessly, as if they were beckoning me into the blue haze of distant mountains. I am forever walking there.
Browse more Memoir Notebook
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
You Might Also Like
Latest posts by Richard Maxson (see all)
- Adjustments Book Club: Homecomings - December 11, 2019
- Adjustments Book Club: Messages Out of the Dark and Dancing in the Lights - December 4, 2019
- Adjustments Book Club: We Note Our Place With Book Markers - November 20, 2019