This fourth and final article on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February 2010), casts an objective eye on my upbringing, as well as on my history of choices as an adult. As noted in the previous post, the material gets very personal. I've spent a lot of time deciding what to include and what to excise, and hope that I've achieved a good balance between the specific (unique to me) and the general (applicable, by analogy, to everyone).
The article addresses itself (at last) to the first of the “3 Big Questions” posed at the start of this series: Where did I go wrong?
The original letter ended on what seems to be a downer note, which I considered removing. It doesn’t reflect my usual optimistism, and comes across, to those who do not know me, as self-pitying. Yet there’s truth in it: even those not predisposed to visiting the Wailing Wall can be brought low by homelessness. Therefore, in the interests of honestly, I've left the final passage as it was.
HOMELESS, PART IV : Romanticism’s Folly
Question 1: Where did I go wrong?
The big question. The one I could probably spend the rest of my life answering. Not “trying to figure out” -answering. I ain’t unaware that me and what was expected of me parted company a long, long time ago.
I can’t remember exactly when this habit of being unconventional started. It feels like it’s been with me my whole life. I don’t recall having made a decision to be this way, having chosen “different” as some sort of strategy or life plan.
I think back to my early childhood and sometimes imagine I see the beginnings there. But childhood is a time of unconventionality for nearly everyone, a time when you behave or think outside the box because you aren’t in one yet. Any oddities I might have exhibited then really aren’t much different from any other child’s.
What I do remember is that my unconventionality was, and always has been (or so it feels to me) supported and encouraged. And it certainly developed out of fertile soil.
I wonder sometimes if either you [ie. my mom; remember, this is excerpted from a letter] or Dad realized how different the Schaffters were, how isolated we were as a family from the rest of Mt. Hope [a village south of Hamilton, Ontario that figures prominently—mystically, one might say—in my novel, The Binbrook Caucus]. We did things very differently in the Schaffter household. There was, back then, “what everybody else does” and “what we do,” “how everybody else does it” and “how we do it.” Our way, naturally, was the right way—the proper way—so somehow different always equalled better.
I'm not casting blame, here. I wouldn’t want you to feel as if you’d done anything wrong. Au contraire—big time. I merely want you to understand that when one is raised to be different, and has pride in that different-ness (you and Dad taught us that, too), one isn’t likely to make the same choices everybody else does later on in life.
I'm a Romantic. It’s in my blood. I can’t seem to shake it. They say that if you’re not a liberal in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brains. Exchanging liberal for Romantic and conservative for some other opposite—Pragmatist?—I guess you’d have to say I have no brains.
I operate on faith. Not predisposed to wear the colours of religion, I cannot help but observe that my approach to everything is Taoist. I do not like to take action. My impression is that any time I try, I not only fail, but experience humiliation. I know when doing something “isn’t me,” and can’t seem to set the feeling aside. Rather, I prefer to be attentive to the flow (the Tao is often likened to a river), and act on things that come my way.
I'm not talking about merely doing what I like. In a world where luck and happenstance play a greater role than your average pragmatist wants to believe, it has always seemed the better part of wisdom to foster one’s talents, nourish one’s connections, and to keep an open mind; never to say no to anything that furthers, and to avoid the vanity of thinking that one’s life or destiny is under one’s control.
Most of the time, I don’t know what I'm doing. Or, more accurately, I don’t have a clue where what I'm doing is headed. If it feels right, if there’s love in it, if it meets my notions of fostering and furthering (myself and others), then I tend to go along. More than go along—devote myself to it. That’s where faith comes in. So far, I've trusted, absolutely, that the river is carrying me where it should. The fact that only now have I reached what seems an impasse is a tribute to that trust.
So where did I go wrong? At what point, or points, ought I to have made choices other than the ones I did? The question is, of course, academic. Not only can I not change the past, but even were I able to go back in time, it’s unlikely that my choices would be different—even with the knowledge I have now.
Ought I, for example, to have stayed at university, pursued my Masters and, who knows, a PhD? Become a Canadian Composer nobody’s ever heard of except other Canadian Composers, teaching future Canadian Composers nobody will ever hear of? By the time I graduated, I'd grown leery of the inward-looking gaze of academia.
Ought I, around the same time, to have chosen not to come out? To ignore the personal and social struggles of the time? To keep my heart and passions under wraps while I pursued the narrow course of currying the favour of the Toronto’s musical elite? Who would I be now? A materially richer man, perhaps, but one who had no knowledge of the pains and joys of life outside a narrowly-delineated clique.
I was frequently guilty of accidental arrogance when I was young, stemming from an ignorance of other modes of living than the one I knew. My coming out set off a change I just cannot regret. I became attentive to how much I didn’t know. Experiencing real, flawed life with real, flawed human beings seemed the only antidote to what I now see as my spiritual blindness.
Ought I to have learned another trade instead of typesetting? In retrospect, perhaps yes, but hindsight’s twenty-twenty. Who could have known the trade I learned in order to ensure employment would, after centuries, be dead in 2010? Should I have stayed with any of the companies I worked for instead of moving on? Given that not one is still in business, how would that have changed things?
Ought I to have said no when Dave [my lover for ten years, now deceased] proposed the fluid course of seasonal work we both embarked on for several years? Like me, he could see how stilted—crippled, even—life inside the “normal bubble” was. Remember, Dave came from a privileged family, knew all the right people in business and the arts, had worked for the Ontario Arts Council, had contacts in the CBC, etc. Though I fought with him tooth and nail as he dismantled the walls of preconception around my own upbringing, I knew, even then, that he was right to do so. Were it not for Dave, I would never have experienced the turning point, the spiritual watershed, that was the summer of my thirtieth year.
Ought I not to have decamped to Montréal twenty years ago, but rather stayed in Toronto and endured an increasing sense of alienation from the city? I'd be a very different person now had I remained, but would I be better off? And ought I to have stayed in Montréal at a failing company [Les Maîtres Typographes Zibra] instead of moving in with F [a roommate for eight years] and embarking on a course of state-supported poverty that let me write two novels and contribute 18,000 lines of code to groff, an open-source programme used around the world?
It’s hard to answer that one. Perhaps I should have stayed in Montréal and carried on a wage-slave. Maybe where did I go wrong? lies there. I don’t regret my choice to leave; I made it trusting that, however unconventional, it moved me forward. But it could be that’s where I went wrong, since it was at that time I committed to the journey that has brought me to my present state.
My disinterest in financial security has always been motivated by a feeling, possibly delusional, that I'm supposed to do more with my talents and abilities than any job I ever held allowed. Not want to to more with my talents, not imagine I could do more—am supposed to. I feel compelled, by some force greater than myself, to use the gifts I have, both those innate and those acquired in childhood—a childhood that, when others hear of it, they scarce believe. I am, in fact, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility in this matter. I cannot seem to make it go away.
One could say, I suppose, that in the life I've chosen, I went wrong in whom I trusted. Trust comes easily to me, with the result that I have sometimes placed my faith in those who didn’t merit it.
Who could have known that F's desire for things material would supersede our friendship? Or that Lauren [a roommate for three years] was faking—god knows why—when she claimed to love the intellectual, cultural and creative Bohemia of our little family? [Lauren had a teenage daughter, aptly named after a precious stone, who was the light of my life while we lived together.]
I trusted F completely. I was prepared to sacrifice a lot for him rather than to prove disloyal as a friend. As for Lauren, I always knew that she was flaky. But I believed in her, in her capacity to become the wonderful person no one but me had ever granted her to the freedom to explore. Should I have said, after a year or so of living with her: “This is way too tough. I'm devoting far too much time to fostering Lauren and her daughter when there are better things I could be doing? Time to move along.” Maybe so. But, as I've said, I tend to operate on faith. Devote yourself to something, work hard without complaining, get better at it, sacrifice as need dictates, and somehow it will pay off. I placed my trust in her because I trust myself and live by faith. It’s apparent now I shouldn’t have.
This past year has been hell. Not just because of all the upsets, moves, anxieties, etc, but because my faith has proven false. Mostly, these day, what I feel is humiliation, leading me to wonder whether vanity, not faith, has been my operating principle—the desire to prove something to the narrow-minded, the conventional, the unimaginative.
As things stand now, I have nothing to hold my head up high about. I have nothing to show for who I am or how I've lived that doesn’t sound like hollow bragging. Prior to this year, I could justify my following what seemed “the path with heart” Now I can’t. I feel utterly ashamed, even though I still believe I've done what morally, spiritually, emotionally and creatively I'm supposed to have been doing.