Self isn’t true. No-self isn’t true.Then what?
Several months ago, I received a letter from my very first friend. Kidder and I met in 1950 at the American School in Rome; he was five and I four. My single mom and I traveled with his family for a holiday in Ostia, a beach town on the Mediterranean. I have black and white snapshots of Kidder, his younger brother Hoppy and me making sand castles. When both families settled back in the U.S., by happenstance we ended up on the very same block in New York City. So Kidder and I continued to grow up together. Amazingly, Kidder was also my first dharma friend. After his freshman year of college and my senior year in high school, he took off for Formosa to practice in a Zen monastery, leaving me a book of poems by Robert Creeley, spare and enigmatic. I wondered if this was Zen.
Have heart Find head
Feel pattern Be wed
Smell water See sand
Oh boy Ain’t life grand
Kidder’s letter was on stiff white paper, with wide spaces between the lines; a few elegant strokes of the pen graced a mostly empty page. The few words carried weight. Over the years I have turned to Kidder as an older brother, a mentor; since I first started practicing Buddhism, I’ve tracked him down for encouragement on my path—I’ve called him at Princeton, in Boulder, in Berkeley, and Brunswick, Maine. Often I’ve read aloud a memoir piece I’d written, and together we’ve explored the Buddhist insight.
In this letter, Kidder wrote, “Don’t you think it’s about time for you to stop writing memoir?” He had touched a nerve. For forty-five years I’d been writing about my life. And I’d worried sometimes that it was an indulgence. But if I didn’t write memoir, what would I do? I remembered my wooden attempts in college at writing fiction and poetry. With memoir, not always, but sometimes, the words have flowed unbidden, bringing back lost stories through which I’ve tried to explore what’s true. Without stories, I couldn’t even imagine how to begin. Not just in writing, but in life.
Hurt, trying not to show how unbalanced I felt, I called Kidder, now in Michigan. I intruded on what I knew to be his yearly self-retreat, and left a shrill message: Why?
A week later I received another letter. Penned in his elegant script on that stiff paper, it had the feel of sacred text: “Dearest Barbara,” with a majestic “D” and “B,” the first letter of every sentence writ large with a flourish, “Begin with the emancipatory function that memoir served. If it has served well, it may be time to stop. If it has not served well, it may be time to stop and find another.” And then, “Self-reflection brings freedom at a terrible price. It is based on the notion that the self has any importance whatsoever.”
How could I respond to that? This letter pitched me into an argument with myself. Was memoir, by its very nature, narcissistic? While one voice questioned its value, another upheld it. Ashamed, I decried my past work—nuanced descriptions of my mistakes, my sensations, my emotions, my eurekas—and the presumption that such autobiographical writing would be useful to anyone else, or even truly useful for myself. Proudly, I defended, plumbing the history of memoir—a confession from St. Augustine of his theft of a neighbor’s pears in 371 AD, on to more confessions from Rousseau in eighteenth century France, and then on to Thoreau. “I should not talk about myself,” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “if there were anyone else I knew so well.” Indeed.
Try as I might, I couldn’t escape Kidder’s admonition. Should I give up memoir? I’ve boomeranged from one extreme to its opposite—embraced what he said, made a case against it, tried to forget it. But it hasn’t gone away. Meanwhile, stories from our intersecting lives continued to surface and assail my mind.
New York City, 1961
Kidder attended an all-boys’ primary school, The Buckley School. I went to a coed progressive school, New Lincoln. No The. Once, in high school, Kidder invited me to a party given by one of his friends from a private girls school, The Brearley. After trying on and tearing off every dress I owned, I finally settled on a green velveteen princess style. But I had no idea whether it made me look stylish or frumpy. My real quandary was with the stockings—sheer nylons (maybe too fancy) or black tights (too bohemian). I settled on the tights but with spike heels. At the party, I caught my image in a gilt mirror. Aghast, I saw a nasty run, zigzagging pink all the way up my black leg, a glaring signature of my failure, exposing for all to see the clumsiness of my intrusion in a world of the well–groomed and silk–stockinged. That’s a bit how I felt after reading Kidder’s letter. In essays, columns, even a book, have I exposed for all to see my failure in a world dedicated to “letting go”—as a longtime student still preoccupied with stories of my “self”?
Kidder and I had the same nanny, Signorina Canalini. Signorina slapped my face. I may not have a self, but it definitely was my face she slapped, not Kidder’s. He told me later she’d never hit him. When I remember Signorina, even now, my face stings. Over the years, I’ve felt tempted to write the upsets of poor little Barbarina, when my mother with her new boyfriend gallivanted off to pick oranges in Amalfi, leaving me with an abusive nanny… As I reread Kidder’s letter, and felt the sting of that old story I’ve held to for so long, something opened up. My mum had her own story. So did Signorina. My bereft young mother—so undone when her man deserted her—must have rejoiced in a playful new lover, spiriting her off for adventures and renewal. That scared young Signiorina—in charge of a willful little Americana thrashing on the floor, pounding her fists—could well have panicked, What to do with this raging child? And how about the stings in Kidder’s young life? All these years I’ve never asked.
After my dad’s early death, I plunged into Buddhist study in desperation. On the run, I drove my red VW bug from Cambridge to Boulder to spend the summer writing and meditating at Naropa University. In another twist of fate, on the queue to sign up for classes, I bumped smack into Kidder, who’d become a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. I was now 30 and Kidder 31, but as always, he seemed so much older and wiser than I. He took me under his wing and tailored a few dharma lessons just for me. He invited me into a long barren classroom, and for some reason, taught me to meditate the Zen way, to sit silently facing a wall. Each time I sat down to do this, my eyes fluttering half-shut, half-open, the shadow sitting in meditation on the facing wall would morph into a meditating skeleton, me with a skull face. I thought I could escape but there it was—everything dying, nothing to hold on to. For years, when I sat down to meditate I would sense that shadow of my own skull face. Couldn’t a memoir about that be anyone’s, everyone’s, story?
Rome again, 1950
Signorina took me on walks all around Rome, strenuous treks up and down, my favorite up a hill, to a grand doorway with a giant keyhole. When I stood on tiptoes and peered through the keyhole, I could see a vista of Rome, and in the distance the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Did Signorina take Kidder to that same keyhole? When he stood on tiptoes and squinted through, did Kidder, my first friend, see Saint Peter’s or something else altogether? Can’t two friends see things true, but in different ways? Maybe the next time I talk to Kidder, I’ll ask him.
New York City again, 2012
My mother now lives in the same apartment building as Kidder’s mother, just down the block from the apartment where I grew up. Just like me and Kidder, Kidder’s mum and my mum are special friends. Some evenings the two get together for a glass of wine. Last week my mother, age ninety-one, took Kidder’s mother out to dinner for her ninety-sixth birthday. After that celebration, my mother sent me a photo, circa 1950, from our trip to Ostia: me and Kidder in an olive tree, balanced in dynamic counterpoint—Kidder in a striped shirt clowning on a high branch and me sporting a beret perched in a leafy nook. How fun it is to climb a tree with a friend! If the self doesn’t have any importance whatsoever, does that mean that a friend doesn’t have any importance whatsoever?
Of right Of wrong Of up Of down
Of who Of how Of when Of one
Of then Of if Of in Of out
Of feel Of friend Of it Of now
—Robert Creeley, Gnomic Verses
The poems “Have a Heart” and “Time” are from Robert Creeley, Gnomic Verses (Zasterle Press, 1991)