Sometimes it’s really hard to be different. To never conform to people’s expectations. To be always causing a sensation when you just meant to live your life authentically. To find your logic somehow forever leading to unexpected conclusions. As a result, I sometimes take evasive action. When making a new acquaintance, I don’t always volunteer certain information such as that my children are home educated, I drink unpasteurized milk, I lived in three different countries last year, and I think Latin grammar is fun. It just makes things simpler. I really do try to avoid affecting other people too directly by the consequences of my eccentricity. But inevitably, if we are connected our choices affect one another. Eventually, people tend to learn various bits of the truth about me, often at the most inconvenient times. Let’s face it, life doesn’t always go smoothly, whether you conform to the norm or not. But nonconformity is always a good scapegoat for disasters.
It occurred to me the other day that my tendencies toward unconventionality may have begun with my teenage addiction to poetry. Ah, poetry. I read it, wrote it, mumbled it to myself all day, breathed it almost. I took Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement that “a man can live three days without water, and not one without poetry” with a literalness that only now strikes me as vaguely ironic. In fact, I remember distinctly the day in which I realized that my views on poetry were esoteric. I’d been flown out to my university of choice to interview for a scholarship. There were twenty-odd scholarship finalists, and we lived together for a week, being alternately wooed and grilled by university staff. The scholarship committee interviewed us on every subject from the Middle East crisis, to evolution, to the Beatles. Then they set out things like lincoln logs and paper and scissors and watched us play games together. It was fun, but a little weird. I often felt a like a performing animal being evaluated for a circus. The “evaluation activity” I remember best involved five or six of us sitting around a card table covered with a few dozen little slips of paper. On each slip was written an important component of society (things like clean water, shelter, medical care, art, poetry, political stability, etc.). When it was your turn, you had to remove what you considered to be the least important slip. Alternatively, you could put back a slip that someone else had removed, but then you had to remove two new slips. And of course, after every turn you had to articulately justify your choice. I was floored when poetry was the first slip removed. Surely they were joking! As soon as my turn came around, I replaced it and gave an impassioned and (I thought) convincing defense. To my dismay, the very next person removed it again. At my next turn, I obstinately put it back, but I could see that I was fighting a losing battle. When it was swiftly removed again, I gave up, mystified, and not a little disillusioned. An entire room full of intelligent people, all of whom were destined for at least full-tuition scholarships, and nobody but myself to defend the transcendent importance of poetry. (Myself and the ancient Greeks, that is, for whom education consisted entirely in the memorization of the poetry of Homer. Just saying.)
At the time, I wasn’t sure why I loved those poems. They embodied ideals that also appeared in my favorite biographies and novels. But their application to the life of a seventeen-year-old was often obscure. Although I don’t memorize poetry so often anymore, those poems from my pre-college days are burned into my memory, and into my life. Looking back, I can see that they have shaped my ideas and my choices, even when I wasn’t consciously applying them.
And sure enough, in answer to my need, here’s a poem that popped back into my head today after years on a dusty shelf in my mind:
may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.
Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
do not endear him to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause him to die–
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.
Dogs say he loves too much, is irresponsible,
is changeable, marries too many wives,
deserts his children, chills all dinner tables
with tales of his nine lives.
Well, he is lucky. Let him be
nine-lived and contradictory,
curious enough to change, prepared to pay
the cat price, which is to die
and die again and again,
each time with no less pain.
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth. And what he has to tell
on each return from hell
is this: that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that hell is where, to live, they have to go.
– Alastair Reid