Forgive any repetitions ahead, please...
Years ago, and not long after the disgrace of the 2000 Presidential election, I saw Al Gore in the 30th Street Station, in Philadelphia. There he stood, big as life, unencumbered by phalanxes of security guards, in the middle of the floor, where the train schedule board hangs. I couldn't believe my eyes, but I went up to him, and addressed him.
"Mr. Gore?" He nodded and kind of looked at me out of the corner of of his eye. "It's an honor to meet you, and I'm so sorry about the election."
I don't remember whether we actually shook hands or not -- it's not like it was flu season or anything -- but I do recall the look on his face, after I mentioned the election. He just looked off, as though seeing something past the list of arriving and departing trains. He paused for a moment and then shook his head, saying something like "It's okay," or "It's better off this way," or something to that effect. As though he knew things that I couldn't possibly be aware of.
Then I had to run to catch my own train.
Al Gore is what I would consider to be a 'real person'. I, on the other hand, am not. Or at least, this is how it seems to me.
I know I've written before about my early decision, when our new encyclopedias had arrived, and I discovered that there were no Zimmermans listed in the last volume, that it would be up to me to recitfy that omission. I know I've written about my disappointment and confusion, surrounding the many unwise life choices I feel I've made, which have resulted in a kind of comfortable, even privileged obscurity, instead of the legitimacy and noteworthiness I felt, at a young age, were my responsibility to attain.
And of course I've written, over and over again, about the terrible betrayal I feel I suffered, at the hands of my indifferent, self-absorbed mother.
But maybe I haven't explored the connections between this grave emotional wound, and what I'm afraid must seem an egocentric need for validated public success and even acclaim.
For some reason that I can't really verbalize, I have always regarded the people whose faces I see in magazines and on TV, and read about in the newspaper or online, as 'real' people, in a way that I am not. Which is why, when I happen to meet someone of established public stature, I often feel a little dizzy, and also have this crazy desire, somehow to... I don't know... secret myself in one of their pockets, so I might be smuggled into that 'real' world.
My drive -- perplexed and self-sabotaged as it is -- for some sort of validation springs, quite obviously, from the hope that, if I were able to establish myself as a 'real' person, then my mother would, finally, be forced to admit that she had been mistaken, in not choosing me all these decades ago. And somehow, there would be a residual emotional paycheck, some infusion of retroactive love, that would make all the struggles of the intervening years lose their sting.
Of course, even when I have managed, either by accident or by dint of strenuous effort (accidents being by far the more prevalent), to snag some column inches in a newspaper, or in a magazine article, that hasn't been nearly enough. Once, early in our budding relationship, John and I took a train up to New Haven, to the British Collection, to see an exhibit there. During our ride out of New York, and as we talked about this and that, I happened to leaf through my newest issue of Readers' Digest (does anyone remember...?), which I'd brought along in case the conversation should ebb. And it so happened that, in that particular issue, was an article about recorded books on tape, and how popular they were becoming. This being 1986, after all. And there, in print, in an edition of one of the most widely-distributed publications in the world, was... my name! In a brief recap of a review of my recording of 'Moby Dick', as written up by Charles Champlin of the LA Times.
As usual, it didn't seem to have the longed-for impact. And, actually, even if it had, how could I have shown this achievement off, to that mother of mine, who didn't want to admit that she'd had any children other than my sister in the first place?
When that reality -- the realization that any efforts I had made, and any success I might have achieved, would have made exactly no difference -- when that awareness sank in, after I saw my mother again, after forty years -- I don't think it's possible for me to describe the utter devastation I felt. With this new, hardly surprising, yet totally shocking realization staring me in the face (with her blank eyes and total lack of affect), virtually every decision in my life fell apart, and seemed to be revealed as either wrong-headed, or pointless. It's as though, having navigated faithfully toward a much-desired goal, and spending years on the voyage, I discovered that the compass had never worked, from the start. As though every rivet and bolt, every nut and nail and glue joint and bit of cement holding my history together had all failed at the same time.
Now, a piece of my sculpture is sitting on display, in an exhibit of glass art, in what must at least be one of the secondary museums in New York City, and for me, it's essentially meaningless, on the deepest emotional level. The only artwork, of what I would consider any significance, that I've been able to pull together in the past year or so, is something I promised to make for the upcoming Glass Weekend in Millville NJ -- and if I hadn't felt so flattered at being invited, it never would have occurred to me to make anything at all. As much as I'm concerned about basic practicalities, such as storage challenges, I also feel a near-total lack of purpose beyond the mere activity of making art (which isn't always as much of a laugh-riot as people seem to think). Why should I bother? The over-arching goal, stupid though it may always have been, has finally been revealed to me as a sham, and I haven't been clever enough yet, to replace this deep-seated, misguided yearning with something else -- something one hopes would be more grounded in what most of us consider to be reality.
It's funny -- one of the illustrations I've sort of planned, for the imaginary book I'm supposedly working on with Combat Paper (which project exists, I think, only so I can please others -- not so different from what I've been talking about all along, is it?), will include a marionette with its strings cut. Free? Sure. But impotent and bereft of any real mobility. It hadn't occurred to me, as I roughly sketched my way through this book about birthday cakes, pink icing, abusive parenting practices and Marie Antoinette, that this particular image would come so close to being at least a psychological self-portrait.
Where is the real world now, I find myself wondering.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman