Wednesday, December 22, 2010

CHASM—Three Notes From Anaïs Nin

I've been wandering in the House of Breath, listening intently in the abandoned corners for something that was once said to me (something I once read). I can't remember exactly how it was said (when I read it), but it was something that only the passage of time can articulate meaningfully; something about looking back at one's life—at who I used to be—and feeling that who I am now and who I used to be are like two people staring at each other across a great chasm, wondering who in the world the other might be? And so I find myself at both sides of this chasm created by the space of 35 years with questions flying back and forth like so many gusts of wind in a canyon. "How could you have grown so old?" the young one asks. "How could you have been so young?" the elder replies.

At the age of 21, I hitchhiked to San Francisco in the summer of 1975 with a red and yellow cardboard suitcase I inherited from my sister and $20 in my pocket. Young men were pouring into the city from all over the country: as if we had heard a beacon and were responding with the youthful enthusiasm of our dreams and desires. We had come to change the world and to find our lives in the changing.

35 years later, I am 57 and the time has come for me to reconfigure my relationship with San Francisco. It is as different a city now as I am from the boy who hitchhiked here, hungry for love, hungry to be an artist: a writer, an actor, a singer of songs, a lover. I have decided to retire to the sagebrush deserts where I'm from and to answer another call that I hear off to the horizon. And in that harmony of remembering the call I first answered and leaning towards the call I now hear, I am steeped in rituals of recapitulation, claiming again what has been mine even as I let it go. Somewhere in the middle are these words. The chasm shapes these words.

I was inspired to find my life in the city by the early diaries of Anaïs Nin, which I devoured as a lonely teenager growing up in Twin Falls, Idaho. Anaïs had grown up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, but was wooed into the city proper by the bohemian author Henry Miller. Anaïs donned a sensorial persona and literally created herself out of herself. I felt that—if she could do it—I could do it. I could live an artist's life. I could surround myself with artists. I came to San Francisco wooing the Beat poets and one of them, Harold Norse, took me under wing and—like Anaïs—reminded me that life is not only what you find but what you make for yourself. One evening while visiting Harold in his home, I spotted a photograph of he and Anaïs sitting at an outdoor café in Montmartre. Excited, I enthused about how fortunate he was to have known her. You can know her too, he said, and gave me her address. "She will write to you," he promised.

* * *

When her first note arrived, my roommate was flabbergasted. "Is this the Anaïs Nin?" he asked incredulously. "There is only one," I responded and took her lavendar card with its Pisces logo into my bedroom to read in private: "(12/01/75) Dear Michael, can only answer a few words to your beautiful letter because I have been fighting cancer for a year and very low in energy; but, your letter warmed and cheered me. When I'm well again, I'm sure we'll meet. I have many friends in San Francisco. Or when I'm well enough, you can come and visit me. Your friend, Anaïs."

* * *

Her second note came on stationary that bore the image of a geisha musing on what to write: "(08/01/76) Dear Michael, your letter was one of the most beautiful I ever received. It is a poem. It is so far-reaching and deep. I cannot answer it in the fullness it deserves because I am fighting cancer and my energy is so low. But if ever you come to Los Angeles, do call me at my unlisted number [which she provided]. Write me about yourself. Anaïs Nin."

* * *

We made plans to meet in early November 1976 and shortly before our scheduled meeting she sent her final note: "(10/29/76) Dear Michael, now that I am ill, unable to live as before for two years, I get good joy from knowing there is one person who takes, loves, responds to life as I do. I feel you are doing it for me. You respond exactly as I did. I gave you my unlisted number and—if I am in any good state at all—I will be glad to see you. But I feel all is not lost should I have to disappear. Your feelings, visions, ecstasies are those I wish to live forever. Anaïs."

I realize now that she knew even then that she was about to die, which came to pass the following January. But to this day I marvel at the opportunity of our brief interaction and her blessing which has confirmed my life: a benediction from the Goddess of the Doves of Absence. The young man on his side of the chasm declares, "That benediction was mine." The elder smiles, "And it remains mine as well."


Peter Nellhaus said...

What a great story.

I assume you will continue to write about film, even if your coverage will be different based on your change of base. Maybe you're the one to put the Boise International Film Festival, coming this March, on the critical map.

Anyways, Happy Holidays.

Michael Hawley said...

Simply lovely, Michael. Thank you for sharing this.

Michael Guillen said...

You're welcome, Michael. And, Peter, happy holidays to you as well! I tried previously to put the Boise International on the map and it didn't work; but, it was fun trying. One of the best regional festivals I' ve ever attended. Not quite sure if I'll be ready to go by the time it runs this year; but, I imagine in future years I will be working with them and the Idaho Film Council.