Monday, August 15, 2016

The Authenticity of a Self

Authenticity, one of the main aspects of wabi sabi, is easily associated with the choice of materials that something is made of.  Stone, ceramic and wood possess a warmth that vinyl or plastic, to give just a pair of examples, might not project when we observe items or objects that have become withered by the passage of time. The man-made materials all too often lend themselves to a mass production that doesn't invite the reactions or lend themselves to the sense of life cycle that more natural materials invites.

With people, the attribution of authenticity can be a remarkably difficult task.  The subjectivity in determining one's authenticity or absence of it can invite interpretation and lead to an argument or nine as well, depending on who is involved. Still it is something that we look for and strive for and when it appears, an individual's authenticity can be an inspiring thing to behold. We often make that judgement of a person's authenticity in the moment based on the immediate evidence.  In contrast to that, there are few occasions when we read a memoir or autobiography, or gaze at the hourly offerings on the Biography Channel and tell ourselves that a formula is being adhered to. In my own case, I read biographies with ease all but certain of the stages of a (famous) person's life or path: childhood, early precocity, emergence into celebrity, adjustment, greater success... yawn... downfall of some sort, comeback, maturity and managed fame, decline and death.  Those milestones are the basic formula and the peripheral characters all come from the same shelf as well.

When I first heard of Mary-Louise Parker's Dear Mr. You, I was intrigued by the concept of her writing letters to various men in her life - real or imagined - and the voice that she would bring to these letters. After finishing a third of the letters in the book I was overwhelmed by the realization that the book was very autobiographical and that this format was one that altered the terrain of a biography or autobiography. In eschewing the normal "I was born..." approach to her story in favour of these tributes to the men (and goats!) who have been central to her life she infused her narrative with characters, tone and perspective that would not have met the way they did in this book.

When she writes, early on, to the grandfather that she never met there is an energy to the letter that elevates the poignancy and allows her to reflect on her relationship with this man that would not have surfaced in a more conventional tome. Instead of being limited by the passage of time and only allowing herself to say, "I never met him" or "I never knew him" she very clearly shows that she did know him and had a clear sense of the relationship between the father and son who were her grandfather and father.

Even beyond this example are the people who may not have even made the grade or gotten typeface if she wrote this book in a less reflective or more overtly chronological manner. The fireman she saw on 9/11, the parish priest from childhood, the dying boy in the hospital, the cabbie who drove her to the hospital during her labour (of course, he did not deliver the baby) all have had much more time in her thoughts since they passed through her life than they would have in a conventional biography and here, deservedly so, they are reserved pages, warmth, apologies or appreciation as they ought to be given, and some of the most deeply poetic prose you would see in non-fiction.

The critical raves that preface and close the book speak volumes about her writing and the boilerplate snatches pay proper tribute, but do not acknowledge that the honesty of the writing is inspiring and would give readers occasion and opportunity to pause and reflect on their own lives and determine who are the people who are of the greatest significance to them or are embedded in their thoughts and consciousness in ways that they would only articulate with the most honest reflection on who they are and who is important to them. In my own case, I know my letters would include the police officer who was shot two days before the Christmas I turned nine, a woman who sat with me on an overnight train to Montreal the day after my grandmother died and a young man whom I never met but altered my path in a way I will never steer from.

Dear Mr. You is a jewel of literature that deserves much more than the critical claim it merits. It will likely be anthologized for the honesty and elegance of its tone and tributes and for the brief moments of life that were not necessarily decisive but were defining for their intensity of peace, joy or self-discovery. For readers it will clearly inspire self-reflection and a reconsideration of life that other more formulaic bios would never even aspire to.  It is a book that will linger in the readers' thoughts with its nuances and eccentric variation on the genre.