Once you have given up on your life’s dream, living becomes easy. You don’t have to have any conflicts or disappointments because you don’t care any more. You drift along, marking time, until the game is over.

After I abandoned the hope of sharing my creative writing with the world, I was numb. I glided from home to train to school to work to bed like the robot from Lost in Space, mumbling in monotone, in a sort of living dream. I hardly said a word.

“What’s wrong with you?” my mother would ask as I simply walked through the room and up the stairs without speaking. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be a little friendly, would it?”

“He’s too good for us,” my brother would say.

“Maybe he just wants to be quiet,” I heard my sister say as I closed the door to my room. None of it mattered any more. My thoughts were my own and I would not share them with anyone. My friends the Rootweavers taught me the value of speaking: you didn’t need to, as long as you were connected to each other and to the earth.

All our lives we are taught to strive, to seek, persevere, to succeed. No one teaches us how or when to give up. Muhammad Ali became my hero not because he was the champion—twice—but because he gave it all away. He wouldn’t play the white man’s game and take part in their dirty little war. George Washington gave up the army after the Revolutionary War. Lou Gehrig is best remembered for gracefully retiring from baseball.

I would be the Iron Horse of literature: I would write beautiful things that no one would ever see. I would be able to go around, convinced that I was a great writer, without ever needing anyone to validate that fact. I listened over and over to the Simon and Garfunkel song I Am a Rock:

I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock, I am an island.

…And a rock feels no pain.
And an island never cries.

I turned in an article for my school paper, which was housed in a tiny wooden shack-like structure in the old Italian neighborhood surrounding the university campus. Italians sat on their stoops, talking, as I walked by. I didn’t stop to visit with my classmates. I was a rock, an island, and had no need of friends. A dark-haired man in a “dago-T shirt” waxed his olive green Chevy Impala. At the kosher butcher shop, Nea Agora, a man in a white smock and cap hung up the carcass of a lamb. I envied the lamb. The lamb felt no pain.

I felt no connection to these people. “What are you, too good for us?” the old men sitting in chairs in a semicircle on Polk Street seemed to say. “Look at him, he don’ feel nuttin’ These kids today, I swear, they don’ got no ambition.” “I got yer indifference right here!”

I headed to the el, practically trudging, barely able to lift my feet off the ground. I stood on the platform as expressway traffic hurtled by. No one looked at anyone else. That was the way it should be. I got on and got a window seat and glanced at the school paper, where one of my articles had been printed. They had misspelled the word “endeavor.” Just as it should be, I thought.

The train was never crowded on the west side. After we went through the Loop it got packed with commuters, all rocks, all islands, no one looking at anyone else. A pair of tall brown leather Frye boots and Levi’s blue jeans sat down in the seat next to me. I didn’t look at the face but I could tell the boots and jeans belonged to a young woman. Did she know she was sitting next to a rock, an island? I looked out the window, indifferent. She unfolded a large newspaper. It brushed against me. “Sorry,” she said.

“I am a rock,” I thought without saying anything. “It doesn’t matter, brush against me all you want.”

The paper, I saw as she folded it to a more compact size, was the student newspaper of Loyola University, a Catholic university on the far north side. It was much bigger than our paper. They had ads, too—for Chandler’s Bookstore, for My Pi pizza.

“Want to read it?” she asked.

“Hm?” I was disoriented, an island no more. “Oh, well…no, thanks.” Out of habit, in remembrance of the days when I was interested in such things, I noticed that she had long brown hair, and a suede coat with a fake fur collar.

Something deep within my mind, a voice inside my head, the voice of Farkus, muttered in its low growl: Writer. I barely paid attention. But the brief thought formed itself into words. Words are what get us into trouble. Words are what change our lives.

“Do you write for that paper?” were the words that emerged out of nowhere, with no clue to who this young woman was or what she did.

“Yes, this is my article,” was the response. She pointed to it, something about food in the school cafeteria.

“This is mine,” I said, pointing to my story, something about a protest in the school forum.

We traded papers. It seemed so innocent, the bridging of two islands. It still seemed innocent when we talked and discovered we lived in neighboring suburbs. It needn’t have gone anywhere from there. There was certainly no clue that this young woman and I were destined to be married one day. You don’t meet people on the el and get married to them. Right? Who would have ever thought that this simple “coincidence” would lead to years of drama, occasional joy, the joy of traveling around the country with someone, the thrill of leaving the suburbs and building a home in the city, then dealing with illness, with doctors, with drugs, with lawyers, with the pain of divorce? All of that spun out from being in the same place at the same time and saying a few simple words. But I learned, slowly, painfully, that the Rock and Island principle was unworkable. Just as the trees are not separate, but all interconnected, with their roots tied together in a vast unbreakable network, we were not separate, we were already connected in some unseen fabric woven by invisible hands.

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