Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I Bumped Into Jorge Luis Borges on a November Night in 1977

After reading "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges, I knew I had to go hear him speak when he came to Madison many years ago.

His writing opened doors in my little Wisconsin brain. Because of him and words by others that pointed to the power of imagination, the cruelty of circumstance, and a need to act now, I had abandoned everything I called familiar.

I was living alone, going to college, and utterly lost. I wanted the toughest of challenges, to become myself, and Borges had pointed in that direction, but with no illusions as the difficulty of that undertaking. He wrote that the dreamer in the ruins "understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake." I was in the breech, had nothing to lose, and driven by hunger. That's the way Borges would like it.

So, he was going to speak at 8:00 at the Memorial Union Theater. I had just finished my shift as a dishwasher at Paisano's, a pizza place off State Street, and was in a hurry to get home, clean up a bit, get my backpack, and head to the Union to get in line.

I think half of Madison had the same idea. Back in those days, someone like a Borges could pack a house with young people who were on fire with questions. They were heady days. Madison, after all, had been in national news for its anti-war protests an even a bombing that had resulted in the death of a grad student.

Many of us were looking for something, a way to understand the chaos of the times, something that might mean

People were asking big questions and Borges was a kind of prophet. His work influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others, and was an antidote to the flat conformity and consumerism of the early 60s.

All I know is that I got lost in it when I read it, and it propelled me into studying Spanish, its original language. The idea of "dreaming a man" in "The Circular Ruins" gave me hope that I could dream a life that would lift me out of the quotidian small town world of Wisconsin. I couldn't breathe, and Borges opened a window through which fresh air blew.

So I was in a hurry, not running exactly, but passing others in a fast, somewhat determined walk. I don't remember the exact intersection, but just as Borges was stepping off the curb, his elbow in the capable grip of his young and beautiful companion, that I collided with him, his face two inches from my own.

I almost knocked him down, but not quite.

He was blind, so couldn't see me. I was mortified as I realized immediately, even before I actually bumped him, that I had plowed into one of the great minds on the planet.

I stuttered an apology. He looked directly at me, his face unchanged in its serenity, and said something like "no hay de que," no problem.

His companion, however, glowered. If looks could kill, I would have been dead after her first irritated glance. "Idiota," she said.

Borges, raised his hand to calm her. She took the cue and shot her irritation at the broken up sidewalk.

Later, as I sat in the balcony in the theater, listening to him read, I thought back to our collision, a chance meeting on a November night, in a large university town. So close, I thought, to a passing vision. It, like hundreds of other close calls, near misses, and head-on collisions in this life have guided and followed me like spirits, like the magical forces in Macondo of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

It is rushing headlong, sometimes, that you run into things, like bumper pool or pinball, little changes in direction that can affect the trajectory of life.

As I lose speed, my inertia running out, decelerating to a stall, I can see him still. He is calm, out there in the ethers, raising his hand in forgiveness. "No hay de que," he whispers. Don't worry about it.

It's just what happens as you dream your life into being. Sleep harder, focus the beam of your attention on what it is that sustains, for it will pass faster than you think, a speeding wave of voice and light.

As I dream this man I want to be into a form I can embrace, I realize that others, somewhere, not all that unlike myself, are dreaming up the vision I mistakenly call me.

How's that for a cooked noodle?

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