I applied for a writing residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — applications, writing sample, artistic statement, three recommendations — and waited for Oct. 1, 2008, when letters of acceptance or rejection were scheduled to be mailed. And wouldn’t you know it? The freaking letter arrived right on Oct. 1 — in a thin envelope, so I knew, just like when guys like me dare to apply to Princeton, that my residency application had found a new home in Yaddo’s dumpster.
A few days earlier, a guy I know — a cook at the local cafe — had given me a copy of a concert CD –the “Bread and Roses” benefit for prison reform — featuring Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and a bunch of other folks including Jackson Browne. I left the cafe with my cup of coffee, got in my car, and the CD started playing Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman.”
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place/To get it together…
I’m not quite sure why that resonated right at that moment, but I guess I’ve always felt like I’m searching for some other place. I guess my application to Yaddo had something to do with at least one aspect of that quest — finding some sort of refuge, someplace where where my soul might be possessed (even for only a two-week stay!) or my Yaddo room visited by the ghost of one of the great writers who found inspiration at Yaddo: Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, James Baldwin, Henry Roth, Philip Roth — even Mario Puzo, for God’s sake!
I’m going to reapply to Yaddo. I’m going to apply to the McDowell colony, too. And I’m going to keep applying for fellowships, keep writing on this Web site, keep working on a new novel, keep writing my essays on mortality — and keep wondering why I also find myself thinking about an encounter I had, about a year or two after I graduated from college, somewhere along the New York State Thruway, not all that far from Yaddo.
I think it was around Batavia, N.Y. I’d hitchhiked to Buffalo to see a friend, and now was hitchhiking back to Yonkers — had to get back to work — when I encountered a beautiful, friendly young woman. We stuck our thumbs out together and quickly got an eastbound ride. Something clicked between us, and clicked quickly. I don’t even remember her name, but I do remember that I was enthralled — and oh-so-tempted when she asked if I wanted to go with her to the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, where she lived on some sort of commune. I thought and debated and wavered — she was very beautiful — and had to make up my mind by the time we reached the point where I would either continue heading south on the Thruway toward New York City or head east to the Massachusetts Turnpike and life amongst the hippies with this beautiful hippie girl.
Why don’t I remember her name? Why didn’t I ask her the name of the commune and where it was located? I mean, I could have visited her, right? Why did I choose obligation and responsibility over a life of karmic sex, psychedelic mushrooms and organic vegetables?
I think it was because I realized there was middle course, smack in the middle of deliberation and impulse, between fantasy and reality, between life on a commune with a beautiful blond hippie and the mundane life they used to call the rat race. My friend the saintly poet Bob Lax once told me “Things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. It’s as simple as that.”
What Lax told me is easy to say but more difficult to accept. Stuff happens to make your feel like you just can’t keep going along that yin-yang Zen path of serenity. Your agent hasn’t managed to sell one of your novels. You get rejected by Yaddo. You feel like Everyman…
Here’s an old etching. And here’s a multiple-choice question. This drawing depicts 1) Jackson Browne performing his song “For Everyman”; 2) Nicholas DiGiovanni getting his application rejected by the director of Yaddo or 3) Death summoning Everyman for his encounter with God.
I don’t know if Jackson Browne was familiar with the Everyman morality plays of the Middle Ages. I think he probably meant to use the word in the sense of “common man.” The original Everyman story basically went like this:
God’s complaining that the humans He created are way too caught up in material things and don’t appreciate the real gift He’s given them. So God sends Death to bring Everyman to Heaven to explain himself to God. Everyman tries to bribe Death to give him more time to get his story together. Death refuses this request but tells Everyman he can bring someone with him on his journey to meet his Maker. So Everyman asks Fellowship (meant to represent a person’s friends), Kindred and Cousin (representing family), and Goods (material possessions), but they all fail him or fall short of what he needs. Everyman then approaches Good Deeds and her sister Knowledge, and they go with him to visit Confession. Everyman repents his sins, and Confession presents him with a jewel called Penance and absolves him of his sins. Knowledge gives Everyman a garment called Contrition and Good Deeds rounds up Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Wits to accompany them to the appointment with God. But when Everyman tells them the details of this impending reckoning with the Creator, everyone bails out except for Good Deeds. Beauty and Strength, for instance, can’t be counted on because they leave as people get older. Knowledge can’t come because Knowledge dies once we’re in our graves. All that survives when a person dies is his or her Good Deeds — that’s where the play ends, with a narrator explaining that Good Deeds are all that matter in the end.
I guess. But I’d say the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, love of family and friends, and admitting one’s failings are all important. As for Goods and material possessions…no, they’re not important, but it sure is nice to splurge once in a while — I mean, life’s too goddamn short, as Everyman learned the hard way.
As for unpublished novels and rejections by writing programs …I’ll admit they may not be as important a Good Deeds, Knowledge, Fellowship and all the other characters in that medieval morality play, but I also feel obliged to note that the Everyman tale was written about 500 years before God created Yaddo or even the New York Times Book Review.