Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

I entered young adulthood with a pen and composition notebook in hand. As an adolescent in junior high, I used this pen and notebook to entertain myself in class after I'd finished all assigned work for the day, a way of coping with life turbulence. The pen and notebook followed me into summer vacation, where I exercised my imagination. Eventually, one day, I'd written a novella.

At fourteen, I dared to share the manuscript of this novella with my 8th grade English teacher. On a summer morning, my mother deposited me at Plantation Coffee House, manila envelope in hand. I gazed through the windows and saw him perched at a table. His head hung low to the table in concentration and his papers, pens, and books formed a chateau fort which protected him from distraction. As I entered, the bitter aroma of coffee rolled around me and into my nose. I approached slowly. I was nervous.

I do not remember the first thing I said nor what I wore. I remember only a few seminal details. A stack of those papers encapsulating him were recorded dreams. I explained at one point that I couldn't have coffee because of the caffeine that would affect a congenital heart condition, to which he replied that I perhaps exercised my heart in other ways. He recommended I read some key books, one of which was Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Ten years after our meeting at Plantation Coffee House, this teacher is now a friend of mine, and we once again got coffee while I was back home in the states. On a bright July morning, we sipped coffee and he slid a copy of Joe's book across the table as a gift. Somehow I managed to make it through another decade and three different schools without reading Joe's book.

Life is a joker and a trickster, and what I've learned is that she will (almost) always foreshadow what she has in store for you if you pay attention to the clues. And so it is that ten years later the very friend that mentioned the book to me has given it to me.

I packed Joe's book into one of the three suitcases I hauled across the Atlantic and peeled it open two weeks ago. With 60 pages to go until the end and it sitting by my side as I write this, I am saddened. I am rarely sad to finish a book. I am normally neutral, unattached, and analytically distant as I contemplate structure, theme, and tropes. Yet this book has no characters; it is a wonderful guided tour by none other than Joe himself through the land of myth and human experience. Just when I thought my own horizon was wide, this book has suddenly stretched that horizon panoramic and breathed into my mind another universe.

I have a lot of world to see, and a lot of studying to do. I have a lot to learn about life, and a lot to learn about writing. But I have to thank my friend and Joe for showing me that the story is in all of us, and my job is to draw the story out.

I, too, am a hero with a thousand faces.

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