A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
In 52 years of marriage,Vladimir Nabokov wrote hundreds of love letters to his wife, Vera.
This I find touching, even moving. But surprising? Hardly. Nabokov was a writer, after all, and no doubt he expressed himself most perfectly via the written word.
He was also, as anyone knows who has read “Lolita,” a man of great passion. As degraded and delusional a character as Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of that complex, beautiful, disturbing book, could only have been drawn by an author in touch with his own dark side, someone fully aware of his passions, both repressed and expressed.
Reading about his letters — Knopf will publish 300 of them next year as a book, “Love Letters to Vera” — has me thinking today about passion, and my own approach to life and love.
For as long as I can remember, passion has informed my life’s choices. I loved school — which my teenage daughter finds extremely weird — and threw myself into my studies. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and, throughout the 28 years it took me to earn my bachelor’s degree in college, received only two Bs, neither of which was my fault, of course.
When I was young, I was very religious. I remember feeling envious of black people, whose church services teemed with excitement and self-expression. When I discovered Pentecostalism, I was fascinated by the shouts and waving of hands and speaking in tongues and simultaneous, sometimes spontaneous, prayers filling the chapel with discord. (It’s too bad that Pentecostals are also passionate about the whole “God is the head of the Church and man is the head of the household” schtick.)
In my career choices, I always followed my bliss, opting for journalism over engineering, for example. A whiz at math and science as well as English, I eschewed the money-making profession because of my love for words and my desire to make a difference in the world. Those same passions fueled the writing of my first novels, “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina,” which took six years to research and write and caused me to lose my full-time newspaper reporting job.
Yesterday, I celebrated not only Thanksgiving but also the six-month anniversary of the day I met the man I love as I have loved no other.
Part of our celebration included reading aloud the love letters we’ve written to each other. This was my idea and, I must admit, I worried that it might come off as too sentimental. But it worked beautifully, reminding us how our feelings for each other began — what it was that attracted us to each other, what held us there — and showing us how those feelings have evolved into a deepening intimacy. I have no doubt that our passion will grow over time as our knolwedge of each other increases, in part because that is what we both want.
When I was working at the Missoulian, I angsted over whether to go back to work full-time, as my editor was demanding, or to insist on remaining part-time so that I could finish writing “The Jewel of Medina.” The novel was my true calling, I felt, but I was afraid to let go of the paying gig. A dream that night gave me my answer. In it, I dove from a high board into a deep pool. “Don’t put all your eggs in the Missoulian basket,” I heard a voice say.
The deep pool represents the unconscious mind, which is where our seat of passion lies. I plunged into that pool and refused to increase my work hours. My editor fired me, but I soon found a freelance job that paid as much for part-time work as I’d been making full-time at my old job. Since then, I’ve published two novels and have a contract for my third with Gallery, a division of Simon and Schuster.
My passionate approach to living has gotten me into trouble. I’ve been married, and divorced, three times. I’ve been chastised by cautious editors for my ruthless coverage of local politics and politicians. I got death threats and, worse, sneering reviews, for writing about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride. But so what? It’s better than not loving, not caring, not writing.
We only get one chance at life, as far as I know, and only about 80 years of it. It’s not nearly enough for all I want to do. My answer is to do the things I feel most passionate about — loving, writing, playing music, dancing — and to trust that my love will be returned; that my writing will sustain itself; that my music will someday bring joy to others, and that my dancing will keep my spirit as well as my body limber and free. Along the way, I hope to make a positive difference in the world.
And if not? I’ll finish my life without regrets. As Tennyson wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” No one will say of Sherry Jones that she didn’t squeeze every last drop out of life, or that she didn’t give back.
Can you say the same about yourself? Are you living the passionate life? Or is it time to find your own blisses, and to follow them?