Beyond our most immediate social structures, we all eventually find inspiration from broader spheres of influence. Sometimes it is not even clear that such processes of worldmaking are at work. However, if forced to account for our matrices of meaning, we would not only be surprised by what we found but bemused by the degree to which wisdom finds us most when we require it.
By the second week of September 2014, a five-year run of painful surgeries and recoveries had swallowed my world. Achieving a new level of isolation, my sense of self was at an all-time low, so I sought to rebuild the internal structures wrecked by the pain and struggle.
The names at first popped into my head seemingly at random, though there’s little chance of that, their selection was unmotivated, much like the faces I’ve seen since childhood flashing in my mind’s eye before falling asleep.
Looking back at five years of entries – over 1,700 – my search for motivation and insight from a rather wide range of interests is evident, starting, of course, with Bill Russell and the game of basketball, which has captured my imagination since I was a boy.
Though he retired five years before I was born, Bill Russell’s mythos loomed large in our household. Part of a decade spent arguing for the Los Angeles Lakers’ supremacy over my father’s Boston Celtics, so I’ve always known to listen when it came to Bill Russell.
Henri Matisse was one of the first artists’ names I would remember as a child, deeply moved by the Cut-outs of his later years. He passed away in 1954 as Russell was becoming the most dominant player in college basketball, handling racism with grace and integrity every step of the way.
The old artist never stopped working and passed quietly at 84. Isadore Duncan, the dancer who inspired him and was once his neighbor in Paris, departed mortality quite shockingly, at 50, when her long hand-painted silk scarf got caught in the wire-spoked wheels of the car she rode in, throwing her abruptly to her demise.
Discovered during my freshman year in college, while I was assigned something very different, Thomas Mann quickly became a literary touchstone. A few years later, I was pleasantly surprised as a senior when I took a class on Charles Dickens and George Eliot and found that Eliot rang a similarly subversive bell for me as a reader.
Both Roland Kirk and Fellini were uncompromising artists who composed spectacular pieces that left audiences in awe. For Kirk, blind and black, critics may have undervalued the complexity of his work, while Fellini’s has impacted generations across all forms of media.
Like the Italian filmmaker, Coco Chanel’s influence has far exceeded her creative output. I first came across the name as a boy in the library reading about Pro Wrestler Gorgeous George incorporating Chanel No. 5 into his elaborate ring entrances, only to learn in more recent years of her Nazi intrigue during WWII.
The theme of simplicity has remained consistent as I’ve sought to remind myself not to overcomplicate my life or writing. William Morris, the 19th-Century English polymath, was devoted to a sense of balance and order that led him to resist the pollution and greed of the Industrial Age. Likewise, Gloria Steinem’s skills at cutting to the truth of an issue elevated her from a writer into a political voice for the Feminist movement.
It was a month before I would meet my eventual eye surgeon. My struggles with my mood worsened alongside my vision until I was quite challenging to be around. In that first week, somewhere in those 139 responses, I saw glimmer enough of hope to perpetuate the habit.