“No man is an island.” — John Donne
The original context can be found in Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” I encountered Donne’s maxim regularly. Flipping through textbooks, listening to the stern and sibilant musings of teachers, randomly espying it or hearing it in novels and films. Never learning the whole until later, when I read Donne in my college days. The remainder proved to be just as important as the oft-quoted part. Those who popularized these five words, more enduring than any hep catchphrase germinating from the tube and polluting the fine fiber of conversation, had latched onto the “no man” part, implying personal responsibility if you dared to live the sheltered and solitary life. If you went at it alone, you were doomed, preceded with the dreaded “no,” which suggested a null or invalid existence. Then there was the island part. Was this a majestic oasis or a barren isle with merely a solitary tree providing coconut sustenance? When I first heard the phrase, I imagined a yin-yang symbol, the kind I saw recurrently on Town & Country surfboards. Perhaps the dot in the middle, whether jet or pure, was the island that Donne spoke of. Perhaps the answer was up to each individual. Touche.
Logically, if no man was an island, then no island was a man. Or if no man was an island, if no man, then island, or if not an island, then no man.
Q.E.D.: If examined literally, and discounting the Talking Kipwich Islands in the South Pacific (little regarded by oceanographers and cartographers alike), an island could not be a man. They were simply two different entities: one composed of sand and sputtering above sea level, sometimes with rabid castaways (i.e., men) writing HELP messages in the sand (often in vain, followed by tears and/or insanity); the other, the homo sapien (male and female, mind you; we live in the 21st century), a bipedal creature known to his head too much for occasionally magnificent and frequently foolish purposes.
Metaphorically and logically, however, no island was a man. Thus, the state of being an island implied something outside the realm of man’s knowledge and existence. Or his everday life.
The question my fourteen year old self had, however, was whether or not I was an island.
Seventh grade, poor, severe personality problems, unresolved trauma from natural father. Confined to room. For the best really. Several mistakes. Frequent bursts of tears. A period that exists largely as a expanse of duvatene, a handkerchief just before the execution squad. Except I did not die. I was shot several times, but, like Rasputin, I would not die. Years later, I would find myself living and refuse to hate the people who put me there.
Abdication of responsibility. Yes, don’t fix him, let him rot and sort out his own problems. Pretending, disguising the deep hurt. A Samsung black-and-white television set for company that only received the local PBS station. Comics too. Strips, not comic books. Working out a system to reclaim the neighbors’ back issue newspapers and being kept sane by Bloom County and MAD Magazine. Ripping shreds of wallpaper to see what was beneath and finding train patterns. (What would you do?) I liked trains. Too much, it turned out. Welts from a belt, from the second man my mother married. He threw me out of the house with only a threadbare blue blanket for company. I shivered in a car shelter on a cold night in an apartment complex for hours before trying to sneak back to the house, only to be smacked in the face by this man with the mustache and the horrible rage. Just like Dad No. 1. Somehow, I was let back in. My mother looked the other way.
But I would be let out of my bedroom jail for school and to go to the library. They tried to turn me into an island before I was a man. But in the library, oh, I found friends. Books, glorious books. Whatever they had. They even let me work the microfilm machine and I’d dig up articles on this Reagan guy, whose smile I did not trust. Doonesbury, Erma Bombeck, James Thurber, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, rereading the obligatory Judy Blume and Mary Rodgers, strange compilations of pop culture and fads, even politics and history. There was pleasure in the books, but the pain was so overwhelming that I could not concentrate on the books for several years in high school. But I returned. Defiantly. And never looked back.
The library demonstrated that I was not an island. I was a piece of its multi-floored continent and I’d get a smile of encouragement from the librarians. This might be one reason I find librarians so sexy.
They could tell me otherwise. But with the books and the records and the photocopies of articles I’d hide up my T-shirt (thanks to the one librarian who saw this young and able scholar and slid dimes across the counter, no questions asked), and the movie ads I’d cut and tape to the walls, I knew that there was an identity which extended beyond the shabby trappings. Just an undiscovered country. Like Freedonia.
I lived to tell the tale. That’s the part that matters.
He went through the same treatment. A troubled personality. Relentless verbal abuse. And the sad part is that I was an accomplice. But my stepbrother (Marriage No. 3) still found solace in me, even when we nicknamed him “Nyuck Nyuck.” We rallied around a NES, zapping bad guys and defeating minibosses. Sometimes, we’d team up and we’d get along. Strange how a side-scroller could forge a bond. Stranger still was how much time we devoted to beating a game.
It didn’t last. Near the end, he was relegated to a tent purchased from an army surplus store in the backyard. My mother was afraid of him. Or, more specifically, like me, she wouldn’t give him the chance. That was the real reason he was sent away.
But he ended up joining the Army. In the days when military involvement and casualties were unthinkable. Turned out to be a decent guy with a constant smile on his face. Ended up being Soldier of the Year. He forgave us all. Well before I was able to confront my own personal demons. I was proud of him. Today, this man, who found solace in a system when his family refused to give him help, now finds himself about to be shipped to Iraq. His wife’s expecting. And it scares the bejesus out of me. I don’t want him to end up dead. I don’t want him to die for something stupid.
The great irony is that the Army provided him with the ineluctable proof that he was not an island, that his life mattered, and that his existence involved decency and honor. But the Viagra-hardened big boys have decided that these men, individually, are islands. To be kept away from public consumption, to be disregarded, to be dishonored, to be ordered to do god knows what.
He could turn out to be just another fresh face or another statistic. An inconsequential mark on an unseen blotter.
I don’t want to feel angry, but if my stepbrother goes down, then there will be hell to pay. I’ll become outright seditious. I’ll call upon everyone to pay attention to that clause in the Declaration of Independence that everyone so conveniently overlooked the other day:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (emphasis added)
I don’t feel safe and I’m sure as hell not happy about my stepbrother. But there’s one thing I do know: No man is a goddam island.