05 July 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

I watched "Wilde" last night, Brian Gilbert's biographic film on the life of Oscar Wilde. Actually I've been watching it for two days. My ear doesn't track English accents well so it takes several listenings to grasp dialogue.

Beyond that, the story sparked deep resonance in me for reasons not immediately apparent. Watching the film, sleeping and dreaming on it, walking around with the story inside me for a few days and, now, writing about it is an attempt to understand what's going on with me...

I'm still apartment hunting. It's hard work because the gap between the way spaces are described in ads and the reality of their condition and location is huge in New Orleans. It's hard because it's god-awful hot right now and I'm mostly making my way via public transportation. (In my dream of New Orleans, all bus stops are situated either under a shady tree or a shelter; and buses run on time.)

It's hard because the market rate for air-conditioned apartments that don't leak and aren't located in blighted neighborhoods exceeds my regular monthly income.

And it's hard because I'm in denial. Or have been. From time to time, as a girl, something would catch my fancy -- like traveling to Africa or learning to play the harp or throwing a Sweet 16 party -- and my mother would chuckle and say "You've got champagne taste and a beer budget," meaning my dream or desire was unrealistic and unattainable.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

But I believe my dreams were byproducts of the classical piano lessons and ballet classes, the Sunday afternoons at symphony concerts and art galleries, the instruction in poise and etiquette that filled the days of my formative years. These activities fostered champagne dreaming.

And they have a lot to do with who I am, what I desire, what I believe is possible, today.

My family's middle-class values isolated us somewhat in the small town where I grew up. "Who do they think they are?" was a common retort by residents of the housing project up the street or the neglected, dirt-lawn homesteads in the vicinity. We were "aspiring" and they were not.

I still aspire: one the one hand, to overcome my middle-class sensibilities. To not care about possessions or status or security. Moving into my present address, I thought "No one in my family would ever consider living in a house or a neighborhood like this." It seemed a triumph of sorts that I would consider it and attempt it.

On another hand, aspiring to live as a dreamer in a culture where having a plan, saving for tomorrow, locking the doors, not looking foolish and avoiding mistakes are paramount.

It is my dreamer aspect that empathized so strongly with the Wilde film. Blinded by his infatuation with a beautiful boy and aspiring to not only live by his ideals but to educate the world, to lift the grimy mundane masses and enable them to see what he saw, he pursued legal protest against an accusation of sodomy issued by the beautiful boy's father. The protest ended badly: two years of imprisonment and hard labour that destroyed his health, family and career. He died less than three years after his release -- penniless, far from home and alone.

The film omits any mention of Wilde's post-prison reflections on his life. Did he have regrets? Did he see the world and himself differently? Did he change his ways?

Is everyone like me: desiring to see myself clearly so I can make choices in keeping with my true nature? How deep and wide is my courage of conviction? I readily confess now that although I can live in relative squalor, the discomfort costs me. I have bad dreams and I complain and, sometimes, I cry. I confess that eating and sleeping and walking and working in high heat is taking its toll.

I confess that moving to the beat of a different drum, swimming against the tide, is exhausting. On balance, I am grateful for my life, unswerving in my commitment to my calling; but, as Wilde discovered, the body can suffer tremendously in the process of staying true to ones ideals.

It is no one's fault; there is simply an incompatibility between the World as constructed by the unconscious consensus of the majority and the envisioned World of those who dwell, as I do, along the margins of the "bell curve."

Those inside the curve (or trying to be) offer me a hand from time to time. Most recently, it was suggested that including criteria like space for my piano and on-site laundry in my search for lodging is small-minded. "You can always put your piano in a studio and teach off-site. And you can take a taxi to do laundry," my acquaintance suggested.

I always pass on good advice. It's the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself. ~Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, 1895

Clearly my acquaintance is champagne dreaming and disregarding my current beer budget. But is there an ounce of useful information hiding inside her otherwise useless advice? In the film, a close friend begs Wilde to abandon his mission seeking legal recourse. He knew that society would not, could not hear the "different drummer" that guided Wilde's life but Wilde disregarded his friend's advice and pressed on.

Artist: Chris Ofili “No Woman No Cry” (1998)

So we are born and are shaped over time by external and internal forces. A mysterious and amazing process, these forces are inextricably interdependent. And, voila, a person is created. A person who can never clearly discern or analyze the forces that created her. A person with some measure of power to change and direct the forces within and without her.

There's Oscar Wilde. And then there's Dolly Parton (see clip at the foot of the page) who has apparently stayed true to her desires and created a comfortably livable life.

How much power and influence do I have? Those motivational speakers who swear it's all up to me are lying.

What story is being told through my Life?

I desire the answers to these questions. I desire some relief from this heat. I desire affordable housing where my piano is not considered a liability (and the landlord is not despicable).

Are such desires a recipe for bondage, disappointment and ruin?

"When in Rome....." is only feasible to a point. Doesn't the Nigerian in Rome remain a Nigerian no matter how adept s/he is at assimilation?


  1. Rather than go through the expense of finding another place and moving, wouldn't it be easier and less expensive to buy a window AC? There are small 110V units available if your place doesn't have a 220V plug.

  2. Yes, that would be less expensive. But heat is not the only issue here.


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