Archimedes once said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” While this statement has an admirable motivational sentiment, I tend to consider this lever-bearing scientist’s idea with a different perspective. It’s not the world that’s meant to be moved, it’s us.
Movement is often judged by concrete fact and quantified with statistics crunched by a calculator. Whether it be undeniable evidence that someone moved from one end of the room to the other or an astronomer’s chart tracking the orbit of the earth over the last year, we like to be able to step back and say to ourselves “Yup, I can see it.”
Granted there’s nothing wrong with wanting that proof, but it only addresses one dimension of movement. For some it’s just easier to pay attention to what’s happening on the outside and to prescribe to a norm that always has the “right” answer. Unfortunately, that means forsaking the movement that can occur inside of us, where it cannot be seen.
Movement is more than just the act of doing. It’s not about making sure there is a witness or recording hard data. Real movement involves the ability to bend willingly to fate and follow its whimsy. This is done not out of submission, but rather out of curiosity and awareness. Don’t we always end up somewhere for a reason or meet someone for a specific purpose? It’s never apparent until after the fact, but we are always moved by the experience. More often than not, powerful moments are ignored because they can’t be plotted on a graph or validated by some scientific principle. Sadly, this leads to many missed opportunities.
Confessions of a silent heart
linger between sleep and wake
Almost compelled to speak
but too afraid to bleed
Under the guise of night
do bold dreams exist
By daybreak they fade
to a thin hazy mist
The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter revolves around Nathaniel, a grad student, who meets a man that is known for mimicking everyone from his neighbor to famous philosophers and writers. Every word, mannerism, and quirk belongs to someone else, so in effect the man “steals” personalities. When this “soul thief” sets his sights on Nathaniel he absorbs every detail and tic with unnerving accuracy.
While the creep factor on this is bad enough, Nathaniel is at the precarious point in his life where he is trying to define who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He is in college but finds academics pretentious, he wants to fit in but isn’t sure how or why, he wants love but is trapped by lust and infatuation, and he wants direction but can’t find his way. The antics of the soul thief only exacerbates his internal angst to the point of a complete and total breakdown.
Baxter’s almost allegorical story plays with the idea of identity theft by putting a spin on the actual meaning of identity. His characters and their stories pose the question of whether there is even such a thing as individuality. As the soul thief himself puts it, “Someone, believe me, is clothing himself in the robes of another. Someone is adopting someone else’s personality, to his own advantage. … Somebody’s working out a copycat strategy even now. Identity theft? Please. We’re all copycats.” Essentially, society is a conglomerate of clones and people only think they are individuals. There’s that moment where we choose to surrender what makes us unique for the sake of fitting into the grand machine.
Nathaniel’s ultimate fate will appeal to some, while others will question whether he has truly found himself or has simply found another place to hide. Regardless, Baxter has pieced together a riveting tale that offers both harsh and hopeful observations of humanity. In what could easily be a harsh criticism of society, The Soul Thief instead offers sly optimism towards the notion of being more aware of the influences that shape our perceptions.
Along mysterious sidewalks
and down unknown streets
A chilled wind blows
but does not spurn
Skyward domes blend
into looming gray clouds
Raindrops trickle from
gas lamps and gutters
Blurred faces reflect in
the pale sheen of puddles
Strangers for now
kindred spirits to be
Perchance we meet
and find our peace
For the third time, Flynn was certain he was going crazy. He could’ve sworn the ring of a phone, the chime of a computer, and the squeak of a chair played the first three notes of a familiar song. It was the same tune he thought he had heard twice before – once this morning on his way to work and once right before lunch. How peculiar that it should haunt him on this ordinary Tuesday. Over the years, his memory had wedged the melody between obsolete knowledge and discarded whims. But, he still knew each note and every lyric with uncompromising clarity. As well he should, considering he wrote them with his own hand.
Years before his hair turned gray, he played guitar and was quite good at it. He had a knack for writing songs with catchy lyrics and spry fingers that could rip through any series of chords with ease. There was a time in his life when busking for a living actually seemed like a viable career option. Back when he was a skinny kid, life was a wide expanse where pursuing flights of fancy was considered a rite of passage. He still liked to think of life that way, but an ex-wife, endless hours of toil in a cubicle farm, and the passing of twenty years shrunk that once very wide expanse into the size of a pinhole in which he could barely move.
Every day he and his scrappy band of two schoolmates would play street corners along Oxford Street or wherever anyone would listen and toss a few quid. Flynn smiled at the thought of their faces so young and beset with scruffy three-day-old beards. Sam pounded the bucket drums, while Duncan made the harmonica moan. Sam’s hands were always red and raw from slapping the buckets for hours on end. Duncan’s mouth always permanently swollen, sometimes with a blister or two. They always joked that the harmonica gave him herpes. Ha! What good friends and good times!
He looked at the cubicle walls that surrounded him like a fence that kept cattle from escaping. The bald, ashen walls reminded him of himself a little too much. He reached across his desk and picked up a few paper clips. He dropped them one by one into a little pile. Plink. Plink. Plink. The coins people once threw into his guitar case would jingle with almost the same tone. How he loved that sound! Though, it was never really about the money. How could it be? There was never any to be had! Something else entirely drove him to pick up his guitar day after day, for there was nothing quite as euphoric as playing his soul out on a street corner. His voice would reach to the sky and set him free. It was magic.
Every song he had ever played rushed through him as though he were a battered jukebox. Through the static of decayed memories, the music was still alive . . . it was once something he displayed so vividly without hesitation. Each day had been a celebration where the music was a savior to those drowning in the city . . . or in life as a whole. His voice echoed off the brick walls, stark concrete, and comatose streets. Sam’s relentless beat embraced Duncan’s wailing harmonica as they fought against the city’s rigid code. Together, they stood at the center of a beautiful reprieve of lyrics and a soothing cascade of notes.