Monday, November 22, 2010

Aunt Ellie and the big questions

I owe at least some of my direction in life to one of my aunts. Her name was Eleanor Jannuzzi and she was a freethinker way before it was fashionable. Beautiful, funny and wildly intelligent, she was a painter, sculptor and interior designer -- and did all three while raising five small children. She's not alive today but her spirit lives on in me and many others.

My favorite memories of her come from when I was 11 or 12 years old. My family had moved to the braindead borough of Queens, much to my horror, while Ellie still lived in our old neighborhood in lower Manhattan. (And when I say "lower" Manhattan, I mean it. It's so low that no one knows it's there. Behind the Municipal building is an entire world known only to local residents. If you're a Manhattanite, walk through and check it out sometime. You may be surprised by what you find on the other side.)

Ellie was a lightning rod for me at a time when my almost-teenage mind was just waking up. I gravitated toward her for one reason: she was as interested as I was in the big questions: What is life? What is reality? And what the heck is really going on?

This was about 1959 or so, perhaps five or six years before the advent of hippies. Back then we had beatniks and I guess Aunt Ellie was one of them. Her black hair was very long, she had a permanent cigarette in her mouth and she dressed like a hippie before such creatures existed. Each day, she held court at her wonderfully messy apartment, welcoming anyone who stopped by. Her paintings were stacked along the walls and a paint-spattered easel always held her current work, though it would remain under a cloth until she was happy with it. Sketches, sticks of charcoal, tubes of paint, brushes and overfilled ashtrays were scattered throughout the apartment, and if she had been sculpting that day, there might be a bust drying out in a corner. It was such a friendly place to visit.

She always seemed to be creating, darting around in a sea of ideas and she would readily share her insights, always with laughter and kindness. You could see a vast intelligence peering out at the world through her eyes. She was fast, always taking in everything around her without missing a trick. She was life itself, bubbling over with creativity and happiness and her apartment was a grand place for a young person to visit.

Now and then she would invite fascinating, brilliant people over for a candle-lit evening of coffee, cigarettes and soaring conversation. I was only an occasional visitor at these events so when I was invited, I jumped at the opportunity. She would actually invite specific people because she knew I'd enjoy them. How many aunts would do such a thing for a 12-year-old? It was great. I'd hop on a subway and head for her apartment with two fresh packs of Pall Malls in my pocket, knowing I had a wild evening of philosophical conversation ahead. (Yes, I smoked a lot when I was 12; I've since stopped.)

It seemed the beatniks had all studied philosophy and we regularly discussed the greatest thinkers of all time. We went through them one by one. What did they believe? Did their arguments make sense to modern ears? We smoked and drank coffee and laughed and talked about everything in the universe, often into the wee hours of the morning. Ellie's kids were welcome at the table and sat with us at first. She would never push anyone away. If you were alive, you were welcome in her world. But after a time, the kids grew sleepy and retreated to their bedrooms. I had the opposite reaction: these evenings were like speed to me. I couldn't get enough.

We pondered the meaning of life and sharply questioned the accepted version of reality. Could we really trust our senses, our minds? And what is a mind, anyway? We didn't take anything at face value. And of course we wondered whether there could possibly be a god. Nope. 

To get a real sense of these evenings you have to understand that the beatnik thing wasn't a put-on. Sure everyone wore black; there was a union rule about that, or something. But it was serious business. In each beatnik there was a fierce drive, a pressure to understand it all -- right now, this very second. It wasn't comfortable being a beatnik. We (I included myself in their number after a time) were unsettled and suspicious, and rightly so, we believed.

Our discussions roamed everywhere. Nothing was sacrosanct. Could it be that we are all asleep and our existence is only a dream? Can we be sure that we have ever been awake? And if not, what might "waking up" mean in such a context? We talked about these things endlessly, intensely interested in the conversation. I was never bored.

Aunt Ellie wouldn't reveal my age to the others at the start of the evening because they might think I was too young for "serious" conversation. As long as they weren't told, they seemed to think I was in my late teens or early twenties, and accepted me. I was already 6'4" and looked nothing like a child at 12, especially since I was a heavy smoker.

At evening's end she would reveal the shocking secret: they had been talking to a 12-year-old all night. The beatniks would ooh and aah in wonder that they'd had such an involved conversation with a child. In other words, she was praising my intelligence to them. She was proud of me and she let me know it, publicly. She always did things like that, reinforcing the good in everyone around her. What a great person she was.

Sadly, no one seems to talk like this anymore except philosophy students and their teachers. From what I can see of the world from my present perch, most people no longer wonder about life's meaning. Apparently that is no longer an interesting question. They either hold tight to pinhead religious beliefs, refusing to think about anything at all, or they "think" but don't do it well and end up believing a lot of mush -- or at least saying that they do. These folks don't even know there are questions out there. It seems that only atheists, scientists, artists and liberals think anymore. It's quite sad.

Aunt Eleanor is gone now and as I've said, a lot of people miss her. I'm just one of many. It would have been great to continue our conversations down through the years. But her ripple effects are still felt by many people. I know because I hear from them all the time. She pointed me toward the interesting questions that eventually led to my having a richly satisfying mental life. I might have gone this route without her but she was kind enough to point the way. I will always be grateful for that.

Was there someone in your life who influenced your intellectual development in a positive way? Go ahead, give them some props in the comments.