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The Book that Changed My Life by Mark Zimmerman
The Old Man of the Holy Mountain by Mark Zimmerman
Part 1

Part 2
Part 3

The Making of
"The Old Man of the Holy Mountain."

I wrote my first poem at the age of 14. I am now 40. I remember the poem. It was written for an eighth grade English class. We were studying poetry. I remember studying the Beatles song lyric "Blackbird" from their White album. The lyric went like this, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly." Later, the words "broken wings," would take on a strong significance in my life. And the lyric "learn to fly" reminded me of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" by Richard Bach - a book I had read in 6th grade. We were to write a poem, and the teacher gave us a poetry writing formula to follow. The poem went like this:

Life is beautiful.
Beauty is life.
You are life.
For you are beautiful.

I gave it to the English teacher, and to my surprise she called me to her desk. She asked me where I got this poem. I told her I had written it, and she told me that I could not have written it. That I must have gotten it from someplace else. I knew I had not copied it. I figured the poem must have been good, because the teacher told me I had to write another poem. This time she said I must follow the poetry writing formula.

It was at that moment that I became disillusioned with my teachers. The poem and feeling that generated it were genuine, because I had fallen in love with a girl who was a year younger than I named Kara. She was the inspiration for the poem.

I had a similar experience with my piano teacher when I was in the third grade. The teacher had given me a formula to write a song. When I played the music for the piano teacher, he had the same response as the English teacher. Again, I had not followed the formula but had simply written the song. The piano teacher commented to my mother, that I must have heard the song or got it from my memory, and then wrote it down. When the same thing happened with my English teacher, I knew I had written something so good that she could not believe I had written it myself. I wrote another poem for the English teacher. I followed the poem writing formula. Then, she accepted the poem. I knew deep in my heart that I had been dismissed, and not valued for something good I knew I had done.

Those incidences had a very profound effect on me. I began to distrust my teachers. I found them unreliable sources for evaluating my worth. It seemed I was being rewarded for following a formula. It was obvious to me that I was being punished for moving outside that path.

It wasn't just my teachers that I began to distrust. I grew up during the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war. I believed Nixon when he said he had nothing to do with Watergate. Everyone found out later Nixon lied. I also knew at that time if the Vietnam War did not end soon, I would be drafted. Having been lied to by the adults in my environment, I began to distrust everything adults were saying to me. There was a slogan from my generation. It said don't trust anyone over the age of forty. I gradually began to rely on my own feelings and intuition.

I began to question the school system. It seemed to be repeating the same lessons, which made me very, very bored. I began to wonder what was it all about.

The literature I enjoyed reading in junior high-school was science fiction. I occasionally went to the bookstore in search of new stories. My favorite authors were Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Poetry had not yet solidified in my mind as a pursuit. I drifted through school uninspired and largely depressed.

By the time I had written the poem that was rejected by my English teacher, my relationship with my girlfriend was already over. I was profoundly saddened by my inability to maintain this relationship mostly because of my fear.

During the summer of 10th grade I made one of my normal trips to the bookstore. This time I was looking for something different. Going through the poetry section, I stumbled on a book titled "The Broken Wings" by Kahlil Gibran.

On the back of the book cover was a quote from the book. It said, "I was 18 years of age when love opened my eyes with its magic rays and touched my spirit for the first time with its fiery fingers, and Selma Karamy was the first woman who awakened my spirit with her beauty and led me into the garden of high affection, where days pass like dreams and nights like weddings."

Part 2

The Old Man of the Holy Mountain by Mark Zimmerman

I opened the book and it continued, "Selma Karamy was the one who taught me to worship beauty by the example of her own beauty and revealed to me the secret of love by her affection; she was the one who first sang to me the poetry of real life.

"Every young man remembers his first love and tries to recapture that strange hour, the memory of which changes his deepest feeling and makes him so happy in spite of all the bitterness of its mystery."

I was 13 when love first knocked on my door. Her name was Kara and she was 12 years old. Our friendship was short, only a few months, but it was sweet. The pain of our separation was more than I was prepared for. It was heightened by the fact that she lived nearby, and I saw her everyday in school. Our fear of each other created a distance so great, a chasm so deep, and an ocean so wide, that neither one of us was able to cross to reach out to the other.

When I came upon "The Broken Wings," it spoke to my heart of the sorrow, pain and bitterness that I was feeling. Latching on to the writings of Kahlil Gibran, I quickly began to read more of his poetry, stories and parables. The more I read the more determined I became to become a poet and a writer. With summer drawing to a close, I returned to school, though schoolwork was not upon my mind. I was now in the 11th grade. Though I attended classes, I was barely getting by. For I was spending my class time writing poetry and not listening to the teacher.

My poetry evolved into a short story. I created a character whose name I gave the Old Man. During this period I had visited the Great Smoky Mountains and backpacked there on a number of occasions. It was to become the setting for the book, and the place where the Old Man lived. I put the two together and came up with "The Old Man of the Mountain" and remembered Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man of the Sea." As the story evolved, the main theme of the book became the growth of love and understanding. The struggle to achieve love and understanding became symbolized in the story by the effort it takes to climb a mountain. The word 'Holy' in the title of the book became a symbol for love - making love 'Holy'. Hence, the title of the book became, over time, "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain."

During my junior year in high-school, I had failed several classes, including a course in home mechanics. I had become so frustrated from boredom, that one day I called the teacher a f-ing idiot and walked out of the class. As you might imagine, I got suspended for two glorious days. I was also removed from the class. I was now well into my junior year of high school, and skipping school on a regular basis. I had wanted to quit school the year before, but hung on because I had planned to go to college. As the school year progressed, so did the character development of the Old Man. I was now ready to start to write a fictional book.

The high-school I was attending had an independent study course. I could sign up for the course and receive credit during my senior year. I needed a teacher who would sponsor and supervise my activity. I asked two of my English teachers and both refused to help me in an independent study course. One of the teachers, to her credit, was going back to college the following year. The other teacher couldn't have cared less. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was fed up with incompetent teachers who didn't care about their students, or how they felt, or what their ambitions were. I just couldn't stand one more year of school when I had determined my occupation. I wanted to be a writer. And I thought if I wrote something of high quality, like Kahlil Gibran, that it would get published.

During that same year a poet came to visit our school from Ireland. His name was Peter Fallon. He read poetry from his book "The Speaking Stones." I enjoyed his poetry very much and I was inspired by his success. I showed him some of my poetry, and he encouraged me. It had become my hope that I too could become a successful poet.

That year I found algebra class particularly boring, and spent most of my time in class writing poetry. One girl in the class who was doing well in algebra began to take notice of me. Her name was Margo. One day during class, she asked if she could read some of my poetry. I told her I had given a collection of my poems to another girl named Marcia from social studies class. I told her that when she returned the poems, I would allow her to read them. A few days later Marcia called me one evening and she was crying. She told me her mother had found the poems in her bedroom and had burned them. I consoled her and told her I had copies of those poems. I thought I had, but found out I had copies of only a few of those poems. The rest of the poems, I did my best to reconstruct from memory.

I gave the poems to Margo to read. Soon thereafter we began dating. The relationship was unfortunate because her parents didn't like me. I attributed it to the fact that her parents were strict. I was a stark contrast in that I pretty much was free to do whatever I wanted. During spring vacation I journeyed to the Great Smoky Mountains from northern Indiana to go backpacking. I couldn't get any of my friends to go, so I went alone. I wrote many poems while walking the mountain top meadows and meandering down the river valleys. These beautiful mountains inspired me, and affected the way I wrote and what I wrote about.

Part 3

The Old Man of the Holy Mountain by Mark Zimmerman

When I returned from the mountains, Margo told me that her parents thought I was crazy for going backpacking. When I visited her parents' home I sensed their distrust. They were continually interfering in our relationship. At first it was by words and then by deeds.

After school I had been working construction. I was helping to build a house near her home. The school year was finally drawing to a close and soon summer vacation would begin. One day at the construction site, Margo's mother visited me. At that time she told me I could not see her daughter anymore. I was totally floored. I told her that she couldn't keep Margo and I apart, and that there was nothing she could do. When I saw Margo at school the next day, we discussed our new situation. We contemplated many things including running away and eloping. Finally, we decided we would stick it out for as long as it took. Like Romeo and Juliet, we started seeing each other secretly.

School was finally over. Just a few weeks into summer vacation, the house we were building was completed. Now, I had free time to devote to working on "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain." I spent the rest of the summer working on the book. Margo and I continued to see each other through her frequent visits. I had fallen deeply in love with her. I no longer felt the need to return back to school in search of a girlfriend or an occupation. When the new school year began, I was not present. I decided that if I could just take the next year to write "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain," I could find a publisher, get an advance and Margo and I would live happily ever after. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way.

During what would have been my senior year and Margo's junior year in high school, I lived with my parents and saw Margo during the school lunch hour and on weekends. I continued working on "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain." The main story line was composed of works I had read from Kahlil Gibran and the "New Testament." The work began to take on its own unique shape, as I fashioned it from my own feelings and thoughts. I was struggling with my emotions, and trying to find ways to express them. As the book progressed, I gradually began to realize the importance of not merely expressing emotion, but also in understanding it.

I had felt confused, isolated and deeply pained by the experiences of the first 17 years of my life. I began to see how clouded my thoughts were and that drove me to seek clarity in my thinking.

As the school year was drawing to a close, so was my relationship with Margo. To continue seeing me, Margo lied to her parents. This put a tremendous strain on Margo and our relationship. The pain became too much for her to handle. By the spring of that year, Margo informed me that she could no longer sustain our relationship. We continued to see each other occasionally in the summer and fall. I pleaded with her on several occasions, sometimes angrily, to stay in the relationship. There was much frustration, confusion and pain. These emotions intensified, and became the separating force in our relationship.

I was now 18 years old and nearing the completion of "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain." The day before Thanksgiving I attended a party with my friends. Upon my return I found a letter on my bedroom door from Margo. It said she could not see me anymore. I had discussed with her my need to get away for a while and had already planned a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. I was totally devastated by her letter. The pain I felt made me hate her and I wanted to run away.

Thanksgiving day I left for my beloved mountains. I got an efficiency apartment in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee just out side of Gatlinburg. I continued to rewrite "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain" for the next three weeks. I was alternating between love, fear and hate. I was totally confused about what to do. My instincts told me to run away as fast as I could. I was very angry and wanted the pain to go away.

The feelings I was experiencing were familiar. I had experienced this situation before with Kara, where I was too afraid and angry to continue the relationship. As I laid upon the bed of my small efficiency apartment and cried, I began remembering what I had written in "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain."

I wrote, "One way to relieve yourself of unhappiness, and grow toward your greater happier self, is through the narrow door of your understanding self."

And I wrote, "Your love and understanding of yourself and others will bring comfort to yourself. And all that is you will become one in rhythm with itself. Thus, pain within you will diminish."

I had learned enough about relationships to know that my fear and anger were hindrances. I understood that to have a relationship with her, I needed to overcome my confusion, fear, frustration and anger. I knew that these were the cause of my pain.

Running away was no longer the solution. It became apparent to me that I needed to confront my fear and understand my pain. That it was the only way for me to diminish it. I knew then how important it was to the relationship to control my anger, and that my unhappiness was destructive to the relationship.

The realization that came to me was that I needed to understand myself and Margo. It was my feeling that by doing so, I could manage my anger and control my pain, so that it wouldn't interfere in the relationship. I had hoped that I could dispel the cloud of my confusion with understanding. Then, just maybe Margo and I could repair our relationship. At that moment I resolved to return and begin the process of completely understanding myself. Just before I left to return home, I completed "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain." I made copies of the manuscript. I went to the post office and sent them off to several publishers. The following day, I went back home to confront myself. To this day, I am grateful for having written "The Old Man of the Holy Mountain," and it became the book that changed my life.

The Old Man of the Holy Mountain by Mark Zimmerman
The Old Man of the Holy Mountain by Mark Zimmerman

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