I ran around all the time as a child. My mother showed my brother and I the door early in the morning, we came back for lunch and were signaled when it was time for dinner. We wandered over the countryside, in and out of creeks, over train trestles, into corn cribs, for miles in many directions. We hung from creepers high in trees. We dove off construction equipment into puddles of thick mud. Our lives were idyllic and unsupervised. We ran through stores, charging up down escalators and down up escalators. We waited in cars while my mother shopped, and we waited, untended, doors locked to the outside, because we ran through fancy dress stores and raised havoc.

At dinner time we sat and ate quietly because children were to be seen and not heard. We scarfed down our meals, partly from boredom, partly because we did not snack all day and were legitimately hungry. Then we sat while my parents talked. We fidgeted, just as we fidgeted at the St. John’s chapel on Sunday mornings. On Sunday’s, at least, we would ride with my father after church, and he would take us to the News Agency in Paoli, where, if we had been good, he would buy each of us a pack of trading cards (Batman, it was the 60s) when he picked up the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. We fought over prized cards.

I read the indignation that people heap on this parent of that parent, or this child or that child, particularly around the incident at the Cincinnati zoo. But indignation over parenting (or childing) is not limited to that event. A girl’s skirt is too short, or his teeth are crooked, or her hair is dyed, or his pants are too short, or he cusses, or she chews gum, or he doesn’t say “sir,” or she runs down hallways. And mom works, or dad works two jobs, or travels away from home, or sleeps late on Sunday, or doesn’t go to church, or mom doesn’t bake cookies for school, or doesn’t volunteer at church, or spends time in her studio, or runs out of gas on the way to the store. Or brings rambunctious kids into a store, or a park, or a zoo.

My objection is not of the “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” variety (although, come to think of it. What the hell? We swam in neighbors’ pools without adult supervision. There but for the grace of whatever, any one of us could have gone.). My objection is to random acts of indignation: the knee jerk blame response. And sure, there is plenty in this life that is blameworthy: acts of intentional cruelty vile enough to stir rage. Occurrences that general good will could prevent if there was enough political and social fortitude to solidify into meaningful action. But sometimes there is simply tragedy, unplanned, stupid, and even if entirely avoidable, but ineffably tragic.

There is, in the common place daily existence we lead, an element of danger and potential tragedy. Bicycles. Cars. Cars! Streets. Creeks. Trees. Rock walls (not those pristine indoor creations that kids climb while tethered to safety supports), but walls of layered rocks that separated the playground from the roundabout where the buses waited at the end of the day. We climbed them while we waited for our bus to arrive, our slender seven year old fingers finding purchase as we scaled twice the height of our heads. And if there is still such a wall somewhere, I know some eyes are scanning it to find a path to the top. We learn, begrudgingly or blindly, to accept the danger, right up to the point it raises a scaly hand to snatch away a life or rudely injure a young and blameless arm or leg or eye.

As a parent, I understand the impulse to protect, and know that I wish no awful event to befall my daughters. (Someone reading this right now is charging his or her bile to new, but not unfamiliar heights: your daughter should suffer what she suffered.) What limits do we insist on placing on our wild things? All of them? Really? The only unbounded possibility is the extent of grievance we wish to express. And maybe it is just because we cannot regulate out or shame away or sternly reprimand the tragic element of life, we superproportionately feel, what? fear? grief? anger? Which we transform into salty indignation. And for those who feel fear, I have no words of consolation, because there are no words to console against the stupid and the random chance of danger. I can write, “You’re not alone,” but in that moment, you are alone. Fear isolates us. Indignation gives us a kind of strength, and, at least, a voice against calamity.

Still, remember. Protect what you can. Plan as much as you are able. Eliminate the horrible. If that means no zoos, if that’s what it takes, fine. If that means fewer guns, if that’s what it takes, then remember that more children died in gun events than at zoos. But somewhere, some danger waits. Sadly, even now, even with Neosporin and emergency rooms. And when it comes you will welcome sympathy, and it will be your due.

Something about memory

Once you can imagine how images and sounds get turned into bits of binary code, which you can then play back on a cell phone, you can begin to conceive of memory. Brains experience the world as a pattern of firing neurons—small chemical explosions in our heads that can be reignited over and over again. When Yeats writes, “I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head”—it’s memory that inspires him on the journey that ends with him picking the “silver apples of the moon… [and] the golden apples of the sun. Memory of what? Who knows.

Memories aren’t just about things—they are about all the thoughts and feelings we had when we encountered those things. I talk to my students about making memories “sticky”: giving them more purchase in their brains. A memory will take greater hold if there is a feeling associated with it. For instance, my emotions (happiness, sadness, everything else) run close to the surface and deeply too—they are whales and not minnows—and when I see a new thing, or learn a new thing, I attach, without even intending to do so, an emotion to the thing. Go figure. I was happy about learning the constitution when I was in high school, or the great chain of being when I was in junior high school (or, or, or), and those emotions made those things more “sticky.” At the very least, learning has made me feel happy, and I am blessed with plenty of sticky happiness.

For Yeats, the odd transformative associations: a hazel wand that becomes a fishing pole; a little silver trout that becomes and glimmering girl; the moth-like stars; the hollow lands and hilly lands; are ways back to memory and to inspiration.  We tend to think of inspiration as a vision of something yet to be made, something that exists primarily in the future, but our future vision relies on what we already have seen.  The inspired poet turns the past into future with protean grace.

When memories fade, it isn’t so much that the patterns dull, so much as the ways back to those patterns fade. Maybe think about it like this… Imagine that you have a room in your house in which you have a beautiful painting. The door to the room has a lock. You lose the key to the locked door. The painting is still in the room, but you cannot see it. You haven’t lost the painting, just the key to the door in which the painting waits for you, still bright and beautiful, still reminding you (but no longer) of the day on which you first saw it, the weather, the person you were with, and what you had done all morning on that day. If only you had the key!

The mnemonic device called the “memory palace” is a means of making memories “sticky” and organizing where and how they are stuck. The stickiness is not simply an emotion, which can be an incredibly random and unpredictable placemarker (we don’t tend to organize our emotions in a clearly coherent pattern so much as ride on them like waves), but a familiar place, in fact some place which we are already memorized, whose dimensions, smells, colors, and secrets are so deeply ingrained that we can call them back instantly and without effort.  Yes, we bind new memories to older established ones.  We put them on coffee tables and window ledges, in drawers of dressers, at the bottoms of garment bags in our parents’ bedroom closet (where they sometimes hid Christmas presents).

I will admit that I like the idea of this device more than the one I use.  My memories are bound to map like structures, to roads and routes, airport terminals and the backs of buses. Sometimes they lead to places, even palaces, but mainly they are blue lines on yellowing maps. “Why do you need to know where we are going?” a friend once asked, “I can tell you where to go.” “Because,” I wish I had answered, “Every road leads to a new memory, and if I don’t know them, not only will I be lost, so will these memories.”  The trick for me is that since the atlas of my memory is fairly large, adding a few new maps, even if they are revisions of older ones, is not particularly onerous or difficult.  Of course, the trick is to revisit those maps, to crack the binding of my memory, head down old roads, and re-visit places.  And new places?  The placement of puddles, the spread of trees across streets, and colors of cars in driveways—all these inscribe themselves on a map, illustrate a chart, and add themselves to me.



For those of you who know, you know that my work has been stuck for years. Serious years. Either I was too afraid of failure to write, or too (easily) distracted by the charms of the life of struggle and success, joy and sadness. In large part, writing these posts has been about that life. And surely, I have found other and certainly valuable things to do with my time and energy. But in the background of my thoughts, no matter what else I was doing, no matter where I was traveling, or who I was with, there was a story percolating. Something  about art and fire and theft and identity and… Well, as usual, about everything. And not.

Waiting for inspiration or signs, or for enough weight and gravity to accrue around a character or two will only do for so long. I’m getting older. I’m hearing the footfalls of cats’ feet in the hallways. I can’t wait for love or hope or generous fate to take a hand. It’s back to work. As a friend has called her project over the past few months, “Write or die.” And so I’ve been practicing. Seven to nine hundred words every two or three days. It’s been good. And it feels like the pump is actually bringing worthwhile stuff to the surface.

So, here’s how it starts. I’m laying down a marker. Give me a few months. With any luck more than a puddle, but not enough to put a fire out. As Willi says, “Everything is fuel.” So then…

Chapter 1

 “A little fire will solve all our your troubles,” said Carlo.

 “Or cause them,” amended Benjamin.

 “Cause or solve? What’s the difference?” asked Carlo. “Either way, you have to figure out what you are going to do after the fire.”

 “That is true,” answered Benjamin. He looked at me and winked. “Still, I’m happy that Willi is starting our fires, especially tonight.”

 “What’s so special about tonight?” asked Carlo. Then he looked at me, cocked his head, and gave me the half-bemused, half-annoyed glare that I had been receiving for the past two months.

 I averted my gaze and looked around the room. There is nothing wrong with a clean room, and given the fact that people had sent their prized possessions to be kept safe while they were in the middle of a move, a remodel, or a remarriage, I was always surprised by how many storage facilities looked like a restaurant at 11:37 at night. This was a storage room like any of the others in which we had worked. It was climate controlled: dry and cool. On one side of the room were a set of safes in which people kept documents they never wanted to age. There were shelves from floor to ceiling in which delicate hangings: small tapestries, quilts, fifteenth century circus posters; were rested flat on their backs. Fine art was stored vertically, on edge, in a wall-length series of slender slots. There was a clean yellow mechanical lift in one corner. The lighting, even with all the bulbs lit, was reserved and respectful. Still, even without a bright fluorescent glare, I could tell that there was not a mote of dust anywhere. Everything was immaculate.

 “Did we get everything we came for?” Carlo asked me. I was responsible for knowing what we would find in storage so that Carlo could put together what he glibly called our “shopping list.” When the date for our job neared, he gave me the list so I could alert him if anything was coming out of storage early, or if anything particularly interesting was being added to the facility he had targeted. He already had clients ready to purchase everything we took.

 I took one last look at the list and double checked the labels on all the long cardboard tubes gathered near the mechanical lift.

 “Yes,” I answered.

 “And yours?”


 “All right. Ben! Time to pack.”

 Benjamin got right to it, and put all the tubes into two oblong grey canvas duffel bags. Benjamin had been born to pack and carry. On occasions, I had caught him lifting chairs, or tables, or desks. “You never know,” he said sheepishly, “It may come in handy sometime, you know, just to know the balance.” Secretly, I think he just enjoyed grabbing oddly shaped things with his catcher’s mitt hands and gauging how much, or little, effort, he needed to lift them. Of the four of us, Benjamin was the only one who anyone would stop to stare at in the street. He was six and a half feet tall and looked like he should weigh as much as a bull. “Sarah,” he once told me, “cows weigh nearly a ton. I’m more like a tiger.” I guess we all can dream.

Willi waited for us at the entrance to the warehouse. He and Carlo stepped aside for a moment. Carlo listened and Willi pointed to several places along the walls and ceiling, indicating how the fire would start and where it would spread. Carlo, Benjamin, and I left the warehouse. Willi joined us at the van ten minutes later. The warehouse looked perfectly normal, a huge brown sepulcher of stone and brick. The fire was already alive inside it.

We sat and waited to watch the fire in the van. It was my last night.

I can understand why fires draw such big crowds. Even at three in the morning, a crowd that would fill four concert halls gathered outside the police barricades. This was the biggest fire most of them have ever seen—bigger than a campfire, less spread out than a brush fire. All that flame in one place was like looking into part of the sun. They saw an impossible furnace that could consume anything. On the sun, even water is fuel. As horrible as it is, fire is the source of light, heat, and life.

 People will stop whatever else they are doing to watch a fire. Madly in love and in the throes of devotion? Wait, there’s a fire. Furious and on the verge of murderous intent? It can wait; there’s a fire. On the way to work, or a birthday party, or grandmother’s funeral. Can’t you see there’s a fire? Let’s stop and watch. Just set a warehouse ablaze to conceal the theft of forty seven million dollars of art? Even we stopped for a moment and joined the crowd.

 To be honest, Willi’s handiwork was worthy of admiration. While Carlo, Ben, and I broke into the storage lockers, Willi turned the building against itself. By the time we had collected what we came for, the first tongues of flame had converted wood, wire, and plaster from innocent structure to experienced fuel. Willie said, “After a minute anything is possible. After five minutes, everything is inevitable.” He pointed to an unignited corner of the building and quietly said, “Watch.” And so we watched. It was better than a Zambelli show.

 The flames poured up the side of the building between Main Street and the Schuylkill River in Manayunk. Under the cloudless night sky the conflagration looked like a negative image of the day. The worn stone of the warehouse that years of sun and soot and car exhaust had worn to a dull brown was nearly ebony. The shadows cast by afternoon clouds were now bright patches of flame.

 The streets brimmed with noise. Super-amplified emergency radios blared garbled commands. Diesel engines of the fire trucks churned fuel into the electricity that powered a hundred spotlights and the pumps that redirect the flow of water to the net of hoses surrounding the burning building. Klaxons sounded as new men joined the fight. The building grunted and groaned as its guts shifted, resettled, and gave way.

 Worse than the noise was the stink. It smelled like the worst barbecue ever. Imagine your idiot uncle inviting you to an evening of recycled tire briquettes and cretonne-soaked shoe steaks. For days after the fire no flavor of good food will penetrate the residue left in your nose or on the back of your throat. I would rather kiss a fly.

 Willi once asked, “How would you do it?” I told him that I would probably slosh gasoline all over the place, throw a match and run. He shook his head and laughed. “Everything is fuel,” he said; this was his mantra. Willi could walk into a building with nothing—no matches, no tools—and leave it smoldering. Of course, while we were worrying about where the art was kept, and how long it would be in storage, Willi went over building plans with an inspector’s nervous eye for details. Old sprinkler systems, termite damage, air conditioning that only cooled the office spaces, little escaped Willi’s attention. In spite of the obvious damage, no one ever died in one of Willi’s fires.

 “It’ll be out in 20 minutes, half hour tops,” he said. When was he wrong?

Carlo gestured toward the van, to nudge us away. Benjamin wasn’t having any of it, “I like watching the fire.” Sure, Carlo was the boss, Benjamin could pick up a car—in a previous life he probably had been a car. So Carlo just shrugged and walked to the van by himself. After five minutes Willi touched Benjamin on the arm, and gently led him away. It wouldn’t do to keep Carlo waiting.

As we walked to the van, Willi asked, “Can you give this up?”

What did I know? I was twenty-eight years old, and I had never had what anyone could call a steady job. After graduating from college my resume was a Swiss cheese of retail and food service jobs. It was work that I could leave at a moment’s notice and work that I could find again just as easily. I knew more about art and appraisal and conservation than anyone with an MFA or PhD would ever have. One night in Boston, I had my cheek pushed into the impasto of a Rubens. Carlo thought he heard someone walking behind us and pressed us both up against the yellowing bosom of some semi-deity. Sure, put that in a résumé.

I didn’t want to grow into an old thief. Every so often we would meet men that had worked with Carlo in the past, and Carlo never introduced them, and the men always slinked away like sinners from a church. And I did not want to become like the men whose lives were defined by theft. The truth is that we met plenty of thieves and almost all of them were young and stupid. They sat at bars and tables at restaurants talking too loudly about what they have done. At least half of what they said was lies, which only made the truth seem worse. Even Benjamin, whose size and strength were his simple dual assets, looked at these buffoons and said, “Maybe I’m too dumb to know better, but those guys should shut up.”

They had grown numb to the rest of the world. They had forgotten that the rules that all the so-called rubes and suckers followed made our lives possible. Without limits anyone could be a thief, and what we did would be neither prized nor profitable. All they could think of was how different they were, how free. But they weren’t. They could only live in the shadowy other world they, we, created. They would never see themselves as part of the larger world.

Even the men I worked with and admired lived this way. When Willi looked at buildings, all he saw was fires. Benjamin gauged the world in weights and balances. And even though Carlo managed to be charming about what he did, he was like Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley. And like Stanton Carlisle, the fall was coming; it was just a matter of time. It could happen in a year, or in twenty. Carlo wasn’t like one of Willi’s fires. No one knew when his time would end.

I wasn’t sure how I was becoming like them, but I did feel sure, after only a few years, that I had lost some sense of a happy vision of the world that was unencumbered by dark possibility. I loved what I did. I was thrilled by illicit acquisition and by the secrets of my life, and I knew I would miss it. I told Willi the only truth I could remember, “Yes.”

I wasn’t ready for the moment when we got to the van and Carlo waited outside, holding a long cardboard tube. “These, I believe, are yours,” he said. He got back into the van with Willi and Benjamin, and rolled down the window. “Go home, Sarah Proctor. Go home and never come back.” The van headed into the city and I stood on the curb with two paintings worth millions of dollars in my hands. I could never sell them, I already knew I would be too scared to show them to anyone, and the life that had christened my adulthood was over.

A little advice

I hate giving advice, or being in a position to even begin to seem like an authority. This is due, in large part, to the fact that every vestige of what little wisdom I may have is either so narrowly circumscribed by my experience as to be entirely personal and inapplicable to anyone else, or it is bound into volumes or displayed on walls or growing in plain sight, that it all could just as easily be read or seen or visited by anyone, and therefore I am just repeating what already exists. I mean, really, I can’t tell you anything about the Grand Canyon, or Jackson Pollock’s Number One, or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that you couldn’t get on your own. And all the business about sailing, or my divorce, or the way my heart was broken or buoyed by human contact, well, that’s all extravagant navel gazing. Or, if it’s any good, it’s good because it praises the world I have experienced.

A friend of mine once told me (and granted, we were in the middle of a disagreement that threatened to end our friendship, so like all things spoken in heat, I try (and fail) to take it in that light) that I needed people to agree with me. The truth is that 90% of the time when I make what seems like a definitive statement about anything, my shock-proof shit detector blares a secret (oh, I hope it’s secret) claxon. It’s going off right now. Whenever I write, I write through the deafening din. I already know that what I say, or what I write is so riddled with exceptions that each word would take a page, or a tome of footnotes and commentary.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s 2005 “This Is Water” commencement address from Kenyon, and what I notice most is his reluctance to declare.  It’s not this platitude, or this story, or that cliché, which is what all advice feels like it about to disintegrate into—just another fragment of bullshit masquerading as wisdom.  Welcome to the world of Polonious, sending Laertes off with the skin and no pith. Go ahead and utter, “To thy own self be true” without knowing the source and the final awful result. Say good bye to Denmark. Say good bye to the best and brightest.  Here comes history.

I once told my friend, Brian Clements, that the only point of criticism—and what, after all is criticism than a kind of advice, either to the artist (do this, don’t do that), or to the audience (see this, avoid seeing that)—was to praise, that everything else was ego masquerading as wit. Did I really say that? Maybe.  I still believe this. (Quick, check the reams of footnotes). The only art that I ever feel called on to lambaste, is art that fails to find some piece of life and hold it up for glory. And I will go to stunning lengths to find that one moment in any work of art that meets Rilke’s charge: “Praise this world.”  And when I say “art,” I’ll admit it, I mean the intentional product of a life lived with purpose to produce something that praises the world.  And that could be a poem, a sculpture, a taco, a roadbed, a length of  rope. A free throw. A beautifully struck return in tennis. An incisively spoken line in a play. A carefully chosen word to comfort a child, or anyone.  Anything done with intention to praise this world and raise it up.

And if anything, these little slices of my mind, are not so much advice, as reminders, and I think we need reminding, to pay attention to all that is praiseworthy and to hold it high. “Pay attention” is what DFW told the graduates at Kenyon in 2005, and I wish that someone had reminded him every day about the impossible and sometimes ineffable worthiness of praise. Pay attention to that too, big fella. And I know when I write these, I am, in fact, reminding myself as well as you, because it is not easy.  It’s just worth it.




Life Among the Raindrops

This morning light grey clouds cover the sky. The high blue sky of yesterday might be somewhere above, but no gaps appear this morning. It feels as if the roof has been lowered to a space only a short way above my head. Walking into work feels like walking through air that was only a shade less thick than water. And then the rain begins.

When caught in the rain, people walk with their shoulders hunched down and their heads bowed. Their pace slows. I feel it too, the reflexive inward pull against the precipitation. If I can just make myself smaller, I will not get as wet. Still, I do get wet. Sometimes lightly moistened, sometimes soaked. Until I get to my car, where my umbrella waits in the trunk, rain will get me no matter what I do.

When I sailed, rain could last for days. We would sit in the cockpit in our two man watches and just take it. Even in weather gear, water finds a way right down to your skin. After six or fifty six hours of rain, you just become swollen. Your fingernails soften. Then the calluses on your heels peel away. It’s only a matter of time before the bones in your face melt into some new configuration. But at some point, and almost in spite of of your soup-ification, your shoulders unfurl from their mock-fetal crouch and you become human again. Your head rises and you scan the horizon, which is your duty anyway, so you make it as easy as it had been when you were dry. You break out of the shell of reflex and return to humantiy.

When I walk into rain now, I feel that first crimping each time. Not doing it would mark me as inhuman, and I am, if nothing else, too human. But I stretch my neck, roll my shoulders back into place, lift my chin, and stride, as I always do, into the rain. It’s just rain, I remind myself, no matter whether it is a sprinkle or a torrent. It’s just water.

And I think, if this is how my body responds to a temporary inconvenience, what must my mind be doing in this moment? How many things are like the rain in my mind, causing me to shorten my sight, draw inward, become less than what I am? Bernie Sanders is making a case about the impact of living pay check to pay check–surely, this is like walking in the rain. Or of the impact of making less money for the same day’s work. Or of having to think about whether you will be stopped or shot at because of the color of your skin, or the color of your uniform. Imagine what it must be like to feel as if there was a steady insistent mental rain falling on your shoulders.

A few years ago, I had to explain what depression felt like to my daughter. A friend of ours had committed suicide after struggling with depression. I told my daughter that our friend couldn’t see any other possibility. I took a magazine and rolled it into a tube and said, “This was all she could see.” I imagine that the experience of mental rain causes us to limit our vision, forcing our gaze, if only by reflex, to the puddles in front of our feet, (Don’t step in this one, that one, this one), until all the world is puddle and all our shoes are ruined and there is no place to put our feet down dry.

We live among the raindrops. I can say this, not living in Seattle, where the steady rain can threaten to wash even the green from the morning. I can say this because I can look at forecasts that have sun just a few days away. I can say this because I can remember when the rain started. And so I do say it, and I do look up, and my vision can distinguish the drops as they fall—small beads of water spun around motes of dust. And I do look up, and into the faces that I meet, and we are here, together, in the rain, just as we are together in the sun. And I look up and see the water between us, like a connect-the-dots page in three dimensions, extending as far as there is rain.

Lascivious Grace

I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright’s recent album based on Nine Sonnets by Shakespeare, Take All My Loves, and especially the title song, which is a performance of Sonnet 40,  over and over again.  Maybe it’s just because it’s new, and maybe because it’s the season of forgiveness.  But, what the hell, that’s every season.  This is going to get a little academic, so forgive me a little (maybe more).

Sonnet 40

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all
What hast thou then, more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call–
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed if thou thy self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes.

I suppose that as one goes through the stages of grief, this little meditation would be filed under the heading, “negotiation”: a lot of talk to put the broken world back together. Usually the trick with negotiation is that it takes two willing parties.  No one can be convinced to sit at the table and trade ideas and feelings in order to hammer out some kind of understanding.  Except, and this is what is most interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure with whom the speaker is actually negotiating. Let’s sort this out.

First, there is the problem of “love,” which appears ten times in the poem (a big deal, even for, hell, especially for WS). The first “love” is the loves which have been, or will be taken.  This may include some romantic partner of the speaker, but it also includes the speaker’s actual love and fellowship with the ill-behaving friend.  Take ‘em all, “my love”—the second “love” and this is the friend who has done the taking.  “No love”—the third—refers to any sort of love that his friend (“my love”—fourth) has never been able to call true, except for the speaker’s love (five), which, we suspect, was always true.  Look, the speaker says, if you (my friend) took my love (six, and now this one love may be the mistress) as a sign of my love (seven) for you, then go ahead, take her even if she is my love (eight). Unless, and this matters, unless you are refusing my actual love for you.  This is some kind of fraternal code: our friendship trumps romance.  The last two loves operate in this system. The speaker may be angry, even to the point of hate, but knows that hate will only cause a deeper, and finally self-inflicted injury.

But what about that final couplet?  “Lascivious grace”? Grace is easy: an echo of god’s grace–the kind of overwhelming forgiveness for which any gentle thief, or worse, could hope. But lascivious? The word shows up In Richard III during the “Winter of our discontent” soliloquy, when Richard imagines fell purpose converted to the “lascivious pleasing of a lute,” (which would be a euphemism, though I have never before or since heard a woman’s genitals referred to as a lute), and in Othello when Iago characterizes Othello as a “lascivious Moor,” which had simple direct (and still, sadly) racial overtones. So, why is grace lascivious?  What makes forgiveness wanton?

Pause a moment. Shakespeare writes that forgiveness is profligate and promiscuous. That’s what lascivious grace means. It’s like some half drunk handsome frat boy who is so in love with the world that he gets arrested in the town square for shouting, “I love this world!” at 3 am. Grace is the woman that class and status conscious coeds whisper about, except that there is no slut-shaming this confident, fully self-possessed being. In fact, she gets elected class president, or starts a revolution. There’s no stopping grace: grace shows all ill well.  That’s all, not some, not the ones that only bug me a little.  ALL. Kill. Me.

When the speaker breaks down to “Kill me with spites,” he’s talking back to grace.  Grace and the speaker must not be foes—and that is the negotiation.  Well, it’s hardly a negotiation. Grace, you will forgive anyone, even my wretched awful friend who slept with my girl, and then, you will drive me to find a way to that forgiveness. You will throw love back in my face; reminding me that if I am going to have any ground to stand on with true love, I am going to have to go all in, equal to the big love with all its unbounded implications. Kill me.

And that’s the rub with being a universalist.  You don’t get to turn away from this charge.  Yes, I’m me, and me matters, but there’s love too, and, like it or not, love matters more. Get off the mat, poet, and get back in there and find a way.  Grace is what gives you the vision, now hold up your end of the bargain and love (and forgive).  Who said it was going to be easy?


I bear failure hard. Oh, I have failed. I was, in my youth, an indifferent student, charging at subjects without a plan, relying on passion and interest in lieu of anything like a well documented approach. I memorized the rules for genetics in a single bound, and then wrote rambling half-baked essays about stained glass. I did half well, bouncing between A’s and B’s, some C’s (and that fail in Astronomy—learning a new (to me) science takes a plan). I didn’t care, not a whit. I just kept at it—this is what students are supposed to do.

And the failures that struck me weren’t moral failings either. I stole chocolate bars at the local A&P as a child. I lurked near the registers, pilfered, and then hid beneath tables topped with produce to eat my plunder: Hershey Bars with Almonds. I broke speed limits with teenage abandon. There were indiscretions. Mistakes were made.

What haunted me, what haunts me, and what will always haunt me with stinging clarity, are failings of kindness: cruelties small and large. There was an occasion on the steps to a building at school when I jeered at a young man to hurry up, that he was holding all of us other bright young men up. Turns out he was handicapped and struggling up the stairs with crutches. I never forget that. I have shouted “I hate you” or “I fucking hate you” in a fight with someone I love. I can barely tolerate my myriad failures as a father. The failings for which I pillory myself most are moored entirely in the realm of personal relationships.

Only later in life, in my twenties, when my work became a significant aspect of my personal life, when I stopped trying on the clothes of being a writer and admitted to myself that no matter what I wore, the wild seed hadn’t drifted in from someplace else, but had grown within me as I grew, down in my mitochondria and through each of my stupid and recalcitrant cells, did failure take its most pernicious and debilitating effects on me. Suddenly failure—and by this I mean anything from red pencil marks in the margins to more general criticisms—became not simply a matter of getting the words right, or getting the tone right, or getting the story right, but of getting my bones right, getting my mind right, or worse, getting my relationship with the world right. I, misfit first born child, whose experiences indicated that I had what could only be a terminal relationship with the human race, now had irrevocable proof that the condition was as I had always suspected. Not only was I broken, I was bad. And so I retreated from the site of failure.

For years—nearly twenty—after the first formal flowering of my craft, and first awful awareness of my failure, I struggled to write. I began things in fits and starts. Nothing felt good enough or smart enough or resonant enough to continue. And because of this I struggled to feel good enough to continue at anything. Failure, genuine existential failure, was now something that lurked in the water with razor teeth and insatiable hunger. I was more often sad and isolated than ebullient. I felt guilty and impoverished. I threw myself into and out of jobs. I overburdened and under-burdened my personal relationships—both equal paths to doom. All the while I remembered that I was not doing what I should be doing: should be—the great unwritten scourge, the single invisible flail.

So I was wrong. You who are wiser than me know this already. As I thrashed about, I found other places to succeed. I am a fair teacher. I am an enthusiastic advocate for faith development in children and adults at my church. I Pied-Piper pretty well. I learned, and learn to be a better father. I have accepted the mantle of divorced dad, and do a decent job as a co-parent. I have accepted the hard lessons of knowing my limitations as a person and as a man, and have acknowledged (to myself at least, and now, begrudgingly, but perhaps not begrudgingly enough, to you) that I have needs to which I must attend, and that I ignore at my own peril.

I learned to fail, and in failing, to succeed. The lessons were always there, I just did not see them. I can blame my eyes, blame my genes, blame my upbringing, but what is the point of that? Do some therapy, figure it out, and get on with the work ahead, because there is always work ahead. I forgot and forgave—myself and others. I welcomed a bright presence into my life. And I remembered that I loved stories, true stories, made up stories. I told them—other people’s stories at first, then, slowly my stories. And I found my way.

And I write these short notes. I started them when I felt that I had a story to tell, when I went to China to bring a daughter home. And I continued—and continue—them as I pace my back to the work. I share them with a small and generous audience, shaking off the Cerberus of fear: ego (what right do I have to say these things?); failure (what if I get it all wrong?); and doubt (what difference will this make to anyone?). I write them for you and I write them for me. Finding my way back and setting out lights. This way. Now.

On Being Known

IMG_2982Is there anything worse than being mis-known? Than someone making a claim about how you feel or think that has almost nothing to do with your actual thoughts or feelings? I remember an occasion after one of our Thursday night poker games in Binghamton when some poor soul ventured that no matter what I said, he knew that what I felt in my heart was different. I don’t even remember what we were discussing—maybe Moby Dick. My friend Brian looked at me at that moment, acknowledging the serious breach that had been made.

And of course, there are worse things—1,000 worse things involving the obliteration of the physical being. However, our ability to say, “This is who I am”—to define our mental and spiritual being (which exists fully in concert with our physical selves), is of tantamount importance, especially in a world in which our physical beings are fairly secure. We are privileged to be able to assert this side of our being. But even when chained, we need this self. Both must be unbound.

For the most part, and it almost hurts to admit this, I do not expect to be known in the world. I rarely put the full force of who I am and what I think and how I feel on display. My writing, and these blog posts over the past few years are a first step. But, whether it is a function of the way people know each other, or the fact that, over the years, I have learned to restrain myself in order to fulfill specific tasks in the world, I no longer expect to be fully known. I feel sometimes caught between the poles of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the bounty of Whitman’s Song of Myself—either worrying about being misapprehended, or standing in a field of grass beckoning “Here I am! Here we are!”

The Eliot pole—and he is not holding Prufrock out as an exemplar, but as a warning—burdens me with the sagging weight of doubt that any connection is ever possible. Even the sirens will pass me by. I feel, at times, profoundly sad that anyone, really, ever knows another. This suspicion is tied up in the gnawing Weltschmerz that descends upon me and sends me reeling into the worst and most stupid kind of isolation. When so gripped, I guard myself with cynicism or sarcasm. But those moments are my worst, never my best. They are too easy.

The Whitman pole buoys me. The contradictions don’t matter; in fact, they are an essential part of me, and the world, the great breathing, aching, loving, ecstatic, terrible world surges through me and restores me. My “I” ceases to matter. I become a vessel for a song made up of all the voices of all the things and all the people. I tend toward those voices with ferocity and devotion. Bring it on! “The dancing wagon has come! here is the dancing wagon!”

However, and here is the rub–I am too full of contradictions, too connected to a world outside myself. I feel afloat in a world that values certainty and consistency. Most people seem to seek firmer ground, to limit voices of dissent. I don’t know why, not exactly, not when we are beings of such profoundly possible connection. I have “everything” tattooed around my right ankle. Then I remember Prufrock. Do people live with such doubt? Do they never explore and expand to meet the world like lovers, ready to be torn to shreds and remade by love. Damnit all. Go!

Maybe we are never sure, never sure enough, and especially not in the presence of love. I know that my greatest struggles with being known have come in the presence of more singular love, when there is one person who must bear the shaking I experience between the poles, and then must love the contradictory, magnanimous, possible heart I carry deep inside. And perhaps this is asking too much of one person to be the secret sharer of this heart. I feel difficult, even to myself, and am not sure whether I am knowable or lovable on my own terms, not in a one-on-one kind of way. Maybe the way I am precludes this. Maybe I am best known facet by facet, and not all at once. I am fifty five years old; time passes, slowly and quickly.

Still, I hear the voices, and sing the songs, and cherish the world that is always there, no matter how great the hardship, no matter how awful or wonderful. And I chose, for better or for worse, to write, to scribble down thoughts and ideas and images and characters and stories all in the hope that they would come alive in some stranger’s mind. I do not sing this world to the angel, unless the angel is you, unless we are all, already, angels.

And in some small and not small way, the hope of being known—asserting myself—seems almost like a betrayal of my charge. Sing the world, you man. Give it up! Disappear! You will never disappear! Keep singing. Keep telling stories. Keep connecting. Know the world and love the world.  Find yourself there.


Villains and Stories


In a certain kind of writing, picking out villains is simple.  Whether they wear an iconic black hat, or kick small animals, they make themselves known in a way eases the reader into a comfortable understanding of the world.  These days lesser writing simply overturns the conventions: white hat—bad guy! (Surpirse!).  Better writing muddies that understanding: the villain acts out of sincerely felt good intentions (hence the road to hell), and in such a way that we can sympathize (if fleetingly, or longer) with their motivations.  When we pillory these bad actors we do so gently; after all, we could just as easily be in their spot.

Real life is the sticking point.  I’ll admit that I read to find out about and reflect on life.  Writing, after all, is easier to understand than life.  Life, with all its fits and starts, resists narrative cohesion. Beginnings do not always lead to middles or ends.  The setting often has nothing to do with the plot.  And the plot is repetitive and makes no sense. I hazard to suggest that we build stories as a bulwark against the confusion and chaos of life.  Stories narrow our focus and create a framework for understanding the world.

As we meet people, we turn them into characters that either fit or do not fit into the long standing master plots of our lives.  Someone who disrupts that story risks becoming a villain—or in rare occasions, a hero—but chances are that our daily heroes are those people we encounter who affirm the story we have told ourselves, who give us comfort in what we already know.

And in all this, I wonder whether we are ever the actual authors of our life stories, or whether they simply accrue around us in response to the life that happens. Most of us inherit a story  before we even begin our own.  When Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives,” I think he was pointing to this phenomenon.  We (privileged) Americans hold the truth of our freedom so closely, that we fail to grapple with the fundamental lack of self-determination in our most essential stories.  We swallow those stories whole and they become an inexorable and unexamined part of who we see ourselves to be. Without a chance to address, let alone to change that story, we get stuck in a first act that repeats and repeats and repeats.  The second act is the place for a turn and a change; resolution comes in the third.

When I think about the villains in my work, my writing, I know I need them to maintain some kind of conflict.  They are the “B” to the protagonists’ “A.”  But in the need to create something like verisimilitude, such easy binary relationships seem false.  I can’t help but think about how the stories of “A” and the stories of “B” surround them like straitjackets, and how they either wriggle free or remain obstinately stuck inside.  And for me, that is the true definition of a villain—a character who refuses to escape the boundaries of one story, even if it’s a really good story.

I think of David Copperfield, who begins the narration of his story with, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Spoiler alert, David becomes the villain, but is entirely unaware of this horrible fact—or almost, he leaves a trail of bodies and breadcrumbs obvious enough to belie his eventual rise.  His story is powerful and uplifting, and not a little inspiring.  But the “upward” at the end of the novel speaks as much to his class aspirations and a justification of all that has happened around him on his road to success.

Of course this also has something to do with my life.  How can it not?  I have wrestled with the stories that surrounded me since I was young.  I have tried on one story after another like the ficklest of shoppers at an all-day sale.  Some I have worn long and others dismissed quickly. I am drawn to those who have deeply certain stories and devastated by their lack of room for my uncertainty.

I am a tailor of stories, and an escape artist, busily making one while I wriggle out of another.  The contradiction makes me and destroys me. And then makes me again and again and again.



I gave a quick talk to my congregation about Beltane this past Sunday and it felt awful.  I hope it did not seem that way to the people who heard it. I talked about the beginning of summer and moving the cattle to the summer pastures, and, glancingly, about animal generation as opposed to vegetable generation.  I commented that our animal lives need more intentional tending, and then connected the whole spiel to what kinds of things the kids (and congregation) do intentionally to help their households and the church.  We are, after all, in pledge season.

But this absolutely failed to address the deeper meanings and possibilities that Beltane has for me. I tend to see religion and spirituality in their most metaphoric values. Man, as meaning maker, defines the unknown (and even the known) world with stories; I am supremely interested in those stories.

As a story, Beltane contains so much that is vital.  It is driven by agriculture and animal husbandry. Half way—kind of—between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, after the planting season has finished its first great stage and the buds have either burst, or are about to burst, the cattle is sent to the summer pastures.  Unlike plants, animals require direct contact to generate; no bees act as romantic intermediaries. Just as seeds would be blessed before going into the earth, the flocks received blessings on their way to the fields—so much relied on the herd and its health.

Beltane was not simply about cattle.  At its heart, and as it is celebrated now, it marks the joining of the goddess and the god—of nature and man.  Human generation was equally essential. Infant and maternal mortality rates were staggering.  Fertility was a bulwark against decimation and disappearance.

In Matthew, Jesus Christ counsels, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” Nature, as opposed to agriculture, finds its own way. It is, if you will, in some god or goddess’ hands. Life waxes and wanes in (sometimes perilous) balance, but it is a balance that existed before us and without us.  When we began to organize the world to suit our needs, it behooved us to learn nature’s rhythms. Nowadays with food produced on demand and infant and maternal mortality rates reduced to be exceptionally and not ordinarily tragic, nature’s rhythms seem more distant. We can live as we please.  “Can live,” of course is different from how we do live.  We are caught in other less natural rhythms.

What strikes me about Beltane is the confluence of intention and nature.  Or, to put it another way, how we think about will and desire. Human sexual desire, or eros, if you wish, tends to be framed as an ungovernable facet of who and what we are. It is the part of us that is most of nature.  We talk about “chemistry” between people that leads to romance, and this implies some kind of arcane, mystical experience.  Our desire for love, for children, for sex, is baked into us.  It may be influenced by those less natural rhythms (I can only be turned on by movie star beauty), but desire is not a bus that I can drive. I am a passenger.

And yet, we, as people make things—homo sapiens, and homo faber.  We think.  We make. And making takes will and intention.  It seems to me that we fall back on inspiration—crediting our ideas to a muse or providence or some other source—rather than staking a claim to our own will.  “Rage–Goddess, sing the rage” begins my copy of Homer’s Iliad.  The goddess provided the song, and then like an amanuensis Homer put her will onto the page. Even Rilke’s” rope-maker in Rome” must have some ancient idea of rope, “formed over generations” that guides her hands.

Isn’t there something wild in creation, in making, too?  Isn’t there some aspect of it that is more closely (if, at times a bit mechanically) connected to eros?

I first learned of Beltane what seems like a million years ago, when reading George Frazier’s The Golden Bough (driven there by an interest in understanding Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; go figure, I was a movie nerd). I conflated Beltane and Bloomsday when I read Ulysses (there’s a paper to be written somewhere in all that), and made even more use of those ideas when I read Finnegan’s Wake. I am not the only one who has linked Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival with Beltane.  So I became more than a movie nerd.

Still, what always bothered me was the ritual, and the programmatic nature of the one day (Mardi Gras, Purim, Beltane, Bloomsday) that was meant to somehow contain the generative energy that the ritual pointed to.  It almost always felt that the ritual existed to cordon off all that energy to one safely wild day—or a week, in the case of something like Burning Man.  And I understand that, even if I don’t like it, because who can live with wildness every day?  Who can make love with the kind of reckless abandon that honors the goddess every single time? Who can tap into the discordant creative chaos of the subconscious each time he or she picks up a pencil, a palette knife, or a paint brush? Who would set himself on fire, over and over again, only to return, each time, more brilliant and more ready, once again, for the flame?

It’s just not a way to live, unless one has decided that it’s the only way to live.