Everything

There is an apocryphal story about Tolstoy and War and Peace. After receiving the galleys from his publisher, he checked them over, made corrections, and sent them, via courier, back to the publisher. Days later, he was out for a walk, and he cried, “The yacht race! The yacht race!” He had forgotten—as if anything could be forgotten in that encyclopedic novel—a scene that included a yacht race.

Novelists tell each other that story as a means of warning that everything—no matter what—in your mind while you are writing a novel, should go in that novel. Everything. Leave nothing out. Don’t start on another book. Everything now, in this one.

This conception of the novel: book as compendium, the thousand footed beast, as Tom Wolfe called it; has drifted in and out of vogue as writers tried more minimalist work, or work that focused on voice and character as carefully as a short story or novella. Most of my favorite authors: Joyce, Dickens, Marquez, Barth, Chabon; write rampaging maximalist novels that include golems, magnets, dinosaurs, computer-spawned heroes, newspaper headlines, thunderclaps, and the end of the world. It’s easy to think of their novels as rather shaggy, and that is part of their charm, and they wear their shag into the world.

The other side of the spectrum, while still not minimalist, contains James, Faulkner, and Woolf, who delve into the shaggy and unconstructed inner workings of their characters. They are shaggy insofar as they contradict themselves: at one moment feeling free and the next utterly constrained.

All the well. This is incredibly short handed analysis of these writers’ works. But it will have to do. I’m in a hurry.

Right now, and for the past two months, I have been at work on a novel, and I have been scribbling madly at this blog. I’m clearly violating the dictum of “Everything!” I can admit that many of the ideas in these blog posts have emanated from my fiction work. And the other way around. I find the jumping between one form and the other exhilarating and edifying. These non-fiction pieces give me time to puzzle through ideas before they end up in the fiction. Or I can chase down a mad hare that has run out of the novel here in the blog. Of course, sometimes, like when traveling to London, the blog is just a kind of public journal.

To be honest, everything, all of these thoughts, have, in one way or another, ended up in the novel. So far. Even London. Even the ideas about love. Everything. And although there is a story (oh, is there), it is like a snowball rolling down a hillside, picking up branches, mittens, and stray bits of dirt as it careens to the bottom. Even now, this.

Everything.

London Again

Think of London, a small city
It’s dark, dark in the daytime
The people sleep, sleep in the daytime
If they want to, if they want to

Cities, The Talking Heads

The sun rose at 8:04 am in London on the shortest day of the year. It set at 3:53 pm. A shorter day than Fort Fairfield in northern Maine. Add clouds and rain, and the day seems shorter. Is it any wonder that people on their ways home from work find their way into pubs lit with fireplaces? Our days in London were marginally longer, and after walking through the city each afternoon, we found our way to a pub. The Paternoster, The Old Red Lion, Punch and Judy’s, The Swan, Lady Abercorn’s, The George. Some of these were easy to find, others required a turn down a slender lane. Each was bustling.

The charm of London is found in its strange alleyways, endlessly curled streets, and tucked away history. If there is a grid, and in some way, there is, it is bent around the past and the ox bow turns of the Thames, and everything attached to it has been attached in a haphazard fashion. For instance, the coagulation of insurance buildings in central London: the gherkin, the cheese-grater, the scalpel, and the inside-out building; defy any sense of a rational aesthetic plan. Or the juxtaposition of the Tower on one side of the Thames and the glass pineapple of the City Hall just across the river.

I have wandered down the narrow canyons of New York City, through low slung neighborhoods in San Francisco, across broad avenues in Chicago, in and out of fish stalls in Seattle. Even my home city, Philadelphia, built as it once was, on squares, in spite of the Schuylkill river turning into the Delaware, and the oddly oblong expanse of Fairmount Park, makes easy sense. Get oriented and go. London seems to double back on itself, and in doing so, has folds and torn edges through which a body can slip out of any regular order.

And so London’s history is oddly folded into the cityscape as well. A tour through the city—you cannot tour the whole city, or tour it on a bus; you must walk it—folds two thousand years of history, creased around a Roman occupation, a French conquest in 1066, and a fire that destroyed 80% of the city in 1666. And the city is just the square mile that had been walled and gated, but is now open and underlaced with a rail system that carries you quickly to nearly every point beyond the old wall.

The people who live there are folded too. The streets are packed with diverse faces—a variety of eyes and ears and cheeks and chins that make them all different, and so different from the faces in American cities—and sounds. Their voices carry languages from Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which are easy (and relatively cheap) to get to, even from this island nation. It is as if a map of the world has been folded and brought all these people here. Scarves are the only nearly universal banner, and men tie theirs tightly around their necks. Women walk down streets in shoes ill made for walking—but that is, sadly more universal than naught.

There is an orderliness to the whole affair. Announcements in the Underground direct people where to walk down hallways and on escalators. Advertisements along the walls of the stations counsel caution with wallets and and advise care with alcohol. “Mind the Gap” is stenciled on the ground where the trains stop, and cheeky announcers corral riders whose fancy Italian made shoes have strayed over the yellow safety line. Cross walks show a green walker when it’s time to cross—around Trafalgar Square the walkers take on a variety of LGBT friendly forms: couples and symbols. Just remember to cross when the green light comes!

In so many ways, walking through London was like walking through my mind–folded and full of associations and reveries. My fellow traveler asked what surprised me most, and I answered, nothing. Of course, the fact of a place like London is a surprise all by itself. Are there more surprises to come, more cities to inhabit, that will fill my mind with visions—or somehow, match my visions? Yes. And, yes.

London Thoughts

History is a story of discontinuous events—events that collide like weather systems or galaxies, having barely understood origins, and even less decipherable records. All the witnesses were destroyed in the collision. What they saw, what they thought, and what they felt—even if they recorded their observations on stone, paper, steel, or silicone, have been destroyed along with them. We are living in the age of delusion, in which we believe in the sanctity of our recorded history—either self-scribbled or captured by another.

This thought is brought about by two things. First, wandering, quickly—this time—through the British Museum (or Westminster Cathedral, or almost anything else in London), what becomes painfully obvious are the gaps. All these artifacts, so painstakingly arranged create an idea that history is continuous, and has flowed in a linear pattern. And then a closer inspection shows that over and over again, things haven’t come that way. There are sudden breaks in history, when entire empires vanish, or when they change—seemingly overnight—religions, or methods of governance, or technologies, and the old gets swept away, almost as if it was a betrayal of the new.

England as it shifts back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism bears these marks hard. Or, reading through the story of Ashurbanipal and the claims of glory made by this king reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Thinking of history reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium—evolution proceeding in long quiet periods of little change, and then having sudden outbursts of change. I know, we are taught that slow and steady wins the race, but, we are also taught to believe in the nature of story as an overarching “way things are.” We see things through that frame, and it doesn’t always support the picture inside—or outside—the frame.

Second, in the musical Hamilton (which was also part of this trip to London), the character of George Washington warns Hamilton that we do not control who writes our stories. He’s telling this to a man who believes in his power to literally write his own story—and to use his words to cement his reality. He can’t—and doesn’t. His wife, Eliza, sends his legacy forward—and Lin Manuel Miranda brings us her legacy. But, as Miranda admits in interviews, even this moment for Hamilton—and therefore, for him as well—is provisional and subject to changing tastes and critical opinion.

Does everything disappear? No. There are 2000 year old Roman walls in London. But Rome? Everything can disappear. And we will tell stories that soften the loss.

I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, what I am doing when I write: whose story I am writing? It isn’t my story. Of course it’s my story–as if it could be anything else. Nonetheless, as I write about characters who are 5000 years old–older in some cases–I think about history, because they think about history. How can they not? How can any of us not? It is everywhere–in the streets, and in the faces, here in London.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

Mothering and Nostalgia

A current meme on Facebook compares what Moms used to say to their kids with what they say now. It is held up as a clarion call to the virtues of yesteryear, when Moms—and their kids—knew what was what. Over and over again, stuff (stuff) like this careens around the internet, in casual banter on news shows, in conversations in my workplaces. Those of us who grew up in the mythical “then” look back with nostalgia, and look at this moment with a jocular disdain. I would like to call “bullshit” on the whole enterprise.

I don’t now what your mother was like. If she was anything like mine, there were highs and lows. My mother stayed at home with my brothers and me. She bowled in a league. Went shopping. Had bridge parties. Took tennis lessons. She was a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, and took us to the Devault Meat Packing Plant, among other places. Her sons were a handful. She scurried us out at a reasonable time in the morning, set out lunch when it was time, and made dinner for the family. She made us Batman capes for Easter one year; she sewed. I remember her stitching up an injury to one of our cats.

Was she happy? Her happiness was never an issue for us. Nor was our happiness overly attended to. We all were content, which, to my gimlet eye, is a horse of a different color. It was only later, some 13-14 years after I was born that she began to explore art, and then took on the work of a painter, and artist. If she found genuine and durable happiness, it was in that work—and the work of making art is not about easy delight, or even contentment (so says her son, the writer).

My mother did what she thought and felt was right. She learned her lessons from her mother and family—and what lessons they were. Some things, she changed. She never leashed us to trees in the front yard. Others were more indelible. I am certain that most of us parent in the same way—sifting through the conscious and unconscious lessons that we received from our parents. What we do, we do almost on a kind of autopilot—in the heat of the moment, dumb memory takes over. Change is hard.

I cannot and will not say that my childhood was perfect. I can recall exceptional moments on both sides of the ledger. Making a judgment seems beside the point. Here I am now, and I go on. There’s a ton of privilege built into that statement, and I fully recognize exactly how fortunate I am to be where I am, and to have traveled to this point in my life. The choices I can make now—and the way I make those choices—are predicated on the choices of my mother and father. And so on. For ages.

I guess that any time I hear someone pass judgment on another’s parenting—and mothering especially so—in that gross, if semi-benign “Look at the snowflakes” kind of way, I want to yell, “Really? Cast aspersions carefully, oh paragons of perfection!” All those old lessons about the log in your eye and casting the first stone ring out loudly for me. Those are the lessons I remember. Besides, the old joke about walking five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, gives the proper lie to ill-kept nostalgia.

Life, and mothering, are hard. No one needs anyone to chide them for the daily duties. The significant missteps require a different consideration. No more abuse, please. But keep the quibbling to a minimum. Please.

In general, and in a larger sense, I distrust nostalgia. Yes, remember, always remember, but without the haze of candy floss. At heart, I am more focused on where we are going, adapting, and learning—and in passing those lessons on. Have I failed? Indeed. I keep at it. I will fail again. So what? I keep at it. Where I came from is a starting point, but not my destination. Eyes up! Here comes life.

Comedy Tonight

So much of wit is based on shared experiences.  I know I can toss in a “Brian Clements, we love you, get up!” to my friend Brian, and he will smile that wry smile that accompanies a reference to O’Hara. Or proclaim, “Hell, I love everybody!” and he will know what I mean. If I draw my finger across my eye, we have traveled into Bunuel’s fractured mindscape. We share those images and words. I can tell my brother to “Blanket the fucking jib,” and he will know the context. My mother can call me a “Son of a Bitch,” and know the ground upon which she treads. My father would offer a “You have all done very well,” recognizing the provenance of ignorance that surrounded Mr. Grace’s signature line.

My fantasy baseball friends call themselves “lobsters” because 25 years ago, I dubbed us the “League of Blood Sucking Intellectuals,” and one of us couldn’t get “sucking” through the email filter at his job (hard to believe—hehe). So, “Lobsters” we became. One day on the golf course, while following a slow moving group of much older players, I declared that my goal in life was to grow up to become a codger, which elicited chuckles. Maybe because I was already on that road. Or maybe because the bridge to that destination had washed out long ago in my life.

I sit in plays and howl out loud at all the jokes, my laughter more obvious at the jokes no one else gets. I make jokes daily that fall on deaf ears, and that’s because my reference points are in literature and art, and no one knows my plan. If I go for slapstick, there are laughs, or pity (Dr. Brennan, we love you, get up). “Bastard,” or “Rat Bastard” will get broad smiles. Because I am a teacher, I rarely turn my barbs on anyone below me on the food chain—I rather turn myself into shark bait, and perhaps, by example, show the way from chummy ignorance to razor-toothed wisdom. That bridge too stands on uncertain pilings.

I can understand why comics aim for the gut and crotch—there is shared knowledge (fat and thin as it may be) in the bodily functions. And I get it, and laugh at it, up to a point. There is no denying that absurdity of the fleshy slap of desire, or the rumbling gurgle of gluttony. We fuck lustily. We eat heartily. We can dress both up in fantasy, but the actuality is less glorious. And more. The secret is that the middle way is stupid and tiresome. Angels or demons are the way. Humans don’t know enough.

Once upon a time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses, and realized quite quickly, that he was having a ball. My serious classmates scoured the book for meaning, and yet, a big part of the meaning was swaddled in laughter. The great play. Not for them. And so, out went the baby. I do not deny that there is something serious in that book, or that there are books and art and times that are deathly serious—all of them, in fact. But there is play, truly unconscionable and irreverent all the time.

“Dying is easy,” goes the old saw, “Comedy is hard.” Now, we hide the dying, or reverence it out of the sphere of our daily experience. Failure—even for those who practice the dictum, “Fail Harder” (they do so only to achieve a higher form of success)—is fatal, and therefore dirtier than anything else we can imagine—even dirtier than the raunchiest comic’s imagination. And, like death, inevitable. But we do fail, do fall, and do, with mud on our clothes, rise back up, not like zombies—there are plenty of those already manning the parapets—but like humans who have learned that laughter is the key to resilience. It is the joy of the second, third, fourth, and fifth acts.

We may need to banish Jack, but we also need to learn from him. And the Queen will have him back. And even if you don’t know who Jack is, or why he was banished, or which Queen requested the fat man’s return, we know. It may be hard to walk into the room, caked in mud, but given the alternative, here I go, ready to kill it. Again. “Brian Brennan, we love you, get up.”

Reading and Writing

At some point—and it happens fairly quickly—the life of an English teacher becomes more about re-reading than reading. This is a preposterous change from the life of a graduate student, when everything is reading. As a student, there may be a handful of books that one reads a twice, but those are also the books with which one spends an engaged period of time—there is an essay in the offing. If you read them twice, chances are you read them a half dozen or dozen times. By the time you start teaching, the repetition is no longer driven by your desire or directed curiosity, but by a curricular roadmap that more often than not, you have not decided.

Because of my background, my friends will often ask what I am reading, and I know that they mean, “What are you reading for the first time?” It’s a “tell me what is good” question. At this moment in my life, most of what I read, I am reading for the 7th or 8th time. Or I am reading student work. I can admit that neither fills my sails the same way that exploratory reading does. Part of the joy of exploring is not reading important books—or rather, it is discovering that the books I read were important (to me, to the world) as I read them.

There is something thrilling—yes, thrilling—in finding myself in an entirely new stream of thought, full of images and ideas that had not occurred in my mind in that specific way. I love the feeling of being in an entirely foreign mind. I brought home new avenues and new approaches to my own work from nearly every book I read as a student. And, yes, I am still a student, and I still find new ways. Early on, the novelty that most easily enchanted me was setting and plot. Novels set in strange places (Vietnam, Middle Earth, Geatland, London) and with characters who did strange things (solve crimes, fly dragons, uncover moles, turn into monsters) drew my attention and appreciation. I still appreciate a mystery, horror, or fantasy novel; Michael Chabon tethers genre to literary merit with alacrity.

But most works of literary merit tend to eschew genre elements. The strangeness is found more in how the characters think and feel, and how those thoughts and feeling serve to reveal the deeper ideas that the novel walks out into the world. The thrill comes from reading along as characters struggle with complex thoughts and feelings, and the novelist struggles to portray a world that is, more often than not, contradictory. Contradiction is the single provenance of literary fiction. Woe to the mind and heart that seeks a generously reductive answer to life’s troubles in literature. Unless one learns to love ambiguity, irony, and contradiction.

I think that the rush of all the new work I read while I was still a full time student, blunted the more mournful aspects of contradiction. As I read through libraries, it seemed as if there were a million ways to get things done. I continue to champion diversity in large part because I found comfort in the breadth of possibility. However, the habits of re-reading drive me to emphasize less possibility. This occurs because if contradiction is the provenance of literature, then what happens in the land of contradiction is too often sad. Characters are too often caught, like Odysseus, between Scylla and Charybdis—the chance of losing everything and the certainty of losing much. Where is the gain—other than hard-earned self-knowledge? Where is the dinner and conversation and new-forged friendship with people who had been, only moments ago, strangers?

I feel the loss keenly. I am dissatisfied with the too morbid outcomes that serious writers propose, and with the deathly insistence on disconnection and disappointment. And I am dissatisfied with trudging over this same ground over and over again. There must be the possibility of joy, and please, for gods’ sakes, there must be discovery. Which means new works. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger allows Seymour to give his brother, Bruno, the single best piece of writing advice—and by extension, life advice—I have ever read. It is hopeful. “Imagine the book you most want to read… Now write it.”

It is time. Finally.