Certainty, News, and the Way Ahead

I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.

Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.

Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.

I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.

I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.

I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.

It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…  it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.

Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.

Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.

During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.

This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.

Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.

Uncertainty

“You are in transition,” she said.

I had changed my life, leaving a world in which I was relatively secure and not writing. I had made walls for myself to hang paintings and prints, in which friends could visit, and my daughter could stay three nights a week. Like the song says, this was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful life. There are a thousand, no a million people who would have doggedly pursued the life they made, the life I created. I was a principal, a teacher, a program director at my church. And I felt profoundly unsatisfied.

Just recently, I finished teaching Joyce’s “The Dead.” Again. I pointed out to my students that the whole point of literature is to learn about life. In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is an English teacher; he has, for all his life, read and learned about life. And yet, when life comes at him, he fails. He is stuck—beautifully stuck if we believe that the story’s closing coda is his thought. Yet stuck he is, like the “never-to-be-forgotten Johnny” going round and round the monument of King Billy. And if the beloved Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, the deliverer of the good news, is stuck, what hope have we?

I was stuck.

I had set out on a course years before and had finally begun my way back. I had started writing—nonfiction, but words are words—and I began to reapportion my responsibilities. I left my jobs and my home.

“You are in transition,” she said; it was not a compliment.

When I think about literature, which I often do, most of the lessons are about managing change or how to change well. The ponderous chain that Scrooge girded on with his own two hands represents one form of paralysis: bondage of the heart and soul. Odysseus stuck on Calypso’s Island is a variation; the prison of our hopes and dreams can be ecstatically pleasant. In her book of poems Dream Work, Mary Oliver acknowledges the pain and weight of abuse and her need to live on despite that weight. Either we recognize “What good does it do to lie all day in the sun loving what is easy?” or we simply resort to the easy. Sometimes the weight is what is easy. Habit is like that.

Writers must have habits. In the end, no matter what we write, we must write—every day. But we must also write outside the narrow band of habit, beyond the immediate limit of what we already know. This—pushing the limits—is not true of all writers. Some work the known to great effect and profit. While I recognize the value of profit (Mr. Dickens tilled his well-worn field to fame, as have most successful authors), I come to writing as a way of discovering

I have discovered this: I must mine uncertainty. I have friends who claim that when they begin a novel, they know the last line and write toward that goal. I tried that, and it did not work for me. I tried and tried and mapped and mapped and was stymied. I lost faith and put my efforts into other work, into another life. The work was good and meaningful, as was the life. Still, I felt unfulfilled; a promise went unmet. Maybe I needed to suffer that loss (maybe) to find the spring. What good would regret do now?

Gabriel regrets. Marley regrets. Peter Walsh regrets. I had tried that too easy suit as well. I took it off.

I began without even so much as a first line. I charged in and kept going. I churned through a hundred thousand words. Not a day passed when I knew where I was going. I trusted the process. “I learned,” as Roethke wrote, “by going where I had to go.” And that’s the point—I had to go.  While I fill my life with routines, as long as I conserve enough energy and joy for the project at hand, the writing surprises me. That is how I must proceed. Surprise is met on uncertain ground, and there it is I must go.

“You are in transition,” she said, and yes, I am. I must make peace with that—that my method needs me to be ever in the air, landing where I need to be for a year or a minute, long enough to write for a day and a month and the rest of my life, and then, always, casting my lot with chance and discovery. The old song commends “to turn, turn will be our delight/‘Till by turning, turning we come round right,” and, yes, this is the simple lesson I have learned—and which I have fought against too often in the past.

There are risks to this: to be always turning. But holding tightly to the chains also presents a risk—and a certain one. Back into the maelstrom I must go. Time to turn.

Will this work for you? Will change and uncertainty produce a sudden outpouring of words? I do not know. I do know that surprise is what brought me to literature in the first place. Writing that made the world bigger than it was before I started reading kept me reading. Is that true for you as well? Perhaps you seek confirmation and affirmation. I understand the gravity of both, and that may well be what you need. Or, you may already know what makes the world larger. Maybe you are sure about that. Then perhaps we are different kinds of writers and this advice is lost on you.

If not, in spite of yourself, in spite of your routines, charge into the unknown. Embrace uncertainty. And write.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.

Into the Dark: What I watched about evil

Two years ago, I rekindled this blog with reflections about what I learned about love from movies I watched in my youth. Love—in all its tangled brilliant forms—is the flame for this moth. Contemplating that light allows me to see through the darkness. Over 40 years ago, my cinema professor, Kaori Kitao, asked us what cinema was—the big question—to which she supplied the final answer after we had all tried our hands. “Cinema,” she said, “is light.”

Of course. What we saw on the screen was light obscured at 24 frames per second—light shaded and shaped into colors (or not) and accompanied by sound (or not). In our Wednesday afternoon classes, we sat and watched—over and over, for 3-6 hours—film projected onto a small white screen. Professor Kitao would speedily rewind reels of film so she could point out—over and over—the traces of light on the screen. There were secrets to be found.

I found love—or at very least, desire. The opening scenes of Bergman’s Persona spelled out what the light could do. I was too shy at 20 to comment on the erect penis that flashed oh so briefly (not that briefly!) on the screen in the opening montage. Love and sex. Desire and death. The devil that dances in that opening sequence reminded me of a childhood dream I had of a green-skinned devil who hopped about in our living room. Cinema is a dream—all dreams—distilled by light. And dreams take place in the dark.

If love is my light, there is also darkness. I struggle with darkness—with seeing it too much. In Peter Chelsom’s underrated Funny Bones, one of the characters remarks that Jack Parker—the comic genius of the film—sees the dark side of comedy too clearly. I saw that movie on my 35th birthday, and it crystallized my thoughts about comedy and tragedy. There are things that some of us see too clearly, that most of us just laugh or cry away. We turn our faces to what suits us best and call what does not please us “the other” in one of its many names.

However, the dark is not merely the absence of light or its easily demonized opposite. It is a vital source of energy. How long did it take me to accept that? I’m still working on it.

I saw the movies that taught me those first lessons about love when I was a teenager—or younger. With a few exceptions, the films that helped me grapple with the dark were part of my twenties—the lost years after I graduated from college and before I began graduate school. With few exceptions, I saw all these in movie theaters (or I have seen them all in theaters). I was fortunate that there was a revival house in Philadelphia (the TLA) that showed old movies. And, while Philadelphia had no cable TV, one of the UHF stations played classic films late at night. I watched. And dreamed.

Unlike the movies that taught me love lessons, these are uniformly great films. There are no April Fools or Hotel here. Maybe that’s because after taking Kaori’s class, I had learned to turn my eyes to more serious work, or maybe that’s because darkness instigates a different kind of art—more obviously profound, more apparent attempts at art. The distinction matters and does not matter. What we see in the dark is a dream. Great or not, these are no more real—or just as real—than the films I wrote about two years ago, the same way that my dreams are neither better nor worse than when I was a boy. Out of the light and into the dark.

Evil. What is evil in these films? Inhumanity. Failure. Fatal inevitability. Some incredible compunction on the part of the characters to launch headfirst into harm, and to take large swaths of their world with them. I saw these at a time when I became more starkly aware of the evil that was at once accepted and codified in the world around me. Sure, I had warnings along the way, and sure, these films are not life—any more than the movies that taught me about love ever substituted for the harder lessons that life delivered. Still, they offer up the contradiction: darkness painted with light. And each one provided a lesson that stuck, even if I disagreed with its premise.

I’ve been wrong before. I will be wrong again.

The Films

Out of the Past

The Draughtsman’s Contract

Brazil

Ran

House of Games

Lawrence of Arabia

Dr. Strangelove

Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

Writing, the pandemic, and distraction

Writing during the pandemic has been difficult. Each day I felt the tap-tap-tap of news on my shoulder. The muse grew silent and was replaced by an incessant whisper about infection rates, intubations, and death tolls. Sometimes the whisper roared into a press briefing, and I listened, wanting to know, firsthand, not trusting the arbiters of history to tell me what was what.

To be fair, since AIDS swept over the landscape, I have been virus-obsessed. I read about pandemics in the 80s and 90s. Diseases are one of the secret threads that weave in and out of history. When COVID-19 struck, I felt enmeshed in an account that I already knew, but that did not make me any less interested. I watched and listened as the tale unfolded, aware of the habits that surround such events. None of the rhetoric or the inaction surprised me, which is not to say that I hoped for better or despaired when the all too predictable happened. I take solace in the knowledge that it was not as bad as it might have been.

Still, it was a distraction. Add in the other distractions in my life, and writing has been difficult.

I have written about distraction before here, and about listening to the muse. Until the pandemic, I spent a day each week writing in noisier spaces—surrounded by art and people. Throughout my writing life, I have gotten much when surrounded by others. The presence of human voices and human effort inspires me. When I write, I am conscious of the conversation that surrounds my words, and I add my words to that conversation. Sometimes the conversation is less grand than a response to the announcement of Ashurnarsirpal II of his greatness. It may be a polite transactional response to the sale of a napoleon and coffee—the man at the counter has them waiting for me before I reach the front of the line—at the Courtyard Café in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Words—even these—are little more than transactions. We like to romanticize the expressive characteristics of language—the eternal “I am here!” Yet, even that is meant to turn a head or stop a step. Even the king, especially the king, wants to be noticed. Otherwise, why speak? The transaction here is less quantifiable. A friend once asked, “What do you see your work leading to?” It was a marketing question, and it’s a fair question. As a budding novelist, I am aware that at their hearts, novels are a commercial form—a grand transaction requiring the enduring attention of a reader. The request each word makes is: “Keep reading.”

Each word also requests, “Keep writing.” In this way, words are kind of tricky, and, if you will, like a virus, creating the conditions for their replication and spread. I’m not sure what the words actually spread (more words?)—the ideas and quality of the writing do not seem to matter so much (a terrifying thought to a writer who attempts something more). Of course, lousy writing will fail (mostly), and like a virus that cannot find a host, it disappears. I will not extend the metaphor; I have viruses on my mind.

Perhaps what writing creates is attention: the attention of the writer who creates it and the reader who what? interprets it? Consumes it? Well, let’s settle on: reads it. During the pandemic, other viruses have taken possession of my attention. Enough. It’s time to give into my original illness.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. I choose “suffer” and not “struggle” because “struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out. Nonetheless, he insisted on driving, even after the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. A cargo container (my father’s persistent concern) floated like a metal iceberg and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

My father’s disease added to the risk. He was the captain and an unsteady hand. Often he was the only one on board who could do the little tasks that needed to be done in a storm. He wanted to do them; he liked to do them. When I sailed with him, he ruefully asked me to tie down a loose sail. “I can’t do it,” he admitted. He would not say why he could not. He never admitted to the disease.

When other less sure crew was with him, he pushed himself to do those tasks, and came off the ocean bruised and beat up. He knew his time of risk was drawing to an end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

In 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from my parents shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

London, Flying, Writing

It has been a year and a few months since I was in London. I’m thinking about London while I sit and study Monet’s “Houses of Parliament, Sunset” at the National Gallery of Art. The memory of looking across the Thames at that building, with Big Ben swathed in the latticework of repair, has faded only a little. The memories of walking the streets of the original square mile and beyond remain startlingly vivid. I used them to paint scenes when the characters in my novel walked through London. The memories of the places and the memories of the feelings.

When I was there, I had just begun what would become my first completed novel. I had changed my life, but was only taking the first steps out of the extended shadow under which I had lived my life for much too long. I had been grounded—too grounded.

This morning I woke from a dream of flight. I had to deliver a package, and the way to the place I had to deliver it to was blocked. The streets were closed—barricades blocked alleys and police redirected traffic. I picked up the box—a box of books, perhaps? In a previous job, I often carried boxes of books and was required, on occasion, to pick up from warehouses and deliver them. I carried the box through city streets, all the while receiving instructions about exactly where I was and exactly where I should go. Except, I knew where I was, and knew where I had to go. The instructions were extraneous, the kind of litany of “You are… You should…” that have too long tethered me. And so I did the only thing left to me. I flew. I flew in between the buildings in the city, sometimes following the spaces above the streets, sometimes flying over the buildings—skyscrapers. I flew past a circus parade, as performers prepared to enter their theater. I flew and wondered where I should ply my flying trade—the circus came to mind, naturally, but so did the military (I was a secret weapon). I scooped up a bully who was tormenting a younger child and instructed, “Superheroes live, and we are watching,” before setting him back on the ground, edified.

img_2173When I was last in London, I was taking steps into a world where I knew I could live, where I had longed to live. Just like in the dream, writing—flight—was not foreign to me, but something I had traded in for a more certain, more directed existence. While “You are…You should” can feel like shackles, flying—writing—is formless and uncertain. Anywhere is possible. Everywhere is almost a mandate. Just like in the dream, I had written before—had flown—and had lived closer to the limits of my existence. But I had to leave my self-imposed limits. I had to accept that I might fall—and fail—but just as I accepted that in my dream—soaring up the side of a steel and glass edifice, wondering, “What if I forget? What if I fall?—I thought, even as the thrill of fear invigorated me, “You are flying now. Even if you fall, you will remember as you fall, and fly again. Keep flying.”

img_2761Two women look at the Monet—taking seat in the National Gallery beside me. They think it is beautiful, but claim, “It doesn’t look like that.” Of course, the Houses of Parliament look like that, as does the river Thames, as does the sunset. “We didn’t see it,” they claim, “We were tourists, doing touristy things, like thinking about where to have dinner.” I did not think about dinner when I was in London. As much as I love dinner, even food became a secondary thought while I was in London. Even the pubs and ales became little more than way-stations along the bigger task—the journey, the seeing, the walking, and the flying. And the writing.

At some point, you leave behind what holds you back, and you push off the ground and make your first tentative moves into the air. At first, it feels more like swimming than flying. Wait. That will change. Once you have flown, you do not lose the gift of flight. You may set it aside, for whatever reason (You are…You should), but when you—finally—return to it, the inspiration, the ecstasy, and the certainty will return as well. You will accept the fear and even turned it to your use—flying and writing into places that scare you, outpacing your fear and using it as a goad—higher, faster, stranger, more beautiful, and then more.

I want to say that you do not have to wait until you are 58 years old to rediscover flight. But even at 58, then 59, you can recapture that rapturous joy of flight—and writing. While, in the dream, I was younger than I am now, and yet I could remember all of my current life. Maybe that was what I carried in my box: life. My life.

When I made my way to the circus—because, of course, the circus calls for a flier—an older man (I recognized him as the father of a former girlfriend, although I never met him in real life) warned me against the life I desired, not merely the circus, but flight in general. He did not say, “You are, you should,” but as his daughter had inveighed, he advised, “You are not… You should not.” He was an old musician, and soured by his work in the circus band. Another older man joined us and said, “Let him fly.” But he was dotty, had tufts of white hair on his fingers, and was probably drunk. Looking at these two, I thought, perhaps, that the circus is not for me. There are other places to fly—not into the dark above the audience’s —but into the light. I thought that while I dreamt.

I think about all this while I dream. And when I walk. And when I see. And when I write. And when I wake up.

I write this to you now because you may be 59. Or 29. However, you stopped flying—or writing. You stopped something. Or maybe you never started. I wrote in 9th and 10th grades. Again as a senior in college. Then I started working on a novel when I was 21. Again when I was 24. Again when I was 26. In grad school, I wrote 20 stories, a short book of prose poems, and two starts at novels. Then nothing that endured for years. A few poems, some prose (sermons and stories and articles), the start and start and start and start of a novel. Whatever I was doing felt like silence. You may be facing a silence of your own. I write to you.

Barricades may block the road ahead of you. You may need to get out of your dream car and carry that box (what is in your box?) through the city on foot. You know the way. Plus—and this is your secret—you know how to fly.

There is another world. It doesn’t feel like there is. I remember that feeling, and the horrible weight of “should and should not,” “are and are not.” Part of the way back to this world is the repeated practice of returning to it—fingers to keyboard, pen to paper. Revel in the count of words, in the hours in the air. Try to think of the inches, then yards, then miles you have traveled, and enjoy the journey.

Plenty of people will remind you of what you lack, will cast blank aspersions on the life you have lived, will denigrate what you have done to get where you are, and will sow doubt in the field where you play. They are not your friends, and you can do without them. Do not try to solve the problems they foist on you, or—worse—take them on as your own. The work, even when you fly, is hard enough without taking on unnecessary freight. There is weight enough in this work.

And there is lightness ahead. And light. You can soar as you wish. I wait, standing on the ground, or suspended in the air among clouds and antennae, and wait to cheer you. Fly! Wake up and fly again.

Intention

IMG_3667

“A Swarm of Bi

Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art

 

The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.

What matters is what we leave behind.

IMG_3336In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

https://archive.asia.si.edu/publications/jades/object.php?q=F1917.79#scroll-down
Bi, ca. 3300-2250 BCE

 

Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.

What matters is what we leave behind.

When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.

What matters is what we leave behind.

I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.

What matters is what we leave behind.