You’ll notice the range here—about 1500 years between the gold breastplate fragment and the bronze plate. Winged guardian spirits persisted in Mesopotamia all the way into earliest Islam. Where did they come from? We don’t know, the same way we don’t know where Jinn originated—or Angels. We only know our domesticated, religion-ified versions. Islam did the Jinn no kindnesses—our vision of them as evil or demonic spirits postdates and is influenced by the Quran, delivered not so long ago. The gold breast piece is twice as old as the Quran.
When I write that we don’t know the origins of myths, I don’t mean that they once existed (either the myths or the creatures from the myths) and have disappeared. I only point to our genuine ignorance. Our past is not like science. New devices like those that have allowed the first crude forays into the brain’s working will not uncover why Inanna is the god of love and the god of war (who thought of that combination?) or why winged lions guarded the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Lions in Iraq? Winged lions? They persist—becoming a symbol of Mark the Evangelist and the emblem of NATO. How and why the image began is less interesting (if only because it is entirely unanswerable) than how and why they persist and change over our brief human history.
One of the changes is a distillation of mythological figures into either good or evil characters. The Jinn suffered this transformation into demonic beings—evil and then even more evil beings (avoid ‘Ifrit and Marid at all costs, even if you are Aladdin, even if they do sound like Robin Williams). In Greek and Roman myth, the gods of love are less complicated than Inanna, as are the gods of war (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the gods of love and war have an affair and are caught in a golden web). Athena, especially the Athena of Homer’s Odyssey, is tricky—the Ur-trickster, if you will—but even she pales compared to the brief glimpses we get of Inanna.
There was a wildness in our early stories and beliefs. We lost much of that wonder and made it make more sense, conforming to ideas of should and could. We read in amazement until the story wraps itself into a moral. Our relationship with God is all but legalistic, and He doesn’t even have to swear on the Stygian marshes to bind him to a promise; we have it in writing. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are one part history, one (big) part contract.
And for those who insist that our current beliefs are too unbelievable, it’s not because these neo-heretics are demanding something wilder but seek a more logical and ordered universe. It’s as if we believe that it should be possible to predict the weather right down to the last degree as we leave our homes for another day of work. I remember listening to the automated voice deliver the weather forecast while sailing on the ocean: wind speed, wave height. And then, I got to the business of the waves and wind along my route. The windy, watery world was enduringly unpredictable.
If I was a deist, I would shudder to think that a contract written 1500-5000 years ago had any hold on a being I acknowledged as omnipotent. Like Oliver Twist, I would hold my empty bowl and beseech, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The “more” is more gruel. Somedays, the wild is as unpalatable as gruel, but more often, it is ambrosial in its unpredictability.
We strip the winged lion of its essential weirdness and wildness and turn it into an emblem—an organizational standard bereft of history and wonder. The weirdness and wonder persist too, and they rattle outside the self-imposed cages of our lives. Even when as small and inconsequential as a virus, we logical, rational humans capitulate to what we cannot control. We fail in the face of the wild.
My Sunday walks take me from 3000 BCE to just a few months ago. All in the span of some five miles or so—less if I just walked a straight line. From the oldest—the Neolithic Chinese jades at the Freer—to the most recent—Kay Rosen’s Sorry—each reflects a moment in time. These are not the rings of a tree, grown without intent, just as evidence of growth. Each made thing encapsulates its time and drops out of time—enduring over centuries. In another city, my walk would be longer (Washington DC has an advantageous clot of museums) and reach back further, if only by a few thousand years.
I’m not as interested in the stones that are older—so much older—but I am aware that they tell a story that predates existence as we know it. What struck me most about the Grand Canyon was not the majesty of the view—the views—but the exposed rock that told half the history of the earth. There are two billion years of rock on view in the walls of the canyon. And that’s just half the history of our planet.
I live in the small, human slice. As noisy as it is, compared to the roar of 4 billion years, it is barely a whisper. If it lasts another 4 billion years—and it will, with us, or if history any guide, without us—then this—writing, art, music—is somewhat less than futile.
Except, it isn’t. We have stopped time as long as we have occupied the earth. We have some evidence, and we know that so much evidence is lost. The placard that explains the Cong declares, “While their original meaning and function remain unknown….” We don’t even know ourselves, and we have only been here for a moment.
It may seem grandiose, but we evolved to mark time—to stop it and extend it. We did not evolve to chase girls across the plain or club each other into submission to get more girls. We are aware of time in a profound way—our prefrontal cortex allows us to plan and reminisce (perhaps about girls, if that is our particular bent). At the other side of the Freer, Hokusai conjectures about living until he is 110–and imagines what his art will be like. My cats, as far as I know, and as much as I love them, are not wondering about much beyond the next meal or cheek scratch.
Someone will object, making a claim for elephant art or bird nests or whale songs, but, over and over again, not as the exception but as the rule, we alone make art.
I’m listening to Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold’s When Brains Dream. Part of their query engages what we get from dreaming—how (and if) it functions in an evolutionary schema. It’s a helpful book, and alongside Mark Solms’s The Hidden Spring, it offers some genuine insight into what our brains do.
One of the things our brains routinely do is make art. Rather than dismiss it as a spandrel or simply a flourish of peacock feathers, perhaps it points to something else. For the moment, I suggest it shows an engagement with time that is exceptional (from other living creatures) and functional. Each work reveals something about its making, even if we can only decode some technique connected to a particular time and place. But each work also punches out a hole through which it falls out of time—or rather falls into time. It exists in the past—a then, several thens—a now, and the future—a time, like the present, that will become the past. Sometime and forever.
Art’s subject matter is always time. “In these lines to time,” Shakespeare wrote. Philip Glass’s “The Grid” moves us through space at several paces, propelling us through time. Monet’s Houses of Parliament at Sunset is an impression of a place and an impression of a time. It shimmers from one moment to the next, and in its shimmer, it opens a moment.
I surmise that like the cong (or dreams), we do not know the function. But there was, there is, and there will be a function.
Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.
Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.
My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.
A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.
The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.
We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.
But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.
There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)
Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.
We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.
Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”
So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.
The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.
Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.
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.
In 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.
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.
The past week I have been distracted by the possibility that my country would once again go to war in the Middle East/Central Asia—in Persia. The thought transfixed me and kept me up at night. I have no control over the policy of my country—besides the meager franchise I exercise. Who, after all, is going to listen to a 59 year old English teacher? That said, I have little doubt that policy, even policy set by people with greater expertise than I possess, has been ramshackle and reactive over the past 50 years. Longer. Without a clear and positive vision of what we support—say, the spread of human rights—my country ends up defining its mission in terms of what it does not want—not communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, not terrorism. When a positive goal is enunciated—we want the free flow of oil—that goal tends to be acted on only in a self-serving and too often militaristic fashion.
Too often this misses the point. Those with the oil want to sell the oil. Naturally, they also wanted to possess the oil first, and then, of course, to sell it.
But this is true of any commodity, or anything one has that is valuable, whether that is a resource found under the ground or made by the work of hands. And even if one does not wish to sell—to escape the cycle of commodification—one wishes control over that which one possesses or makes.
I am sitting in a museum while I write this. I am surrounded by works of Alexander Calder. They are gifts, but he also sold them. There is a fabulous photograph of his workshop in this gallery.
I wonder what distracted him, if he was distracted by the world around him?
When I look at any of the works of art at the National Gallery, I do not immediately think of the dates and the events that were taking place in the world at any given time. Art is timeless in a way. And it is not. I am reminded that horror in the world was never limited to acts of overt war, but that it proceeded—and proceeds—in an endless stream of cruelty and misfortune. And yet, in all times, there has been art.
Maybe we keep art in a box—even when it responds directly to the events of any given era (as contemporary art more pointedly and more often) does. Artists (and writers) also have something which they make. Maybe they need to stay in a box, to ignore the world and engage in the process. This seems like a fairly effete vision of art. While there is something self-serving about making art (my vision!), art only lives when it enters the world, partakes of the world, and reflects the world in all its grizzly terrible presence. The horrible beautiful world.
So, I am reminded while I am distracted, to include the world in my work, even as a reflection in some fragmented shards of a broken mirror. This too.
A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.
The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.
One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.
The other part of the promise was to write.
I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.
My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.
I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.
While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.
And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.
And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.
What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.
What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.
Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.
The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.
I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…
This past fall, I went horse riding for the first time since I rode at a neighbor’s farm when I was 6 or 7. I rode on a horse named “Old General,” a sleepy footed follower of faster horses, but a step up from a rocking chair. Or so I was told. At one point in the ride, our trail guide asked if we wanted to run. It was actually the second time she had asked us; the first time I had gotten my sense of it. The second time, I was ready. Old General and I dashed, finding speed where it had not been before, and we covered the field ahead of my riding companions. Yes, I am competitive. It was one of the best days I had had in a long time.
The horse made it into the book. Lots of horses made it into the book. I find inspiration where I can, and the museums in Washington DC (the National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian American Art Museum) include sculptures that snuck into my work. At the very least they gave me ideas that acted as guideposts for the work.
I’m sure that there is some significant invention in this book. I am also certain that I used as much as was provided, whether it was experience or image from the world around me. As far as invention, I recall someone making the claim that all we experience in the first years of life is enough to fill several novels. Perhaps all invention is simply reforging those first few years—shifted through fractured memory.
And, perhaps, there are deeper memories, deep from within our genes, stored among things like eye color and height. I know the Celts came from Central Europe and further South in Asia Minor. I wonder what they brought along in their genes, in their deep memories. I wonder if these stories are just what were, once, somewhere. For now, here is the horse, and a ride I will not forget.
“The horses flew through the forests without urging. With no path to follow, they crashed through low hanging limbs of trees, over bushes filled with thorns, and in and out of muddy streams. Their riders crouched low in their saddles, reins held close to the great sweating necks of the stallions. They rode like that, blurs against the dappled light, until the sun had set, and the sliver of the moon had risen, and the lead horse had slowed, finally, to a mere gallop. What pace they had been keeping has no name.
“Behind the other two riders, Thomas rode on the balls of his feet, crouching forward as his companions had done, but lifting himself out of the saddle by inches. The black horse beneath him felt him there, out of the saddle, and remembered a journey made by such a one as this, when she had run eastward toward the sun, when the sun would not rise. Then the rider had guided her to the edge of the world, and with a rope made of salamander skin, impervious to fire, had pulled the sun into the sky, and started the day. After that, it always rose, bright and warm in the east. When Thomas reached down to stroke the neck of the speeding mare, the touch of his hand confirmed the horse’s memory. ‘He has returned.'”
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.
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.