What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Macho (Masked) Man

“In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States I found very few men who displayed any of that manly candor and that masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters, wheresoever they may be found.” from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

At some point, the whole point of “being a man” was to live a life that was, in de Tocqueville’s words, full of “candor” and “independence of opinion.” Sadly, even when he was surveying our country in the first half of the 19th century, de Tocqueville noticed that such characteristics had waned. People were more likely to follow popular opinions and desired little else than to be part of the herd. “The Tyranny of the Majority” was worse than the tyranny of a monarch, in part because it was a refutation of those manly virtues.

I’m inspired to take up this theme again, because Daniel Victor published an article on masculinity and masks in today’s New York Times. Men have made masks a political issue—or rather, they let masks become a marker of their masculinity and let the jeering hoard determine their idea of what it means to be manly.

Set aside the absurdity of going to the mattresses over masks. One might as well complain about wearing shoes (A real man would walk about with bloody mangled feet). But some tide has turned, and real men need to take another stand. No purses. No speed limits. No two-drink minimum. No masks.

What stands out is that men need to gather together in groups to assert this.

I understand that fraternité—brotherhood—has in ineffable and intoxicating power. I delight in the time I spend among my brothers—both of birth and choice.

fraternité

However, part of “being a man”—and whether this is a good or a bad thing I will engage at a later time—is being alone. I relished nights on the ocean when I was at the helm, and my crewmates were either in their bunks or asleep with their backs to the cabin. The years of study and writing I did and do, while they may have their end in a classroom or manuscript, were valuable in and of themselves. I built a kitchen on my own. I pulled the clutch from my VW alone. I made Bastille Day dinner alone. Sure, I looked up the directions, but the bloodied knuckles, thick callouses, and genuine pride belonged to me.

I actually have a more challenging time in company because of the lack of candor that others show—men especially so. Candor: not just honesty, but straightforwardness and a thoroughgoing willingness to shine a light. How many times have I heard someone couch what they were going to say in “This is my opinion…” and then blather on in seriously examined directions? How many times each day?

Even this writing results from my natural predilection to push my opinions—and not just about masculinity—and see where they are rooted, and explore their limits and my own. I demand the same from any.

One night on the Chesapeake Bay, my father had charted a course for us to follow. It was the first night of our sail, the ocean and a gale were ahead of us, and my brother Peter and I had the late watch. First, we ran through a set of nets set out just off the channel. They were hoisted between temporary thin posts driven deep enough to hold them and catch fish. But then I noticed that our course, such as it was, would also take us across the land.

My father did not always explain where we were going or share course details. For most of us, that was fine; my father was “the captain,” and we were on his boat—that was enough. This drove me crazy. I wanted to know, to break out a chart, and to mark our progress. I wanted to associate what my eyes told me in the bay—at night with a sky partly lit by stars—with some larger picture.

That night I woke my father—not a dauntless act: besides his distemper at being awakened, he was on medication for Parkinson’s Disease that made his sleep thicker. He groggily looked at the waypoints he had mapped out, looked at the horizon, then handed me a chart zipped into a waterproof plastic jacket. “Get us here,” he grumbled and pointed at a point well to our South and East. Then he returned to his bunk.

The job of a man is to wake his father and tell him when he is wrong. And then get back on course. If you don’t know how to read a chart, learn. If you don’t know how to sail, learn, or stay home.

When de Tocqueville remarked about the flagging “manly candor” and “masculine independence of opinion” in the 1800s, it was because the United States began with strident truth-telling and was born out of a series of acts that took responsibility for the truth. Small groups set out to make a life—a new life—outside the comfortable known world. Those first colonists’ decisions were rooted in hope and vision, and, because they were someplace strange, caution and practicality. To rephrase William Carlos Williams, there were no ideals but in things.  And all those ideals and things needed to be tested and checked for their utility as well as any unnecessary or ornamental value. Think of Puritans and Quakers, both in spare meeting houses—trying, and in some cases failing, to discern the truth. But trying.

What struck de Tocqueville—and strikes me now—is not that truth has become less critical, but the ability to distinguish between the necessity and the ornament of truth has dimmed. This is nothing new. De Tocqueville wrote Democracy In America 150 years ago, and after Thoreau noted that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe its the “quiet desperation” that confounds us and makes us valorize the freedom to breathe and speak without a mask over the responsibility to ensure the safety of those around us. Discomfort outweighs obligation.

And obligation becomes what it has never been before—unmanly. I wonder how that happened, how the more Spartan values of sacrifice and duty have been replaced by a fierce desire to get to the front of the beer line? How did we get so far off course? Yeats wrote, “The best have no conviction. The worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” Why cheer against obligation? This is not why we are here, not what we fought for, not what men do.

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.

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.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

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—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when 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. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs 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.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to 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.

And then 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 them 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.

The Writing Virus

At some point, someone will come up with a reasonable theory for how COVID-19 emerged, but like other viruses, its origin barely matters. Viruses have existed alongside all life as long as there has been life. It’s hardly worth qualifying viruses as “life”; they are more like machines. But it’s damnably hard not to personify them, to make them a mirror of ourselves. We can imagine a virus as an enemy—an “invisible enemy.” Or we can go to war against a virus.

Except, a virus has no plan. Neither does it have a will. It does not fight against us, and does not want to infect us. Desire is not part of a virus’s design. It is a piece of genetic detritus that floats through the world without a purpose—or with the universal and mindless purpose of replication. After all, if replication was not part of its machinery, we would not be wrestling with it now. It would have disappeared after a solitary blossoming.

2020-03-26 (4)Viruses are the prototype for the “lilies of the field: … they toil not, neither do they spin.” How they may be arrayed is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The virus of current interest wears a crown—or presents something crown-like on its exterior.  It’s almost too satisfying to try and picture it, or to quibble over which depiction is more accurate.

And this is just one virus. 219 known viruses infect people. This new virus raises that number, and those numbers will rise as new (novel) viruses emerge. This particular virus will most likely be traced back to bats, but exactly how or why (the impossible question) the virus leaped at this moment from its non-human host to humans will be harder to track. Viruses spread. While this explanation is at once too obvious and too unsatisfying, what should amaze us is not that this virus spread now, but that a few dozen (more?) others did not. They will.

Rather than hold a mirror up to ourselves, and try to figure out viruses on our terms (how they are like us; how they “want” to infect us; how they are our enemy), I wonder how we are like viruses. The worst aspect of that comparison is the kind of biological determinism that reduces us and all we do to machine-like processes over which we have little or no control. Our vaunted free becomes nothing more than an expression of an overmastering biological or chemical impulse. The next unfortunate comparison is that we are a mindless and deadly virus—Shiva, the small destroyer.

Of course, if we see the virus as the first miraculous step of life—somehow that strand of proteins banded together to replicate—then maybe we can see ourselves as an extension of several iterations on that miraculous theme. We may be machines, and may not know why we do what we do, but we are, at least, extraordinary machines. And what we replicate isn’t just ourselves, which is done effortlessly enough, but other codes: our thoughts and feelings. Some stick, and some find no purchase. We want our most ephemeral codes to last beyond our spare moment of life. Unlike viruses, we get to shape our invisible messages beneath the words, within the stories.

Writing is not a virus, but there is something within, waiting to emerge.

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.