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.

The Books

Almost fifteen years ago, I put my books in the attic. They were out, in shelves, but tucked beneath a sloping ceiling and packed behind all manner of family detritus. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved them into my main living space, where they sang back to me after their—or my—sojourn.  My books matter to me, and I felt their absence. Getting them back onto tall shelves, walking past them every day, reminded me of what I had done, what I had learned, and what I wanted to do with my life and mind.

I have books about writing, books about religion, books about education, history books, philosophy (what we called theory in graduate school), fiction, poetry, books full of art and art history, and even books about sports—mainly baseball. I have a hard cover edition of Dickens published by Chapman and Hall with pages that requires a pocket knife to cut open.  I own a set of Andrew Lang’s color-coded Fairy Tale books.

The books reflect my preoccupations over the past thirty years.  Much of what is on my shelves I first read while I was in graduate school. Some I acquired afterward to keep me in touch with what I spent six years studying. Some comes from undergraduate college—books about gothic art and architecture, an old edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some newer books that reflect my current interests: a collection of Sumerian mythology, a book about Djinn.

As much as I love my books, as much as they tell a story of my past, as much as they feel like an external manifestation of my mind, I think it may be time to lose them.

How long can one hold onto the past—a past that weighs an actual ton—without moving into the future? Yes, there are some things that I would keep, and this is true of more than my books, but they possess so much gravity. What is the past to me? Of course it is, was, everything. However, the future beckons, and requires a kind of lightness to which things do not lend themselves. Even memorable things.

There are other presences in my life—deep and profound connections. This time last year, I started unraveling the two jobs I had in Norfolk, Virginia. I moved away from those jobs and in the process also moved away from my daughters, who continue to live with their mother in Norfolk. Of course, I separated from and divorced their mother. It may seem inconsequential, but over 30 years ago, I picked a cat off the street, and have had cats ever since. I have never been more than three weeks away from them. This year I considered giving up a long standing fantasy baseball game that I have played for nearly 30 years with friends.

I wonder about what I have given up, but also what I have stayed with over the years. I have been a teacher for over 20 years—including my work as a TA in graduate school, over 25 years. What would it be like to not teach? I wrote for years, and then, if I didn’t stop, I slowed considerably—at what hazard, I cannot guess. I am writing again now, and have been, but can’t help wonder why my work slowed to a trickle.

I wonder would it would be like to be free of obligation and free of the gravity of myself—that ton of books, the closet full of clothes, my job, my family, my cats, even my friends. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had just chased words—the stories that I had declared as my purpose when I went away to and then stayed in graduate school. When I went away to graduate school, I traveled in a single car, with a mattress tied to the roof, and a single cat riding in the passenger seats. What would it be like to travel to what’s next with even less?

I do not regret the life I led, nor the life I lead; regret possesses a gravity greater than all the books own own, and I have no time for that. Not now. Nonetheless, I am aware of another life that exists, not over the horizon, not over the rainbow, but buried deep within me. I don’t know how I have kept it buried for so long, or at what cost—or even at what gain. Still. It is there.

I wonder, and wonder hard, and the wondering stirs something in me, something alive and insistent. What will I carry into the future? What must I carry? And what must I leave?

Comedy Tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echoes and strangers

I went out for bbq at lunch today. The brisket reminded me of my distant friends—eating it, I dine on memories of places as disparate as Taylor, Texas and Owego, New York. Eating in the restaurant with the yellow blazes on the faux wood tables reminded me of the one time I ate here with my daughter, or the meal I ate before chaperoning a dance, and therefore the dance and the evening that followed.

My brain is like that. The past reverberates into the present without effort. There is no stopping it. The pen on my desk reminds me of a dozen trips to office supply stores to buy just that kind of pen. The clipboard brings back the smell of a stationary store in Endicott where I bought narrow ruled yellow legal pads. New things enchant me because they haven’t been imbued with dense and irrevocable histories. For minutes. And then…

This book bag. That smell. The way her voice sounds. Everything.

In many ways, I take solace in being surrounded by memories, and there are some that I purposefully mine. The routine of the same lunch—on most days—reminds me of years of similar lunches from the time I was five—earlier—until just last week—and all the lunches in between. I feel comforted by the way those memories permeate my present so easily.

Others surprise me. They are more angular and disruptive. The sound of a car rushing in the distance—that sharp Doppler shift—triggers an equally effortless, but significantly less welcome memory of a conversation held by the side of a road. Twenty years have passed and yet the resentment stings as it did then. Nothing ages, ripens, or rots.

I have written about the powerful memories associated with places—a rolling set of hills on a road headed north, an intersection with two right turn lanes, a road sign, the curve of a shoreline, a buoy. But, it is everything else as well. All the things. My walls at home are lined with books, and the books speak—not just of what is contained in their pages, but of the times I read them, the places I was, the company that surrounded those moments. And there is more, a gesture, my hand on a doorknob, the sudden turn of my head when I look for something, the way my foot falls on a stair. I am out of myself in a flash, or at least out of this time—even though I know that I am inextricably in it—and another older time surges through me. Even when still, this heartbeat explodes into a thousand, a million other heartbeats, and time collapses.

The only thing that surprises me, seems strange and unconnected from everything else, is my face in the mirror. I almost never recognize myself. Who is this man, and what is he doing in the glass? I wonder. At least there is a scar on my left hand, another on my knee, another on my ankle. These anchor me, but my face is a mystery—and not just because of age. Day by day, for all my life, sitting in a barbershop chair before the mirrored wall, I am a stranger.

And so, beside my own strange face, I also take pleasure in crowds of strange faces, all of whom present unknown avenues, untapped sources of experiences and memories. I know the echoes will come to the strange person I will again be tomorrow.

The Center of the Universe—words from a Graduation

I tell my students lots of things. There is the teaching, of course, but there are certain phrases that have become, well, worn. I repeated a story with my ninth graders just a couple of weeks ago. I think that’s a sign.

One of my sayings, usually delivered in class, when a student has interrupted everyone else to declare something like, “There are clouds in the sky,” or “I have a cat”—something that has floated in over the transom of their mind—is this:

“If you have lost the center of the universe, I think I have found it.”

Except, I haven’t told you, there is a secret, and the secret: you are the center of the universe.

Science backs that up—in an infinite universe, everywhere is the center. It’s one of those paradoxes that makes teaching science so much fun. Or like this one from math: which is longer, a ray, which starts at a fixed point and goes on for infinity, or a line, which is infinite in both directions? Something cannot be half as infinite.

That’s why I stick to teaching English.

Take Shakespeare’s universe. In his plays, there is almost—and I’m going to say almost, because unlike math, in English there are always exceptions—almost never anyone more important than the King. The King is always the center of the secular universe.

And you might think, “I’m the king? Cool! I’m the center! I have arrived!” I also tell my students how my daughter thinks that being principal is the best because I get to give out detentions. This is the worst part of the job, and not just because I get to sit on detentions. An authority that gleefully metes out punishments, is truly limited vision of authority. Henry wants—no, needs—his band of brothers to thrive, and they do, because he elevates them. He may be the center, but he is also the first peer, the first equal.

And here’s the trick, In Shakespeare there are only a few truly happy and successful kings. I think he leaves high school principals out altogether. He doesn’t leave students out. And that’s because students can learn. Kings, for the most part, do not. They are, as Caesar claims, as constant than the Northern Star. Once the have become the king they are who they will be. They will not change. And who would wish for an inconstant king? Shakespeare’s tragedies are littered with them: Macbeth, Richard III, even Henry’s father, who mutters, “Uneasy rests the head that wears a crown.” Be a king, indeed.

But, what does it mean to be a center? My juniors and seniors have seen the list of king-becoming graces that Malcolm provides to Macduff: justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude. It’s quite a list, and like any list we would quibble over each term a bit too much. My students can quibble.

Perhaps it is better to remember that in an infinite universe, if you are the center, so is the person sitting next to you, and so is some person sitting on the other side of the world. We are all centers, and must learn to live and live well with each other. And what better way to live than to live as brothers. Because if we are as brothers, then we shall share a cause—perhaps not so clear as that as faced by Henry at Agincourt, but a cause nonetheless.

And because today is father’s day, again, I am reminded by this:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

And so, today, find your cause, but be sure to make it large enough so that you can be brothers with each other, and with all the other centers that are spinning around you.

And now, I have some diplomas to bestow…

Loss and Connection

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a tart response to the steady procession out the door.  First she loses keys, then houses, then cities, two rivers, and a continent.  She writes, “Practice losing farther, losing faster.” And finally, “you (the joking voice, a gesture I love).” And that seems about the right order: keys, houses, cities, rivers, continents, you.

I have to admit that I’ve lost my fair share of people along the way. I have no friends from elementary school. I have a few acquaintances (thanks Facebook), but no profoundly important bonds from high school.  I keep in intermittent touch with a couple of professors from college, but all the people I played bridge with at lunch or in the evening, my swimming compatriots, or my more fiery friends from that rich time of awakening have gone. I retain only a single connection from the lost years while I worked in restaurants. Until the age of 28, the only people who remained constant in my life were my father, my mother, and my brothers, and I could no more lose them than I could lose my opposable thumbs, my kidneys, or my hair. Oops.

Somewhere along the way all that changed.  And it wasn’t the people I was meeting.  I figured out a few things about myself, and started on my life’s work. I am happy, overjoyed really, that I have friends who I met on the first day I started graduate school at Binghamton, and that in the thirty years since then, I have built, and been built into webs that extend across the country and onto other continents. Even if I disappeared today, if sudden tragedy erased me, those webs would remain, and my juncture would remain too, if only as a bright memory.

Still there are losses, certain “you’s” who spin away someplace else, who collided with my life, briefly or for longer times, and then left.  In the ramshackle castle of my heart, I have a dozen rooms of voices and gestures belonging to this you or that you who received and returned “I love you” from me and to me.

I can imagine rekindling almost any old friendship.  Bruce, Steve, Kevin? Trevor, Barry, Pete? Beth, Paul, Wendy, Cliff, Neil, Jean, Miriam, Ted? Sure. I would be delighted to hear about their lives, to listen to their stories, and discover where they have been, what they have learned, the best meals they have eaten.  I would sit them all around a table and cook a stew of memory.  But those women with whom I have shared at least a glimpse of my most intimate self, for whom I carved hearts into scallops (and filled those hearts with pesto), or alongside whom I have sat quietly on glacial erractic boulders, or who kissed me until days turned into into weeks, and weeks turned into years?  I think I have lost them.

Maybe it’s because break ups are just that—a break, a tear in the web of connections.  If a declaration of love is tantamount to an assertion of meaning in the universe: there are stars! there is hydrogen! the miracle of leaves! radio waves! elephants! cellos! then the end of love threatens to cast all of creation into some alternate universe where everything delicious tastes like burning tires.  Of course it doesn’t. Of course that is overly romantic. It is just turning a page.

What universe do you live in that anything can be set aside so blithely? I cannot.

And so it is with special joy that one star flickered back onto the horizon.  After nearly twenty five years, I sent this old friend a message “Went on a date with someone who so fabulously reminded me of you.” We chatted back and forth and she sent me a draft of the book she has been running away from for as long as I knew her. Finally running into it, she has uncovered connection after connection, and as she does, she bounced between them amazed and perplexed, delighted as a child who has discovered the art of skipping. At some penultimate revelation she declared that she had uncovered a miracle, to which I responded that she is, was, and always would be a miracle. She answered, “Well that made me cry. We had something so special. And for you to still be in my in my life is another miracle.” Thank you, my now distant friend, for helping put the universe back into order.  Keep writing.

We are all miracles. Loss only makes me feel that more keenly now than I ever had before.  But not just loss: my daughter, my students, my friends, a Sondheim song, everything, everyone.  Once I felt unequal to the task of acknowledging and praising the miracles that were all around me.  I kept them at a distance and felt flustered, off-balance, and awestruck when they accepted me into their orbits.  When they drifted away, I accepted the loss, almost as glibly as Bishop does in her poem. After all, what was I but some strange satellite from some strange universe?  Even Bishop’s advice, “Write it,” seemed to make the world and the process of loving and losing little more than the material for writing (which, I am half ashamed to say, it can be).

Loss is a disaster and no disaster, because it casts me back out of myself, and so deeply reminds me that I am not the center of a weird universe, but part of something larger. In his poem, “The Cleaving, “ Li-Young Lee calls us “a many-membered body of love.”  So I am reminded, and so I write, part of the miracle and a miracle. A contradiction and a multitude. Brian Brennan for the moment and in perpetuity. My heart fixed here, back in the web, part of this and every other universe, spinning in every direction, and open.

Texas (a poem)

On my birthday, of all days, I feel the absence of my friends–those souls scattered across the world like the no longer tightly packed leaves of my heart. A long time ago I wrote a poem about them, and so heading to the day, here it is.

Texas

In the evening, between the blur of work
And the final call of slumber
We wear red hats.
We sit on the bench. We take
the field. We stretch into position.
We wear red hats.
The opposition—such as it is—wears
hats of blue, black, or even green.
We wear red hats.
This goes on. Balls are thrown.
We catch. We hit. We sit,
and wait for chance to take a hand.
We wear red hats.
The night provides possibilities.
What did we do all day?
Who knows? We cancelled checks.
We bought farms. We wiped spit
from the trumpeter’s lip. We organized
a trip to the land of hats, where we found what?
Robes of white? Wooden shoes? Electricity? Vision?
Yes, yes, yes, & yes again. And
red hats in sizes to fit our various heads.

The world is composed of cowhide & ash.
We wear red hats.
The world is composed of teletype & ink.
We wear red hats.
The world hurtles forth, two seamed & sinking.
We wear red hats.

You go home early. We play on
in our red hats.
Each side takes a turn. The game
continues hours into night.
The night waits for days, weeks—
there’s ice in the stands.
We wear red hats. We can’t stop.
The opposition languishes. We give them
red hats. What cheers apply?
GO RED HATS! DEVASTATE THE GAME!
ANNIHILATE DAY! PLAY MORE!
WEAR RED HATS!

Grass grows around our ankles,
tickling our knees, topped with red hats.
The ground is a mystery.
The umpires resort to rules.
How many red hats to a side? Which one
of you is the pitcher? Should the manager
wear a red hat? Arguments ensue.
“Stop being so shrill,” he says. “This isn’t
opera. Break into bloom.”

The roses wear red hats.
Coffee and Coke wear red hats.
Garibaldi wears a red hat.
Eisenhower and Eichmann wear red hats.
Red-hatted love takes red-hatted hate
in a ten-minute ballet called “The Red Hat.”
The red-hatted director of the planetarium
puts on a show of red-hatted stars
and the ancient constellation “Red Hat Hercules.”
Borofsky’s famous lost painting “Jesus,
Mary & Joseph in Red Hats” is traded at auction
for a box of rare Etruscan red hats.

What good will it do to turn the other way
when men in red hats greet you at every base,
slap you on the back and wish you, “Good Luck”?
The world isn’t about knuckleball or double play.
The world isn’t about morning glory or ceramic tile.
The world isn’t about to fall into our outstretched mitt—
Though, wouldn’t that be nice? Miteinander befallen.
The world isn’t about red hats or anything else.
The world slides away out of the zone
leaving us hitless. Struck out.

Cannibals wait in the stands
threatening us with dinner and midnight snacks.
They wear no hats!
We wear red hats!
We were victorious long before your sons became daughters.
Our chances look good: “80/20,”
the team doctor prognotes.
“Wait!” he says, taking off his hat,
“I mean 20/80.” Then chases the batboy
across the field, yelling, “Lunch!”
Should we take off our hats? Join
the cannibal doctor in ritual feast?
Or should we play?
“PLAY!” shouts the team, pulling their hats
tight around their ears.
“PLAY!” shout the cannibals, who take
red hats from back pockets.

I wish you would wear a red hat.
We could give up winter together,
assemble our nine, and be
World Red Hat Champions.
No one, not even Nolan,
can put us down in order.
In your ear? In your ear!
The rally is afoot!
Hits come like fireflies. Runs
torrent into morning.
All day the day begins again.
We wear red hats.

The Soundtrack of my Life

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Sky Full of Stars: 

Remembrance

When my daughter is in the car with me, she makes musical requests. Last year featured a month of Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” Sometime this past winter she settled on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Often the second song she requests is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” She exclaims “Wow!” when the bass beat kicks in twice in the song. “It goes BOOM.” She laughs loudly as I sing “Boom! Boom! Boom!” to the beat. She doesn’t see me cry. I keep smiling. I keep going, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

I started listening to this song in the days after my friend, Jennifer Slade, committed suicide. It reminded and still reminds me of her. Jennifer was someone who “light[s] up the path,” as the singer says about the person in the song. She was a brilliant minister: insightful and collaborative; just what a co-worker who had worked with four different ministerial teams in six years needed. She encouraged me to explore my gifts as a minister, and even if I did not choose the path she walked, she helped me think more deeply about the work I do, and to accept it as ministry.

Her death, coming in July of 2014 shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday, shocked me. I drove her home on the night she took her life, and can painfully and clearly recall our conversation on the way. She apologized for asking me to pick her up—her car was in the shop. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the drawbacks of living away from home (she lived in Durham, NC), was that she did not have friends. As a minister she was careful about making friends in the congregation. Her work—ministers never have forty hour work weeks—and the circumstances of the year (she and her husband had taken the first steps toward divorce) had made her feel isolated.

I told her that I was always happy to help, that it was my “job.” I felt that as part of the team at our church that we should always have each other’s backs. This was amazingly important to me, because I had been on less than supportive teams at my church. I had been open with her about this, telling her that I had planned to step down from my position, but after working with her and feeling the change that was happening at the church, I looked forward to what we were building. “I’ll stay as long as you are here,” I told her. Besides, I think of my role as a “guy” as a “job,” and part of that job is answering the call. But I said “job.” I did not say, “Are you kidding me? We are friends. You can always call.”

The weeks following Jennifer’s suicide were difficult. I felt dislodged from the world. I argued with my wife and a friend about how I felt and how to respond. I threw myself into healing work at the church. I met with friends who knew about grief first hand, who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting nineteen months before this. I attended services in North Carolina and Norfolk. I saw a therapist. I retreated from the world, and could not retreat from the world; the school year was in the offing—my first full year as principal at my school (my other job). I had a family. And I felt like a shell of a human.

As I listened to this song at astronomical volume in my car, I began to hear Chris Martin’s “you” not as a single specific person, but as a great plural “you.” He wasn’t singing to one person, but to the wider world. Even if there was one particular “you” who tore him apart, he was going to give his heart to the world. In my mind the big bass beat was a heartbeat, a hundred heartbeats, a thousand, a crowd dancing, like the crowds I had danced with in college and grad school. What saves the torn apart heart is a crowd of people, of friends, of love.

Do I think that life is bound to tear us apart? Probably. Do I think that we somehow come back together? Of course. I know that’s true for me. I know that I still shed tears—manly, cathartic tears, but tears nonetheless. I choose to give my heart away, knowing that the risk of sudden, tragic loss or even slow painful loss will not pass. My daughter laughs and says, “Go Boom!” I go “Boom!” I go “Boom.”

 

 

Gathering

I traveled to Austin, Texas a few weeks back, and spent part of Saturday night at the Broken Spoke. People were dancing and having a good time.  One of my friends pointed out that lots of the people there would probably be enjoying themselves in other ways after they left, and I guess he was right.  I kind of just enjoyed the fact that all these people were gathered together, dancing a little Texas swing, chattin’ with each other, and some chattin’ each other up.  Some were there to dance, others to drink, others to talk;  I don’t guess that anyone was there to be alone.

“We gather together” starts the old song, and gather we do.  I gathered with friends in Austin–6 short of a minyan, but we often found oursleves in larger companies of people, either at the Broken Spoke, Louie Mueller’sThreadgill’s, or La Condesa. We gathered for food and drink and and entertainment and company.  And we weren’t the only ones.

Even though we weren’t eating with people at those restaurtants, or sharing pitchers of Lone Star with people at the tables, the experience was made better by their presence.  Even more than homo sapiens we are homo congregantur; we just want to be together. Of course, it helps to have an excuse, like dinner, or, for that matter, church.

What makes gathering for church different than gathering to dance at the Broken Spoke?  No, really. When isn’t there some element of the divine evoked when we gather well?  We may not say that, we may not even want to acknowledge it (and for my atheist friends any discussion of the divine will cause a fair amount of consternation).  And still, we gather.