Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world. Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

Vulnerability (sadness and happiness) and Writing

I have had long stretches of sadness in my life. Not depression, mind you. I dipped an oar in that black river at the end of my annus horribilis; I learned the difference. Sadness is not intractable. It will seem odd to hear this, but I cherish my sadness. I do not revel in it, nor do I valorize it, but when it comes, as it must, I do not turn away from it as from an unwelcome guest. There are good reasons to feel sad. This past year has laid a few at my feet. I have made decisions that would, at some point, along with a bounty of other emotions, cause me sadness.

Sadness passes. So does happiness. I am happy by default. I have a sleep app that prompts me to reflect on how I feel at the end of the day. I almost always designate “happy,” even on days that I also tag as stressful. Even on days when I have felt sad at some point during the day. However, I do not feel happy exclusively, nor do I adamantly cling to that emotion.

When I grew up, my mother warned my brothers and me away from things that would make us feel sad. She policed movies and television shows that grappled with serious and discomforting issues like nuclear war or actual (not fictional) crime. The ugliness never plagued me as much as the shutting off of truth did. Information—truth—drew me with powerful magnetism. Even now after watching the news of the day, I can let anger and sadness pass even as the information remains. There are rare occasions when the cacophony of information drowns out other, happier possibilities. There are times when the information mixes with personal challenges and setbacks. The personal is harder to overcome.

I fortify my day with opportunities for joy. I surround myself with students—people who are younger than I am. They have avoided the cynicism that adults wear too willingly. I go to the gym and lift weights, then charge ahead on the elliptical for 23 hard minutes (530 calories burned!). This summer, I took my place at the table in the school library and worked at my book. I go home, cook dinner (steak, broccoli, and brown rice with avocado), then read. I head to bed at a reasonable hour.

Sometimes, happiness—extreme happiness—is necessary. The first big push for a new writing project requires a kind of ignorant and unabated bliss. There are 100,000 words ahead, and no one may ever read them, but I am going to write them anyway. I began this past book in the bountiful throes of such exuberance. Boundless joy carried me into the first hundred pages of my book. Fortunately, when the cause for that joy left my life, the writing continued. I was writing—at last!—and that became the source of joy for me.

The Doctor on Horseback

Even now, writing this, I feel happy. I look at a photograph from a year ago: the doctor on horseback. I am ecstatic. The novel had not yet begun. As far as the horse carried me, the novel carried me farther—and further. It helps to know the difference.

When I was depressed in 2002, I sought out a counselor, and he advised me that happiness was, if not an illusion, then, at least, a particularly difficult aim. He made this suggestion because I was tangled up in feeling that I was mistaken for not being able to feel happy. My relationship of the past 6 years had ended. I was teaching in a strange place, and my friends were hundreds of miles away. My mother had just gone through a harrowing battle with cancer. My father had just died. Happiness was, at best, elusive. And, perhaps most damning of all, I was not writing.

Writing is difficult—for the reasons I pointed toward above, but also because it requires a kind of vulnerability. One must, at once, care and not care at all about the reader. One must care, and not care at all, about the outcome of the effort. One must learn to love the process above all. This is true of life as well, but writing lays this truth bare in ways that many other kinds of work do not. It is work, and it is, absolutely, not.

No matter what other happiness—even joy—passes from my life, this more vulnerable happiness remains. It was always there, waiting for me to find it, perhaps waiting for me to need it. Finding it, and needing it, I am vulnerable now—open to a more profound sadness—but also open to a deeper joy. I write and proceed.

Echoes of Suicide

Here there be triggers…

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain set off klaxons across all media. People—friends, family, and experts— shared memories, formulated reasons, and dispensed advice. And in my little corner of the world, I quietly melted down as I revisited the suicide that upended my life.

I drove my friend, Jennifer, home on the night she committed suicide. She was more than my friend, she was also my supervisor, colleague, and minister at the church where I work. After her death, I went into crisis mode, helping my congregation as best I could through what was, for some, a challenging year. Because of the timing, no minister could serve our congregation for the year (a neighboring congregation lent us their minister on a once a week basis, and she checked in on us). I talked with a counselor about the events. Friends checked in to make sure I was in reasonable shape. I was.

In a moment of anger, one of my friends suggested that she must must have known it would have been him or me who would have discovered her. I knew then, as I know now, that such calculations or considerations are never present in any meaningful way in the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness strong enough to cause death. However, that never stopped me from playing and replaying the conversation we had on the night I picked her up from dinner (her car was in the shop) and drove her home.

My rational mind has assured me, and continues to assure me, that nothing I said could have caused her to do anything—or for that matter caused her not to do what she did. I was in the company of a person whose decision—insofar as any decision was actually possible—was already made. And yet over the past few days expert after expert says, “Reach out. Talk. You could save a life.” So my imaginative mind scurries relentlessly into every corner of possibility. “What ifs” pile up like bread crumbs in a tower to rival Babel. And while my rational mind wins the day, I realize this conflict has been with me for years.

The hardest thing I grapple with is the knowledge—certain and horrible—that either there was nothing I could do for my friend, or that I missed an opportunity to do something. The second choice leads to a horror show of self-recrimination. On most days I avoid that. The first choice leads to other struggles, primarily, what difference can I ever make with anyone?

Surely, this is not true. I am reassured repeatedly by the evidence of my experience that I do make differences. Routinely, daily, in the lives of those I teach, of those with whom I work, and of those I love. And yet I daily face unilateral behaviors and actions from people surrounding my life about which I can do nothing. And every time, there is a little (or not so little) twinge. Driver heading two blocks the wrong way down a one way street? Twinge. Student refusing to do work? Twinge. Congregant refusing to meet volunteer obligations? Twinge. I am leaving out the big ones. They are there too.

This happened during the summer after my family had traveled to China to bring home our second daughter. My friend had been at her birthday party in May, and had joined us at my birthday party in June. Jennifer died in July. By November my wife and I began separating. I moved into my own place in April. It was a full year. I am aware now how tangled each and every interaction I had that year, and in the years since, have been with those feelings of guilt and powerlessness–a raw and indefatigable impotence and ineffectiveness.

One of the members of my congregation recently asked how my move was going. I am leaving the congregation I have served for eleven years, and the school where I have taught for nine, and heading to a new school, and no new church, at least not right away. We conferred briefly on the feeling of being in control of the process, and how that was appealing to me. He said that he understood. I too knew it was important, and knew I had felt out of control for some time. My church, by the way, has had six ministerial teams over the eleven years I have served them, with the immediate prospect of two more in the next three years. And we are moving to a new building—a good thing. Still, that twinge, what some might call a trigger, is so wrapped in my in church life, and my life here in Norfolk, that is is nearly impossible to continue.

I know people will tell me, in the most anodyne fashion, that control is an illusion, and that I need to let it go, practice a little Buddhist non-attachment, and set myself free. Or that I need to get tough and face my feelings with Spartan fortitude. And for god’s sake don’t talk about them. But I do not seek detachment, even when the consequence is suffering. Suffering is fine. And I can try not to feel too attached to my feelings, but really, who thinks saltpeter in the milk is a solution? I would rather deal with the struggle. Even four years later. Even forty. In the end, the struggle makes me stronger.

As for sharing? What the hell. I write. This isn’t a cry for help. And it is no “J’accuse!” unless I am accusing myself. I usually wait to write until I have teased out the germs of an idea or feeling until it has grown into words. I admit that here on the blog, I let some unpercolated thoughts trickle in. This one has been in my head for days. Or years. With any luck, the words will be a bridge between us, and not a wall. And with even more luck, perhaps these words will help someone build a bridge in themselves to something they haven’t imagined yet.

What the Greeks got right–when grief has a funky beat

Heading home after work at church today, and part of that work is talking and processing with congregants and staff these days (how could it not be?), and put on Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ kickin’ retro funk song, Retreat. And then it hit me, the ancient Greeks got it right when they embodied human emotions and states-of-being into their pantheon.

Here’s a song about a woman scorned. She is challenging her lover to retreat in the face of her fury. Right now, it is kind of the same song that grief is singing to me. Yeah, I know, not, of course not. Grief is not singing to me in the form of Sharon Jones. No, no, no.

But maybe grief is palpable, and I fight against it at my own risk. The song is boisterous and giddy in its challenge: “Raise your white flag high ’cause I’m comin’ in blazin’… And I don’t care if it makes sense to you!” Horns blaring, percussion pounding. Bell tolling. Oh yeah, have fun with this.

Have fun (or funk?) with grief? Really? Tear my shirt! Throw ashes on my head! “Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” Sharon Jones channels the furies–let it all out. Because this time (and every time?), it won’t make sense. Because today I don’t have to declare victory. There will be time for that later, after this raucous (for me, perhaps not for you my quieter more solemnly disposed friends), exceptional event.

For now, maybe turning the dial to eleven, and letting the sea crest over the walls may be exactly what is needed. If that is what it takes, there it is: “Cause it’s my way baby, and I don’t care none about the rest of you.” Go for it, grief. I’m down. I’m dancing.