Patterns

I don’t believe in fate—providence, if you will. If there is a plan, it does not proscribe outcomes. Rather we wander in and out of circumstances bumping into two sets of patterns—those we make out of our lives, and those that are beyond our immediate control. Life goes out of balance when we cannot get the two patterns to jibe—when we cannot reconcile ourselves to the patterns that exist. Out of balance we can neither accept what has happened in our lives or we cannot break those patterns and create new ones that are made from familiar pieces but reflect possibilities that we had not imagined. Out of balance we fight against the patterns that life provides, missing obvious signs (rising temperatures, repeated cruelties, even the tender messages of love) and careening against the walls of a maze that we cannot perceive and causing damage to ourselves and those around us.

The patterns in our lives start with family. I constantly share Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” There is something reassuring in the thought that we are in a cycle of “fuck you up.” As opposed to Larkin, I think the ways we do it, as we do it, inescapably echo what has happened to us, perhaps a refracted and distorted echo, but if we listen closely the voices of the past are there. Beyond that we try, inexpertly and haphazardly, to shape something new—sometimes in the bounds of that was happened—marrying tin castings of our mothers or fathers—and sometimes creating almost new ones—bouncing from job to job, leaving or being fired, until we find something that makes sense; switching churches running away from one doctrine to another until we find answers to our questions, or questions for our answers, failing in aspects of our lives until we discover paths that lead to understanding and accomplishment.

If we pay attention there are patterns to the world—some are startlingly easy to discern: evolution, geology, philosophy, math, literature. We go to school to learn to recognize those patterns, or at least learn the methods behind those patterns. Maybe—there’s no guarantee—we learn to accept that life does not always follow the neat regular order of all that we learn—like a geometry proof—but proceeds in fits and starts—like punctuated equilibrium. Or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the cagey repetitions of a Mandelbrot set—a kind of beautiful and frustratingly decoded paisley.

I am writing this, because I can see—but only when I’m not looking straight at it—a pattern. The school where I will teach in the fall is near the junctions of routes 17 and 29—roads that ran through my earlier life. The mountains nearby are mountains on which I hiked when I was twelve. I am now split, three hours in either direction—when the traffic is good—from both ends of my family. These are entirely random coincidences—of that I am sure. However, coincidence when it travels in large numbers begins to wear the shape of a pattern. Perhaps it is a pattern of my own making—I look for affirmation and discover it where I will.

And yet, these days, I find other coincidences accruing—but not coincidences, more like reflections and refractions.

How many times in my life have I wondered how someone significant has entered my orbit—or rather, how has the rogue moon of my existence been captured by another’s gravity? I recognized early on the awful fact that I was chasing those tin castings from my family. Inevitable, and not always destined for failure, yet, somehow, not strangely, I ended up at 58 single.

When I looked through the kaleidoscope of my past relationships, I recognized the shifting bits of glass and plastic that first came present in my childhood. And with each turning, I noticed newer, more original bits. I could see how I was adding to the portrait, or finding, fortunately, new colors and shapes. This bit—a runner who lead me onto the road and into extended jaunts over hills. That bit—a wild heretical sense of magic and religion that helped my questioning soul find new answers. Over there, now sliding out of the periphery—an abiding sense of motherhood that helped me see fatherhood in a clearer light. Here—a love of play and pretending that rekindled my dramatic heart. In the corner—a fervent commitment to words and learning that at least matched my own. Sliding past in a glint of light—a traveler’s heart that would call me away from the familiar and to new destinations.

All these marked shifts away, additions to, and surprises in my vision of who I would walk with down city streets and along autumn trails. Singularly, each one added a variation to a familiar pattern, but that pattern remained dominant. All together they formed a secret wish—not just for someone else, but for the person I wanted to be.

Do we get to pick that person? Are we trapped under years of habit and gentle conditioning? They have carried me this far. What to do with the secret and not so secret longings—dreams set aside for expedience and practicality, or for some ingrained fear or limit? What if I began to write a new story—still with some familiar elements, but now with a center I have let waste in a box kept in a closet, underneath last year’s shoes, out of sight, but never, naggingly, out of mind?

I don’t believe in fate, but what if, instead of providence, I relied on my will to call forth a story, to create a possibility I had turned from year after year? What would happen? Would the kaleidoscope turn to reveal someone, or—by dint of will and willingness to shake my life into new form—would someone appear, almost without request, almost by chance? I don’t believe in fate, but I can see patterns, and can follow stars that have not lifted above the horizon before now.

Onward!

Loud (Happiness part 3)

Play it loud.

On May 20, 2015, Letterman’s last show ended with the Foo Fighters ripping into an extended version of “Everlong” while a montage of Letterman’s thirty-three years on television played.

And I wonder

When I sing along with you

If everything could ever be this real forever

If anything could ever be this good again

The guitars churn through the song, tearing as deeply into sadness and desire as can be imagined. It struck every chord with me then. Something was gone, but something was good. And loud—and it built, simple layer on simple layer.

Later that summer, I listened to the song in my car before work, before everyone arrived, and the minister for that Sunday (we had a different minister nearly every Sunday in the year of the aftermath of Jenifer Slade’s suicide) pulled into the space next to mine. When I explained the context of the song—briefly—her response was, “My son used to listen to them. I don’t like the Foo Fighters.” Several years afterwards, her name was floated as a possible minister for our church—I cringed.

I like to play music loud—scratch that, I love it loud. My rear view mirror vibrates along to the beat. I love to sing along until my voice is raspy (vocal fry be damned). Springsteen, Foo Fighters, The Pixies, Liz Phair, Aimee Mann (who doesn’t rip it up, but…), U2, Arcade Fire, David Bowie, PJ Harvey. There are others. My Bloody Valentine rang in my ears while seas chased my boat on the ocean.

This has been true for ages. When my coworkers drank their way out of a dinner shift, I got in my car and drove. Turning up the sound until my little Volkswagen caught the turns of country roads to swelling arpeggios. No DUI, just driving while loud. When I swim, I play music loud enough and vicious enough to make the pain in my arms and legs seem like an afterthought. It’s fuel, pure and simple. Fuel with a taskmaster’s beat.

Less never really captivates me. I can appreciate quiet and simplicity, but if I’m going to be transported—physically, spiritually, even mentally—I must crank it up. These days I don’t crack the sound barrier, and the music does not make me forget the limits—not the sensible ones. Still, it opens a gap, a crack in the hard stupid shell of “I don’t like…”

I was at a show for the band The Snails a couple of years ago—proto-punk silliness (they came out with trash bags full of balloons on their backs—like snails!). Everyone kept the beat, even this old man, especially this old man.

The only thing I’ll ever ask of you

Got to promise not to stop when I say “When”

Play it loud.

Catching fireflies

Where does sadness, the inexorable seriousness in my writing originate? My friends would tell you that I am puckish in real life—if anything, a bit too unrestrained. Why doesn’t that same sense of things stripe my writing? Why do I seem stuck hitting the same damn dour note?

It’s time to disagree with giants. Tolstoy was wrong about families. Families are not all happy the same way, or only so if one only considers the end result. Families, and individuals, are unhappy in a million different ways; happy families share the same infinite array. And how many different ways are individuals happy compared with the list of universal sadnesses?

I will take it a step further. Unhappiness, sadness, if you will, seems, if not a baseline, then a certainty. Life takes its strange course, and we know that bad things will happen. Tragedies wait between buildings like muddy tigers, who, if they do not gore us, they will leave us an awful mess. And they come with a punctuality that challenges the trains in Germany.

Happiness seems more random, more baffling, more ephemeral. Like a firefly, reach for it quickly, and the breeze your hand makes sends it out of your grasp—it takes a gentle practice to catch a firefly.

What makes me happy? That too may be the rub. Everything in small measures. A decent parking space. The blue outline of the mountains to the west. The concept of deep time. A good crossword puzzle. The ping of my phone when an email arrives. My list is so long and so specific, that it must be boring to you. “That makes you happy!” comes the general snort, “That never makes me happy.” The writer who seeks connection writes about happiness at his own risk.

Even that—the response of disdain to good news—is more general, probably more shared than, say, my appreciation for Kevin Appier’s distinctive and delightful delivery. “You’re writing about baseball? Fie!” Like I said.

So damn the torpedoes. Here comes happiness—some common, some that will be an gentle education. Catch it like the firefly.

The Wrong Side of the Bed

Some days it feels like there is no good side of the bed. I wander into the day with storm clouds surrounding me, and then the day just adds more; I go from grey to absolute darkness. Everything that people say, even people that I love and respect, just strikes me as wrong. Nothing is where I have put it (I work in spaces that I share, so this is—growl—fairly typical). It is too humid. Help that is offered is the wrong help, or worse, unhelpful. My face works itself into a deeply lined scowl. People charitably comment that I look tired. I know the code. I look angry.

In general, I am a happy man. I can find my way to a good feeling by hook and by crook. I take joy from a cup of coffee, and from the sound of my daughter’s voice. I rarely find myself in the place the Violent Femmes describe in “Add It Up”; in fact, just singing along (“Why can’t I get just one fuck…”) makes me laugh. The universe is like a perpetual gift-giving machine designed by the best toymaker ever.

Except. Except when the black clouds of contrariness gather around my head. And then storm. (It’s so bad that I cannot even manage complete sentences to describe the feeling). The first flash of anger brings attendant feelings of self-loathing and despair; I have failed again to keep the thunder at bay. This of course leads to more anger—at myself, and at whatever the temporary cause of it may be. Call worship service boring? Rage. Complain that the smell of cookies in the oven smells like something burning? Rage. The Juniors and Seniors decide to ditch detention on a day I skip an important meeting to sit for two hours with their recalcitrant selves. Rage. I can hear my mother, “I’ll wring your neck.” Thanks mom. Rage.

Anger is my forbidden emotion, and because in the atlas of my brain I have marked it taboo (here there be dragons), I am less familiar with the terrain than I should be. Okay, that’s a lie. I am terrifyingly familiar with anger. I walked over that ground for years as a child and adolescent. The flags of my furies unfurled when something or someone contradicted or existentially threatened the foundations of my moral universe. When I was a boy, those foundations were fairly straightforward and limited, and resulted in squalls of “That’s not fair,” which could pertain to the most trivial (“He has more soda than I do!”), to the substantial (“How can you throw him out of school weeks before graduation?”). The dictates of fairness required an even hand be dealt to all, and later incorporated a sense of esprit de corps (were all in this together). I clove to these rules tightly and took the breaches seriously.

And what isn’t fair to a first born son? We, who stand at the vanguard of the moral universe, who plunge into the morasses that our parents design into swampy labyrinths, who seek strength and consistency and meet frailty and disorganization—or worse hypocrisy. I learned early enough not to get angry when I encounter something that doesn’t simply challenge me (lesson from sailing #37: learn to confront challenges: sea-sickness, rain, rash decisions, doldrums, incapable crew, broken ribs; with aplomb. Because another challenge is coming in 5, 4, 3, 2…), or disagree with me. In fact, I run toward, perhaps too giddily, challenge and disagreement. It wasn’t always so, but learning to be gleefully devastated from time to time helped me become a good student, and (so I hope) a better man.

As I aged, I learned to grasp the essentially contradictory nature of life. I embraced Whitman’s charge: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” On the flip side, I expected others to embrace it as well. I attribute my general buoyancy to the multitudinous sea of possibility in which I swim, but I recognize that others must swim in narrower straits. Must you? Really? On stormy days, I do too. I feel as if I am repudiating myself, reneging on the promises I have made to myself and to the universe, failing at my calling and failing at my life’s sole purpose. I want to run away, and live cabin-bound on the rolling ocean, in the thickest forest, on the side of a stark and forbidding mountain.

On rare occasions, I draw on this narrower, “fatal vision” as Macbeth calls it. When I play poker, for instance, I find it easier to put on the fierce blinders of aggression. Sometimes when I write, I close the larger windows to focus on just this pane or that pane of vision. When I teach, I rein in my big confusing mind so that my students can see what it is like to walk on one path in one direction with singular purpose and clarity; that is the lesson they must learn now. After these experiences, I feel drained, in part because I have intentionally disconnected, and the angry hand is the one that flips that switch.

So, when the grey days come unbidden, from a bad night’s sleep, or illness, or some twist of half remembered dream or memory (do I have to wake up with THAT strange bedfellow today?), I feel less myself, at odds with the world, looking, like Ishmael, for hats to knock off, and eyeing ships bound for sea with untoward desire. But, the day passes. I remain a free man. In the morning to come, every side of the bed glistens with possibility again, and I am once again myself.

Happiness, Purpose, and Praise

imageIn the middle of some weeks and months of gloom—sad songs, sad memories, sad circumstances with my mother—happiness occurs too. My students and I read Dickens’ Great Expectations and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My daughter skips down the sidewalk on her way to school. A volunteer at church wrangles teachers for a middle school class. I organize the twenty-fourth draft of my fantasy baseball league. I see Zootopia three, no wait, four times with my daughter. A strong wind blows. I get texts from absent friends sharing their joys and achievements. The cats jump into bed when I head in for sleep.

I consider myself to be a happy person. Many different things inspire feelings of happiness in me. What kinds of things? Watching my daughter skip down the sidewalk to school, of course. One of my cats leaping onto a windowsill to be fed there. Indian food, well, good Indian food. The grooves of a record. Garamond font. Holding hands with a person that I love. Legos. A light covering of snow on a mountain path in summertime. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Shooting pool with friends. Watching a baseball game in Baltimore with friends. Having dinner with friends anywhere (even at Wendy’s). Kissing a woman that I love. Again and again. Fountain pens. Warm sand at the beach. Otters. Danish modern furniture. Arts and Crafts style houses. Farms. Wind strong enough that I can lean into it. Any wind. Fourteen-inch narrow ruled yellow legal pads. Visiting my nieces. Driving along the Maine coast. Tarot cards. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blue. Sails. Art museums. Cleanly swept streets in a city where the buildings tower high. Acrobats.

I could go on. Seriously.  Do some of these happinesses outshine others? Certainly. Do I turn any away when they present themselves? No, not if I can help it. Yet, I cannot find a thread to bind all these things together, and many of them contradict each other. Some share nothing other than the fact that they exist in the world and that they make me feel happy. It’s almost as if the only qualification I have is mere existence, but that is not true. I could make a list of what I avoid; it would be a long list. However, it would never come close to eclipsing the other side.

I once facetiously proposed writing a travel book called, Good Food is Everywhere. I was traveling to the Oakland Coliseum with my friend Dean, and he mentioned a place to eat— god knows what. Everywhere we traveled, we found good food. I said, “There is good food everywhere”—the kind of panglossian statement that belied our experiences in the world. We had both been bounced around romantically; our parents had faced significant health challenges. Life held no guarantees. Nonetheless, somewhere, everywhere, someone was making something genuinely delicious to eat. Happiness, even in this limited and simple form, was available. All one had to do was find it.

And, to be clear, let me distinguish between happiness and what? goodness? While doing the right thing—being just, striving to be good, or, as Rilke wrote: “praising this world”—is my goal, I have never expected that behavior to provide happiness. The sunnum bonum gives life its meaning and purpose, but it also engenders struggle.

In the Ninth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke exhorts:

Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.

The struggle is between the Things, and our praise, and the “imageless act.” I know what a Thing is, but struggle trying to nail down what an imageless act might be. Let me propose the following.

I do an exercise with my students in which I pick up some thing on my desk—a stapler, for instance—and ask them to chart its existence before it came to rest on my desk. We consider each human hand that “touched’ it, and if it interacted with any other Thing (was transported, boxed, or shelved in a store or warehouse), we then have to go through the same process with each the things involved with it as it made its way to us. And so on. The result is not an iceberg so much as a galaxy of connections; the web becomes nearly impenetrable, nearly limitless. I think that this may be the “business” that Rilke points to—a series of acts and actors who disappear, become party to that “imageless act,” part of a supply chain that exists only to invisibly deliver a stapler. When we use the stapler without an understanding of the vast cloud of connections—of the benefits and costs borne by that cloud, those people, those Things—we are party to that business and expand its limits.

Cutting through that business is a struggle. But within the business, what can we find? A thousand hands—more—and all these things: a lathe, a cam shaft, a table, a ship’s propeller blade, a rivet, a mallet. Each one sings out for recognition, for praise. Every hand, every foot, every heart, and every thing. Imagine knowing that all your acts would be held up for praise, and to know that your single cause for being was to praise. The tongue is freed, the heart endures. And the world becomes. Again.