London Thoughts

History is a story of discontinuous events—events that collide like weather systems or galaxies, having barely understood origins, and even less decipherable records. All the witnesses were destroyed in the collision. What they saw, what they thought, and what they felt—even if they recorded their observations on stone, paper, steel, or silicone, have been destroyed along with them. We are living in the age of delusion, in which we believe in the sanctity of our recorded history—either self-scribbled or captured by another.

This thought is brought about by two things. First, wandering, quickly—this time—through the British Museum (or Westminster Cathedral, or almost anything else in London), what becomes painfully obvious are the gaps. All these artifacts, so painstakingly arranged create an idea that history is continuous, and has flowed in a linear pattern. And then a closer inspection shows that over and over again, things haven’t come that way. There are sudden breaks in history, when entire empires vanish, or when they change—seemingly overnight—religions, or methods of governance, or technologies, and the old gets swept away, almost as if it was a betrayal of the new.

England as it shifts back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism bears these marks hard. Or, reading through the story of Ashurbanipal and the claims of glory made by this king reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Thinking of history reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium—evolution proceeding in long quiet periods of little change, and then having sudden outbursts of change. I know, we are taught that slow and steady wins the race, but, we are also taught to believe in the nature of story as an overarching “way things are.” We see things through that frame, and it doesn’t always support the picture inside—or outside—the frame.

Second, in the musical Hamilton (which was also part of this trip to London), the character of George Washington warns Hamilton that we do not control who writes our stories. He’s telling this to a man who believes in his power to literally write his own story—and to use his words to cement his reality. He can’t—and doesn’t. His wife, Eliza, sends his legacy forward—and Lin Manuel Miranda brings us her legacy. But, as Miranda admits in interviews, even this moment for Hamilton—and therefore, for him as well—is provisional and subject to changing tastes and critical opinion.

Does everything disappear? No. There are 2000 year old Roman walls in London. But Rome? Everything can disappear. And we will tell stories that soften the loss.

I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, what I am doing when I write: whose story I am writing? It isn’t my story. Of course it’s my story–as if it could be anything else. Nonetheless, as I write about characters who are 5000 years old–older in some cases–I think about history, because they think about history. How can they not? How can any of us not? It is everywhere–in the streets, and in the faces, here in London.

Mothering and Nostalgia

A current meme on Facebook compares what Moms used to say to their kids with what they say now. It is held up as a clarion call to the virtues of yesteryear, when Moms—and their kids—knew what was what. Over and over again, stuff (stuff) like this careens around the internet, in casual banter on news shows, in conversations in my workplaces. Those of us who grew up in the mythical “then” look back with nostalgia, and look at this moment with a jocular disdain. I would like to call “bullshit” on the whole enterprise.

I don’t now what your mother was like. If she was anything like mine, there were highs and lows. My mother stayed at home with my brothers and me. She bowled in a league. Went shopping. Had bridge parties. Took tennis lessons. She was a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, and took us to the Devault Meat Packing Plant, among other places. Her sons were a handful. She scurried us out at a reasonable time in the morning, set out lunch when it was time, and made dinner for the family. She made us Batman capes for Easter one year; she sewed. I remember her stitching up an injury to one of our cats.

Was she happy? Her happiness was never an issue for us. Nor was our happiness overly attended to. We all were content, which, to my gimlet eye, is a horse of a different color. It was only later, some 13-14 years after I was born that she began to explore art, and then took on the work of a painter, and artist. If she found genuine and durable happiness, it was in that work—and the work of making art is not about easy delight, or even contentment (so says her son, the writer).

My mother did what she thought and felt was right. She learned her lessons from her mother and family—and what lessons they were. Some things, she changed. She never leashed us to trees in the front yard. Others were more indelible. I am certain that most of us parent in the same way—sifting through the conscious and unconscious lessons that we received from our parents. What we do, we do almost on a kind of autopilot—in the heat of the moment, dumb memory takes over. Change is hard.

I cannot and will not say that my childhood was perfect. I can recall exceptional moments on both sides of the ledger. Making a judgment seems beside the point. Here I am now, and I go on. There’s a ton of privilege built into that statement, and I fully recognize exactly how fortunate I am to be where I am, and to have traveled to this point in my life. The choices I can make now—and the way I make those choices—are predicated on the choices of my mother and father. And so on. For ages.

I guess that any time I hear someone pass judgment on another’s parenting—and mothering especially so—in that gross, if semi-benign “Look at the snowflakes” kind of way, I want to yell, “Really? Cast aspersions carefully, oh paragons of perfection!” All those old lessons about the log in your eye and casting the first stone ring out loudly for me. Those are the lessons I remember. Besides, the old joke about walking five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, gives the proper lie to ill-kept nostalgia.

Life, and mothering, are hard. No one needs anyone to chide them for the daily duties. The significant missteps require a different consideration. No more abuse, please. But keep the quibbling to a minimum. Please.

In general, and in a larger sense, I distrust nostalgia. Yes, remember, always remember, but without the haze of candy floss. At heart, I am more focused on where we are going, adapting, and learning—and in passing those lessons on. Have I failed? Indeed. I keep at it. I will fail again. So what? I keep at it. Where I came from is a starting point, but not my destination. Eyes up! Here comes life.

On Being Known

IMG_2982Is there anything worse than being mis-known? Than someone making a claim about how you feel or think that has almost nothing to do with your actual thoughts or feelings? I remember an occasion after one of our Thursday night poker games in Binghamton when some poor soul ventured that no matter what I said, he knew that what I felt in my heart was different. I don’t even remember what we were discussing—maybe Moby Dick. My friend Brian looked at me at that moment, acknowledging the serious breach that had been made.

And of course, there are worse things—1,000 worse things involving the obliteration of the physical being. However, our ability to say, “This is who I am”—to define our mental and spiritual being (which exists fully in concert with our physical selves), is of tantamount importance, especially in a world in which our physical beings are fairly secure. We are privileged to be able to assert this side of our being. But even when chained, we need this self. Both must be unbound.

For the most part, and it almost hurts to admit this, I do not expect to be known in the world. I rarely put the full force of who I am and what I think and how I feel on display. My writing, and these blog posts over the past few years are a first step. But, whether it is a function of the way people know each other, or the fact that, over the years, I have learned to restrain myself in order to fulfill specific tasks in the world, I no longer expect to be fully known. I feel sometimes caught between the poles of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the bounty of Whitman’s Song of Myself—either worrying about being misapprehended, or standing in a field of grass beckoning “Here I am! Here we are!”

The Eliot pole—and he is not holding Prufrock out as an exemplar, but as a warning—burdens me with the sagging weight of doubt that any connection is ever possible. Even the sirens will pass me by. I feel, at times, profoundly sad that anyone, really, ever knows another. This suspicion is tied up in the gnawing Weltschmerz that descends upon me and sends me reeling into the worst and most stupid kind of isolation. When so gripped, I guard myself with cynicism or sarcasm. But those moments are my worst, never my best. They are too easy.

The Whitman pole buoys me. The contradictions don’t matter; in fact, they are an essential part of me, and the world, the great breathing, aching, loving, ecstatic, terrible world surges through me and restores me. My “I” ceases to matter. I become a vessel for a song made up of all the voices of all the things and all the people. I tend toward those voices with ferocity and devotion. Bring it on! “The dancing wagon has come! here is the dancing wagon!”

However, and here is the rub–I am too full of contradictions, too connected to a world outside myself. I feel afloat in a world that values certainty and consistency. Most people seem to seek firmer ground, to limit voices of dissent. I don’t know why, not exactly, not when we are beings of such profoundly possible connection. I have “everything” tattooed around my right ankle. Then I remember Prufrock. Do people live with such doubt? Do they never explore and expand to meet the world like lovers, ready to be torn to shreds and remade by love. Damnit all. Go!

Maybe we are never sure, never sure enough, and especially not in the presence of love. I know that my greatest struggles with being known have come in the presence of more singular love, when there is one person who must bear the shaking I experience between the poles, and then must love the contradictory, magnanimous, possible heart I carry deep inside. And perhaps this is asking too much of one person to be the secret sharer of this heart. I feel difficult, even to myself, and am not sure whether I am knowable or lovable on my own terms, not in a one-on-one kind of way. Maybe the way I am precludes this. Maybe I am best known facet by facet, and not all at once. I am fifty five years old; time passes, slowly and quickly.

Still, I hear the voices, and sing the songs, and cherish the world that is always there, no matter how great the hardship, no matter how awful or wonderful. And I chose, for better or for worse, to write, to scribble down thoughts and ideas and images and characters and stories all in the hope that they would come alive in some stranger’s mind. I do not sing this world to the angel, unless the angel is you, unless we are all, already, angels.

And in some small and not small way, the hope of being known—asserting myself—seems almost like a betrayal of my charge. Sing the world, you man. Give it up! Disappear! You will never disappear! Keep singing. Keep telling stories. Keep connecting. Know the world and love the world.  Find yourself there.