Archives for posts with tag: love

There is a show through August at the National Gallery of Art, called “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.” There are several deer, and one of them—not this particular deer—snuck into my work. Whether it stays or not, who knows? For now, here:

As he thought about truth—perhaps the most slippery but indelible of ideas—he became aware of a murmur from among the host of the gathered djinn. He, the dark djinn, and Jabari turned to locate the cause and center of this gentle disruption.

A blue deer walked through the assembled djinn. From its sides and back rose thick shards of white crystal. It could have been quartz or moonstone. Perhaps salt. Its paws pressed deep prints into the earth, revealing how heavy the animal was. As it neared, the gold djinn could tell that it was made of lapis lazuli. And yet it walked. It was tall, almost as large as a horse, and around its legs two cloud colored foxes romped and played. The stone and crystal deer was walking through the crowd and toward them. It was regal.

When it reached them, it lowered its head, and gently—but coldly, since it was made of stone—nuzzled the dark djinn and gold djinn in turn. It was strangely soft, belying its nature—it was made of stone—but remaining true to some deeper nature: it was a deer. The foxes moved around Jabari, who stumbled around them, thrown off by their play. They were like smoke but firm, and this unnerved the ‘Ifrit. They were unnatural.

All the djinn had turned their attention to the scene: the blue and white deer, tame and regal, and the two smoke foxes, playful and disruptive. The three djinn at the center were not aware of the attention given to them, because the animals before them had entranced them. Blue, and white, and silver smoke. A crack began to form along the deer’s supple neck, and another at its hind quarter, and then a dozen others, opening its body and dividing the crystals ridged along its back. Bits of crystal fell to the ground. Blue stone chipped out from its body. Then it collapsed into rubble, beautiful rubble, but no longer alive. The foxes simply dissipated.

The djinn were struck silent. The deer had been beautiful and impossible. It had come through them and to them. It was a message and a messenger. Quietly, each member of the throng walked to the pile of stone and crystal and each took a piece of what had been sublime. There was enough for each and every djinn—no more and no less. The remaining wisps of fox-smoke drifted over their heads.

“What was it?” Jabari broke the silence when the taking had finished.

The white haired goddess stood with them. “It was him.”

Some of my students are aghast at the idea of reading a book a second time, let alone a third or forth, or fifteenth time. The life of a teacher means revisiting books again and again. They become habits. The past dozen years brought steady stops in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Homer’s Odyssey, and maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All became exceedingly familiar territory—terra too cognito—and I welcomed the changes that a change of job and change of curriculum brought this year. I taught half a dozen book I had not read in years. The freshness helped revive my vision.

Of course, repetition is the backbone of study. There isn’t a piece, whether film, book, or painting, that I have not poured over. And over. Some works hold up to repeated visits—this is especially of paintings and sculptures. I have sat in front of some paintings for hours, and then gone back a year later to do more. The ability to give concentrated attention to something is a rare quality. And yet, I find myself loosing the fire for return visits and viewings, even for old favorites. How many times can I return to Hamlet, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Wings of Desire? I know there are things I have not seen, and they call to me.

With spring, my attention is pulled back to baseball, and a group of friends with whom I have played rotisserie baseball for nearly thirty years. I have risen at odd hours when the season began in Japan, as it did again this season. I did not wake to watch early in the morning, but acknowledged the game at arm’s length. I almost did not play our little game this season, almost tired of keeping track of scores and statistics. 162 games and fifteen teams works out to nearly 2500 events to be aware of in some nagging fashion. Enough already.

How much has repetition and routine play a part in life? Too much. At times it seemed that I flew on autopilot, barely aware of the ground beneath me or the time that slipped past, never to return. Sometimes the routine is good—I don’t give more than passing thought to breakfast and lunch when I am busy. I eat the same thing, more or less, day after day. Perhaps my life would be better if I added variations here, but I have had other pressing concerns, like a Stephen Greenblatt essay about Hamlet. There are ways to keep the standards fresh. Still, there must be more.

I changed large parts of my life this past year—there were many reasons, but one was to interrupt the flow that had become too familiar, too easy. I wanted to drive up to a different door—my door. It did not have to be more beautiful—and it wasn’t—it just had to be different. My work as a teacher, although familiar enough, had to take me to different books an different students. And I needed to extricate myself from a years long creative drought. I needed to write to be alive.

This past December, I traveled to a new place, London, to which I had meant to travel almost thirty years ago. I traveled after I did a series of new things, each one satisfying, but each fueling a desire for more. Almost everything that has been part of the solid ritual of my daily routine tastes bland. I don’t hanker for extremes—a solo sailing venture around the world, or an ascent up some foreboding mountain, or a year in a seraglio—I yearn to encounter something as if for the first time. I wish to be a beginner again, with a clean slate ahead of me.

It will not be. There is much that I cannot jettison (Overboard! Overboard!), and some of which has been central to my life. But to bring my daughter along for the ride. To carry my brave and loving heart into boundless possibility. To write without care for sharp tongued critique. To go, and keep going.

I recognize that when I felt at my best, I was a student, learning, reading, discovering with a vigor that few matched. Right now my writing carries me vigorously to some new place—an undiscovered country that is beyond death—the little death of stagnation and routine, the larger death of a withered soul. I need to find a way to return this more adventurous, more daring, more profound sense of discovery to the rest of my life, to every aspect of my life. To become a masterful student again. Even while I wear the mantle of expert, I am an expert explorer. It is time to honor that. And go.

Perhaps my writing will be enough to answer that call during the long school year. My work feels, for the first time in longer than I care to admit, durable and ecstatic. However, I cannot let anything—or anyone, even myself—keep me from discovery. There must be time for new thoughts, new places, and a new world that will animate my work and revive my old heart. Here—there, and everywhere—I go.

Country Living posted a video of Jeff Bridges’s romance with his wife Susan. He first saw her while she worked as a waitress when he was on the shoot for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. “I knew I was madly in love with my wife the minute I saw her,” he claims. They married, and remain married after forty-some years. How did he know? How does anyone know at first sight?

What the hell. I say, “I love you” easily. It gets me into trouble.

Call it a predisposition—an attitude toward the world. I can walk into a museum and be delighted by things made four thousand years ago, four hundred years ago, and four hours ago. There isn’t one kind of music that is my “favorite”—so long as it avoids cliches, I like it. The same holds true for art. For movies. For most everything. So long as that thing provides some spark of surprise—the world is larger than you thought, old man!—I am, once again, in love with the world.

Cliches interrupt that feeling because there is no surprise. It is the pure unadulterated expression of the absolutely familiar. We’ve seen this show before. I thought about this when revisiting Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” last week in school, and his rail against schools for studying “monuments of [old men’s] magnificence.” How many times have I heard praise for souls that would (or should) “clap [their] hands and sing”? A hundred? A thousand times? More? Surely so. And yet, Yeats’s poem doesn’t feel like a cliche at all, even after all these years. I am surprised again. And in love.

But this is not about poetry or art. This is about falling in love, and saying “I love you”—and for doing it fast—at first sight, before the number of days and months proscribed by articles in Men’s Health or Psychology Today have passed.

Maybe men are more likely to go all in at first sight. Think of Romeo’s quickly fickle heart as he falls from Rosaline to Juliet. But Juliet, young and inexperienced as she is, follows quickly enough. And Susan Geston may have said, “No” to Bridges’s first request for a date, but she traveled home with him after filming in North Dakota wrapped up. I don’t know.

And a quick nerd note here. There is something I protect against: the reifying power of the male gaze. I suspect my gaze—and that of other men and women. It’s a way we have been, what? taught to see the world. This idea took shape when I studied film theory and encountered the work of Laura Mulvey. It’s worth serious consideration.

I do know that finding or creating a bond, and accepting that bond as something deeper than a mutual appreciation for art or wine or politics (I’ve been in those relationships, and what they lack in depth, they can more than make up for in breadth; there is much to appreciate in the world with a sympathetic soul) can help weather the inevitable differences that will occur. Most of my enduring friendships or relationships began nearly from the moment we met. Love provides the substrate for all that follows. And so much does follow.

But, how does one know? How does one ignite a deep and abiding passion based on a look, or a conversation? Experience, and more, has taught me that looks can be deceiving, but words, especially spoken words with all their attendant gestures, rise and fall of voice, and the play of expressions can unmask a heart—mine, hers.

What unmasks me, makes me open to the possibility again, is the blend of surprise and recognition. When someone adds some new aspect to the world, breaks some old pattern (like him, like her, but—somehow—not the same), and also reprises some aspect of the world that I value above all others, then I am laid bare, and I fall. I am less on guard against another person, than I am to my own repeated patterns—Am I doing that again? I am doing that again. Oy.

If I was a cynic, I would wait, and say, why love, when you know what will follow? Why not let the uglier side of each person—either her or me—assert itself, and avoid the disappointment? Go ahead and replace “cynic” with “practical.” And replace “ugly” with whatever euphemism for “real” that suits you. Either way, I am neither cynical nor practical. I am open to surprise.

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.

It’s a common enough occurrence, or at least I hope it is for you. Someone tells you, “I love you.” This seems like a simple enough thing. But I (and I am guessing this is true for some of you as well) did not grow up in a house in which that phrase was bandied about loosely. I do not recall my parents telling each other, “I love you.” Perhaps they did, but they did not in front of us kids.

My father only once told me that he loved my mother, and that was when he chastised me for arguing with her, “She’s my wife, and I love her. She’s always going to be right.” How’s that for a single explicit lesson on love and marriage?

Everything else I figured out on my own—with generous glimpses into the lives of families of my friends and the families of the women I dated over the years. Or movies. We have to learn somewhere.

So, when someone—that someone—tells me “I love you,” I know that there is an appropriate response, something distinctly other than, “That’s nice.” And here, I am distinctly not writing about the first time someone tells me that—I’m writing about months or years of love. Besides, if “That’s nice” is your response, it’s time to move on. You are doing that someone no favors.

First, and this is easy, reply with: “I love you,” or “I love you too.” If possible, touch that person’s hand or arm when you make this response. A simple physical gesture can help punctuate your words.

Maybe this seems too easy. “I want to say more,” you think. How about responding, “Every time you say that, I feel happy”? Imagine telling someone that after ten months or ten years, or, for that matter, ten hundred years. “Every time?” Every time.

Or, you could answer, “I remember the first time you told me that. It thrilled me. It still does.” Perhaps share the particulars of that first time. You remember, don’t you?

If words are not your thing, just stop, and stop them too. No matter where you are, or what you are doing. Take their hand, touch their cheek, kiss them—lightly or deeply as you wish. And then ask them, “Tell me again.”

I have a confession. I have a terrible time receiving love. I’m sure that this is true of almost everyone, so, I’m reluctant to make any big claim about it.

And yet, that too is a strategy I use to avoid the possibility that you, unknown reader, will not love what I have written. “Oh, god, not another carping complaint. It’s all about him, again. Bastard. Why doesn’t he write about me?”

How quickly I hear disparaging criticism. How even more quickly do I anticipate it. There is virtually no critique that I have not already baked into my work.

“How,” you might imagine, “do you manage to write at all?”

Dear reader, I imagine the same thing.

My creative process is a headlong rush between the giddiness of discovery, and the wrenching feeling of anticipated disdain. When I can hold it in balance, the disdain can provide a critical foil that hones the writing; when it runs wild, my work shrinks to a barely whispered voice. Less. Years have passed.

Harder yet, is when this dynamic creeps into my other parts of my life. Wait, it does not creep. It storms in—jack-booted, kicking down doors, taking the me hostage.

You would think, after 58 years, after a modicum of personal and professional successes, that this would not trouble me. I can be an interminable optimist. The bright red balloon of my heart can soar into possibilities. There is a court jester’s sensibility that makes for easy humor, tinged with sarcasm, but also with an abiding love for the queen (you!) that seeks only to please.

However, I harbor a vision of disconnection and interpersonal doubt that would make Henry David Thoreau or Holden Caulfield seem sunny by comparison. Call it cynicism, or realism (GAH!). When I am at my best, I recognize this darker vision for what it is—a diversion from the bright path that waits. Just. Over. There. And when you are at your best, my heart gladly joins in the song you sing. But when the two of us (or more, and more) sink into dissension and doubt, then I am challenged to rise to my festive best. Then the Hobbesian vision kicks in, and the only reason we find any accord is to put off the never ending war of all against all.

I write, and love, to assert a vision of life that encompasses all the bright possibilities. And that acknowledges the deeper disconnections—not simply disagreements or differences—that drive us apart. I know that there are such divisions, but I believe in the power of writing and love to bind up the old wounds, to forge a new path, and to discover new hope.

Sometimes, all it takes is writing. And that is what I have forgotten too easily over the years. The writing will carry me back to the world of connection, possibility, and yes, love. And so I write, the cloud lifts. The lesson is learned.

I begin easily enough. Before I know it, a length has passed in the pool—most of it underwater as I dolphin kick on my back until the flags at the far end of the pool pass over my head. Or a new job begins, with all the attendant paperwork and the meetings with people who think they know my job better than I do. They know something better, and I try to learn, as quickly as possible. Or a new romance, which is like falling, and is as easy as falling, the way falling is entirely effortless. What comes next?

The grind of workout #89, when the music on the waterproof MP3 player fails to inspire a quickened pace, and the bottom of the pool is endless. Or the month after the initial set of grades are due, and the fourth set of essays come across my desk. Not again. Not the same mess of misspellings and three page paragraphs. Or when the obligations of work and family eat into the blissful times, and bliss becomes quotidian. Imagine that, quotidian bliss.

In every aspect of my life, the transition from beginning to middle happens almost by accident. Like tripping over a carpet. I get used to the puckered places on the floor—or tug the whole thing up, and set it back down again, flat, until the gremlins shift it around again. And then I tug it up again. And again. One time will not do. One run of the vacuum. One load of laundry. Another set of tests to grade. Another and another and another.

But some things bear repetition, even improve. Like love. While it is hard to make the transition from falling to landing, it is better still to learn to fly, to find the joy. The old joke about, I just flew in from Los Angeles, and boy, are my arms tired. I would live for my arms to be so tired with the effort of flight. And it would be worth the effort, each fluctuation of my unseen wings, soaring in unison with my love.

It is the same with writing. I have used this blog as practice off and on for the past few years. It has been a way to scribble and not to worry about the duration of longer effort. Longer effort—let me call it what it is, a novel—can be daunting. What if, like falling and flying, one mistimes the creative leap and ends up hobbled or broken, with months of work sent to sea like Icarus? I only I can think about something longer as, well, 1000 word spans. 1000 words is nothing. 60 days at that pace, and… But let’s not get ahead.

Is writing something longer romantic? For me, yes. I have fallen out of love with several novels that I have begun. The ideas and characters have soured, or I have not loved them well enough to let them live beyond my narrow conception of them. For me, as much as writing is a commitment of ass to chair (scribble, scribble, Dr. Brennan), it mimics the action of reading—a generous engagement with a book. Seymour Glass’s best piece of writing advice ever— “Imagine the book you most want to read. Now go and write it”—has always resonated with me. And until now, other than some shorter pieces, no longer piece has fully met that criteria. Or, I was not up to the flight.

In the end, really, I don’t write because I have something to say, but still, because I want to discover something. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I still love to read. The same way that I love to travel, I love to discover ideas and characters in books. It is flight into unknown places. I love discovering what I do not know. Somewhere along the way the creative process seduces one into intention—I get caught in the web of intention—thinking about what I want to say instead of praising what I see. And letting my words find a way.

I take refuge in Michelangelo’s vision of the sculpture already extant in the stone—we aren’t creators so much as revealers—discoverers if you will. So too, with flight, while there may be a destination, there are also loops and rolls and fields long enough to land, and walk to an untended apple tree, pick a ripe crisp fruit, and eat. Discover this on the journey.

How many other aspects of my life follow this impulse—reveling in discovery more than intentional design? I think too many. Most people still live their lives primarily by design. There is security and satisfaction in the sense of agency that willfulness bestows. My students clamor to know what they need to do to earn an “A,” or a higher score on an exam. How unsatisfyingly do I answer, “Discover more.” That is no way forward, at least no specific way. It is an attitude and not a route.

And frankly, in romance, I have scuttled relationships because I have fought against others’ plans, not happy to simply follow the natural stages of things, and unhappy when a relationship settled into a routine. Of course, life is routine, a series of repeated rituals, a hundred thousand undulations of wings. But that routine, those rituals, can, should, must help one reveal what is hidden in the marble, or what might be found when gloriously in flight.

Perhaps, what I wanted, without knowing it, was someone who was willing to fly with me. And in my writing, something that had the chance of slipping the bonds of my intentions. A goal I could fly toward, that would transport me the same way that love transports and transforms me.

There is a little secret though. I do have at least one intention, and that is for this longer work to last, for it to remain engaging and vital, even when the effort strains my arms. And so, I take small flights. And share these flights, for now, with one who flies with me. I discover something new, one winged trip at a time.

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