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.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.

Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

London, Flying, Writing

It has been a year and a few months since I was in London. I’m thinking about London while I sit and study Monet’s “Houses of Parliament, Sunset” at the National Gallery of Art. The memory of looking across the Thames at that building, with Big Ben swathed in the latticework of repair, has faded only a little. The memories of walking the streets of the original square mile and beyond remain startlingly vivid. I used them to paint scenes when the characters in my novel walked through London. The memories of the places and the memories of the feelings.

When I was there, I had just begun what would become my first completed novel. I had changed my life, but was only taking the first steps out of the extended shadow under which I had lived my life for much too long. I had been grounded—too grounded.

This morning I woke from a dream of flight. I had to deliver a package, and the way to the place I had to deliver it to was blocked. The streets were closed—barricades blocked alleys and police redirected traffic. I picked up the box—a box of books, perhaps? In a previous job, I often carried boxes of books and was required, on occasion, to pick up from warehouses and deliver them. I carried the box through city streets, all the while receiving instructions about exactly where I was and exactly where I should go. Except, I knew where I was, and knew where I had to go. The instructions were extraneous, the kind of litany of “You are… You should…” that have too long tethered me. And so I did the only thing left to me. I flew. I flew in between the buildings in the city, sometimes following the spaces above the streets, sometimes flying over the buildings—skyscrapers. I flew past a circus parade, as performers prepared to enter their theater. I flew and wondered where I should ply my flying trade—the circus came to mind, naturally, but so did the military (I was a secret weapon). I scooped up a bully who was tormenting a younger child and instructed, “Superheroes live, and we are watching,” before setting him back on the ground, edified.

img_2173When I was last in London, I was taking steps into a world where I knew I could live, where I had longed to live. Just like in the dream, writing—flight—was not foreign to me, but something I had traded in for a more certain, more directed existence. While “You are…You should” can feel like shackles, flying—writing—is formless and uncertain. Anywhere is possible. Everywhere is almost a mandate. Just like in the dream, I had written before—had flown—and had lived closer to the limits of my existence. But I had to leave my self-imposed limits. I had to accept that I might fall—and fail—but just as I accepted that in my dream—soaring up the side of a steel and glass edifice, wondering, “What if I forget? What if I fall?—I thought, even as the thrill of fear invigorated me, “You are flying now. Even if you fall, you will remember as you fall, and fly again. Keep flying.”

img_2761Two women look at the Monet—taking seat in the National Gallery beside me. They think it is beautiful, but claim, “It doesn’t look like that.” Of course, the Houses of Parliament look like that, as does the river Thames, as does the sunset. “We didn’t see it,” they claim, “We were tourists, doing touristy things, like thinking about where to have dinner.” I did not think about dinner when I was in London. As much as I love dinner, even food became a secondary thought while I was in London. Even the pubs and ales became little more than way-stations along the bigger task—the journey, the seeing, the walking, and the flying. And the writing.

At some point, you leave behind what holds you back, and you push off the ground and make your first tentative moves into the air. At first, it feels more like swimming than flying. Wait. That will change. Once you have flown, you do not lose the gift of flight. You may set it aside, for whatever reason (You are…You should), but when you—finally—return to it, the inspiration, the ecstasy, and the certainty will return as well. You will accept the fear and even turned it to your use—flying and writing into places that scare you, outpacing your fear and using it as a goad—higher, faster, stranger, more beautiful, and then more.

I want to say that you do not have to wait until you are 58 years old to rediscover flight. But even at 58, then 59, you can recapture that rapturous joy of flight—and writing. While, in the dream, I was younger than I am now, and yet I could remember all of my current life. Maybe that was what I carried in my box: life. My life.

When I made my way to the circus—because, of course, the circus calls for a flier—an older man (I recognized him as the father of a former girlfriend, although I never met him in real life) warned me against the life I desired, not merely the circus, but flight in general. He did not say, “You are, you should,” but as his daughter had inveighed, he advised, “You are not… You should not.” He was an old musician, and soured by his work in the circus band. Another older man joined us and said, “Let him fly.” But he was dotty, had tufts of white hair on his fingers, and was probably drunk. Looking at these two, I thought, perhaps, that the circus is not for me. There are other places to fly—not into the dark above the audience’s —but into the light. I thought that while I dreamt.

I think about all this while I dream. And when I walk. And when I see. And when I write. And when I wake up.

I write this to you now because you may be 59. Or 29. However, you stopped flying—or writing. You stopped something. Or maybe you never started. I wrote in 9th and 10th grades. Again as a senior in college. Then I started working on a novel when I was 21. Again when I was 24. Again when I was 26. In grad school, I wrote 20 stories, a short book of prose poems, and two starts at novels. Then nothing that endured for years. A few poems, some prose (sermons and stories and articles), the start and start and start and start of a novel. Whatever I was doing felt like silence. You may be facing a silence of your own. I write to you.

Barricades may block the road ahead of you. You may need to get out of your dream car and carry that box (what is in your box?) through the city on foot. You know the way. Plus—and this is your secret—you know how to fly.

There is another world. It doesn’t feel like there is. I remember that feeling, and the horrible weight of “should and should not,” “are and are not.” Part of the way back to this world is the repeated practice of returning to it—fingers to keyboard, pen to paper. Revel in the count of words, in the hours in the air. Try to think of the inches, then yards, then miles you have traveled, and enjoy the journey.

Plenty of people will remind you of what you lack, will cast blank aspersions on the life you have lived, will denigrate what you have done to get where you are, and will sow doubt in the field where you play. They are not your friends, and you can do without them. Do not try to solve the problems they foist on you, or—worse—take them on as your own. The work, even when you fly, is hard enough without taking on unnecessary freight. There is weight enough in this work.

And there is lightness ahead. And light. You can soar as you wish. I wait, standing on the ground, or suspended in the air among clouds and antennae, and wait to cheer you. Fly! Wake up and fly again.

Distractions

The past week I have been distracted by the possibility that my country would once again go to war in the Middle East/Central Asia—in Persia. The thought transfixed me and kept me up at night. I have no control over the policy of my country—besides the meager franchise I exercise. Who, after all, is going to listen to a 59 year old English teacher? That said, I have little doubt that policy, even policy set by people with greater expertise than I possess, has been ramshackle and reactive over the past 50 years. Longer. Without a clear and positive vision of what we support—say, the spread of human rights—my country ends up defining its mission in terms of what it does not want—not communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, not terrorism. When a positive goal is enunciated—we want the free flow of oil—that goal tends to be acted on only in a self-serving and too often militaristic fashion.

Too often this misses the point. Those with the oil want to sell the oil. Naturally, they also wanted to possess the oil first, and then, of course, to sell it.

But this is true of any commodity, or anything one has that is valuable, whether that is a resource found under the ground or made by the work of hands. And even if one does not wish to sell—to escape the cycle of commodification—one wishes control over that which one possesses or makes.

I am sitting in a museum while I write this. I am surrounded by works of Alexander Calder. They are gifts, but he also sold them. There is a fabulous photograph of his workshop in this gallery.

I wonder what distracted him, if he was distracted by the world around him?

When I look at any of the works of art at the National Gallery, I do not immediately think of the dates and the events that were taking place in the world at any given time. Art is timeless in a way. And it is not. I am reminded that horror in the world was never limited to acts of overt war, but that it proceeded—and proceeds—in an endless stream of cruelty and misfortune. And yet, in all times, there has been art.

Maybe we keep art in a box—even when it responds directly to the events of any given era (as contemporary art more pointedly and more often) does. Artists (and writers) also have something which they make. Maybe they need to stay in a box, to ignore the world and engage in the process. This seems like a fairly effete vision of art. While there is something self-serving about making art (my vision!), art only lives when it enters the world, partakes of the world, and reflects the world in all its grizzly terrible presence. The horrible beautiful world.

So, I am reminded while I am distracted, to include the world in my work, even as a reflection in some fragmented shards of a broken mirror. This too.

Little Women and the Writing Life

Watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women for the second time (I suspect that I will see it again), I cannot help but see it as a writer’s movie—a movie about a writer and her craft. Jo March wants to write a good story (or novel). She succeeds by writing commercially viable stories the contain murder, betrayal, and scandal; they are “short and spicy.” However, when she faces the impending tragedy of Beth’s death, she begins something new: a story about domestic struggles and joys.

All romance aside, writing is a domestic struggle and joy.

Jo’s life as a writer defines how she lives her domestic life. At first, her writing helps support her family. It gives her independence from the economic reality that women face, and the film paints a clear picture of those economics. Amy’s assertion of what she would give up—property, children—if she married is bracing, as it should be. There is an economic reality to writing as well, and one of the joys of the film is watching Jo negotiate with her publisher. In a triumph, she decides to hold on to the copyright of her novel, instead of taking an upfront payment in exchange for those rights.

Here is one of the significant places that the film takes liberties with the source material. Gerwig knows the story of the novel’s author, Louisa May Alcott—a woman who never married. Gerwig turns Jo into a version of Alcott and allows Jo to understand the bargain Alcott will make—forgoing married life for a writing life. Jo relents only when she feels the pangs of loneliness and allows her family to goad her into chasing her Professor. When Jo chooses Professor Bhaer, the film cuts between Jo’s discussion with her publisher (who insists, “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”), and Jo’s consummation with Bhaer.

Gerwig has things both ways when this occurs. The film flows out in two directions afterward—one with Jo and her family opening the Plumfield School, and the other with editions of Little Women coming off the press with Jo’s name, not Alcott’s on the cover. It gives us two happy endings, one in which Jo is married and living an honorable and acceptable purpose, and another where she is a successful author.

Do I believe that the endings are exclusive of each other? They were exclusive of each other in Alcott’s life—for whatever reason. For the rest of us, I am not so sure.

I am sure that it takes a crisis to force the writer to come to compel the writer to mine—and compulsively mine—the deep sources of the story they will tell. John Gardner recommends, “[a] psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven.” Jo’s grappling with Beth’s death, and the outpouring of work that follows seems true enough. She props up her notebook, open to one story, “For Beth,” and it opens her up to her novel. It pours out across her attic floor.

How long a wound can fester before it scars over and prevents the writing is another question entirely. How many wounds, how many crises can the nascent writer face before the fountain cracks, and the story dribbles away in dust?  But that is not the story of Gerwig’s Little Women; it is gloriously hopeful and shows the way ahead.

 

The Reader

While I like to write while surrounded by people, once my eyes are on the page, and once my fingers are working, a kind of wall goes up. Writing is solitary. And it is not.

The whole point of writing is for there to be a reader.

Every time I write, I am thinking of you. You could be sitting right behind me at this coffee shop in Gainesville, VA. Or at an internet cafe somewhere in Pakistan. You could be someone I have known for years. Or someone who has stumbled into my work on a whim.

When I write, I imagine myself as that “you.” I am the woman writing about transformation in her blog and that man who took a break from writing about horses and Johnny Cash. I am my daughter, who, perhaps, will look back at this years later when she decides she wants to know something more about her father. And I am you, unknown and unknowable, reading this now. And even you, who I have known, once—maybe for a few glorious months—are still unknown.

These days, I wear reading glasses when I write. The glasses give the letters on the screen crisper definition. When I look up though, the world is blurred. I cannot be focused on the there that is twelve feet away from me and the here that is a ranged configuration of black shapes. Letters. I think of all the alphabets and how arbitrary those shapes are—they stand from left to right or right to left. We see a sequence that shapes the way we read and understand the world as much as the simple shapes try to define that word. Why am I watching those random shapes when other human shapes drift in and out of my blurred vision?

Sometimes, I write for me—not to express my thoughts or feelings, but so that sometime later I can become my own reader. I will remember this person who sat in fairly comfortable, if strange, surroundings, among people who spoke my language and people who spoke other unfamiliar languages. I will remember those who sat with me while I wrote or those who slept in rooms nearby. The strange shapes that I decipher will point me to another time, another me. I will treat whatever is contained in these words as properly strange, belonging to someone who is not me, any more than you are not me.

Plate PlateThere is a plate at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC. Around the rim are an elongated set of letters in Arabic. Even if you knew what those letters meant, would you know about the person who wrote them before the platter was fired in a hundreds of years old kiln? Or what to make of the carved insignias on a Neolithic disc from China? Sometime, 5000 years from now, will these shapes still make sense? Will they point some future reader back to me? Or to anyone else who writes now?

I write to be in the moment. I love the process of getting lost in the words, in trying to connect thoughts and feelings to this electronic scrawl. I loved diving back into the world of the djinn day after day and discovering what he—and all the characters in that book—saw and heard and felt. Writing took me out and away from my self, and gave me a place to visit and revisit.

I  know all too well that the moment does not last. I write ensconced in both the past and the future. Everything I know—59 years of experience—and everything that will open before me—another 59 years?—balances on the self that writes here. Each time, the words bring me back to the self who wrote that fragment, and I keep returning to that self while I work on a particularly long piece of writing. But that self never remains static—returning requires an effort.

The self that writes is almost more like a mask—something and someone stopped in time. I write in and on that mask, but underneath, on my face, in my hands, and in my heart and mind dreams of change and something I have not imagined continue. Last night I dreamed that I was making dinner—a recipe I did not know with someone I did not know. My mind invents and travels and changes. I long to remove the mask, but I accept the part I play. For now.

There will be another mask, just as there will be another dream, just as today’s experiences will shape me. The mask-maker. The writer. The man. And you, also, always. Perhaps you will find your way to here from wherever you are, and you will find your way back to some unknown place. And write.

Writing with the Rain

The Rain

By Robert Creeley

All night the sound had

come back again,

and again falls

this quiet, persistent rain.

 

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often? Is it

 

that never the ease,

even the hardness,

of rain falling

will have for me

 

something other than this,

something not so insistent—

am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

 

Love, if you love me,

lie next to me.

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

 

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.

“What am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often…”

Over and over in these blog posts, I look back to events in my life, trying to put my work and life into a context that makes sense. I am aware that I am insisting. I hearken back to Creeley’s poem, “The Rain,” because, like the speaker of the poem, I feel locked in some “final uneasiness.” I have had too much “intentional indifference”—that kind of willful professional distance that is meant to keep the ravages of freely ranging emotions at bay.

Creeley’s poem—tightly lined and sentenced—runs counter to the other great insistent poet in my life, Walt Whitman. Whitman’s Song of Myself insists stridently, and I wrote about the struggles my students face in the face of his relentlessness. I do not struggle. If anything, Whitman energizes me. His work reminds me that brio teetering on masculine bombast has its place. “Don’t restrain yourself, Brennan! Be all you are!” the poem declares. It urges me on.

“The Rain” does too.

Called between lyrical precision and unbridled energy, I find my balance in prose. I write fiction and nonfiction accepting the imperfections and imprecision, hoping that some meaning gets from here to an unknown there.

Besides I have been in the rain, under steady wet conditions on the ocean. I imagined myself as the “storm helm”—ready and able at the wheel in rough weather—when I sailed. I insisted on taking the wheel when the rain ran horizontally. I shooed my mates below decks while making way around Bermuda—from Hamilton to St. George—in hurricane wind. The local ferry even diverted course to check on us—it was not a day to be in the channel, but my father had a schedule. I kept us appointed.

Rain did not need to be as dramatic. Some stretches were just days long spirit flattening bouts of precipitation. Sailing did not have to be pleasant to feel necessary. Often, it was not. And yet, I felt called to it, in part by a commitment to my father, but also by the beauty of the ocean. Only onshore obligations kept me from finding further passages. Do I regret not having made them? Yes. Do I regret having kept my commitments? No.

Did the rain out there on the ocean wash away regret? Was I made clean? I wish it were entirely so. My experiences on the ocean are essential to the writer I have become, as all my experiences are. There are more salient lessons there though, if only because the lessons came with abrupt consequences. Life does not always have such clearly defined moments—it is more often like a day that is half-rain and half-sun. There is a reason that Thoreau calls life “quiet desperation”—it happens so silently that we do not even recognize the need.

Whitman—damned insistent Whitman—can loafe and still find original energy in that spear of summer grass.

I look skyward, into the rain.

Song: “When that I was and a little tiny boy (With hey, ho, the wind and the rain)”

By William Shakespeare

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came to man’s estate,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came, alas! to wive,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came unto my beds,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With toss-pots still had drunken heads,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 

At the end of Twelfth Night, Feste sings and sums up life. It is a particularly British vision of life. One merely needs to visit England to realize that the rain does indeed “raineth every day.” Of course, Shakespeare does not mean only actual rain, but that virtually everpresent British rain is not the storm on the heath, not the “Howl! Howl! Howl!” It just comes every day—not as a reversal, just as a steady ubiquitous presence. “The rain it raineth every day.”

Shakespeare is another touchstone for me. His plays contain absolute reversals and despair—too often self-inflicted injuries, and injuries that harm not simply the self but the state of the world. Consequence abounds. I am drawn to consequence.

Even Feste, the fool, is consequential. He helps to shape the story; he guides Olivia. And then he leaves. I love Trevor Nunn’s framing of Feste—and Ben Kingsley’s portrayal—in no small part, because of how Feste commands the end of the play. Feste walks off and insists, “Every day,” directly to the audience. This is the fool’s job—to entertain every day, and more, always more. If there is rain every day, so too must there be entertainment.

And the writer is the fool. I have always felt that. There is more than something foolish about attempting to entertain, especially when the entertainment strives to do more than simply delight. Although, delight is enough at times—“Be wet with a decent happiness.” More. I want more, of course, I want more. I want exuberance and ecstasy, a sundering of all that we simply accept—that intentional indifference. “Creeds and schools in abeyance!”

It is no surprise that I have supplemented my writing life with creeds and schools. I was drawn to them to overturn them. I wanted to make those worlds bigger. I have given up on one part of that desire. I have realized that as far as the other, it will not be enough. It cannot be enough, as attractive and meaningful as being the teacher-fool can be—and how enchanting teaching can be (and it can be! Watching the lights go on in my students’ eyes is beyond satisfying). I have to be the writer-fool.

Every day has been the mantra of the work. In rain. In sun. In light. In dark. Even though I cannot see your eyes while you read, or hear your gasps while I read, I undertake this foolish, giddy task. I am not indifferent, no matter what the cost, and there is a cost to caring. The reward is uncertain. Success is a chimera. And yet. It rains.

The rain came to the book. My characters ran through it on their way to seek shelter. Or they walked on streets slick with rain. Yes, those streets were in London. The city waits for me to return. The rain was real and metaphorical, as all rain must be. It came through happiness and sadness, as it must. And so the rain, the same rain in Creeley’s poem, in Feste’s song, and that I brought with me from London and the ocean came here. It is the rain that returns as persistent as ever. Always.

If she still felt love for him, it had become the love that the universe holds for all creation—children running down hallways and rocks washed onto distant shores. It had become permanent and impersonal. Or so she had convinced herself, how long ago? It was a night when she stayed out while it rained. The water drenched her, and she felt it seep into her. She worried, with a wild anxiety, that she would melt, dissolve into the ground, and disappear. The fear of disappearing made her heart pound—it felt as if it was pulsing into the mud beneath her, propelling her life into the ground. She was becoming part of the land. The tears that she cried became part of the rain. Was she crying because she had lost him, or because she was lost? She did not know. The water and the ground opened a space for her.

She did not go into the earth. The rain stopped. Her tears stopped. Her heart settled back into her chest, where it pulsed life back through her, rejuvenating her nearly lost body. In the morning, she rose, whole, not forgetting his absence, but welcoming the world as it was.