Wonder and Wildness

Breastplate Fragment, Northwestern Iran, 8th-7th century BCE; Finial probably Iran or Syria, 8th-7th century BCE; Plate, Iran or Central Asia, 7th century CE

You’ll notice the range here—about 1500 years between the gold breastplate fragment and the bronze plate. Winged guardian spirits persisted in Mesopotamia all the way into earliest Islam. Where did they come from? We don’t know, the same way we don’t know where Jinn originated—or Angels. We only know our domesticated, religion-ified versions. Islam did the Jinn no kindnesses—our vision of them as evil or demonic spirits postdates and is influenced by the Quran, delivered not so long ago. The gold breast piece is twice as old as the Quran.

When I write that we don’t know the origins of myths, I don’t mean that they once existed (either the myths or the creatures from the myths) and have disappeared. I only point to our genuine ignorance. Our past is not like science. New devices like those that have allowed the first crude forays into the brain’s working will not uncover why Inanna is the god of love and the god of war (who thought of that combination?) or why winged lions guarded the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Lions in Iraq? Winged lions? They persist—becoming a symbol of Mark the Evangelist and the emblem of NATO. How and why the image began is less interesting (if only because it is entirely unanswerable) than how and why they persist and change over our brief human history.

 One of the changes is a distillation of mythological figures into either good or evil characters.  The Jinn suffered this transformation into demonic beings—evil and then even more evil beings (avoid ‘Ifrit and Marid at all costs, even if you are Aladdin, even if they do sound like Robin Williams). In Greek and Roman myth, the gods of love are less complicated than Inanna, as are the gods of war (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the gods of love and war have an affair and are caught in a golden web). Athena, especially the Athena of Homer’s Odyssey, is tricky—the Ur-trickster, if you will—but even she pales compared to the brief glimpses we get of Inanna.

Stone Lion from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II, Iraq, 9th century BCE

There was a wildness in our early stories and beliefs. We lost much of that wonder and made it make more sense, conforming to ideas of should and could. We read in amazement until the story wraps itself into a moral. Our relationship with God is all but legalistic, and He doesn’t even have to swear on the Stygian marshes to bind him to a promise; we have it in writing. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are one part history, one (big) part contract.

And for those who insist that our current beliefs are too unbelievable, it’s not because these neo-heretics are demanding something wilder but seek a more logical and ordered universe. It’s as if we believe that it should be possible to predict the weather right down to the last degree as we leave our homes for another day of work. I remember listening to the automated voice deliver the weather forecast while sailing on the ocean: wind speed, wave height. And then, I got to the business of the waves and wind along my route. The windy, watery world was enduringly unpredictable.

If I was a deist, I would shudder to think that a contract written 1500-5000 years ago had any hold on a being I acknowledged as omnipotent. Like Oliver Twist, I would hold my empty bowl and beseech, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The “more” is more gruel. Somedays, the wild is as unpalatable as gruel, but more often, it is ambrosial in its unpredictability.

We strip the winged lion of its essential weirdness and wildness and turn it into an emblem—an organizational standard bereft of history and wonder. The weirdness and wonder persist too, and they rattle outside the self-imposed cages of our lives. Even when as small and inconsequential as a virus, we logical, rational humans capitulate to what we cannot control. We fail in the face of the wild.

Some Thoughts on Social Contracts

When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.

Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.

This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.

The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.

In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.

One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.

Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.

Wealth and Benefits of Spanish Monarchy under Charles III, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.

We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.

A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.

I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.

I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.

Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.

Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.

I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes!  I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.

Reading like a Dream

Read as if you are reading a dream.

We all dream, and so the experience is not uncommon. We fly, we fuck, we fall. Jungians and archetypalists of all sorts would normalize and defragment the conspicuously bad writing in dreams to give them viable and understandable meaning. Last night—in the morning, really, when I cadged an extra hour of sleep after my alarm gently nudged me—I dreamed about lifting weights. The gym—a fancy place with magnetically attaching plates—did not have—or rather, did not seem to have—bars long enough for bench presses. I had to go outside—in the dark, behind what appeared to be a dock or loading bay—to find the six-foot-long, forty-five-pound bars. Then I put plates on the bar, started lifting, and the weights felt light. I told my friend, Brian (yes, I have a friend who shares my name), who was spotting me, to stop helping me. I was covered in sheets. The word that came to mind was “shroud,” and it was getting in the way. I needed to take it off. Then I woke up.

Yes, this dream is poorly written—a shroud? Really? Concelo ex machina. I remember thinking, “Get this fucking thing off me!” Yes, I curse as much in my dreams as in real life. Obvious, clunky, and weird.

I forgot to mention that the gym was in a hotel in Marseilles. My mind populated the rain-wet streets with a raft of people of different nationalities, all drawn to the port city—a city that is liminal in real life and not just my dreams. I heard them speaking French, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi and knew that I could not communicate with them even as I heard them. They would not be able to tell me where to go—where the weights were—even if they knew.

There isn’t a book (or website, or Reddit thread) that will provide a definitive interpretation of a dream because there isn’t one. Even our own dreams unravel without narrative coherence or discernible significance. And they are our own dreams! Who better than the dreamer to make sense of the image soup that our brains simmer in the night? Besides, they almost always end with “And then I woke up.” So we rarely encounter a well-orchestrated climax and satisfying denouement.

Imagine, for a moment, treating what we read as if they were dreams. What if, instead of artistic unities, we sought to immerse ourselves the same way we are immersed in dreams. “Why not like life?” you ask. We exert—or attempt to exert—control over life. The homeostatic drive irons out all that is strange or random or, well, dream-like. In dreams, even for the lucid dreamer, there is an element of the unexpected. The joy (jouissance?) of dreams comes in their unpredictability. When else in life do we forsake prediction for sheer experience? 

I struggled to teach my advanced students how to “read like a professor” because they sought to corral meaning. What they read needed to reflect their experiences or interests. But then, I also struggled with my professors and grad school colleagues, who also harnessed what they read to suit their beliefs. Few readers meet the work and let themselves alter when they alteration find. We have a terribly hard time meeting the wild with our own wildness. Besides, surprise, the harbinger of change, runs counter to how our brains process information. Brains—by design—seek to match what happens with deeply rooted predictions. We predict and demand that the world conforms to our predictions. I am drawing on the work of Mark Solms for this.

What if, instead, we read literature like reading a dream?

First, we must know the dreamer better—or, at the very least, recognize that the dream comes from a profoundly intimate and personal space that is entirely subjective and therefore unqualifiable compared to our lived experience. While there may be correspondences with our dreams, relying on what we know of ourselves will lead not so much to a misinterpretation as a “mis-experience” of the dream. While holding up a mirror to ourselves is absolutely enchanting (and even, at times, essential), it becomes a solipsistic activity when left unleavened by a deep understanding of the dreamer.

Second, just as dreams surprise us, we need to be astounded by what we read.  Even if we are reading a novel in a class on post-colonialism, even if the novel makes straightforward claims about the post-colonial world, reading it only as an exemplar will circumscribe the work’s overall effect. It will remove the dreaminess of the work, and in that dream, there may be more (or less) about post-colonialism than we imagined at first. Pardon me while I carry this a step forward; we cannot colonize dreams with reason.

The same way that an out-of-place detail (that shroud!) opens up ways of understanding a dream, it is precisely literature’s ability to flash incongruous elements into being—not only as counterpoint but as mawing gaps in the well-knit Markov blankets of perception. We are lulled into a kind of affirmative satisfaction when pleasantly predictable patterns repeat. The surprises, the mistakes, and the interruptions all unravel the carefully constructed conceptions leaving what? A mad scramble to reweave—midnight (or midmorning) Penelopes trying to stay one step ahead of the rapacious reason-making suitors.

Dreams are strange, and most writing is not. Most writing belies its transactional origins. It keeps accounts, documents ownership, concretizes agreements, or dissolves partnerships. Most writing is officious and tedious. Dreams are not. Granted, we may feel that another person’s accounts of their nighttime rambles are inexplicable and therefore of little interest to us. Still, compared to a bill of sale or divorce decrees, they are candyfloss. The harder bone to chew is that we are primarily transactional beings. Writing reflects our need to organize and regiment experience to a suitable and predictable medium.

Dreams are a rebellion in our brains. While we spend our days demanding sense, dreams help settle a more extraordinary account—that of strangeness and unpredictability. Literature is a semi-intentional settling of accounts. It balances the need for predictable and measurable outcomes with the unsettled and unreliable aspects of existence. And if you make sense of last night’s dream, there is more confusion ahead. Why not court confusion and read to dissent with all common sense?

I go back to Mrs. Dalloway and how Septimus Smith’s death made Clarissa “feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” Few moments feel as gloriously incongruous as that—as disruptive and necessarily reframing. You cannot read Mrs. Dalloway the same after that moment, and if you are a serious reader, you better start all over again. I will suggest that almost all works of literature have such moments—or several such moments—that just don’t fit. Or completely fit. Each one shatters the pattern and forces the reader to reconsider and reconceive.

There’s a reason that we do not experience reality the same way we experience dreams. It is impossible to have the world perpetually exploded and rearranged out of order. I may seem to critique how we live when I make claims about our essentially transactional natures; I am not. But I see the tension between the drive and indefatigable desire for predictable outcomes and the violently unpredictable nature of complex systems. Reading literature is not a way to practice making sense but of recognizing the failure of making sense. We must need to constantly reassess, and recognize that even in a world that we have (subconsciously) organized (that cleanly appointed gym in a hotel in Marseilles) that there are twists and turns ahead. We need to learn that the world is more unpredictable, more incongruous than we would like. As are we.

Two Voices

It isn’t always easy.

On Sunday at the French Open, Novak Djokovic, the number one tennis player in the world, dropped the first two sets of the championship to a rising star. He had faced the same situation in the fourth round of the tournament, but this was the final, and his opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, was poised to win his first major championship.

Djokovic retreated to the locker room after the second set and had a conversation with himself. “There is always two voices inside: one is telling you that you cannot do it, that it is done, it is finished,” he admitted. “That voice was pretty strong after that second set.”

Wait. The best tennis player in the world, a champion who had won 18 major titles (and would win his 19th that day), has a voice that says he cannot succeed?

 Sit with that for a moment.

Yes, he has another voice, and he described how he asserted that voice between the second and third set. “I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalise the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I cannot make it. I told myself I can do it and encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, and tried to live it with my entire being.”

You can see him talk about the two voices here. Jump to about 3:10 in the video.

Success is not about living without doubt. Doubt exists, even in the mind of a champion. Success happens when that “other voice” contends with doubt. Djokovic, who has won 19 major tournaments, has also lost 10, and there was a time when his losses and wins (8 apiece) were equal. Even for the most successful, failure—and failure on a grand stage—still happens. We chose to contend.

I do not have the same record of success as a tennis champion, but, like him, I also have doubt. I have often chided myself for doubt, and this is a mistake. There are two voices: one that says, “Yes”; the other that says, “No.” I have learned—perhaps it took me too long—to listen to that “other voice,” and, when necessary, to give it a push. Vocalize it. Shout it.

Last winter, during the Australian Open, Djokovic was injured, and after leading Taylor Fritz 2-0, he dropped the following two sets. Djokovic has an imposing record after winning the first two sets of matches: 209-1, but injuries are a wildcard in sports. He prevailed, and the victory was especially sweet. “This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life,” Djokovic claimed. “It does not matter what round it is, against who it is. Under these kinds of circumstances, to pull this through is definitely something I will remember forever.”

His immediate response after winning was more revealing. He vocalized. “That’s why I play!”

That’s why I play!

Play? Novak declares that he loves tennis “with all my heart.” That is what it takes, no matter what, to do something with all my heart—with all your heart. I have no idea what else Novak Djokovic could have been. His parents ran several small businesses. Maybe that’s what he would have done had he not displayed a gift for tennis. Perhaps he would have become the best small business owner in Serbia; I do not know. He chose—as much as anyone chooses—to play.

Writing is play—at least it is a kind of play. We do not play against anyone, only with the reader. We entice and enchant them. Shock and soothe them. We afflict their doubts and shift their worlds. Maybe. And we face our own doubts—quietly and not so quietly. We enlist rituals and habits that either quiell those doubts or quash our urge to write. Which voice do we vocalize most?

Two voices? Like the two wolves from the story. Feeding the wolf? How about giving voice to the wolf? Howl louder. Jettison all the other voices that urge “No.” There will be enough of that—too much—within you. Listen to the voices that encourage, even demand, that you write. And then write more and love the writing with all your heart.

That’s why I play.

At War with the Virus

Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.

Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.

My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.

A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.

The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.

We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.

But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.

There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)

Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.

We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.

Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”

So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.

The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.

Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.

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.

Intention

IMG_3667

“A Swarm of Bi

Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art

 

The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.

What matters is what we leave behind.

IMG_3336In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

https://archive.asia.si.edu/publications/jades/object.php?q=F1917.79#scroll-down
Bi, ca. 3300-2250 BCE

 

Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.

What matters is what we leave behind.

When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.

What matters is what we leave behind.

I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

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 Promise of London: A Writer’s Promise

A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.

The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.

One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.

The other part of the promise was to write.

I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.

My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.

I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.

While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.

And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.

And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.

What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often?

Robert Creeley

One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.

The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.

I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…