Friday, June 27, 2008

A Train

My college buddy Jon put me up the night I went up to New York City to see our actor classmate in a play at the Public Theater. We went to a barroom in the Village after the play. Jon and his wife got up early to go to work. I had breakfast with them.

I walked up through the Village, a clear early Fall day, me in my Prince de Gaul suit, my cycling sunglasses, carrying my Dad’s old leather attaché. Past the Flatiron, I went up Madison, past the church Kerouac wrote about in one of his letters, up to the Public Library. A place that is safe for a visitor to New York, where he can blend in and not be necessarily odd.

I climbed the stairs up past the lions and then up to the reading room. I sat in a chair, tested a desk and the light. Some scholarly people sat at small tables, stacks of papers and books in front of them. I didn’t feel like research or looking at books. Maybe I’ve grown to have a sort of Taoist’s disdain for too many books, as much as I love books. A child can grasp an issue, more or less instantly, intuitively, and so it’s okay sometimes just to go with experience as far as an education as opposed to a pile of books you don’t necessarily feel like reading anyway. There will always be books that one is particularly fond of, that speak to us in the way that the personal belongings of the previous lama speak to the child reincarnated to be the next one. The actual experience of living life is necessary to understandings, and scholarliness is free-floating.

I went out and sat at a small table in the shade of some sycamores. I pulled out my legal pad notebook. In New York one is no longer just a bartender at a restaurant. One can be anyone he likes, almost, or whatever he seems dressed for. There was a little girl sitting with her family at a table nor far from mine. Her chair a little high for her, and as she drew with crayons as I wrote my own crayon-drawn kind of writing that has no more place of importance than a kid’s drawing, we kind of noticed each other. Her crayons or colored pencils, whatever they were, took to rolling now and again, and if one rolled and she went to pick it up another one would roll, such to the point that the rolling pencils were the main point of her project of experimentation and study. She’d pick up the one that fell, then half-sit, half-stand in her chair, as she worked away on her drawing.

We noticed each other noticing each other and she would look over her shoulder and check on me as if I too were a pencil about to roll or not roll. The pigeons fluttered, the trees gave dappled shade, the air was low in humidity, and everything was wonderful outside of The New York Public Library and the lions. The girl looked back at me now and again and I smiled in a way she could notice but without smiling directly at her. Her parents were more and more ready to leave, but she kept about her studious experiment until it really was time to go and so we sort of said good bye with a look and then a look away, and then a look back and I thought of what a wonderful place New York City was for meeting interesting people. She too had a little suitcase of her own, a backpack. Off she went, back in the company of her European parents.

I called my mom from a payphone and then I walked up along the west side of the Park, then left at the Natural History. My actor friend, Jeffrey, lived with his wife up on the Upper West Side. And it happened to be about two blocks from the childhood home of—how to put it—the beautiful girl I met back in college. Something you put the best of your intentions toward. And I’m already feeling funny, twitchy, I guess, because this is her territory. I could feel it in my stomach coming up the edge of the Park.

Raymond Carver was kind enough to write about it in a story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He puts it in the voice of the nurse who is the wife of his doctor friend. They are drinking gin and tonics with lime. The nurse is looking back on all the crazy things the guy, who was her previous boyfriend, did. One thing was swallowing rat poison, which made his gums recede from his teeth. Carver was brave enough to admit that he had done everything wrong in life. He was a very kind person, to capture the things about being human that he did. And he probably suffered from that sensitivity. And he knew his own mistakes, and admitted them, with candor where embarrassment would be a reactive tendency.

To the Taoist, with a sense of the fullness and the polarity of any ‘one thing,’ what is love? It would include its adolescent acts, its bad along with its good, its silence and distance as well as closeness and understanding and communication. And yet we all know of love as some form of altruistic beautiful ideal that has no wrong to it.

I called Jeffrey from the payphone right outside her building. And don’t think I didn’t think of calling her parents. I didn’t know anything about her anymore, which is I guess what I deserved, or my fate, anyway, so be it. I hesitated, I thought of it, I had the number, but instead I called Jeffrey. “Come on up,” he said. “Okay,” I said. I was polite back then, and agreeable.

Two blocks up Amsterdam, the street address the same as her building. I went in, and up to one of the top floors. Jeffrey’s place. The usual clutter, an old upright piano, a bicycle, a big painting of Basquiat sort, the kitchen sink with dirty dishes and glasses stacked up. Jeffrey’s wife was pregnant at the time. There was some catching up to do. I talked with his wife about where her family came from. She had some yogurt and said that it was too hot to go up on the roof and sit in the sun. The television was on to CNN. An ad for the television show Band of Brothers came on. Jeffrey came back and looked at the screen. “They couldn’t put a brother in it? Shameful.” I nodded, and looked back at the big television amidst Jeffrey’s stuff. “You look distracted, Teddy,” Jeffrey said.

We hung out for a while. Time passed. It was getting toward five o’clock. He had to start thinking about getting down to the theater for the play that night.

Jeffrey and I made our way down through the elevator, back through the lobby, where they had great respect for him, and I followed on his side as he walked confidently out onto the sidewalk. I guess I hoped that we’d walk a while, that he’d go his way and I’d go mine. Then I could go sit in a Starbuck’s or some other Upper West Side place and think about what I should do. Or better yet, just sit there and write in my notebook and maybe by some magical luck she would pass by. A chance meeting between two old friends, low key even about how it was not more than it was.

The human body cannot fake things. You want to see how someone turned out, to resolve the things that to weigh on your thoughts when you try to wake up in the morning, rather than leave the best part of you taken as some sort of a stalker. Things can hang upon you, stay with you, leaving you feeling not very good about yourself, cause you to get funny and not want to talk. It can leave you with scars that make it hard to talk to people without feeling like you have some bad motive.

If there are a million reasons why to call someone, there are a million reasons not to call them. Jeffrey looked back up the street and stuck his arm out. A yellow cab slipped to the curb. He wanted to go get a steam bath and a rubdown with his old Jewish guy pals at 49th and Broadway. Through Columbus Circle we went, and on, the golden light on the Upper West Side flickering away, all those nice sidewalk cafes, places to explore, like Zabar’s. What did I have to get back to in Washington anyway but the same stoic life. The cat. The upstairs neighbor, the nights cleaning up the bar alone after everyone had gone, the drinking having commenced, a stripper at the dive bar next door having a drink by herself if I was lucky. How often do I even get to New York? Have I even ever had one single happy day in Washington anyway?

“She lives right up there, you know,” I said to him.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve seen her before.”

“Well, you should say hi to her.”

“I don’t. Out of deference to you, Teddy.”

“Well…” I looked out the window. Up past the windshield at the street before us. “I brought her flowers once. She wouldn’t take them.”

“Oh, Fuck her, man.”

“She said I was crazy.”

“Fuck her, man. Fuck her. Can’t put up with that shit.”

“Yeah,” I said.

They’d been funny the night before, down at a bar in the Village. One of them, Jeffrey I suppose, had seen her with a girlfriend, pushing a baby carriage. “We shouldn’t have told him,” Jon said. But it’s not like it wasn’t dredged up anyway, just by being there in that city. Her city, even in Penn Station, her city. And you just wonder, how she’s doing.

The cab pulled over to the corner. We stood standing facing each other. “I love you, Teddy,” Jeffrey said. “I love you, man, too,” I said, awkward, with an arm over him.

And then I walked away. Down through sidewalks cut into walkways underneath construction scaffolding, past people of all walks, past young white dredlocked kids out of it, zoned out but still panhandling. And I’d stop with the crowd at the light and see the people waiting to come the other way. An attractive woman looked up into my face. Smart, well put-together, she looked me with open eyes and no defense. Maybe she knew, figuring it out as humans can sometimes. On I walked, without turning, without stopping, the crowd getting touristy as I passed under the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Me and my cycling glasses, normal enough looking to wear everyday, my Brooks Brothers Prince of Wales suit that I’d found in a second hand shop in Georgetown, didn’t even alter it, my old dad’s leather rectangular briefcase, my new shoes. The suit was to me a subliminal reminder of Bobby Kennedy. I could sort of pretend I was a good person like him when I wore it. The Later Robert Kennedy of the campaign, who reached out to people, had his act together, said remarkable things, very simple things, very true things, with that gentle calm voice he had that had the tone of coming out of some surviving some deep deep constant pain. I walked down through a crowd of loud smiling Germans in easy colorful vacation clothes, then down past crazies, toward Penn Station, then descending into its dreary florescent convoluted depths.

There was a train leaving in twenty minutes, as it turned out. So I bought my ticket and I got in the line and they opened it, and I took the escalator down and slipped into a car and sat down low in a seat. The car was almost empty. The door stayed open for a long time, and there was a pay phone right outside on the platform. My heart pounded. I reached down and opened the old valise of my father’s. My notebook. The shirt from last night. A black hardcover copy of the new translation of Anna Karenina. Something to hold on to.

Then the train moved, lurching with a jerk, and we crawled our way along in the tunnel going very slowly. Then we were out into the light across the low marshy wastes looking back at the island of Manhattan in profile, small industrial areas with roads leading to nowhere, fences, odd piles across the flat landscape. I didn’t want to look back at it, but I did, and it was mythical and unbelievable as ever. Where had it come from? How did it get there? There had to be some magic to where it was, and this you saw as well in the sorrow of leaving it and slipping, pulled away from it, as anywhere else.

The train moved on and I read from Anna Karenina, as the light came over the trees along the banks above the gravel of the railroad bed, the same train I’d taken to Washington, the same tracks as a funeral train once. I read from the book slowly, as if it had some unconscious way to help me in my hour of need when I did nothing and nothing came of it. It was a long way to Washington, and the train was expensive. It’s a trip you want to be over, but then it comes and reminds you of things that are best understood from something like the Funeral Train for Robert Kennedy, with the poor and everyone else coming out by the grit of the tracks and looking up at the thing as it passed. And inside you look out and see the world how it is, not the distant magic of a magnificent skyline, not like the majesty of the Colosseum in Rome, but like that of a broken down factory, or the burned out line of row houses in North Philadelphia and Baltimore, the graffitied trash-strewn discarded underbelly of mass life.

I come up the long escalator out of the metro station at Dupont Circle. It was a week away from Labor Day Weekend, and the town was dead quiet, like a bomb had gone off, as we used to say. I was there standing at the corner of R Street and Florida Avenue underneath the trees and stood there, feeling I wanted to cry. I came home and put the attaché and the book away and went out and got drunk in desperation at the bar I used to go to where I knew the barmen as fellow barmen, “Cities,” in Adams Morgan with its open garage door to the street.

Somehow that night I put a cut in the top of my right shoe, I have no idea how. I’d probably tripped over something in the long shuffling head-teetering miserable drunken walk home, and known even then that I’d ruined them, without being able to remember. It was all like a fairy tale from the old country, the poor boy ruining the special shoes the cobbler had made for him to court the princess one last time. “Must have been a good night,” the guy at Corrective Shoe Repair when I told him I didn’t know how I’d done it. I chuckled with him. “Yeah.”

Two weeks later was 9/11. A lot of golden things came to an end on a day that started out golden.

I wrote her a few weeks after the terrible event. Just a quick note. As if to catch up in four or five sentences. I watched the Tour de France, I mentioned, as the Tour is some metaphor to me for perseverance. I drank green tea, better for me than coffee, as I read a book about blood type and diet and what was good for people like me with type O, with maybe a hint that if I drank green tea I was more conscious than I was in the old days of the booze and beers I used to pour down my throat. I would have liked to have said that I didn’t drink any more, but I couldn’t say that. I said I was reading Anna Karenina. And I wrote that how I felt about her hadn’t changed. A stupid thing to say. But I thought it was true, and so I said it, then sealed the envelope, crossed myself and put in the mailbox, walking away from the mailbox thinking ‘what a mistake that was.’ I never heard back from her. I’d sent her Ted Hughes, The Birthday Letters, before, and I’d not heard from then either.

It took, I suppose, a long time to learn to walk again, and not go on about something that didn’t seem right. That I held on to the dream of her was for me like holding on to my fool kid dream of being a writer. Those were the same years when I didn’t know enough, didn’t have enough wisdom, knowledge of life experience to write, when I was like a kid with a crayon, who knew enough to stand at the big table, but who was more interested with the nature of crayons than any ability and knowledge when it came to presenting a picture. And so I held on to some golden picture that was a dream and an unreality.

I’d brought Anna Karenina with me for the train trip there and back. The example of Levin, of Tolstoy’s distance from himself in order to tell his life as a story, discovering a woman who steps away finally from her own ego, to live in the present, rather than being burdened with the past. One stepping stone on my way to putting something behind me, and moving on, remembering my benevolence toward all people. Letting go, I guess they call it. Letting go. A sweet dumb kid with some dumb idea about being a writer, a path I felt obliged to follow, to work out what I had to work out.

Everything I ever did by my own will and ego, it seems to me sometimes, turned out to be more trouble than good, even when I tried the simplest of things that my heart wanted out of simple good wishes. Except writing, which is merely, or mainly, one’s benevolence, one’s kindness to others, a small attempt to relate the few things one learns in life and endeavors to pass on, if they are worthy of remembering. Kindness, boiled down, as any art form aspires to be.

Perhaps it can be said that the whole point of life is letting your inner voice out, letting it shine like that of the opera singer performing a vast aria. When you’re a kid, you can be shy, you can get bullied, you can think through mysterious and complicated processes that you’re doing the wrong thing when really you’re doing the right thing. There should be some allowances made, is what you end up saying when you come to hone your voice. And the allowances themselves should be celebrated too. That’s a reason I always liked James Dean. He caught that period of being bullied, just about to let his voice out, then doing so. He gently immortalized it, with a shy smile and a wink. After all, you can only be wise if you make mistakes. You can only say something wise about the things you make mistakes over. For Hamlet, ‘the readiness is all.’ Maybe that’s what that means. And he too was making his juvenile beautiful mistakes. Loving words, he wanted to say wise things, understand things, see things accurately. An admirable fellow.

Carver’s stories end with a sense of stripping the matters of life down to the essential. His stories are necessarily personal. Biting off what you can chew, basically. That’s the sense you get from the man splitting the pile of wood, then going on his way, one of his last stories. That’s the sense you get from the ending of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, as we look out over a field with the wind playing across it. That’s the sense you get from the end of Where I’m Calling From. Someone finding the few things he can actually handle, such as he is, at least right now. There’s a sense of limitation, of course, no doubt, but perhaps, maybe in a small almost anxious and frightened sense of the richness of the small things in front of you, which themselves are no small things, enough of a struggle themselves, maybe even heroic ones.

The things you really are saying are those things that cannot be put into words. There are not words for them, and if there were, they too would grow short of meaning out of use. The things you really feel you are as silent and as speechless about as an animal, best in silence. The things as they are thoughts are the brainwaves you send out, like the whale sends his sonar out. The things you really feel and want to say come out, if they are real, in odd peeps and chirps like those of birds. They come out in gesture, in occupation, in physical expression. Sometimes they come out in the form of music, where we must leave them. Those are the things you can trust, in yourself and in other people. We weren’t meant for words, any more than a cat. Only if they lead us to some form of wisdom through long and indirect reflection that brings us back to the door step of that which is silent and beyond words, emotional thought.

And so are some things best left without being said, if they are to remain true. Best left as they are.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Night at the Theater

He waited there passively, in the end,
looking down upon the stage.
He may have wished it was Shakespeare,
Hamlet, Cordelia, Macbeth passing through his mind,
a grave digger, Yorick's skull.
'And the more pity that great folk should have
count'nance in this world to drown or hang themselves
more than their even-Christen.'

It was instead some third rate hack play
perfectly worthy of going down in memory solely
by the one line heard before the fateful moment, as in
'You can't say Dallas doesn't like you, Mr. President,'
ha ha ha.

And so the action upon the stage, the words,
the spoken lines, presumptuous,
could not stop, could not delay
for a moment, a moment to think,
the actor on his way to the President's box.

And there the old man sat of fifty-six.
After the long nightmare
at last able to be hopeful
tender with his wife again,
a carriage ride, a spring day,
the sweet thought went through his head
that all our sorrows
are our joys, our greatest moments to be proud of.
And all his sorrows,
alone, on a horse,
in the rain,
all had become joys for him.
He had regained the proper smile
he'd kept all along.

And the actor stepped in, crept in,
and raised the gun
and the man had all his dreams
and all his memories
going on in his head,
of old New Salem
and countless towns
and then he heard a bang
not from the stage, not at all,
but from behind him.

And who will be kind enough
to lead the nation
to be the good and forgiving father,
hating violence most of all?

Across the street they took him
and he did not remember,
being carried so, except the strange voices, darkness,
a flash of light.
They laid him out,
diagonal on the bed,
and in his mind somewhere
his own voice remarked, within,
yes, this is what it will be like
to be in my coffin, arms across my chest,
the story ended,
as God wills,
as God wills.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Logic of Writing

If there were a formula for good writing, any writer would be happy to share it.

Writers work through becoming egoless. The formula is safe from exploitation.

Start out when you are fresh, before you’ve been bombarded with words from an outside source. Write in the morning, before turning on the television, before looking at the headlines, before talking to anyone. Write after a long walk, after listening to a symphony, after a time free from verbal behavior. To escape the gravity of your own ego, you must avoid the interference pattern of other egos. Through time and practice, you can train your ego to leave you alone.

Tolstoy entertained a freedom from ego while in writing mode, even as he possessed a large, healthy and proud one. As he wrote out his story of Levin--a stand-in for himself with obvious similarities--he found himself identifying more and more with the character of Anna Karenina. No longer the outlined character of a morality play of a woman fallen in adultery (thrown in to offset the marriage of Levin and Kitty) she becomes so real to Tolstoy that he takes us inside her head. He reveals ‘her’ vulnerability in all its dimensions, her own achievement of separation from ego, here to a tragic end. (Did Tolstoy see the force and logic of the ego as so strong that death would virtually be necessary for the self to be detached from its binds?)

Still, it would be a valuable story without her, because Tolstoy gives us Levin. In stepping aside from his own ego, as is necessary to describe himself as a character fully and richly, he reveals his own version of the formula, his template. For Tolstoy, Levin, the self-portrait, is a tool, a channel into human nature.

Tolstoy, writing in this new form, no longer history, not even fiction so much, is caught in the act of discovering the mode of selflessness, realizing its necessity. Anna Karenina's selfish affair becomes the reflection of Levin’s selfish ego as he endeavors, over the course of season and year, to step away from it. Anna Karenina achieves her freedom after a long crises that began in romantic happiness, whereas for Levin, thanks to his patience, his freedom from ego ends in romantic happiness, more or less. Levin and Anna Karenina, and Tolstoy himself as well, are linked in the difficult act of detaching themselves from the egotistical. They achieve the perspective that the ego's imposed images of self are an illusion.

Shyness is the self-protection of the creative mode. Emily Dickinson, retreating from the world, is the classic example. In her great privacy, the world came to her.

The grasp for the mode of creative selflessness coincides with vulnerability.

Abraham Lincoln presents an example of falling into a state of depression, of feeling incapable of coping. Regularly and periodically accessing his vulnerability, he was able to find the reasons for living. His logic in politics was a formula of selflessness, and so was he able to see the issues of his day, the constitutional evils of allowing slavery.

Aram Saroyan describes Kerouac as a ‘hero who dared to have a series of long, tender nervous breakdowns in the prose of his dozen or so books.’ This is something for a writer to chronicle, as Kerouac did in the long legend of Dulouz from childhood onward. Carver’s stories, personal history and correspondence reveal a similar achievement of breakdowns

These states of breakdown are the source of what makes a work accessible.

Even if we are not musicians, we find in listening to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven (consider he wrote it while deaf) a language we understand. (Ode to Joy--Beethoven’s mathematical representation of selflessness.) We find a similar sense of full expression in Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. In their ‘deafness,’ the two display the greatness of their individual formulation of giving up the ego.

What would happen if we were to try this all ourselves? What if we were to put our own lives to egoless shy broad artistic productivity? Would we discover through the mode of egoless states the deep soul of humanity?

As I look around my bookshelves, seeing books that are common to many libraries, I suffer a strange realization. That realization is not far away from what the author of Don Quixote observed about the books of chivalrous lore and epic that an individual, a gentleman from long ago of uncertain name, kept in his library, more importantly, the effect those volumes wreaked upon him. The fellow in question became mushy in the head, he took them seriously, he took them as useful example, when in fact they were diametrically opposed to providing useful information bearing upon one’s ability to exist in society.

All the books I have here are preaching a strange but simple message, which is to lay aside that mode of dealing with the world in a protective and selfish way, to embrace selflessness as a mode of existence. They tell me that beyond, or within, the self such as it is, there is someone remarkable enough to write about, even as I am ordinary and unremarkable.

And so, what is one supposed to do with himself? Face the prospect of being tossed out into the street along with all his precious books? Endure the long series of indignities, unbelievers, and painful beatings that a similarly delusional long ago Spaniard endured in his own conceited journeys? Does one have a choice after the point of reaching an understanding about the ego’s illusion?

Writing must be seen as not just writing but some form of spiritual learning, an embracement of a path toward the salvation of an honest economy and a society’s access to wisdom. Such is the charge that hides in books. One must not simply read, but write, write for the sake of his own self.

“Abandon the ego.” That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need know.