Thursday, January 12, 2012

Browsing through the BBC documentary on Irish music, Folk Hibernia, as the ills of the week wear off, it occurs to me that a writer is a bit like a folk musician. I don't doubt that the spread of music and writing aren't related, sharing the same pathways, as it were. It's like picking up a traditional music in your hands, then watching someone play it, then giving it a go yourself. And surprisingly (or not) enough, you can play something that sings to you, such that you'd think that the music is already living in the vessel of the instrument, that you just have to let it out.

And indeed, one might relate his career as a writer to other people through music. He could tell you of a kid laid out in bed on a Friday evening, not wanting to get up and meet his mom at the local church turned into an art center where Vincent, an Irishman, was playing music, a kid raised on Irish music, a kid taken with The Pogues from their first American tour. He was very bummed out, feeling down. And missing things that are like possible paths in life, just make you more bummed out. The thing is, intelligent people do very dumb things, stubborn pigheaded things, mistaken things, often where romance is involved. And perhaps the story of writing is the story of error. To err is human, to forgive divine, it is written. In writing we consider all our mistakes, perhaps somewhat pathetically, perhaps somewhat cathartically, perhaps simply to rattle on because we have nothing better to do, but so focussed in a way that the end product ends up being something that, well, resembles literature. (The economic-minded would, at least jokingly, view the whole project as a tale that could be told in one sentence and left at that, 'oh well, it didn't work out,' so that time could be spend more directly and more valuably.)

But what the kid, sad about some pretty girl harsh whatever and his own clumsy mistakes of disappointing her when the door was open to him, doesn't realize is that he has a friend, and that as he lies there quite helplessly, making his mother sad and angry with him, there is within him some strange Quixotic force that will pick him up out of the dust of being beaten and pick up a pen and write, and that though that writing has nothing much to do the world of economies and usefulness, that he in his silence will come up with folk music. And one does hope that the force will pick him up, or otherwise he would be even more completely useless. At least there will be some rude culture to him, maybe obvious, maybe disorganized, maybe somewhat poignant, maybe somewhat lyrical. Even if that is all he has, all he has to show.

And so an Uilleann pipe and a simple stringed instrument or two play, along with a simple hide over wood drum, play somewhere in the kid's imagination, and he doesn't have to go off and do the usual 'people pleasing' thing that befalls some temperaments some particular evening, and he turns away from the phone and the usual distractions and he looks inside himself and sees what he has. There, down there, like something within a little pot hidden inside him, like a baby animal or bird he has fed and protected and kept warm, over sentiment, and sentimentality not always being our best friend so it seems, is a bit of something.

We all make mistakes. Maybe the more intelligent, the more or the bigger the ones we make, the more they betray fondly held hopes when considered by the clashes of egos that is real life, the bartering, the selling, the lifting up, the pushing down, the attention, the neglect, the respect, the disrespect and all egoish things that we are taken by, even though, even as, we know differently, that in true things we leave the ego behind. We stick to what little true there is within us. And hopefully by fanning the small flames fragile in breezes and the sogginess of real life, that flame stays alive and grows to keep us warm when the world is cold and slow even though the clock ticks fast.

Cursed just so, a kid picks up his instrument, as if that was all that had been left for him in a great fire. And that is human. Softly, he sings to himself, "'Oh, Kitty, my darling, remember, that the doom will be mine if I stay. 'Tis far better to part, though it's hard to, then to rot in their prison away.'"

Why should folk music have a certain shape? Rebellious, free spirited, spiritually honest about things like being a prodigal son and doing dumb things, often about love. Did we get these songs back when we were fish in the sea, fowls of the air, and they kept with us? Maybe they serve us by keeping us from going mad, even though a shrewd doctor would tell us we're being unhealthily obsessive. Just about every creature, snakes, cats, birds, monkeys, elephants, whales, dolphins certainly, seems to sing at one point or another.

The world tells us we have choices to make, decisions to do, and here we are sawing away on fiddles over ancient airs. How typical of us. But, maybe, just maybe, by doing so we reach toward the truest form of expression there is, beyond all the messed up acts.

There is a natural focus on music. It's just a matter of what form it takes, and maybe finding the forgiveness for such within ourselves.

Jesus, how could one possibly inventory all his mistakes? It seems one cannot avoid them, stuck to live them all out one by one in this dimension of time and space. So absolutely thorough and pervasive are one's mistakes, one cannot help but posit that somewhere there must be, must be, a vast sea of forgiveness and charity utterly huge and deep and kind enough to pardon all us devils for all our acts, so that rather than being frozen up by them we live on as examples for innocent children of the sanctity of forgiving and learn to forgive ourselves, as if life were little more than a matter of that.

And so it hurts to be alive, and like the crucifix we do indeed feel certain pains from time to time like splintery rough burdens on back and shoulder, a dull ache of the palm, a chagrin in the silent jaw, the pain of sight of all before us and for what is absent.

Ah, but cheer up. You only make mistakes out of love. Thus the deeper beauty of Yeats' poem about the Irish rebels of Easter 1916, for they were simply expressing human nature. It starts so beautifully. "I have met them at close of day/ Coming with vivid faces/ From counter or desk among grey/ Eighteenth Century houses." So gentle. "Hearts with one purpose alone/ Through winter and summer/ Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream."

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The poem is called Easter 1916, and it was written that year. Yeats, of course, was steeped in folk tale and folk culture. The juxtaposition of actual men, actual names, of regular people like you and I, with the eternal, is kind of nice. Kind of hopeful.

In this world, one can't live down his mistakes. He is stuck to them, a flawed person playing music.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

I like Anthony Bourdain. He travels the world for me. He experiences it on street level, without imposing too many screens upon it. Yes, it's talk about food and wining/dining, but it's at a human level, life as it is. It's about good stuff, but also street food. Is he Mother Theresa? No. And his 'snarky' self would be more than happy to admit it. He is very good at the banter and the repartee, comfortable in his own skin. As you need for television, he's got a good line, a quip that doesn't seem overly rehearsed or done too many times so as to be stale. He brings the viewer some serious stuff along the way, the decency of a food worker in a hot dog joint, the real back story of Cuban exiles in Miami, old ways of life disappearing before the bulldozers of modernity. Behind his cynicism there is, at least sometimes, the hint of a spiritual A minus fairly earned, though of course he wouldn't let on, preferring to tell you to bring your own toilet paper when you go traveling and leave it at that. He does miss some things, through that attitude, but then he wouldn't be being himself, to go fawning over Keats' grave.

But, as a real-life barman, as apparently I am, through the strange twists of fate, where do you go with it, what do you do? There must have been sins of excess, or else you wouldn't be stuck where you are fending people off by waiting on them in some form of professional politeness. Jesus was a glutton and a wine-bibber, we are told, through the lens of people who were suspicious of him. He allowed himself to associate with publicans, harlots, sinners. Does that make tending bar okay, I ask, thinking aloud. Well, we all need to make a living somehow, and, like the oil business, it's not always pretty.

There is something besmirching, belittling about the job, though. I like good wine, I like wine that goes well with what you're eating, I can appreciate wine and bring that to other people, but I really don't care about it all that much. In fact, I think it brings the whole thing down sometimes. Life is tough, for everyone. So there's nothing wrong with a little euphoric substance to grease the wheels of relaxation and creativity and opening up. But wine alone misses the point.

The point is compassion. The point is sharing the human condition and all its truth. And a church far far outdoes, in the right circumstances, done appropriately, what a bar or a pub can ever do. A bar can only offer the weary body of Christ, the physical work of the intellectual being rather than the intellectual itself. The bar, it seems, can only offer talk about basic physical things, travels, who did what when and where, nice weather we're having. A bar should be able to talk about books and learning, but most often it avoids such talk. It ends up being about matters of this world rather than being about the beauty that is not of this world. It is limited to the expectations of the masses, about economic survival or comfort, about politics, about things practical to life in this world.

And so is it very draining. People sit around mutely, as if waiting for something, as if waiting to be awoken. Such things aren't found in menus. There comes a time not for amusement, not for merriment, nor for pleasure, but for austerity, and truth, and quiet, for intelligent things, rather than dumb things.

Love is enduring. It beareth all things. Love vaunteth not up itself. It is not proud or boastful. Love is the real life, and eventually we all come around to it.

Christ finally got disgusted with what had happened to the Temple, physically repulsed by what they had done to it with the money and the burnt sacrificial offerings. This is not it, he would have said to himself. Maybe he went about it with as much sadness as anger, with a sense of disappointment along with a vow to make a point. Joining in wasn't something he could do anymore. He saw that it would be a self-betrayal to put up with it, as his words to Peter reveal a personal awareness of betrayal of high-minded things.

Indeed, what would Jesus do? What would he do if you put him into a cultural milieu in which innate holiness was something to be deeply, scientifically and rationally doubted, in which all questions of the meaning of life were to be pushed aside as something 'we'll never be able to know about, so why bother.'

He would, of course, forgive people for being so. He would know himself that people have faults. He would sense that he had to humble himself and even wash feet so as to make a point, and that still, they might not get it.

The presence of spirituality in our life, the necessity to follow intuitions for understanding the nature of reality, comes upon us as it did for Job, against our will, without the intention. And then we find ourselves needing to follow the answers of questions.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The professionals of modern, i.e. quantum, physics tell us that there is a real possibility of the existence of parallel universes, where there are quite possibly duplicate (or original) versions of all us. There's another you and another me in this complete parallel universe that is there, just we don't see it, and neither do we live in it.

Our restaurant... the staff holiday luncheon party down at Fogo de Chao this afternoon. Red meat sliced off of skewers, the enthusiastic exchanging of secret santa gifts I somehow have difficulties with... l touch my wine glass to my lips, but no desire to drink any of it. I don't have much to say. My inner Anthony Bourdain has vacated the premises. Leaving me tired and fed up.

So when we all went our separate ways, I walk over to 10th Street, from 11th and Pennsylvania, to check out Ford's Theater and its related museum. It's five of four, but they are happy to give me a free ticket, and soon I am walking down the stairs into the basement (with an initial twinge of claustrophobia on the stairway) into the modernized and refurbished museum. Recent presidents trade reading the lines of the Gettysburg Address on a big screen, a production of History Channel. Photo reproduction of Lincoln's family and cabinet and the array of generals involved in the Civil War, labeled for inspection. And toward the final corners, before going back upstairs, some juicier relics, a life mask, the suit he wore that night, the figure standing in his size 14 boots, the narrow door Booth opened, a hole bored into it. There is a timeline of Lincoln's last day, beginning with breakfast with family, that goes up to 10:15 p.m., and also one for Booth on that day, Good Friday, April 14. 1865. (Booth had attended dress rehearsal, and rehearsed shooting Lincoln at the right moment in the play.) About to go up the stairs, I see I've missed another section of exhibits, and there in a glass case, the little Derringer pistol 'very accurate at close range,' the actual silly little instrument Booth used to murder the great man.

Then you go upstairs. You come up a few flights and find yourself on the higher back end of the balcony looking down at the stage. To the right, going down some red carpeted steps you come to the Presidential box, an approximation of it (as there was fire that gutted Ford's Theater in the early part of the 20th Century), not a big room. The padded red upholstered rocking chairs, presumably original. The arrangement of the space leads one to see that there was not much space between Booth opening the door and the President sitting directly in front of him, a step or two, whether or not this is accurate to the original. The museum is closing soon, and there is still time to go out into the cold of early January, to cross Tenth Street (rather automatically in some form of jay-walking, as there is not much traffic on it, but for the big touring trolleys orange and green.) Then you show the ticket again, and you walk into the House Where Lincoln Died (what else to call it) and up the brief hallway to the small room in back where to your right, behind plexiglass, is the little bed, covered with a patterned bed spread, with white linen covered pillows. They laid him diagonally on it. About five or six chairs would fit, or do fit, comfortably in the room. Here, in the morning, at 7:22 a.m, Abraham Lincoln passed away.

I think sometimes of how we go to a museum or a memorial. We catch a sniff of some world created in the ideal, where people are impeccably kind and decent, where the system of society is just. The memorialized is as a picture to that universe of decent perfection where there isn't strife, where there is no need for things like war, where everything goes right and well and appropriately, where people don't do stupid things and get in to disagreements and contentions for silly reasons. We stand before the memorial looking in on it, as if through a window, from a world that has its offenses and its shortcomings and its mistakes. Because that is, inescapably, the nature of our own world, for some reason. An, at least at times, it seems that the greater you would be in tune with that parallel universe and its ideals, the more you would or will encounter strife in this particular world, on up to being crucified (in various ways), or, as in Lincoln's case, being shot by some little self-proud high-strung freak, even just as things were beginning to settle down and work out a bit (as they were for President Lincoln.)

He had a dream a few nights before, a portentous one, an ominous one, of looking down and seeing a body laid out in the White House wrapped in death's trappings, and in the dream is just about to ask, or find out, the mystery who it is.

"Woe unto the world, because of offenses," he quoted from the Bible in the Second Inaugural, knowing this world to have that woven in to its very nature. At Gettysburg, he recognized what 'increased devotion' it takes to live here in this world, how "brave" a 'struggle' to 'nobly advance' an ideal, to quote him loosely.

Later, a typical blogger, I thought of Robert Kennedy's 'tiny ripple of hope' metaphor, small amounts of energy from different epicenters adding up to become a wave. At certain places in space and time, perhaps we feel vibrations from beyond our own little universe, as if to vibrate in some harmony.

Perhaps such visits are ways of shaking off the material aspects of holidays and the gluttony associated with them. Stop and think, has a material possession ever made you completely happy in an uncomplicated way; have you ever been satisfied with a form of affection short of the sublime, or a relationship that didn't bring the reality of all worlds directly before you, fragile, miraculous, amazing and even holy?

And so we say thanks to Lincoln, for being just who he was, just so, a man who had once sought appointment to a particular office (we all have flaws), who then turned that experience into a kind empathy for all the motley people who showed up at The White House seeking appointment to various offices. He was a man, it seems, who had grown a lot in the course of his years, as if rubbing a patina on his exterior that let his true light, forgiving and humble, shine out.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I've come to think that writing is a nervous condition. Writers are people who are constantly nervous, a condition probably not aided by the prevalence of cell phones.) Thus are they susceptible to various crutches that serve to calm them. So are they prone to alcoholism, to people pleasing. Maybe people pleasing is another separate issue they have, related to shyness, of some psychological difficulty with expressing inner wants and needs, the great confusion that being overly intelligent a creature. They write to soothe themselves. They write when they are bored and confused, when they cannot exert themselves. They write when they feel disappointed.

(I suffered too many wine-related headaches last year. I'm going to try to be better about that in 2012. I'm going to try to be better at not people pleasing.)

People turn, quite naturally, to religion to calm them. The spiritual moment in life is one of quiet, candlelit, reflective, peaceful, alone. It offers some rare and precious downtime, even from our greatest worries. And the notion that one could be 'the least of these,' (see Marilynne Robinson article below) be a person out of favor, down on your luck, hated, banished, and still be worthy of being in the company of Jesus Christ, the highest of people, is quite soothing to the troubled mind, maybe remarkably so.

So it is not surprising when a writer who has gone through his struggles gravitates to a situation that evokes Judeo-Christian (for example) thought or persona.