Thursday, December 26, 2013

The fault…. is not in our stars.

   I didn't graduate from college.
   Didn't fulfill my major. One credit short. One class I walked out on, cursing the professor. 
    My fault. No excuses. 
    Hell, I dropped another class -Econ 148 "Industrial America: Eden to Empire" it was called- to go dancing. Every Thursday was "Funk Night". Term paper due on Friday. Or dance till 3? 
    I chose the latter. 
    But I minored in art history and took more classes in that than I had to. 
     Like they say, that little itch may be telling you something.
   Anyhow. I've traveled a lot since I was 25. And wherever I go I try to find the museums, the galleries, the architectural gems, the houses of such and such an author or artist or composer. 
   I've crossed major time zones to see a single museum. A single painting. It's just how I work. 
   Put me on a beautiful beach in a gorgeous sun splashed equitorial country with sweet wind in the air and succulent fruits for the mouth and by day two I'll be digging around the alleys of the port looking for a two room museum devoted to the regional history of processed flax. 
    Sad, I know. 
    But of the 34 known Vermeers I've seen 28, face to face. I've stood in front of Rembrandt's Nightwatch in Amsterdam, his Lady with Ermine in Krakow, I've seen the Botticellis in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, I've wandered the gardens of Kyoto tended to continually since the first crusades, I could draw you a layout of the paintings in the Frick, I walked the whole of the Louvre in a day, I've seen the Freer and the Frye and the Tates and the DeMenils. I like the Providence Atheneum more than the Hartford but the Alexandria one ain't bad. The guards in Atlanta's High are the sweetest but the docents in the DC Phillips actually like that you like their art. There's a world class collection of Netsuke in Butler PA and a museum of cosmetics in the hills behind Osaka. Winslow Homer's house in Prout's Neck, Maine used to be privately owned but I knocked on the door till someone answered and that someone, who told me sternly this was NOT a museum young man, turned out to be the father of a friend of mine from that college I didn't graduate from and I ended up sharing a bottle of wine with him in Homer's studio. After college, I broke into a steel mill to see a giant deer head that some brilliant street kids made out of the mill's dying hardware and got arrested, I've bribed guards to let me stay in the Giotto chapel in Padua after closing, I sang Soviet war ballads to a docent in Leningrad to get into Tsarskoe Selo when it was closed the day we were able to find a driver, I pretended I was a location manager for ABC TV to tour North Carolina's derelict Oaks Plantation.
  I've begged, borrowed, and I've stole. 
  My hero's the guy who lived in the basement of the Hermitage for two years to make sure its treasures survived the Seige. 
  I wasn't pissed at the bad guy in Red Dragon till he ate Blake's drawing. 
  The Taliban never registered on my radar till they blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan
  I desperately avoid going to museums with anyone I'm dating for fear they'll get bored and I'll have to hate them. 
  I've threatened people who flashed their photography on ancient drawings or tempera. 
  I chase cell phone users out of galleries.
  For art's sake.
  It's a commitment. 
  But the finest piece of art I know is in a little park in Western Pennsylvania. 
   During WWII, the Mellon family tore down a gigantic home in Pittsburgh's East End. (It was their home so who can fault them and from all accounts it was kind of a pile.)
  Pieces of the place ended up in a church not far away and they donated the grounds so the city could make a park. 
   Mellon Park. Sitting on the vector where Fifth Ave meets Beechwood blvd. A green triangle - like Pittsburgh in miniature. Undeveloped land held above three rivers of traffic. Beloved of dog walkers and private school girls on the lam, perched on its hill overlooking Homewood and then East Liberty sweeping beneath Garfield on the way to Highland Park. 
   A fine view. Not a large space. Nothing too special about it. Good for small garden parties, art classes are taught in the adjoining lot, there's lots of parking, and they don't lock the gates so it's fondly cared for by the locals. 
   Go in the day you can play frisbee, you can lay on a sloping field of grass and catch the sun, you can smell the roses, you can introduce your dog to the canine crew of Shadyside. 
   Go at night and it might just change your life. 
    There are only three roads that run east out of downtown Pittsburgh through the flatlands called The Strip. Penn, Liberty, and Smallman. They're the only exits. Come rush hour, in either direction, they're jammed. 
   Some people know that there's an alley parallel between Penn and Liberty that runs the length of this jam. Spring Way. 
  None of the 30 streets that cross Spring along its length have stop signs for it. You take it, you take your chances.   
   A man in a particular hurry to get home one October afternoon in 1999 blew across one of those streets and killed a young girl named Ann. She died in her boyfriend's arms. 
   A month shy of her 20th birthday. 
  Go to Mellon park after the sun's gone down. Come in off Shady ave. Park in the old Belgian block lot, there's always space. Behind the art studio bldg, and cut into the garden wall, you'll see a small wrought iron door propped open  
  It lets you into a walled walkway. A few steps down to the left and you'll be standing next to a fountain that generations of Pittsburgh high school students have met and played by and flirted around. Spread before that is a lawn a little larger than a tennis court. 
  Embedded in that lawn are 150 stars. Lights. Each surrounded by a tiny stone collar on which is written its name and location in the sky above. This pattern fills the lawn but to see it you have to cross the grass and wander within it. The stars at the East end can't be seen from the West. You must enter. You must take the steps.   
   Stars above and stars below. And on November 20th they're the same. The lawn mimics and draws down the sky. Real stars and our stars and us in the middle.
   November 20th was Ann's birthday. 
    I come home to Pittsburgh and invariably I overschedule. I do too much, promise too much and focus too little. 
  Every museum, every gallery, every happening, every play, every reading, every thing that anyone's ever made for me to see and be astonished by, everything I've tried to find in art that I found not in myself and consequently everything I have not finished….each defaulted class and task and journey. These make me forget that this little park makes them pale by comparison.
  I'll be home a week and come some evening, driving from a bar to a restaurant, from a meeting to a drink, it'll suddenly snap into my mind. Mellon Park.
  And I'll pull into the lot and my car will rattle across the cobblestones and I'll curse my suspension and then two minutes later I'll be standing suspended between heaven and earth, but very much of the earth and as human as I let myself be.  
   To say that there aren't words for it is to want too much. We have words for everything. We're built by them, crippled by them, but sometimes they're what make the species worth not wiping from the world, that we engage and remake and recast, with our words.
  But sometimes fewer of them more finely fit the music of a place.
  And there are places where even your breathing seems privileged, the movement of your eyes in your head and the sound of the blood passing round your body an astonishment. When I'm in this tiny park, when I'm standing among this girl's long lost stars, mostly I stay silent. I never knew her. Never even met her. But sometimes I'll sing. Or hum. Or pray. I can't really carry a tune and half the prayers I remember I remember half of them, but it's a way to say thanks.

Friday, December 20, 2013

And they were sore afraid.

    Christmas, rush down upon us.
    If there's true evidence we've passed from youth to age, if there's any rock solid proof we are not who we once were, and have been put aside from our childish things, it's that the entire month of December moves like lightning, when once upon a time its passage was a glacial pleasure.
   One night. The 24th. Xmas eve, was an eternity. An opera of pre-adolescent impatience. So many hours, so many minutes, every second counted down in the dark. Murmurs and shapes beyond the bedroom door cased and interpreted like cold war intel. The youth of America become a horde of late night holiday Stasi. What are they doing? If, when, why, what? What will I get…..?
   And now I lift my head from the Thanksgiving table and December's in double digits. It's the solstice. Rudolph and Frosty long gone from their prime time slots. Holiday concerts concluded. Company parties thrown early to include Hannukah. There's barely enough time to put stamps to cards and hope they get there before Christmas. O-mail, oh o-mail (original mail), oh where have you gone?
   I'm 46. I don't own a house. I don't have a dog. I don't have a "primary physician". I have things in storage I haven't seen since 9/11. I walked away from a life in a hometown most people could only dream about to work part time on tv in a city I have about as much interest in as I do magazines at the dentist. My family is fractured, my friends have married and moved away, women I could have made a home with have made homes without me, and still, God, in desperate spite, do I love this time of year.
   Before I flee, I love driving down side streets in LA, seeing random Xmas trees being dressed in apartment windows. Row after row, after acre after square mile of Los Angeles rentals, the irregular holiday glitter gilding the low rim of the California night…. and the day after I leave everyone waking there to say "But how about this weather!" While we in the thousands funnel back to an odd Appalachian hill town in Western PA.
   I miss the different darkness which surrounds advent in the East. In Pittsburgh. The heavy cold, the slap of iron air on the face that drives us indoors to light candles and burn fires, and then what those candles mean to passers by. 
   Walking along streets I've known by heart and hand since I was 12. Houses I've dreamt about, wandered by, traced with my eyes, since before I could give a name to longing. That visceral thing that comes out the windows of my home town. That thing I fill them with. Sash and portico lit,  thresholds glowing, balconies strung with cords.
  I go to the same Church, same Christmas eve service that I have since I was a boy. When no one knows I'm in town or when I have no place to stay, I still go, and sit in a side pew and listen to the preludent hymns and carols, and watch the magnificent space fill with bodies. The coats and the scent and the murmur, the same it has been for decades.
  We kneel on rich cushions, our throats struggle to sing, the men have become too old, the acolytes impossibly young, was the church this bright when you were a child, the sermon seems glib, the Bleak Midwinter too short, but the body folds in your mouth, the blood still scours your heart, did I see a friend descending from the altar but his family leaves quickly when the organist leaps into a bright concluding solo that would have made Ginger Baker proud and when I shake the priest's hand at the far end of the nave I notice he doesn't remember my face.
  And when we're let out into the new born world, for the life of me I cannot sleep, so I walk Pittsburgh's East End streets and poke around to catch a glimpse of the families who stay awake, listening for the muffled music of their parties running deep into the nativity, their houses burning safely, domestic scenes framed in windows like paintings taken from the museum, and made animate for a day.
  There's a Catholic church set on the slope of Pgh's Polish Hill which doesn't even begin its midnight mass until freaking midnight. So I can do my wander of the lanes of the greater city like a yuletide stalker, watch scores of families and lovers and the scorned and the solitary head to bed, and still in the wee hours show up at the steps of this place and see the faithful pour out. Carrying their children, stunned themselves by the length of the rite, quiet in the calm of evening, nodding to each other before they drive off to their suburban homes and leave this church of their forefathers to the inner city silence. It's breathtaking. I want to hold my hat in hand when they descend the stairs and leave me standing on the cobbles. The street built by the same men who built the church.
  I guess I should feel lonely right about then. But what I feel instead is peace. Calm. I guess that's what comes from Christmas' blunt communal heat. The furnace from which Spring's pentecostal fire will leap, so brilliant it should hurt, so fierce it should terrify but it leaves you, it leaves me at least, right where I should be. In tune. Everybody's listening. Everybody's facing the same direction. Like they said of Basie's band, everybody's breathing at the same time. Well, almost everybody. I don't know why I love that so…I'm suspicious of crowds, of parties, of the dull chants we all know (USA! USA! We will we will ROCK YOU.) ….but somehow come December 24th I'm enthralled by this herding of the faithful.
  I guess, at base, what stuns me into happiness and what hovers all around us all at Christmas is what I think can still be called …..revolutionary.
   A prophet's radical request. 
   The religion I was born into has all sorts of dramatic problems which are debated daily and its followers have a particularly bad habit of thinking every other religion was simply another rung on the ladder of faith that lead to them, but Christ did lay down one still remarkable challenge. I have no interest in individuating Christianity from Islam or Judaism or ….Zoroastrianism…. it has no privileges for its particular believers, but what it asks of of us, what it insists upon day to day to this very special day is dumbfounding. And brave. As the old prayer says, "We are bold to say…
  Poverty is not a poverty of the spirit. Wealth cannot be a wealth of things. In fact a wealth of things is an act of violence upon one's brother and sister. A prophet came into the world, as other prophets will and have, divine or otherwise, it cannot matter, to tell us…..Give it all the fuck away. 
  I mean, "….Jesus...".
  So when I stroll among the discount shoppers of mid-town Manhattan searching for a gift, when I watch the millions crush down 5th ave more interested in the grand opera of consumption than actually finding that gift, when foyer after business foyer is filled with Salvation Army clangor, blood and fire, and person and after person posts how much the holidays exhaust their patience, I can't do anything but smile. In all its forms, all the noise noise noise gets hushed for me by that simple ask.
   Give unto others. Something. Anything. I would bring a lamb. I will play my drum for him. Hold a door open. Nod to a stranger at a cross walk. Wait quietly in an insane line.  Laugh with your fellow waitees at the truth of that. Happily return to an analog humanity. Take half a day to buy something completely useless to honor someone priceless. Send a note. Put pen to paper and in your own hand express something which is proof positive of some actual time you spent to tell them that they matter.
   Neither you nor they nor most anyone you'll ever met will ever "matter" to the history books or to NASDAQ but in the ledger of humanity you took a second, you took an hour in a certain season, to give thanks and praise to those you know and maybe love. And if that isn't a good and joyful thing, what the hell is?
  Merry Christmas. Every one.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Left Unread

  Last month, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. We all hide that list of things we haven't gotten to; books everyone's read we haven't, cities yet to be seen, deeds to be done, movies. Etc
   Classics. Rows of them. Upon rows. Stacks. Barns filled to the swallow scoured rafters.
   Some years ago, I helped an old teacher take down his library. A terrible thing to even say, he had to cull his books. We had boxes of them in the hallway, heading down the stairs, cases he was going to give away. He said, "Well I know I'm never going to get to …."
  Fill in the blank. The title. The name. The place.
  It took me awhile to realize he was talking about dying. His backlog was longer than his lifeline. I'd never heard someone say it out loud. Or give it a page count.
  I still think I'm going to read all the books on my shelves. I still think I'm going to get to Nepal to hike up thru the foothills to the tea plantations. To Vietnam to see where the American Dream got dropped out of the sky. Get back to Russia and compare it now to what my teenage mind made of that mythic land. And Algeria to see the Atlas Mountains. And Israel. And Greece. And Northern Japan and Newfoundland and Wales, and, and, and.. and of course someday I won't. I'll miss one of those…won't do one of the other deeds chartered in the itinerary of my mind, the story of the progress already half-written.
  And that's okay.
  No. It's not okay. It's awful. But that's what makes life precious. As the slave tells the roman general entering the victorious city….."All glory is fleeting." All glory, all thrills, all the youth you had, all the time, ( I sound like Roger Waters), all the chances, all the songs, the poetry, the music, the stories…you had your chance to let them possess you, to have them make you their host and then they passed on. And you pass away.
  So, I didn't get to Jane Austen until I was almost 50. She's been around two centuries. She'll keep. No worries. It's all good. (Two sentences hopefully no one will say two centuries from now.) For her.
  But ..what if…."If I read it 20 years ago…..if I'd picked it up when I was 14…..would I be someone else?"
  Sounds a little dramatic but honestly, like the love you're shown when you were two years old or four, you don't remember it much, but it's kept you from killing someone or blithely leaving a hit and run. It keeps you from revenge porning your old flame or leaving anonymous, seething postings on somebody's website. It makes you hold the elevator door for the couple that wouldn't even see you if you just let it close. Love stops you. And love gets in there by being told. It's the oldest story there is. Your parents and your family tell you parables to keep you from becoming a sociopath and right at the same time, you learn to read. And those books you first read, that read you into being when you're trudging through the rich black bog of adolescence, they fucking mark you.
  So when I pick up Pride and Prejudice now or a modern classic from 1965, or say an Updike story I skipped, that was published when I was 8, a hardback that's been sitting on the shelves in the house of every girlfriend I've had since the Reagan years, every party I went to, every holiday excursion to somebody's place lent by the friend of a friend, the rental home on an Island or some coastal cottage with the family's library left behind, or in the pile of novels backstage of this or that production….this book's been there, within arm's reach for most of my life but only now, now I pick it up. Would I had read it at 14. Would I have patterned my life differently?
   I miss it. I miss the years we didn't have together. 3 decades have gone by in which I could have heard and known Miss Elizabeth's sharp voice. Had her determination and pride as a model. Held an image of her in my mind, of her home in a country I wouldn't see till I was almost 30. Those phantom portraits the desirous brain makes out of a story that even film can't entirely erase.
  I read To Kill a Mockingbird last year for the first time. I wish I'd known those children when they were younger…..when I was a child…when I could have felt more closely the fear of that run they make across the final chapter's field. Had in my not yet 15 year old mind the sensations of a Southern summer's night walking with a father I admired. Instead at 45, fatherless both literally and in truth, I read the story of a young girl and imagine myself not too far from Atticus' age, wondering what did he think of his punchy daughter?
   It was interesting to be kinned with him but I wish I'd graduated into it. I wish I'd moved thru the cycle;  the virgin read when you're a boy and sense on your skin what Scout sees and hears. The odd run thru in college during a summer break when your friends make fun of you for reading such a "classic" and you wonder should I be liking this old saw as much as I do, this "kids' story"? Then reading passages again with the children of your friends who married young. Listening to the unnerving duplicates of your binge year buddies or of your sophomore lover sound out the familiar paragraphs, and thinking you're about to provide "wisdom" when suddenly your vision of the novel changes in their voices. And then you're middle aged and you think Christ how can I read a book four times and still be floored by it? And it floors you. And there are sentences you can't believe you ever read before.
   And if so….why do we keep reading other books? Don't we owe it to the ones that knocked us on our 15 year old asses, don't we owe them more time, more of our life as fuel for their passions? Because they do, don't they…need us? We're the gasoline. We throw ourselves on the printed word, we breath onto the type, into it and boom, they live again….Liza, and Boo and Nic and Billy Parham and Vronsky and the Judds. Poured into the pages we give them life. Literally. And after we're gone, someone else will do the same. Tipping the heart's attentions into a story that will outlive its beating.
  We feed them and for awhile they feed us. We both occupy and are colonized by books. I can't imagine ever completely freeing myself from their benevolent tyranny. I've seen old men and women living without books or music even, and frankly if I ever got to that stage- if I could no longer feel enriched, quickened by their presence in my life- I hope I'd have the self-respect to end it. If life became waking, feeding, watching and counting, I do hope I'd snuff it out.
  I think we all live in the prison of ourselves. The limitations of the self we construct. And some of us are worse jailers than others. We strip and burn that self down as the decades go by. The lucky few get refined, they distill it, I suppose. The rest get left with what they pretended wasn't there all along. It's like what you read about in gulag stories, or war time memoirs…..they had nothing left but what was in their heads. And the people who had poems memorized, had chapters down, or verses from the bible, who could sing songs by heart, or recall whole plays in miniature, those people were treasured. They still lived with hope. They were hope. It's voice lived in them.
  When I'm down to a grey creaking nothing in a 'home' or curled by a fire in the resentful living room of my grandkids, I hope to God I have the sense not to have left my last days to the whims of that season's tv or to some jingle I can't get out of my head. Or how much I was able to save from my IRA. I hope I can still call up Henry's prayer for his troops, or Richard's epiphany in jail, or the first paragraph in The Crossing, or anything by Yeats or Auden or Wilde. Please. Let me remember.