Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Waving and not drowning.

  I was watching a documentary about FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor and I kept noticing the way people waved goodbye back then, in those less selfied days. 
  They'd hold out a hand, palm down and shiver their fingers as if they were practicing piano or shooing something away. Big smile. 
  There's FDR waving to the crowd. He looks like a matron airing out a hankie. Even Teddy. Wave like a sissy and carry a big stick. Only Eleanor looked like she'd take you out with the back of her hand. 
   My dad waved like that. He'd stick his arm straight out and wiggle his fingers at me, smiling and fluttering, as I left for summer camp, after he took me to a party in High School, as he dropped me off my first day at college, smiling even after I'd slept the entire 12 hour trip to Providence, saying nothing to him, driving no share of the way, jammed next to the window because I'd stayed out till 5am with my girlfriend the night before and then lain next to her, us curled like dogs under the dining room table, my gear piled about, waiting for the grownups. 
  He smiled when he said goodbye even after some of our worst fights. Screaming rants, humiliation, brutality meted out in the meager family arena - but give it a few hours, he'd deliver me to where I had to be and he'd smile regardless and wave that wave like it had all been a game, something extraneous and silly to be shooed away, unimportant compared to ....compared to nothing sadly... as there wasn't much else between us beside fighting and waving. A few shared jokes. Some tv shows. We both loved cats. Christmas. The rest was silence. But when he took me to a train or to the airport, he would always wave and he always stood there, waiting, till I had left his sight.
   Synod Hall. Pittsburgh. I was listening to a famous quartet. Old instruments; early versions of a violin, a cello, a flute, and a viola. As one movement began, the Doppler wail of an ambulance sped by on the same note as the music. Harmony between the post-industrial age and the baroque. A duet 400 years in the making. Time folding it's hands around me. 
   Before the concert, I'd sat in a pew in the church next to the Synod. The City's grandest Catholic parish. Walking by, I'd seen the lights on, the inner doors not locked. I entered, crossed myself with some Holy water, which was for sale by the liter, sat down 20 feet from a seriously elaborate Mary surrounded by candles, also for sale, and soon realized that the church was open because it was confession.
   The center of the church, the grand mass under the nave, was nearly empty but directly behind me stood a silent row of the faithful come to petition their Lord. Like they were waiting for their grades from an angry headmaster. 
  The huge space, the candles, a few people praying. Why not? Why not tell them, why not tell Him, what you'd done. What I did. Why not? I thought about it. Just bow your head and tell him, Father, what you'd done. But I was sure I'd be found out, I'd blow my lines, the Protestant in me would protest and I'd get tossed out on my ear. Dad would have approved. Lapsed Catholic that he was, the rituals never got a good word. 
   I did listen. Heard some whispers, some shuffling, the soft click of a well made door, what sounded like a phrase I recognized from somewhere. But I didn't go in. I watched the candles burn down. I breathed in the emptiness and the quiet. A man and his two young sons prayed to Mary, after he explained who Mary was. The one boy staring intently as if she might move, as if there had to be a film about this where he could get the real story.
    The concert was mediocre. The quartet past their prime. The audience clapped for themselves and their good taste, their contribution to Culture in tough old pragmatic Pittsburgh. I watched some music students in the cheap seats trying to be polite. I wanted more - to feel it in my heart, but it didn't happen and I left before the encore. 
    We do that though. We applaud for those who show up. We thank ourselves. We forgive the present with the glories of the past. We attend. Especially around Christmas. We do a lot, we labor at that which in the holiday moment delivers all the thrill of a joke too often told, a story a close friend can't remember's confiding to you again and again. Ritual in this casual world, in our reform age, doesn't pack the punch it used to.
     We ask too much. And we give it no credence.
    We pay no homage.
    I think somewhere along the American line we suddenly decided we deserve all these feelings. That they should come to us upon demand. And when they don't don't, something out there must be wrong, something's missing.
   What's missing is you don't get to call the Gods down from on high when you need them. You don't put your Muse on hold. The Spirit doesn't show up just because you do. Walking in the door and taking your reserved seat isn't enough.
    I don't know why we've come to think it's that easy, inspiration, or when we copped out. And by you of course I mean me. 
    Like the priests and the self help gurus say, on both sides of the socio political aisle, Marriage takes work. Which is a way of saying, Love takes work.
   If you love Shakespeare you gotta read him more than once. A day. You love music, you gotta practice like a person who if they weren't practicing an instrument would be diagnosed autistic. You want the runner's high? Go hurt yourself. The Right Stuff, the Real Thing, the magic doesn't descend around us in the dark, until we work. The Gods don't smile on us until we suffer for them.
   And if you love each other, your family, your friends, your people, and it's the Holiday season....what? What does it take? Suffering and Christmas? 
   After the concert, I walked a little ways to the car in the cold and I thought, what did I leave undone this Holiday season and who did I forget to tell?
   My father's dead now half a decade. He can't tell me. He never could.
    I wave at the parents of a woman I almost married. I nod at people that recognize me or I went to grade school with, I can't tell the difference anymore. 
    Blocks from the theater my truck's parked across the way from a bicycle chained to a street light. Painted pure white. A girl died here. Run over by a commuter anxious to get home. She died on the pavement and her friends and family built this ghost sculpture. Its wheels lit by strips of tiny lavender bulbs. 
     I drive home on streets I could close my eyes thru. The last Christmas lights have come down. Collectively, homeowners deciding a fortnight was the limit. God, how dim and grey everything seems. How cleared out. The deep blue black of the City landscape regaining its hold on the shadows. 
    I must love the season. For a month or so, collectively we all lean toward worship, or kindness, or whatever keeps us from killing each other. And then it's the long climb toward Summer. It's like being dropped out in the ocean where you can't see the shore and being told, "Swim.That way. Have faith."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Like the night

   "She walks in beauty like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes,
thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

      Most of my life I've asked why is this poem a great poem? It's a sledge hammer, it's a stack of cliches, with a ten year old's rhyme scheme it's as gaudy as its accusation toward day. It ends two lines late.
   Heck, it was the product of an all-nighter..
  "He wrote that ...coming home from a party."
   Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The first play I ever did. I listened to the poem or at least this piece of it spoken every night for a month.
  I kept telling myself, "It's clunky. It thumps. It's awkward. Why this one?" Why this one in a language, a literature, filled to the brim with love poems?
   I watched the twin towers fall 14 years ago. I walked in their rubble. The air that week was filled with the atomized spray of some 3000 people - the detonation of two of mankind's most gigantic gestures. Our folly.
   Last night I watched The Walk, a Hollywood take on Phillipe Petit's high wire crossing between the North and the South tower in 1974.
   It's a thumpy movie. It's a stack of cliches. It's gaudy and it plays with your heart strings like a ten year old would.
   But when I saw them again, when I saw them standing there, full, finished, shining and perfect in that awful way that they did double perfection, I nearly wept.
  I don't know if we freeze the time, the part of our life we remember before trauma, that we choose to privilege, we freeze it and we leave it there forever, before the event. So it someday can be returned to or so that some part of us remains untainted, unhurt by what happened next. But watching, I knew myself back then. I could feel myself out over the void that was coming, that's still there, still waiting, alive and young and reckless in New York at the turn of the Millennium.
   When I saw the towers standing again, the actors touching the stainless metal, I was breathless - unhooked into an emotional vertigo- happily shocked and in love again with something that no longer existed, that had turned to dust, and that maybe never was more than an awkward couple of buildings you had to cast your hopes across to make better.
   But so many things exist simply in experience. They can be spoken of but not evoked. Not made true. Like a song, or a film, or a poem.
  This man walked across two buildings and made them one beautiful enough thing. Him and the New Yorkers who didn't arrest him, and the few hundred on the ground who bore witness to something far rarer than even a man walking on the moon. They made those two giant silver boxes into something graceful. Some thing worth all that work.
    My brother's been dead for 4 years. I ask for the simplest of things. That he haunt me. That he wake me from my sleep, or track me down, or scream at me when I'm foolish. From somewhere.
  I believe in the simplest of ideas, of the cliche of a ghost, of wisdom from beyond the grave, something a young boy would want from an absent parent. Some impossible crossing between the world of the living and the wordless dead.
  "Of cloudless climes and starry skies.."
  He wrote that coming home from a party.
   About a young woman, his cousin I think she was who he'd seen dressed in mourning. "And all that's best of dark and bright." She's been dead and buried in an English courtyard for a hundred and forty years. The raven tresses, the liquid eyes, her walk, her clouded face, what her voice must have been to the ear. All, dust in the earth for a century and a half.
   And yet.
   "All that's best and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" and every time I hear that poem, bussed by it, I can feel that night's cold air, the kind of chill the dark can have in the country when there's an empty sky and the stars seem to suck the heat out of the ground. In six lines. Six lines laid down with a hammer.
  The real. A poem. Two towering staring metal ghosts. The space my brother left. It's all so astonishing. Incredible we go on daily living the lockstep lives we lead. The endless feeding, the lists, the half felt duty, the pallid day after pallid days.
  There's a light outside my window.
  It's a 70 foot flame spit out by the steel mill across the street. A building that probably contains the combustive force of an atomic bomb. The flame. I can read by it in a pitch black room. Just the mill blowing off steam.
   Byron dashing off immortality before daybreak.
  A million and a half tons of metal there and then not there and then there again.
  My brother in the corner of my eye chasing me, chasing me until I'll stop.