In Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, the male characters include Fuller, who was injured on the job months before the movie begins. His long-suffering lawyer, Laura Wells, keeps telling him that he has no legal recourse against his employer, not beyond the settlement that he accepted. Fuller refuses to believe her. So Laura arranges for a male attorney to provide a second opinion, which turns out to be identical to hers. As they drive back from the meeting, Fuller says, “The only thing left to do is get a machine gun and kill everybody.” Laura pulls over and tells him to get out of her car. He apologizes to her. So Laura drives on. Fuller begins to sob. Laura keeps driving.
That night, Fuller takes a security guard hostage in the building where his case file is stored. The police summon Laura to the scene and send her in to talk with her client. He instructs her to read his file aloud to him. “You got screwed,” says the security guard, who has been listening closely. “Thank you,” says Fuller. He lets the guard go, and then asks Laura to help him with a ruse, designed to help him get away. She agrees, but as soon as she can, she shouts to the police, “He’s in the back.” And in a tone of exasperation: “He’s unarmed.”
The last time we see these two, Laura is visiting Fuller in prison. She’s brought him lunch from a burger place. Their manner with each other is like a woman and man still fond of one another long after a divorce. He asks her why she hasn’t replied to his letter. She says she didn’t know what to write. Anything, he responds. There’s not much to look forward to in prison. So it doesn’t have to be a tome. All right, says Laura.
The other women in Certain Women are like Laura: forward-looking, hardworking, resolute, indomitable. Quietly, steadily, each goes about the business of making a life for herself and, in the instance of the character played by Michelle Williams, her family, too.
I thought of those women the other day when I finished reading Richard Ford’s novel Canada (2012). It ends this way:
What I know is, you have a better chance in life — of surviving it — if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate…, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.
The “I” here is an older man named Dell Parsons. He’s writing about dramatic events that took place decades earlier, when he was a teenager. First, his father robbed a bank. He needed to pay off a debt to some men with whom he had been running a scam. Dell’s mother was his accomplice. She went along with this insane scheme only because her husband had said he might take their son along. Dell’s parents were subsequently arrested and sent to prison. Then a friend of Dell’s mother, acting on her wishes, hid him from the authorities — his twin sister had run away — by driving him across the border into Saskatchewan. In Canada, Dell came under the power of his rescuer’s eccentric, menacing brother, Arthur Remlinger.
It was also the case (I couldn’t have formed these words then and knew them only in some uncreated part of myself) that Arthur Remlinger looked on me as he did on everyone — from an inner existence that was only his and bore almost no resemblance to mine. Mine simply wasn’t a fact to him. Whereas his existence was the most immediate and paid for — its primary quality being that it embodied an absence, one he was aware of and badly wanted to fill…. He encountered it over and over, to the the point that it was, in his view, the central problem of being himself.
Years later, after Remlinger did what Dell’s father had merely contemplated doing, namely, make him an accessory to crimes, Dell became an English teacher. He assigned his students books about crossing borders.
Along the way I tell them if not the facts, at least some of the lessons of my long life: that to encounter me now at age sixty-six is to be unable to imagine me at fifteen (which will be true of them); and not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings — even in the books they read — but to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight. In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you’ll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world.
On the one hand, certain women. On the other, uncertain men. Unpredictable, undecided, unreliable.
What is wrong with men?
Fuller, Dell’s father, Arthur Remlinger: these are people who refuse “to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight.” Each instead is preoccupied “with the central problem of being himself.” Accordingly, none “tolerate[s] loss well.” None “keep[s] proportion.” Whether obsessing over some absence or refusing to reconcile themselves to some presence, these are men who become ridiculous and pitiable, or cruel and monstrous.
For their part, the women prop them up. They bite their tongues. They smile with amusement. They clean up messes. They are willing to be anchors, ballast, mooring cables. More often than not, they are able to “connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good.”
What is wrong with men? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is past time for us to figure that out.
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Looking back through my recent posts on Traces, some still here and others I’ve since taken down, I’m struck by something. Again and again, I’ve been drawn to the same scenario: solitary individuals in an empty land.
Floodwater drives a couple from their home in When the Waters Came. In Waiting, we meet a hermit who has been living for decades on a mountaintop. At the Crossroads is a dialogue about a journey through a deserted landscape. In Flyoverland, a man sits alone inside his nondescript house on a featureless street in Anytown, U.S.A. Only the Watchman is my retelling in prose of the eerie scene with which Aeschylus begins his tragedy Agamemnon. In Words, I composed journal entries for a castaway who discovers a great cave on his desert island:
I walked deeper into the widening cave, and with each step, the syntax of the sentences became more elaborate, the ideas bolder, the arguments subtler. Just before the flames died, I stepped into a soaring cavern, a natural cathedral, and its walls and ceiling and even floor pulsed with the silent voices of the dead and gone.
Absence tries to capture the aura of an isolated ravine deep in the woods, the interior of an old toolshed, even “the chambers of our hearts, too, which no light can reach, unless maybe through our eyes when at dawn we have turned them eastward, in the direction of the sun as it comes up through haze on the far horizon.”
I have a memory from childhood, surely inaccurate in some details. In this memory of mine, my great-aunt gives me a picture book. It’s about a boy who wakes at night to discover a mysterious train sitting on the railroad track near his family’s house. He creeps out of the house and climbs aboard. To his shock, it immediately sets off down the track. Or maybe he himself opens the throttle. In any case, adventures ensue, all taking place in the course of that single night. One in particular stays with me: the train racing through the flames of a huge forest fire. In the finale, the train returns to the boy’s hometown just before dawn. He jumps down from the locomotive and walks away. Looking back, he sees his train — black, motionless, impassive. Only he and it will ever know about their journey together.
I recall my emotions better than I do the story and illustrations. I was intrigued, certainly. Stronger than that, however, was a feeling of dislocation. The book had divided the world into two. There was a boy’s day-to-day existence: waking in the morning, breakfast, school, chores, play, dinner, bedtime. Now there was this secret knowledge of another kind of existence, full of danger and daring, independence and adventure. Once a child discovers this new world, moreover, nothing can be the same in the old one. The child can’t fully inhabit it anymore, not in the unselfconscious way that he once had.
He’s become a stranger in his own life.
For those private memories are forever with him. On his face the cold night air. Behind him the long, dark curve of boxcars edged in silvery moonlight. Thump and throb and ceaseless vibration coming up through his feet. The searing heat of the fire, the locomotive groaning at full throttle, the surprise of fear. Followed closely by a feeling of triumph, and soon the sight of a familiar belfry high above a sleeping village.
His hometown, that is, and yet not his home, not anymore and never again.
I have a sentence in The Burdens of Aeneas, addressing my father: “Departing a life into which you could never really settle.” If that’s more obviously true for some of us, it’s not untrue for all of us. To one extent or another, we’re all strangers in our own lives, guests in our own homes. Which means, of course, that we’re always susceptible to loneliness, even when we’re surrounded by people.
I’m not really here to be a poor man’s Sartre, though.
Why am I here? I suppose I’m here to ponder what my own mind is trying to tell me. After all, it’s one thing to share with all of humanity an estrangement of the self both from the world and itself. It’s another thing to pick at that scab, isn’t it?
This is not something with which the ancients can be of help. At least, I don’t think so. I say that because you and I live in a quite different world.
Tradition pervaded and constrained the lives of the Greeks and Romans. Truth in those societies was formulaic, to use sociologist Anthony Giddens’ term. Ritual words and actions produced the desired result — rainfall, victory in war, success in business – or they didn’t. “True” meant “efficacious.” If a prayer or sacrifice failed to produce the desired result, it was because the priest had stumbled over a word, or the offering had not been ample enough, or the gods were simply in a bad mood. Think of tradition as being like computer code: it worked or it didn’t. If not, there had to be a glitch somewhere. It wasn’t because it was “false,” not in the way we use that word.
All of which meant — I can only assume, as I can have no real idea what anyone who lived two millennia ago was thinking and feeling — that so much of what we grapple with today was entirely beyond their ken and concern. Tradition was authoritative. It incorporated power relations. It defined an “us” and “them.” It supplied identity. It demanded deference. It “render[ed] many things external to human activity,” as Giddens puts it.
So much that was closed, as it were, is open now. For we live in a post-traditional society. “Is that true?” means something entirely different for us. “Who am I?” is a question that we ask ourselves, and for which we may have no sure answer. Each of us is born into a life that necessarily involves what Giddens calls a “reflexive project of the self.”
Stop for a moment and think about the implications of realizing, presumably during your adolescence, that the question is not “Can you perform this sequence of actions regularly for the rest of your life?” but “Who are you?”
A reflexive project of the self (me) versus participation in collective rituals (us). Personal decisions to make versus traditional roles to perform. No, the ancient Greeks and Romans can’t help.
There may be something, however, in this idea of being a stranger to oneself.
Georg Simmel defined a stranger as someone who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is not a wanderer, who comes and goes. Instead …
He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.
Now back to that boy who pored over a picture book about a boy who has a nighttime adventure on a train, unbeknown to his family and friends.
To say that he thereby experienced a dislocation, that there came about a kind of schism, a doubling, that resulted in his becoming a stranger to himself, is not to say that he no longer recognized himself.
The stranger, after all, comes and stays. The community hosting him admits and accommodates him, without necessarily assimilating him. As long as it postpones that last step, the stranger is a reminder to the community of an out there, of the boundary between it and the rest of the world, of its difference and separation.
And so might it be for the boy/young man/older man.
That solitary individual in my writings? He’s me, the stranger in me. The blogger looking down on him? He’s me, too. I suppose the question, therefore, is this: what should happen to the stranger, after all these years? Should he move on? Should he be assimilated? Or should he remain the stranger, the ever-present reminder of the unknown, of the not-yet-experienced, of ineradicable mystery.
Put on Clean Underwear
For your own sake, I mean. You’ll feel more confident and optimistic, if you’re wearing fresh underpants. Trust me.
Eat a Healthy Snack
You can’t know in advance how long you’re going to have to wait for the curtain to come down on human history. Why be hungry?
It worked at summer camp, and it’ll work for the Rapture.
Go Ahead, Feel Sorry for Yourself — It’s Okay
Normally I disapprove of self-pity. But there’s a time and place for just about everything, and the prospect of being incinerated is legitimately pretty awful. So have your pity party, and then move on.
Take a Moment to Look Around
You’re going to be very busy scurrying around and trying to save yourself. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t pause and reflect. You might have lived in any era in human history, but you’re lucky enough to have been alive when Earth exploded! So take it all in and try to appreciate this moment.
Be Willing to Vary Your Routine
On a typical Wednesday morning, you would be at your desk, sipping your second cup of coffee as you reply to emails. Interrupting your routine to deal with an apocalypse would make anyone grumpy. Don’t let it.
Remember Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
You may think to yourself, “But what did I accomplish in my life?” Instead, since it’s actually the end of all humanity, you could choose to say, “Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, sculpted the David and Pietà, designed St. Peter’s Basilica, wrote poetry, didn’t drink, and slept in his clothes. You know what? For a species, we did okay.”
Have a Plan for Your Pets
Who knows? You may be able to take them with you.
Keep Your Bucket List, Just in Case
As you’re tidying up — suppose aliens visit earth a million years from now, and the first thing they see is the mess you left behind — don’t throw out your bucket list. There’s some chance that after the radiation begins to diminish, you can go see what’s left of the Galapagos.
Sunscreen and Hat!
When the Sun goes supernova, it’s going to be something like 100 million degrees on Earth. You are not going to want to be without a hat and a liberal amount of sunscreen.
No One Likes a Gloomy Gus or Debbie Downer
Look, there’s no question that the end of everything is going to make most of us feel a bit sad. Do everyone a favor, though. Cheer up. Smile through the tears. After all, do you want to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?
Can you be certain that succumbing to poisonous gases won’t have an up side? How do you know for sure that the desertification of the entire planet won’t create new opportunities for everyone?
Did You Leave the Stove On?
Nothing is more irritating for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse than having someone say, “Wait! I think I may have left the stove on!” This is when a checklist can come in very handy.
Once upon a time I was a child. Then one day I wasn’t. Let’s say that it was one of those winter days. The sky sagged. The dog whimpered. A thought came to me: “Maybe this is all there is?”
That’s all it took.
I’m trying to read a book. These days, I am struggling to read books. One clunky adverb is all it takes for me to want to throw a book across the room. I keep buying books and then discarding those same books. I have stacks of partially read books. I miss books.
The book I’m trying to read is Graham Swift’s Waterland. Where I find this:
Reality’s not strange, not unexpected. Reality doesn’t reside in the sudden hallucination of events. Reality is uneventfulness, vacancy, flatness. Reality is that nothing happens…. [T]here are very few of us who can be, for any length of time, merely realistic. So there’s no escaping it: even if we miss the grand repertoire of history, we yet imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content….
And there’s no saying what consequences we won’t risk, what reactions to our actions, what repercussions, what brick towers built to be knocked down, what chasing of our own tails, what chaos we won’t assent to in order to assure ourselves that, none the less, things are happening. And there’s no saying what heady potions we won’t concoct, what meanings, myths, manias we won’t imbibe in order to convince ourselves that reality is not an empty vessel.
The Earth is 4.543 billion years old, give or take 50 million years.
Imagine saying to a friend, “I’ll meet you at 7:30. Just a heads up, though. Depending on traffic, I may be 50 million years late.” That’s a really long time for your friend to sit at a restaurant, checking her watch again and again.
It’s not so long, however, if you’re Mother Earth, with a to-do list that includes generating an atmosphere, creating multicellular organisms out of single cells, and moving continents around.
So, reality is a function of time. For an adult, time is that immense machine in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. It speeds up, and you want it to slow down. It slows down, and you want it to speed up. At some point, though, you realize you no longer much care, because you’ve concluded that nothing truly new and different will ever come out of it.
Time for a child is different. It’s a clock ticking inside a crocodile. It swims into and out of consciousness. When it does come into view, it seems exotic and strange and tingly. When it’s out of sight, the Lost Boys don’t think about it. After all, nothing happens in Neverland that hasn’t happened before and won’t happen again, and what could be better than that?
“Again, again!” says the laughing child.
“Not again,” thinks the adult.
There you have it.
Here I am, reflecting and writing on (of all things!) reality.
It’s like the Greek myth about the murderous daughters of Danaus, whose punishment in the underworld is to fill jars with water, only there are holes in the jars. For my part, I’m trying and trying to fill the leaky vessel of reality with a short essay on reality. I’m wearing a suit of mirrors in a hall of mirrors. I’m Sisyphus, except that it’s not a stone I’m pushing up a hill. I’m trying to push the hill up the hill.
I hear you telling me it’s okay. We all do what we have to do, in the face of this vacant vacancy, this flat flatness. Look, over there’s a man who collects swizzle sticks. Here’s a woman who is saving the world, one demonstration or march or Facebook comment at a time.
For some reason this makes me think of a realization I once had. It was about play. Not a play — play.
What’s the point of play? What’s its purpose?
Ah, I thought. Now I get it.
I’m not sure where this gets me, but isn’t it telling that the ancient Greeks imagined eternal damnation to be not physical pain, but utter futility? (T. S. Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”)
And is there anything more futile than building towers out of wooden blocks?
And have you ever encountered a child who is bothered by the supposed futility of building towers out of wooden blocks?
And isn’t it striking how much difference it makes to add “-like” instead of “-ish” to the word “child”?
Adam and Eve were childlike adults. Then they ate forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Once they became conscious of good and evil, they became childish adults.
I don’t know if this will make any sense, but it seems to me that the simplest way to describe our problem is this: we refuse to accept that reality is circular. Instead, we keep trying to make it linear.
“Nothing happens.” What it should say, of course, is that nothing new happens. The same things keep happening again and again and again and again….
The sun rises and sets. Today’s toys are identical to yesterday’s. The sun rises and sets. Some team beat some other team in some sport. The sun rises and sets. It’s trash collection day — again. The sun rises and sets. Yet another person tells you how busy he or she is. The sun rises and sets. The sun rises and sets. The sun rises and sets.
What’s wrong, though, with that?
Did you know that you can now download a meditation app for your smartphone? And that people all over the world are competing with one another for most consecutive days of meditating?
It’s memory, isn’t it, that causes the trouble.
We’re trapped in the present with memories of a past we can’t alter and hopes for a future we can neither predict nor control. Time passes. The past dogs our step; it’s our constant companion. Time passes. No matter how fast we run, meanwhile, the future stays always one step ahead. Time passes. The past swells, spreads, and keeps tossing memories on the pile. Time passes. We stand at the edge of a mountain of jumbled memories, dismayed, seeing how many of them are identical — roll, roll, roll, roll, roll the trash bin to the curb —and too weary, too discouraged to dig through them to find …
that early summer morning you stood at the edge of a meadow in Montana, where the perfection of each plant, each insect, each molecule of air filled your soul with perfect tranquillity
that evening you looked up the sidewalk to watch a brown-haired girl, deep in her own thoughts, pirouette around a parking meter, a tree, another parking meter
that time, one among many, when you said to yourself, “Remember this.”
Physicists talk about the “arrow of time.” The second law of thermodynamics says that in spontaneous processes, total entropy increases irreversibly. Eggs break — they don’t knit themselves back together. A cup of coffee heats your hand — not the reverse. So as disorder gets more disorderly, and randomness becomes even more random, time ticks forward.
Okay, I suppose. If the scientists say so. It is a law, after all.
It’s just that there always seems to be a carton of unbroken eggs in my refrigerator. And many of the same things that irked me when I was 20 still get on my nerves. And when I open the antique china cabinet we bought twenty-five years ago at a shop in Hillsborough, North Carolina, out rushes the smell of some old woman’s white clapboard house with a wraparound porch, floors of heart pine, and white lace doilies on the upholstery.
The sun rises. Again.
Hallelujah. We’re all still here.
And what should we do with the gift of one more day?
Yeah, let’s play.
The sun comes up through haze on the far horizon. Ocean waves burst into happy flame, and a vast river of fire races toward the edge of the continent. There the coastline, dim and soft-edged, awaits it. On the empty beaches, sea wrack lies scattered. In the grassy marshes, tidewater laps against steel-gray mud. Elsewhere dark conifers turn deaf ears to the booming surf, intent as they are upon the approaching blaze. For night still lurks among them, its bony fingers clutching at their trunks.
Then the light arrives. Warmth creeps inland. The air stirs. Above the faint music of the spheres there rises a great hum, steadily increasingly in volume, of life waking to this day, the thrumming of countless creatures resuming their tireless existence. Over them the light washes, banishing the terrors of the night.
All the meadows are filled with a sacred gleam. All the hills are bronzed. Upon the rivers and streams swirls an iridescent vapor, a mist shading from violet to gray to gold. It is a daily miracle, this light. It is a miracle of completion, of healing, of promise. It asks nothing and offers everything. After 90 million miles it grazes the jagged edge of a leaf and settles gently on the ground, where it stirs a dormant seed to life. The light is presence, and its lack is absence.
Absence, though. In absence there is longing, isn’t there? And longing you can find in the woody cove below a high mountain ridge, somewhere within which hides a memory of what we lost. Longing is still there in a dark and dusty toolshed, back among the broken pots and rust-eaten iron. There is longing in the chambers of our hearts, too, which no light can reach, unless maybe through our eyes when at dawn we have turned them eastward, in the direction of the sun as it comes up through haze on the far horizon.
The ghosts came riding in on the wind. It was a long time before they left. I’m talking years. Even then, one stayed behind. So I guess you could say our house stayed haunted. Technically.
I don’t have any clear memories of that day. Mama says Becca and I had been playing in the creek. The wind kicked up, and she came running out of the house to tell us to get out of the water. By the time we got back inside, there was a ghost sitting on every chair and three napping on Mama’s bed.
My earliest memory from that time is about Joanna. Mama and Becca had gone off somewhere. I was outside talking to the chickens. Joanna wafted over and hovered over my right shoulder. When I glanced back at her, she said something like, “Sooner or later, you all are going to be eating those chickens. The least you can do is let them preserve a shred of their former dignity.” At the time, I thought “preserve a shred of their former dignity” had something to do with what we were feeding them. “Preserve” and “shred,” you see. Anyway, I pestered Mama about it until she threatened to make me spend an entire day with Mr. Pembleton, if I didn’t leave her alone.
As you might expect, having a house full of ghosts didn’t make Becca and me popular at school. Speaking of Mr. Pembleton, he would sometimes tag along. He said his daddy had taken him out of school after fifth grade, and now that he had all this time on his hands, he saw no reason not to improve himself. Miss Brown was the only teacher to put up with him, though. She said it was because he knew so much about history, what with all those long (BORING) stories he told. Becca and I were pretty sure it was because she had a crush on him. Anyway, as soon as the principal found out that Mr. Pembleton was hanging around, scaring the other children, he’d call Mama and tell her to come get him. (more…)