Saturday, February 28, 2009

ASTRAL WEEKS

From other postings, you may have seen that songs - mostly from other times - thread their way through my life and mind. I suspect they take me places I would not have found without their help. Consider this another in a succession of non-linear stories.

A phrase can be enough to dislodge a memory or coax an idea to draw breath. It has been said that singer/songwriter John Prine began his classic "Sam Stone" with two words: broken radio, as in, "...sweet songs never last too long on broken radios." Last Sunday I saw a listing by Ann Powers in the Los Angeles Times entertainment guide. It read, in part, "Martha Wainwright with 'I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too'...made a gorgeous, hungry, sad, sweet album that anyone who's ever been recklessly in love should hear."

Recklessly in love. Oh no.

This morning on NPR's Weekend Edition there was a discussion about Van Morrison's 1968 album ASTRAL WEEKS which he performed live and in its entirity not long ago. Another such performance is scheduled. There was talk of it being considered one of the great, all-time albums by ROLLING STONE; a teacher at a New York university found that of 16 students in his class, 4 called it their favorite album; all 4 had been born long after its release.

Morrison was interviewed about its meaning, the personal experiences it illuminated. His response was that it was fiction, bits and pieces he'd collected from everywhere, "These are short stories in musical form." Others interviewed on the program said of ASTRAL WEEKS, "...so much of what makes music great is courage." (We are shown by the music that) "...life can be lived more deeply." I found my way to the album in 1970 and from the first listening, it was like sliding into a pool, sinking to the bottom, yet still being able to breathe. It made sense to me, I was unaware that it didn't match other music of that time and I found in it images that illustrated the inexpressable state of being, as I then was, recklessly in love.

Even after nearly 40 years, I understand, though I have learned to let go of such expectation, the madwoman wish to dip in bronze, to preserve, such rare merging of the human and the unquantifiable. At the time I didn't even have words for it, I just knew that I wanted to hold onto it in a way that was, at best, unwise and, at worst, extremely unwell, awarenesses that came to me much later. In THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, the thought, let alone the fact, of the gold is the source of insanity. I admit that some of us bring more than a little bit of crazy with us and under such conditions can reach states where instincts for self-preservation evaporate. And if those instincts were not too fully developed before recklessness took over, well, one might as well sit on the railroad tracks and stare at the sun.

I've not yet heard Martha Wainwright's album. I don't know if I expect to find consolation there or the uncomfortable reminder of what it feels like to be entirely in your body, yet out of your mind. I think of it as an obsessive state in which we imagine finding our way into a space of absolute knowing, a place from which we, or so we believe, cannot not be dislodged from our object, where there is, we hope, something substantial enough to grasp and trust, a place where we would be allowed to exchange reckless for real.

Surviving being recklessly in love elicits an ambiguous response in me; yes, I was there and managed to find my way back, but, like the last of our astronauts to leave the moon, will there forever be that longing for one final, impossible flight?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dreams, again? and good news

First, a question. It may just be curiosity or it may be a wish to confirm that something is afoot in the universe. Has anyone else been having intricate, vivid dreams that seem to go on and on; something out-of-the-ordinary, especially something that address a significant issue in an illuminating way? Just wondering.

Next, it has been a time when reports of good news are coming to me from disparate correspondents, each of them loved dearly, each on a distinct and separate path. In no particular order, I celebrate the finding of a job, in a city and economy where that is beyond challenging, and it is a job that fits the intention and qualification of the applicant. Good news, big good news. To learn that a play, grown and polished over labor-filled time, has moved further along the judging process in a prestigious competition brings appreciation, still with my wish for even greater acknowledgement. An artist whose energies, despite health-borne roadblocks, make many of us look like Han Solo frozen in the carbon block, prepares to open her Etsy shop and take her work global. A perilously delayed diagnosis of pneumonia now has a treatment that seems to be bringing it under control. A promotion and raise, unexpected, came to help heal nearly unbearable grief following a mother's death. Robins and roses are evident in a garden to which it seemed spring might never come; even if winter decides to hang around a bit longer, the promise has been made. Each day holds blessings, especially if we expand our definition and find that the box holds one last cookie, unbroken, with lots of chips, and here we thought they were all gone.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alternate lives

When AOL stopped auto-deleting all the new mail, or mail kept as new, that had been hanging around for 30 days or so, it lured a shadowy part of my nature into a state of hoarding correspondence. The fact that there was no well-functioning printer at the time needs to bear some of the blame, but that weak and procrastinating part simply let things pile up. No need to mention just how many things but as the computer began to slow down and give me the electronic equivalent of the stink eye, I started sorting - printing, saving in files, deleting or releasing.

There was gold there, as I expected; there were also serendipitous mailings, one of which connects to something I've been thinking about for a few days. It was a call, forwarded by a writer friend, for "innovative film writing," which was described, in part, as "...attempt to implant your cinematic experience in others." Dangerous doors to open for one who can take (as may be witnessed in previous postings) a phrase or interpretation from any book, song, movie or word-centered presentation and go riding off like Jeremiah Johnson, alone in the high country, to track whatever realization has left its prints in the snow.

After several evenings of watching for a second time the Jason Bourne trilogy, what stayed in my mind was the name of a city, a Bob Dylan song and the fact that I am actually 64 years old, though my mind works like hell to sidestep that reality. "If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangier," never has been and now, likely, never will be about me. The location filming in the Bourne movies, seen closer and on a larger tv screen this time around, was something of a wonder. It was not Toronto or Prague posing as Moscow; it was Moscow. But much as the visuals - and the plentiful chases, studies in deep black ops endurance - helped me escape along with Jason, it was just the simple mention that he had traveled (from India, we knew) through Tangier, before the third picture took us there, that had me twirling through my past.

I can't say that I really, actively chose the path my life took; it was more like an unmarked car which pulled up to the curb and I got in. There were never moments in which I thought, "Instead of sitting at this typewriter, I could be renting motor scooters on Corfu," or any Mediterranean coastal island or town. Life was just life, with goals and dreams that didn't involve world travel. I never saw myself, and don't imagine anyone else did, as exotic, adventurous, daring, mysterious or likely to be found in Tangier, but I suppose the possibility existed, for I didn't actually admit until a few days ago that my evolution into such a creature was unlikely to happen.

Nearly 30 years ago I worked with a woman, who might have been found anywhere. She and Bob Dylan were friends - he dedicated a song to her at a local concert. She could walk a tightrope and didn't believe in car insurance and in looking at the two of us through the same lens, I felt pretty much like someone who would be instantly recognized as some version of regular, while she would be compared to the fragrant smoke from a joss stick...sandalwood, patchouli or something unidentifiable, something other.

Allowing myself to accept the fact that her sort of otherness had ceased to be an option was not painful so much as surprising. I don't expect that at this point I will learn to water ski either. Perhaps it is just my mind that processess the passing of time in increments that have pretty much nothing to do with how rapidly the years go by. Tangier or Corfu or faraway places in general are not likely spots for women of a certain age to have new beginnings. But grabbing hold of other words, a Marianne Fathful song called "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," in which she sings, "At the age of thirty-seven she realized she'd never ride through Paris in a sport car with the warm wind in her hair," it is clear that there are some alternate lives which I choose to hold onto a bit longer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mystery

All my life I’ve read mysteries. My mother read mysteries - she also read westerns and stories about the cavalry and the Battle at Little Big Horn. It was the mystery gene that was transmitted.

Beginning with Nancy Drew in the third grade, I spent decades reading my way through series by writers British, Australian, Swedish, Japanese, American and I can’t recall how many others. Nancy Drew is tied to very specific memories, such as my Aunt Dot walking up the driveway on my birthday with a gift stack, each present wrapped separately in an identifiable shape that could only be one thing. The public library, across the street from my elementary school, did not carry Nancy Drew, nor the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls or any of the other somewhat pulpy favorites as they were deemed to lack literary merit. It seemed to me then and now to be a version of de facto censorship. Someone had read something - maybe that Nancy had a boyfriend! - they didn’t like and all the works in the genre were considered trashy, unworthy of shelf space at the Santa Catalina or any other branch. So one had to purchase the books, trade with friends or receive them as gifts in order to read them. And even though there wasn’t, at least in the N.D. books, a thread that spun out from one book to the next, it seemed essential to read them in order. No need for a paragraph before the opening page which said, “Previously in Nancy Drew...”

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were early grown-up mysteries, along with Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Reading, particularly of mysteries, sustained me through uneven times; during a early and trauma-ridden first marriage, I easily consumed nearly a book a day. But I was not, am not, a mystery fan who likes to solve the puzzle. If I can figure out who-did-what, I think the writer hasn’t done his or her job. Of course there are the stories where the villain is known early on, but that’s not the same thing. One day it occurred to me to wonder just what was it that drew me to mysteries, not quite to the exclusion of other fiction.

There is the puzzle aspect, but since I don’t set out to solve it, what does that mean? The closest I can come to explain this passion to myself - and I don’t believe that we are ever required to explain ourselves to ourselves or anyone else - was probably rooted in the sense I have that it is all a mystery. There was a time in my life when I visited psychics, wanting to know what was ahead; I wanted a periscope with which to peer around corners and try and learn if there was a good outcome waiting for me. And the definition of “a good outcome” was very specific, filled with expectation based on wanting and a limited, naive grasp of the way in which the Universe operates. Lengthy, bruising lessons have helped me admit that the way ahead is uncharted, unchartable, and the energy spent in trying to see in such dim light embezzles the energy we could invest in finding the joy or the peace of right now. A well-constructed mystery novel frequently gives us the answer that daily life denies us - how does it all turn out? I find something comfortable in such stories, yet I am never disappointed when the ending is ambiguous, a more familiar situation in which the mystery continues to unfold as time is allowed to reveal next page.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gray Areas

Before we held the election, before the potential opposing candidates had been named, I finally read THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, the first of his books I’d come to. I didn’t know what it was about nor even that it had won the 2007 Pulitzer for fiction, not until it was in my hands.

In the recent past I’d seen post-apocalyptic movies but the two that come immediately to mind had humans turning into zombies - a situation that could not be called good or hopeful - but which managed to make the enemies no longer accountable for their actions. Hey, I’m a zombie, I can’t help myself.

In McCarthy’s book there are no zombies. There are very few life forms of any description. The world has turned to ash; no food grows, waters are fouled, the sun is always dimmed. The main characters, a man and his son, are trying to make their way south across an unrecognizable America. There was a point in the story when I felt I had to stop, that I couldn’t bear to fill my mind with additional images of cannibals and all that had been lost.

But the story had me and I finished it in a morning’s sitting. It is not a novel one completes, then goes off to do something pointless. Of me it demanded interpretation, not to find what it might mean to everyone, but simply what it meant to me.

The dominant word that played over and over in my head was - savage. And with that word came a realization that the sides had already been chosen. We will not become either savages or carriers of fire, bringers of light after the fall. We are now who we will be.

Savage came to define itself in many of its forms, often cloaked in pleasing or at least acceptable exteriors. If you are on the lookout for drooling monsters you will miss some of the more ferocious beasts. I began to sense that we had reached the crossroads a long time ago, I can’t say just when, but I could easily equate cannibals with war profiteers, lying politicians, deniers of freedoms, any sort of predator, bully or aggressor, and saw the enormity of their numbers. That any one of us (or maybe just most of us) could possibly turn from civilized to savage under certain conditions was not reassuring. I began to believe than in each moment we have a choice, each decision we make in an ordinary day really does align us with one side or the other. And how important each moment becomes when we realize what rests on those choices. THE ROAD warned me to be mindful, told me where the lines were and made it clear there was not, there never will be, a gray area. We have either signed up to carry the fire and the light or to extinguish them. What I took from McCarthy’s words was that we needn’t wait for the apocalypse to find out what we’re made of. If we look honestly, we already know.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cautionary Tales

Throughout elementary school years, we were shown a film about how not to be a jerk, thereby keeping yourself and the other kids safe. I remember two of the characters - Giddy Goose and Foolish Fish. Goose walked in front of a child on the swings, her head turned away, never seeing those outstretched legs coming right at her. Fish was a smart-aleck who took pleasure in putting his thumb over the drinking fountain, creating a puddle on the polished linoleum hall floor, resulting in a classic case of slip-and-fall. We saw the film at least once at each grade level, probably more often. Combined with the earthquake drills, fire drills, air raid drills was another film on how to save your buddy from a rattlesnake bite by cutting an "x" directly over the fang marks with the knife you always carried, then sucking out and spitting out the poison. I believe popular thinking has changed on that technique. We did not lack for models of sensible, even courageous behavior.

Yet somehow I became my own cautionary tale. One clear example came on a day I walked home from school to find a shoe box sitting on top of one of the trash cans awaiting pick-up at the curb next to our driveway. The box’s lid was on and I didn’t recognize it as anything we had discarded so I walked over and lifted the top. As I remember it, a lizard lept out, scrambling across my hand, and I’m sure I must have screamed. Our house was set at the very back of the lot and I don’t recall anyone coming to see what was the matter. I assume that I reached the front door in hysterics for my dad was summoned from work and I was driven to the doctor, throwing up all the way. There is no memory of what the doctor said or thought, I just know that on the drive home, my father tried to tell me the story of Pandora’s Box and about never taking the lids off things and letting horror loose in the world. Say goodbye to curiosity and those dwindling threads of daring DNA.