Most of us will chase something at one point or another. It may be a short chase, after something well-defined and easily obtained. Or a long chase, made as much by the struggle as by the goal itself. Or a youthful chase full of bright-eyed, dreamy exuberance. Or the quest of later years, when what lies ahead is increasingly defined by what went before.
For some, the chase is a noble cause that will leave the world a better place, regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. Others will take the low road of vengeance, recrimination, or pride, plunging into the depths like Captain Ahab on the bloodied back of Moby-Dick.
“Moby-Dick, p. 548” by Matt Kish
To those caught up in the chase it’s not always so clear which side they are on. For those convinced of their righteousness, the nobility of the cause is beyond question, hardship merely a price worth paying, while to others the same quest is utter nonsense. In the end we only remember the quests that hit stride at the right time, when the right people are paying attention. Those chasing Holy Grails and windmills tend to go down anonymously. It doesn’t mean their quests were futile or unimportant, even when they were imaginary or sad. As Dona Walda put it after we finished her oral history in 1993, “We’re not important, but in our own lives we’re important.”
My father once told me that when you see a shooting star, it means a great man has died. It’s an archaic saying that calls to mind stargazers and great dreamers, who loom in my imagination like ancient Greek statues but are just as easily my own grandfathers, my mother, a neighbor who befriended us when we needed it. So many little things come together to make a life under the stars and with the stars, each one’s path to “follow a star,” as the saying goes.
Seen a shooting star tonight And I thought of me If I was still the same If I ever became what you wanted me to be Did I miss the mark or overstep the line That only you could see? Seen a shooting star tonight And I thought of me
Bob Dylan wrote that verse as he stared down fifty, as I am doing. It makes me wonder, too. What are these shooting stars, really? My father believed in “great men,” whose lives we look up to like we look to the stars. Centuries of belief in the ancient world tie our lives to the movements of the stars. The great tragedies are “star-crossed” while Abraham lifted the history of a nation by counting those same stars against the backdrop of nothingness and everything all at once. I believe in the chaotic beauty of a universe held together as much by accident as intention. We all chase our stars, our white-whales and our Holy Grails, eventually going the way of the stars themselves, flaming out against infinity.
Notes and Credits
Photograph of Supernova Remnant N 63A Menagerie from NASA, taken by the Hubble Telescope. You can find the whole Hubble collection at the Hubblesite, which catalogs all the photographs along with explanations of the phenomena being documented.
Photo of a white (albino) humpback whale found at Cryptomundo. The whale is called “Migaloo,” and more photos can be found here by Dan Burns of Blue Planet Marine and Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.
Dona Walda was the matriarch of a family I met in Aurá, a suburb of Belém, Brasil, in 1992-93. I came to know Dona Walda and her family as I took oral histories of their experiences in Aurá, which was founded by land invasion in 1990 during the gubernatorial elections of that year, when candidate Jader Barbalho went around the state promising to legalize invasion neighborhoods if he won the election. I visited with my friends from Aurá from 1992 through 2004, learning much from their neighborhood’s history and writing a few pieces about he neighborhood association for scholarly journals. Dona Walda’s statement after her interview with me is one of the most touching things that I’ve heard across my entire career of interviewing people about their lives. A wise statement, I will never forget it.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. —Anton Chekhov
Glass can reveal you and other things in the world. Glass can challenge you.
Glass can cut you. Glass is a magical substance. Glass reflects things as truly as it distorts them.
Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again. —Alice, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Stained in small pieces, it can create images and stories that tell us how God lived and died, saints turning sunlight and suffering into colored mists of other-worldly atmosphere here on earth.
You could be known as the most beautiful women who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal. —Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You”
Broken, glass becomes a metaphor for struggle laced with pain and suffering, love destroyed, the end of things that once were.
My whole life has crashed, won’t you pick the pieces up
’cause it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass —Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass”
Yet broken glass is more than this. Sometimes, what is broken becomes better than it was before.
“Now it’s just like the other horses . . . ” says Laura in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, when Jim knocks her glass unicorn to the floor, breaking its horn.
Breaking the glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding reminds of the fragility of human relationships, which need the greatest care. The broken glass is the world the couple came from, forever and irreparably changed by their union. New joy must live alongside the pain and suffering of the world.
Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. She started, jumped up, and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table. —Anton Checkov, “The Looking-glass”
The mirror reveals only what it is shown, and what it means to the looker can be something different altogether. The looking-glass is only one more opportunity to warp the matter of the world into shapes that suit deception, plotting, and retellings of post-hoc truths that matter now more than the time to which they refer.
Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion —John Lennon, “Glass Onion”
All that ends must be followed by something else. So it is with broken glass. The broken vase pictured at the opening of this essay was bought by a lover to whom I had sent roses after some transgression that I have long forgotten. She, too, is gone, though the vase remained with me after she left. It’s been filled by the flowers of other lovers who have come and gone, each one leaving a mark on my heart, life by a thousand cuts, as it were.
Then one day last year, my cat jumped up to the window sill in the middle of the night and the vase came crashing to the floor. The sound woke me and I went to look, shaking my head as I plodded back to bed, thinking that in the glint of that broken vase there was a story to be told. I will miss her.
A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago. The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.
“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply. David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.
Write what you know
You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all. That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers. It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.
Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing. For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world. Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical. What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself. Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.
Paint what you are
Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of. In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently. His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.
No. 31, 1950
The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.
Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out. There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart. Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am …
a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature
a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world
Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life”
The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work. As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”
Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England
Does context make the art? It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered. It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.
One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context. Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely. It’s all there on the canvas: the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.
Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world. It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again. What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words. What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.
“Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Notes and credits
Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.
Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010. Find Pollock all over the web. This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.
Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.
Scotland PA is a wonderful film. See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.
My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.
Of those who are fearless, there two kinds: the reckless and the serene.
The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic. Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless. The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp. The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy. They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between. They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not. Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are. The reckless, by comparison, are lost.
I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
The serene can be heroes. They know where they are and what they want. They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure. They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves. They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.
Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds
Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are. They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another. St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals. He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal. The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse. We used to sing it in church when I was a child.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.
O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.
Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children. Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong. Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people. It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life. Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989. The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.
Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories. She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém. From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police. In this position, she received international recognition. She and her family took me in as a friend. There is always much joy in her house.
Giotto, "St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man"
In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years. I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds. They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left. Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling. Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally. Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s. It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all. That is real heroism.
Notes and Credits
The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images. The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm). Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings. The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission. She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.
David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes. The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today. Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.
The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters. These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web. They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.
St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry. St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.
A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice
Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes. I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene. In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not. Let me clarify.
Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes. There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures. They are sociopaths. Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine. They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers. Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority. These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.
Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason. They kill without ever coming close to the trigger. They command armies and industries. They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table. They are serene. They are fearless. They are all around us and hidden in our midst. “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”
As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple. That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just. The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words. Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged. This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments. It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have. All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two: Somalia and the United States of America. Serenity now.
There are two kinds of people: those who follow and those who don’t. Of followers, there are two kinds: those who stay put, and those who go somewhere. Of followers who go somewhere, there are two kinds: those who are led and those who are pushed, the latter including those who fall in holes whether pushed or not (go ask Alice). Of followers who stay put, there are two kinds: those who stay in a place, and those who stay in a particular frame of mind.
Of those who do not follow, there are three kinds: poets, prophets, and migrants. Of poets, it is said that they show us who we are. Of prophets, it is said that they show us who we should be. Of migrants, it is said they show us where to go next.
Poets, prophets, and migrants are called. They do not choose who they are, and mistakes can be made when callings are crossed, whether by the one who is called or by those doing the calling. When poets are mistaken for prophets, everyone is deceived. Cults are formed and lives are wasted.
There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight from the disease of conceit
Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye
Give you the idea that you’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.
Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”
Prophets are rarely mistaken for poets, but when they are, they are generally neither and the poetry is awful. Though it is nearly impossible for a poet to be a prophet, either might be a migrant, whether on land, in dreams, or of the mind.
Leadership is an attribute given by those who follow to someone else, who may or not be the kind of person who follows. The truth is—leadership has nothing to do with being a follower or not. In the end, perhaps there really are only two kinds of people: those who do well when type-cast, and those who only begin to thrive when cast against type.
Notes and Credits
The photos were all taken by the author in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The first is a photo of an art project my son did in the first grade (2009), drawing the human form. The second is the tunnel at the northwestern entrance of Prospect Park. The third is a garden scultpure in front of a house on 2nd Street, near the corner with Prospect Park West.
Bob Dylan was called to be a poet, but the people who loved him wanted him to be a prophet. It cost him, and some of those loved him, twenty years. After years of reflection, Dylan wrote that by the mid-1980s “[e]verything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history any more. I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent”—Chronicles, Vol. One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 148.
Dylan wrote “Disease of Conceit,” in 1987 as he began to explore a new musical identity more aligned with his own sense of self and his mission as an artist. The song would be the eighth track on Oh Mercy, the album that set him on the path to redeeming his career with a whole new audience by the mid-1990s. In the fall of 1989, I saw him perform at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor. It was the third show of his I had seen at that point in my life and by far the best. Toward the end of the show – as either the closing song or the last encore – he brought down the house with “Disease of Conceit.” The poetry was breathtaking.
As for those who fall down holes …
Alice on the toad-stool, Central Park, New York, December 20, 2009
The following five questions and topics address a very old issue involving a chicken and a road. In spite of many hours given to thinking about this topic, by myself and legions of others, many issues are unresolved even as we speak (or write). One brave chicken, one empty road, and a million synapses firing all at once all lead us to this juncture. Follow the links and then contribute something to help finish the story:
Twitter your immediate thoughts and include #chickenroad in your Tweet …
Leave a comment if there’s something you want to highlight for readers, or warn them about …
Write a story that addresses the following points and/or questions and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll talk about it, but mainly I’ll be looking to repost your story here.
Now … here we go.
First: Which of the following roads (paths, lanes, etc.) was the chicken trying to cross, and in what way did it matter? Each link takes you to the appropriate song (or book).
Second: When the bear went over the mountain, he saw the other side of the mountain, to be sure, but winding through the valley below was one of the aforementioned roads (paths, lanes, etc.). Alongside the road was a chicken. Note: the bear was hungry.
Third: In the middle of the road is Paul McCartney. Do they do it in the road? Or not? And what is “it,” specifically?
Fourth: As the bear reaches the road in the valley below, along with the chicken and Paul McCartney, “she” is coming round the mountain, when she comes, when she comes, driving eight white horses, and etc. What happened next? Who is “she?” And why were the horses white?
Fifth: Should any character in your story “live happily ever after,” please explain how, and why, in precise terms.
The drawings in the Bob Dylan video for Highway 61 Revisited are by a man named Giovanni Rabuffetti. I can’t find a home page for him or a Wiki entry, but I found this entry on him on a blog called White Rabbit by a guy named Andrew Keogh. I think it’s beautiful art, and there’s a lot of hits for drawings by Rabuffetti if you google him, including this video with animation by Rabuffetti for “All Along the Watchtower.”
One of the featured videos here is from The Beatelles, an all female Beatles tribute band from Liverpool. You can learn a lot more about them here and here. And if you like this, see The Beladies, who were the first all-woman Beatles band, hailing from Buenos Argentina.
And considering the road and highway theme of this posting, I can’t resist the temptation to post another favorite highway song by a favorite songwriter, Steve Earle, “The Long Lonesome Highway Blues.” Enjoy.