My Third Novel's Conclusion, My Heartbreak

My heart begins to break when I think about completing this particular book -- because this narrative has sustained me like no other story I've known. It's both more personal and more universal than my other works. But beyond memory and archetype, it's a cri-de-coeur about needing to become the person one is destined to be. And in the writing, I have met my own life's work, my own fated journey -- having the sense all the while that the pages are suffused with a resonance, an energy, an electrified field that defies explanation. Writers hope and pray to be overtaken by a work in this way -- to be conscripted into passionate service of a profound story. To experience it even once in a lifetime seems a great privilege. I still have perhaps six months before this novel is complete, and this constitutes my reprieve. Because I'm not ready for the beauty to end.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Poet's Quest

I seek out evocative poetry when I'm writing fiction.  It's a quest of my soul to find the piercing image, the lyrical phrase, the resonant epiphany that compelled the poet to give life to verse.  And, because my current novel is set on Cape Cod, I recalled the sensuous poem, "Quahogs," which appeared in The New Yorker two years ago.

I'll post it here for a short time in the hope you might acquaint yourselves with the rest of Frank Gaspar's work.  I grew up watching the ritual of clamming, and even participating in it a few times -- and it's as salty and cold and wearying and delicious and transcendent as the poet describes.

                                    Frank Gaspar

It was for the wind as much as anything.  It was for the tidal flats, for the miles of bars and and the freezing runs between them, blued and darkened in the withering gusts.  For the buckets, for the long-tined rakes.  For our skin burning and the bones beneath, all their ache.  For the bent backs, for the huddle toward warmth beneath our incapable layers, how we beat ourselves with our arms.  The breath we blew, the narrow steam that spun away.  How we searched their tell-draggle marks.  Then the feel of them as we furrowed.  Then it was surgery and force together.  Like stones.  Opal or pearl or plain rock, ugly except they were beautiful, their whorls and purple stains.  The bucket's wire cutting with their weight.  For the sky blazing, its sinking orange fire.  For the sky's black streaks with night rising, winter-sudden.  Back, shoreward, home, the tide creeping like a wolf.  For the little stove warming, its own orange fire.  The old pot, the steam, the air in savor, the close room, the precious butter, the blue fingers throbbing, our bodies in all the customs of weariness, the supper, succulent of the freezing dark sea come up, and hunger, its own happiness, its own domain immeasurable,  It was for the hunger.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

To Welcome Company, to Embrace Seclusion

"In order to write about life, first you must live it." -- Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway often spoke about the tension between art and life -- and the fact that there is a contest between the two for the serious writer.  If a writer retreats into seclusion for too long a period of time, the work becomes limited, self-referential, irrelevant.  And if a writer gives way to too much "living" -- too much travel, experience, adventure -- there isn't time for deep reflection, for revelation, for the quiet in which the best creative insight can occur.

So, the artist must try to do both -- to do and to be -- to welcome company and to embrace seclusion -- to accept the conflict between art and life if any of the mysterious alchemy of creation is to occur.  In the best of circumstances, the writer invests the work with life, emotion, vibrancy, transformation -- and the work returns to the writer more life, emotion, vibrancy, transformation.  The creator and the creation offer breath and sustenance to one another in a miraculous circuit -- an electric current -- that brings energy and renewal to everyone who approaches it.

How does this happen?  How can life and art join together to become something greater than the sum of separate parts?  It's a mystery.  And like all enigmas, it wants to be allowed its sacred space.  The tension between art and life continues -- in a dance, a dialog, a passionate affair -- that is sustaining and enlivening to both of them.  And this writer lives with one foot in both worlds -- that of the adventurer and that of the recluse -- until the work is done.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Bending the Universe

A friend of mine recently slipped a surprise into my suitcase:  a letter I had written to him two years ago.  In it, I had told him that, while I realized he was already a great success in his career, I sensed his dream for himself involved something greater -- a new venture that he himself could own, a business he could nurture and grow to full fruition.  Today, that dream has been realized -- to the extent that my friend feels he is engaged with his destined life's path for the first time.  Given that I see his robust fulfillment frequently, it's strange to look back to a time when his entrepreneurship was a mere hunch I expressed in writing -- a recognition of his true potential -- a belief.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, used to speak often about "bending the universe" to his will.  He had a conviction that he could create the impossible with the right friends and sufficient belief.

And when the impossible has happened for me?  When the Oscar-winning producers have signed onto my current project?  When the agents have lined up to offer their support?  These events have always begun with belief, creativity and generous support from my friends.

I always like to pay forward such good fortune -- to bring my friends along with me on my outsized adventures, and to support them with dreams of their own.  It's a mysterious alchemy that allows our secret hopes to take shape in the real world.  There's a deep well of fulfillment in realizing our own dreams -- and there's an overflowing sense of joy in tangibly supporting our friends' hopes, too.

The universe truly can be "bent" to our will, it turns out.  When we understand this as the truth, all dreams become nearer to us, all ambitions live within our reach.

The German philosopher, Goethe, wrote, "Whatever you can do -- or dream you can -- begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

It's a delight to discover how right he was.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Beyond Time

"Time doesn't take away from friendship.  Nor does separation." -- Tennessee Williams

Some friendships exist outside of time.  I'll attend another Dartmouth reunion in June -- and I expect the usual magic trick of time's collapse to occur.  I'll run into friends -- and find immediately that my mind is flooded with pictures of our adventures together -- rowing on the Connecticut river in an eight-person scull at 5 a.m. -- or biking down the steepest of New Hampshire hills without brakes -- or cross-country skiing at midnight on the golf course under a full moon.  Seeing them brings every shared thrill into full focus -- that ridiculous biology exam -- the award-winning play -- the late-night donut runs -- every episode in which we couldn't control our laughter.  I reunite with them so infrequently -- and yet, they know I would get on a plane to fly to them if ever they needed my help -- and I know they would do the same for me.  The months or years of absence evaporate when we're brought together.  Our affection erases the intervening time -- vanquishes it.  And we pick up where we left off -- joyfully, effortlessly -- freed from time's grasp in a way that's both surprising and inevitable -- again.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Laughter List: Adventure, Mischief, Good Friends

A few things inspire laughter in me -- a gentle, joyful waterfall of laughter I'm not conscious of creating until I hear it.  And it strikes me that our days should contain much more of this "living large," in which vibrant surprise, awakened senses, and pure delight rule over everything else.  So, what makes me laugh?

I've been contemplating my list: cantering on horseback, skiing fast in fresh powder, sailing with a 45 degree heel, dancing a dramatic tango in which smiling is forbidden, feeding a hummingbird nectar from the palm of my hand, hearing a little girl ask me if I'm a real princess while she adjusts her rhinestone tiara, being photographed by strangers while trying on evening gowns in a boutique -- because they're certain I'm "somebody," seeing a little boy stick his tongue out at me from a sense of sheer mischief, hearing Debussy's Clair de Lune the way my mother used to play it, swimming in the ocean at night, dancing to the best of rock and roll, entering a party of artists, writers and filmmakers -- where the joking is non-stop, giving or receiving a standing ovation, running into friends unexpectedly and abandoning my plans for the afternoon in order to share coffee with them, catching the very instant of sunset over the ocean, when the flame of the day surrenders.

There's more.  Much more.  Because laughter arises when the cup of one's life is so filled with adventure, it overflows its brim -- abundant, surprising, bold, artistic, true.  Each day when I awake, the cup fills itself again.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Threshold

I've stood with others at the threshold between life and death.  I've helped people come into this world and I've held their hands while they've left it.  And I've had the unforgettable privilege of saving lives a few times -- when I was given the impossible grace to make a profound difference for another human being -- and all events, all gestures, breaths, seconds, conspired toward life.  So I know things I might never have learned if these experiences had not occurred.  I've stood in the doorway between worlds and the view has become unexpectedly clear.  The meaning of life is simple in the extreme, really -- and I understood it in an entirely new way when my father died two years ago.

My father was a world-renowned geophysicist -- not a mystic.  He loved facts, not intuition.  And like all great men, he embraced the difficult truth over the easy lie -- or any lie -- for all the years I knew him.  I placed tremendous stock in his integrity, his loyalty, his fundamental kindness -- and he never let me down.  So, I always knew my father would tell me the truth as best he knew it.

Two weeks before he died, my father told me he wanted to give me a gift -- something memorable, something important.  He was eighty-five years old and I handled all his finances, managed his home on Cape Cod, bought his clothes, arranged his doctors' visits, and supervised his daily care in assisted living.  Despite a lifetime of scientific achievements, age had stripped him of his world-class intellect, his prodigious physical strength, and his insistence on self-determination.  He was a man who had nothing left to give, I thought -- although his intent was laudable.

But I was wrong -- entirely, naively, magnificently wrong.  Because, as my father lay dying -- while I held his hand -- something happened to me that constitutes the greatest gift I've ever received.  I will try to describe to you the course of events, although words seem unworthy of them.

First, my father became clear-minded -- entirely lucid -- something he hadn't mustered in the several years since a catastrophic fall.  Suddenly he possessed perfect awareness, crystalline erudition.  He told me he was going to be "passing over" at 4 a.m. (and he did, at 4:03 a.m. to be exact) and he told me, with a sort of Jacques-Cousteau excitement, that he was going to be living and learning on a higher level now -- that I wasn't to worry about him, because the place he was going was "extraordinary" -- by far the most beautiful destination he had ever seen, and he had traveled the world many times over.

Then, while I held him, an impossible transformation occurred within his small apartment.  Everything that possessed material substance -- the chairs, the tables, the couches, the paintings -- these all seemed to disappear in a grand metaphysical magic trick.  He and I could no longer see the walls or the ceiling or the bed or the lamps.  We could only see that which was rushing in to take the place of everything we had known --a love so profound it crowded into the room like a weather from another world -- a momentous vortex-- electrically charged -- a living force.

In filmmaking terms, it was like experiencing a reverse zoom, in which some objects are traveling toward you and others are traveling away from you simultaneously.  And the love that filled the room became a palpable current, flowing as forcefully as an ocean wave, all encompassing -- overtaking all things known, visible, earthly.

A family member who stood close by said it looked as if we two had disappeared inside a white fog for a moment.  He said he kept rubbing his eyes, trying to clear them of the blurry space where we had been.

This unexplained "weather," whatever it was, contained within it the great secret to living well -- understanding life's illusion even while we're living within it.  Everything that looks permanent is in fact transitory -- while the love we manifest for one another, which may feel transient, is in fact permanent.  "That which is essential is invisible to the eye," as Antoine de Saint-Exupery said.

Because at the end of life, love is not an important thing. It's not the main thing.  It's the only thing.  We get to experience this euphoric, all-powerful force not just by being surrounded by it -- but by becoming it.  We're still our individual selves, but our connection to everyone else we encounter becomes abundantly clear.  We're all "related" in an elemental way.  We're all members of the same magnificent family.  No one person can be harmed without causing pain to ourselves.  No one person can be helped without our manifesting our own joy.

I walked my father to the edge of the world -- and that's the gift he shared with me as he left it.

Now, when I wake up in the morning, I can feel that electrical charge humming through me still.  It hasn't left -- in fact, it grows in force from one day to the next.  It's the reason why people are drawn to me, I think.  Because I can't help but share a small part of this feeling with them -- the abundance of it -- the wonder -- the pure unmitigated force of life.

I can't help but connect deeply with everyone I meet.  It's a new magnetic field -- a powerful charge that travels with me.  I haven't always wielded it well.  Sometimes, others care too much for me -- sometimes I care too much for them.  I haven't learned to limit my sense of love for people -- and I hope they can understand that, on a fundamental level, this is all new to me.  I've been overtaken by a force that's much stronger than I am -- and it has rendered me more awake than I've ever been -- more joyful, more engaged, more profoundly alive.

Words are not equal to the experience unless they can stand up and shout by themselves.  And they can't.

But I've tried to recount faithfully the events as they happened.  As improbable as they are, they're the truth.  They comprise the best, most unexpected gift anyone ever placed into my hands -- and they came from my father at his most impoverished moment, when he had nothing, and everything, to impart.

(This is such an exquisitely beautiful farewell song -- first written down in 1605.  Somehow, it reminds me of my father's leave-taking.  I'm looking forward to playing this on the piano -- and singing goodbye to my beloved ones whenever I leave on far-away travel.  The Parting Glass -- by Cara Dillon)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Tiger in a Cage

In visiting Thailand, I go to the zoo and find that my visit is rather peaceful and aesthetic and harmonious -- until I get to the tiger exhibit.  Here is something entirely different -- a masterpiece of a predator in a cramped enclosure, pacing back and forth, back and forth, marking his own kind of animal time.  On some level, he knows there's a life filled with wild adventure and the green, green jungle and a type of earth-shaking hunt that eludes him entirely.  Occasionally, a cricket or a field mouse wanders into reach -- and he bats it about.

But the truth is that he's terribly bored -- life-threateningly bored -- because the days he experiences are so stunningly small when compared to his capacities.  And there he is in his glorious gleaming coat -- with his eyes that shine like jewels -- and his mind that turns and weaves like the most beautifully complex maze you can imagine -- and he's trapped behind the bars.

I watch him all afternoon.  His inferiors sweep out his cage and throw him a steak now and then.  Sometimes I think he may have been held captive so long that even if the door were to be held open to him, he wouldn't leave his enclosure.  He likely feels safe with the daily routine, the predictable schedule, the institutional rules. (And yet I know instinctively that he has a hatred of all rules that are not his own.)  He may have relinquished his bold spirit altogether, and if so, there's nothing to be done for him.

But it's a tragedy to see the wild ways extinguished in such a beast.  It's a crime to see his beauty undone.  And if I were given the master key to the zoo and I could free any single creature from his fate, the tiger is the one I would release into the limitless jungle he constantly craves.

As I turn to leave, the tiger interrupts his unending stare to give me an intense predatory look.  I have the long legs of a gazelle and he is appraising them from his cage as I stride past.  His golden eyes have fixated on me like a double laser, and when they do, I can feel the boldness and stealth that define his spirit.  He is filled with envy of my form.  He loves me -- he hates me -- and he would like to consume me all at the same time.

I can feel his hunger invade me as I walk out into the wide world.  It's a bit hypnotic to combine his ravenous will with all that is fierce, luminous and pure in my own.  But I like the feeling as I go about my day.  It's potent, mysterious, unquenchable, driven, untamed, silent, self-possessed -- all of these.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright -- I've stolen the wildest piece of your spirit, and I'm not giving it back.