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.

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)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Words, True and Untrue

"Perhaps the most powerful moral argument for honesty has to do with what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith."  Liars deceive others, but in a sense, liars also deceive themselves.  When we lie we tend to distort our own view of reality, and the more often we lie, the more habitual this distortion becomes.  Over time, the habit of lying divorces us further and further from reality, so we see less and less clearly the choices before us and what is at stake in them.  Eventually, we may find ourselves unable to see what we are really doing and how it is affecting others and ourselves.  We end up leading inauthentic and irresponsible lives." -- Richard Gunderman

I do think that reality begins to erode over time for the habitual liar.  In the short term, he may succeed in duping his colleagues, friends, partners.  But in the long term, studies show that frequent liars are more prone to a whole host of physical and mental health problems.  In a very real sense, the body and mind keep the score.  In order to "win" at life, we need to know what the truth is -- and attempt to honor it in every way possible.

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.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Spoken Secret

"He had two lives:  one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret.  And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people." -- Anton Chekhov

Some of you have asked me recently about my own secrets, since I've been writing about secrets in general.  My first impulse is to tell you that I don't like to keep things hidden -- but the truth is much more complex.  We all keep one or two things hidden -- at times, even from ourselves.

I needed anesthesia recently and was surprised to learn that, while regaining consciousness, I told the nurse I had a secret I had kept well guarded.  Apparently, I had wept through the confession of the secret's very existence.  In some ways, I had kept the secret from myself -- but in confessing its presence to the nurse, I immediately realized my secret's substance,  its import, its rarity.  And, while I haven't spoken of it to anyone since then, I'm aware of it every day.  It waits, undisturbed, like a hidden diamond in the territory of my heart and mind, as the most valuable secrets do.  (See The Unspoken Secrets, March 28)

Unexpectedly, as I was walking out the door, the nurse told me she didn't want me to leave her life -- she felt I was too important to her somehow.  I've seen her three times since that day six weeks ago, and I have no doubt she will remain a lifelong friend.  She carries the knowledge that I possess a secret -- and I carry the knowledge of her confidences in all their detail.  Our confessions aren't equal, but they're enough to forge a remarkable bond.

I have written that I don't know why people trust me so completely, confiding in me their deepest longings, fears, ambitions, regrets, passions, griefs.  But this isn't entirely true.  I do know why they seek me out, actually.  I just keep the story to myself because, well -- it's a life-and-death story and not one to be told in casual company.  It's because I was given a gift from a man who seemingly had nothing -- and I came away from the encounter with the most valuable knowledge there is -- the meaning of life -- its substance and shape and resonance and weight.  I know it in my physical body, in every gesture, every breath -- and I will never "unknow" it again.  The experience has rendered me rather passionately alive.  It has lit my internal fire with a flame that can never exhaust itself.

Will I tell the story to you?  Yes, since some of you have asked me -- I will.  Give me a four or five days to commit the words to paper, and I will post them here.

In the meantime, here's the song that reminds me of the man with the gift.  Suffice it to say that I loved him beyond the edges of the spinning world.

Into the West -- Annie Lennox

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bright Lights

To bring a great play to the stage requires the best of courage and creativity combined.  On Saturday night, I had the privilege of celebrating the remarkable work of Carey Perloff, the longtime Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater.  Tom Stoppard traveled from London to lend his appreciation for the remarkable acts of faith and perseverance that Carey has undertaken in the name of great art over the years.  We joined together with scores of bright creative lights at The Four Seasons in San Francisco to share champagne, dinner and dancing.  A fantastic night -- with laughter, gratitude, artistic passion, camaraderie, renewed ambitions -- and courage abounding.  My kind of celebration.

If you haven't already seen it, try to catch Carey's theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is currently touring around the country -- and will return to the Bay Area for two weeks in July.  I had the privilege of witnessing this work in various stages of development -- and what I can tell you is that it was thrilling to see Carey bring together musical, literary, visual and performing talents in one room to facilitate the creation of this extraordinary production.  The resulting play is evocative, resonant, moving, transformative, inspired.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Music 8

"You don't love someone for their looks or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear." -- Oscar Wilde

Chapel -- by JT Roach

I Still Love You -- by Josh Jenkins

Sweet Sensation -- by Flo Rida

Can I Be Him -- by James Arthur

No One's Gonna Love You (Stockholm version) -- by Band of Horses

War of Hearts (acoustic version) -- by Ruelle

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Power of Sound

Some of you have emailed me recently to ask how I select music.  The answer is entirely subjective, but I often choose tracks that relate to my work.  I usually listen to music prior to settling into the day's writing, so I gravitate toward songs that parallel my narrative in some way -- whether through lyrics or melodic line or mood.

Right now I'm writing about characters who are separated, so I search for music that relates to the corresponding emotion -- however that sense of yearning manifests for me.  Perhaps one of my characters misses the sound of the other's voice.  So, I'll play the following in order to fully immerse myself in that feeling:

I Miss Your Sound -- by MountainCity

Is it painful to approach my work with so much feeling?  Sometimes, yes, especially if a situation in the fictional world parallels one that I'm experiencing in real life.  But I'm a super-empath.  I feel all the nuances of emotion felt by those surrounding me -- in addition to my own.  So it doesn't seem foreign to me.  It's simply the way I'm made -- sensitive, passionate, attuned to others, artistic.  That's the package deal!

Given my nature, music in all its forms -- alternative, EDM, rock, retro, classical -- brings a great deal of joy to my life.  Visitors often play the cello, piano, guitar and saxophone here.  And someone I know well will sometimes practice his DJ mix within my hearing.  We have a few professional composers on my mother's side of the family, including England's John Rutter, profiled in December in the New York Times:  So, it's in my DNA, this love affair with beautiful sounds!