Monday, February 8, 2016

The Good Book

I have been remiss in not mentioning that this past fall a fine anthology of essays was released by Simon & Schuster – The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages, edited by Andrew Blauner. Thirty-two writers of various stripes (Pico Iyer, Rick Moody, Al Sharpton, Colm Tóibín, Tobias Wolff, Lowis Lowry, Edwidge Dandicat, etc.) were asked to choose their favorite bible passages and then explain themselves. The results, kindly arranged in their Biblical order, provide an eclectic, intriguing, troubling, instructive, and at times enlightening companion to the book they tribute. I was honored to contribute an entry as well. I chose a passage from the New Testament about John the Baptist because, well, I kind of figured that’s why I’d been asked.  

Now that the winter shopping season has passed, but you may have twenty or so dollars still left on your gift cards, I am offering my essay here below, gratis, as an example of the sort of thing you may find in the larger volume, with the caveat that my piece is admittedly a little bookish and contains a few more names and incidents than an essay of its length should probably have tried to cram into itself. (l have done you the favor of removing all the footnotes, but they are available to anyone who purchases the Blauner anthology.) That said, if you do find yourself in the mood for a slightly wonky discussion of the spiritual and literary intelligence behind the gospel’s depiction of John the Baptist, one that probably assumes more biblical conversance than you may currently possess or want to possess, but which I nonetheless do believe redeems itself with some little late-inning magic, look no further.

In exchange for that coffee-cup of concentration, let me also assure the reader of this (but mostly myself) that yes, I will get 'round to offering something other than John-related material. And soon. In fact, at the risk of sounding way too much like J.D. Salinger right before we never heard from him again, I have in my garden writing shed right now no fewer than 4 book-length manuscripts all champing at the bit to reveal themselves to someone’s eyeballs other than my own. A little more taming is likely in order, but until such time as I set them loose, please accept the following bowl of porridge as token of my ongoing affection. It will be good for you, I promise, and if you wanted to add a little butter and brown sugar, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt.



The Womb and the Cistern Cell

Now when John in prison heard about the deeds of Christ,
he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one
who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
                                                                             Matthew 11:2–4

As vivid a character as he may be—with his ragged camel-skin cloak, his diet of locusts and honey, and his howling sermon-diatribes—there is legitimate cause to doubt the portrayal of John the Baptist in the Gospels, especially once one understands that John is a required element of Jesus’s narrative.

Remember, the evangelists lived in the grip of a highly prophetic mind-set. There was nothing the prophets had not seen, nothing that had not been foretold—or nothing of significance to the children of Abraham anyway. If one wanted one’s words or actions to be taken seriously as part of that legacy, they had on some level to be seen as a fulfillment of the word of the prophets. And the prophets had been fairly clear about the coming of the Messiah. Malachi had spoken of how the Lord would send a messenger “to prepare the way.” Isaiah had described an Elijah-like figure, a voice calling in the wilderness who likewise would come to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Even Jesus’s disciples—hardly a learned bunch—understood this. Immediately after recognizing that Jesus might actually be the savior, they asked him: “But why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” Jesus replied that Elijah had come, and they all apparently knew he was talking about John.

All of which is to say—or admit—that if there hadn’t been a John the Baptist, the evangelists would have had to come up with one. But they didn’t because there was. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there was a good man around whom the people of Judea massed, one who “urged the Jews to be more virtuous . . . and having done so to join together in washing.” Josephus calls him the Dipper. The fact that the Dipper made no mention of Jesus or any Messiah—in Josephus’s account, that is—may give pause to the devout heart, but is certainly explainable. Not all perspectives on a given historic figure are going to be the same, particularly the more contemporaneous ones, but that just points up the inherent diceyness of the proposition at question—of taking the story of one charismatic spiritual leader and using it, after the fact, to substantiate the messianic claim of another probably-less-popular-at-the-time successor. Again, one doesn’t have to be too cynical to suspect that such an effort might lend itself to moments of invention here and there, or might even—absent a good editor— descend to the level of a fairy tale, with angels and magical doves and voices from heaven and things like that.

However, to chide the evangelists for their use of poetic license—if they did use it—is to be guilty of another kind of provincialism, of assuming that such men should be bound by the same rules as David McCullough, say, or of assuming that they shared our contemporary western assumption that what is “literal” or “factual” somehow has a greater claim upon truth than what we call figurative or metaphorical. Given the profound skepticism with which the religious mind has always treated the world of appearances—that tacky realm where facts have purchase—it is doubtful that the gospel authors would have thought twice about taking liberties with the stories they received from
it. They were attempting to convey eternal—and eternally pertinent—truths, after all, not temporal or temporary ones. They were drawing a map of the soul. In that context, John’s story—and the project of weaving it into Jesus’s—may be seen as presenting an opportunity through which both the spiritual and the literary intelligence of its several authors could shine. And does.

Consider first the fact that John is almost certainly the best drawn character in the Gospels. We are told how he dressed, groomed, what he liked to eat, the sorts of things he said, and the manner in which he said them. John is, moreover, the only character—other than Jesus— whose birth and infancy are presented in any detail; and while he is not the only character whose death is mentioned, John’s is remarkable in the fact that it has no immediate bearing on Jesus’s mission. Rather, it seems to have been presented for the same reason that informs all the other moments and episodes in John’s story: to reinforce the idea of his worthiness as Jesus’s first, most emphatic, and long-foretold witness.

But among these various moments in John’s life, there are two in particular—the bookends—that taken together testify most eloquently and powerfully to the quality of mind behind the assembly of this very intricate braid.

As mentioned, we learn from Luke a great deal about the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. There was an older couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, who prayed and prayed and prayed for a child until those prayers were answered, first by angelic visitation and then by a son. Readers conversant with sacred literature will recognize that this story comes from a fairly old playbook. It recalls the struggles of Abraham and Sarah, as well as Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, as well as Anna and Joachim. We furthermore learn that John’s mother, Elizabeth, was apparently “kin” to Jesus’s mother, Mary, which again is certainly possible—it was a smaller world back then—but could just as well be one of those poetic inventions, an attempt to convey the spiritual kinship between Jesus and John by asserting . . . actual kinship.

Either way, it’s the family connection that sets the stage for an undeniably affecting moment, often called “the quickening.” Perhaps to conceal her pregnancy from prying eyes, Mary goes to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth in the hill country. Once again it is Luke who tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.”

A simple sentence recounting a common occurrence, yet it summons to mind one of the more beautiful and unexpected images in all the Bible: of the unborn John, adrift in the dark, soothing shadow of his mother’s womb, awakened from his slumber not so much by a voice— it’s Elizabeth who heard the greeting—but by the awareness of another silent presence nearby, a being still less formed than he but apparently so radiant and delightful that John is inspired to kick. To dance.

That alluded detail is our first real signal—far superior to the more explicit angelic pronouncements and benedictions that come before and after—that John has been chosen, and well chosen, for the eventual task of recognizing the light of the Holy Spirit. (In fact, this is precisely how his mission is phrased in the Gospel of John the Evangelist, that John was sent by God “to bear witness about the light.”) The “cousins” then part ways. Regarding John, all we know—from the Gospels at least—is that he lived in the wilderness and there “became strong in spirit.” When next we meet him, his mission is in full swing. Crowds are coming to the banks of the Jordan to receive his baptism and to be warned that he is just a harbinger. There is one coming after him, he says, who will “baptize you with the Holy spirit,” who will “gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Enter Jesus, the spiritual adept from Galilee. No further mention is made of any kinship—that metaphor, if it is one, seems to have served its purpose—but John instantly recognizes Jesus’s authority. “Should you not baptize me?” he asks. Jesus, ever mindful of the need to stick to the plan, says no. “Let it be so for now, as it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The baptism goes forward, with God’s very vocal blessing.

John’s disciples, however, are not so quick to glean the significance of the moment, or of this visitor. And this you don’t hear as much about on Sunday, when more emphasis is placed on John’s willingness to point and step aside, but the gospel is fairly clear that, with the exception of the Pharisees and Sadducees (to whom, let’s face it, Jesus gave as good as he got), no one is more hostile to Jesus than the followers of John. Which makes sense. If one has devoted one’s life to this master here, it can’t be easy to hear him say, “Now follow that one there.” They resist. When they see that Jesus does not fast or pray, they challenge him; and later on at Aenon, when it is discovered that Jesus is performing baptisms just up the river, they object. This interloper is not just stealing their rabboni’s act, he is debasing it by letting his disciples perform the rite, which is apparently something John did not do.

John is not bothered. In fact, he takes the opportunity to express more clearly than ever the subservience of his role. Jesus is the bridegroom, John a mere guest at the wedding; Jesus is from heaven while John is from earth; Jesus must therefore “increase,” while he, John, must “decrease.”

His disciples still aren’t having it. They have more questions, more seeds of doubt to sow, and it is their final effort in this regard that provides what is the other most surprising and troubling moment in John’s story: Not long after the incident at Aenon, John is arrested, ostensibly for insulting the royal marriage. He is taken to the fortress of Machaerus, down along the eastern coast of the Dead Sea, and held in a cell that lore has come to imagine as a cracked and emptied cistern. It’s there, in his presumably weakened state, that John is finally infected by the lingering suspicions of his disciples. He is told about Jesus’s “deeds” in Galilee. We don’t know which deeds exactly, but Jesus was performing many of his healing miracles during this time, the most concerning of which would have been the raising of the dead, an act that—to most noses, at least—carries the taint of sorcery. Whatever the cause, John was apparently disturbed enough by what he heard to send his disciples back to Jesus to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

That’s an astonishing moment, especially because these will turn out to be the last words we hear from John, and they are an unvarnished expression of doubt. They are an arrow fired at the heart of the entire Christian mission . . . from the heart of the Christian mission. The disciples oblige. They go and find Jesus and ask him John’s question to his face, and he replies at length with one of his more vexingly oblique and brilliant passages, but his answer to the question itself is fairly succinct. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he says. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Notable here is how the phrasing manages to upend the priority that literal meaning usually enjoys over the metaphorical, and suggests what Jesus really wants John to hear: that the deeds in question are symbolic of a far deeper transformation in which John should take great comfort. The people are seeing now, and hearing, being purified and reborn. Readers can decide for themselves whether this reply satisfies them. Presumably that’s what John’s disciples did. The question for this discussion is whether the response satisfied John. And did he even hear it? The answer, remarkably, is that we don’t know. The next we hear about John, it’s the night of Herod’s banquet when—famously— Herod’s stepdaughter, in return for having just entertained all the guests with a dance, requests that the Baptist’s head be brought to her on a platter. It’s a stunning and chillingly capricious end to the prophet’s life, and almost surreal enough to distract us from the issue at hand: what was John’s state of mind just prior to the ax’s fall? Did he still doubt Jesus, or was he reconciled?

There are, in fact, two morsels of information from which we may be able to draw some conclusion, and once again it is an unsettling one. We know from Mark that while in prison John apparently spoke to Herod, that Herod “was greatly perplexed” by the things John said, but that “he kept him safe” and “heard him gladly,” all of which paints a frankly entertaining picture: of the king who really only arrested the prophet in order to hear him speak, to sit outside his cell and hang on every terrifying word. But did those words pertain to Jesus, the one who came from heaven? The one whose sandal John had previously suggested he was not fit to tie?

It wouldn’t seem so, since we also know that sometime later, after John’s beheading, Herod was told of the deeds that Jesus was performing in his territory. Herod’s reply? “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Hardly the response of a man who has been warned of a new Messiah. No, this is the response of a man who feared and revered John, and was regretting the role he’d played in John’s death. And kudos to the evangelists for their willingness to muddy these waters, because again the inference is clear: that in his conversations with Herod—the last he is known to have engaged in—John seems to have abnegated his role as witness to Jesus. He was not consoled—at least not at that point—a conclusion that requires our pause if only to consider the depth of the anguish it represents. John was not just in prison, not just facing the likelihood that he would never get out alive, but also—and far worse— confronting the possibility that he had conferred his mission and following on a fraud, a man who he had reason to believe might corrupt and pervert the cause to which he had devoted his life, which was to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.

Hard to imagine a darker dungeon than that.

Now, readers of faith are of course still free to hope—for John’s sake—that, at some point between his last conversation with Herod and the arrival of his executioner these doubts were answered, and that he was visited by some intuition or some presence, sent to reassure him that in the fullness of time (or perhaps the next six months) his efforts would be gloriously vindicated.

But if one does imagine such a moment, some glimmer of light entering John’s literal and figurative darkness, one is bound to recognize that this scene is in fact a reprise, and by that token to acknowledge the striking (and deliciously disturbing) resemblance between the implied setting that opens John’s story—which was the warmth and comfort of his mother’s womb—and the setting that closes it—which is the dank, dark cold of the cistern at Machaerus. These two shadows are, in fact, the alpha and omega moments of John’s story, and it is the exquisitely implied entrance of light into the first—shed by the near presence of his cousin Jesus—that encourages us to think that maybe a similar light pierced his prison cell; to imagine, in other words, that the very same hope that awakened him to this world should have been the one that finally allowed him to leave it in peace.

But even this—the extraordinary imagery and literary stagecraft used to convey the intercession of grace in John’s life—does not answer the question why? Why, posed the task of recounting John’s role in promoting the cause of Jesus—which is the only reason John is mentioned in the gospel in the first place—did the evangelists see fit to include such stark expressions of doubt in both word and symbol? 

The answer may be chalked up to a lack of editorial vigilance, sure, a failure to nip every Derridean bud that might undermine the evangelists’ clearly stated purpose. But perhaps the decision was more deliberate than that, evidence of a collective intuition that lifts the gospel enterprise above mere history or biography, and obviates the question of whether certain of its details are “true” or “false,” seeing as they are True:

Light is born of darkness.

Darkness is the necessary precondition of light.

Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, which is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows.

Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token, have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if ever we encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith.

That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Farewell, Space Captain (1944-2014)

About 7-8 years ago, back when my children were one and two, I started making  CDs for them, for car trips  and the little disc players in their room.  They had their Dan Zaneses and their  They Might Be Giants, and that was fine,  but I also wanted for them to start getting to know the canon a bit, songs that would be both palatable to them and pleasing to me, and that would start laying the groundwork, in their ears, for all the good music choices to come.

For the first CD, I chose a bunch of songs that I thought had soul but that were also clear – there was a lot of Sam Cooke, for instance – clarity being fairly important to the developing ear.  I understood that, which is also why I understood that probably the most questionable pick on that first CD was Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain” – the live version from Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Questionable but never in doubt. Joe Cocker is one of a handful of musicians whom I really cannot imagine my life without. I don’t  want to feel compelled by yesterday’s news to go into some over-wrought explanation of why this might be or what makes him special, just acknowledge the fact that I did more than just like Joe Cocker when I was growing up. I kind of adopted him, the way you adopt a favorite baseball player. I chose him to be mine and part of who I was, and I’ll even briefly digress into remembering the first time I ever heard him because I just thought of it. I must have been fifteen. It was fall of sophomore year – high school -- and there were a bunch of us in the bedroom of a friend named Betsy Moss, whom I actually didn’t know all that well. She was a senior and a wonderful, charismatic person, but probably the only reason I’m remembering her name today is because I was in her living room when I first heard Joe Cocker. I’m not even sure which song caught my attention. I think it was more the whole string of them, and me turning to the speaker and thinking to myself, “Who is this? What is this? And how can I have more of this around me?” I probably bought my first record that same day.

So ever since then I’ve kind of delusionally considered Joe to have been one of my best friends and mentors (and mind you, this was long before I wound up having his hair situation). Far less delusionally I consider a handful of his recording to be among my best friends -- “Feelin’ Alright” obviously, (just two years after that brief encounter in Betsy Moss’s apartment I was the singer in a band that played ”Feelin’ Alright” -- Johnny Simplex and the Incurables, we were called), “Darling Be Home Soon,” Something in the Way She Moves," “A Little Help From My Friends,” “Bye Bye Blackbird.” There’s a whole bunch of his songs that are definitely imprinted somewhere in the hardened wax tablet of my soul.

But if forced to pick and absolute #1 favorite, I think I’d have to go with “Space Captain.”

In fact, “Space Captain” actually belongs in its own category – and there’s really only one other piece of music that comes to mind as belonging anywhere near it , and that would be the second side of The Wild, the Innocent and E Street Shuffle. And what they have in common is that most special and magical power of being able to profoundly change my mood whenever I hear them. Now obviously, a lot of music can do that if you time it right. That’s the whole reason we listen to it in the first place, yes? The difference with “Space Captain” (and the Springsteen) is that they could be counted on to change my mood. That is, I recognized fairly early on in our relationship that I could even kind of abuse the power of "Space Captain" – that is, go to it for the express purpose of changing my mood – and it would still do so, take me from wherever I was – more than likely some sullen adolescent funk or ballad-of-the-sad-young-man blue -- and five minutes later leave me feeling just very happy and exhausted and cleansed and celebratory. Blessed, really, and at one with my fellow man and the universe.

Every time.

Still.

So that’s why there was really no question in my mind that even as messy and ridiculous and completely out-of-control  and “Space Captain” may be -- like a bouncy house in a tilt-a-whirl during certain parts – I still wanted my kids to hear it the earliest possible opportunity.  And often.  So it came to reside on the little CD that I very coercively titled “Theo’s favs #1” in big black magic marker – tucked somewhere in between the Sam Cookes and the Harry Belafontes. As I say, they’re all  good songs, but the moment I’m remembering here today is the day my son came to me, and I don’t even remember how he put it – he was two at the time, but a fairly articulate two. He probably just asked for the “wooh….ahhhh” song – but I understood that he was talking about “Space Captain,” and can’t really express to you how proud I was – of myself, I mean – and relieved and gratified and at peace. I remember thinking to myself, completely without irony, “ah, yes, my work here is done.” Because it was. Because I just don’t think you can go that far wrong in life if you like “Space Captain.”

So everlasting thanks to you, Joe -- from me and mine -- on this, the day you remembered you can fly.


(Speaking of which, for anyone who wants to click below and listen along, I'll append the lyrics, which any fan of Joe will tell you, aren’t always that clear to the naked ear. It’s a bit of a cheat having them served up so legibly, but as you will see, they’re not incidental to the power of the track, or the voice carrying them, or the moment at hand.)


Space Captain (by Mathew Moore)

Once while traveling across the sky
This lovely planet caught my eye
And being curious I flew close by
And non I'm caught here
Until I die
Until we die
Learning to live together
Till we die

I lost my memory of where I'd been
We all forgot that we could fly
Someday we'll all change into peaceful man
And we'll return then to the sky
Until we die
Until we die
We’re just Learning to live together
Till we die...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Brotherhood of Joseph - two-part interview

As promised.  A recent interview with Connie Martinson about The Brotherhood of Joseph just popped up on line. For those who don't know, the book is about the long road my wife and I took to parenthood, through a variety of doctor's offices, hospitals, clinics, lawyer's offices and adoption agencies, but finally winding up in Siberia, where the real test was waiting.

Again, my thanks to Connie for the care and interest she brought to our discussion.  Here are the links to part 1 and part 2 of our talk.

Links to an earlier interview we conducted about John the Baptizer and the recent Central Park anthology can be found here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tuesday Talk

This year's Cate School senior class of 2013 invited me to speak at their series of Tuesday Talks, held weekly in the Katherine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel (where, as is mentioned below, I was also married).

As part of an  ongoing Senior Inquiry Project, the class has been asked to ponder the question "How did we get here?"  The remarks below -- delivered this morning, November 10, 2012 (a Saturday, I know) -- are, among other things, my attempt to grapple with that question


Almost exactly twenty five years ago -- on November 21, to be precise, 1987 -- my father, my mother, and my brother Sam had just returned to New York City from a weekend in New England.  My father dropped off my brother and my mother at the apartment on 79th Street.  Then he went to park the car in a lot up on 95th Street and Second Avenue. It was an uncommonly windy morning -- the windiest morning of the year, they said -- so much so that, as my father was walking back down 93rd street, high above him, up on the 33rd floor balcony of a residential apartment building, a glass tabletop was lifted off its base and tumbled over the rail.

It shattered into who-knows-how-many pieces on the way down, but one of those pieces, about the size of a pinky, sliced down through all those wild, buffeting winds and struck my father in the back of the head like a bullet. He fell. A doorman saw him, saw that he was bleeding, that he had been hit by something, and hailed a taxi, figuring that would get him to the hospital quicker than an ambulance.

I happened to be home.  I was living out on Long Island at the time. I had graduated from college the spring before and I was working on a book with a friend, but I had come in to the city that same morning to attend a party that night. When the phone rang in the kitchen, I answered. It was a police officer, saying that my father had been struck in the head by a piece of glass, and that we should probably come down to New York Hospital where they had him.

My initial reaction was casual, as if nothing so bad had happened. "Oh, Daaad! isn't that just like Daaad, getting hit in the head by a piece of glass." It didn't make sense, so my mother and my brother and I -- my brother, I should say, was thirteen at the time -- all got in a cab, and went down to New York Hospital, and it wasn't until we were actually driving down Second Avenue that it started to dawn on me that this was probably a lot more serious than I'd been imagining. It was a truly sinking feeling, intuition, or maybe it finally just hitting me -- it's never good news when a police officer calls your home.

So we got to the hospital, by which time I was definitely feeling the darkness of the moment, and my mother was too -- we both understood that we were not just coming to pick Dad up with a bandage on his head. And in fact, within moments of our arrival in the emergency room, they actually wheeled him by, while we were being told what had really happened. His stretcher passed right in front of us, and I stopped listening. I got it. He looked like he'd been in combat

But the information was that this piece of glass was still in his head, and they were prepping him for surgery. There was a lot of swelling obviously. They would need to get that down as much as they could, but as soon as possible, probably that night, they were going to try to remove the piece of glass, but they couldn't assure us that my father would survive the operation because the glass itself might have been stanching the wound. Depending on what arteries it might have hit, or might be plugging, they might remove the glass, and be unable to contain the bleeding.

So I took my brother back to the apartment. My mother stayed at the hospital -- because we had no idea when or how long the operation was going to be. I don't know if we even had dinner. Pizza. Stouffers. But I remember putting Sam to bed, sitting next to him on the bed and telling him, we just pray for the chance to see him again. That is all, so we can tell him. And he want to bed, I stayed up. I had to call friends and relatives. And I'll always have a place in my heart for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, because it was the only thing that was on at 2 AM, which is I think when this operation finally got started.

But it's rude of me to keep you in any further suspense. He made it. One centimeter this way or that way, and probably not, but they got the glass out of his head, and there were articles in the The New York Post and The Daily News about it. My Dad had recently been named head of programming at a cable television network, so for about three days running, the Post took to calling him the "scalped TV exec." "Scalped TV exec waging miracle recovery!"  And then it got better. We didn't talk to any of the papers, but apparently some reporter got through to the people who lived in our building -- not people who knew us very well, because apparently all they knew about my father was that "oh right, you mean the guy who goes jogging every day at 5:30?" So the in the paper, of course, they started saying that part of the reason he recovered so quickly was because he was in such good shape; he was a health nut. He became "Scalped TV exec jogger man." He was like some show on Fox.

Within three or four days, he was sitting up in the ICU and doing all those hilarious things that people who have suffered massive head injuries do -- thinking he's on an airplane somewhere, stuck on the runway, getting angry at flight attendants -- but he was on a road to recovery that...well, you could say we're still on it, I guess, but the steepest inclines were those first couple years. They were not easy, but the upshot is that he could walk in here right now, about as fit a seventy-seven year old man as you're liable to see, and you wouldn't know that anything unusual had ever happened to him, unless of course you asked him to use an ATM machine or a Metro Card, in which case you might begin to suspect that something was up, but I actually don't think that has anything to do with the accident.

So the story is a bit of a litmus test. If you've found yourself at any point in that description thinking, "Wow, Mr. Hansen's Dad, he's like the luckiest man in the world!" well, you my friend are an optimist. If you thought, "Gosh, Mr. Hansen's Dad has to be the unluckiest man in the world," you're a pessimist. And if you heard that whole thing and thought, "I don't know, who's to say?" I think that just means you're old.

Anyway, my brother, as I mentioned, was thirteen, just starting ninth grade, and applying to high schools. I had gone to school up in New England. My sister had as well, so the assumption was that Sam would probably do the same. But after the accident, which turned the apartment on 79th Street into a kind of recuperative facility for a couple years there, there was an instinct to keep the family a little closer together. It's hard to separate when something like that happens, and all of a sudden New England seemed far away.

What didn't feel so far away -- as strange as it may seem -- was Cate. My mother grew up here in Carpinteria. You can actually see the ranch from the dining hall. My father attended Cate for two years. We had a cousin who was here. We had aunts and uncles living down the road, so the idea of Sam's coming here felt safer in an odd way. I just think it made my mother feel better to think that if anything were to happen to Sam, or if something were to happen back home  -- because we weren't out of the woods by a long shot -- her sister was literally eight minutes away, by Jeep.

So Sam attended Cate, and actually when Sam visited the Mesa for the first time, he stopped off to pay respects to one Betty Woodworth, who was living down on Middle Road. He sat quietly at her kitchen table, probably feeling very nervous and wondering why he was there. The reason he was there was that the Woodworths and my mother's family had known each other from when my mother was growing up here -- not that well, but the Brookses and the Woodworths share a lot of tribal markings in common. So when Sam came to the Mesa, that kind of re-cemented an old family connection, enough at least -- hang with me here  -- that a few years later when Betty Woodworth's youngest daughter Elizabeth  needed a place to stay in New York, to take a six-week summer Shakespearean acting class, Betty called up my mother to ask if she knew of anywhere cheap -- or free -- that Elizabeth could stay.

Now time and manners advise me to make this long story as short as I can. The shortest I can manage is that Elizabeth ended up staying in my parents' apartment that summer. My parents weren't there. I was living down in the west village at the time, being very cool Mr. Novel writer guy -- I had hair -- and what do you know,  I found myself  spending a lot of time lurking around the outside of this Shakespearean acting class. Elizabeth and I woo'd, one thing led to another and, well, four years later she and I were wed...

…Here.  Right here. Fourteen years ago. Scene of the crime. The rest is reasonably well documented as these things go. We lived in New York for about a decade, got our family started -- and boy, am I making that long story short -- then about five years ago, we moved back out here for what was supposed to be one year, honey I swear. I finished a book, started loitering around campus. Ross Robins asked if I'd like to make myself useful.  I said "sure, what's that?" and here I stand.

So in answer to the question of the year: that's how I got here. But what's interesting about that is that if I had the time to tell you the slightly longer version of how all those intervening years played out, you would see that there seems to have been a rather elaborate magnetic field drawing me to Cate -- obviously. I married into its hall of fame, but did you also know, for instance ( some of you do) that Stanley Woodworth  -- Betty Woodworth's husband, and namesake of the excellence in teaching plaque that hangs in the Schoolhouse breezeway -- taught my father here? When he was a young French teacher, one of his students was a young Peter Hansen, which of course means -- incidentally, theoretically -- that one of you sitting here could grow up to have a son that marries my daughter. And I will find out who you are. And we will talk.

But so yes, my standing here would seem to be the result of a carefully calibrated network of profound and ineluctable forces, blood, like-mindedness, book-mindedness, matchmaking mothers, oracles, riddles, roadside encounters.  From certain perspectives, the fix was in.

But  let me take you back to the beginning of my talk, because as much as my standing here may have to do with all those powerful invisible magnets, it has everything but everything to do with the flight of that little piece of glass, whistling down from thirty three stories through the windiest day of the year directly for the back of my father's head  -- because if that little shard dodges one centimeter to the left, well, then you optimists are right -- he was a lucky man -- because one centimeter to the left and I doubt very much that Peter Hansen could walk through that door right now, and I probably couldn't ever watch Lolita again, and I don't think Sam Hansen comes here and sits in Betty Woodworth's kitchen. Doesn't make sense. 

Likewise, if that little shiny arrowhead gets pushed two inches that way, well then you pessimists are right -- poor guy, because it easily could have missed him and landed harmlessly against the pavement. And if that's what happened, then again, Sam's not in that kitchen. He's up in New Hampshire somewhere, or Massachusetts, or who knows. In which case, Betty Woodworth is certainly not calling up my mom to see where her daughter might stay for six weeks that the summer of whatever it was, 1994? '95? That would've been really weird.

But that's not what happened. And who knows, maybe -- if the winds had been different  -- maybe those invisible magnets would have re-adjusted and found some other way to get me here. Maybe they were in charge of all that wind; I don't know how the universe works. All I know is that shard fell exactly where it fell, and it set it off the rest of our lives, including a lot of pain, and struggle, and frustration, and sacrifice, but also including the fact that I stand before you now, because that little shard of glass is how I got here. And the really crazy part -- which would be kind of unbelievable if it weren't also so undeniable -- is that now that you've been sitting here listening to me for the last fifteen minutes, now that you've heard my story -- now that we are all together --  that little shard is how you got here too.

So let us all go celebrate -- together -- with milk and cookies.

Connie Martinson Talks Books

A few weeks back I was on Connie Martinson Talks Books to plug Andrew Blauner's Central Park: an Anthology, which includes a story of mine. We also discussed John the Baptizer.  I returned last week and we had a nice chat about The Brotherhood of Joseph, which I'll post here as soon as it becomes available. My thanks to Connie for all her interest.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Commencement Speech - May 27, 2012: "The Trouble with Instinct"


The Cate School seniors, class of 2012, were kind enough to invite me to deliver an address at their commencement ceremony this past Sunday, May 27.

What follows is the transcript:

Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Williams, esteemed guests, trustees, class of 2012, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is an honor.

Let me repay your kindness by telling you just how profound my admiration is for what you've accomplished here. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young clearly never set foot on this campus. I think you've managed your time here -- collectively and individually -- with extraordinary grace and energy and flexibility, because it is a kind of gymnastic that we ask of you here, to proceed on any given day from a Schoolhouse 1 to a science lab, to the playing field or the pool or the gym, to the ceramics barn, to the theater, the art room, the chapel, the list goes on -- but to perform in each of these venues at such a high level, and so devotedly. Maybe you think that's natural. It's not. It's amazing to watch, and humbling and inspiring. So thank you.

Having said that, this special little window -- in which you're able to engage so intensely in so many different pursuits -- is hard to keep open. Even next year, as your horizons broaden, your focus will begin to tighten, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In order to become more accomplished and to make your fullest contribution, you may need to focus more than a place like Cate really allows.

Choices lie ahead, and it is in context of these (I hate say) rather significant choices, that commencement speakers such as myself will tell soon-to-graduates like you things like "Don't compromise your beliefs," "Trust your instinct," "Follow you heart." Steve Jobs said it rather famously, and who better? "Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

And I of course agree with that.

I guess my only question is: how? For most people, telling them to follow their heart is a little like shouting "Open your eyes!" at a blind man: That's the whole problem. We'd follow our hearts in a second if we knew what the damned thing was telling us. How do we know?

There are really only two arenas in which I've had any notable experience with instinct, or intuition; one would be my writing, and the other would be in how I got to be a father.

And the two actually came together at one point

I wrote a book about the journey my wife and I took to parenthood. It was a long one -- the journey, not the book -- that led the two of us through what seemed an endless maze of doctor's offices and clinics and lawyers' offices and agencies and municipal government buildings. You don't have to think about that stuff right now. Just know that when you go through something like that, years and years of wanting something that much, trying everything you can think of to attain it, but still failing over and over and over, it takes a toll. You begin to lose faith in a lot of things, including your instincts. You feel like you must not be reading signals correctly, because you're not making good choices, clearly. That's how we felt.

And yet, when our path finally took us all the way to the far side of the world, to a beautiful little town called Tomsk, in Siberia, it turned out to be a moment of overwhelming instinct, heeded at tremendous risk, that finally delivered us to our son Theo.

So I wrote a book about that.

And whenever anybody reads the book -- anyone who knows me -- they will invariably ask, what about Ada?

Ada is Theo's sister. She's nineteen months younger than he is, and she was born about five-hundred miles south of Tomsk, in Kazakhstan, in a town called Ust-kamenogorsk, which roughly translates to mean "the rubble in the valley." So people will often ask me "When does Ada get her book? Seems only fair."

I hesitate for two reasons:

The first is that I make it a policy never to write a sequel to any of my books unless someone with money specifically asks me to

Second, what happened in Kazakhstan wasn't really as dramatic, in the traditional sense, as what took place in Tomsk.

In Tomsk-- and again, I don’t want to go too far into it -- but my wife and I were literally handed a gift that for some mysterious and inexplicable reason -- born of intuition -- we could not bring ourselves accept, and because of that refusal we were forced to confront the possibility not only that everything we had been working toward for the previous seven years wasn't going to happen; but that maybe it shouldn't happen. Maybe the whole idea of our being parents had been ill-conceived, because we were clearly broken in some fundamental way. What other explanation was there?

We stewed in that idea -- and the fact that we were now resolved to reject our last best chance at ever being parents -- for one night, which was without question the darkest night I've known, or hope to know. The following day by noon, however, under an equally inexplicable set of circumstances, I found myself feeling more elated, more triumphant, more -- I have to say -- cosmically vindicated than I had ever felt in my life, or ever expect to.

So the trip definitely worked out -- miraculously so -- but it was an absolutely harrowing experience, and far more dramatic, and traumatic and gut-wrenching, than I would wish upon my worst enemy. In fact, if you'd close-miced me at any point during our last day in Tomsk -- and this was after the clouds had parted -- you'd have heard me murmuring the same five words over and over again like a mantra:

"Ain't go'n be no re-match . . . Aint go'n be no rematch."

Yet two years later, there we were climbing the ring again to go get Ada. Why? Because Elizabeth and I had envisioned more. We envisioned a sibling for Theo, and whether that was Instinct or the Height of Ingratitude, there seemed to be only one way to find out.

But as I say, this was a very different experience. Challenging, no question, but more muted.

The first time we went to meet Ada, for instance: We were in the office of the director of the Babyhouse, which is what they called this particular orphanage. For reasons that made no sense to me at the time, and still don't, the agents had to bring in another baby for us to meet first, on the understanding that the second child we were going to meet was the one to whom we had been "betrothed," as it were. So they bring in the first baby, a girl. Beautiful, black-eyed, heart-shaped face, and we actually have to hold her, and play, and go through this weird Kabuki where everyone in the room knows this is not the child we're here to see, or bring home. And this little girl seemed to know it too somehow, like this wasn't the first time she'd run this drill. And I can still see her face as she's sitting in my lap looking up at me, registering the emotional obscenity of this moment. It was brutal, as you can imagine, and a very disconcerting way to set your palette.

Then they brought in Ada.

Now many of you here know Ada. I don't think I'm just being a proud father when I say that if the phrase "delightful hopping ball of sun-filled love-emitting energy" had not been coined by some Japanese novelty t-shirt, someone would have to come up with it to describe Ada. She is an absurdly, ridiculously fun and infectious joyful spirit . . .

Well, not in Kazakhstan.

I jump to the third time we saw her. This was in the main nursery area. There were about ten children in there, none of them older than a year -- stationed in various playpens and high chairs. We walk in and they all look up at us -- and babies, just so you know, even babies who've spent their whole lives in babyhouses -- are not cynical. They see two parental types walk in a room, their faces light up. They all start smiling and reaching out to us -- "Hi!" -- all except for one, who is sitting alone in a pen at the back of the room, a giant crib, and she's got her legs (which were very skinny back then) stuck halfway through the rails, and she's looking at us, dead on, like this…like she might as well already be thirteen; like "Where the hell have you guys been?"

And I get it. I understood, but I wanted to say, "All right, all right, just give me a minute here." Because the truth is, this thing we were doing -- adopting a second child into a new family -- is an extremely delicate maneuver.

I mentioned Theo. Theo was with us, and thank God he was there because he was definitely the coolest one among us. He was like that guy from the Dos Equis beer ad -- he's walking around, tipping cabbies and doormen. "We're going to get my sister? Great. I'll bring a banjo."

That is, until we actually get in there. That's when things get a little dicey, because from his perspective, when we actually get in there and start doing this thing, that means having to watch Mom and Dad go into this strange room and pick up this other child whom they've never met, and right away start using the same tones of voice they use with you; the same expressions on their faces, same gestures, the same toys they gave you are now being handed this strange little girl. If you see that and you don't find it painful and confusing and . . . scary, then you're not paying attention. And Theo pays attention. It may have been that same visit, one of these scenes was unfolding in front of him. I think he may have just been watching Elizabeth take Ada from one of the caretakers, but this sound came out of him, spontaneously, this perfectly non-verbal, almost selfless expression of Oooooh-whaaaaat-is-happening-to-my-universe?…

So we decided, maybe we should do this in shifts -- all go in together, say hi, but then take turns. One of us would visit with Ada, the other would grab a toy truck and take Theo downstairs to this empty little playground they had next to the parking lot. We did this for him, as I say -- not to shove in his face what was going on upstairs -- but I'll admit, I was doing it for me, too, because I was struggling.

We'd been so happy back home in New York (which is where we were living at the time). We'd finally gotten something right, remember? We felt so blessed, and now we were just going to roll the dice again? Change it inalterably? What we were doing in Kazakhstan -- in the long run I knew it was right, I did -- but at the same time, it posed a direct and immediate threat to a joy I had been feeling that I didn't think I was ever going to get to feel.

So it was a struggle, setting that energy aside when it was my turn to go up and see Ada, because she was in an odd spot, too, obviously, trying to figure out who these people were and could they be trusted.

But we just kind of muscled through it, all of us. It's funny, Ada's and my first moments of real connection, that she initiated: I'd be holding her -- and this was when it was just the two of us -- and she would look me straight in the eye, very close, with this very penetrating, peering, "can I trust you?" look -- then she'd just tilt her forehead into mine. (Doink.) It was a very fitting gesture in a way, this deliberate third-eye collision -- because it is warm, and connecting, but it's also hard and it hurts if you don't do it right…

So that's what happened in Kazakhstan. That's what that book would be about: all of us just ploughing ahead, pulling our shifts, and waiting for the fear and the protectiveness to subside and be replaced by its opposite.

For you sports fans out there, if what happened in Tomsk was like a Hail Mary pass -- and it was -- what happened in Kazakhstan was three yards and a cloud of dust, all the way down field.

And the reason I'm telling you this -- because I can sense some of you may have begun wondering (I know my wife is wondering) -- the reason I'm telling you this is both to warn you and to reassure you, I hope, that there is no formula for figuring out what your heart is telling you, or how to follow it.

There will be times you'll feel like maybe you need to give up on your dream, and that will be the right thing to do, either because another dream will come along, or maybe because you just needed to let go for a second, and your first dream will come spilling in on you like a closet full of tennis balls

And there will be other times you just need to lower your shoulder and drive from your legs. And how will you know which is which? (Shrug) Instinct comes with a very complex and customized decoder ring, and no one talking into a microphone could ever presume to tell you how to read yours.

But I will, since I have the mic, give you this one tip, based in no small part upon the experiences I've been describing. Make of it what you will.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that your heart is interested in what comes easy, and I know this from my writing as well, in fact, (but don't worry, I'll make this quick). The funny thing about writing books is that, for all the work that goes into them -- all the research, the outlines, the writing and revising -- each one winds up teaching you one thing (if you're lucky), and that is how to write it, which is a useless piece of information once you've figured it out. Once you're done, you go right back to square one, trying to figure out what you're going to do next, and how.

If you're like me, a couple ideas will occur: there'll be that one you think about and you kind of like it because you're pretty sure you can handle it. You think, "Yeah, I see that. In fact I know exactly how I'd do that. Maybe I could even knock that one out in a year, right? Easy."

Then there'll be that other idea. You can see it, but there's also something about it -- maybe it's the story, or a character or some narrative maneuver you have in mind -- but there's some built-in black hole right in the middle of it that makes you think, "I have no idea how I would pull that off.' Something that just makes the whole idea seem mildly impossible.

And what I am suggesting to you is that if this really is your heart talking to you about what you want to do with your life, it's going to choose option B every time, the one that seems impossible, because your heart, as it turns out, is not interested in the downhill slope, or what you're pretty sure you can handle. Your heart really just wants to expand, and it's using you to do it, so the hardest thing you can imagine -- the hardest thing you can imagine -- that is exactly what it wants to do.

And as for that other voice you're going to be hearing along the way -- heck, I'll bet some of you have been hearing it a lot the last few months -- the voice that says, "I got this. I actually know how this goes, I can handle this, no problem" -- on this day of days, hear me when I say: that's not you heart telling you that you've arrived, or that you've made it, or that you have finally found yourself.

That's your heart telling you you're done.

Go in peace, class of 2012, and knock 'em dead

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Creative Gene"



The very stylish new Cate School Bulletin recently asked me to write a short piece about the prevalance of painters in my family. (The painting above is a woodcut actually, by my mother, entitled "Birches.")

Heres a snippet:
  • The point — if we must identify some influence, some monkey-see monkey-do element to growing up in the home of an artist — was the extraordinary stubbornness on display, the constancy involved in returning to the same room every day, closing the door and taking up those same nuts and bolts again, and again and again and again, surrendering to the same indomitable compulsion without complaint, without fanfare, without comment. Just being the tortoise instead of the hare, that was the point.

I provide two links: one to the article itself, the other to a flash version of the entire issue, which is dedicated to the arts at Cate. "The Creative Gene" starts on page 23, and includes more paintings by family members, including my aunt, Meredith Abbott, and my cousins, Robert Abbott and Whitney Abbott. But the whole issue is terrific and terrific looking. Congratulations to Sarah Kidwell and her right-hand man, Jarred Ray, for putting it all together.