All posts by david

Mother Battles Daughter.  Both Win.

Lady Bird a film by Greta Gerwig.  With Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein.  ****1/2

I was signed up for this movie as soon as I heard it was by Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig is a fundamentally odd performer: her roles are weird, her characters offbeat; she is slightly awkward physically, though beautiful and winning.  Watching Greta Gerwig dance free form is one of the great aesthetic experiences of modern times.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that she had made her own movie.  I felt sure that, though it might not be perfect, I would like it.  And I did!

It focuses on a girl’s senior year in high school.[1]  Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) attends a Catholic girl’s school, though she doesn’t seem especially Catholic.  Her real name is Christine, though she has for some reason dubbed herself Lady Bird, perhaps to annoy her mother (Laurie Metcalf).  She runs for office with weird posters that make her look like half girl-half bird, participates in religious ceremonies but doesn’t take the host during the sacrament, lies on the floor munching communion wafers with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).[2]

In her most startling scene of rebellion, she is on the passenger side while her mother is driving and the two of them are arguing, and in a moment of exasperation opens the car door and falls out, a maneuver which, instead of killing her or shredding skin all over her body, gives her a minor broken arm.  She’s a rebellious young woman: we get it.  Headstrong and kind of crazy.  Just what we expected from a Greta Gerwig film.

I loved this character and her plump girlfriend Julie, liked the way they got together to chat, tried out for a school play with the local boy’s Catholic school, flirted with and fell for the same guy, Danny (Lucas Hedges), who had the boy’s lead.  The major thrust of Lady Bird’s life is that she feels stifled in Sacramento in particular and California in general, wants to go “where culture is like, New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire”(?).  In feeling that way she comes in strong conflict with her mother, who wants her to be practical and go to a state school, also probably wants her around because she likes her daughter and loves her, though she doesn’t always show it well.  Marie is a psychologist who works at a psyche ward, and is probably the second most interesting character in the movie, a strong centered woman—beautifully portrayed by Metcalf—who wants her daughter to calm down and be more normal.  She thinks the young lady would be happier that way, and she might be right.  But nobody is going to stifle this free spirit.

Lady Bird has an ally in her mildly depressed father Larry (Tracy Letts), a computer programmer who loses his job in the middle of the year.  He seems to be one of those middle-aged workers who is being edged out because his competition is younger and will probably work for less (he’s in competition for a new job with his adopted son), but he understands his daughter’s wish to get away and helps her with financial aid forms.

The senior year of high school is one of the more terrifying years of any young person’s life, and it’s a measure of the anxiety she’s feeling that Lady Bird gets off kilter even from her rebellious phase, abandoning Julie for a cooler and more popular girl named Jenna (Odeya Rush), giving up on Danny for a fledgling rock musician named Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), social climbing in general, to the point that she lies to Jenna about where she lives.  We have a feeling all along that she’ll recover, and she does, spectacularly, on the night of her Senior Prom.  For Lady Bird—as for Greta Gerwig herself—to get too conventional is a mistake.  The straight and narrow for her is to be slightly nuts.

Lady Bird is about that year in a young woman’s life, but emotionally it’s a mother daughter movie, that loving bond that often becomes a battle.  Both women act exactly as they should; that’s what puts them at odds.  Lady Bird’s college applications go the way we expect (and not just because Gerwig is a New York actress): some East coast school was going to see this young woman as a diamond in the rough, even if she got suspended from high school for saying something uncharacteristically mean at a school assembly (part of her mixed-up period).  Her mother reacts in character too, though perhaps a little too harshly.  The anger she feels at her daughter’s rebellion is a measure of how much she loves her.  The final scene—which intriguingly involves a moment in a church—resolves this situation perfectly, solving nothing but stating the truth of what is really going on.

It’s a movie about a high school girl but it’s a gem.  Great acting, strong direction.  The best thing is probably the script, and the nerve to do the project in the first place.  Credit Greta Gerwig for all that too.

[1] Could I register a complaint about the IMDb website, which on various other occasions has shown itself to be deficient in grammar and proofreading?  Here is the single sentence with which it characterizes this movie.  “The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.”  Do they not see that this implies she was living there for just one year?   A major point of the movie is that Lady Bird has lived there her whole life.

[2] My wife, who is Catholic, assumed Lady Bird was Catholic but just hadn’t been to confession; that’s why she wasn’t taking the host.  But she thought a number of the Catholic references in the movie were off kilter; she doesn’t think two girls at the school could have been casually eating communion wafers, and she didn’t believe that nuns would have been wearing habits at a Catholic school in 2002.

Why Volunteer

 

I had finished my Thursday volunteering stint at Urban Ministries and was tidying up when Brittany came back.  “David, would you mind taking one more person?  She says she’s sick.”

I said I’d be happy to.  I wasn’t in a hurry.

“She’s a new client,” she said.

The woman who came back didn’t look like a lot of our clients.  She was nicely dressed, wore some costume jewelry, three or four rings on her fingers.  She was medium height and thin, held her arms up against her and walked slowly, as if crippled by arthritis.  It took a while for the two of us to get down the hallway and sit at the desk.  She still held her arms against her.

“I’m so cold,” she said.

“It is cold in here,” I said.  Several people had complained of it that day.  I always wore a heavy sweater when I worked there, was wearing one then.  The place was a little drafty.

“I’m cold in North Carolina.  I never was in New York.”  That was a remark you didn’t hear every day.  “In New York it’s either hot or cold.  Here it’s 80 in the middle of the day and freezing when the sun goes down.  You don’t know how to dress.”

The weather has been especially that way this fall, a number of days where there was a wide variation in temperature.

“I need a coat,” she said.  “I’ve come here to get a coat.”

My heart sank when she said that.  Everybody, but everybody, wanted a coat those days.  Some guys from the shelter had been coming by every day looking for a coat.  They were hard to come by.

“We do have coats,” I said.  “We don’t have a lot.”

“I have a taxi waiting,” she said.  “I just need to get a coat.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I said.  “This may take a while.  I have to fill out some forms, since you’re a new client.  It might be better to let the taxi go.”

“I can’t let go my taxi.  I just got to get this coat.”

“I’ll work as fast as I can.”

It still wasn’t going to be fast.

She reminded me of my grandmother when I was a child, the way she was cold and holding herself, the way her hands seemed arthritic.  I was startled when I checked her ID I to see that she was only in her fifties.

She checked her watch.  “I might miss Meals on Wheels,” she said.

Good grief.

She didn’t qualify for food from the pantry at her age.  I asked if there were children in her household, but she lived alone.  There was only one other way she’d qualify for food.

“Are you disabled?” I said.

“I am.”

“Do you have proof?”

Miraculously, she did.  She pulled out a form from the Social Security Administration saying she got disability payments.

We would have given her a pass anyway, since this was her first visit.

The whole time she sat beside me, she talked constantly, softly, just above a whisper.  A fair number of people who come to Urban Ministries—this woman met the profile—just need someone to talk to.  So I tried to listen, I understood the importance of that, but was also conscious of her cab out there, and her Meals on Wheels appointment, and all these forms.  “Uh huh,” I’d say.  “I see.”  She was mostly talking to herself.  Not making a lot of sense.

“Okay,” I said at last.  “We’re ready.”

We got to the clothing closet and there were no other clients.  Two volunteers were still working, cleaning up.  Usually a client begins with underwear; each is eligible for one new pair, and some socks.  But this woman had a one track mind.

“She’s looking for a coat,” I said.

“What we have is here,” one of the volunteers said.

I looked on the rack.  There seemed to be just four or five.

This whole thing was hopeless.

I turned and spoke quietly to the woman who sorted through the underwear.  “I’m not sure this woman’s all there,” I said quietly.  “She really only wants a coat.  But she might take some underwear, if you offer it to her.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

I turned back, and the woman holding a hanger draped by a camel’s hair coat.  It looked pretty close to new.

The woman volunteer stepped over and took the hanger.  “Should I put this in a bag for you?” she said.

“You’ve been so cold,” I said.  “Why don’t you put it on?”

“Yes,” the volunteer said.  “You could put it on.”

The woman took the coat off the hanger, and tried it on.  It was full length, so it covered most of her body.  It seemed to be a good fit.  She pulled it together at the collar, stood there for a long moment.

“Oh,” she said.  “Oh.”  At first I thought something was wrong.  “I’m warm,” she said.  “I feel warm.”  Her face started to tremble, and she fumbled with her eyeglasses.  Tears poured from her eyes.  “I knew I’d find something if I went out and looked for it,” she said.  “God is good.  God is so good.”

“God is good,” the volunteer said.  She put her arms around the woman and held her as she sobbed.  “And we have some wool socks here.  You can keep your feet warm too.”

By the time I left the woman was in the food pantry with a shopping cart.  She might as well have been standing in the Kroger.  She was talking to Angela, the head of the food operation, who listened patiently.  The taxi was still sitting outside.  I assume Meals on Wheels was long gone.  But the woman still wore her coat.

People Left Behind

The Florida Project a film by Sean Baker.  With Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinalte, Christopher Rivera.  ****1/2

The Florida Project is simultaneously a touching tribute to the innocence of childhood and one of the most nerve-wracking movies I’ve ever seen.  As these adorable children walked around the grungier parts of Orlando, I kept expecting some catastrophe to happen.  There are various ways to abuse a child: physically, sexually, psychologically, emotionally.  But it wasn’t until I saw The Florida Project that I realized that the worst way might be to let your child do whatever she wants, especially if you yourself, as a mother, are a nihilistic free spirit who seems ready to flip the bird at everybody you see.  Your child picks up on your attitude, and follows it.  I kept thinking, as I watched the adorable Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the emotional and dramatic center of this film, this kid is doomed.  No matter what happens.  She’s doomed.

I would have to say, though, that Brooklynn Prince (where the hell did she get that name?) ranks among the greatest child actors I’ve ever seen, adorable and extremely talented.  I don’t know what her parents are going to do with her now that she’s learned to flip the bird and yell Fuck You! at a passing helicopter, apparently just because her on-screen mother doesn’t like the noise.  And who knows how her talent will translate once she gets older.  But at the moment she’s Academy Award material.

An equal focus of the movie is the Florida landscape itself, apparently the poorer more rundown section of Orlando, the part that was built in the fifties and sixties.  Sarasota—where my mother went in the winter, and where I often visited her—had a similar section.  A huge store that looks like half of an orange, a massive gift shop that looks like a cartoon character’s head, a motel called Futureworld.  Those things seemed like a good idea at the time.  They’re not so good as Futureworld becomes Pastworld, or Patheticworld.

The kids—Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Otto)—are not entirely innocent.  The first childish prank we see Monnee and Scooty engage in is spitting from the second floor balcony onto a car windshield, and they have also apparently thrown water balloons at tourists and put a dead fish in the swimming pool.  It is summer in the middle of Florida, and these are not the kids with music and ballet lessons and baseball practice to go to.  We’re in the world of the down and out, women who dance at Gentleman’s Clubs or flip burgers at a fast food place, aging motels populated by people living there with special weekly rates, just getting by.  The children in this situation have the kinds of summers we used to, long hot days (these days look brutally hot) stretched out in front of you with nothing in particular to do.  It’s paradise, in a way.  It’s also hell.  The whole world is your oyster.  But the only thing you can think of to do is sit on the balcony and laugh at the old woman who sunbathes topless.

The moral center of the film is a motel manager named Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who knows these are just kids and the whole situation is not really their fault, who actually likes them, wants them to have a good time, but is also barely scraping by in a motel that is falling apart.  When the kids go in the utility room and turn off the power, he’s the one who gets the blame.  When they drip ice cream in his lobby he’s the one who chases them out.  But he also watches out for them, and when an apparent child molester hangs around in the playground, he takes care of the situation.

The film, to its credit, drops us right in the middle of this situation.  We don’t know how Bobby got here, with a son who helps him with the shit work for a while but finally says he can’t do it anymore.  We don’t know how Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinalte) got here, a good-looking woman with a great body that is pierced in various places and heavily tattooed, who seems even more desperate for employment than everyone else we meet (at least Scooty’s mother has a job at a crummy restaurant, and Bobby has the motel).  We don’t know how she happens to have had a child, who or where Moonee’s father is.  We’re plopped into the middle of a situation that doesn’t look good and has no prospects of getting better, waiting for a disaster to happen.

Halley is the movie’s most troubling character.  You would have to say that she loves her daughter; she pays attention to her when she’s around, and does lots of things with her.  We assume she’s been screwed over by some asshole man—or maybe a whole bunch of them—and that in some way this whole thing isn’t her fault (in another way it is, though.  She’s made some bad choices).  She’s a strong feisty woman trying to get by.  But loving your daughter doesn’t mean giving her free rein.  Raising a strong woman doesn’t mean letting her be a brat, which she sometimes is (and gets away with it by being so adorable).  We can see in Halley’s face sometimes that she’s struggling with demons and knows things are heading for a bad end.  Her cheerful feisty matter is a way of whistling in the dark.  She’s going to lose this battle.  She’s got loser written all over her, pretty as she is.

In the meantime, we wonder why there are so many scenes of Moonee playing alone in the bathtub.  Eventually we find out.

Apparently The Florida Project was an early name for Disney World, which doesn’t appear until the end of the movie but which is a looming presence throughout.  In a way this is a movie about gentrification, about the working class that is left behind when a city gets a windfall like Disneyworld.  It’s wonderful for the people who get to go there, and the ones who profit from it.  It’s not so great for those back in the old Orlando.

True Love

Single White Monk: Tales of Death, Failure, and Bad Sex by Shozan Jack Haubner.  Shambhala.  208 pp. $14.95.

I was not a big fan of Shozan Jack Haubner’s first book, Zen Confidential.  I thought it was overwritten, and that he often seemed to be trying too hard.  I did appreciate his honesty, and the way he debunked a lot of what we think about Zen practice, but when material is inherently interesting there’s no need to strain to make it more interesting.  In his first book he sometimes did that.

I felt that way about passages in this book as well.  When Haubner is writing about the trials of his adolescent basketball career, his dating experiences, or his experiences of jumping the monastery wall (visiting the 21st equivalent of a brothel), he seems to be another clueless guy like the rest of us, trying to make something of himself and have some fun (though again, his honesty is refreshing).

But I think Haubner gained confidence by publishing that first book, and by the acclaim he’s gotten for it; he also seems to have grown more comfortable with his role as a Zen teacher, which he’s adopted despite the fact that he left his original monastery.  In the most impressive chapters in this book—about his relationship with Leonard Cohen, who also studied with his teacher; about his visit to a fellow monk who was dying; above all about his relationship with his teacher in general, and his position as his teacher’s right hand man—he has completely relaxed: he knows the subject is fascinating and doesn’t need any help from him.

Haubner’s teacher is the famous and notorious Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who not only was the teacher of Leonard Cohen, and of the vipassana teacher Shinzen Young; who not only taught vigorously in this country for over fifty years and lived to the ripe old age of 107, but who faced an enormous sex scandal at the age of 104, so that it became the only thing people talked about, the thing he was famous for.  It was through the scandal that he was featured in articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.  They hadn’t written about the fact that he’d been rigorously teaching Zen in this country for fifty years.

And of course Haubner has published his book at a time when sexual harassment is all over the headlines.  The whole world is talking about it.

I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing for this book.

I’ve written about Joshu Sasaki before.  I had read a book of his teachings that his students had put together and that has long been out of print; I remarked on the paradox that the teachings seemed powerful and helpful at the same time that the man’s sexuality seemed adolescent (to say the least) and way out of hand.  I also read an excellent book by another of Sawaki’s students.  But I would have to say that Single White Monk gives the best explanation of Sasaki’s teachings that I’ve seen anywhere, and it also, better than anything else I’ve read, squarely faces the problem of having a teacher you love and who has been vastly important to you but who has also done some dreadful things.  Students of Chogyam Trungpa, for instance, face the same issue, but none has written with this raw honesty.

Haubner doesn’t for one minute try to defend the way Sasaki behaved.  He thinks it was abominable.  But he also thought Sasaki was a great teacher who greatly changed his own life and the lives of many around him.

He encompasses those two things in the same book.  He regards them as equally true.

Take, for instance, this brief and beautiful explanation of the teachings: “My Zen teacher, the Roshi, taught that you could call the world outside of you, the world of distinctions, of bright and shiny things, Father.  And you could call the world inside of you, the rich, embryonic inner darkness, Mother.  Sometimes the infinity of things outside of you penetrates through the sense gates . . . Other times the formlessness within expands outward  . . . a new thought or feeling arises and your sense of self is born in a process analogous to a baby crowning through a mother’s hips . . .

“Roshi called this True Love.  He described it over and over, but it took years before I was able to live his words with my whole body.”

In that brief passage—part of the Introduction that I was so enamored ofHaubner gives a brief and superb explanation of what Zen practice is all about.

Much later in the book he tells of an experience of sanzen—the meeting of a teacher and student—when he shows how the intimacy between the two of them leads to that understanding:

“That night I went into sanzen with a typically wild gimmick that probably involved shouting and doing an interpretative dance while making strange faces.  Zen isn’t an intellectual discipline, but it isn’t bad performance art either.  Roshi laughed for about, I swear to God, ten minutes.

“Then he said, ‘Be.  More.  Normal.’

“Before I could reply, both of his hands were holding mine.  He pulled me close and bowed until our foreheads were touching.

He said, ‘Your heart.  My heart.  Same.’

“We stayed like that for a tiny eternity.  It felt like he was taking the weight of my life off my shoulders.  I was so relaxed I began to shake, as though some tension buried deep in my bone marrow had found release.  When we parted he looked in my eyes.

“’True love important.’”

But we can see how that very experience of intimacy could lead to abuse.  Sasaki seems not to have been able to resist when the student was a woman.  And apparently he sometimes got on a roll.  Violating the boundaries of one student led to violating the boundaries of another.

I had read the occasional letter on Sweeping Zen, the website where the scandal broke, where women said the sexual advances of the old man were no big deal.  They gave him a swat and told him to behave himself and carried on.  I also read the accounts, much more numerous, of women who were deeply wounded by what he did.  But I had never read a full-throated defense of the man, a woman for whom the advances helped her open up, spiritually but also sexually.  Haubner’s friend Liz is such a woman, and she becomes the most vivid character in his book.

What I most admire about this book is the way that Haubner will not give on either side.  What his teacher did was absolutely wrong.  He loves and respects and is deeply grateful to his teacher.  The wish to have a perfect teacher is infantile, and a delusion that we need to overcome.  Haubner shows us that we can take in the whole of a human being, and not like every part of it, but still profit from the encounter.

Can’t Face It Anymore

When the Life Force Can’t Fight the Death Wish

I was talking to a friend I meet every week for lunch and we were catching up before we ordered.  “I had to go to a funeral this weekend,” Tom said.  “I told you my neighbor died, didn’t I?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “How did he die?”

He got a funny look on his face, shook his head.  “Shot himself.”

It was the story you often hear.  The man was 73 years old, retired, apparently well-off, seemed perfectly happy.  Tom would see him on the street and they would talk.  He’d had him over for dinner a time or two.  There was never any suggestion of depression or deep unhappiness.  Yet suddenly, out of the blue, he’d done this terrible thing, which shattered his family and friends.

This sad story brought up other things we’d recently talked about.  Tom had had a friend who died after a medical procedure, but a doctor—unbeknownst to the man’s wife—had recommended the procedure years before, when it would have been less dangerous, and the man had said no, he wasn’t interested.  A very good friend of mine, who died suddenly of a heart attack, had apparently stopped taking his blood pressure—again, without his wife’s knowledge—despite the fact that his uncorrected pressure was quite high.  He’d once told me that he thought his high blood pressure was what would kill him.

He’d stopped taking his medicine just the same, and stopped taking care of himself in other ways.

I was reminded of some words of Shozan Jack Haubner in the introduction to his book Single White Monk.  I haven’t actually read the book, but would have to say that the introduction, which I read standing up at the bookstore, is worth the whole price.  It made me violate my cardinal rule of book buying: never buy a book on the first day you see it.

Haubner was talking about a moment of despair that came over him in the zendo, when he started to cry.  “I wasn’t afraid of being dead, I was afraid of the way death slowly takes over your life: in a silent moment when you know you will never fall in love again; when you realize you’ve been faking it at your job for decades and the younger generation is not fooled.  Sitting in the zendo that night, I realized I was now headed inexorably toward death. . . .

“This is the great death that awaits all of us in middle age—the death of our illusions, of the fantasy that we can get life completely right, that our team will finally win.”

Haubner is some years younger than I.  Hate to mention it, but this feeling just gets worse.

I’ve always thought that people take their lives because they suffer from a dark and incomprehensible condition known as depression, and I still think that’s true.  But I remember reading about Hemingway once that he had made various suicide attempts—and finally succeeded at one—because he could no longer do the things he’d loved.  He couldn’t go out in his boat and go fishing, couldn’t go to Africa and hunt, he couldn’t—perhaps—make love to women anymore, couldn’t write.  (He had severe problems writing in his final years.)  The things that had made him who he was, the things that made him Hemingway, were gone.  So he killed himself.

I’ve often thought that everything in the universe follows a pattern of expansion and contraction.  A day expands and contracts.  A year.  A human life.  The ocean.  Our lungs.  Our heart.  The universe itself, apparently.  Expansion, and then contraction.  I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins—I think Shozan Jack Haubner may be feeling sad a little early—but I’m quite sure that, at the age of 69, I’m in the contraction phase.

Some people seem unable to face it.  I see it everywhere, in people who seem desperate to stay young (and often look all the older for trying).  I also hear little hints, in stories like the one about my friend’s neighbor, or the guy who didn’t have the medical procedure when it could have helped him, or my friend who gave up on his blood pressure meds.

I can’t help thinking, though, that there’s something good about the contraction phase, as things gradually fall away.  Some old people have a gleam in their eye.  The things we once believed in and that gave us energy—Shozan Jack Haubner’s idea that he could get his life right or that his team would finally win (that anyone will finally win, or finally do anything)—are illusions.  When you give up illusions you might see the truth.

There’s a way in which the Great Death is something we need to go through.  There’s a way in which a death wish is itself an illusion.  Death comes soon enough, whether we want it or not.  There’s something unseemly about hurrying it.

Grad Student from Hell

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy.  Grove Press.  338 pp.  $16.00.

The Ginger Man was one of the famous dirty books from my youth, published by Olympia Press and occupying the shelves alongside Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and My Life and Loves.  My freshman college roommate in 1966 showed up with everything trendy in the world, and he had a copy of The Ginger Man prominently displayed on his shelves (though he never read it.  He never read any of his books.  He just had them).

My problem was that I couldn’t find the dirty parts.  In those days when everything I knew about sex came from books, I was expert at locating such passages—I’d certainly found everything in the three titles I mentioned—but The Ginger Man was a wasteland to me.  I couldn’t see why Olympia Press had published it.  But author J.P. Donleavy recently died, and the great Dwight Garner wrote an appreciation of him, especially of this book, so I thought I’d go back and have a look.  Jay McInerney, another of my favorites, wrote the forward to this 60th anniversary edition.

I have a feeling that Olympia published it because, although it wasn’t especially erotic, it had a few sexy scenes, and its attitude was one of openness about sex.  The book had apparently been rejected by 50 publishers, probably because of the smattering of sex and some raunchy language.  The bulk of the book is told in an odd stream-of-consciousness, sometimes first person, sometimes third, alternating between the two with no warning, and the writing is lyrical and beautiful.  Though the Ginger Man’s mind is in the gutter much of the time, his language is poetic.  The end of a chapter often breaks into a few lines of verse.

But it’s funny how a book and its narrative can age.  This kind of character, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, brilliant bohemian, who dresses badly, seldom bathes, doesn’t take care of himself at all (as my mother in law once said about someone else, he’s slovenly in his personal hygiene), was all the rage in the sixties, when everybody acted that way—the room where my freshman creative writing class met with Reynolds Price was blue with smoke within minutes of convening, and I was one of the smokers—but now the guy seems dirty, sloppy, and stupid.  And when he screams at his young child for crying, and punches his wife in the face when they quarrel—quite early in the novel—he loses all sympathy from most of us, me in particular.  He goes beyond being a drunken slob.  He becomes an asshole.

That obviously wasn’t Donleavy’s intention.  From the interior monologues we can see that Sebastian Dangerfield—the Ginger Man in question—is actually a sensitive guy with a tender side.  He comes from a well-off American family, and we don’t know why he’s wound up in Dublin to go to law school, probably just because he wanted to get away from bourgeois America and have some adventures.  We assume he’s under pressure from his family to lead a conventional, respectable life—hence his enrollment in law school—and that he’d really rather do something else, though he doesn’t actually do anything other than drink.

So the plot of the novel—such as it is—is Sebastian hanging out with various drinking buddies, dodging landlords, spending not much time with his wife, courting various other women because there’s no responsibility with them.  His parents are on the wife’s side, and try to help out her and their granddaughter as best they can, but they’re not characters in the novel; we don’t hear Sebastian so much as make a phone call to them.  There seems to be a significant break in things when Sebastian’s father dies—will the Ginger Man suddenly become rich?—but that turns out to be a false alarm.  The old man was too smart for him.

Then something happens at the end that makes everything seem to come out right (not his marriage; that’s long been forgotten); Sebastian winds up in London with a drinking friend who has struck it rich to the extent that he’s willing to bankroll all his old buddies, with no apparent end to the largesse.  The fact that this event is unexplained and seems utterly unbelievable doesn’t seem to matter.  The truth is that we all at some point knew a grad student from hell, the guy who gave in to all his anxieties and stayed drunk all the time, and we don’t want him to recover.  This isn’t the guy who goes to AA and gives up smoking and takes up jogging and becomes a brilliant trial lawyer; this is the guy who we see sitting in the same bar twenty years later.  Somehow we don’t want him to change.  We want him forever heading home from the party, his fingers deep brown with nicotine stains, head hazy from booze, stumbling back to the little flat where no woman can live with him for long, musing to himself as he does.

“ . . . Back to the Bovir Road and up the stairs.  Where I always feel I’m going to get a bust in the head from some prowler.  Violence is forever on my mind.  Get the key in this damned evasive hole.  I’ll run the hot water for a cheap sense of warmth and cheer the room a bit with some steam.  A shilling in the meter for sure.  Little comforts, little joys.  Pull back the bedspread, expose the sheets.  And tuck my pillow up and lay me quietly there, ready for the white sky.”

There’s a hangover on the horizon.  That day and every day thereafter.

The Father and I Are One

A Buddhist Reads the Bible (and Finds the Buddha): The Gospel of John

 One of the more interesting reactions to my piece on Jesus the Jew was from my brother Bill, a scholar of languages and the Bible who reads in both Greek and Hebrew.  He said that the Synoptic Gospels were about the Galilean Jesus, but the Gospel of John is about the Jerusalem Jesus, a distinction which I must admit I had never heard.  Vermes’ whole point in Jesus the Jew was that Jesus was from Galilee and behaving like a Galilean Hasid; a lot of what he taught made perfect sense in that context.  I don’t know that Vermes didn’t talk about the Gospel of John at all, but he didn’t talk about it much.

I had thought John would be the final Gospel I would look at; my impression was that it was written in a different context, from the standpoint of the absolute rather than the historical, with its mystical opening from before time began.  John is of course the site of the famous verse which every evangelical quotes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,”[1] a simple and direct statement for a fundamentalist but deeply puzzling for the rest of us.  It is also the site—perhaps not the only one—of the statement “The Father and I are one,” words which the Zen teacher Joko Beck once said express the true message of all religions.[2]

We’ll leave aside for a moment the idea of God’s “only Son,”[3] a concept which I dealt with to some extent in my last piece.  But I asked Bill about that word “believe,” which has always been a bugaboo for me.  Bill, who wrote a book with his primary mentor on this subject, as I did with my primary mentor, says that in Greek the word doesn’t have the connotation of assenting to some set of propositions, but means something more like trusting, “an attitude of trust and existential commitment.”  For me that suggests trust in the nature of things, with which Jesus is at one.  According to Bill, Jesus was saying something more like “come along and start to see,” rather than “believe this stuff or you’re out.”  And being saved by faith, according to Bill’s mentor, is not the believer having faith in Jesus, but the world being saved by Jesus’ own faithfulness.  That turns the whole concept on its ear.

Bill said that there are those, including John A.T. Robinson—author of the famous book Honest to God—who believe that John was the first Gospel, rather than Mark.  Bill also spoke on the question of historicity.  “Historians (as opposed to Biblical scholars) seem to agree that most famous speeches handed down from antiquity were a mix of memory of what someone like Pericles or Jesus said and the art of the historian. [Jesus’ followers] didn’t have Bic pens and notepads ready to take down the exact words—although ancient aural memory was good at preserving some of these and passing them along even for generations. Thus to say that the 4th evangelist reflects the way Jesus spoke is not to say that he is transcribing from a tape recorder.”  Bill’s final statement really fascinated me.  “I’m interested in the Gospel of John because it is one religious genius writing about another religious genius.”

All of these things made me want to give this Gospel another look, after 40 years, or whatever it’s been.

 

The first thing you notice about John is that its tone is different from that of the other Gospels.  Whereas Mark seems to be a historical account, John opens with a mystical prologue that tells the whole story in a nutshell, and states its point of view from the outset.  The first eighteen verses are all part of that, one statement after another that bowls you over and that, for any religious person, from any faith tradition—I would almost say even for an irreligious person—has a ring of truth.  Take verses 9-13, for instance, which seem to sum up the continuing story of the human race.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.”[4]

That sense of people not accepting the fundamental nature of things, not accepting the person who is at one with it, seems hard to deny.

The other thing you notice immediately about John is that the writer is more of a dramatist, or a narrative writer, than the other Gospel writers.  Mark often seems fragmentary, the bare bones of the story, but John soon settles into longer scenes, like the long early conversation with Nicodemus, or the one with the woman at the well.  Jesus seems remarkable in this Gospel not because of healing and casting out of demons, but because of what he knows and the way he speaks in memorable aphoristic teachings (I would guess that more famous verses come from John than from any other Gospel).  I was surprised in Mark that Jesus didn’t teach much in the early chapters, but in two successive conversations in John he says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” to Nicodemus, and to the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Jesus in all the Gospels—and the Judeo-Christian tradition in general—chooses to anthropomorphize God, speaking of him as a father.  For me that creates as many problems as it solves.  I prefer the way Taoism addresses this mystery—“There was something vague before heaven and earth arose.  How calm!  How void!  It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring . . . I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao”—or various Buddhist writers, as in the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, “Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.  Just to depict it in literary form is to stain it with defilement,” or the Song of the Grass Roof Hut, “The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.”  When I think of God less as a person and more as the vast inconceivable source, or the way, much of the Gospel begins to makes sense.

What if, for instance, as Margaret Ne-Eka Barragato suggests in a marvelous piece she wrote about Buddhism and rebirth, “born from above” (what used to be translated as “born again”) refers to an enlightenment experience, and the kingdom of God is what Buddhists think of as suchness, or what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is”?    “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. . . . The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or what it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”  If the word “believe” suggests something more like “trust,” believing in the son is something more like entrusting yourself to the way of things.  An apocalyptic sounding statement like “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” could be saying something more mundane, like what Dogen says in the Fukanzazengi—“If there is the slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion,” or again, the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, “Move and you are trapped; miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.”  Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima taught that zazen produces what he called “the balanced state”; when someone asked him once about heaven and hell in Buddhism, he said heaven is when you’re in the balanced state; hell is when you’re not.

If Jesus is talking about being at one with the way of things, in the same way the Buddha was, then sentence after sentence makes sense, and the aphoristic expressions keep piling up.

“I can do nothing on my own.”

“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

“I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

“Before Abraham was, I am.”[5]

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

The words become more poignant and more pointed as his death approaches.

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

No doubt it will seem to some people that I am trying to make a connection where none exists, trying to bring people together who have no wish to be together.  I actually don’t care about any of that.  But from the time I stared meditating I began to see the truths of Christianity in a new way, and at this point in my practice, the religious traditions I know all  seem to be pointing to the same fundamental truth.  It seems obvious that they do.  I can’t understand why they quarrel.

What Joko Beck said on that Zen Calendar seems truer to me than ever.

[1] That verse, or at least the citation of it, should be familiar to every baseball fan, because there used to be some guy with a sign that said John 3:16 who was sitting at every important baseball game.  Sometimes he had tickets behind the plate during a World Series or playoff game.  Don’t know how he got those tickets.

[2] I’m afraid I don’t have a citation on that.  I read it on a daily Zen calendar at my yoga center.

[3] I find that expression especially puzzling because Jesus will soon speak of us as becoming children of God.

[4] So there.  We can all become children of God

[5] Walt Whitman, in a way, said the same thing.  “Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,/ I wait unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,/ And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.”

The Whiteness of the Whale

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Library of America.  638 pp.

I’ve recently expressed my admiration for the Library of America and its beautiful editions, but I was disappointed by the Melville Chronology in this volume, which seemed positively paltry.  Elmore Leonard gets 27 pages and Herman Melville gets five?  My brother tells me there’s a famous two-volume Melville biography that includes almost a day-by-day account of his life, so it isn’t as if the material isn’t available.  I would love to have seen one of the mini-biographies the LOA usually provides.

But even the sketchy details of this Chronology reveal the astonishing fact that this 32 year old author had published Typee in 1846, Omoo in ’47, Mardi and Redburn in ’49, White Jacket in 1850, and the 638 page world masterpiece Moby Dick —which was ignored for many years and almost entirely lost to world literature—in 1851, suggesting a pace of about a book per year (in the meantime he had published some shorter pieces, including the essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” and actually met Hawthorne, at a picnic near Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  Ah, the informality of the 19th century literary life.  Do we know of any other great authors who met at a picnic?).

What is astonishing about this book even at a third or fourth reading (though it’s been over forty years) is the sheer beauty of the sentences, and the magnificence of the style.  Melville was writing one of those 19th century Everything books—Walden is another example, and Leaves of Grass—where he seemed to want to put all he knew between two covers, at least everything about whaling and the sea, and he was apparently composing at a furious rate, but the sentences are uniformly good, and sometimes magnificent.  He created a kind of Ship of Fools, with sailors from every corner of the globe, put an obsessed madman at the helm, and set them off in search of the Great White Whale, an allegorical quest if there ever was one.

As a reader who has recently professed admiration for the clean lean plotting of Elmore Leonard, I will confess to moments of impatience when Melville gives yet another chapter to trivialities of Cetology, however interesting they might be.  It isn’t that the expository sections aren’t good; it’s that the dramatic sections are so much more compelling.  Novels like Melville’s are a different way of thinking about books, about life, than our jagged, what’s-the-latest-on-my-I-phone experience these days.  It’s blasphemous to suggest it, but I wonder what the reading experience would be if someone took just the narrative chapters of Moby Dick and strung them together into a leaner tighter story.  The resulting book might be Faulknerian in its pace and tension.

I’ve always thought that Ahab’s real problem was not just his previous encounters with the white whale, not the fact that it had taken off his leg, not the way their fates seem weirdly intertwined, so that even if he had retired and stayed on land with his wife and young son Moby Dick would somehow have shown up, but the sheer irrationality of it all, the absurdity of the whole experience (and if you had to find one word to describe the magnificent final scene, when the sealed coffin pops out of the maelstrom to save only Ishamael, absurd certainly comes to mind).  One thing about nineteenth century literature (or the earlier British literature that seems to have been Melville’s model; he is said to have based his style on that of the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne) is that it has a tidy world view, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or at least it all makes sense, people are punished and rewarded according to their deserts.

Melville railed against that, against even the tidier allegories of Hawthorne, who was obviously a mentor for him.  He was getting at the fact that it all doesn’t finally make sense, the center does not hold, you don’t know what’s going to happen and the good guy sure as hell doesn’t always win.  Not that Ahab was exactly a good guy.  But the terrifying blankness of the white whale is what really seems to obsess Melville, just as the blankness of a wall would later obsess Bartleby, in a much tamer but in some ways weirder story.  Melville never stopped seeing that blank void.

I can still remember the first time I read the novel, finishing it late one night on the porch of the Lafayette Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, and walking out on the boardwalk to listen to the dark sea crashing against the beach, then a few years later the second time, in a class with the great English professor Buford Jones, who taught us what allegory was and how important it was to American literature as a whole, even to later writers like Henry James and Faulkner who were much different from these early allegorists but nevertheless influenced by them.  A great novel is a different book every time you read it.  I thought of Melville when I was in college as an old bearded guy, but this seems the work of a brilliant young man.

They Couldn’t Just Run Off in Her Prius?

Victoria and Abdul a film by Stephen Frears.  With Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard.  ***

I found this movie captivating.  The story of an unlikely friendship between an aging Queen Victoria (Judy Dench) and an Indian servant named Abdul (Ali Fayal), it shows the lonely old woman—who has let herself go to the extent that she has utterly forgotten her table manners; watching her eat at a ceremonial dinner is like watching a two-year-old—first falling for his looks and the way he smiled at her, though he wasn’t supposed to make eye contact; then being charmed as she misinterpreted some things he said to her and assumed he was an artist (actually, he was a clerk at a prison); taking him as a religion teacher when he told her he had memorized the Quran; actually taking Urdu lessons and becoming an apt pupil; seeming jealous at first when she heard he had a wife, then welcoming the wife and her mother to the royal palace; defending him to her retinue when they complained at the ascension of this colored person; facing down a real mutiny of her staff that bordered on treason; asking for Abdul on her death bed; finally resigning herself to death when he recited Rumi to her.  It was a warm, funny, heart-warming story, perfect in this age of raging conflict over immigration.

The problem was I didn’t believe it.

“When did it say they found Abdul’s diaries?” I said to my wife after that flashed on the screen at the end.  I was trying to take all the information in.

“2010,” she said.[1]

2010!  For a story that began in the late nineteenth century?  And the whole thing was pieced together from the man’s own account?  The book that told this heart-warming story was reviewed in the Times Book Review this past Sunday?  How did it get to the multiplex so fast?

I think Victoria and Abdul officially qualifies as an oldster movie, a category which I’ve been neglecting lately but which made a strong comeback in this this movie.  (Full Disclosure: the man who created this category is 69 years old himself.)  The small theater was practically sold out for our showing, with what seemed to be a group from an assisted living facility; the ongoing banter during the previews was deafening, and I was thankful that it quieted down for the feature, because I didn’t see how I could go from row to row and quiet this rowdy crowd (wasn’t sure they’d be able to hear me).  Victoria’s meals alone were a kind of porn for them, the way she tore into some kind of fowl at her dinner, splitting it apart with her hands, the way she dove into the profiteroles even though they were the sixth course (calories be damned.  Hell, they probably hadn’t even invented calories in Victoria’s day).  But then to have this sweet handsome young man actually wait on her, kneeling to kiss her foot (after he had brought her a weird wobbly gelatin concoction).  It was an old woman’s dream.

But then she wakes up.

I suppose it’s possible that an elderly Queen Victoria struck up a friendship with a servant, even someone so unusual as an Indian servant (she was, at the time, Empress of India).  It’s possible she took an interest in him, and maybe got interested in his culture, and even his language.  But she maintained her interest even when he told her he was married, and she not only insisted her fetch his wife, but gave the two of them their own cottage?  When he lied to her about a mutiny in India, telling her it was the Hindus who revolted, rather than the Muslims?  When a doctor discovered that the reason he hadn’t had any children was that he was riddled with gonorrhea (how did this devout Muslim, married to this sweet plump young woman with a major nose ring, come down with the clap?)?

There has to be a moment when you say No, this movie is superimposing 21st century sensibilities on a 19th century situation, Judy Dench is a great human being and I’m sure this is exactly how she feels, but Queen Victoria?  Really?  She saw no contradiction in the fact that she was the Empress of India, and was occupying Abdul’s country?

There must be a moment for everyone when it all becomes too much.  That happened much earlier for my wife that it did for me.  But even if you’re totally caught up, when the man was allowed to be alone with the Queen of England on her deathbed, and quoted Rumi to her, you’ve got to say, Whoa.  I think he had a small pony tail, but where was his craft beer?  And why didn’t he credit Coleman Barks?

There is one character who seems in touch with reality, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), Abdul’s Indian sidekick, who sees the way he’s currying favor and hates the hypocrisy of the whole situation.  There’s a scene where the authorities—including the future King—try to get him to turn on his friend, and he tells them off in a particularly brutal fashion.  I’m sure that scene could no more have happened than a number of others.  But it was a nice counterpoint to the huggy kissy situation all around it.

This ranks high as an oldster movie.  But it should be filed under Fairy Tales.

[1] She’s no longer sure of that year.

Hasid from Galilee

Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels by Geza Vermes.  Fortress Press.  286 pp. ***1/2

“Your God was a jew.  Christ was a jew like me.”  –Leopold Bloom to a group of hecklers, in Ulysses.

This book is another suggestion from my friend Laurie, the mysterious woman from New Zealand who wrote a number of fascinating reviews on Amazon in 2008 then disappeared from view.  About Jesus the Jew she says, “Nobody who hasn’t read it should utter even a single sentence containing the word ‘Jesus’.”  I wouldn’t go quite that far (the woman tends to go over the top).  But it’s a compelling book.

About Jesus, Martin Buber said, “We Jews know him in a way—in the impulses and emotions of his essential Jewishness—that remains inaccessible to the Gentiles subject to him.”  (That’s an interesting phrase, “subject to him.”)  Before Jesus became the focus of a huge world religion, he was a wandering teacher and healer.  Vermes thinks he fit firmly into a tradition, that of a Galilean Hasid, or holy man.

Vermes doesn’t hazard a guess at his appearance, but the great Guy Davenport, in his book The Logia of Yeshua (a translation of the sayings of this wandering teacher) did.  “The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman’s hair, neat beard, and flowing robes.  History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard.  A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler’s hat, a caftan, or coat.  His sandals are mentioned by Yohannan.”

Vermes devotes much of the early book to the fact that Jesus was a Galilean.  Galilee was surrounded on all sides by other peoples and separated from Judea.  It was a kind of isolated outpost.  Political radicalism was common there, so that when Jesus later came up for trial among the Romans, the fact that he was a Galilean was a strike against him (although one person said, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?”).  Galilee was a rural area of small towns, so Jesus’ imagery tends to be pastoral (“Consider the lilies of the field”), and when he went to Jerusalem later he was like a rube going to the big city.  Similarly, Galileans tended to be less learned and less “people of the book,” so devoted to the Torah that they ignored human feeling.  They were more likely to be intuitive teachers rather than great scholars.  It was characteristic of a Galilean Hasid that he would heal people on the Sabbath rather than being strict about the law.  Taking care of human beings was more important than rigidly following some code.

One thing that struck me when I recently reread the Gospel of Mark was how much of the early part of it was devoted to healing, not teaching.  According to Vermes, most diseases, if not all, were considered the work of demons—what we might call psychosomatic illness today—so a great deal of Jesus’ healing involved speaking directly to demons, ordering them out of a person’s body or telling them to quit tormenting this person.  Jesus reserved hands-on healing for illnesses that were strictly physical, like blindness or deafness, and he used saliva as a healing aid.  It was believed to have medicinal properties.[1]  But the wandering healer, casting out demons and healing in other ways, was not unheard of in Jesus’ day.  And there are instances of other healers doing all the things that he did, including—in the Old Testament—Elisha and Elijah raising people from the dead.

Vermes devotes over half of his book to the various designations that people applied to Jesus: prophet, lord, messiah, son of man, son of God.  He places all of these terms within the Jewish tradition, and mentions places where other men were called the same things.  This is not the most exciting part of the book, but Vermes does the work of a historian, methodically making his case.  The word messiah, for instance, meant many things to many different people; Vermes names a number of possibilities, several of which involved the messiah being a military or political figure.  People weren’t expecting a person like Jesus, with his kind of message (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).

Vermes feels—as most scholars do—that Mark is the most historically reliable Gospel, and that some of the stories in Matthew and Luke, especially the birth narratives, were invented by the writers.  It was common in ancient times to attribute virgin birth to a remarkable individual, and of course Matthew tries to have it both ways, saying that Jesus was born of a Virgin but is descended from David through Joseph.  The birth stories seem to Vermes tacked on and obviously legendary.

That leads, of course, to the ultimate designation for Jesus, Son of God.  If we dismiss the Virgin birth—as Vermes does—the question is, what does that expression mean?  That was a koan for me when I was trying to practice Christianity; I couldn’t get my head around it.

That Jesus had a special relationship with God I have no doubt.  It seems to me to be the same relationship that all the great saints and mystics had, not just in Christianity but in all faiths.  Jesus was at one with God.  We are all, it seems to me, at one with God in reality, but we turn away from that fact, deny it, are afraid of it, do anything to get away from it.  We can’t really get away.  In Him we live and move and have our being, as Paul said.  If we realized that—by which I mean made it real—our lives would be much different.

Jesus did realize it, perhaps as no one else ever has.  His wish was for us to realize it too.

[1] My father was a dermatologist in the Pittsburgh of my youth.  We patronized a couple of Italian barbers named DeMaria, and they let my father know that, back in Italy, barbers were also doctors.  My father was very concerned with ringworm of the scalp, and would not let those barbers use clippers on my brother and me.  One time the elder barber—big Jerry—told him that back in Italy barbers treated ringworm with spit.