Sunday, March 09, 2014

sartring it all out

"Why are you always looking for meaning?"

A young friend posed the question.  We had been discussing film-making, and I had been going on and on about the subtext of the plot in one of Christopher Nolan's movies.

I don't think he meant the question in the same sense that Sartre would have asked the question of Malraux. "Why don't you just enjoy the experience?  Why are you always looking for meaning?"

I thought of that exchange yesterday while reading two books that have been on my reading pile since last October.  I had almost forgotten they were lurking in my Kindle.

The first was Anne Lamott's Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair.  It is a tiny book for what seems to be an immense philosophical topic.  Especially, if it is a handbook to the meaning of life

But she is not that type of author.  Even though she is an essayist, she writes as a poet.  And because she is a poet, she tells her truths through stories.  Her experiences.  Or experiences of people she knows.

In my conversation on why I look for meaning in movies, I told my friend that I watch movies and read books to discover more about the human condition.  To see the world through other people's eyes.  And to learn more about myself and what I believe -- often finding new ideas to make my own.

Anne Lamott answered the question in a similar vein.

Augustine's insight that to search for God is to have found God is deeply profound, because the belief we hold in the existence of another world opens space within us, and around us, which creates a more radiant reality.
She uses the analogy of stitches.  The process of darning to pull life together through bad times by finding "one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch."  Sometimes, it means just being there as a truthful friend.  Or sharing the experience of friends who have survived through travail.

That is why she is a poet.  In the tradition of the bards who sat around the campfires in the germanic forests.  Speaking Truth through tales.

But she was not alone yesterday morning.  After I finished Stitches, I opened up Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems -- Billy Collins's latest publication.

Collins, of course, is a poet.  Perhaps one of the best living American poets.  Not only because his poems are good.  Very Good.  But because they are readily accessible to the lay reader.  I think of him as a contemporary Robert Frost -- with a better sense of humor.

Initially, I was a bit put off by the book.  And that was my own fault.

I know what "selected poems" means in a title.  It means that published poems have been re-cycled to garner a bit more revenue.  To fill out a tome of new poems that would not otherwise constitute a full book.

It turns out that I was too rough on myself.  Even though I had read all of the selected poems in his other books, I found myself enjoying them.

I should not be surprised.  The nature of poetry invites re-reading.  Good poets know how to conserve words -- to hide both text and sub-text amongst a few well-chosen images.

And, as I have already told you, Billy Collins is a good poet.

I also had a good lesson in accessibility as I was reading in the bathtub yesterday.  And up popped "Royal Aristocrat" that found meaning in my soul -- because it was deep calling to deep.

For the past two or three months, I have been struggling to produce essays for this blog.  I always write something.  But almost all of it is something a bit less than what I would have liked.

And I think I know why.  I may have stopped searching for meaning in my own writing.  In one small poem and in one small book, I have a better idea of where I should be headed on these pages.

I will leave you with Billy Collins.  If you would like a good chat on such small matters as the meaning of life, you might invite Anne Lamott and Billy Collins into your house for lunch or tea.  You will be better for it.  

Royal Aristocrat

My old typewriter used to make so much noise
I had to put a cushion of newspaper
beneath it late at night
so as not to wake the whole house.

Even if I closed the study door
and typed a few words at a time

the best way to work anyway

the clatter of keys was still so loud

That the grey and yellow bird
would wince in its cage.
Some nights I could even see the moon
frowning down through the winter trees.

That was twenty years ago,
yet as I write this with my soft lead pencil
I can still hear that distinctive sound
like small arms fire across a border,

one burst after another
as my wife turned in her sleep.
I was a single monkey
trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet,

often doing nothing more
than ironing pieces of paper in the platen
then wrinkling them into balls
to flick into the wicker basket.

Still, at least I was making noise,
adding to the great secretarial din,
that chorus of clacking and bells,
thousands of desks receding into the past.

And that was more than can be said
for the mute room of furniture,
the speechless salt and pepper shakers,
and the tall silent hedges surrounding the house.

Such deep silence on those nights

just the sound of my typing
and a few stars singing a song their mother

sang when they were mere babies in the sky.

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