The Arbitrariness of Life
I am not convinced that it is easy to be who we really are. Our identity scripts seem to have already been written, or are being written, by forces over which we don’t have much control.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever chosen their parents or the color of their eyes inside the womb. And no one would argue with the reality that if someone were born in a New York City condo, they have a better chance of entering Harvard or Yale than someone born in poverty.
And who can say, in middle age, they would have actually gotten married? If the answer is “yes,” who can say they know, for sure, that would be the right answer for them now? And, knowing what I now know, would I marry the person I did when I was in my twenties.
Daily Rituals and Real Intent
On a more general level, how do I know who the real me is?
I get up in the morning, take my meds, go to the bathroom, put the coffee on, cut a banana in a bowl, scan the cereals on top of the refrigerator, choose one that appeals to me that morning and pour my choice into the bowl with the cut-up banana.
That’s my morning ritual. But is that the authentic me?
I can’t do the process of elimination here. My ritual, after all, emanates from no one else but me. Its genuineness can’t be questioned, unless, of course, I wake up resenting it.
Ah, resenting it. There’s the rub.
What if I decided, one morning, that I really don’t like eating breakfast by myself, that I feel the full weight of my aloneness when I first wake up. Or that I’ve really not been true to my feelings of loneliness because I’m too afraid to admit that I don’t have the inner strength to be by myself?
This domestic narrative tells me something: I can exist on two levels.
There’s a repeated action, like washing the car, taking a shower, preparing dinner, driving to work on the Interstate. These repeated actions have a kind of inner strength to survive on their own momentum and energy. And each of these actions contain smaller actions, one leading to another, until they accumulate to a completed act.
And then there’s another kind of inner energy that accompanies these actions. Let’s give them several names: contentment, anger, resentment, frenzy, groundedness, even neutrality.
If I’m feeling content or even neutral in performing my morning ritual, I don’t question the habit I’ve developed. But if I wake up with anxiety about my ritual, maybe, just maybe, I’m in denial about its efficacy.
Maybe I really want to go out for breakfast. Maybe I really want to hang out with people in the morning. Maybe, I’m lonely. But the ritual of eating alone in the morning keeps me tied to a false self, one that is denial of his need to be with others, to be in some kind of community, not to isolate.
Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.
Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.
I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).
Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.
Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings
Two things struck me about this intimate film.
For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.
Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.
The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.
Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).
And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).
I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.
The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.
To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.
Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.
Moksha is a Hindu word meaning “liberation” or “release.” I thought it appropriate for a poem about an older woman looking for a job. I don’t know about your town, but in my town, ageism is alive and well.
Looking out the bedroom window
At the breeze exhaling
Its frantic breath
Through backyard trees,
Leaves, like nervous
Bristles on a paint brush,
In a mad rush to finish
Another clumsy scene,
A cradle’s fast rocking
To the aching pulse of
Of Irene’s second month
The restlessness of
Nothing to do,
Her mind rambling
Through stammering resentments
Of being too old,
Age arriving without warning
Or a reservation,
Legs hesitant to finish a stride,
Release denied, payments overdue,
The sun descending into
A crying child’s surrender
To reluctant dreams.
She had nothing more to say to him,
Or, so she thought.
A final soliloquy to decorate
The last exit?
A tired spring blossoming,
Ripped of its energy
By a fierce, aging winter
With its suffocating folds of snow
Matched the weakness of her resolve
To say one last goodbye.
Departures, she finally decided,
Better left to silence,
Avoiding the ache of closure
That never arrives
With the last word.
Grace, a gift the unworthy
From an unknown lover,
Bartering as young gods always do
For more than respect,
Rejecting the cordiality
Of statesmen and underpaid doormen.
Who is this gift-giver, this once bronze god
Fermented into an old man’s unsteadiness,
Weak ankles, aching knee-caps, a lazy mouth?
Generosity cannot shuttle out of the arms
Of aging gods smoking cigars, one unsteady hand
Guiding a wheeled walker through the halls
Of the soundless stalks of the unrepentant.
He was blind, his eyes suffocated
In his grief, imagining,
His body’s stark opposition to
The innocent flow
Of children in bow ties
And full pink skirts,
Or an aging oak’s
Craggy shreds of skin
Once seen by the
Boy he used to be,
Eyes wide open,
An orgy of sun
His pupils knew
Could not absorb.
But now, in old age,
His eyes cannot remember
What they saw yesterday,
Austere, naked emptiness,
Burglarized by time,
Bargaining with his body
To hear more than
He could endure
Actor you’ve always been,
Wheel-chairing your way
Into your impoverished look,
Pants, with empty pockets,
Thin, liver-spotted hands,
Dry feet, hair, coarse
As a horse rope,
Eyes duller than
A kitchen knife.
You will recall
The stone bridge
Over the village creek
Where I chose
To feel the fever
You said started
As soon as you
Walked out the door
Of your summer cottage
To meet me.
“It was never enough,
Like a bowl full of fruit,
When all the kids were home,”
But I never told you
It was sufficient,
Like today, when
I made another choice
To see you briefly
And leave you
To over-smiling nurses
And the sad odor of urine.
He’s done this before on his methodical days,
Pills aligned on the cupboard,
Morning talk shows, the chattering bells
Of actors hawking one more film
Over toast and curled eggs.
What had he forgotten, again,
In the hollow cave of his dreams?
The rent, the electric, cable?
No, something else, a sliver event
Impaled in his memory.
No, that was in January,
The fifteenth, to be exact,
When he ran out of toilet paper
And Miracle Whip.
Maybe Margret, inevitable Margret,
Who lived downstairs and showered
Every day at five-thirty in the morning,
Returning for a guest visit at eight,
To wander through her forgotten crevices
And turtle-shell toe nails.
Margret. Damn. Margret.
What was it? A movie? Lunch?
He paused. Now he remembered.
Vomiting Margret, sun-bald,
Pencil-thin, frail as his mother’s voice,
In her cabaret wig and slim high heels.
He tied his shoes.
On hospital gurneys,
Fear in the air,
With outspread wings,
The willing sky,
Its startled prey
A skin-soft lover,
Aching, in real time,
To be fondled,
Into sweet surrender.
How should I react to those, I believe, don’t like me? Especially, the corporate, four-testicle, country-club guys who love to be master of their fates and everybody else’s?
I read, today, Pema Chödrön’s phrase, “the sweet spot,” giving me some clue about the need to live on the mountain of kindness, no matter how craggy. Maybe even to accept my enemy’s perception of me as too cocky, too self-assured, too sarcastic, too intellectual.
Where can I retrieve that soft spot from when I feel judged? Too often, I pull back. I start to invent an image of my enemy as a cold, detached, cruelly confident man, who beats his wife; says “fuck off” to his kids at least once a day; argues with a Mercedes Benz salesman to include, in the base price of his new car, a flat screen on the backs of the driver and passenger seats. As an added resentment, I will probably hold him responsible for the 2008 Great Recession. Continue reading