Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time. It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.
At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet) I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer. More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag. The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.
Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes. Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.
Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading. It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors. A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.
I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph. I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air. It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.
I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft. Wow. That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.
The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family. It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history). It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.
Those things are part of the back story. The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been. That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.
The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out. The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.
Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”. I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view). I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.
In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible. Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.
I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting. I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us  rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it. And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.
I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid. I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.
I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it. It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work. I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done. Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for. When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.
I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added). There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth. I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself. I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.
On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing. I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.
Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life. Fair enough. I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?
Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless. Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself. Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.
 The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier. Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :
I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.
I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about.
as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:
|Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]|
|Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]|