A throng of us was approaching the corner of Battery and Bush when I saw a man who was upside-down. This didnít seem at all strange to me. The man was standing on his head on the busy street corner surrounded by us - the suits and cellphone set. The light was against us so we waited for it to change. The upside-down man, I noticed, was not resting the entire weight of his upended body on the pavement, on his head, but was resting his head on a sort of plate or dish that has a narrow base or foot. It was clearly a device of his own making. The crown of his head fit perfectly into the cup of this wooden stand.
I stood less than six inches from him. He had before him a clear plastic cup with money in it. One of his legs was folded, his knee bent and crossed over his other leg, like some sort of yogi or mystic, as I have imagined so often in my fantasies of India. We made eye contact. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot and very wet. I could see the struggle in him, the effort it required to maintain a stable posture, upside-down, on a busy street corner, with traffic quite literally inches away from him. He looked at me and I at him. In that moment we had met.
I spoke. I said: If I had any money on me Iíd drop it in your cup. He smiled. He said: Thatís alright. We have this. We have this connection. Then I said something I still cannot explain. I said: If I could, Iíd make myself small and jump into your cup. I have no idea why I said that or where it came from. But the upside-down man, whoever he was, smiled again. He looked at me. He looked at me with the eyes of knowing, a look you can only feel from strangers who are not strangers at all but who you have somehow always been known. He said to me: Youíre already there. Youíre already in my cup.
This transaction (and I consider it a transaction because an exchange occurred, an exchange of love) lasted no more than 30 seconds. The amount of time it takes to deliver to me an advertisement for a brand of soup. Yet, it stayed with me. The upside-down man and his cup.
On Sunday morning I went owl-hunting. I needed an owl. There is really no way you can understand this. My need for an owl. Upon the advice of a dear yet very new friend, I took a solo hike into Tennessee Valley in Marin.
It was a cold and gray morning but that meant that the trail would be quiet and empty. Armed with my Moleskine notebook, a pocket volume of collected Rilke writings and a digital recorder, I set off to find my owl, and then, to the sea.
As is usually the case, an unexpected chain of events led me to my quarry. I saw a deer. It was a lone doe, feeding on a ridge above the main trail. I left the fire road and followed her up a steep trail. In the distance, hidden behind a large Monterey Cypress, I saw a boulder that was completely ensconced in an ancient tree stump. I moved toward this stump, knowing that I must see it, touch it, photograph it. I was walking carefully through the thick undergrowth when I spied the remnants of what appeared to be a large lozenge of hair on the ground. An owl pellet. I knelt in the dried grass. I pushed the pellet with a twig and it fell apart, revealing its treasure of tiny bones. I soon found more pellets. I looked up an discovered I was directly under a cypress tree. Horned owls love Monterey Cypress trees.
I promised myself that once I was done exploring my old stump, Iíd go back to the tree to look for the owl.I photographed my stump. It was beautiful. About as big as a hot tub and completely hollow. Then I went back to the tree. I looked through the grass and found more pellets and also a large guano spatter pattern. The owl spent a lot of time above this spot. If I was lucky heíd be there now. I stepped back a few yards and looked up. There he was. A Great Horned Owl. My heart jumped. It would be difficult to describe to you what owls mean to me. They are my spirit guides. My totem animal. And when I see one I am usually at some kind of crossroads in my life. It had been over a year since I last saw one in the wild and I am indeed at a major crossroads.
I photographed the owl and I spoke to it. I will not tell you what I said. That was between myself and the owl. But Iíll give you a hint. What I say to owls is similar what I say to God. Help me. Grant my strength. And since I am lacking in what the owl has an abundance of, namely sight and hearing, I ask for a little of that too.
I left the owl and walked to the sea. The rhythmic crashing of the ocean resets my soul-clock. I just need to be near it. 15 minutes by the waterís edge does more for me than any therapy session. Hawks, vultures, a rabbit, the owl. I found a tree branch where a buck had been rubbing its antlers. I spoke to a raven. And I read from Rilke to the very sea itself. Rilke. How can I explain how this man and his hundred-year-old words has saved me? Time and time again.
I think about the upside-down man and how he invited me to enter his little cup. I think about how I have been an upside-down man. I think about the owl and the hare and the raven and the deer. God is everywhere and in every thing. And He is not a silent God. It is I who can so often be deaf. Blind. Noisy. Be like the owl, He tells me. And go quiet into your night.
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The lake in the morning. It, too, emits a wispy, visible breath. My father is busy with rigging fishing rods and preparing the canoe. He does not see his own reflection in the mirror of the lake. He does not see the tall black pines that are mirrored in the lake. It is so quiet that I can hear the sound of enamelware cups rattling at the cabin a mile away across on the other side.
The harbor in the morning. We wake to the sound of shrouds rapping against a forest of aluminum masts. My father slides open the hatch cover. A cool air rushes in and I can smell the salt marsh and the pungent gray tidal flats. My father is making coffee and of course heís smoking his pipe.
I am the son of the morning. I was raised in a soft, golden light. I became familiar with the stillness and the quiet hush of each dayís newness. Far away crows. A dog barking somewhere distant. Empty streets. Newspaper trucks. Old men buying racing forms and poppy-seed rolls. The cool earth, fresh from its dark night slumber. I am almost alone, here. I am almost the only boy living. I am almost primitive in my relationship to light.
It is the light that is the magic of the morning. My body feeds off light because my body is composed of light. I do not like the darkness. The night saps what the morning brings. If I had my choice Iíd be asleep an hour after sunset and up an hour before the dawn.
I loved to work on the water. When I was 16 I had the best job I ever had in my life. I was a launch driver at a yacht club on the north shore of Long Island. I ferried wealthy men and their families to and from their moorings in a 30í diesel launch. I spent 12-14 hours a day in a boat on the water. I woke before dawn and prepared the boat for the dayís work ahead. I raised the American flag and the club burgee up the flag pole and at dusk I fired the gun and took them down. I wore a uniform. I carried a radio. There were times I worked the graveyard shift. But there was something beautiful about being out there in the morning.
If the day was going to be very hot the surface of the water would be as clear and still as resin. You could smell the creosote warming on the docks. The air was filled with sounds I can never forget. The wooden docks would creak. The water lapped gently against them. The steel shrouds of sailboats rattled and clanged against their masts. The launch itself in its throaty diesel chug. If I could have this job again I believe I would pay for the privilege.
Now it is Sunday morning. It is the best of the seven. The preceding week leads up to this. And itís worth it. John Coltrane on the iPod. A good cup of tea. Nothing spread before me but a book and a day filled with sunshine. Promises. Thatís what mornings are. Beautiful, golden promises. And now I will go off to enjoy the rest of this one.
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Robert Louis Stevenson
To be honest, to be kind,
To earn a little, to spend a little less,
To make upon the whole a family happier
for his presence,
To renounce when that shall be necessary
and not be embittered,
To keep a few friends, but those without
above all on some grim condition
to keep friends with himself,
Here is a task for all that man has of fortitude and delicacy.
My pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square began on a whim. It is close to my office and I walked to it with one of my small Moleskine notebooks and a pen. I had been to Portsmouth Square before, but had mot lingered, and had not known about the monument, which is hidden off in the northwest corner. The park at 1:30 in the afternoon was filled with Chinese men clustered into groups of five, seven, all playing some sort of raucous card game I had never seen before. There were hundreds of men, and some women, playing this card game, on benches, on tables, on the ground, on low walls and each on a flattened piece of cardboard. There was much laughter and shouting and endless conversation, all in Chinese, and the air was filled with these human vocalizations, these guttural sing-song sounds, mostly elderly, retired, happy, excited, living mouths, the very air a cacophony of voices, voices wavering in pitch and in tone, a chorus of the living, so close to dying, but in this moment full of their youth. I could see their joking and jibing, their inner personal, and inter-personal, knowledge of each other. Friendships, long held, playful rivalries, mock taunts, the Chinatown elders engaged in play, smiling their big-toothed smiles, smoking their long cigarettes, seated upon boxes and crates, their hands waving away the flies and the smoke, waving off bluffs, waving stretched hands with their stretched speckled skin.
And I was almost one of them. I sat cross-legged, my back against the Robert Louis Stevenson monument, and I watched them play and shout. I listened to their speech, I tried to recognized words, I tried to hear in them what I hear in all voices Ė song, a living music, hearts and minds rendered true in breath and throats and teeth and tongue. People speaking. Speech. A certain variety of speech, that is unaware of itself, unafraid, unguarded, free-flowing, unchecked. It was the easy cross-talk of a community of friends, and that it was in another language, a language wholly indecipherable to me, that allowed me to hear it as a whole body, like listening to the sound of a river moving fast over rocks of many different shapes and sizes.
I ooked around, to see them talking and to sometimes isolate the sound of one voice, to find the source of one particular laugh or shout, so that the soundscape shifted, and when I turned my head a little, changed in pitch. I would hear that voice, and see the old leather face where it came from, the laughing eyes and then another, not far away, another voice from some other man or woman, exclaiming some truth, some recollection, some expression of what they knew in that moment, without being aware that it would not be remembered years from now, for none here had years left. They were all unaware and unconcerned that what they voiced only lived for a few sputtering moments, like some sulfurous particle aglow on its fading arc, falling from a fireworks display.
And I was happy to be among them, and I was happy to be alive, and human, for this was not babble. We need not know the meaning of the sounds that come from us if we are aware of us, if we are watching us. We are endowed with a much greater gift than that of voice, or articulation. Long before words passed through our lips we could read faces like a dog reads faces. We could read the language of bodies, like any enduring species of beast. We could see. We are creatures of sight. We are observers. Long before we could write, speak, or communicate clear thought formed as words and birthed as strings of words, we would watch for other signs, cruder, but perhaps truer symbols for what we wanted or what we felt.
And it struck me that language is not necessary. I sat there among the ethnic Chinese and understood that sound transcends speech, as music does, which is why a great symphony can convey more than a great novel, why a river can speak louder than a missalette. Sound. Voices. The ambiance of Portsmouth Square on a pleasant Thursday afternoon. This place. This moment. This place in history. I imagined it the day the United States claimed Alta California as its own with the booming sound of the USS Portsmouthís guns. I imagined it the day the cry of gold was first heard from the lips of Sam Brannan. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson sitting here on this very spot. What did he hear here? I donít know. I donít even know why I came. What drew me to this place is not what I expected, or what I discovered. And that is what adventure is all about. This is the meaning of the word journey, of the concept of embarkation. The destination unknown. The mystery of the never-before-seen and the impossible to foresee. You go to be gone. You leave to be left. You visit to be visited. On a true journey you surrender all your expectations but never your hope, that you will find that which you never even knew you were looking for but always wanted. That ineffable connection to all things living, to all life, to all men, from which we draw life. For it is through close proximity to living, loving, laughing others that we rediscover ourselves.
All roads lead back home. The heroís quest is circular. Wherever I go, there I am. And how fitting, that through Robert Louis Stevenson the adventure writer, I discover again the treasure of myself.
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I was invited by a friend, film producer and musician Mitch Stein, to attend a screening at the Rafael Film Center of a Russian movie called Come and See. Last night the Rafael kicked off its Films of My Life series with Sean Penn, who presented the movie and led a discussion at the end. I did not attend this event to see this film. I had never heard of it. I came to see Sean Penn, and to hopefully shove a small envelope into his hand that contained a DVD with a video of my book trailer and a personal pitch in which I speak directly to him, asking him to consider directing the screen adaptation of my novel, Serpent Box.
Selfish motives do not go unpunished (or unrewarded). For what transpired on that movie screen last night was, unequivocally, the most intense cinematic experience of my life; and I studied film and film theory in college. I have seen Kenneth Anger, and Luis Bunuel, and Maya Duren, David Lynch, Eisenstein, Fellini Ė I have seen some very powerful films. But Come and See, my God friends, this movie pulled my guts out from my rear end and stuffed them back in through my mouth.
Come and See is the story of a young Belorussian boy, maybe 14 years old, who idealistically leaves his rural village to fight the Nazis during WW II. But Red Badge of Courage this is not. Come and See is a stark visage of what war, and what evil, truly is, and it presents this truth, the transformative power that war and hatred has over an individual, as well as a population, in the most striking way I have ever witnessed on film.
Come and See is a sensory overload. Light, darkness, shadow, muted color. Sound, music, ambient noises, ear-splitting tones, dull islands of pure silence. You see and feel this film more viscerally than a great novel. In fact, in the hands of a filmmaker Elem Klimov, a film is more powerful and more present than a novel. The filmmakers here show an absolute mastery over every cinematic tool at their disposal. The acting (especially this little boy) is sublime. The editing is brilliant. The story itself, timeless, horrible, necessary. There is one riveting and unforgettable scene after another. It is a tour de force of sight, sound, smell, tactile sensations, tastes Ė ALL your senses are engaged. Come and See is a bleak heroís quest told through the eyes of a child who literally ages before your eyes. I will never forget this kidís face. I will never forget this film. As a complete film Ė story, acting, visuals, technique and emotional impact -it is the greatest movie I have ever seen.
Sean Penn gave this gift to me and I am now passing it on to you. I urge all film lovers to rent Come and See. But be warned. It is VERY hard to watch. Several people in the crowded San Rafael theatre could not. They simply got up and left. What a shame. To turn your head from this movie is to turn your head from truth. While the film is not particularly gory, it is violent and gritty and dirty and permeated with a pathos that bludgeons. There are scenes of shocking cruelty, but if youíve seen Schindlerís List or Saving Private Ryan, youíve seen worse and you owe yourself this. Bear in mind that sound is very important in this movie, so turn the volume up and persevere, I urge you, persevere through this movie. It will leave you breathless.
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Monday, February 25, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
I was anxious to get started today and even anxious to write to you. Thoughts have been bubbling through my head all morning and not all of them bad. Since I am so ready to go, I may not write a long letter. But I promise you that it will be scattered and lively. On the whole, I am very pleased with my writing Ė I mean the words and sentences and paragraphs of the book. But I still have the nagging feeling that I am not digging deep enough, that I am not tapping into the essence of the work. I have been good about describing the external landscapes of my characterís worlds and I have been good about describing action and building momentum but perhaps I have been ignoring the most important landscape of all and that is the mind of Jacob Flint. Do I even know what he is thinking? Am I, as the writer, over-thinking this? Does one need to think of this? Do I really need scenes and or descriptions of his thoughts? Or are actions sufficient to explain them? Does he have great fear? Great doubt? Great bouts of self-deprecation and if so how do those feelings manifest themselves? So far, he is doing. He is being. He is acting. It is almost as if he is on auto-pilot and perhaps this makes sense, to a point, but what is that point and how will I know when I get to it?
Last week I wrote most of chapter thirty-two in long-hand in my notebook and I suppose it will take me most of this week to type it up and turn it into something that makes sense (to me I mean). It is about fifteen hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages with exposition, scene and dialog all mixed in. This chapter is the preparation for Jacobís first solo revival and in it someone very close to him will die but I wonít say who (though you can probably guess). The only two people close to him who are not here are his mother and the old woman (but the old woman is already dead). Now I think Iíve got to cut his legs out from under him and I have to tell you Iím scared as Hell. More scared than he is I think. This next scene is crucial, and a turning point, and I think all my conceptions may be wrong, but I wonít know until itís done. I wish I could write faster and increase my word count. But I have to have faith that this is how it is meant to be done. I donít mean that I should not push myself, because I think I should, but I just feel Iím worrying too much. I wish I could show you what I have written and I wish you could reassure me but I know that that would only be a crutch. I canít rely on help or good weather to get me through this expedition. Like Ernest Shackleton, I must merely persevere. I only hope I donít wind up eating my dog. Spring is here soon, and thus the thaw, and when these ice-floes break apart maybe a ship will come. Stay well, and rest assured that I am giving this my whole heart and soul because I want you to be proud..
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