Two friends separately wanted me to see The Tree of Life, partly so that we could talk about it. I went and saw it with Will, my movie-buddy-kid. Then Will and I talked all about it—and there is much to discuss, much ambiguity and beauty and disturbance and yearning and indulgence and brilliance and sadness and not seeming to end… And then I had good talks with my two friends, and I liked the movie more for seeing it through their eyes, for noticing new things, different themes, discrepancies between what we each thought actually happened in the film.
At first I was trying to decide if I liked it, much less loved it, as my friends did… and then I thought that maybe that’s the meta-message, or point: to love is to know someone or something, separate from ourselves, and yet connected all the same. Maybe it’s better to ask what an artist was expressing, or what we felt and experienced, than it is to give it a grade, or even a thumb’s up or down.
The Tree of Life left me a bit melancholy. It is partly brilliant in showing scenes of a vanished childhood of empty lots and unsupervised times making trouble and darkly discovering hearts and bodies… and it is partly confusing, boldly artistic in an “American way” as one of my friends suggested, and I agree.
Will, my son, joked that if you went to the bathroom in the middle of the film, you would not bother to ask, “What did I miss?” He also said he thought that although parts were really good, it could definitely have been shorter. Most trenchantly, he said that he thought the director had a big ego. That cut me to the quick, because one of my friends had said that he thought it was the sort of film, based on my blog ideas, that I might have made. I had to think about that, as I don’t, at least consciously, want to make that sort of art—but is that because deep down I’m a self-hating poet? Is it that I fear being pretentious? Is it that not only do I have a big ego but I lack the guts to just put it out there and let people say what they’ll say? Or do I lack the conviction that saying this or that ultimately makes any difference? Or am I haunted, perhaps like any would-be-artist, by images and ideas and feelings that simply won’t leave me alone, that demand narrative or expression, even if it brings nothing but “howls of execration” as Meursault anticipates at the end of The Stranger. And while art is not murder, as Meursault has committed it, art does destroy, if only the consciousness that we had before whatever art ripples the mirror of our pond-consciousness. Do we dare… to eat a peach, especially if it wasn’t washed?
Maybe a blog is a good place to work some things out: people can just stop reading when they want, and it sure costs less than a Hollywood movie. Still, I actually want to reach you, my reader and be of use… so I thank you for reading and want you to know that I’m working on brevity and simplicity, on love and not merely self-expression. So far I continue to fail. And yet I hope my honest striving can be of bonding, and perhaps inspiring, use to fellow-insecures working their way along with me toward “earned secure.”
We learn as we go, making mistakes as the very center of learning. This, I hope, is how I can become a better, and more useful writer, a more truthful writer—how we can all grow together in whatever ways we reach to exceed our grasp.
Many of my readers are fellow writers, artists… creative sorts. And so I wonder, along with you, about how to differentiate our needs to be seen and understood (i.e. to “get love”) from our deeper wishes to see and understand and share and contribute (i.e. to “give love”). How do we know when we are being narcissistic, as artists and as parents, as friends and lovers, as humans, as creatures on a living earth?
Thus this blog post, perhaps, is my response to the dog days of summer, and to Our Town that I read on the fourth of July (and felt arrested and transformed by its simple honesty and unpretentious depth); perhaps it is my response to The Tree of Life, or to the muddle of wanting to live, love and make either better and more truthful art or be done with making art… yet it’s odd when creative impulses don’t leave you alone, when you write poems and hide them away, when you just want to feel right, and you know writing is only a path and not a destination… and then you remember that there is only path and no destination.
Sometimes I like to think of all us grown-ups in preschool again, playing with toys, coloring and dressing up and making believe—a do-over time of freedom and discovery where whatever we make, and make up, does matter, at least in the moment, to us… but also does not matter in the scheme of things, where the point of playing and painting and story-telling is in finding both our voices and our place in the group.
Being understood, accurately and with compassion, is an important aspect of feeling loved—which doesn’t always, or automatically, happen when one is loved. This is one of the great tragedies in parenting—since all parents love their children, but all children do not necessarily feel loved.
Whatever Terrence Malick was “saying” with his film, the moments of a mom birthing, and tending to, and loving, and losing, her boys—real and fully realized moments, silent scenes of bath-time, and discovery and sibling rivalry, of the luminous emerging from the mundane… these are exquisite filmmaking, these are hauntingly beautiful, these lumped my throat just as Thornton Wilder so deftly does. These scenes also brought closeness and discussion and comparing experiences with my own son and my friends, and that was worth the price of admission, worth the time spent. And in this way I re-discover that art is worth it, worth trying, worth offering, even if everybody doesn’t love it, even if it goes unseen and unnoticed… maybe offering and not being received, as does the Cain-inspired brother in East of Eden suffer, still shines as a painful part of our lovely whole experience, drenched with lonely and anguished humanity, with unanswerable questions… with the very stuff that might, surprisingly, if we find our soft and open hearts, vaporize us into an eternal paradise of what simply is.
What is the secret of great art, anyway? Is it related to great loving and great living? Is it a mirror to the world? Is it about Truth? Is it about the universal in the mundane? Is it about the love of actually seeing and listening… and then daring to speak from a place of love?
My life, everyone’s life, seems to me a movie worth watching. But the vastness of it all is overwhelming and then we can hardly take it in, like cheese and foie gras after a few days in the Dordogne… too rich, too much.
What if there is not really any bright line between life and art? What happens when a parent’s true and deep love is nevertheless not received, not felt or believed, by the child who is, in actuality, loved? And what if that was us, once upon time? What if this is how we tumbled, befuddled, from the garden? And what of the child who cannot figure out what mom or dad really wants from them—is it to be happy, to empathize with the parent’s secret heart, to be independent, to be close and warm and still appropriately autonomous and industrious? Is it to care about what the parent cares about, or to discover what they, the child, truly care about?
How might we get back to something nourishing and safe and lovely? Can art be at one with psychology, and medicine, and science, and architecture, and commerce, and food, and play, and love? Can working and living together be a way to raise our consciousness and, together, get where we cannot seem to get alone? We can play alone all we like, but it’s not the same as when we agree on the game and play together. Could this be the essence of life? Playing together at a common game, not much mattering the game, the mythos, the religion or the science, but the same-pageness of play itself? Could it be so simple that we all miss it?
The Tree of Life, as biblical symbol, is about living as eternal beings, and how it is blocked for us. It is what we humans lack and yearn for, greeting the rising sun of the east, the portal to an Eden to which we cannot seem to return—our intuitive home, and animating source.
Is it possible to go home to the sun? Or are we perfectly close enough to the sun already and earth is our perfect home?
Perhaps the great ironic gift of parenting is that it does not so much answer our need to be loved and understood, as it challenges us to be the ones who love and understand, who see and accept—and in so doing, we learn to truly grow-up and develop the capacity for true love. In turn, especially as children launch, we may be left with a more developed ability to love, to understand, to give what is needed and then stop.
Blessed with this elemental gift we may finally learn to love ourselves, even if we had not, heretofore, felt loved in the sense of being truly seen, heard, understood and accepted. Perhaps we are left with an ability to quietly love the world, more in tune with nature, but just slightly less understandable to younger humans. Perhaps that’s what being older is all about. Perhaps, just like every developmental step before, we realize that we are not the first to have sex, or pain, or a creative idea… or to commune with nature and discover ourselves in Her. At this point perhaps we become more generous and gentle with both our egos and with each other?
As caregivers (whether of romantic others, mystical nature or children) we must learn how to love. Partly, probably mostly, we learn this through relationships in which we are loved, in which we actually feel understood, seen and accepted. But this requires a sort of basic trust in the beginning of life, before we’ve fallen, however near or far, from the Tree of Life; and where that has failed, we must grow toward basic trust through self-awareness, limping forward leaning on each other until our stride becomes vibrant once again.
When we swim in the ocean, if the water is clear and we are fortunate to be in a lovely place we notice things like the swaying of kelp, or the poetry of coral, the ancient languid undulations of mollusks and the darting, swelling, schooling of fish. We might notice, or imagine, that none of these life forms has any true awareness that they are living in water, as water is all they have ever known.
We do not generally ponder that we, in living oblivious in air, could be seen through a similar vantage—unaware that we move and live and die and co-exist within a living oceanic fabric of breathing trees and pollinating insects; we are proud of our accomplishments, yet oblivious to the lizard who does push-ups on the rock with our very own proto-brain, we do not greet it as our Self; we may smile at birds but not realize that they are the part of our shared experience that can already fly, and mockingbirds and morning doves are the part of us that can sing the same tune for a million years and not need to change it.
Perhaps everything in nature, every rock and worm, “understands” us, and our truer, lost Tree of Life, context; perhaps trees and birds and the praying mantis on my car the other day all know exactly what timeless time it is, and perhaps they understand us in the deepest sort of way, love us in the deepest sort of way.
Only humans seem consistently compelled to make “original” art. But why this urge to be “creative” when the world is so amazing already? What can we really add? Or are we trying to “create” a better understanding? Are we trying to express our truest and deepest and most collective and connected Selves? Could our child-like need to “create” be about some emerging consciousness, some “creative” way of reconciling our evolved brains with our splendid natural environment?
It’s as if we, personally, are changing, and yet we, collectively, are not really changing—continually reaching the same eternal epiphanies about love… and desperately, or calmly, or silently, trying to pass them along to those we love: don’t worry, be kind, be present, appreciate the small things, love. This is what Terrence Malick seems to be saying and what Thornton Wilder and Thich Nhat Hahn… and my mother-in-law… and my Buby… each in their own way.
The point of these words? To write myself to the end of words perhaps, to be human in the eternal flux, to join in the brawling, tumbling, buzzing human song of tears and laughter in order to make my way back, same as you, to the Tree we all fell out of, me apparently onto my head.
In those dark moments when one hates one’s own face and one hates one’s own voice… do we dare to stare into the still pond at neither the ugly duckling nor the swan, but the human being, the fellow-amongst-fellows—amongst, and part of, lilies and frogs, mayflies and dragonflies.
In The Tree of Life, at one point the father, played by Brad Pitt, says, “It’s subjective—it means whatever you say it means.”
So, let’s invite all our cacophony of art and commerce, opinion and hope and dread and quiet suffering and thunderous outrage and gentle wisdom to come together in some meta-consciousness, some Rumi’s field of collective mind—out beyond right and wrong… some place that’s not a “place” but a consciousness, crafted at the tables of our grown-up preschool, where we might love each other and all our kids and see how that feels, see if it works for us, see if it brings us closer to some eternal way that the rest of nature seems to follow already, allowing us to be sewn back onto the Tree of Life by filaments only sensed, woven back in again by way of bird nests and beehives, all of nature watching, waiting, whispering to us to accept and embrace, to truly notice and thus love.