This Morning’s Wave

This morning was the first time I’ve been able to surf in about two months. The report said that high tide was at 9:58 a.m. with light wind and a SSE swell coming up from hurricane Sandra. My break of choice is the Bolsa Chica jetties. The people are generally friendly there, and it’s rarely crowded.

Every time I get to the water’s edge, start to feel the cold of wet sand, my gut starts to tighten, my heart begins to race. No matter how many times I’ve paddled out before I still get nervous as I dip my cupped hands into the water and pull. A wave begins to build in front of me and, uncontrollably, I whisper words to myself. Words, such as “inevitable,” “destroy,” “failure,” “passion,” “disbelief,” “structure,” all evaporate into the ether of history in no particular order, and somehow, while they are not part of any phrase or complete thought, they all seem to fit into context of one another as some desperate response to oncoming waves. The paddle out is a struggle against time, the weight of the water, and past defeats. This morning, though, the word I whispered to myself over and again was “nightmare.”

There is a moment in House of Leaves, the moment where Will Navidson is lost inside the house and has just discovered that he is no longer supported by anything. He is falling, not down, or up, or in any direction. He’s not suspended, he just is. There are no more walls, no floors or ceilings, doors, nothing with which to triangulate his position. There is nothing separate from his being with which to define himself as a separate entity at all. He realizes he’s been falling for quite some time and desperately attempts to redefine himself, to reaffirm his existence. “I am,” he says. It’s hopeless, because hope is a non sequitur in this house, for it implies an end where there is not even a means to that end. Ultimately,

Navidson’s words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrow threatens to no longer matter.
Navidson is forgetting.
Navidson is dying. (Danielewski 482-83)

This is the closest comparison I can make to how I feel when I am in the water. The ocean is is alive, ever in motion, consuming. Yet, it is also senseless, unaware of my presence, and altogether uncaring. The moment I think I have figured it out, crouched down on my board and gliding along the face of a wave, something unforeseen happens, a ripple in front of me lifts up, the nose of the board pearls, and I am suddenly under the surface. It’s dark in the water, cold, there are no shapes to discern, the growl of the passing wave has silenced, and I am falling. Of course, I hold my breath, but I’m never certain if I will breathe ever again. All sights and sounds disappear and even the memory of what has happened only a second ago already begins to fade. There is no voice to heat this world.

I floated out in the line-up for quite a while, maybe forty-five minutes, give or take. It’s hard to be certain. The current El Niño season has kept the water temperature around 60°F, but the November morning air has retained its bite. I stared at my board, followed the line of the stringer from underneath me to out beyond the nose and through to the horizon. The grey of the marine layer blurred the threshold between the water and the sky.

I saw something that I had never seen before. A few feet in front of me I noticed what looked like glitter or confetti twirling in the water column right near the surface. It was a shoal of sardines, or maybe smelt. I generally notice them only out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement, the only evidence of which is the ripple on the surface left behind as they hurl themselves out of the water and fall back in.

Is this not all that experience is anyway– phenomena that eludes observation, a cause that is only evidenced by its effect?

Johnny Truant experiences this when he visits the Whalestoe hospital his mother died in. His emotional state is heavily strained, to say the least. He wanders the country aimlessly, albeit to escape his fears. Though, it is a path of escape which leads him directly back to the origin of those fears, where “no cry of light, no glimmer, not even the faintest shard of hope to break free across the hold” has shone (497).

It’s a melancholy moment because he is initially convinced that he has become “a creature unstirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath” (497), and yet when he is unable to sense the spectral presence of his mother, he is unable to rectify his “mindless wrath.” So, he begins to break down. That is, he is indeed moved knowing that he still carries the memory of her. However skeptical he must remain of that memory, it is nonetheless unshakable. He sees his life as the ripple of her own nightmarish life.

All things observed are ripples. In which case the only quantitative or qualitative understanding we have of a cause is the memory of it, the effect. No one remembers the birth of their parents. Instead, those memories are passed down through language and the vernacular of genealogical history. For Truant, that language is collected in the feverishly written letters he receives from his mother, and it is the same language he uses in his own journal.

Someone else’s. Someone else’s memories…Oh god what constant re-arranging of thoughts, an endless rearrangement of them, revealing nothing but shit…The journal too. I thought I’d only written a few entries but now I can see–I can feel–it’s nearly full, but I don’t recall any of it. Is it even in my hand?…October Three Zed, Ninety Eight. That’s the day today. That’s the date. Top of this page. But the first page in the journal isn’t October Three Zed but May one. May one mean–meaning, I mean–months and months of journey. Before Lude died. Before the horror. Or all of it horror since right now I can’t connect any of it.
It’s not me.
It cannot be.
As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten.
I must remember.
I must read.
I must read.
I must read. (498)

Truant’s journal is still another ripple in the chain of causality, but his experience resembles a feedback loop. A question arises– is Johnny an end in of himself? When memory ceases so too does experience. Since Johnny cannot recall the experiences he  has apparently described in his own journal, his only true experience is the vicarious reading of his past. He is merely the audience of his own narrative, not the subject.

This is how I often feel about surfing. At best I can only describe the experience through my mind’s journal, the memory of the experiences in the water. Yet, I must remain skeptical of these memories because, as we know, memory is a severely faulty thing, easily altered by emotion, and all the thousands of factors constantly imposing influence. The wave that I caught this morning, according to memory, was multifaceted, deeply complex, nuanced. How can I trust the notion that I remember every detail of it? Of course I can expand the wave metaphor to many other memories– childhood, school and profession, romantic relationships. Because my only understanding of those experiences is gained from my memory of them, I feel as though I too am merely an observer. I am the audience witnessing the downward spiral a self-defeating character who loathes the dichotomy of future and past, and who is obsessed with the means to his own end in order to finally disintegrate that and all other binaries. Each wave is a ripple in the closed loop of his narrative.

The future is always a fiction, and it is impossible to actually experience the present. By the time any phenomena is perceivable, having taken even a few milliseconds to travel our neural pathways, it is already past and is therefore committed to memory. The past and our faulty memory of it is the only conduit for the narrative of our lives. So, as Johnny Truant discovers, we have no means of objective understanding. Even a moment of clarity, for all it is worth and what it may seem to be, affords him no answer.

It took me another hour to locate her room. So many of the rooms looking the same, all familiar, but never quite right, quite the same, their dimensions and perspectives never precisely lining up with the memory I had, a memory I was soon beginning to doubt, a surprisingly painful doubt actually, until I saw through her window the now vine entwined tree, every wall-line, corner-line, floor-line, instantly, or so it seemed–though nothing is ever instant–matching up, a sharp slide into focus revealing the place where she finally died. Of course it’s final, right? Closet to the side. Empty. And her bed in the corner. The same bed. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now reassembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror should have buried me.
It didn’t.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
I waited all night in the very room it happened, waiting for her frail form to glide free of beams of glass and moonlight. Only there was no glass. No moonlight either. Not that I could see.
Come morning I found the day as I had found every other day–without relief or explanation. (504)

If the memory of his mother is faulty, he must also keep suspect of letters she had written to him. “Her letter,” he says, “was hopelessly wrong. Maybe an invention to make it easier for me to dismiss her” (517). Johnny realizes that he must also suspect the nature of the narrative these two sources coalesce to create. That is, he must ultimately suspect the very narrative of his life, it’s verisimilitude, and question the truth of his own existence. As we read further, we discover that the last section of Truant’s journal takes a drastic shift in point of view and voice. “I’m sorry,” he continues, “I have nothing left…Except this story, what I’m remembering now, too long from the surface of any dawn” (518). It is a very heartbreaking scene that follows, and one that I think about often, particularly while I’m in the water. It describes a woman who has just given birth to a baby boy with severe developmental issues and is “cyanotic.” The child is not expected to live more than a few hours. Doctors and nurses hurriedly employ an IC unit, an EKG monitor, IV pumps and lines, a ventilator, probes, saturated oxygen. Yet, the “mother sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch the world.” She refuses that her son “can only survive on machines,” refuses the inevitable, that “she will have to let him go.” To her the future is a fiction, and she can spin her own narrative yarn with her love for this child. She endures the hours clinging to a life that at once she is both defined by and is her only source of meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She sings to him, whispers her love to him. Then, on the fourth day, “ she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly”–

And right before everyone’s eyes, long before Dr. Nowell or anyone else can turn a dial or touch a switch, the EKG flatlines. Asystole.
The child is gone. (521)

There is no mystery in this story, only loss. The reader must realize, just as Johnny does, that the entire time they’ve been reading HOL they have, in fact, been reading the life which the mother has imagined for her baby boy, and which she clung to out of love. Johnny is that narrative. As does Johnny, I can’t help but question what I have imagined for myself, and what others have imagined for me. Whether out of desperation to somehow alter the nightmare, or out of love, my life is still only a facsimile of memory, which is itself a facsimile. It’s a scary thought that the perceived world is possibly unreal, is false, for there is no where to turn after that, no trust, no hope of ever getting out of the house built by faulty semiotics and the misleading vernacular of day-to-day experience. After all “the words fail, the voice fails, so be it” (Beckett 406)

It happened in an instant. One moment all is calm, somewhere down the line-up a group of friends chuckled to some punchline I could not hear, a pelican silently floated by on a pocket of air ahead of a swell. In the next moment the face of a wave appeared in front of me, dark, moving fast, amassing as it approached the beach. Just as I had done maybe a thousand times before, I quickly turned the board around and started pulling myself along the surface. Just as I had felt maybe a thousand times before, the leading edge of the wave slid under me and lifted me up. Just as I had done maybe a hundred times before, I pushed myself up and to my feet. What happened in the next ten seconds, though, I am at a loss to reason beyond conjecture. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our failures to act, to comprehend, or to respond to the ever changing whim of circumstance. Other times, we are surprised by our intuition. My skill level is amateur at best, and ‘innate’ has never been a term I use to describe my surfing. However, something was released and possessed me for those few seconds on the face of that wave. I saw the wave in it’s entirety out in front of me as I took a left for my frontside. Every ripple, dimple, and every breaking section of the wave I saw before it even happened, anticipated it’s every motion. I crouched to picked up speed and looked up to the lip at least a foot over head. I dragged the palm of my trailing hand along the face. Off I went down the line.

It was over in an instant. One moment I banked into my third carve of the wave, and the next moment I lay on my back on dry sand, breathing heavily, eyes tearing up. It was my only wave of the day. It was my first wave in at least two months. It was, by far, my best wave since last winter.
“Wow, man, I saw the whole thing.”
I sat up and turned to see a guy walking up to me. Salt and peppered hair, like mine, and with what looked like a seven-five or six mint-green Becker under his arm.
“You even got a little barreled,” he said.
“No shit?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line-up, “I saw it.”
I shook my head, “That’s kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen before. Wasn’t looking behind me so I didn’t see how far into it I was.”
“Yeah, it was real quick, like. But you were in it. Almost happened on the reform, too.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “No one ever sees me surf, so I can never prove what happened.”
“Nope,” he said nodding, “But I saw it this time. Great job, man.” He strapped his leash to his ankle then started towards the water.
“Good luck,” I said, to which he responded with a thumbs-up.

There is no choice but to move forward in experience, whatever it may be. The best we can hope for is that someone will be there to witness it with us and share in the facsimile, for they see what we can’t, they see what is behind us, perceive it differently, and somehow expand our experience.

Surfing is a very lonely venture to me. Yet, just as Will Navidson was drawn to the depths of the house, and Johnny Truant must wander the country in search of a past that does not exist, I too am compelled to paddle out. In search of what, though, I cannot say. If nothing else, through the unyielding solitude of it I have learned a great deal about the value of others in my life. Though it is only conjecture, I might discern some luminescence in the house with the thought that Navidson has discovered this too. He is prepared to die in the house. In what are his final moments–at least as far as he can tell–his “tunes” and “shivering murmurs” are all meditations on one thing, one subject. There is no voice to heat this world because he is alone, without Karen. As the fictional “Italian translator,” Sophia Blynn, says in her critique of The Navidson Record:

The most important light Karen carried into that place was the memory of Navidson. And Navidson was no different. Though it’s commonly assumed his last word was ‘care’ or the start of ‘careful,’ I would argue differently. I believe this utterance is really just the first syllable of the very name on which his mind and heart had finally come to rest. His only hope, his only meaning: ‘Karen.’ (Danielewski 523)

I am led to wonder whether these short, personal essays are my own shivering murmurs, tunes that go unanswered except their refraction and diffusion off the walls of language in this house.

Still, there is no choice but to move forward, for there are many, many waves to be surfed. “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on…I’ll go on” (Beckett 407).

Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z.. House of Leaves. NY, Pantheon 2000. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. NY, Grove Press 2001. Print.

Nature and Grace: Dichotomies in Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of life Requium

There is a line in the film Tree of Life, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” This motif– an inner struggle between waring subjectivities, dichotomies –runs throughout the film, and it’s closely related to the greater theme of the story, which is in the opening monologue, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life– the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

The story is among the heaviest, darkest, yet most illuminating spiritual meditations that I have come across in recent years. This story weighs heavily, hits close to home, and I’m certain many others feel the same way. Malick’s style, like a deluge of river rapids (which, is a prevalent image in the film), is not necessarily inviting. For these reasons I think it’s the type of film that either someone won’t understand on any level, or is entirely subdued by.

Spirituality in the film is heavily informed by Christian theology, but it’s not at all dogmatic. In fact, the story stands as an indictment of steadfast and blind ideology. Dogma– social, theological, familial, cultural dogma –is decidedly an antagonistic factor in the life of the central family, the O’Briens. The family is particularly white, suburban, middle class, the archetypal Texas American dream, sans only white picket fences. However, this family, a token of American pride and sensibility, is fragile, inherently susceptible to it’s own weight. It only takes something so paltry as a telegram, which the mother receives at the end of the clip, to level the family, disintegrate it.

Roots of conflict are seeded in the hearts of the three O’Brien children, but the eldest boy, Jack, is most directly effected. His struggle, the war of dichotomies, factions of subjectivity, nature and grace, is ignited by dogmatism, fueled by immense histories, the ever echoing voices of his family, his mother and father, their cultural legacies that remain a constant din inside of him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” As we follow him on his journey through the annals of boyhood we are forced to ponder our own histories, the legacies of the many journeys that led to our being. Jack bears the weight of these legacies, but he cannot escape his growing suspicions about patriarchal control and matriarchal peace. He watches his father, keenly, studying, his eyes narrowed. He searches his father for evidence of either humility or malice, though is convinced of neither. “Do you love your father?” he is asked, to which he responds with only the certainty of condition, familial dogma.

And yet, Jack is drawn to the promise of strength he sees in his father. He finds solidarity in simplicity, a momentary calming of the factions inside of him. As all boys must attempt at some point, Jack indulges in the violence within him and redirects it outward, essentially relinquishing himself of it. However, Jack’s younger brother, known simply as R.L., presents a challenge to the violence. Jack recognizes that he has followed a path to nature because his brother has followed a path to grace. “Hit me son,” his father challenges, and Jack obliges. “Come on, hit me,” his father then says to his brother, but his brother is reluctant.

Jack wonders about the separation between nature and grace. “Always you wrestle inside of me,” he says. He constantly finds himself on the side of nature while praying, “help me to be good.” At one point violence swells within him. He happens upon his father who is underneath the family Buick for repairs. He walks up and his father quietly, but sternly points at him, dismissing him. Jack then walks around to the rear where the car-lift is positioned. He stares at the wrench for a moment, then walks away. The implication is that Jack momentarily considers knocking the wrench loose to let the car drop onto his father. This is an experience that all boys must have, testing the boundaries of love and anger and the willingness to forfeit one or the other.

Nature, and grace. One defined by the other. The war continues. Much as Jack must face his suspicions and fears, we too have no choice but to realize that, regardless of whether we scale the highest, most remote and frozen peaks, find ourselves lost and hidden in metropolitan back alleys, or are adrift in an unmeasured sea, that inner war will wage. It is inescapable. And so, Jack discovers that there is no boundary between nature and grace. The line that he may arbitrarily draw between past and present does not exist, the two are simultaneous, are not independent. And the war continues into his adulthood, boundaries between factions blurred.

“Feel like I’m bumping into walls,” he says, “Any how, it’s all about your career. But I don’t understand anything.” The way of nature, the way of commerce, hierarchies, architects of industry, resources, exchange. Facsimiles of order. The way of grace, the way of restless imagination, culture, messy harmonic resonance, ideas, humility painfully gained. Facsimiles of beauty. These are all uncertain terms, but we are somehow expected, conditioned even, to simply take them for granted, to commit ourselves to them, without question. Just as each member of the O’Brien family must, we too seek to shrink into the obscurity of nature as a refuge from the tumult, the disorder of grace. And so, we justify our sacrifices in order to fortify our security, equating substance and sustenance, though, we have only confused the two.

The father of the story, Mr. O’brien, fortifies himself and his family with the pleasantries and minutia that have been handed to him through cultural dogma, and he’s come to depend on them. Tithing, skilled work, prayer, discipline, tenacity, a smile and a hand shake, fatherly advice, all tenets of a ‘good man.’ However, as his priest, Father Hayes, cautions in a sermon, “Misfortune befalls the good as well.”

The Tree Of Life: Job from Otto on Vimeo.

After all, what is our place in nature if not a single point in a long chain of cause and effect, linearity where, of course, there is no boundary between the past and future? We do not exist presently, and so we are free of the obligation to actively navigate this phenomena we call our lives, the tempest of the present. Instead, we abstain. It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of nature– a human being. Yet, we recognize it as perdition only too late. At some point we stop planning for the future and reluctantly accept the finitude of the time that we are given. We desire to “be loved because [we are] great.” We are saddened, having “lived in shame,” wondering why we had never risked ourselves for our only passions– a human doing. Desperate, we then seek forgiveness in grace yet cannot seem to resolve a lifetime of fear. We have passively accepted our life having never actively created, or engaged it. We stand at the precipice and peer over the edge, frightful because we see nothing whatsoever below, nothing to make sense of, nothing to verify the separation between above and below, our curiosity beckons us toward self-destruction, to jump, yet we are paralyzed. The burden of guilt, and the endless war.

The Tree Of Life: Life’s Work from Otto on Vimeo.

There is, however, only one thing that silences the war– grief. Utter, and complete loss. In grief all questions narrow, metamorphose into “Why?” There is no dogma steadfast enough to justify the loss that the O’Brien family experiences. Jack also watches his mother, attempts to see through her eyes as she asks “Lord, why? Where were you?” Here he discovers the weight of history. Through her eyes he sees the cause and effect of nature, that all things manifest are inevitable. He sees that loss is inescapable. “Answer me,” she begs. As we understand early in the film because of the telegram Mrs. O’Brien receives, the family has peered over that precipice and saw nothing where they were told they would see God. They are cautioned, though, “does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?…Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”

The Tree Of Life: Lacrimosa from Otto on Vimeo.

However deep her suffering, Mrs. O’Brien continues to be a beacon of grace for Jack. He hears her pain, “We cry to you, ‘My soul, my son.’ hear us,” but he carries her voice with him into his adulthood. Her voice is the memory of the times he and his brothers play in the river, the memory of his birth, family dinners, afternoons spent cradled in her lap on the river bank. From the expenses of the past grace reaches out to him, and he hears her voice, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The Tree Of Life: Love from Otto on Vimeo.

All the skepticism, the tumult, is quieted. Just as Jack has begun to forfeit his tendencies toward nature and begin to accept the way of grace through his family’s loss, we are invited to ponder our own griefs, many as they are. Is there any refuge from grief, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Do we forgive for the sake of love and happiness? “You spoke to me through her,” he says, her voice echoing from the past and beyond even his own recollection. “Lacrimosa,” or “weeping,” resounds from long before even the Earth was formed. The tragedy of his family, it’s grief, is felt long before its own cohesion. He knows this, and asks, “When did you first touch my heart?” The way of nature, though, points in one direction, the direction he will ultimately choose, a path that leads to grace.

The Tree Of Life: Questions from Otto on Vimeo.

And so, whatever Malick’s motivations, he invites us all to heed Jack’s story, embrace our grief, our inner dichotomies, and quiet those factions, to realize that our struggles are far greater than the sum of our selves, so that we can move towards grace.