Ridiculous

I walk down to the ocean in the late afternoon just as God exhales, and a long-held breath of fog comes to meet me. White and pure, it gathers itself around me like a cataract in some ancient eye, obscuring all traces of intellect. I start to feel disoriented, wobbly, as my feet, kissed by wet sand, are drawn in.

What is it that grounds us, really? How do we even know where we stand?

I look behind me and make out a faint scaffolding built of driftwood that some other pilgrims and sojourners have built, pointing the way back to the ordinary world like the lamp post in Narnia—but it doesn’t comfort me, because what I really long for is somewhere else, somewhere further into this blinding grace of fog, somewhere closer to the sound of waves like a steady heart beating through some surrounding womb, roaring reassurance.

I am not lost here, but I want to be. I want to lie down in the sand, to feel God’s skin against mine without the protection of verticality and the impervious soles of my man-made shoes, but I’m not yet bold enough to act as crazy as I really am.

Instead, I turn back to civilization, trudge through dry sand, crawl into the human exoskeleton of houses and wires and cables barnacled to the coast, and watch the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever made, three times.

Con Air is playing in Japanese on one channel, and then in English, weirdly, on two others. It’s about a vet who goes to prison before his daughter is even born, for accidentally killing some guy in a bar fight. From prison, he writes to his daughter every day and as the movie opens, he’s finally on parole and catching a ride home in a plane full of hardcore convicts.

Suddenly the cable company develops an intermittent power failure and the screen turns to dirty snow, but instead of giving up, I become mesmerized by the pattern: seven seconds of snow, followed by two seconds of movie, repeated through two hours of John Malkovitch, Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi creating every kind of mayhem possible in and with a Fairchild C-123 Provider, with John Cusack in pursuit on the ground.

The cable signal becomes steady again in time for Nicholas Cage, made up as Hollywood’s idea of Jesus–all cut up in a wife-beater undershirt, with shoulder-length hair–to reunite with the seven-year-old daughter who has never seen him before. “I was going to get a haircut,” he offers, and I forgive Cage his terrible fake Southern accent, forgive the stellar cast for wasting their time on this terrible movie, and forgive myself when my foolish heart jumps at the chance to watch it again, uninterrupted, when it starts to replay at 2 a.m.

My own father never came back from the prison of alcoholism, never sent me a letter of any kind, never beat out the bad guys. My father’s reappearance in my life was announced not by John Cusack, but rather by a phone call from the Ventura County Coroner when I was twenty-three years old.

Now, even four decades later, I am still a fatherless child, waiting for a letter or a sign of any kind. It’s possible that my reaching for God is entirely explained by this psychological set-up, and of course there are many who would see it that way.

But it’s also possible that my particular emotional background simply highlights in me a natural human impulse in us all—to reach for that which is beyond us, to hope for someone who understands us and can help us understand ourselves, to admit the vastness and importance of the unknown, to move forward into a blinding white fog that reaches for us in this strange world, as ridiculous as it is sublime.

About Barbara Sullivan

Writer, editor, teacher, introvert, contrarian, union thug: see View Complete Profile for blog links
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17 Responses to Ridiculous

  1. Ann Medlock says:

    Well, damn, you’ve done me in again, girl. Sniffles and smiles here. Thank you.

    • Awww….how nice to see your name again! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment; I realize why my students are so grateful when I do that on their papers. It takes a lot for something to make it from real life onto the page, and knowing that it’s meant something to someone else in some small way makes a writer–as you well know–glad to have made the effort. I was reading Donald Murray the other day, which is one of the best things to come out of my efforts to digest comp/rhet professional talk (Murray had the advantage of being a journalist, not a “compositionist,” and ended up having an enormous and happy effect on the field of academic composition despite–or I would argue because of–that lack of training); here’s what he had to say about writers and feedback:

      Writers are here and there at the same time, living while observing their living. …I must write to answer questions I am asking myself, to solve problems that I find interesting to bring an order into an area where the confusion terrifies me. …I write to hang on.

      I also write from an external need, to share what I am thinking with that tiny audience of intimates whose respect I need and with whom I am learning.

      I must confess those friendly readers on whom I depend are appreciators mostly. I am too immature to enjoy criticism; more sadist than masochist. I hunger for appreciation, and my writing takes its largest steps forward after praise, not criticism, no matter how much the constructive—or even destructive—comments are deserved. As a teacher I try to remember that.

  2. aletabrady says:

    Oh, how I needed this today. Thank you.

    • It’s always lovely to hear from you, even when the subtext makes me want to put my arms around you! You are inextricably defined in my heart by that impulse to wear bells on your ankles, and by your beautiful, beautiful poem about truth. If there’s someone who’s making your life hard today, I’m just here to testify that he is an idiot. Or she. Or it–because God knows, institutions can be just as stupid and abusive as individuals. It’s important that those of us who recognize each other tell the truth about each other, so that we can more easily remember who we really are. In service of which, I would love to be able to print your poem here. Let me know if that’s okay–I just want you to read it again—since it’s been awhile, and we writers often forget our own best stuff—and to let my readers see what a ten-minute freewrite can produce when someone feels safe enough to be herself on the page.

  3. theotheri says:

    I can’t bring myself to click the “Like” icon for this post. “Like,” in this context somehow feels too facile, too superficial, too easy to give away.

    I feel more resonance with the human impulse reaching for what is beyond us than with Freud’s reductionism. I think experience, painful or joyful or just plain ordinary, is like a door. It is up to us to decide whether it locks us in or opens up a new vista.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I could not have written it myself. But I can understand it.

    • Always good to year from you, and yes–it’s all about those doorways! (I think Freud was obsessed with closed doors, an entirely different, sometimes disturbed, mindset.) Your comment reminds me of my favorite William James quote:

      Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. … We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.

      Art is an explicit doorway, but experience in general–as you say–offers the same opportunity, if we let it.

  4. Patricia says:

    Beautifully written!

    • Thanks, Patricia! And thanks for taking time to read this; with everyone’s inbox no doubt as full as mine every morning, I appreciate what it takes to just open one of those emails that aren’t absolutely necessary.

  5. I am superficial and facile so I clicked ‘like’, I struggle to express myself in words. This is beautiful but I sense so much of the pain and lost-ness behind it, feeling for you. :)

    • You made me laugh! I will treasure that extra-special “like.” Thanks, too, for your kind empathy; those who have suffered pain and loss are especially equipped to recognize and treat it in others.

      We all struggle to express ourselves in words, if what we want to talk about matters at all. That doesn’t mean we don’t succeed: I think motive is everything in writing, and it comes across no matter what the words are. Words on a page are just perforations that let us see through to something that can’t really be described adequately: the power in any piece of writing comes from the writer’s ability to recognize something that does matter, and the writer’s wish to honor that. Fancy language, including fancy conceptual language, can be impressive–but that’s not the same thing as powerful.

  6. cindydyer says:

    Barbara, I tried to leave a lengthy comment several days ago, but apparently it didn’t go through. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but just wanted to let you know that I am so happy that you are writing again! I will comment again when I can find the befitting words. :-)

    • Oh, I’m so sorry that didn’t go through–I always appreciate your comments, but also that is SO maddening (been there!) to spend time on a long comment and then have it swallowed by The Nothing, or whatever monster it is that lurks in the dark corners of Blogland, sucking up a writer’s time and energy and then getting an extra ounce of flesh via frustration. In any event, know that your thought has counted, and that nothing could feel more befitting than to think that our writing has made someone happy! I have stolen a few days to write before I have to start preparing for fall term, instead of working on the journal of student work that’s a year late, or my filing and taxes and bills that are similarly past their expiration date. I will pay for the theft, no doubt, but at sixty-six, increasingly aware that death is a roommate I won’t be able to evict, I am mindful of time in a different way. Today I didn’t even bother to get dressed; instead, I put together a Kindle Singles proposal based on my other blog, called When I Was Fat, which seems to have written itself into something like a book over the last couple of years without much organizational effort on my part. Fingers crossed. Your message puts some wind in my sails of hope!

  7. cindydyer says:

    Ooh—-a book in the works—congratulations, that’s great news! I’m crossing fingers and toes for this new venture.

  8. Julia says:

    Thank you again for the best blog posts ever. I love and hate the Internet for it’s rawness, for the torrent of need waiting and hoping to be acknowledged — but your posts are always finished, thoughtful, fulfilled, even as you write about longing and fear and sadness. I’m still holding your comments about online college course in my mind and heart, as the changes in education continue, and remember the image of the deer walking by your house on a rainy day. I love the images here of sand sucking your feet, and laying yourself on God’s skin. Lovely.

    • Oh my: isn’t it wonderful when someone takes the time to turn to you, look you in the eye, as it were, and tell you you’re beautiful, or worthy, or that what you’ve done is somehow worthwhile? Isn’t it especially wonderful to be seen at all—to have someone recognize that you are trying to do something that matters—especially when you don’t have any conventional evidence of intellectual accomplishment, like the PhD velvet-trimmed robe and graduation hood, and thus can’t get a secure job no matter how well you write or how much your students love you, because you weren’t smart enough to recognize the importance of status when you were young enough to get it?

      Let me tell you it is not only wonderful, but life-giving, like water found unexpectedly in the desert, or held out by a stranger on a marathon route. (For writers and teachers, life can feel like a marathon run in a desert!)

      And to generalize that principle: isn’t it easy, really, to know when someone has loved you? Of course it is! The feeling is unmistakable on the receiving end.

      Thank you, Julie.

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