Behind the face there floats, like a gaseous cloud, an essence just waiting to effervesce. The you behind the you. Not the skin or the armature of muscle and bone, not the hair, not even in the eyes, where it seems close enough to touch. What are you? The mirror tells a story fabricated from whole cloth. All those photographs they took, those well-meaning progenitors, those paper reflections from zero on up; you on your tricycle, you in your crib, what you take to be a tangible record of places and times, a story fixed in the amber of a life, like a blurred insect distorted in a pendant filigreed in silver and worn around your neck as proof that you are real and that you have lived, but you never think about those photographs, accumulating in shoe boxes and envelopes, browning behind crackling vellum in albums that will find their way to some flea market, if you’re lucky, for some other person still living in her body to discover and wonder at, making up a story as credible as the one you now believe to be true.
They serve you in your moments of doubt and disbelief, the photographs; when you feel untethered to the present and begin to question the reality of what you are, they exist as talismans, paper renditions of a self that you have only seen at a distance, the distance between a lens and face, a self that you need to step outside of to verify, over and over again in these images that are now digital, your reflection has been encoded now thousands of times in sequences of zeros and ones and they are stored in rural server farms so vast so as to render us even further into the background of what we truly are, so far outside of ourselves but forever safe in cyberspace; so you see you’ve achieved your physical immortality already. Your reflection will last a thousand years or more, a mini Roman Empire, trapped on a wafer of silica in a box where red and green lights chase each other back and forth in the dark. A billion selfies fossilized in the ether.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”~ Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
Last night I escorted my daughters to the premiere of The Fault in Our Stars, a movie based on a book beloved by a million teenage girls. Because my daughters wouldn’t be caught dead sitting with their father I sat alone in a sea of adolescent grief. They wept quietly in unison throughout, you could hear the sniffling, the occasional gasping sob, and I realized that this is their Brian’s Song, for most of the audience the first visceral, inexplicable tragic-collision with this mystery called death, and because it was a late-night premiere the house was filled with them, about to be unleashed into this crazy life. When I turned in my seat I could see them, hundreds of young women, illuminated, red-eyed and tear-streaked, flickering in the dark, believing in love, the power of its promise, not a one who’s yet had her heart broken, and I knowing they would, as we all have; lose something, be betrayed, suffer the pain of this insane world we made, but also the joy too, and there was joy to be found in this story and hope. I am heartened by fiction that does not rely on magic, special powers, mythical creatures, the undead or clever dystopian plots to draw in and keep readers hooked.
In The Fault in Our Stars there is this moment when everything you think the story is about – cancer, teenage romance, coming-of-age-angst, grief, dying, loneliness, the afterlife, the meaning of fiction, the meaning of STORY itself, falls away and you are left standing there with your cupped hands open and the little goldfish you were carrying around flopping in your palms. A dying girl and a dying boy travel to Amsterdam to visit a reclusive writer in order to ask him how his cliff-hanger of a novel ends. They have questions. They want to know more. What happens after the story? But the writer (a brilliant as usual Willem Dafoe) has no answers. He plays for them instead an unintelligible and mind-numbing Swedish Hip-Hop track. What happens after? What’s next? There are no answers. They miss the point. They are confused because, they say, they don’t understand Swedish. It’s not in the lyrics, Dafoe tells them. It’s in the feelings behind them. As if words could ever answer the questions worth asking. As if we are somehow contained in a photograph.
The young couple, each dying of cancer, have used their Make-A-Wish to fly all the way to Amsterdam for answers to a story that, like life itself, does not resolve neatly. It’s fiction, the writer tells them. Nothing happens after. But this is where the story turns. This is where The Fault in Our Stars finds its core. It is John Green’s singular stroke of brilliance. They are in Amsterdam, the mere shell of a capital of a once-great empire where tulip bulbs once drove men mad and cost more than the finest homes. Amsterdam, a city, almost like Las Vegas, of form, a floating monument to the visual, the corporeal. And the last safe refuge for a young girl named Anne Frank.
Anne Frank’s room is a world you cannot imagine. There is no room like this. I have stood there twice, standing on my tip-toes, looking out her tiny window at the tree (a striking horse-chestnut, now gone) that she turned to for her own resilience, her own hope. As Hazel and Gus (the young lovers dying in this particular story) struggle up the narrow stairways to Anne’s room, we hear in the background a young girl’s voice, ostensibly Anne, reading from her diary. That is a story whose ending we know. That is a story that is true. That is a story about a end far more baffling and meaningless than cancer. That is a story written by no single author but by all men, including you and me. Where there is hope, there is life, Anne says. And we see her face, her unique, beautiful face, smiling back at us from a grainy black and white photograph on the wall of the room. The story never ends. What happens next is an irrelevant question.
There is a light in you which cannot die; whose presence is so holy that the world is sanctified because of you. ~ A Course in Miracles
That light, that’s what I see in a photograph, coming out from behind your face, but not in a stream of photons, this light is beyond what can be measured or verified by math. You are not math. You are not inside a picture. You cannot be found within a sheet of glass, and if you tear off all your skin and pull out everything inside your strange body you will not find yourself there. But you are there. You are not the words, you are the feeling behind them. You are not your cancer, you are not your disease and you are not your healthy, vibrant self either. You are not the story you think you are. Time did not create you and you are not its prisoner. Only the body will die, but you, the mysterious and ineffable you, will shine on.
I salute and worship the holy you.
In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman says: “I love him though I do not know him.” And that’s how I feel about you. When I look at you, when I truly look at you, it doesn’t matter who you think you are, or who I thought you were, when I look at you I love you. When I look at you I see something so familiar. You are miraculous beyond measure, beyond description, beyond form. When I look at this woman’s face I see all I need to know, and nothing that matters. Words would only mute her glow. None of these words mean anything. Forget what I have written and simply look.
“Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.” ~ Anne Frank
o O o