Absent the data and the memories. Way past the reflections, seen, in mirrors and in photographs. Strip away the stories that envelop you like fragile, translucent husks. And what remains?
I walked toward no clear destination. But there was something in the offing. I could feel it like the storm that was coming. Both the sky and the radio told the same story. Big wind. Big rain. But I took the dog out anyway. We need more weather in our lives, the both of us, and we set out to find it. But like I said, there was something else waiting out there in the wild green.
The hillsides were glowing with the electric charge of chlorophyll and fertility. It almost hurt your eyes to look. We followed a deer trail, as is our custom, and climbed up along a ridgeline into the fecund woods. Sometimes I follow the dog and sometimes the dog follows me. He knows I stop often to listen and to sniff, so either way we’re always pausing. I read game-sign while he snuffles in the grass looking for treasures only a dog would love.
The trails of deer and coyote crisscross these hills, rising and falling in elevation, marking the passage of thousands of generations of both predator and prey. We are neither, the dog and I. We are pilgrims, who’ve come to study the metaphors and live offerings of the earth.
I used to be a somebody when I was a writer, or so I thought. The publication of a novel was like a birth certificate – it proved I was alive and that I was good. I would, I imagined, live forever, if not on paper then in the ether, as a sequence of zeros and ones. But when Serpent Box released in 2008, instead of rising and becoming something, I fell. And for a while, I could not get up again.
In the film Birdman, Michael Keaton gives the performance of his life as a washed-up actor attempting to prove, not only that he’s relevant, but that he’s an artist; which is really just a label we use for people who have something meaningful to say. Throughout the narrative Keaton is haunted by a voice, the same sort of anti-Jiminy Cricket we all carry on our shoulders who tells us we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy, we’re not loved.
The voice is Keaton’s own, in the character of Birdman, a cheesy comic book superhero who brought him his fame, beloved by shallow, mindless consumers of pop culture but hated by Keaton himself who struggles with his decision of selling-out.
I know this voice. I’ve got my own Birdman flapping its wings around in the cage of my subconscious. The voice alone is bad enough when I hear it. But what’s worse is the silence, when the voice lets up, and all I can hear is the sound of feathers, fluttering against the bars of the cage. It’s the same sound you hear behind the locked attic door in the last scene of Hitchcock’s The Birds, when you’re saying to yourself:
“No, Tippy! No! Don’t open that door!”
But you know. That door must always be opened.
I climbed and I groped in the moss. I crossed an old barbwire fence from when this had been the cattle pasture of Manuel T. Freitas in the time just after the Civil War. We made our way through dense groves of Bay Laurel and Oak, the dog and I, following the fresh tracks of deer in the mud, when the canopy opened before us onto a hillside where a lone Live Oak stood frozen like some Kraken that had erupted from a gash in the earth. I knew in that instant that it was for this that we had come.
I carry a camera so that I don’t have to describe the miracles I encounter in my daily wanderings on this, the staggering planet. I have found that most of what I see and admire cannot be undressed with words. The camera can, at times, provide us with a peephole rendering. It’s like watching a skyscraper rise through a knothole in a plank. There is so much more going on than what we see with eyes.
I approached the tree as one might proceed toward a beached whale. It just seemed to demand reverence, and I gave it that. I am literally a tree-hugger, and more. I talk to trees. Sometimes they talk back. I spoke to this tree and I felt something. I have a heightened sense for these things. A tree has as much presence as a human being. And their energy can be over-powering. But in this case what I felt was a warmth, a welcoming warmth, that beckoned me closer. I touched it. I climbed into its branches. I photographed it and yes, I wrapped my arms around the girth of its trunk and held it tight in my embrace. The dog meanwhile was pawing at something buried in the grass below my feet.
The voice in Michael Keaton’s head grows more urgent, more threatening, as the opening of his new play draws near. The play is an art piece, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story written and directed by Keaton’s character Riggan Thompson, aka Birdman. The voice, like all egos, does not wish Riggan to change, grow or discover the truth about himself. It seeks only to tear him down. If there is a devil in this world it is the human ego, which ever strives to enhance the illusion of the individual, of the special, better-than self.
Birdman seems to tell us that if we would wear a mask forever we could fly. If only we had special powers. If only we were stronger. If only we could hide behind an identity, a name. But names are not serpents. They don’t accommodate us as we grow, as does the skin of the snake as it sloughs off against the sharp edge of a stone. The problems with humans is that we don’t molt nearly as often as we should. And when we do, it usually takes a great calamity to start the process and break the skin.
I thought I was a writer, as if that word and all it entailed was enough to encompass all that I was, all that I am and all that I could be. But words do not define me, or us. Emerson said:
“Words are finite organs of the infinite mind. They cannot cover the dimensions of what is truth. They break, chop, and impoverish it. An action is the perfection and publication of thought.”
I looked down at the dog. The dog was digging in the grass. The dog had found something. He held in his mouth an object that was inconceivable and somewhat horrifying. It was a moment in which the connection between what I saw and what I knew, broke. This is what it means to be dumbfounded.
A skull. A head. The head of a bird. The head of a vulture, held gingerly between the canine jaws of Walt Whitman, my Lab-Pit Bull mix. A gift from the oak. Good dog. Good tree. Good life. The Indians would call this good medicine. A power omen from the Otherside Land. I held it in my palm, weighing it. The naked head. The vacant eye. A million acres scanned from above. And that nose. Filter for the countless air born molecules of decay. To think of all the thermals he rode, of all the death he consumed. Surely there’s a message here. Surely there’s a meaning.
There comes a point in the film when Birdman’s world is about to crash down, when all that he worked for, all that he dreamed, hinges on the opening night’s review by the New York Times. But Birdman, he knows he’s going to get skewered. And there’s this moment, this suicidal moment, when a quick and easy death truly seems like an obvious choice.
I know what it feels like to want to die like that, to feel like a failure in one’s attempt to be an artist. But the thing is, you are an artist. Or you’re not. It’s not something that somebody outside of you can bestow upon you like an award. If you’re waiting for a critic, agent, editor or some gatekeeper to validate you, to give you their blessing, then you need to take a step back and ask yourself what you’re doing. Because that’s not art. And that’s not an artist.
The vulture, in Native American myth, is a symbol of death, rebirth and vision. It is a symbol of purification and a return to the self (Ted Andrews, Animal Speak). And here’s the kicker. Vulture medicine “has to do with performing rather than talking about performing.” You what you do, not what you say you do.
Circle back to Emerson. Words break and chop. Action is the perfection of thought. Circle back to Birdman. It’s not the review, it’s the all effort and courage that accumulates up to the moment, and through the entirety of, the performance. Circle back to me. I am standing beneath an oak tree holding the mummified head of a Turkey Vulture in the palm of my hand. I have just left the safe and cozy corporate world of media and games to pursue the harrowing world of what I am calling my art. I am a writer, always. I am a photographer too. I am a person who has something meaningful to say. I am a father. I am the author of Serpent Box and the voice behind this blog. I am the Birdman. I am the Sugarman. I am the keeper of the dog named Walt. I am all of those names and am unecompassed by any one.
And so are you, Sally, Tim and Pete. Whoever you are. Whatever you are called. Go see Birdman. It is a rare treat to experience dialog and story and performance in such harmony. It is, in my meaningless opinion, the best film of 2014.
o O o