It is such an old saw, and due to its truth, it is a sturdy and predictably apt descriptor of the writing process: we write that which we know.
I’ve been thinking about writing and the pleasure it affords me. Since my childhood. I have gone from writing poems, essays, short stories, reports, magazine articles, novels and plays to revealing blog entries, and always with the thought that if I can just commercialize my writing, I would have the perfect life.
And, just to be clear, I knew, in my soul of souls that the only things holding me back were others… my parents, my job, my temperament, my lovers, my culture…. Until this afternoon.
If The World would ever just get off my back for five minutes, if The World would just cooperate with this genius of mine, then, dammit, I’d be happy. I’d be free. I’d be released from this nightmare.
Imagine my surprise, finding in the fifth decade, not only my voice but an avenue to express it day or night, with the knowledge that in real time, someone might actually read my words and benefit from them, or, better, be amused by them.
I understand now that the reasons I have not yet written the great American novel are numerous and just part of this package. I find LIFE itself so boring, such a plodding, slow unusually gruelingly mundane affair, why would I possibly want to inhabit characters who are lost and on the road to redemption? Why would I want to subject anyone to one hundred and fifty pages of people screwing up their lives, just to gain resolution and denouement in the last twenty-five pages of a book?
I spent fifty years trapped like that, and I am not going to spend another moment extolling the “human condition” the way it is portrayed by others, as it was portrayed by myself. I am grateful for my favorite novelists, brave men and women who see the whole cloth and then have the patience to lay down a pattern, cut it all up, baste and pin, and then sew the pieces into a new suit of light. I would like that ability, that sort of patience and complexity of thought. But I am not there yet.
I think of my own scribbling, and am struck now with two thoughts: it has been good so far, but it can now get so much better.
I realized yesterday that I have been inadvertently self-obsessed to the exclusion of others. What I mean to say, I realized in a moment, with a sharp, cold intake of new air, that even the ones I do not like, the ones who are convinced of their own fragility and who are unable to remove themselves from the darkness they have come to associate with their personalities, that they too understand that we are in hell.
Everyone understands that this is an imperfect, difficult system. It is not a secret, and, out in plain view for all to see, we have great monuments from men and women far less asleep than I ever was. Novels, bridges, inventions, newscasts, friendships.
Every participant knows, down deep, that this is a game we are all playing, that none of it is real, that we have donned the garb of the warrior and healer, monk and tycoon, to act out great symbolic understandings and misunderstandings. From this perspective, it is all a hell of a ride.
Let me tell you what I was given before sleep today.
I was in a station of some sort, a terminal or meeting place, and in the hallway there was a nice, clean hippie smoking a cigarette and minding his own business, just walking down the hall opposite me. Upon passing him, I looked back, and I realized it was Jesus. We high-fived, low- and slow-fived each other in recognition and goodwill, and he was about to go his own way when I asked him if he could show me around.
He led me to a golden plain, a huge tableau which resembled a jigsaw puzzle, covered with gold. I could not see the design the puzzle represented, and I noticed that it was a gigantic puzzle, with just a few pieces out of place. I looked around and then noticed that the missing pieces were indeed just floating above the playing board, hovering, waiting for the proper time to plunk into place.
This jigsaw puzzle, now nearly complete, hung in space, in a starry, ink-black area of space. I asked Jesus what the puzzle was a picture of. I was so curious. He said it is not possible to know that unless I get closer. So we adjusted our sizes and entered the puzzle. It was weird, because my eyesight became 3 dimensional once we entered the puzzle. It was a lush and verdant garden, actually, an entire world, so beautiful, so serene.
We began walking, and we came to a place where it seemed as if things were still unformed. It was as if a great creative wind was sucking through the puzzle, through the hole, and things could not remain formed in that kind of space, that sort of vortex.
I asked about that. Jesus said that this was a patch of my life, a patch of the puzzle, where the piece was missing. I looked overhead, but from our perspective, I couldn’t make out the size of the hole, the size or design on the puzzle piece. All I saw was a chasm, a sucking void of confusion.
He told me I will know these areas of my life as simply places where the puzzle piece hasn’t yet been laid down. This area was about prosperity/money/external “success”, etc. And everything I did to try to fix things within this void fail because the void does not allow for completion.
This missing piece creates a disturbance as integral to the overall puzzle as the places where the pieces fit just-so. To expect things to flow where there is no puzzle piece is madness. Identify it for what it is and stop identifying with the void.
Then Jesus shrugged and lit another cigarette. This one was clove. He moved on, walking next to me, silently taking in the mystery of it all. He knows how to use silence, that one.
I marveled then at the puzzle itself. We adjusted our sizes, and rather than being big enough to take in the whole puzzle, I got as big as a galaxy. From that perspective, the mechanics of one little puzzle didn’t bother me at all.
I could see the effects of the Invisible Hand, could see councils upon councils ringing the puzzle, and then each and every person’s puzzle, laid out pristine and singular, and big giants huddled over their puzzles, alternately enjoying them and wanting to burn them.
We returned to my own work. Look at the depth of the background. Regard the attention to detail in the foreground. Enjoy the visual and emotional impact the totality of it impresses upon my soul. Understand that each and every puzzle piece represents a feeling state, a lesson learned, an identity explored, a truth revealed.
Is it wrong that all the pieces are not in place? No. The only mistake is in condemning the work because it is incomplete. It is not supposed to be complete, you see. Judging it with temporal eyes is the only mistake, well, that and confusing the puzzler with the puzzle.
So, I got a little mad at Jesus because I wanted to know how to finish assembly of this thing. How do I call a puzzle piece into place that is just freaking hovering? What is the deal with that?
Jesus chuckled at my enthusiasm and my frustration. He looked at me and cocked his head and said, “Really? You see, the mistake is made when you forget that it was YOU who picked out the picture to make into a puzzle. It was you who machined the puzzle, calculating to an angel’s hairbreadth the adventures, the misadventures, the loves and hates, the gestalt and the identity of the puzzle. It was you who chose to lay all the pieces out and start putting it together in Anoka, Minnesota, borne of two youth, two young souls who had agreed to try to find their way, for your benefit and their own, long before you entered.
It was you who decided, about half-way thorough the puzzle to put on a blindfold and continue to grope around for puzzle pieces on the orange shag carpet of every crappy rental and every skeezed out back alley you’ve ever been in.
You chose the humiliations, the exaltations, the goals and the methods of achievement, of atonement.
Then you finally removed your blindfold, and here we are, with you here, bitching about two pieces still out of place, and me telling you that it’s beautiful. He sat back, closed his eyes and swayed, listening to far-off and mysterious music he turns on and off at whim.
Then he roused himself from reverie and said, you wanna call it down, call it down. If you no longer wish for the dissonance, the cosmic wind whistling through this hole in your puzzle, and you don’t like the chaos the vortex is creating, close it. Call down the piece. Just put it in place. Who else can do it? Who else understands better than you what the original looked like? Only you know the terrain of your soul, the meaning behind the act of putting together this particular jigsaw puzzle. So call it down. Just stop the bitching.
That was generally the message.
Now, I know that was not the real Jesus. It was a device. It was a decoy. And I know He doesn’t mind me using him for illustrative purposes. I also know that His humor is not as wicked as mine. Not as irreverent, more gentle and more peaceful. I see the absurdity, I outrage and thrill at it, and Jesus just smiles. Just sits there and smiles and smokes.
I have realized just lately that I have been indulging in an ugly excess, one which often leads to dire outcomes. I have believed in my heart of hearts that no one on this earth has suffered more than me.
It is true. You can take that to the bank. I have long believed my suffering to be my finest work of art, my monument to the complex nonsense I find myself in the middle of. I have witnessed and ministered to others’ suffering, identifying with it only because I have had such a torrid love affair with my own pain. I have always used my own self as my compass, my own pain as guide, teacher and redeemer.
This is fine, there is no shame in that. Those who have shamed me for my pain are those who, I have noticed, are absolutely unwilling to sit with their own pain. They mock those who have befriended pain. They belittle the strength required to sit in the dark with one’s fears crawling inside and outside one’s skin, being driven fairly mad in the process. I can understand their scorn, but I have never appreciated it.
Now, as my perspective changes, I see that each of us are maddened by the holes still left in our puzzles. Isn’t it apt, that we, a bunch of puzzle masters, are growing restless as our masterpieces finally come together?
Isn’t it just fitting that we are in many ways more anxious and easily fooled than we were when deep within the puzzle, lugging pieces from place to place, trying to determine which piece is structure and which is fill-in, which one needs to be way on the other side of the puzzle, which piece may be from someone else’s puzzle and something for which we do not have a place?
I understand now that no one is immune from knowing that there is something more. Some are unable to articulate it, some are frozen solid and unable to work on their masterpieces, and no one alive has ever put it all together, completed it, and stuck around to describe how it was done.
It is supposed to be a journey of always feeling incomplete while never being incomplete. It has always been a study on perspective and how well we can approach the work at hand as if it is play.
Doesn’t matter if my Jesus is an irreverent, koan spouting, cigarette smoking deity. If you don’t like it, then conjure up your own Jesus. Tend to your puzzle.