Monday, November 12, 2007

the fortress of solitude

In the film No Country for Old Men the villain/assassin gives two potential victims a choice of their fate. He holds a coin and flips it and slaps it down and insists that they call it. The choice is everything. In one case, the victim is unaware of the consequences of the decision. In the other, the victim knows and refuses to choose. Because, she says, the choice is solely his. So a simple coin becomes something more than just heads or tails. It is how we view the future and our power over its eventuality.

The movie is one of those ones that haunt you well after you see it. The cinematography is sometimes bleached yellow and brown and often bleak and broad. Each character could be a full film on his or her own. The story raises questions about how we deal with fate and death, how we weigh the worth of our lives, how the choices we make have consequences we can and cannot see, and how we repeat past lives with just a faded light to guide us because knowledge only comes to us by linear and not borrowed time.

As my friend and I walked out into the street from the theater and our eyes adjusted from the fluorescent lobby lights to the city's curving darkness we both said that we liked how the film raised more questions than it answered. That there were certain scenes and story lines that the viewer has to choose to settle and solve or leave to mystery. An artful mimic of the way life is often how we see it: clearer from the outside than from our inside.

This notion of how life shifts its mystery is something raised again and again in a book I'm reading called The Fortress of Solitude. The title is a reference to Superman's private headquarters -- rendered in icy blades in the 1970s movies, probably because it's supposed to be hidden in the Arctic somewhere. The book is about New York City in the 1970s and the friendship between white and Jewish Dylan Ebdus and black and older Mingus Rude. It's about the jagged trajectory that friendships take when they are complicated by race, age, decisions and time.

And the book has many lines and paragraphs that haunt me and make me swoon and this is just one of them:

Mingus Rude, Arthur Lomb, Gabriel Stern and Tim Vandertooth, even Aaron K. Doily: Dylan never met anyone who wasn't about to change immediately into someone else. His was a special talent for encountering persons about to shed one identity or disguise for another. He took it in stride by now.
It makes me think of Superman and Clark Kent, of the characters in 'No Country' who shift with their circumstances, of all the people I've known and will know who will turn like a prism into split light that spills in unpredictable color.

How do we know people? By what they say and then what they do. And then, slowly, by how they shed who they think they are supposed to be for us and finally, chrysalis-like, become the complication they are. And the coin flip of intimacy is our choosing: if we let someone see us not just as we wish to be seen but as we are beneath. An un-simple act of courage to hold our hands out and up for examination among the lines that tangle and diverge and cross there.

And this, I think, is when life is most interesting. This shedding of disguises that reveals the spaces between us aren't as wide as we perceive them to be. Those moments when someone ventures a thought that feels like a jump without looking only to uncover an unforeseen and shared history. Or when the leap taken is answered with less judgment and more compassion and perhaps love. How we make the anticipation of the needle worse than its dive into skin.

We are wise to guard ourselves from each other. It's impossible to know how someone will carry our heart until the disguises are lifted, until unknown hearts are known. But it's so rare that we can give when we know what will be given. And when we do offer up without knowing the consequences, when we make this choice to shed solitude for intimacy, the mystery that life is spills into the light a bit more. Because it is rare that you are what I want you to be or I am what you wish me to be but it doesn't matter because it is so much more beautiful to be the unpredictable pattern that you are and that I am and that we all are meant to be.