Thursday, June 19, 2008

The man in black

This image was shot out a hotel room window in Charleston, South Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend about 4 years ago.

I've never quite understood why I kept it, but it haunts me. And it woke me up this morning, so I decided to feature it here and see if moving it into a different context gives me any clarity around it.

I know that part of what draws me is the man in black with the cigarette, though I don't know him or anyone like him. I suspect he reminds me of my childhood, and televised appearances of Frank Sinatra, his trenchcoat thrown carelessly over his shoulder, cigarette in hand, singing his heart out.

Frank Sinatra went to the same school in Hoboken as my dad, though he was a little younger, and my father always talked about him with a proprietorial air. He'd sit there with his head cocked slightly, listening to Frank sing "Night and Day" and he'd always say, "Frank never could get that interval right; this is definitely not one of his best songs."

So maybe this photograph is about nostalgia; a longing for the good old days when Father Knew Best and people like Frank Sinatra made mystique seem more accessible. There's always been a part of me that longed to be mysterious, obscure, tantalizing. But as the marriage test we found in a file the other day says, it is my nature to be natural and forthright -- mysterious has never been an option for me.

Of course, that same test said my chances of a successful marriage were about 2.3 out of 10: apparently that natural and forthright nature precludes an understanding or acceptance of other people's less obvious motives and agendas, which can lead to serious relationship problems. Given that I am still married now, 24 years after having taken that test, their premise may have been wrong. But my guess is my husband should get a lot of the credit for making the marriage work: his chances, after all, were 6.4!

It seems odd to me that being natural and forthright would hurt your chances for a successful relationship. But perhaps truth, that inner reality I sought so punnily in yesterday's post, is not always a bonding element. On the other hand, maybe I mourn truth decay precisely because I am natural and forthright: it has nothing to do with what is right, and much more to do with thinking everyone should be like me -- that would be a typical human response.

I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, studying the answers, and learning that one of the biggest challenges in the workplace is learning to work with people who are not like you: coping with introverts when you're an extrovert, making decisions when you're surrounded with a whole staff of relentless data-gatherers, articulating feelings and their value in a strongly intellectual environment dominated by thinking types.

Maybe the appeal of this picture lies in its loneliness: that man with the cigarette is clearly set apart from the barflies lined up at the door. And no matter what our Myers Briggs "sign" is, there will always be times for each of us when we feel very much alone. This image says that's okay: it's okay to be different -- it might even be COOL to be different. You don't have to hang with the flock; it's okay to separate yourself from the crowd.

...which is a message we contemplative types need to be reminded of from time to time, because spirituality is an individual and often lonely process of discovery. The great theologian and author CS Lewis once said that the spiritual path was rather like a tree: as we continue to grow closer to God, we get farther and farther from the other leaves and branches until at the end we're pretty much out on a limb.

And face it: we're spending most of our lives in the tree. We're not in that nice safe trunk with everybody else all that long, and no matter who we are or how advanced we never quite make it all the way to the all-encompassing serenity, compassion and acceptance that is God.

So we stand suspended between the two images at the top of this page, striving toward the Buddha-nature on the left while at the same time caught in the worldliness that is Hank's Raw Bar.

For some reason this makes me think of my favorite commercial on TV right now. Oddly enough, it's an ad for the Washington lottery, but it features several flightless birds, each strapped to a human who has taken off in a glider. It starts with a penguin eagerly climbing a hill and trying to flap its "wings" as it glides through the air, and the last scene shows a huge emu suspended between two men in gliders, experiencing flight for the first time.

The tag line of the commercial (which you can watch here if you don't happen to live in Washington State: is this:

Every bird should get to fly. Washington's Lottery: Whose world could you change?

Yes, that feeling of being suspended between two worlds can be frustrating and terrifying at times. But I have this sense that there are angels carrying us as we, flightless creatures that we are, soar through our time here. Or maybe that's not angels, it's just love. And every bird WILL get to fly.

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