Tag Archives: Rilke

Meditations on Late Summer

The start of every summer is always so full of excitement—the promise of endless free time, lazy mornings, late nights, swimming in pools and oceans, climbing trees and mountains, reading books. Every year around late May, the summer looms so large. It seems so immense. Those endless days! Those boozy low-pressure thunderstorm nights! And so little that must be done!

I used to make “summer plans” every May when school ended: plans that including a list of books to read, projects to work on, relationships to pursue, etc. But invariably, most of these “plans” never really materialized. June would come and go, July would be a flurry of vacation, August would start and so would school. Soon it was football and marching band and getting the right calculator for math class. Pep rallies, bonfires, ever shortening sunlight. Summer a fading memory. Another year passing.

The students are slowing finding their way back to Biola’s campus these days. I work full time here so I’ve been on campus all summer, enjoying the quiet quad and near-empty cafeteria. But all that changes this week as another school year begins. Things will get lively again. The rhythms of work and study and discipline return. It’s definitely exciting. But it also means the summer is over.

At the start of this summer, way back in mid-May when school let out and graduates dispersed, I took a trip to England. I stayed for a while in C.S. Lewis’ house, The Kilns, in Oxford. I slept in each morning, summer-style. I wrote in the flowering gardens. I took walks to the pond on misty/cool afternoons. When I didn’t feel like writing, I read books that I found in the library. Everything Lewis ever wrote was there on the shelves, and some of it was new to me. I picked up a book of Lewis’ poetry one day, in which I came across this poem. I’m not sure when he wrote it or if it was ever published, but it sounds like he wrote it late in life. It captures a lot of what “late summer” means, I think:

Late Summer

I, dusty and bedraggled as I am,
Pestered with wasps and weed and making jam,
Blowzy and stale, my welcome long outstayed,
Proved false in every promise that I made,
At my beginning I believed, like you,
Something would come of all my green and blue.
Mortals remember, looking on the thing
I am, that I, even I, was once a spring.

There’s a lot of regret in those words, as in every August. The regret of things that never quite materialize, love that never happens the way you thought it would, barbecue experiments that go slightly awry.

Ah, the end of summer. It’s about change, aging, and looking back. Just ask Yasujiro Ozu, whose penultimate film was entitled The End of Summer and who, like C.S. Lewis, died in 1963. Or ask Rilke, whose poem “Autumn Day” evokes the late summer in its famous opening line: “Lord, it is time: The summer was immense.”

Indeed. It was immense. There is still sand in my suitcase. But it’s time to move on.

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Healing Transitions

I spent the weekend in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, BC and Seattle), and I have to say that it was one of the loveliest autumnal weekends I’ve had in a long time. It was alternately rainy, misty, foggy, crisp, clear, and smoky. And the fall colors were enjoying their last vibrant bursts of showy seasonality. There were swirls and cyclones of deciduous death, good coffee and pubs and plays and Rilke poems. It was glorious. And Explosions In the Sky and Fleet Foxes, which is always good music for fall.

Everyone everywhere seemed to be smiling, flying a kite, or eating artisan cheeses. Christmas decorations were going up in the department stores. Some Christians I was around were speaking poetically about the approaching Advent season.

Change was in the air. Goodwill in the streets. And now, as I write this in the Seattle airport, it is on the T.V. screens as well.

Monday was the day the Obamas went to visit the Bushes at the White House. The 43rd president–loathed and ridiculed the world wide–sat with the incoming, internationally beloved 44th president in the Oval Office in a beautiful display of what we are promised will be the smoothest transfer of presidential power in American history. The pictures of the two men, as well as some with their wives, struck me as sincere, significant, and a little healing.

After the long national nightmare that was this presidential election, we finally have closure, certainty, and (yes) hope. As Rilke might say: Lord, it is time: The election was immense.

It is no secret around here that I did not vote for Obama. But that doesn’t mean that I will not celebrate this historic moment, this remarkable 70 day period in our country’s history in which we anticipate the inauguration of our first African-American president, the incredible moment when Barack Obama will be sworn in on steps that were built by the hands of slaves. Talk about healing.

As with all change, there will doubtless be rocky patches for America in the months to come. The changing of seasons is always wrought with potential hazard. It will be hard for many and easy for others. There will be turbulence, but hopefully we’ll land in one piece. Or, rather, in one peace–a standard for the world to emulate and America to live up to.

Synecdoche, New York

Within the first minute of this film, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because the first words uttered are lines from my favorite Rilke poem: “Autumn Day.” It’s a poem about change, time, decay, and loneliness, and so is Synecdoche. The words of the poem (uttered over the radio by a suitably dour NPR-esque voice) also turn out to paint pretty literal pictures of what goes on in the film. Here is how the poem ends:

Whoever has no house now will not build one
anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long
time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Not to spoil anything, but this last image is pretty much mirrored in the closing shots of the film, which is perfectly fitting for a film that revels in circularity, frames-within-frames, and reflexive loop-de-loop.

Like Charlie Kaufman’s other films (especially Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), Synecdoche is a surrealist collage about the blurry blendings of art and life, memory and dreams, imaginings and harsh realities.

This time Kaufman is totally unrestrained, directing it himself and not having to fight the visions of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, however similar they might have been. The result is much more grandiose, startling, and messy (in a good way). Kaufman directs like he writes: with absurdist visuals and hold-on-to-your-hat pacing (unapologetically confusing timelines, cutting to an image or 2 second clip here and there that represents an entire year or event in some major character’s life, for e.g.). He is a brainy visionary, to be sure, but he also knows how to reign himself in and keep things focused. Synedoche, perhaps moreso than any of his other creations, has a cohesion to it, even while it never stays on any one course for very long.

There are a lot of themes and ideas going on in Synecdoche, and I could easily write 500 words about each of them. The thing that most grabbed me about this film, however, was the way that it dealt with the passage of time. Personally, I’m a big fan of the passage of time, but there are undeniably melancholy things about it too, which Kaufman capitalizes on. Kaufman treats the passage of time with the same tender ambivalence that he treats most of his subjects. Time and decay are existential givens. S*** happens (very viscerally in this film). From the first moments of Synecdoche, the characters are in states of decay. Bodily functions are failing, skin is flaking, hair receding. Scene changes can hide weeks, months, even years of time passing, with no nod from the narrative whatsoever. It’s as if Kaufman is saying, “yeah, a year passed… who cares?,” which is about the most honest sentiment a screenwriter could express. Time isn’t always full of exciting beats and plot turns. In any given life, there may only be two hours worth of noteworthy scenes.

So goes the conflating, circle of life-meets-art that is this film. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s playwright character feels like his significance in life will come by putting on a massive play about his life. Or, rather, he wants to create a play that will reveal the significance and meaning of the world by dramatizing it in all of its seeming insignificance and meaninglessness. Essentially, Kaufman seems to suggest, this is what art is all about: finding a way to distill meaning from one’s life and world and achieve renown because of it.

In Synecdoche, the dual processes of life and art, existence and performance become indistinguishable. These days, though, such a concept isn’t all that hard to conceive. In the end, is our life more about being or performing? One need only watch The Hills to see how perplexing that question has become.

Synecdoche is about a lot of other things, too: fate, free will, fatherhood, love, theater, Artaud, cruelty, death, dreaming, and the housing crisis. It’s also about life—contemporary life—and the ridiculousness of our unfailing searches for macro significance at the expense of our micro happiness.