Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter

My father was a church organist for twenty-some years, all through my early childhood. Church on Sunday was a half-day affair, from before the sun was up to the early afternoon. I absorbed a lot of things I didn't quite understand, a lot of imagery and half-understood notions, so I filled in the gaps with kiddie logic, the way yunguns do. I knew, for example, that Jesus was born on Christmas and died on Easter. But I thought this happened every year. The way I understood it, Jesus was born every Christmas, magically grew to maturity in the next few months, and then died again on Easter. And I remember wondering why nobody ever warned him. I mean, here's a congregation full of people singing about how much they love the guy, but nobody thinks to give him a heads-up about his impending death? Seemed a bit cruel to me. Must be one of those mysteries. The logic of a five-year-old.

It's Easter morning, nine or so. This is the time of my morning write, the time of day I'm usually scribbling on a manuscript. When all's well and easy, I write every morning, and the pages stack up, and after a while I have a new screenplay to share. Things have not been well, nor easy. I've had two good writes this month. Two. And yesterday my laptop's keyboard started malfunctioning. Again. Gotta swing by Best Buy and get a USB keyboard. My laptop's the only computer here with Final Draft on it.

Here is my parents' house. I came up for a medical emergency at the end of March. I was only supposed to be here for a couple of days -- what needed doing was done the second day I was here. But needs kept me here, and so I stayed. And then things worsened.

We had another completely different medical emergency on Friday. My 91-year-old grandfather had what we thought was a heart attack. Turns out it was only congestive heart failure. I watched the ambulances pull up, watched the paramedics wheel him out of the farmhouse. I stayed out of the way -- my mother, aunt, and grandmother had everything under control, because with Grandpa's decreasing health, this sort of thing has become disturbingly routine. When he comes back to the farm on Monday, he'll be in hospice care. He's decided to die at the farm, which is a surprise to no one. That he's dying is also no surprise, though of course that doesn't make it any easier.

So this has not exactly been an environment conducive to writing. And, frankly, writing's not what I should be dong while I'm here. This is the longest stretch I've been in the northwest since we moved to LA in 2005. Here I must be vague. Since I've arrived, there has been a reeducation regarding my family history, one I've needed to be here for. It is clear that a change, a new start, must happen. The pattern has to change. The future of my parents and the home they raised us in is uncertain. And that uncertainty is infectious. I brought my own sizable load of it with me, and here it's impossible to avoid. That uncertainty, that doubt, is nearly crippling.

Jeff, my brother in all but blood, came out the night before my grandfather was hospitalized. We didn't get much time together. We rarely do. We browsed the Tacoma Book Center but didn't buy anything -- we'd picked that place clean years ago -- rode around the Five Mile Drive and walked Owen Beach. We spoke of many things. Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. I spoke of the worry that gnaws at me, that I am constantly agonizing over. Am I doing the right thing? This is a family question, not just a professional one. Should I keep doing what I'm doing? Writing and filmmaking are the only things I'm good at, the only places I excel. But we can't afford to idle here, not the way my rich friends can, to play the waiting game necessary for success. And even if I ultimately find success, how long and what sacrifices will that take? What if it takes twenty, thirty years? Do I want to put my life on hold until I'm fifty, to have our kids growing up hardly knowing me and a wife who resents me? And when, if ever, will we have our children, build our family? What good is success if you have no one to share it with? The measure of a man is not what he does for himself.

Jeff listened. And like he always seems to do, he found the answer to my troubles in a Zen story, a kernel of wisdom easy to understand but difficult to implement. He told me of a student who asked his master what else he might do to guide himself towards enlightenment. "Enlightenment," the master replied, "is an accident." It's not something you can earn, he explained, not something you can track down or pay your dues for or ever be owed. Hearing this, the student despaired. "But," the master added, "meditation makes you accident-prone." Make a couple key substitutions, and you get this:

Success is an accident.
But practice and discipline make you accident-prone.

When Jeff articulated that, it resonated with me, the way a truth you've always known does when it's first put into words. Success in this industry is not about talent, or commitment, or who you know or whose genes you share, though such things can help. It's about being struck by lightning. And sure, you can do things to put yourself in the way of that bolt, but you can't coax it down. It's liberating to think of it in those terms -- if it's an accident, then it's not ever anything you can deserve. And if you can't deserve it, it removes the burden of shame associated with not achieving it, eliminates the "Why hasn't it happened? What am I doing wrong? What's wrong with me?" Nothing. Nothing at all.

This month -- and I'm about halfway through my time here -- has cleared a lot of fog and put things into sharp contrast. What I want is more clear to me now than it has ever been: Family and home, and health for both. I don't need success in film for either, especially if it would take time away from them. That doesn't mean I'll stop writing. I don't think I could. But it does mean I'm going to stop thinking of cinema as my only outlet. I'll go back to writing for the reason I started: I love telling stories, and I have good ones to share. But watering those stories down to fit key demographics, hiring myself out to tell stories I don't really care about for other people? Screw that. That's not why I started doing this. I started doing this because I loved it, not because I ever expected to have a career at it. It wasn't until I moved down here that it became an insufferable burden.

I think that, unless there's some compelling reason for us to stay, that when our lease is up in February, Camille and I will move. Whether back to the northwest or to the California coast, I cannot say. But a change, a new start, must happen. The pattern has to change, because the current one is unraveling and has become unsustainable.

So it's time to consider something new. The option that excites me the most is a foray into hospitality industry. Camille's dream is to own and operate a bed & breakfast, ideally in or around San Luis Obispo. I love that idea. She's so good with people, makes friends with such ease. It's a natural fit. I've had my dream, and pursued it, and though part of it might still come true, likely it won't. And you know what? I'm fine with that. The things I'd do at a B&B are the things I do now: write in the morning, chores and maintenance during the day. Maybe she'd even pay me. And I'm excited, truly excited, to try something new and scary with my partner.

In the Christian calendar, today is the day of rebirth, the confirmation of continuing life. But for rebirth to occur, there has to be a death, and an acceptance of that death. I'm seeing that literally and metaphorically in family right now. And if it's to happen in my own life, I must accept the death of where I thought I'd be and how I thought I'd live -- or at least let go of how I thought things would be. And that, my friends, is liberating.

2 comments:

A NEW LOS ANGELENO said...

I sometimes wonder why new year's resolutions don't occur on Easter versus the calendar year, especially when you have a community to support you. You do have a community to support you, Matt. Thanks for being so honest, not pretending you are something different than you, and being a great friend and husband to my friend. Whatever you do you have our support, because as a friend and member of my community you deserve that at the very, very least.

Katie said...

I'm sorry that things are...ugh...with your family right now. I won't say I know what you're going through, because I don't and it's trite. But I do understand the need for change--in part I think it's why you moved to LA for school in the first place, and it's certainly why I moved to the UK for grad school. I'm back in the UK for change and for my (our) future, a future which might have never come if I didn't suck it up and move.

And out of all the storytellers out there, be they Tolkien or Rowling, Hesse or Fitzgerald, you still rank as one of my absolute favourites. And no, I'm not just saying that. I'm starting writing myself, and if I somehow end up lucky enough to be published and optioned for a film, you're the only person I want to write the screenplay. If the story interested you, of course :)

All my thoughts are with you, Matt.