Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Holy Grail

It’s shameful to admit that most of my knowledge of the holy grail myth comes from repeated childhood viewings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Excalibur. Both movies, aside from being a comedy classic and featuring Helen Mirren in her prime (respectively), do a nice job of imparting the myth: King Arthur setting himself and his knights on individual quests to find the holy grail in hopes of recapturing the glory of his kingdom. The grail, of course, is the golden chalice that Christ used during the last supper, thus the mystical connection to a higher power.

What does one do when he finds the grail? In the Monty Python version, while storming the castle that held the grail, King Arthur got arrested by modern-day English bobbies for earlier lancing a TV documentarian who had crossed into the time-space vacuum created by good comedy. The gist is you find the grail and sail off into a golden eternity of permanent grace … sort of like suicide bombers getting X number of virgins in paradise. (I’m not sure why having sex with virgins is considered paradise … reality would be a lot of crying, belly-aching teenage girls asking is it over yet? in pained tones and then cat-fighting while you set about relentlessly jack-hammering the rest. 80 porn stars, I understand. Not 80 virgins.)

I’ve since come to understand that most people are living their lives by the holy grail method. Instead of a golden bowl that held Christ’s blood, they’re thinking wealth and fame more than anything else. Find these things, and you’ll be happy forever. Or someone to marry. Kids. Big house. Not much else fits the bill. Usually a small handful of archetypes that make people feel secure in their lives.

Well, funny things happen on the way to the grail. And even funnier things happen when you get the grail. Sooner or later, it dawns on you that the grail is made of plastic with “Made in China” stenciled on the bottom. Christ’s blood is Cherry Kool-Aid. The myth of the grail fades to the reality of your life, whether you’re fruitlessly chasing it the rest of your days, or have found “it” ten-fold. If you’re married and have kids, it all just sort of fades into who you are. Ditto, fame and fortune. You can surely enjoy the fruits of these labors, but you’re still whoever you are, whoever you were before you set out on this mythical quest.

I’ve never understood the concept of transformation in our lives which, in essence, is the Holy Grail myth. You will be transformed from something lesser to something greater by obtaining this magical thing. Unhappy girlfriends carry on about “personal growth” when all they really want is boyfriends getting new hobbies that cater more to their interests. A vice president strives to become senior vice president so he can move into a more expensive house in a more expensive neighborhood that ratchets up the pressure from coal-shoveling in a boiler room to tightrope-walking level. An actor works his ass off to become famous, only to realize this way of life prevents him from ever walking down the street unaccosted and finds people with cameras chasing him his every waking hour.

I seem to get into these themes of ambition on here regularly – probably because I’m in my 40s and find myself, especially living in New York, puzzled over why people do the things they do. I’m trying to understand the roots of this blind ambition I see in so many people here – and wondering whether I should recognize it as an enlightened state of being or a character flaw. I don’t believe either extreme is entirely true, but having spent enough time around people who have “made it” in some sense, I believe their lives are no better than anyone else’s, save it would pain them to acknowledge that. Way too much time, money and hard work has been spent to ever ponder that.

Value seem to be what all this comes down to. What do you value in your life, and what are you willing to do to obtain what you value? I’ve learned that I value sanity, physical health, reasonable financial security and minor creature comforts. Earlier in life, I thought I would want or need a big house with property to live on. I wouldn’t mind getting a house, but not for the obscene price tag you’ll find in the immediate NYC vicinity. In the back of my head is that concept of a nice house with property – sure, I’d like to have that – but it’s not a burning priority. I’m shocked that I can live in a small apartment, but I’ve learned that having a ton of physical space to roam around in isn’t a necessity. I would value that sense of privacy – I feel like I’m missing that in my life – but I can make-do with what I have. Living anywhere in an urban area, save for the highest-end real estate, you will have to put up with other people’s bullshit.

Which, I’ve learned, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I’d prefer not dealing with pricks on a routine basis, but doing so gives you more worthwhile experience on how to get by in life. Of course, live here long enough, and it’s hard not to try on the “prick” hat occasionally and find it fits very nicely. It’s impossible to spend decades here and walk around in that sanctified state where you forgive every transgression and have eternal patience in every situation. I was that way for about five minutes in 1987.

I don’t’ know exactly how or when I stopped worrying over all those things I once desired – to be famous, married, tastefully wealthy, benevolent lord of the manor. I wouldn’t say no to any of these things, but again, I’m noticing how life works more than what I desire. Living in New York tends to make people strip down their lives to core essentials. How much money do I need to live. How much time and space to stay sane. How many people to feel loved. The answer tends to be “not a lot” to most questions. But in having that reductionist way of seeing the world, that sense of closing ranks also sinks in emotionally.

I think when we’re younger, we sense all these possibilities swirling around us and feel like we have to spread our arms out wide to pull them all in, whether or not we ever pursue them. As times goes on, our arms are occupied only with what we can carry. And carrying things is harder than thinking about things you want to carry. As with so many other things, if you think you’re failing or doing something wrong, the simple ability to stop and question yourself means you’re doing better than you think you are. But we’ve been trained to think anyone who doesn’t make himself highly visible as an archetype of power and success must have failed in some sense.

The quest for the grail! I don’t know where it goes for some people … the quest for the morning can of Old Milwaukee, and anything good that happens after that, icing on the cake. I sometimes think all of the things I noted above are just rationalizations and bullshit I tell myself to get by. But even if that is the case, that’s how life goes, you go along, things happen or don’t happen, and you learn from each turn in the road. When I write things like this, I sometimes think, “Christ, this sounds stupid, like it should be written in crayon, it’s so easy to understand.” But it’s not that easy to understand and often takes years of getting it wrong before getting it right – and I mean living it, not writing it down and thinking that makes it real.

For me, it feels like a sort of muted epiphany, the slow transition from possibility to reality. Our childhood and teenage lives are all about imaging possibilities for ourselves, but the rest is dealing with reality, and finding out what we desired may not have been what it appeared to be. Maybe it was exactly what it appeared to be, and passing time made us see it differently. As a kid who wanted to be a writer and loved rock and roll, so much of life back then was lived inside my head. I distinctly remember doing this constantly – imaging myself as the rock star creating the music I was listening to. I did this for years and listened to a lot of music this way. Again, I can’t pinpoint when I moved away from that fantasy. But now I just listen to music and get as much pleasure from it. Maybe not that lightning bolt of recognition I felt as a teenager, but growth and understanding like I never new at that time.

I think Dad passing along a few years back wiped out that fantasy world. Even before that, 9/11. I can’t explain it, but before that I enjoyed reading, and writing, fiction. Afterward, some aspect of my nature just closed down on fiction. I had no urge to read or write it. To this day, I’ll rarely read a work of fiction, or write any. I guess when you feel your life directly threatened in some sense, it makes the mind shift gears into survival mode, for me at least. And when Dad passed on, that sense of no longer being a kid really sank in. Even at the time it happened, on the cusp of turning 40, I still felt that fantastical sense of being child inside. I came away with much more of a sense of fending for myself in the world, which is exactly what happens when you lose a parent. I wouldn’t even call it losing Dad as a guide – just the reality of one of the few people in the world I knew I could absolutely count on in any situation, no matter what, no longer being there. God bless you if you’re cracked the code and feel that sense of security with a lot of people, because I surely haven’t.

Would Dad be proud of me now?Hell , yeah. He’d be annoyed that I wasn’t making more money and didn’t have a wife and kids. But he’d roll with it. I suspect he always thought “the writing thing” was a load of BS and was over-joyed when I started making more money in NYC offices than he did as a factory worker … in his mind, that was why he sent me to college. Of course, I’ve never been all that happy with this turn of events, but not miserable either, and able to live my life with certain levels of self respect and security that surely made no sense to me through my 20s. Obviously, I think I should incorporate professional writing more into my life, but if you take a good look around the writing world over the past decade, paid writing positions have been disappearing like the rain forest. So I'm not holding my breath on that one.

I think the grail for me was simply being able to write, like this, however I wanted. If you went back to the garden of Gethsemane, chances are Christ wasn’t passing around a golden chalice to the apostles. It was probably a grubby wooden bowl. These guys were on the run, outlaws, about to get the hammer dropped on them by the Romans, not working in any traditional sense, wandering around in dirty robes, just trying to survive the crazy path they had set themselves on against all sanity and reason. I relate to that more than I do golden chalices, and blood, and kings and knights wandering the land, thinking having that thing is going to make everything hunky dory. I always had the grail. Something tells me you always had it, too, in whatever sense the world felt right to you. The trick is not to lose it.

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