Watching the Wheels: Finding Meaning and Purpose in Paterson

Adam Driver in PATERSON (2016)
Amazon Studios/Bleeker Street

In 1988, the Dalai Lama honored his personal attendant, Losang Samten, with a historic mission. Samten had spent years training intensively in the sacred art of sand mandalas—massive, intricate geometric maps dense with spiritually significant details. It had been centuries since the art—which requires weeks of mind-bending precision as painters work grain by grain—had been seen outside of Buddhist monasteries. Now, the Dalai Lama selected Samten to travel to the United States and introduce sand mandalas to the Western world.

In the ensuing decades, Samten has traveled throughout America practicing his art at museums and universities. “It is like a part of meditation,” he told Richard Marranca of the Sedona Journal of Emergence in 2011 after constructing a mandala in Reno. “Anything we do in our daily lives, like playing music, is a meditation…It’s about taming the mind.”

After hundreds of hours of this unfathomably intense work, Samten makes the final step: he sweeps the sand into a pile and tosses it into the nearest river.

“I think maybe they thought I was really crazy,” he told Marranca of the crowd that in 2011 watched him scatter his mandala into the Truckee River.

So why must they be destroyed? “Śūnyatā.”

Most often translated as “emptiness,” śūnyatā is the Buddhist belief that while nothing lasts forever, nothing is ever truly destroyed. All that we are, and all that we do, is a sand mandala, destined to be washed away, but destined, then, to become part of something else.

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Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson tells the story of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and poet from Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson earns his living as a bus driver, but his heart is in his work as a poet—though he is resolute in his disinterest in seeking publication for his work. The film takes place over the course of a week in Paterson’s life; we see him awaken each morning, eat breakfast, drive his route, return home to spend time with his wife Laura, take their dog for a walk, and drink a beer at the corner bar. There’s little that changes in his routine, save for the fact that over the course of the week, Paterson crafts several poems, ruminating on the lines in voiceover as he goes about his business, adding a line here and there until the words become mantras, developing and unfolding as Driver carefully enunciates each word.

In the opening scene, Paterson ponders a pack of matches while eating breakfast, and he spends the first third or so of the film slowly developing the poem that ultimately unspools from that consideration:

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
after that

All this will we give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
become the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smoulder towards heaven.

What seems at first to be a mundane observation of his world slowly unfolds into a grand evocation of his inner life, and the poem gains immense weight over the course of the long, still sequences Paterson spends honing the lines like a whittler obsessing over fine details until a small treasure emerges.Laura is Paterson’s biggest fan—in fact, she’s his only fan. She pleads with him to seek publication for his poems, but he demurs. “They should belong to the world,” she tells him, and when he replies, “Well, now you’re trying to scare me,” his smirk masks an evident anxiety. He’s resistant, even, to making a copy of his secret notebook, always putting a particular stress on that first word when he mentions it. When so many films tell stories of ambitious strivers, it’s surprising to see one where the protagonist actively shirks traditional modes of success, but Paterson’s creative work serves a function divorced from external validation. His approach to writing is akin to the approach his local bartender, Doc, takes to chess—Doc plays both sides, hunched over the board and muttering about getting his ass kicked by himself. While most people see the game as an opportunity to best an opponent, Doc plays for some unspoken personal benefit and satisfaction that’s unrelated to the thrill of competition.

Behind the bar, Doc maintains a Paterson wall of fame that boasts newspaper clippings and historical photos celebrating the town’s history. And peripheral figures constantly discuss the town’s notable figures and events—Paterson, we learn, was the hometown of Allen Ginsberg and the R&B legend Dave Prater; it was the site of the triple homicide for which Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was convicted and the founding of the Italian anarchist newspaper La Questione Sociale. All of this serves to counterpoint Paterson’s intense discomfort with the idea of joining their ranks. He shrinks from recognition, either passively—as in the endearing scene in which he meets a young girl who identifies as a poet and he simply listens to her work rather than trying to impress her with his own bona fides—or actively rejecting the title of poet in favor of identifying as “just a bus driver.”

Laura has grander ambitions than her husband, one of which is to become a country star, and so she purchases a guitar and enrolls in online lessons. When Paterson arrives home that night, she proudly shows off her newly acquired skills, singing, “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live long day. I’ve been workin’ on the railroad just to pass the time away.”

Those lyrics aren’t far off from the perspective on work taken by both Paterson and Paterson. When Laura has a particularly successful day in one of her ventures—earning $286 selling cupcakes at a farmer’s market—it’s not the approval of the customers that she focuses on; she gushes to Paterson, “I know it’s no big deal…but I’m quite proud of myself.” In the world of Jarmusch’s film, the purpose of work lies not in external achievement, but in the personal satisfaction of doing.

Does one’s purpose in working on the railroad (or, say, the bus route) come from hopes of great railroad-related notoriety? Or does it, perhaps, come from the opportunity to fill this formless void of an existence and in so doing lend it form?

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Train imagery recurs in one of the volumes featured in various loving shots of Paterson’s bookshelf: Kenneth Koch’s On the Great Atlantic Rainway. The title poem takes the form of a conversation overheard on the train, much like the unremarkable chats that Paterson overhears on his bus route. That is the modern idea of fittingness, one of the figures tells the other, to, always in motion, lose nothing.

The idea sounds absurd on first blush (and, by what appears to be a skeptical use of the word “modern,” it seems Koch’s speaker might feel the same). As most of us would attest, spending a day in motion leads to a loss of energy. But in physics, the first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy is never destroyed, just transformed into something else.

From that perspective, our daily efforts can easily seem futile; if our exertions never really create or destroy anything, then are we just running in place? But it strikes me that this essential balance in the universe makes our efforts deeply meaningful. If we exist in a state of perpetual equilibrium, there’s no such thing as wasted effort. Instead, we spend our lives contributing to a vast cycle that’s existed since long before the world’s energy coalesced into us and will exist long after we’ve become part of something new.Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in PATERSON (2016)Paterson’s lifestyle is made up of simple, nesting cycles—the cycle of sunrise to sunset, the cycle of breakfast to nightcap beer within it, and the cycle of a bus route within that. In the medium of film, which so often prizes dynamic plotting, watching a man run through unvarying daily circles might sound like a tedious reminder of our own stultifying routines. But Carl Jung, perhaps the 20th century’s most significant theorist on the meaning of symbols, had a different theory on the purpose of circles.

Jung was in the habit of drawing a circle every morning, a task he found helped center him as he prepared for his day, and he came to see it as a kind of affirmation representing his desire for spiritual wholeness, and when he later learned of Buddhist mandalas, he recognized his own practice in these images of circles within circles. The significance of the mandala would become a recurring theme in Jung’s work, including in a contribution by his colleague Marie-Louise von Franz to Jung’s book Man and His Symbols. “Mandalas,” she wrote, “restore previously existing order [and gives] expression and form to something that does not yet exist.” She compared the symbol to a spiral, running in circles while still ascending upwards.

If Paterson’s—and our own—daily routines may look like an unvarying loop, that’s taking a two-dimensional view on movement. Following the same circuit on one plane can also mean ascending on another, each rotation bringing you closer to a higher achievement, just as Paterson’s unvarying bus route provides the time to draw out new creative work that spirals into the universe line by line.

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Alongside Koch’s collection on Paterson’s bookshelf is Ron Padgett’s Alone and Not Alone, which includes the poem “Survivor Guilt.”

It’s very easy to get, Padgett writes. Just keep living and you’ll find yourself getting more and more of it.

The collection was published in 2015, around the same time that Padgett was writing the poems Jarmusch commissioned to be used as Paterson’s, and so it’s not hard to draw a line between “Survivor Guilt” and the most significant, yet uncommented upon, detail in Paterson.

Every so often, Jarmusch’s camera lingers on a framed photo of Paterson in Marine dress. It can be easy to gloss over, but on consideration, the detail casts a new light on both Paterson’s regimented lifestyle and one of the film’s most enigmatic scenes.

The life of a Marine is one of strictly enforced routine, and it’s one with which Driver himself was intimately familiar, having served prior to going into acting. “Everything you do is either steeped in tradition or has a practical purpose,” he said in a 2015 TED Talk. “‘Walk this way, talk this way because of this.’ Your uniform is maintained to the inch. How diligently you followed those rules spoke volumes about the kind of Marine you were.” If this is the lifestyle to which Paterson has grown accustomed in this previous phase of his career—his ability to maintain strict personal patterns corresponding to his personal integrity—then it makes sense it’s the lifestyle he would feel most comfortable preserving at home. Even his work as a bus driver can be seen as reflecting both the precise regulation and the service-oriented mindset of a military man acclimating to a new perspective on what his daily efforts can represent.

And yet there is this one scene, occurring near the precise center of the film, that—once you’ve scratched at the surface—suddenly makes it appear that Paterson’s lifestyle is one less of comfort than of coping.

With his military career going unspoken, we never see Paterson overtly grapple with the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life. But at the close of Wednesday, the third of the seven days we spend with him, Paterson finds himself sitting alone at the bar. As he gazes around, listening to the quiet jazz on the jukebox and the pockets of hushed conversation, Driver’s mouth turns subtly downwards and his eyebrows subtly upwards in vague unease. He focuses intently on his glass of beer; when he places it down, the clink of glass on bar is sharp, and then the camera—and Paterson’s gaze—lingers on it for a long unbroken moment. He takes a look around, then another deliberate sip, then another long gaze at the circle formed by the ring of the glass, and the circle of beer within that.

“Many soldiers find themselves straddling two worlds,” combat veteran Bryan Wood wrote in a 2013 essay published in The Huffington Post. “Their body is physically within the relative safety of being home, but their mind functions as if it were still surrounded by danger in the war zone.” And throughout this sequence, the sound design grows thick and harsh, noises—the click of an advancing jukebox menu, the frantic countdown of a chess timer—layering on top of each other until the quiet bar becomes vaguely claustrophobic. By the end of the scene, the glass of beer feels less like a prop than a meditative token to tame Paterson’s mind.Adam Driver in PATERSON (2016)Through this lens of a man trying to remember how he fits into his own life, Paterson’s creative work starts to look like an effort at creating an internal framework. “Emotionally, I struggled to find meaning,” Driver says in his TED Talk of his transition home, and it’s notable that all of Paterson’s poems—which have rudimentary names like “Poem,” and “Another One”—focus on the minutiae of the world around him and the emotional resonance therein. “Poem” opens with a stanza that seems almost childlike but for the ineffable grace Padgett brings to its construction:

I’m in the house.
It’s nice out: warm
sun on cold snow.
First day of spring
or last of winter.

Towards the close of his TED Talk, Driver discusses his concern that service members often lack the words to explain their experiences and his desire to arm them with new forms of self-expression, and you can feel that concern seeping into Paterson. As Paterson composes his poems, Driver’s voice savoring every word and the space between them, there’s a palpable grace and satisfaction that demonstrates the therapeutic power of creation, this pen and notebook serving as the talisman that can help guide this man the rest of the way home.

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Further along Paterson’s bookshelf can be found Collected Poems 1956–1987, the John Ashbery collection that includes his Pulitzer Prize winning “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” It’s a massive, sprawling poem, but it returns frequently to the value of dreams. Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed, Ashbery writes. Something like living occurs, a movement out of the dream into its codification.

These reveries, Ashbery believes, are so inconsequential until one day we notice the hole they left.

In what passes for the climax of Paterson, the one night that Paterson’s routine shifts—when he and Laura celebrate her cupcake earnings with dinner out and a reparatory screening of Island of Lost Souls—their dog chews up his secret notebook, and his poems are destroyed.

The loss is visibly devastating to Paterson through minute shifts in Driver’s placid performance; there’s no reason to disbelieve his claim of disinterest in publishing his poems, nor do we get a particular sense that he pores over them once they’re finished, but their absence from the world shakes him for reasons we can only infer and project.

Personally, I can’t deny that I write with the aim of my work reaching an audience. But the thrill of that work making its way into the world is relatively brief, and a few days of celebration in exchange for weeks of labor could never sustain a career. The greater satisfaction has to lie in the shaping of the ideas, the dance of working and stepping away and returning to refine as I feel the work solidify. And though it can be awkward and embarrassing to reread old work, I find deep satisfaction in curating my portfolio like a bonsai tree, thinking to myself, I did all that.

Recently, through distraction and carelessness, I deleted several days’ worth of work. It was a soul-rattling experience; I became short of breath, my vision seemed to spin. It took me nearly an hour to fully appreciate that this was not a true catastrophe. I remembered everything I’d lost, much of it verbatim, and my deadline left ample time to reassemble the work, but I felt a pervasive sense of defeat. My hours of effort now had no tangible result, as though my passage through the world had left no footprints behind me.

If I had unlimited time on this earth, then recreating lost work would be no issue. But the few days of work I deleted represented two fewer days in my limited life that I could spend creating new work. And to see how easily it can slip from my grasp was all too painful a reminder that in the unlikely event that my work does outlive me by a century or two, on a grand enough scale, even the most enduring work will vaporize along with everything else.

This essential impermanence, though, seems a comfort to Paterson, or at least so he tells himself. “They were just words written on water,” Paterson says to Laura, attempting to salve her distress over his lost notebook. If everything we create can vanish, all we have to hold onto is whatever personal benefit we got from creating it, the emotional prolonging that Ashbery believes we derive from dreams, even as they slip away into ephemera.

Losang Samten creates sand mandalas to remind us of śūnyatā, that holy emptiness, but as he says on his personal website, their benefit isn’t lessened by their impermanence. “Just to glimpse the mandala,” he writes, puts us “in touch with the profound potential for perfect Enlightenment, which exists within the mind of all beings.” His work may vanish, but for the moment it’s here, it can act as a trigger, and the sooner we can avoid thinking of our work’s value in terms of its physical footprint, the sooner we might be able to take “words written on water” as blessing rather than curse.

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The poet William Blake isn’t featured on Paterson’s shelf, but he looms large in Jarmusch’s oeuvre after lending his name to the protagonist of Dead Man. And in two small couplets first scratched into his own notebook under the title Eternity, Blake evokes a sacred impermanence that feels quite a lot like śūnyatā:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

In short, once you accept that life’s feelings are temporary, what looks like impermanence might actually feel more like a perpetual state of grace. It’s a resonant notion, but also one for which it can feel hard to find time when so much of our work is a grind we must undertake just to survive.Adam Driver in PATERSON (2016)There are times when Paterson feels like a fable, one of a lifestyle that’s so simple, so devoid of immediate burden, that Paterson’s Zen conduct—and the lifestyle of perfect financial equilibrium he and Laura lead, never having significantly more or less than they require—looks more like a privilege that few people have the opportunity to emulate. But the purpose of fables is to leave us with a small lesson that may not directly reflect our lives but gives us a token to carry in our pockets, a lens to hold up to our own world and see what new perspective we might gain on this complex, chaotic life. In Zen Buddhism, this type of small story is a kōan, and the lessons aren’t meant to comfort or soothe, but rather to provoke “the Great Doubt,” a fraught contemplation of life’s questions that one has to work through in order to find peace. The story may be simple, but the questions it provokes can have profound implications.

Towards the end of the film, Paterson—still reeling from the loss of his notebook—bumps into Everett, a young man who’s spent the entire film flailing in the wake of a breakup. Noticing a low mood that Paterson is loath to admit, Everett offers, “It’s like they always say: ‘The sun still rises every mornin’ and sets every evenin’.’ Always another day.” At first it sounds like an empty aphorism, but in Everett’s tone of simultaneous hope and despair lies an invitation for greater thought.

Nothing lasts forever—the pain you’re feeling today will end, but so will today’s joy. And just as all your tumultuous feelings will pass, so will you, and the world will continue turning. But as long as you’re here, you have empty days and the responsibility to somehow lend them form.

As a mysterious new friend tells Paterson in the final scene, handing him a fresh notebook, sometimes an empty page presents the most possibilities.