My mother became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while pregnant with me. She and my father were living in Santa Cruz at the time. A woman came to their door preaching about the coming Paradise, the unending perfect life awaiting the righteous after the wicked are destroyed at Armageddon. A few months later my mother got baptized in a dunk tank in the middle of Candlestick Park. It was the summer of 1974 and Armageddon was predicted to come in 1975. She was six months pregnant with me, and in the nick of time. I believe she thought she was saving us both, though I was already immersed in water, already floating.
§ Pinocchio “A boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood.”
The first movie I ever saw was Pinocchio. I was about four. My mother told me I cried when Pinocchio got swallowed by the whale and when the disobedient boys got turned into donkeys. I think it reminded you of Jonah, she said. I knew that story. I recited Bible verses for strangers when my mother took me evangelizing. I had a book of Bible stories that illustrated the Old and New Testaments, as well as the End depicted in the Book of Revelation: the death of a drunken harlot riding on the back of a seven-headed beast. I did not know what a harlot was, but she sure wore a lot of makeup. The illustration showed fire raining down from heaven, her hair burning, wine spilling from her golden goblet, and her rouged face contorted in screams. These were my bedtime stories. The lesson of Jonah was: you cannot flee from God.
We moved to Virginia. The End was coming soon. It was coming soon in 1979, and 1984, and 1989. In elementary school, I prayed that I would get to middle school before the End came. I wanted a chance to have a locker and to eat lunch in a cafeteria. In middle school, I prayed that I would get to high school. I wanted to take Driver’s Ed and get my license. Who knew if there would be cars in Paradise? I wanted a chance to drive. Was it wrong to wish for the wicked world to continue just a little longer? I was afraid of all of the ordinary things I would miss when it was gone.
§ Dead Poets Society “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.”
These were the rules for movies. No R, no PG–13. PG and G only. No Christmas, no demons, no Halloween. No birthdays, no cursing, no sex. No blood, no guts, no ghosts. Few films passed the test. But my mother had a weakness for poetry, which is maybe why I was allowed to see Dead Poets Society. She studied literature in college and though she discarded most vestiges of her secular life, our bookshelves still held–––alongside stacks of books and pamphlets from the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, including You Can Live Forever In a Paradise on Earth and a slender blue volume known as The Truth Book–––volumes of poetry she had treasured for years. Whitman, Tennyson, Plath, Shelley. Every other book on our shelf was there to prove and affirm, but these were different: language devoted to doubt. In his In Memorian A.H.H., Tennyson wrote:
Behold, we know not anything; I can but trust that good shall fall At last — far off — at last, to all, And every winter change to spring.
We know not anything. Maybe every fourteen-year-old is a narcissist, but the thirty-nine year old narcissist in me likes to think I was exceptionally so. Every novel, every song, every poem, and every movie was about me. Especially Tennyson, especially The Smiths, and especiallyDead Poets Society. I read those verses, I was paralyzed by those expectations, I gazed out of my bedroom window at a frozen landscape, I cried those tears. I longed. As I sat in the theatre watching the film I found myself doing something that felt like translation. As solipsistic as an English-to-English dictionary, only it was Dead Poets Society-to-Me:
Welton Academy = Jehovah’s Witnesses
Headmaster = the church elders
John Keating (Robin Williams) = books and art, both blowing my mind
standing on desks = watching Dead Poets Society
military school (for Neil) = not being allowed to go college (for me)
the Dead Poets Society = no equivalent, though I desperately wanted one
Walt Whitman = Walt Whitman
Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) = me
Neil’s father = my parents and the church elders A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for Neil) = college for art & writing (for me)
suicide (for Neil) = ? (for me)
It’s that last question mark that persisted. What comes next, if you cannot deliver what is expected?
I went to college, despite my congregation’s concerns. The elders were worried, and warned I would be exposed to worldly thinking. I must have seemed like a child to them, insisting that it wasn’t really faith unless it could withstand things. I wanted to please them and please myself, something that still felt possible.
I lived at home and went with my family to the five weekly meetings at the Kingdom Hall. I preached from door-to-door and on street corners downtown. Then I spent my nights making things for my art classes. Apples bristling with pins; pillow covers sewn from leaves; a cocoon formed from parchment and inscribed with poems, worn like a hood over the head. Inside, you could only see poetry.
§ La Jetée “They are without memories, without plans.
Time builds itself painlessly around them.”
The End was coming soon. I married someone from the religion, a boy named C. I was nineteen and he was twenty. I did not know him very well. C worked the night shift, so I did not see him much. When I returned in the evening he was usually already gone. Sometimes I thought I was imagining him. If I woke late, he would be home and sleeping beside me. I watched him sleep and wondered if he was dreaming. Did he dream about me? He was an unknowable as a photograph.
My days were spent in class. One day my film class screened La Jetée, the story of a man haunted by a single moment, only to discover that the moment is the scene of his own death. I watched it with fascination and horror. Here was the black and white world, the post-apocalyptic After that followed the rumored End. No one wants to live there. It is frozen and perpetual, suspended in static frames. Only a single, blinking moment of real time, a lovers’ gaze, provides relief. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until that moment. Suddenly I was gasping, released from stasis. A look of love and recognition–––the world seemed to hinge on this axis.
I walked home from class through dirty snow. We had a blizzard that winter, unusual for Virginia. Tree branches and snow, soot and snow, charcoal and snow. Everything was black and white, frozen and imperfect.
§ Manhattan “Why is life worth living?”
At church meetings, I stopped singing. I stood with my song book open and mouthed the words, listening to the voices of the congregation singing around me. Could their voices replace my voice? They sang about longing for Paradise. I would drive home, drowsy in the dark, longing for my warm bed at the end of the car ride.
In a world of doubt, I looked to the real. My warm bed was real. Music was real, books were real, movies were real. Manhattan was real. In the film, Woody Allen’s character Isaac Davis speaks into a tape recorder and lists the things that make life worth living. His speech mentions no Heaven, no Hell, no Paradise, no talk of Redemption or Justice, no promise of Eternal Reward. Instead, he says:
Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question. Um…well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh…like what…okay…um…For me, uh…oh…I would say…what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing…uh…um… and Willie Mays…and um…the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and um… Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…um…Swedish movies, naturally…Sentimental Education by Flaubert…uh…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…um…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…uh…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…uh…Tracy’s face…
Art, and music, and comedy, and film, and literature, and food, and love. I could believe in these things. I made my own list.
I did not go to the Kingdom Hall anymore. I stopped evangelizing. C and I divorced. You are going to die, he told me, but I already knew. We all are.
I went to graduate school and moved to New York City. I remarried, wrote a book, had a child, and moved to Los Angeles and back again. I did not think about death very much. When I did, I watched Manhattan.
§ Melancholia “What star is that?”
I saw Melancholia at the Angelika in New York, the year before we returned to Los Angeles. I went alone, on a weekday afternoon in January. Some movies are like that. You don’t want anyone to watch you watch them. You need the space to feel whatever you are going to feel.
I was one of only about three or four people there, and took my seat just as the theatre was going dark. The thing I always forget about the Angelika is how the subway runs directly beneath it, rumbling like the earth is going to split open. So it was on that day, the floor shaking beneath me as I found my place in the darkness. Suddenly, here was a series of shots: the young bride Justine, alone in the forest in her puffy white wedding dress, her limbs entangled in long, black vines; Claire, her sister, slogging through mud in wellington boots––like those worn by myself on this January day––her child clutched in her arms; the Earth rolling forward, helpless in its orbit, towards the collision that will end it all.
The subway rumbled and shuddered as this overture gave way to a wedding story. Despair alongside love, on a starry and temperate evening. I was five months pregnant at the time, and the baby seemed to kick in time to the subway. Five months is small enough to float freely, to explore what might feel like outer space to them. She thrashed and twisted and I felt every kick, every quickening. Each frame of the film is like a photograph, an exquisite picture I could hang on my wall if the wall were still standing. In the End, though, the walls come down. The harlot’s wine spills, the many-headed beast roars, the men and women and children die in flame and darkness. Until the End, there is only the fear of it and the wish for it, living side-by- side. Come please, End, so that the End will be over. When the days seem meaningless, or when they mean too much; when I feel unloved, or when love is so plentiful and good I live in fear of its loss; when my work is absurd and difficult, or when it is rote and unchallenging; when I feel alone, or when I feel suffocated; when I lie awake counting my worries, yes, it is easy to wish for an Answer.
What star is that? Justine asks. Melancholia is The End, the brightest star, the one that draws your eye. The End is the Answer to everything: none of it mattered or ever will again. You are absolved from further action. Smash the wine glasses. Let your lists remain unfinished. Walk out into the darkness and wait for it.
Only, I have to admit, I want everything to be okay. I am Claire in this story, impotent in my rubber boots. My fear is real, my solutions bourgeois. If the world is ending, let’s have drinks on the veranda, let’s play a little music. We will tuck the little ones into bed as on every other night. Maybe, by some miracle, the stone walls will hold, and we will open our eyes and wake to a changed world.
I have two small daughters. The idea that they have no concept of my life as a Witness is comforting and good but also sad, a kind of low-level, homesick hum. I’m from a place they’ve never been. It’s like being from a lost city, one that sank into the ocean. We sang songs there. The boys wore suits and the girls wore dresses. Maybe one day I will show them these films and tell them what they meant to me—a kind of origin story.
How do you undo something? I think you can only mask it. It is like painting a red wall white, adding coat after coat until it turns from pink to blush to a bluish milk color. Years later, if you scratch the wall with your thumbnail you will find the red underneath, as essential and permanent as blood. But mostly, you get used to the blankness. You leave it untouched. You hang pictures. You project movies on it. Sometimes, in certain light, you still see pink.