Ships before the wind

Macbeth haunted by witches of the mind. Photo by Petaluma Shakespeare Company.

No garnacha at table. State of the world. Swords in the field. Lambs pursued by hunger starvéd wolves. Tragedy treading heels of tragedy. Those damned old fires of hatred and greed. Always been burning since the world’s been turning, as Billy Joel put it.

We think to be or not to Bb but we know not what we may be. Sam Shepard’s dramatic structure borrowed from a jazz piece. Dramatic cadences and elements interweave and repeat until moonlight shines out of the play. Like a dowager? Influenced by Shepard’s one time room mate, Charles Mingus? Or perhaps just “in the air”. Liebniz. Newton. The air is full of sounds. Noises. Off. Maybe not as funny.

While it may not always be Suicide in Bb, we still continue down the road to becoming ghosts. Storm or shine or blank of day. Parade of tomorrows. Novels, paintings, poetry, video games. All the influences of sky and dry grass. Roses growing in banks. In heaps. Long grass, waiting fingers to consume us.

The road to becoming a ghost. Author photo.

Things we long for, even as the weather turns cold.

How we long for “A forked mountain, or blue promontory/ With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world”. Antony’s words just before his death painting gorgeous, changeable skies.*

Bells toll incessantly. For me. For thee. Galloping horsemen close behind us. Hot breath on the neck of Golden Horn Hooligan while the world grows cold around us.

Still no Brigadoon. Only the mist over the moors at midnight. Our hearts weep but no one comes. No village appears. No maiden. We lock ourselves in. Double lock ourselves in, which is not our custom.

Outside, cows browse the margins of stubbled fields. The last brindled snakes of autumn lie across our path, soaking up the last fragrance of the light, the last remnants of the early autumn sun. One lone adolescent coyote forages through the vines. Field mice deeper underground. Will there be enough for winter? Should have thought of that before you turned your back on the too hot fields. The field is “now canopied/ Under these windows, white and azure laced/ With blue of heaven’s own tinct.”**

Leaves die back and cooler weather paints the lands against a cosmos in retreat. Spaces curl in upon themselves.

Autumn washed land. Author photo.

We are weary, weary. Pervading sense of just not going there. Not Bartleby preferring not to, but being unable to. Unable to go, to see, to look, to hear. Oh, I could think but for this screaming in mine ears. Every night at the same hour. The sound from that skull.

And lambs with us, those like snakes and doves, to whom can we turn? “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”*** Those amongst us, in the sleepy towns, the safe towns, the quiet neighborhoods, who would or will readily open fire indiscriminately in public places. Berserkers laying about them with their sharp swords, cutting even into crowds in the marketplace.

Strange men wandering the neighborhoods with electronic devices, trying to hack into household internet accounts. Strange cars patrol the streets, looking for work trucks which might be full of tools. The holidays are coming. Incidence of armed robberies on the rise.

Is this collective grief? Collective rage?

Some still pose themselves as avenging angels, crusading to save children from indoctrination–from drag shows or cross thinking. A woman’s weeds. Or a man’s. We need to check our genitalia. Check that at the door. (No, guns are allowed, just not genitalia.) Only what a birth certificate says. Or what scriptures says.

Angel wannabes donning gowns and wings and banning books so children cannot read them. High schoolers cannot read them. The righteous plucking out their own children’s eyes so that they cannot see things which might have been written, painted, created, or considered, by those whose thoughts do not conform to some amalgamated image of righteousness. Naked statues? Must be evil because the tree of good and evil cannot be about knowledge. It must be sexual.

If it is knowledge though, then we shall ban knowledge. As long as we consolidate thinking, power, money. We must not let them think, these young ones. We must point them in the right direction. It is our duty.

What does your own kingdom of heaven look like? Mine has old seventies style shag carpet and settees covered in brocade.

Nah, nah.

The barge she sat in like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them.

Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.227-30

Really? Hadn’t thought of that. Maybe have some of that next year albeit one gets tired of blue. We’ve done the seaside theme so often, but can one ever have enough of it? Ever have enough of love, garnacha, and the long night’s journey into day? Burnished beaten gold hanging from the trees reminds us. We grow old.

Autumn. Author photo.

The rude angels of mismatched design. Higgledy piggeldy presentation. Sloppy thinking. Legions of Youtube channels have arisen in efforts to banish them. Promote them. Who furthers demonic aims?

The quick and easy fix. The hack. Brilliant way to peel your lemons, eggs, pomegranates. If Persephone had only known, maybe it all should have been different.

Dissent arrived early for dinner. First in the chow line. Uninvited but arising. Generated naturally out of the rich brocade of human nature. The nature of our dreams.

Why does it seem that avenging angels, punishing angels, were the first angels? First created by God? Why? What might that teach us? Right from wrong? Tree of knowledge? Tell us that being bad is more fun than being good? Donald Sutherland the tempter biting the apple.

How might we be wrong or imperfect in the eyes of a perfect being? If thine eye offend thee. . .? What if thy neighbor offend thee? The neighbors all out in the streets, carrying laptops, tablets, devices, trying to hack into our internet accounts. Do we blast them? Smite them? Annihilate them?

Our collective rage rises up, a climbing mountain of wave. Rage. The dark side. Cookies.

Keeping tabs on others. Judging them. We may not mean to but we do. In them we see the faults we had and add some extra new ones too. (So sorry, Philip.)

As if we do not have our own transgressions. Whistling past the graveyard. Such a broad and fanciful graveyard. Overgrown. Glittering under hoarfrost.

Graves yawning before us. “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.” (So sorry, Charles, Frank, Philip Van Doren Stern, and Henry Travers.)

We turn away, we turn away. We turn our faces towards the day, Yet always we are becoming ghosts. Ghosts in the field. In the tall grass. Our sullied flesh melting, thawing, and resolving itself into a less congenial frost.

Tall grass. Author photo.

Oh, up ahead see the darkness falling over the vast fields of the republic. As at twilight, we can no longer see clearly. Not that we ever could, but darkling shadows gather devouring what sight we had. Still, we are so often certain we are right. There are rules. Regulations. Right and wrong are absolute. We judge others and we judge ourselves.

We punish others, letting them know when what they’re doing is wrong. Leveling lives casually and indiscriminately because others seem menacing, different. They seem to be threatening us, our well being, or (for the most part) just annoying us. “You used up all the glue on purpose.” The old Darren McGavin line applies these days to immigrants. To them. They’ll use up all the healthcare. It won’t be sustainable. If we can only hold our little part of the world together, the rest of it can go to hell. At least we’ll be okay.

In the end, we become vengeful ghosts. We smile. Patient. Waiting. Awaiting the downfall of those who have wronged us.

Grudges are like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die, we are told. The vengeful ghost responds: fine. Don’t mind dying as long as the other person dies too.

Never wanted in to the damned union to begin with. Never voted for that. (Only my ancestors voted, prayed, scraped, and fought, to make such divisions less likely to ever happen again.) Immigrants poison the lifeblood of a community? A nation? A people (whatever that means). We divide ourselves. Partition the world. Slicing it up like party cake. Not enough for them too. Not enough in the purse for others. Refugees. People who will use up all the national resources on purpose.

Oh, how we tread the paths of despots who came before us. Division. As long as we don’t have to pay for it.

But then, if we really stop to think about it, we all pay for it, no matter who we shut out with fences, walls, or armed guards. It costs us. It costs the world.

And over here, the first child of division, of partition. War. That big, ugly mug. Sitting on it’s own throne of refuse. Burnished? Question of polishing a. . .what?

Well, I didn’t vote for this, at least. I only voted to keep uneducated, job stealing foreigners out. I only voted because I know the colonials are X or Y, lazy, uneducated, shiftless. They are harmful. Overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here.

Those people. (Who are “those people” anyway? Well, they’re certainly not us.)

Showing up late for wars and taking all the credit.

Others threaten public safety. Best to keep them out. A government’s job is to build walls. To keep us secure–we the hard working, the noble, the fairy tale denizens of our original country. Yet, those fairy dances only leave rings of mushrooms behind them. Perhaps the fairies build walls too, to keep us out of fairyland because we are unworthy. Why Chaucer writes of how the fairies have all vanished.

Fairy ring. Author photo.

A government must not spend money taking care of the indigent. Those people. It is their own fault that they are not willing to work.

The halt. The lame. The blind.

We should not have to pay taxes to support them. “If you see a blind man, kick him. Need you be kinder than God?”

Oh, we can be mean at base. Mean.

(Leave aside here those working two or three jobs, often while trying to raise a family, and remaining unable to make ends meet. Leave aside those who cannot find a job to support themselves, a job which pays enough to keep a roof. Most available jobs at minimum wage won’t pay for lodgings for anyone, at least not anywhere in the United States. Probably elsewhere as well.)

Oh, I don’t mean them. You know I don’t. I’m not heartless.

Then why vote like that?

No “socialized” medicine here! That’s communism. Everyone knows that socialism is merely communism under a different name.

Meanwhile, great cities arise. The unsheltered, who eke out an existence far from the fertile fields. Living in doorways, on council or on county land. In tents if they can get them. On road medians and the edges of highways.

The “homeless problem”? Is this because “no one wants to work anymore”?

Meanwhile, we cut education to the bone. We cut public health and mental health initiatives to the bone. (Oh, maybe that was Reagan and Thatcher, I forget.)

Most of the population used to have some cursory introduction to literature and drama, which gave them the rudiments of a context for considering and sorting ideas. But because these subjects, when deeply studied, do not tend to produce lucrative careers, now there is only STEM. The savior/damnation of the modern world. It’s really all about money, as the PM asserts. (Oh, not in those words, of course. It’s all couched in some rhetoric designed to make killing the humanities seem reasonable and humane.)

The natural economies of the world will kill it all for us in any case. No one wants to end up in a cardboard and tent city, unable to afford even a smart phone.

And while the world burns, we’ll soon be able to give people implants which will contain all of the humanities, all of our collective humanity, with an AI to sort it for us. The shelterless won’t have them, of course, but the rest of us will be clever then. We will call to mind great and pertinent quotations at parties–things which people once had to work to memorize. Our own faculties will fade away, our natural memories unnecessary.

Where does it lead? This bright world increasingly askew? It tilts us into the fire.

Melting axis. Author photo.

Can we learn any lessons from human history? (Oh, wait. We cut that beyond the scope of basic “western civ” courses. History doesn’t make money. Rip off the rearview mirror. What’s behind us does not matter. And how in time?

Will we learn in time that the very idea of “otherness” wreaks havoc on the world? Will we learn it in time? Years. Lifetimes. Bloodlines? Who is more damned? Sinners? Punishers? We judge. We pronounce. We exclude. Gleefully.

Damnation comes to us in many forms, but mostly dressed in grief and rage. Irretrievable moments. Shots fired which we cannot call back. Oh, great sorrow for all the sides in wars, all the innocents, all the lost talent, lost ways, lost meaning.

Bonfire, bonefire, of veritas, vanitas, vegitas. A falling away. Falling away from enlightenment.

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil be thou my good; by thee at least Divided empire with heaven’s King I hold, By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign; As man ere long, and this new world shall know. (Paradise Lost, IV, 107–113). Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.****

Yet, if it is written, let us ban the books. Burn the books. We must protect the children. (Well, our own children. Who cares what other children believe or think?) We must construct the kind of society we need. Whole. Pure. Holy.

Satan lives in “alternative” ideas. Ideas outside of whatever scripture we believe.

We engineer society for safety. Not to lord it over others. Not to tell them what to do with their own sordid peculiarities. Except they shall not live amongst us, not adjacent to us. No. We do not want to hear the dogs barking in the neighboring state, so we will silence them. Shoot them, if need be.

What of the small ghosts, little ones wandering the world in search of peace and kindness. Oh, that’s why we have holidays.

Even when the peace itself enrages us, even when we feel compelled to take up arms as others have done, we will be left in incandescent rage. We grow larger. Vigilantes. Riding the night hunt endlessly. Knights of Oberon’s train. Step off your horse and become the dust.

Perhaps we trespass as those have trespassed against us, but we have God on our side. Anton LaVey telling us, “Do unto others as they do unto you.” How can we see otherwise when we are correct, right? Jesus loves me (but not necessarily you). This I know for the Bible tells me so.


It often seems we play a losing hand against the cold darkness of the world falling around us. We have no other choice. We buy peacemakers.

Some become vengeful ghosts. Not hand wringing, but winging into the world on little bat wings, seeking those who have wronged us, seeking the great cosmic correction fluid of the typewritten page. Tears. Piety. Wit. Rage. Call the hand back or we will cancel the writing altogether.

If martyrs teach us anything, they teach us that what wounds most is love, and that wounds do not heal. Instead, they offer us choices. We can become angels, ghosts, or hollow men, headpiece filled with straw.

But are any of these states really us? Our original? Providence in the fall of a sparrow? Oh, no. Not tears. Not rage. We strive endlessly for peace remaining unforgiven. No one takes us seriously. “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Is the end of the road like Browning’s heaven? Or might that ending be painted other ways?

Katsushika Hosukai (1760-1849), vengeful ghost in physical form

Should we work in shops and sleep in doorways forever? The very cold in our bones awakens vengeful ghosts and they rise up like night around us.

What roads do they take? Where should we look when we cannot read the news? The news draws our eyes endlessly to the hell scroll. We cannot look away.

Ran, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Toho Pictures, 1985.

Oh, we should look away? We should. We must. We pull away from social media. We minimize our presence. We become a ghost. Watching only kills us. Slowly. Quickly.

Yet it also shows us that suffering is not only our own.

Perhaps our morbid fascination might also stir compassion. Empathy. As the humanities used to do.

Africa. Asia. Europe. The Americas. We watch struggles. Watching ourselves. Watching others striving. Starving.

We have struggles too. Disease. Housing. Hunger. Maybe we really are all fellow travellers on the ghost road. The late light slanting down making the shadows long and lean.

Growing shadows. Author photo.

It won’t be that long now. Can’t be.

Everyone we meet, smiling or stern, in glee or rage, endures the sometimes terrible vagaries of life.

Beyond our own faculties to judge anyone really. Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Bright and dark marks streak our souls, and we become zebras of infinite complexity. Infinite jest.

Vote as we will. Behave as we will. No mere ghost will stop us.

Still, it behooves us and the world to extend the hand of kindness when we can. To think of others, of the different, more as being in the same boat. Doing the best for ourselves and those near to us.

For the problem with the world may lie not so much in violations of prescribed rules, but in unconcern and apathy. Better to touch hands with one’s neighbor, and try one’s best to understand them.

Were we able to address poverty and fear, we might go far (even now) in righting the listing ship of our world. Will we? I don’t know. But even a ghost can hope.

*Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.6-7

**Cymbeline 2.2.24-5

***KJV Matthew 7:15

****The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward FitzGerald. (Sometimes controversial, but also familiar.)

One Reply to “Ships before the wind”

  1. John! So much to unpack as we venture into yet another year of uncertainty and even in your last line, there is hope. Thanks, as always, for putting your heart on your sleeve. Wishing you and yours all the best from Capistrano. 🙏

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