Through the Lens of an Alchemist

MANAHAWKIN, NJ — Father’s Day weekend 2011 will stay with me the rest of my natural writing days. The events and moments from this weekend are certain to bubble up and trickle over, like water disturbed in the still of the night, with a blank page staring back at me. At unpredictable times, these mixed memories will fill the meandering stream of my mind. Stray pieces of matter—like bark, pebbles, and twigs strewn about— make up this composite of man: father, husband, prodigal son, and lastly, publisher. The longer these freshly planted images linger, the more they twist and turn in my divided cerebrum, the more I hunger to understand my deeply buried New Jersey roots.

What might be considered experiential nourishment for one writer does not satiate the appetite of another. Some writers do far better to borrow from legends of the past while others prosper by tapping into realities of the present. And then there are the alchemists who solder various elements—known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar—and strike literary gold.

I will remember much about this weekend, such as the news of two distinctly different deaths:

1) The largely unreported death of a shamed public employee who had been convicted of theft and died while serving a five-year sentence in New Jersey State Prison. This hefty man, the father of three, adopted a baby boy before knowing that he and his wife could have children. This man, my father’s cousin and the lone child of my godmother, inexplicably broke the law and the public’s trust. He paid a dear price for his indiscretion. All his life, he affectionately called my father, “Brother,” and formally called me, “Daniel Michael.” Dennis was 60.

2) The high-profile death of burly saxophone player Clarence Clemons, lovingly called “The Big Man.” Clemons helped put rock legend Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band, and the city of Asbury Park on the map, well before the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” irreparably tarnished the image of my much maligned Garden State. Listening to Clarence blow on “Thunder Road” was a boom box rite of passage for a teen growing up in the swamplands of Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s. He indeed was larger than life on stage. Clarence was 69.

These two deaths could not contrast more in how each man will be remembered, and, by all indications, in how each man lived. Both deaths affect me little and profoundly at the same time; I did not know either well. As much as I mourn the loss of a great musician and respect his talent, Clarence’s iconic horn sound never stirred my soul the way others have expressed. (Perhaps it lifted my libido, but never my soul.) I know this is blasphemous in some circles, but I prefer introspective, acoustic-Nebraska Bruce to the Born to Run-arena rock Boss.

My cousin, Dennis, and Clarence both seem to represent polar opposites on a large scale, but if we were to microscopically break down their personal lives, were they as wildly different as it appears, or were they merely mortals who carried the same fears, flaws, and regrets? Dennis clearly had more to regret in the end, but we’ll never know the demons Clarence may have carried (five marriages) or the doubts he may have kept hidden in his sax case. Hopefully for Clarence’s sake, his public persona matched and did not rival his authentic self. And hopefully for my cousin’s sake, his societal sins, monetary in nature, are forgivable in the eyes of his family and friends.

Moreover, I will remember this past weekend as a critical juncture of my adulthood, when I returned without wife and child to my native state to help my mother and ailing 80-year-old father adjust to being suddenly heaved into a hardscrabble life filled with needles, walkers, health care workers, and dialysis machines. I forever will remember my father’s grimaces and his smiles, his groans and his laughs, his tender eyes and his beady eyes both seeking insight, compassion, and answers to the unanswerable. I will remember how humor helped make the situation tolerable, and how Mom’s homemade food comforted Dad and became sustenance for each of us, no matter how hellacious things had become. I will remember Dad’s strength in the face of adversity and his weakness, too. I will remember how old and frail he looked in a certain light and how young he appeared at different moments in the same light.

Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, and Frederick Reiken’s book, The Lost Legends of New Jersey both provided escape and solace to me this weekend when I most needed them. They illustrated the potence, if not purpose, of fictional creation.

I greedily watched Woody Allen’s homage to the cultural icons of the 1920s after an especially stressful afternoon of Dad having dangerously low blood pressure readings, and the movie delivered just the elixir for my worry. I was so lost in the film I felt like I had entered the screen in the same manner as one of the characters in The Purple Rose of Cairo, another marvelous Allen film to which Midnight in Paris could favorably compare.

What a delight to know that filmmakers like Allen still exist, a remarkable director who has the ability to transport his audience through time to France’s elegant city of love. How he captured the allure of the era, the enchantment of the city, and the mystique of the literary lions and lionesses … all pure cinema magic. For a self-proclaimed literature loving loon, I found nirvana in a box-dominant shopping strip mall, watching the dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein interacting at the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore in 1920s Paris.

In characteristic philosophical style, Allen has one character, the mistress of Pablo Picasso, pining to live in what she believes to be an even more culturally enlightened golden era, in this case, turn-of-the-century La Belle Epoque. The main character, a neurotic Allen-esque writer (of course), perceives this longing as a breakthrough, that every generation romanticizes the past and considers it superior to the present. Salient or not, the point is worth exploring for cultural critics and especially artists who idolize their craft’s forefathers as if their genius can never be surpassed. Progress and civilization are permissible in the same sentence.

With regard to Reiken, an Emerson College colleague of Atticus Books author Steve Himmer, serendipity seemed to be at play as The Lost Legends of New Jersey, his superb novel of a suburban family’s dissolution, dropped out of thin air and landed onto my reading lap. All right, not exactly on my lap, but while speaking to a clerk at Atlantic Books about the arrival of J M Tohline’s The Great Lenore—a debut novel that tips its fedora to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—I noticed Reiken’s book a little off to the side but visible. The provocative title (for this Jersey guy, anyway) seemed to shout from its book easel that the reason I had gone to the store in the first place lay between the pages. Without hesitation, I purchased the book and have since been relishing its vivid description of life in South Jersey, complete with syringes washing up on the beach, circa 1980.

The lessons I carry from this weekend experience—from the two deaths to the two creative works enveloping the time spent with my father—need no documentation, nor validation; the lessons are imprinted in my conscience. There are times when it’s more important to be a good son than a fine writer or a responsible publisher. And there are times when a man has to put away fatherly things and become a child once again.

If we define alchemy as a philosophy of the cosmos and of mankind’s place in the scheme of things, then we could submit that today’s artists are the alchemists of our universe … examining the lives of others—celebrated, notorious, and ordinary … and mixing those disparate elements to make their own potion … feeding our minds and souls.

Aging, pain, death—it’s fascinating how each person approaches and manages these challenges, but through the lens of an alchemist—the artist with a concoction known as vision, we embrace one simple fact: we are never alone.

Photo Source: Delhi Public School

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