My friend, Steven, had a jackdaw mind for the quirky. He was to the quirky as the family Corvidae is to bright, shiny objects. Cars, entertainment, humor and even names, he liked them quirky. He collected the knowledge of them and stored them in his mind for later recollection.
His love of quirky names still stands out for me in how he latched on to dwarf nandina and hooded merganser. Every unknown plant was granted the appellation dwarf nandina, and every unknown waterfowl was a hooded merganser. An actual hood was not required.
I was reading Michael D. O’Brien’s The Fool of New York City when my own memories of my friend were stirred. Some elements of the fabric of the relationship between the two protagonists reminded me in a vibrant, if very tenuous manner of my relationship with Steven . In fact, that connection was so tenuous in so many ways that it would be too esoteric to explain in a concise manner. Except the hooded merganser.
It reminds me of how what we enjoy watching or reading, or listening to is tightly tied to where we have been and where we are in our lives. A book we read when we are 15 might well not have the same effect at 50, or it might have more. All the strands of our experience are tied to where we are, as each new experience arises. Previous experiences modify the new, and the new experience modifies the previous.
My favorite movie is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Live. A brilliant, moody, moving, astounding work of art, and yet I hesitate to recommend it to others. It is problematic, given its nonlinear narrative, the visual symbolism and the use of nearly whispered voice overs to convey important themes. For me, all the strands in the film pulled together; my love of science, history, philosophy and theology converged with a time line closely aligned to my own life. It was a staggering experience and moves me still each time I watch it.
I would have enjoyed and appreciated The Fool of New York CIty even if it had not echoed my relationship with a lost friend. The prose was clear and masterful, the story moving and well told. It was all there. Then came the hooded merganser. I laughed out loud while reading when the bird made its first appearance. Then, I actually shed some tears when it made its last.
I think my heart would have burst if a dwarf nandina had crossed the stage. As it was, The Fool of New York City was a gift to me. Many would see the pulling together of all those strands as mere coincidence. I can see where they might. For me? No, there was more at work than chance. It was a gift given to me by God, I can feel it in a transcendent manner. A gift from God by way of O’Brien’s words. Mr. O’Brien did not mean to give me a gift. I suspect he would be happy to know he did, but what he intended was to be a channel through which God’s love flowed.
Every book, every movie, every song, every piece of artwork is a chance. A chance that we might be edified in an act of sub-creation. Those gifts make life well worth living.