2019: Looking back, taking stock, bumbling onward, ha!

Updated: Jan 14


Late in the year I began to think of 2019 as the year of the rut. I followed my dreams into a ditch and dithered there. The data indicates effort, I put in some time, I did some stuff, but that effort was largely directionless, undisciplined, and in the end little that was satisfying came of it.


January kicked the year off well enough, you might even say with a bang, on the film front. Excellent documentaries about Japanese composer and environmentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto and legendary Egyptian singer and symbol of Arab nationalism Oum Kulthum were followed by Pawel Pawlikowski's masterful Cold War. March brought an outstanding Portland International Film Festival. Factor in capsule reviews of Sakamoto, Kulthum, Pawlikowski, and better than thirty festival films penned for the blog and the way running rounded into form coming back from 2018's bout of plantar fasciitis and the first quarter of the year looks pretty good.


A brief excursion to Eugene in May hosted by friends Sylvia and Pete highlighted the spring. Sylvia and I enjoyed a mini film fest as we raced from the Bijou to the Broadway Metro for three movies in twenty-four hours. Hindsight colored the good times with melancholy when it turned out I said the last goodbye to my Old English Sheepdog friend Williston, who left her old body behind in July.


Things flattened out as spring floundered into summer. For starters I did not catch a single film in June and made it to only one in July, four in August (three of those with Sylvia over another two days in Eugene), two in September, and two in October. It is true enough that not a lot of films caught my eye, but I missed most of those that did. There was no good reason for it.


Study projects for the spring, summer, and fall terms were more fallen into than laid out in advance. Spring reading was a hodgepodge. Summer was better as I took up serious study of John Milton and 17th-century England. With fall came a serendipitous encounter with Agnès Poirier's Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris,1940–50. Left Bank led to a deeper dive into French intellectual life of that period with review of two books from years past: Tony Judt's Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–56 and Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. The season's adventure in ideas was rounded out by The Mandarins, a roman à clef by Simone de Beauvoir that I thoroughly enjoyed, and Deirdre Bair's biography of Beauvoir.


Through it all I pounded out copy for the blog and the semimonthly newsletter, much of it topical in response to the latest effrontery and outrage of the day. The word count for the year came out to just over 92,000, enough to make up a fair-sized book, the matter of quality notwithstanding, but an 18-percent decline from 2018. The two most ambitious essays were spurred by current affairs and addressed related topics. The first examined why I still think of myself as a man of the left, while the second took off from the fall study project with reflections on French writers and intellectuals in whose footsteps I follow in my wanderings out on the left bank of the spirit. I like to think I hit on some things from time to time. That counts for something.


Efforts on the poetry front warrant a similarly mixed assessment. The ever fickle muse delivered little by way of inspiration for new poems, and I was unable to claw out much in more mundane fashion. There was more to show for work that went into revising poems rejected by editors too thick of skull to grasp their merit before shipping them out again for new rounds of rejection. I was reasonably diligent by my notoriously slack standards, keeping thirty to fifty poems in submission to an array of magazines and journals. At least as important, I rather like those poems and think some are almost pretty good no matter how many rejections they rack up. Nothing to do but keep at it.


A previously abandoned piece of fiction was picked up, hammered away at for a bit, and abandoned again for the time being. The other writing consisted of transcription of journals kept with pen and paper from 1998 to the present, an ongoing project only just begun. Typing the entries up in Word documents serves the twin functions of getting the journals into a form that I can someday make use of if I decide to do that and while I am at it rereading them. Much is mundane, not a little is tedious, but there is more of interest, if only to me, than I might have dared hope. From the journal covering February 1 to May 26, 2000, came accounts of early encounters with Portland poets that led to my friendship with Sharmagne Leland-St. John and association with her magazine Quill & Parchment (scroll down on the linked Q&P page for photo from our reading at Ballard branch of Seattle Public Library, July 10, 2008), an encounter with Robert Briggs, a poet on the San Francisco scene in the late 1950s, and trips to San Francisco, Vancouver BC, and Seattle that were fun to remember.


Travel near and far has long been a source of pleasure and restoration. Flâneuring about town in the tradition of the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, amiable wandering to no particular end or purpose beyond the joys of happenstance and the odd, fortuitous encounter with the marvelous, has likewise sustained my spirit and roused the better angel of my nature to see me through the darker times.


Last year saw too little of travel or amiable wandering, with only the two jaunts to Eugene and the annual holiday excursion to Tulsa, which was among my best weeks of the year. Travel, I should note, does not require some grand destination. The little adventures that go with waking in a new town and casting out in the morning upon unfamiliar streets that lead to coffee and croissant in a little café, museums, bookstores, galleries, ferry rides, and vistas never before seen by these eyes, and maybe never to be seen by them again, are in their own way as grand as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, City Lights Books in San Francisco, English Bay in Vancouver, or the banks of the Seine in Paris, where I have been graced with truly glorious wandering.


Meanwhile, the national nightmare rolls on. Only a blockhead could have been caught unawares by the ratcheting up of the stakes with Iran precipitated by the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. It is not necessary to have any illusion about Iran's government or Soleimani to question the wisdom and legitimacy of an act perpetrated with no evidence that so much as a sliver of strategic thought lies behind it. A sidelight to this latest crisis of Donald Trump's making is the sobering prospect that America's two chief allies, not just in the Middle East but in the world, are now Israel and Saudi Arabia.


Conventional and social media alike are abuzz with dire predictions and rumors of war on the one side, self-congratulatory backslapping on the other. No one knows how this will play out. We know only that the situation is grim and likely to get worse. A few days ago while reading letters of Jean-Paul Sartre written from 1926 through 1939, most to Simone de Beauvoir, a few to others, I happened on two letters that illustrate just how problematic predictions about these things can be. In a letter dated August 31, 1939, to Bianca Bienenfeld, a former pupil of Beauvoir with whom he had an affair, Sartre sought to reassure her: "It's impossible that Hitler is thinking of starting a war…It's bluff. Perhaps we'll go as far as a general mobilization." Two days later, on September 2, he wrote, "So the bullshit triumphed." The day before, Germany had invaded Poland. On September 3 France and Britain declared war on Germany.


"So the bullshit triumphed" would be apt title for an account of the disaster of 2016 and the years that follow. In the disaster's wake I carry on with political engagement sufficient to tell myself that I am doing something. Could I do more? We are always haunted by the knowledge that we could do more and that there can be no certainty about the effectiveness of our efforts. We do what we can.


All in all I kept busy in 2019. I did stuff, at any rate. The days and weeks flew by. Somehow, though, little of it was satisfying. I suspect that there is no single source for these doldrums, this dreary lethargy. The political situation, the climate crisis, the great social, political, and cultural divides, the epidemic of willful ignorance, and the rest of it darken everything. To that add what comes with growing older and knowing, as I put it in a poem penned on the approach of my sixtieth birthday, that my future is for the most part behind me. Rather than come to terms with it, I remain hounded by that fusty bugaboo the meaning of life thing.


It is not enough just to do stuff. There must be some meaning, or illusion of meaning, behind it. The sense of myself as poet, and as a writer and intellectual more generally, has sometimes sustained that illusion. The writing itself always took precedence. Like Camus, I found writing to be one of the few pure things in my life. The possibility of attaining any measure of popular or commercial success, thereby generating income and cultivating an audience wider than the certain small circles where my work is known and I like to think appreciated, was more than foreign to me. It was deeply suspect as something that might taint that purity. The values of the marketplace where success might lie were taken to be inherently corrupt and philistine. This sensibility is romantic, naïve, foolish, and probably not altogether fair. I can accept that and still tell you that it is nonetheless as instinctive as breath and the impulse to put pen to paper and write.


In truth I never really thought I would make a mark in the world of letters. My instinct has always been to visualize failure. That can become self-fulfilling in short order. I never had any notion how to go about trying to accomplish more than I have done. There is little talent for networking and not an entrepreneurial bone in my body. Couple that with an inexplicable but deeply ingrained and neurotic reluctance to ask for advice or help, perhaps born of a generalized fearfulness, foremost fear of appearing or being thought or maybe just being foolish, and you have me.


Yet I kept at it, the poetry, the writing, the study, the love of art and the adventure of ideas, and always too some sense of responsibility that goes with being human. I keep at it. Why? Maybe that is just who I am. The tendency of the age is to seek explanation for our traits in neuroscience, psychology, Freud, Jung, Myers-Briggs, astrology, psychedelic drugs whose therapeutic use is recently back in vogue in some circles, and wispy versions of spirituality. When it comes to that meaning of life thing, they are all alternative sources of illusion. Under it all, always, lies mystery. And for that mystery, I turn to Keats, Wordsworth, Dickinson, and their kin.


It occurs to me now that these reflections are in part exercises in self-examination, what I am able to think and willing to write about myself. In my pondering I habitually invoke writers who speak to me and sometimes for me, as with Keats' shape of beauty that moves away the pall from our dark spirits, and from Wordsworth, the deep power of joy and that best part portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.


I turn too to individuals who color my life with grace, family and dear friends I call out by name less often but with no less depth of feeling for what they mean to me. When I think of Trani, my brother, and all that he and the rest of the family are to me, something far beyond words, when my old Atlanta friend Elaine tells me she likes my poems and encourages me to write more, when Sylvia tells me she likes something I wrote and when she and Pete welcome me into their home, when Hollye, Vince, and Nigel invite me downstairs to join them and other friends for the traditional New Year's feast featuring collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread, and when I think of others too many to name, I grow teary-eyed, spirit renewed by my good fortune, the illusion of meaning sustained.


"Bumbling onward" might be good title for a memoir if I ever live enough to write one. Meanwhile, my hope is that readers will from time to time find these little writings amusing, informative, thought provoking, or in other ways of interest and worth their time as we bumble onward together into the 2020s. Ha!


Keep the faith.


Memo from the editorial desk. A minor edit was made after this essay was published to correct a factual error in the paragraph beginning "A previously abandoned piece of fiction." A subsequent examination of the files indicates that only one work in progress was revised in 2019, not two as initially stated.

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David Matthews

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