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Posted in Adventures With Humans

Will Ferrel as Harold Crick in "Stranger Than Fiction."

I have no idea why, but one day while climbing the stairs from the parking garage to my floor, I wondered why the word, ‘fence,’ referred to both a boundary made of, stone, wood, or whatever, and also a sport involving an all-white outfit and a sword. I don’t know when the first structural fence was built, but I imagine Grog coming out if his cave and moving one boulder next to the other to add texture and a sense of security to the yard otherwise open to beasts or other prehistoric folks wandering thought without any consideration of whose privacy they were invading. For the fancy fence, I know swordplay has been around for centuries, but other than some mention of blades and shields that started in Germany in the 1300’s, the more refined combat sport of fencing is attributed to Italy in the 1600’s. In my head, what really happened was that someone had installed a wrought iron fence–the kind with the pointy tops, along a pathway. On an evening, perhaps after an Italian celebration where someone won a goat, an accusation of cheating was lodged. A heated argument ensued. Each participant pulled off an iron bar from the fence, and went at each the other. Both men were so blitzed from boozing since ten in the morning over their disgust that a goat was the prize instead of a Ferrari, that they could barely see, but instead of just hacking wildly at each other, the men stood sideways, pointed their rods toward each other–weapon outstretched as an aid to aim. Later, in front of a judge, the two defended their behaviour with the lie that there was no bad intent. They had not been fighting, but rather trying out a new sport, the ‘fence’ sport where you remove a piece and wave it around until you can poke your opponent and win a point. “You should try it. It’s fun!”, but in Italian of course. The problem was that the men, now hungover, had been pleading their case to a goat, while the judge looked on from his chair on the other side of the room. The men were both thrown in idiot jail, but ‘Fencing’ was born! You’re welcome!
‘Row,’ is another multi-use word to consider, as it can describe the effort in a boat, the arrangement of items in an orderly line, or to have an energetic argument. In the case of the argument, the word rhymes with ‘cow,’ or ‘scow,’ which is a small type of barge on which you could transport a stolen cow. You then argue, or have a ‘row,’ over your idea that the cow belongs to you, but since you already have a criminal record for battling over a goat–‘fencing in public,’ you are convicted, blindfolded, made to stand in a row with other thieves, offered a last cigarette, and, well, you know.
We could continue on to the word, ‘scowl,’ which describes a bad-tempered expression. We could attribute this to the incarcerated fencing idiots, the judge, the goat, the cow, and you while you smoke your last cigarette. It’s all part of language that helps us drill down to what we are trying to express, helps us be more specific; an enviable resource if you consider Grog having had only a few moderated grunts with which to dissuade passers-through to heed the boulders and stop tramping through his Zen garden: From grunt, to scowl; eons of evolution.
I like language. I have an antique Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary published in 1942. It has 2,814 pages, and sits on a dedicated, wrought iron and wood, lectern-style book stand. I don’t use it as much as I vowed to, because the internet is so fast, but every time I do use it, yes, I find the definition for the word I am looking for, but I also notice what’s on the pages around the word. For example, while looking up ‘scow,’ I noticed ‘scowl,’ and also explanations of the differences between the American Boy Scout, and the English Boy Scout, and then the word, ‘scraggle,’ which was defined as, ‘to proceed with sprawling movements.’ There’s a word I’d like to try and fit in to a conversation at the next party. “Hold that thought, I’m just scraggling to the bathroom!” and then of course, I would have to proceed with arms and legs sprawling in order to not be a liar. The dictionary is not specific like a text book or a manual would be. Depending on the discipline, the language would offer unique definitions helpful in going deeper into, say history, welding, or sailing as hinted at by Grog, the wrought iron fence, and the scow. If Grog was keen on becoming a better person, he might study books on psychology, and get an idea of reasons for human behaviour from a scientific, research-based perspective, likely something he hadn’t thought of. While this is helpful, I think the broader, richer view is laid out in art, movies, and literature; story is the thing, in colour, form, musical notes, and plot; it’s all there. All of it, endless, and in ways that textbooks can’t offer.
There was a movie I watched a while back, called, ‘Stranger than Fiction,’ written by Zach Helm. In it, the main character, whose name was Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, was, in the story, the main character in a book being written by a well-known author named Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. Eiffel is struggling to come up with a way to kill Crick on the page. We watch as Crick hears a voice which he learns is Eiffel’s, narrating as she writes him through his days. This begins to drive him mad. After consulting a psychiatrist, Crick ends up figuring things out with the help of a literature professor named Jules Hilbert–played by Dustin Hoffman, at the same time that Eiffel finishes writing her outline for the ending.  Spoiler alert: look away if you don’t want to know the almost ending; Crick goes to see Eiffel at her apartment, which is bonkers absurd for both, and for us. Eiffel gives the outline to Crick–her main character, to read. He can’t bring himself to look at it, and takes the outline to the professor who reads it and tells Crick that unfortunately his character has to die. Crick is upset, as you might imagine, and Ferrell does a great job here, just so you know. Crick ends up reading the outline himself and quietly, with great consideration, comes to understand the meaning, and the meaning of the meaning. By this, I am implying not only Crick’s specific story unto himself, but also, how it ripples out and is held by the world around him that is the collective. He returns the outline to Eiffel and tells her that it’s fine, though in different wording–doesn’t use the word ‘scraggle’ even once. I haven’t told you the ending, and I won’t. That’s all I’ll say, written as it is against this backdrop of mortality–the key to so much, maybe to everything. I can’t think of a story that doesn’t have this backdrop, even slightly:  Fairy Tales, myths, religion, you name it, it’s in all of those.
In ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ professor Hilbert quotes the Italian author, Italo Calvino who said, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” I’m using this here as an example of how pieces of art, of literature are in a sense the ‘textbooks’ that help us learn how we work, how all of this living and dying can play out. During the gap between my father’s suicide in 2004 and the present, there have been significant movies, and books where the play between characters taught me something deeper; behaviours, feelings previously elusive. This didn’t happen in a way I could document in bold, underlined bullet-points, but rather it seeped in quietly, without my having been aware of such inner growth.  I re-watched movies like ‘Stanger Than Fiction,’ until I knew many of the lines by heart. Yes, there were movies that dealt with suicide, like 'August: Osage County,' but also more absurd ingresses into themes of preoccupation with cherry-picked romantic periods of the past, like 'Midnight in Paris,' where a Hollywood screenwriter gets to travel back in time and meet iconic writers and artists. Most people have writers whom they adore, who speak to their condition somehow, and find it annoying when someone suggests different names, but since I am writing this, I must mention J.D. Salinger's 'Franny & Zooey,’ but also ‘Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction.’ Here was a whole family, minus one as launched in Salinger’s short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ I loved this family and how moved they were by the death of one, the brother; how they suffered it, and how they loved each other around it. I underlined, I reread, I quoted, because I wanted a family like this. I didn’t just notice the differences in how our family, and the fictional family worked, I felt them, again, like something seeping in, something subtle–a gentle, emotional soaker hose. Through everything I read, all of the fiction, the poetry, plus the self-help books, Buddhist concepts, the depth psychology work of Jung, bits of philosophy and spirituality, AND comedy; because good comedy has this backdrop too, I learned so much. Recently, after talking with some new people–comrades, going through the early stages of dealing with tragic loss, I sat down with pen and notebook and began writing, really without intent–the sentences just came; I realized how much I understood about grief, what had seeped in over the years, and it surprised me:
Make the decision to be present with grief: to meet it, not out in the parking lot; this isn’t a fight, and not a truce, because grief is what it is–but to accept it, to let it in no matter how complicated it is–to allow yourself to grow big enough to hold it. It’s as if the deficit left by the absence is now filled by grief–because nature abhors a vacuum; there is never nothing. Grief has a job, and it is to incorporate your love, and the pain from loss, into whatever shape it takes on for you. Grief calls you to be vulnerable, and sooner is better than later, but there’s no pressure; grief is not in a rush. Take your time. Do what you need to do. “Studies show,” and, “research says,” but still you are on your knees. Still you find yourself in the grocery store, stuck, staring at cans of condensed milk, or peas, or whatever, wondering how you’re going to get out of there, move from where you are standing in that body, with your heart broken and the tears coming. Here is grim solace, but you might not be the only one stuck there that day. There could be someone in produce, stopped, pretending to stare at a shopping list, but only pretending, while doing their best to not give in and let their legs give way toward the floor. You are not a point on a graph, or anything in a cloud of scattershot–a mere statistic; you can’t measure heartbreak. You are very real, and you are in deep, deep pain.
This might be a bit precious, but it is relevant:  Joseph Campbell, the American writer famous for his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” that spurred the Star Wars platform said, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one waiting for us.” I never really got that, until I realized that after going through difficult challenges, people would say, “Well, now you can get your life going again, get back to normal,” when really, it was deep into those challenges, where life was stunningly real: Your life is never more activated than when you’re in tragedy, when you are grieving; there is grit, and sweat from a paradigm that demands more from you than you thought you could bear from such suffering, such loss. Normal is gone, and soon, you’ll be okay with this, defining whatever it was anyway, and now what takes its place. Initially, I hated that not everyone knew my pain, but over the years learned that most people have their own to some degree, and as I grew into and around my own grief, I also grew strong enough to begin to love humanity, something I had never done before. We all have our mortality to contend with; there is nothing to lose by trying, by committing to healing.
The greatest way to honour the person you lost is to somehow rise through this. It is in your caring, eventual vibrancy that you can become a crucible for the memory of your person. Here is where you can love them as your grief carries you into the light of day. When the time is right, without you knowing it, it will leave you in your new strength, your new ability to carry on, carry forward.
I wonder about Grog. How must it have been to have his cave mate fall over and die, or be eaten by a tiger, just when he was getting their place to feel cozy, you know, with those special touches, of more logs, and some new moss to catch the eye. It’s likely that they had good communication eventually, but initially, it must have been terribly lonely. Thing is now, here in 2023, we, more often than not, feel alone in our grieving despite all of the data, and our so-called ‘connected technology.’ We’re missing ritual, and we’ve cloistered ourselves off behind so many fences, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. There is guidance, richness in the subtle playing out of every day, in noticing the beauty around you that is now woven through the heartfelt memory of the person you are missing. Suicide has complex and myriad meanings, but hold harder to the meaning of both lives lived, and lives being lived and the powerful potential in moving ahead with the first, wrapped inside the second; that is you. You are not alone.