The Reality of Love

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It’s not like me to be still thinking about a Netflix series three days after the finale.

It’s not like me to be writing at all about a Netflix series.

There’s something mesmerizing, horrifying, yet almost lovable about River – Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the detective. River’s his last name. We never hear his first.  He’s not close enough to anyone to get addressed by his first. And there’s something mesmerizing and, well, lovable, about his sidekick, Stevie (Nicola Walker). Her presence-absence haunts the show and it’s she who unexpectedly teaches River, at long last, to laugh and sing (even if only with her mirage). Does the reality of love depend on a mirage?

This is a crime thriller, and as important, a family drama, and a study in hearing voices and hallucination. It’s a study in the abuse of illegal immigrants who will do anything, including murder, to get residency. It’s a story of marital infidelity and the bare-faced corruption of apparently good men in high  places.

Because there are six episodes, we see Stevie’s murder, in agonizing slow motion, numerous times. Working a case with River, she has ventured into the street just outside a suspect take-away shop. A gunshot from an approaching car throws her violently to the pavement.

We watch the scene as River studies the video in slow-motion looking for clues. Stevie had no apparent enemies. River has no apparent friends. He was abandoned early in life and his friendless solitude no doubt has roots there. Perhaps his ‘visitations,’ where a cast of three or four characters periodically appear to taunt him, are rooted in that trauma.  The maternal, adorable, hugable Stevie appears regularly in postmortem visitations. She’s there not to taunt but to smile, and cast an unforgettably vibrant radiance his way.

It would be fruitless – and tedious — to try to replicate the twists and turns of the plot. Let’s just say it’s gripping, through six episodes. After her death Stevie appears repeatedly to coach River, to edge him out of his icy reticence. Bit by bit she succeeds. He goes for a generous midnight swim with her son (she’s there for us on screen though invisible to all but the hallucinating River). She coaxes him toward holding and smiling a bundled infant still in diapers. As he drives, she turns on the radio to sing along. With her smile and magnetism she tries to entice him to join. She’s a good angel, and ever-so humanly alive. The catch is that all her appearances are River’s postmortem hallucinations.

River is perceived by most others as ‘nuts-o’ – yet tolerated for his brilliant detective work. They’re utterly baffled when he undergoes an hallucinatory seizure. Yet somehow we’re taken in by Stevie’s admiration and warmth and so we avoid the temptation to view him in a clinical light — though we don’t for a moment doubt he actually gets accosted by the mirages we see on screen. And we utterly believe in the magnetically joyful Stevie. In fact, she is clearly as real as he is — perhaps more real. As is her love.


Let the Mystery Be


We live and die in mysteries. They surround and infuse us. The banjo sings “Let the mystery be!  Probably good advice.  But I’m going to examine the mysteries anyway.   

There are morning ones: a morning glory on my path to the bay, a ferry plying the blue, the sheen where the bay meets the sky. I pause — and let them sink in. They pull at my soul. Small boats resist departing tide. Early sunlight catches furled sails. These give goose-bumps. I start my morning walk with goose-bump receptivity.  In these moments of minor glory, mysteries come alive. — Gifts from I know not where: gifts of themselves — awakenings, illuminations.

From reveries on the Prom I turn up Congress toward Hill Top Coffee where my cappuccino’s ready. Cafés and caffeine sped up the French Enlightenment you know.

 A more intellectual mystery than my morning’s sacred, visceral intrusions is cosmos — holistic connections. A child in Sudan is scooped up from disaster by an adopting family in Montreal. Despite chaos, things link: a child is picked up, earth ties into sky, squirrels consort with nuts. Bach links to Blue Grass. At the Big Bang or Birth, disconnect begins. But we have memory and yearn for the atom in me to connect to the atom in you.

No Thing is an Island, Entire of Itself. Cosmos is habitat for humanity. It’s where we live and move and have our being. Mystery type two: Cosmos

From reveries over-looking the bay to coffee I circle home. In my study, I reach for Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The title signals an austere type of mystery, the mystery of being itself — of my being here, of things being here (rather than not). The bottom line is Being, not Nothing. But it’s a mystery why there’s cosmos rather than void, fullness rather than nothingness. Mystery type three: Being.

Being is like God just being there.  In faith, always there. In doubt, not obviously there. In tragedy God seems to have deserted us. There’s Haiti and massacre in Las Vegas. Here’s Shakespeare (Richard II):

of comfort let no man speak: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper — and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Massacre slaps mystery away. Slaps being and God away.

Reality has many faces, not all of them bright, not all of them dark. In dark reality, music can lift us. Yo Yo Ma played a pint sized cello at seven in the White House for President Kennedy. Such class and decorum!!

Reality has many faces.  Of music – and carnage. A good friend from this congregation writes: Through mystery we sense a glory in things despite all their ambiguity. The rose is really beautiful even though it pricked my finger and in a few days will be wilted.”  There’s glory in the rose, in the cosmos, in Being — and in God.  God, like Being, is a mystery, and absorbs dissonance. Pain, evil and absence invade.

We live in difficult reality. . . . with rainy eyesWrite sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Perhaps the greatest mystery – a fourth level, as I see it — is the uncanny transitions we make from sorrow or boundless despair to faith, to sunrise and glory. It’s unfathomable – to me — that we don’t – most of us — get stuck more often in the dark that’s always lurking — or just inescapably there.

Renewal of lost mysteries is possible. This morning I saw a Monarch butterfly, common in my childhood — less so now. A pest in my back yard, Black Swallowwort. It threatens Monarchs. If I pull it up and bag the pods I make things easier for Monarch mysteries.

 In Genesis, God gives us life, light, humankind, the mysteries of blooms and Monarchs, of Cosmos and Being. They’re offered not as cognitive certainties but as goose bump inescapabilities.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19. 

God and Her glory are mysteries. Writing out our word God, Jews often type “G D” – the dash a refusal to spell out the mystery. Let it be. Muslims refuse portraits of the divine.

Humor turns me from pain. I asked a friend, Does God laugh in the Bible? She twinkles. “Well, it shows God isn’t Jewish.” There’s a Yiddish quip: Men scheme God laughs.  Men explain — God laughs at the silly efforts. Let the mystery be!  Theologians can wise-crack. What did God do before starting creation? His students asked Luther this. My friend tells me that Luther shot back, “God made Hell — for you who ask such questions!

Mystery — whether of the rose, the cosmos, Being, or God — is essential for meaning. It informs our loves, attachments and passions. But the blessings of mystery can be troubling. There are mysteries close to the heart: love and attraction, smiles and silence; heaven and hell. Dickinson sings mystery: Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

The smile of a child is unmixed. But our emotional lives are tangled — smiles and shutters, laughter and bursts . . . from the 32nd floor. We live in difficult, troubled realities.

The heart can be vexed, both happy and miserable. Barack Obama said that leaving off Malia at Harvard was like open heart surgery. He loved and hated her departure. Dickinson wrote him a line: “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell. We don’t know what we have till it’s gone. Parting boggles the heart or breaks it. It’s a mystery of a dark sort, a dissonance underlying the rose softly singing. 

To be human is to be attached to family, place, friends, fellow worshipers. When strong attachments are weakened it hurts. With weak connections, parting is uneventful. When attachments are strong, parting is heaven and hell.

Can joy at Christ-risen simply wipe out the pain of Christ-tortured?  The soul, the cosmos, is vexed. Talk of graves; and with rainy eyes, Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Barren sorrow is not the last word, nor is death in Sandy Hook. But I don’t understand my mysterious transitions from hopelessness to hope, from despair to faith.  Mysteries of lilies or cosmos, of souls or God, or the transitions from hopelessness to hope these give me heart. But how I’m given heart is a mystery.

Christianity is as complex, contradictory, multi-faceted and mysterious as the hearts that act on its precepts and half-comprehend its narratives. We wrestle and lurch and find comfort with a narrative that swings from joy to disaster to joy and try to make sense of it all. The Gospel is good news — and it’s vexed news of partings, telling us all we know of heaven — and all we need of hell. Men and women dodge, explain, analyze — and so abandon the lifeboats: abandon faith, mystery, glory. God’s amused.  She smiles and wishes we’d just let the mysteries be – sad or happy as they may be.                             





Imagination as Strong as Knowledge

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . .                                                     — Stanley Cavell  [The Senses of Walden, 102]

Cavell also announces that not only categories (like causality) but also — and this is a surprise —  images carry the weight of the a priori :

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . . of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[1]

Putting two and two together, it seems Cavell is willing to grant to Kant’s productive Imagination a power and authority in “world-shaping” no less active and legitimate than Kant’s Understanding in its exercise of  authority  in “world-shaping.”   Understanding prepares us for knowledge of the world filtered by categories like causality.  Kant grants a  necessity to the categories like causality that underlie our grasp of the world that physics and the sciences and lawyers negotiate.  Cavell will grant a necessity no less crucial than the necessity of “causality” —  shall we call it aesthetic or poetic necessity? — to  the images underlying our grasp of the world of artists immersed in their art, or of Thoreau immersed in his seeing a reflection of a Maker in the waters of Walden Pond.  A moment of wonder-apprehension is delivered (when it is) as a moment of poetic [or poetic-religious] necessity held in Imagination; a moment of factual apprehension is delivered (when it is) as  a moment of necessity held in the the storehouse of Knowledge.

If I follow, then the poet’s reality can be just as powerful and real as the physicist’s reality.  Good news for a religiously poetic writer like Thoreau (and so many others).

[1] Cavell, Senses of Walden, 101.