THE MEANING OF LIFE

He came with love in his heart for every living thing. His innocence had been untouched and his light force shone so bright that crowds gathered to see him but, more importantly, to feel his warmth. By gazing upon him they were somehow changed. “Was this the Messiah?” they mumbled to each other in hushed tones lest they be deemed blasphemous by some. For some can find darkness in every hope, every wish, every prayer.

And when this man spoke it brought some to their knees, others to tears. It was as if the calmness in his voice could heal every hurt and fear that had weighed them down and they were now somehow lighter.

The taking away of such anguish even brought back sight to the blind. As if all they had needed was to believe in something and were being granted the ability to see the world anew. Men who had walked too many lonely dead end loveless roads and were now crippled, found that they could walk again. And after those first awkward unsure steps they inched closer and closer to him growing more confident and accepted with each one until they were in his arms, and the safety and strength  of unconditional love made them sob for the joy of each precious moment. Time that they had, until now, misinterpreted and cursed for their burdens, and wasted, was now rediscovered and rejoiced over. All things were possible again.

In his face they saw no judgement, no impatience, no pity, only love. And his love became contagious among the people and they sang his praises.

He had not come to destroy the Romans, or hand out weapons, or preach hate. He was here to give meaning to our lives. What was the meaning of life? Love. For love opens the door to joy. And its light extinguishes all shadows.

But there were those, the shadow people, who were angered by us learning the meaning of existence and saw that this teaching could undermine their power over us. For they ruled by fear and threats, both of which were rendered insignificant when the masses walked proudly in the sun again unchained from their own mental limitations.

So they arrested this man, this dangerous man, beat him, whipped him, ridiculed him and his suffering, and sentenced him to an agonising death for the crime of telling us to love and forgive each other.

And in his final conscious moments he forgave those who had plotted his death, and the ignorant who had killed him. To this day it remains the greatest triumph of the human spirit.

Perhaps he was drawing evil into the light so that the world could recognise its face?

 
(C) Frank Howson 2019

Painting by Frank Howson (c) 2019

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NO GOODBYES

God said I can stay
Just long enough to save you
Then I must be on my way
I’ve kept so many waiting
On the other side
There’ll be hell to pay
I have sat in the dark
Watching you shine
Raising yourself to a height
Twice the size of mine
And it tells me it won’t be long now
Before I can slip away
Without a goodbye
(You know I hate those)
I’ve had so many goodbyes in my life
I like to go unnoticed now
The theatres won’t go dark
Nor will the taxis blow their horns
The government won’t fall
Or acknowledge my existence
I was never in their club
I just did the work and went home
Now my only joy is to see you shine
And laugh
And joke
And hold your own
Maybe I’m the father you never had
For I have no agenda
No conditions
No strings
No competition
Only concern
And hope that you soar
And leave this ground
That ties us down
I too will be leaving soon
It’s well overdue
I bought my ticket some years ago
But your existence made me saunter
And I lingered to see that you are alright
And you will be alright now
And maybe sometimes
You might stop and think of me

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE DANGERS OF KINDNESS

I never really thought much about the future. In fact, i wasn’t really ambitious, which may come as a shock to most people who don’t know me. I was always about just getting through today. I think perhaps having been raised in showbiz from an early age I’ve seen ambition break people and destroy marriages, friendships and reputations. I’ve also seen it turn good people into the kind of person they started out loathing.

Dreams are okay. They get most of us through the night. I know I have them, but in my life there has been only a handful I remember. One memorable one was so funny that I awakened myself laughing hysterically only to find that in the clear light of day and consciousness it wasn’t funny at all! Not even remotely. So, how fucked up is our subconscious? Perhaps it’s that weird surreal night world that David Lynch captures so well. Peeking over the wall into the black abyss of madness. But from God’s point of view it may not be mad at all. Maybe that other dimension is the reality of the afterlife and our daily foibles and chores in the civilised world, of a structured life, is the true madness? I’m beginning to think so. If so, then it makes perfect sense that the zombies and vampires and other monsters of our imagination only come out at night. Night falls, indeed.

In our civilised man made conscious world there are indeed zombies and vampires. I know this for fact as I have worked for some of them. But, during the daylight hours in our conscious world, they are heavily disguised. The zombies pass themselves off as normal people and act out basic emotions by rote. They appear, for all intent and purposes, to be functioning adult human beings. But there is nobody home. Scratch the surface and all you get is another surface. Don’t believe me? Well, test it out by hitting any suspect with a question, or idea, or action, out of the box. They will, before your eyes, recoil into what they are – the walking dead. Rigid. Non-functioning. Pale. They may even look like their brains hurt. And after a given amount of time will resume their rote conversation and actions as though you haven’t spoken and the lapsed time has been rewound and erased. Vampires are another kettle of fish. They don’t want your blood, that is a metaphor for sucking your life force out of you. Their goal is higher than blood. Much higher. They are after your spirit. Hence my term “spiritual vampires.” Like the zombies they are drawn to the living. Show any signs of being alive, kind, compassionate, generous, a good listener, and you are a target.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2019

A MUSING

i love
laugh
desire
crash
and break like china
my reward for longing?
the moon
and
stars
“where is paris in this empty place?”
yells a fool to the drunken maitre ‘d
my taxi driver’s lost again
the eyes of st. christopher
stare down on
me
may God forgive

 
(C) Frank Howson 2018

WHAT IS TRUTH?

I’m at the age when people die. I view life from the cluttered comforting living area of a mystical art space, going from room to room as inspiration strikes me. A song lyric here, a line of dialogue overheard from lunch, a painting or sketch there. It’s a very full solitary life and reduces everything to the minimalists’ joy of simplicity. I suppose I would be just as happy in a jail cell with my necessary tools, although I’d miss the occasional walk in the sun. And impromptu visit from a friend. My life has been crammed with so many adventures, tragedies, faces, external forces, Machiavellian plots, heartaches, silent joys, defeats and comebacks etc., that I sometimes feel I’m five hundred years old. Other times I forget and am back to feeling like that seventeen year old kid with it all before me. Sometimes Hercules, sometimes Norman Maine. Many memories occasionally stampede through my mind from what feels like another life. Friends and lovers long gone, but my heart still carries the weight of their memory. Although death may take a life it seems that the relationship continues for those left behind, excluded from the final mystery. Sometimes I resent the birds who are not chained to the ground like us confused humans. Our only soaring comes in those momentary waves of joy that are so overwhelmingly spectacular and personal that there are no words invented to accurately verbalise them so we walk them away in dark alleyways, alone – as alone as our birth and our death. The magic hours just before dawn. There is an exquisite sweetness in failure, just as there is a sour aftertaste in triumph. Perhaps only General Grant fully understood this when he allowed General Lee to savour the nobility of defeat in all its glory and, as Grant stood in his torn and dusty uniform, head bowed in humility, paying homage to his defeated opponent, denying himself the tacky opportunity to steal the thunder of victory from a long and vicious campaign where young boys died bewildered and despairing on battlefields made muddy from the blood of their comrades.
In my own line of work I too have known long campaigns that have left me too weary to celebrate the victory knowing how much it has cost myself and those that battled alongside to make a dream a reality. “Was it worth it?” The eternal question that is right up with Pilate’s “What is truth?”
David Lynch believes that life is just a dream. And perhaps he is right. And perhaps it does one no good to think too long and deep about such things, for to stare into the abyss too long may be as damaging as staring at the sun. You just become blinded in a different way.
Does it matter how one achieves creativity? Does anyone really care what price is paid for their entertainment? Scott Fitzgerald put something of himself into six novels and over a hundred short stories, until there was nothing left. He died a hollow, weary, flawed man, old before his time. Broken by Hollywood because he took it too seriously and led with his heart. And didn’t realise it was all just a game.
I too have worked for many people in my past that nether understood what I did, or how I did it. But that doesn’t stop them attempting to piss on the tree to claim ownership. A bet each way. If it’s a disaster it’s all my fault. If it’s a smash, it’s because of them. I don’t work for such people anymore, regardless of the dazzling upfront fees that are used to tempt you to go against your instinct. This donkey has been beaten too many times and won’t go down the dark mine shaft anymore. I now only work for people I truly trust and/or admire. I can’t be bought by money because experience has taught me that it’s a false god and to worship at its altar will never fully satisfy your hunger for more and more until there’s nothing of you left. You will die like Elvis having over-eaten, been overworked, misused and misunderstood, devalued, surrounded by carny promoters, backslapping sycophants, con artists and those who want to be you and secretly resent that they can’t be. The most desired man in the world died of loneliness. Now, if that doesn’t tell you something about our society, nothing will.
Success has to come on your terms or else you lose your identity. And to lose sight of who you are is to become a ghost ship wandering lost in that innermost night of the soul. Going through life mimicking the happy-go-lucky person others expect you to be lest you reveal that you’re haunted and thus damned from seeing too much. As my dear ol’ daddy used to tell me, “The best way to lose people is to tell ’em you have a problem.”
Those who don’t understand creativity will seek to belittle your contribution, downplay your involvement, and even humiliate you by praising everyone except you. This is a tactic and you are smart enough to recognise it. And, thankfully, so is the audience.
Wilhelm Reich once said, “The living are always under attack from the dead,” and so it is and will be till the end of days. All I know is this – it’s alright to love something, but you are damned if you love that thing too much.

What is truth? Well you sure as hell won’t find it in your newspaper or favourite news channel or the Internet. These days it seems to only exist in our hearts. Our in-built shit detector. Trust it. It’s all we have.

 

(C) Frank Howson

THOUGHTS ON BOB DYLAN

The word enigma doesn’t come close to describing Bob Dylan. For a start he’s a Gemini – the sign of the twins. Duality. He once said he wakes as one person and goes to sleep as another. And that’s before we add all the different masks he’s worn, and the myths that have been woven by others, and by himself. This is no doubt an attempt by him to protect his true self – Robert Zimmerman. Bob Dylan was his invention and as such even his own autobiography “Chronicles Volume One” contains numerous things that are fictional. Again, adding to his own myth as a means of throwing people off the scent of this fiercely private man. He writes about Bob Dylan like the old Wild West reporters wrote about Billy The Kid, Davy Crockett or Jesse James. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

There must be many hundreds of books published about Bob Dylan. And why is that? Because he continues to fascinate us. We can’t work him out. Scratch the surface and you just come up with another surface. But I think this has always been his masterly plan. In the words of the late, great Alex Scott after seeing the movie about the life (or lives) of Bob Dylan, the aptly titled “I’m Not There,”  Alex said, “I knew more about him before I saw this movie!” Precisely. Or did you? I’ve had the good fortune to know quite a number of people who have known Bob for many years as a friend. And the words they use about him are “kind,” “sweet,” “gentle,” “loyal,” and “sensitive.” And those qualities are precious and need protection. “They say every man needs protection.”

Last Monday and Tuesday nights in Melbourne, a troubadour playing the role of Bob Dylan took to the stage at the Margaret Court Arena. No grand entrance. He merely sauntered on as a member of his band and found his designated place at the piano. No hello and no goodbye. Just two hours of brilliant songs, some old, some new, that any writer would give their soul to have written just one of them. But here is a small man trapped in the spotlight that has a catalog of so many classics they are too numerous to name. He has given us so much, and continues to give, thank God. When so many of our music heroes are gone, some cruelly taken from us who had so much more to give, we truly should be thankful that Bob is not only still alive, but continues to spend the majority of each year on the road performing for our pleasure.

Some people complain that he just stands there and sings his songs. There are no “showy” effects. No scripted witty repartee. But I continually have to remind some disappointed patrons that that’s all he’s ever done.

Bob was once asked if he still gets nervous before a show, to which he replied, “No. Never be afraid of disappointing people.” At first when I read this quote, I laughed thinking it was just another example of Bob’s very dry sense of humour. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the heart of what he was truly saying. There is no point worrying about a performance. It will either soar or it won’t. He is not slick, nor does he want to be. He is an improv artist. A method actor. He has the same inspired, spontaneous genius as Brando. Always reaching for that unplanned moment of pure magic. The trouble with being that bold is that sometimes you miss the mark totally and run the risk of being ridiculed and walked out on. All of the greatest innovators have at one time or another been ridiculed and hung out to dry. But they’re the ones we remember. The brave ones. To be totally unique is a very heavy cross to have to carry. A lot of people will not “get” what you’re doing. Or what you’re attempting. But if everyone played by the tried and proven formula, where would the excitement be?

Bob has literally never looked back. The range of material he has tackled is extraordinary and at the age of 77 when most artists are happy to coast on their back catalog, Bob is still taking chances. Spare a thought for the huge risk he took in attempting, at his age, five albums of crooning the American Songbook. Yet those albums have been big hits and in some cases even named among the Top Ten Jazz Albums of that year.

But this is the same man who, just as he reached the pinnacle of the folk music world, went electric and angered the majority of his then fans. Next, just as he won most of those fans back with the electric mercury sounding masterpiece that was “Blonde On Blonde,” he goes country music. More angst from fans. Then he rebounds with introspective “Blood On The Tracks” about the pain of his divorce. Then Jesus popped into his life and we had the Gospel Years! Then, just when everyone thought he was no longer relevant, and running on empty, he comes back with arguably his best album, the multi-Grammy Award winning “Time Out Of Mind.” Then the Christmas Album. Then the Sinatra inspired saloon song standards. This man deserves a medal for bravery.

Oh, and when people say they don’t like his voice, I always ask, “Which one? He’s had about 6 different voices over the journey.”

As his dear friend George Harrison once described him, “He is a friend to us all.”

It filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears to see him perform such a spirited and brilliant concert last Tuesday night. It certainly was the inspired spontaneous magic he strives for.

And then, without a word of farewell, he was gone. But rest assured, he’s still on the road, headin’ for another joint.

(c) Frank Howson 2018

WRITERS

Why would anyone become a writer? Especially in a world that doesn’t seem to read anymore. Or go to the theatre, or go to the movies to see anything other than comic book heroes. Good question.

All the great writers were mostly drunks. Coincidence? Or is there a cost for looking too long into the abyss and reporting back to the good folk what they’re too timid to experience for themselves? Springsteen once wrote that there is a darkness at the edge of town. No, that darkness lies within us all. Each one of us has the latent potential to be a Hitler or a Christ. God has cleverly given us free will to choose our own poison. And the highly sensitive among us reach for the bottle, or the harder stuff, in order to numb ourselves to the responsibilities of that choice.

When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless. Sometimes I feel sorry for those who attempted to teach me anything. Not sure if my undisciplined mind was a result of the trauma I witnessed most nights in my abusive family home, or I had what is now diagnosed as ADD. One day the headmaster of the school phoned my mother for a meeting to question her as to why her son had the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades. She was at a loss for words. But not me. Words always came easy to me. In fact I could talk myself out of any beating I was about to receive from a Christian Brother. That was quite a feat considering the relish they got from handing out such brutal punishment. These guys would’ve been more at home as members of the Third Reich than Jesus’ band of 12. But talk my way out I did. So, words became my friend, my salvation. And humour protected me from the cruel slings of other peer group bullies. I could always hysterically put myself down before anyone else had the chance to. Timing was everything. Playing the court jester got me through my troubled youth and shielded me from revealing my true self. And what was that? I was scared of everything and everyone. I felt like an alien most of the time in a strange world that only threw contradictions at you.

My refuge again and again were words. The only subjects at school that I attained any respectable grades for were Art, English and Religious Knowledge. The latter because I loved hearing all the Biblical stories and for some reason remembered every detail. They were filled with such amazing imagery and drama. Oh, and miracles. I guess I was depending on a miracle to happen in my life that would save me. And this Jesus character sounded like he might’ve been the only person who would’ve taken the time to understand me. Whether he was the Messiah or not is up for debate, but he sure sounded like a nice man. And like me, and all the other loners and misfits in the world, grossly misunderstood. I never forgot those stories and if nothing else they were great morality word plays.

Due to my restless mind I found it too difficult to persevere and read a book through to the end. But I tried again and again to achieve this. Thank God I did because I now must own over a thousand books that I cherish and have taught me more than I ever learnt at school. I always tell people I was self educated and that’s the truth of it. All my education took place in a class of one. In many ways, books saved my life.

My introduction to books began when I was a small child and my Irish grandmother would sit me on her lap and read aloud the adventures of Noddy in Toyland. We bonded through the whole Noddy series until she was taken from me when I was two.

The first book that hooked me enough to finish was, ironically, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I guess it proved that I had a fascination with the mystery of women from an early age. This of course led to much heartache and my premature death but that’s a whole other story. Either that, or Ms. Alcott was one helluva writer that captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. By the end of the book I felt I knew all the characters and cared enough about them to shed some tears. The mark of a great writer.

After that I read Enid Blyton’s book series “The Famous Five” followed by “The Secret Seven.” Then I graduated to “Biggles,” and then many books about the Wild West that introduced me to such colourful characters as Davy Crockett. Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid etc., etc., etc. Yep, who needed to time travel or see the world when you had books?

Then in my late teen years I read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and my life really did change. A book about the ultimate loner always surrounded by a party of people. I savoured every word in that book – it’s prose was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. It foretold me that following the wrong dreams can get you killed. Reading Fitzgerald was like finding a new best friend. I understood him. And from what I read I knew he understood me. After that I read all six of his novels and every short story he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of his words and the insight he gave into the human heart. It really was like he’d read my letters or thoughts and knew me intimately. Of course being part Irish, like me, virtually every story ended in death or heartbreak. He painted such a romantic but dangerous world where his characters always paid a high price for caring too much.

Fitzgerald’s own life was cut short by too much booze and heartbreak topped off by rejection in Hollywood. But he remains my friend and I reread “Gatsby” every couple of years. It never fails to move me. Hollywood has never been able to pull off a wholly successful film treatment of it for the simple reason that most of the truly beautiful stuff in the book are the thoughts in the characters heads, and that’s impossible to shoot. Films are about action. Fitzgerald’s writing is about emotions. Unless you do endless voice-overs and that usually renders your movie as exciting as porridge. That’s why the great Fitzgerald had such a hard time of it in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter in order to net enough money to keep his wife Zelda in a mental home and pay for his daughter’s schooling. He died a broken, despairing, weary man old before his time.

Like Gatsby, killed by the wrong dream.

I came to Charles Dickens late. Not sure why that was but come to him I did. The first book of his I chose to read was “Great Expectations” and was astounded. To me it remains one of the greatest novels of all time. And in my opinion he is right up there with Shakespeare.

I heard that Dickens original ending to “Great Expectations” was tragic and certainly all roads in the book are leading there. But his publisher leaned on him to come up with a more upbeat ending. Dickens listened, went away and rewrote it, and what he does is simply sublime. He gives it a happy ending that is so bitter sweet he moves us to tears as our damaged leading characters come together to try and seek a way forward, and into the sunlight. It is so beautiful my hands trembled as I read the final pages. This novel alone would’ve assured his place among the giants of literature, but he did it again and again, novel after novel – “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Hard Times,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Tale of Two Cities” (another ending that is so exquisitely executed as our flawed hero rises to the most noble of acts, laying down his wasted life so that others may live and find the joy that had always eluded him. Death giving his meaningless life a meaning. If there’s a better speech than his final words, I would surely love to know about it.

After Dickens I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, Schulberg, Shakespeare, O’Hara, Maugham, Hammett, Greene, Wilde, Twain, Isherwood, Chandler, Huxley, Ephron and many others.

All complex people, flawed, contradictory, confused, and yet so much wiser in their work than in life. Perhaps the writing down of stories and emotions helped them understand themselves.

It’s interesting how great writing never dates. You may think that picking up something that was written a hundred years ago or, in some cases longer, couldn’t possibly be relevant to your life. But the surprising revelation is that the emotions felt are timeless. Just different scenery and choice of words. But at the heart of every great story is just another human being trying to solve the same problems, whilst dealing with the same heartaches, pressures and obstacles. The universal human emotion. If you write the truth in its naked honesty it will always connect – now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now.

It teaches us that we are not alone. We are all in this together, wandering around a desert seeking an answer to why we are here. And awaiting that opportunity to rise to the potential of who we could be.

John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”

A person with books is never alone.

(C) Frank Howson 2018